Petro Poroshenko is the Chocolate King of Ukraine. What does that mean in a country where average yearly income still hovers around a few hundred dollars a month, where pensioners are impoverished by just about any definition and where the hunger to blame someone, anyone, for the country's troubled post-Soviet path has produced not one but two revolutions in the last decade? For starters, that he lives like a king, a real one.

Poroshenko's palace is a short ride outside central Kyiv in Kozyn, a suburb that, in Soviet times, used to be a proletariat retreat, dotted with tall, slender pine trees and small wooden cabins for workers' families to enjoy the summer months by the Dnieper River. Today, a few vintage compounds with rusted metal gates remain, and dilapidated houses stand in the center of town. But the choice land close to the river has been bought up by wealthy Ukrainians who have erected mansions along its banks. Poroshenko's grand manse—complete with a white portico and columns that recall, not at all subtly, the White House, is surrounded by a yellow brick wall. Over the top, you can see rows of freestanding Roman archways, metal-leaf gates and the golden cupola of an Orthodox chapel.

Although it's technically illegal, Poroshenko and many others in the neighborhood have cut off access to the shorefront along their property. The high gates blocking the water have become a visible symbol of the excesses of a crony capitalism that has walled off much of Ukraine from the prying eyes of its people, turning land that was once for everyone to enjoy into an elite playground. "I don't like it," one of Poroshenko's neighbors told me. "But what can you do?"

By the count of those keeping score, Poroshenko is Ukraine's seventh richest man today, worth an estimated $1.3 billion, according to Forbes. A 48-year-old with a large jowl and pompadour-styled salt-and-pepper hair, he owns UkPromInvest, a mysterious holding company that has no website but boasts interests in bus manufacturing, car distribution, shipyards, banking and electrical cables, among other things. He is most famous for owning the confectionary firm Roshen, which has factories in both Ukraine and Russia and produces all manner of flashy gold-wrapped chocolate wafers, bars and candies. Perhaps even more relevantly in these troubled times, Poroshenko is also the owner of Channel 5, known as the country's main opposition television station and a leader of the revolution that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych this winter.

If business made Poroshenko a king, his main occupation has been politics for much of Ukraine's short, tumultuous history as an independent country, and he has held a high position in every government since the Orange Revolution in 2004—from minister of foreign affairs and minister of economic development and trade to head of the National Defense and Security Council to chairman of the National Bank. Now—three months after a violent uprising in which Ukrainians were united perhaps by only one thing: revulsion at the tyranny of the corrupt oligarchy that has dominated the country since independence— the billionaire is also the strong frontrunner in presidential elections scheduled for this Sunday, May 25.

How strong? Since striking a deal to get his most popular opponent out of the race, Poroshenko has held an overwhelming lead. Polls now show him running at close to 50 percent support—if he crosses that threshold, he could win outright, without a runoff—and the oligarch who already lives in a White House of his own making is positioning himself as a Western-oriented savior for Ukraine who will get the country back on course toward the European Union and away from the menacing Russians wielding tanks and missiles on Ukraine's eastern border.

Still, the presidential campaign has made for some elaborate contortions on Poroshenko's part, given his hard-to-hide credentials as a pillar of the embattled country's establishment. Appearing on a popular Ukrainian television talk show the other day, Poroshenko was asked a simple enough question: Is he, in fact, an oligarch? "No," he said, visibly offended, and all appearances to the contrary. "I am not an oligarch because an oligarch is a person who uses state power to enrich themselves. I was in the opposition the whole time. And quite the opposite, it was the thugs and criminals in power that destroyed the economy." Poroshenko's presidential campaign slogan is a Ukrainian phrase that means "Live in a new way!"

Therein, of course, lies the strange paradox of his candidacy and its worrying implications for Ukraine: How is it possible that someone who has been in and out of the political constellation for decades, made billions off the collapse of the Soviet state and then denied his role could have emerged as the default choice to lead the country through this most existential crisis? Oligarchs are part of Ukraine's problem; on that, pretty much everyone agrees. So why is this one being presented as Ukraine's solution?


Getting rid of people like Poroshenko was in fact one of the main reasons Ukrainians took to the streets for three months this winter in the aftermath of Yanukovych's controversial decision to abandon talks to join the EU in favor of closer ties with Russia and a $15 billion bailout from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But that didn't stop Poroshenko from joining the growing throngs on Kyiv's Independence Square, known as the Maidan. Although Poroshenko had served as one of Yanukovych's ministers until December 2012, he opted to take part in the protest movement when many other big businessmen did not, and he frequently addressed protesters from the heavily guarded main stage. In one YouTube video, he is shown standing on a tractor in the midst of clashes to try to calm the situation—at which point he is met by jeers from the assembled crowd and shouted down.

It hardly seemed like a revolution designed to vault him to political power. But when I talked with protesters, they told me many in the Maidan were at least resigned to Poroshenko's participation—he has always been seen as the cleanest of the dirty oligarchs. "He could have done nothing. He could not have been there," Yuri Stets, a parliamentarian, general producer of Channel 5 and one of Poroshenko's close advisers, told me. "It wasn't written on your body: 'This is a billionaire. Don't shoot him.' He was next to me when I got wounded in the thigh. I know something changed in his mind."

Eventually, the Euromaidan protests culminated in a two-day violent showdown, and more than 100 people were killed, the majority of them shot by snipers. Yanukovych fled the country for safe haven in Russia, where he held two Muammar Qadhafi-esque press conferences claiming still to be the president. Meanwhile, an interim government took over and pledged a turn to the West—a pledge soon overshadowed by the existential threat of 40,000 heavily armed Russian troops camped out on the border. Internal turmoil, though it remains in abundance, had given way to a larger geopolitical standoff, and this one came with all the trappings of a proxy war after Putin annexed the Crimean Peninsula and unleashed a destabilizing wave of protests and local government takeovers throughout eastern Ukraine. Many saw the country unraveling.

Sarah A. Topol is a journalist based in Istanbul. Follow her on Twitter @satopol