KIEV (Reuters) - It was a moment showing Ukrainian tycoon Petro Poroshenko’s energy and his eye for political opportunity. The man now poised to become president decided to stage a lightning visit to Crimea in late February as Kiev was losing its grip on the region.
While this mission failed, it was one of several eye-catching actions by Poroshenko to boost his credibility among pro-European Ukrainians during months of upheaval, and to assume a strong position in the power vacuum left by the overthrow of Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovich.
Poroshenko - the “Chocolate King” who made his fortune from a confectionery empire - claimed victory in Sunday’s presidential election after a first round of voting. Vowing to end a conflict with pro-Russian rebels, he promised to align his country with the European Union.
Three months ago, Kiev was still in trauma after the deaths of 100 protesters from police gunfire, and pro-Russian politicians in Crimea were leading a rebellion against interim Ukrainian leaders installed after Yanukovich fled the country.
“I have to get down there,” Poroshenko told his aides. A couple of hours later - with a hastily issued mandate from fellow members of parliament in his pocket - he flew to Crimea. There he confronted angry pro-Russian crowds in the regional capital of Simferopol as he tried to make his way to its parliament building, focus of the rebellion against Kiev’s rule.
After a less than discreet warning that local authorities might not be able to ensure his security, Poroshenko returned to the airport and flew back to Kiev. “We were told we had to leave quickly, otherwise we would not be able to leave at all,” said aide Andriy Zhigulin who was with him.
On that occasion, Poroshenko’s dynamism failed to save the day. In mid-March the peninsula held a Moscow-backed referendum - unrecognized by Kiev and western governments - to join Russia. Annexation followed swiftly.
But now, exit polls have given Poroshenko 55 percent of the vote in Sunday’s presidential election. If confirmed, that would avert the need for a runoff next month against former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, an old adversary whom polls put second with under 13 percent.
Committed to integrating Ukraine into the European mainstream, the 48-year-old is expected to make his first trip abroad as president to Brussels. He has yet to reveal a strategy for dealing with another pro-Russian separatist rebellion in the
Donbass coalfield of eastern Ukraine.
But he made clear on Sunday before voting closed that the crisis there would have his fullest attention as president. Asked by a journalist which he would visit first - Moscow or Brussels - he replied laconically: “Donbass”.
“We must guarantee the rights and security of people who live in Donbass who today are truly suffering from terrorists who want to turn the Donbass into Somalia,” he added.
Poroshenko made his estimated $1.3 billion wealth from his chocolate manufacturing and retail chain called Roshen - two middle syllables of his surname - though he has interests in other areas such as construction and a TV news channel.
Powerfully built and well-groomed with a thatch of greying hair, he is a tough man. Last December, long before the first deaths but as the pro-Europe protests that eventually drove out Yanukovich began to turn ugly, he took a megaphone to intervene between protesters and riot police near the presidential offices.
With projectiles being thrown, he climbed onto a bulldozer which had been commandeered by protesters and urged people not to heed provocateurs who were out to blacken the anti-government movement. He told them to return to Kiev’s Independence Square, or Maidan, the center of the protests.
“He showed himself to be a responsible politician during the Maidan when he actually did things and did not simply indulge in PR,” said Yuri Yakimenko of the Razumkov analytical center.
In an interview with Reuters early last month, Poroshenko was anxious to project a strong pro-European line and suggested that if he or others let people down by not tackling endemic corruption, people-power would hold them to account.
“A new country was born and a new people was born,” he said on that occasion.
In the wake of the revolution, cynicism is high towards the old oligarch-dominated political class and his biggest achievement has been to gain grudging support from Ukrainians.
This is despite his past identity as a super-wealthy and crafty politician who has flip-flopped between both pro-Western and Moscow-backed administrations.
He was a senior figure under Ukrainian nationalist President Viktor Yushchenko, serving as head of the national security and defense council, and then for six months as foreign minister.
When Yanukovich won the presidency in February 2010, Poroshenko calmly switched horses and served as minister of economic development - even though he had backed the earlier Orange revolution in 2004-5 which thwarted Yanukovich’s first bid for the presidency.
As Yanukovich appeared to be preparing to sign an association agreement with the EU last year, Poroshenko leapt to defend Ukraine in the face of strong Russian trade pressure which affected his own business interests there.
At an international conference in Yalta last September he emotionally defended Ukraine’s European choice against a Kremlin envoy who had warned of economic catastrophe for Ukraine if it joined a free trade zone with the EU.
He was partly motivated then by a Russian ban on chocolate imports which had already hit his Roshen brand - part of trade pressure on Kiev to pull out of the EU deal. Later, after Yanukovich was toppled, Russian police moved in and shut down his Roshen factory in southern Russia.
When Yanukovich backed out of the EU deal, sparking protests, Poroshenko spotted the opportunity and threw his weight behind the pro-Europe movement, turning his Fifth Channel station into a round-the-clock conduit for news from the Maidan.
At the same time, he shrewdly kept his own face in the background, letting other politicians take the heat from increasingly angry protesters as they gave a mixed account of themselves in their strategies for dealing with Yanukovich.
Part of his political strategy in the run-up to the election has been to stick to low-profile campaigning and avoid being drawn into any damaging spats, particularly with Tymoshenko.
She is an old adversary from her time as prime minister in 2005 when she accused Poroshenko of involvement in corruption. Poroshenko responded in kind in a row that rocked the administration.
Some say he showed his political wile in the way he rid himself of a far stronger challenge for the presidency - world heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko.
In a surprise about-turn, Klitschko pulled out of the race and called on his supporters to throw their weight behind Poroshenko as part of a deal in which the oligarch would back him for the post of Kiev mayor.
Out on the stump, he campaigned under the slogan “Live in a new way” and he presented himself as the man who can save Ukraine from dismemberment, endemic corruption and turn the country into a modern state within the European mainstream.
He is expected to make his first trip abroad as president to Brussels to sign the full EU association agreement - the pact which Yanukovich ditched in favor of closer economic ties with Russia - and he has pledged to work hard for Ukrainians to travel in Europe without needing visas.
His pro-Europe agenda will complicate ties with Moscow.
But his long record in business dealings with Russia and his previous experience of Moscow as a government minister should serve him well in any negotiations he may have with President Vladimir Putin and the Kremlin.
One sign of his sensitivity here is that he has prudently spoken out against trying to move Ukraine towards membership of the U.S.-led military alliance NATO, something strongly opposed by Moscow.
He has yet to say how he will deal with the separatist rebellion in the east where bodies from clashes between pro-Russian separatists, Ukrainian militia groups and the Ukrainian army are stacking up.
Late last month, on a TV talk show, he spoke out against the separatists saying they understood neither Russian nor Ukrainian “but only the language of force”.
But he took a more moderate stance on election day on Sunday saying “direct dialogue” had to be undertaken with the people of the Donbass coalfield - though the streets of towns and villages had to be rid of “the people with guns”.
Born near the Black Sea port of Odessa, Poroshenko, studied economics in Kiev. After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, he bought an old confectionery factory in Vinnytsia in central Ukraine where he founded Roshen. He is married with four children and speaks English well
Writing by Richard Balmforth; editing by David Stamp