Petro Poroshenko is one of the richest men in Ukraine and has been a player in national politics since 1998. Yet he remains, for the most part, an unknown quantity, a gray figure without a significant public image.
Nonetheless, opinion polls show him as the frontrunner in Ukraine's May 25 presidential election, with about 25 percent of voters saying they support him. It remains to be seen if the 48-year-old businessman can withstand the rigors of even a short national political campaign and emerge as the leader of a country in the throes of a profound political and economic crisis, as well as a potentially disastrous confrontation with neighboring Russia.
On March 29, he got a major boost when the charismatic former world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko—who was polling second with 9-percent support—pulled out of the race and threw his weight behind Poroshenko.
"In the interests of Ukraine, in order to save its unity, I offer our support to the only candidate of united democratic forces in the presidential election—Petro Poroshenko," Klitschko said. Klitschko announced he would run instead for mayor of Kiev, leaving Poroshenko to battle for the presidency against former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, Party of Regions candidate Mikhailo Dobkin, right-wing Svoboda party head Oleh Tyahnybok, and others. Candidate registration will continue until April 4. At the same Kiev press conference with Klitschko, Poroshenko kicked off his campaign with a similar call for unity.
"Our country needs unity," Poroshenko said, "and that unity today can lead to us securing a decisive win already in the first round both in the presidential election and in the mayoral election in the capital, Kiev."
Poroshenko is best known as the owner of the popular Roshen brand of chocolates. His fortune is usually estimated at about $1.3 billion. In 2000, he was a founding member of the Party of Regions, the political machine that brought ousted President Viktor Yanukovych to power. A year later, however, Poroshenko broke ranks with President Leonid Kuchma and became a leading supporter and financial backer of Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party.
He backed the Orange Revolution in 2004-05 and served in Yushchenko's government. In 2009-10, he was foreign minister. Poroshenko was named trade and economic development minister under President Yanukovych in 2012. He held the post for eight months before returning to parliament as an independent deputy from the central city of Vinnytsya. Although he is believed to have financially supported the Euromaidan protests, he did not play a leading role in the demonstrations.
Ivan Lozowy, an independent policy analyst in Kiev, says he is surprised by Poroshenko's strong showing in opinion polls. "He hasn't really been known for anything in the past several years and nothing of note has happened with him. He hasn't done anything of note in the past several months," Lozowy says. "He owns a TV channel, so he uses that sometimes as a forum. They invite him for an extended interview. Of course, they invite other politicians as well, so it is somewhat balanced. But, again, there is nothing that he's really done in the short or medium term that even sticks out a little bit." Lozowy suspects Poroshenko may have paid to boost his poll ratings, a common practice in Ukraine. He notes that a recent poll asking people whether they had heard of Poroshenko's Solidarity party revealed that almost no one had.