DONETSK, Ukraine -- Barely two days have passed since Petro Poroshenko won the Ukrainian presidential election on Sunday, and he’s already disappointing some of his citizens. Here in the capital of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, his wealth makes him automatically suspect.
“He is an oligarch for sale. I don’t trust him,” said Eleanora, who did not want her last name used.
For many in eastern Ukraine, his election represents a victory for the wealthy few, who have increasingly squared off against pro-Russian separatists in the East.
On Monday, the same day the official electoral results were announced, Poroshenko launched an aggressive military campaign against separatist militants in the eastern cities of Donetsk and Luhansk.
“He was saying one thing before the election, that he will negotiate peacefully, and now we have airstrikes,” said Daniil, who said he supports the Donetsk People’s Republic. “I live close to the airport and I am scared to open windows.”
But in the west of the country, the 48-year-old chocolate magnate struck a chord as a level-headed, experienced pragmatist able to find a way out of political deadlock and save a falling economy.
“People believe he will be a good conductor, that there will be some kind of movement,” said Aleksei Shalaisky, Kiev-based editor in chief of Nashi Groshi, a website that investigates government corruption.
But Poroshenko’s many business ventures and ties to the discredited Party of the Regions, which governed Ukraine before the February revolution ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, raise questions for some precisely about his ability to fight corruption.
His Roshen chocolate empire extends to Russia, Hungary, Kazakhstan and China, and he owns businesses in transportation, real estate and media. Far from being a political amateur, Poroshenko has worked with several generations of Ukrainian leaders, including ex-Presidents Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yushchenko -- and he is close to the country’s other oligarchs.
Rinat Akhmetov, the richest man in Ukraine, worth about $13 billion, has already sided with Poroshenko, as pro-Russian separatists threatened to nationalize his assets.
In a press conference on Monday, Denis Pushilin, a spokesman for the Donetsk People’s Republic, reiterated the separatists’ plan to nationalize Akhmetov’s companies. And while Akhmetov backed the separatist movement earlier this year, he later reversed his stance and lobbied heavily for the unity of the Ukrainian state.
For Akhmetov and other businessmen who saw their assets threatened, the new president’s resolve to suppress separatism is the answer to their prayers.
And for many Ukrainians weary of roller-coaster transitions, Poroshenko’s business acumen and contacts in the establishment were a selling point.
In his campaign, he vowed to reclaim Crimea from Russia and follow a course closer to the European Union, but Moscow treats him as someone it can do business with.
When he was Ukraine’s minister of foreign affairs and minister of trade and economic development, Poroshenko had a working relationship with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who wasted no time after his election indicating that Russia is open to dialogue with him.
"We hear what Petr Poroshenko has been saying about his intentions, including with regard to relations with Russia that he calls his most important ones,” Lavrov said at a press conference on Monday. “We, as our president said repeatedly, are ready for a dialogue with Kiev representatives, ready for a dialogue with Petr Poroshenko."
Transparency International ranked Ukraine 144th out of 177 countries in its global corruption barometer for 2013. A study by Ukraine's Federation of Employees found that a billion dollars was lost in bribes to public officials in 2013 alone.
But after the heady early days of the Euromaidan movement that ousted Yanukovych, worries about corruption may be too idealistic now for most Ukrainians, who crave stability and a return to normalcy.
“The issue is not finding the [stolen] money, but destroying those powerful schemes, laws that were introduced [to enable corruption],” said Shalaisky, the corruption investigator. “If he is going to create this, then it’s possible to overlook if he is going to look for those missing billions or not.”