Q&A: Ukraine billionaire in presidential vote intends to unite nation

Ukrainian billionaire Petro Poroshenko, right, is the front-runner in the field of 21 presidential candidates.
(Yuriy Kirnichny / AFP/Getty Images)

Billionaire Petro Poroshenko, who supported the people’s revolution that ousted President Viktor Yanukovich in February, leads the field of 21 candidates in Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election.

Poroshenko, 48, amassed more than 48% of public support this week in a joint survey by four leading polling agencies, with his closest competitor, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, coming in with 14%.

The campaign unfolds as pro-Russia separatists — with the support of Moscow, Ukrainian and Western officials charge — have been seizing government buildings in eastern Ukraine, pressing for autonomy or even annexation by Russia.


Poroshenko was interviewed in his office in Kiev, the capital, after the poll was released.

How does the current presidential campaign differ from previous ones?

This is an unprecedented campaign because it is [being] conducted under conditions of a country occupied by the Russian Federation, which carries out intelligence, sabotage and terrorist operations on our territory. The ongoing war changes the mentality of our people, our voters.... Psychologically, more than 80% of the population are scared of the looming war regardless of where they live.... The main question for a presidential candidate today is how to preserve democracy and at the same time respond to people’s longing for strong-handed rule. This problem is aggravated by an acute economic crisis, which also presents a tremendous challenge for a presidential hopeful. And the biggest challenge today is to find a way to preserve the country’s unity and integrity.

What is going on in eastern Ukraine?

In those regions we are facing the results of the government policy conducted there over the last 10 to 15 years. Social and economic problems kept accumulating and boosted local unemployment to 40%. In this situation some people are asking themselves: Why work if you can take an automatic rifle in your hands.... Eight million in the [Donetsk Coal Basin] are no longer represented by anyone. Moscow tries to fill that niche to represent them and … imposes on them demands for federalization and a referendum whose questions have not even been properly formulated.

The Kremlin equates the separatist riots in eastern Ukraine with the protest in Kiev that compelled Yanukovich to flee to Russia. Do you agree?

What is happening in eastern Ukraine now is completely the opposite of what was going on at Independence Square of Kiev in recent months. In Kiev, people came out to stage a peaceful protest against the lawlessness of the corrupt authorities. They were protecting European values.

In the Kiev protests, people wanted to preserve the country’s unity. In the east they want to destroy it. And the quality of the protesters themselves is radically different. In Kiev they represented the entire people, each strata of the society from the west and the east too. They were not aggressive and they didn’t take hostages.

What ways do you see to de-escalate the situation in the east?

There are three categories of people who take part in the protests in the east. Some of them are regular onlookers. Politicians should work with these people and provide guarantees to them for work, security, protection of their rights and the efficient development of the region.

The second group of people are fanatics blinded by the idea of joining Russia. They need to be talked to. If they want to live in Russia we should find a way to make them go to Russia.

The third group are militants. We shouldn’t talk to the third group either in Russian or in Ukrainian because these terrorists understand only one language: the language of force.

We should become a strong state that should speak to them in the language of power and force.

Are you satisfied with the way the United States and Europe impose sanctions on Russia?

A great number of these countries economically depend on Russia. Can you imagine how hard it was for them to agree on sanctions against Russia? I have no desire for these sanctions … to harm Russia’s economy because the idea behind the sanctions is to make Russia sit down at the negotiation table and talk about de-escalation of the conflict. And in this sense I find sanctions satisfactory enough.

Is Crimea lost to Russia forever?

Crimea has always been and will remain part of Ukraine. No one will ever recognize Crimea as Russia’s territory.

I don’t propose a military solution to the problem of Crimea. But economically Russia has doomed the population of Crimea to a very hard ordeal for years to come. From now on Crimea will be without tourists, vacationers and foreign investment, its residents deprived of a possibility to go abroad because of visa problems. They are doomed to a miserable, subsidized living.

The liberation of Crimea will depend on the efficient economic recovery and modernization of Ukraine.

What will you do if Russia resorts to military intervention?

We will fight to protect our territory. I have no illusions here about the Russian army, which has plenty of combat experience and is quite well financed. But our advantage is the new Ukrainian people. I am talking about our patriots who love our country and are ready to sacrifice their lives for it.

Even if Russia doesn’t intend to invade, why does it, as you say, sponsor and coordinate separatist activities?

Russia wants to see Ukraine weak. And as long as the presidential election is not held in Ukraine, Russia will continue to question the legitimacy of our authorities. This will allow Russia by hook or by crook to realize its plan to disintegrate Ukraine.

What makes you want to take this job at such a difficult time?

When you appeal to people to follow you, when you lead them, you must be prepared to take responsibility.... I am not a destroyer by nature. I know how to build an economy. I know how to build plants and factories. I know how to create jobs. I can be a diplomat, I can be a banker too.... I intend to unite the people, to demonstrate zero tolerance for corruption, to modernize the country.