“An end to chaos and war,” is the familiar cry from Petro Poroshenko as he travels across Ukraine on the hustings ahead of Sunday’s make-or-break presidential election.
The self-made billionaire may have made his fortune from selling chocolates and is the clear front-runner in the weekend race, but with the country staring into the abyss he has kept his campaign low-key.
In the central square in the riverside town of Uman, barely 1,000 people turn out — more in curiosity than fervor — to hear his plans to lift Ukraine out of its worst political and economic crisis since the Soviet Union collapsed over two decades ago.
Dressed casually in an open-necked shirt, the 48-year-old tycoon, whose empire also includes a television station, automobile plants and a shipyard as well as a chocolate brand popular throughout Eastern Europe, delivers his familiar address with an easy calm.
“A powerful army,” he promises. “There must be a legitimate leadership to stop the chaos and war.”
He holds a commanding lead in Sunday’s race, with latest opinion polls giving him almost 45 percent of the vote compared to 7.5 percent for nationalist rival Yulia Tymoshenko.
But the figure is just short of the 50 percent he needs to avoid a June 15 runoff, leaving Ukraine in the hands of an interim leadership that is opposed by the separatists in the east and their backers in the Kremlin.
“I guarantee you that within three months the situation in the east will be resolved,” Poroshenko told reporters on a stop in Cherkesy, the main city in Ukraine’s central agricultural belt.
“If there is no solution in three months, there is a big risk of a Transdniestr scenario” he said of Moldova’s pro-Russian separatist republic which is recognized by no-one.
In the western city of Lviv, a nationalist stronghold, Poroshenko said he would make his first trip to rebel-held Donetsk and Lugansk to “rebuild trust” between the government and the people.
Despite his own business troubles with Moscow — which banned his chocolates last year amid pressure on Kiev to abandon its westward drive — Poroshenko said he has the clout to tackle President Vladimir Putin.
“I know Putin, I have had extensive experience in discussions with him, he is a strong and tough negotiator,” he said.
However, two issues were not negotiable – Ukraine’s pro-Europe direction and Crimea, which he insisted “is and will remain Ukrainian”.
Despite a fortune estimated at $1.3 billion, the Chocolate King has staged a modest campaign, painfully aware that flashing the cash could alienate voters in a country on the brink of bankruptcy and deep recession.
He pledged to increase the budget for a military that despite its superior firepower is struggling to put down the separatists, and to pay soldiers “risking their lives” on the frontline over 60 Euros a day.
And in a bid to win the populist vote, he told of how he helped a Ukrainian army sniper operating in the flashpoint city of Slavyansk, paying for all his equipment and bedding, even rifle sights.
Before he appears on stage, the crowd is treated to a documentary entitled “Fearless” which shows Poroshenko on the barricades in Kiev during the bloody pro-EU protests and later in Crimea where he tried — in vain — to negotiate with pro-Russian troops.
He is joined by Mariana, his wife of 30 years and mother of their four children, whose elegant style contrasts with that of former first ladies in the ex-Soviet state.
On occasion he has also been accompanied by champion boxer-turned-opposition icon Vitali Klitschko who decided against running for president himself to back Poroshenko and is now standing for Kiev mayor.
“Today, he is the best pragmatic choice. He’s a successful businessman who has a lot of experience and is thoughtful,” economics professor Janna Lozinska says of Poroshenko.
But the tycoon lost his cool when a reporter asked him about his habit of switching sides, questioning his role as a founder of the party of ousted pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych.
“This has nothing to do with the election,” he bristled, accusing the journalist of acting on behalf of his detractors.
But those who recall the early days of the protest movement around Kiev’s Independence Square say all the candidates represent Ukraine’s old guard that has proven its inability to pursue change.
“I view most of most the presidential candidates with disgust,” said 29-year-old Kiev museum worker Andriy. “They all represent the old regime.”