Ukraine's 'chocolate king,' new president Petro Poroshenko hopes to sweet-talk Russia

Candy billionaire Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine's new president, says he knows Russia's Vladimir Putin "quite well." But that didn't stop Moscow from putting the squeeze on Poroshenko's chocolate factory in the recent trade wars, Margaret Evans reports.

West-leaning candy billionaire says he knows Vladimir Putin well

Billionaire Petro Poroshenko claimed Ukraine's presidency on Sunday after exit polls gave him an absolute majority in a first round of voting, and vowed to end the conflict with pro-Russian rebels. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

If you weren't looking for it, you'd never know it was there.  Except for the heavenly smells drifting over the walls that is, a mix of chocolate, maraschino cherry and cake dough.

Welcome to the Karl Marx Chocolate Works, its former name, a complex of old brick warehouses hidden under the shadow of a concrete overpass in the middle of Kyiv.

Today, it's better known as the home of Roshen Sweets, the confectionary brand owned by Ukraine's new president to be, billionaire Petro Poroshenko, aka "the chocolate king." The name Roshen is taken from the two middle syllables of his surname.

Roshen is listed as the 18th-largest confectionary company in the world, and here at the factory small armies of perfectly formed chocolates are carried forth on chariot-like conveyor belts to do battle on the shelves of candy stores around the globe.

One of the most popular brands is a line called Kyiv Evenings, a sweet that is shaped like an onion dome and wrapped in gold foil.

But don't get taken in by the luscious allure, these little sweets are very much on the front lines when it comes to the fight for influence in today's Ukraine, and between East and West.

"We expected budgetary problems in terms of how much people can spend and their buying abilities," the company's president, Vyacheslav Moskalevskyi, told me in an interview earlier this year.

In other words, it was only natural that chocolates would drop lower on people's shopping lists in times of economic hardship. "But to add to that the trade wars with Russia, it's even hard to comment," Moskalevskyi said.

Roshen Sweets was just one of the Ukrainian businesses being pressured by Moscow over the past year in its not-so-subtle bid to get Kyiv to join the Russian-led Eurasian trading bloc instead of signing an economic association pact with Europe.

A complex of old brick warehouses hidden under the shadow of a concrete overpass in the middle of Kyiv is the home of Roshen Sweets, the confectionery brand owned by Ukraine’s new president in waiting Petro Poroshenko, aka "the chocolate king." (Margaret Evans/CBC)

But the company was also singled out for particular attention, many here say, because of the pro-European stance of its owner, the same man who won Ukraine’s presidential election on the weekend, according to the early returns.

Russia stopped allowing the sale of Roshen chocolates — some brands deliberately tailored to the Russian market — citing health and safety concerns. That was last summer, well before protesters took to the streets demanding the resignation of the pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych.

That market "is 30 per cent of our business," Moskalevskyi said. "So instead of candy selling what I'm doing basically is throwing people out. Letting people go and watching them go on the street."

The big squeeze

Things got worse for Roshen in March after it became clear Poroshenko, a former foreign minister under Yanukovych, would stand for the presidency. 

Russian police stormed a Roshen plant in southern Russia, accusing the manager of copyright violation, and citing one of the company's oldest sweet labels.

On the other side, the European Union wasn't helping much either.

"What we have now is a 48 per cent tax on our chocolate to Europe," Moskalevsyi said. "We had a tax free relationship with Russia, but now there's nowhere to go."

That could now change with Poroshenko at the helm. At the press conference here in Kyiv following Sunday's vote, he said one of his first priorities will be to sign the EU's association agreement. It will help ease tariffs on Ukrainian goods.

At Poroshenko’s Kyiv press centre, small plates of Roshen chocolates were placed discreetly among the coffee stations for guests to indulge their sweet tooth.

But by Monday they were nowhere to be seen. Poroshenko was perhaps getting a head start on his pledge to sell his confectionary company and give up the chocolate king title should he become president.

More than a handshake

Many voters here say they supported the oligarch because they believe he will know how to talk to the Russians. And Poroshenko has been careful to talk up the need for a relationship with Moscow, not just the EU.

"The rest of [the candidates] discredited themselves utterly," said Kyiv resident Dasha Butsko. "And in my opinion he's the only one who can stop the war with Russia."

Poroshenko lost no time saying he hoped to meet with the Russian leadership by mid-June. His first priority is to ease the volatile situation in Eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian militias continue to control pockets of the region.

"Russia is our biggest neighbour," the new, pending inauguration, president said, adding that peace in the Donbass region of Ukraine would not be possible without Russian representation.

He'll have his work cut out. The line between where Europe ends and Russia begins runs right through Ukraine, many commentators have observed.

After three years of court cases, Taisiya Voronina thought she had seen it all, until a final ruling in March sent dozens of armed police and plainclothes officials through her chocolate factory in southern Russia. She is charged with conspiring with unnamed others to use a registered trademark illegally to "extract additional profits." But her factory workers know better - "It's because of Ukraine," they whisper. (Reuters)

But Poroshenko is predicting that his June meeting will be "more than handshake" because he and Vladimir Putin know each other "quite well."

Perhaps he might even carry a box of those Kiev Evenings with him to Moscow as a kind of peace offering. 

Given his plans to divest himself of the chocolate company, a case of sweets might not be quite the provocation it once would have seemed.

How does the old song go? "Who can take tomorrow, and dip it in a dream …"


Margaret Evans

Senior International Correspondent

Margaret Evans is the Senior International Correspondent for CBC News based in the London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.