Candy mogul emerges to lead Ukraine

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DONETSK, Ukraine -- Ukrainians on Sunday appeared to have chosen Petro Poroshenko, the billionaire "Chocolate King," as their first president since a pro-European revolution ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Exit polls showed Mr. Poroshenko winning at least of 55.9 percent of the vote, a result that if confirmed by the official count would be landslide over Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister, in a field of 19 candidates. With Mr. Poroshencko winning an absolute majority of the votes, there will be no need for a second round.

Ms. Tymoshenko, whom the exit polls gave at most 12.8 percent of the vote, conceded defeat. She declared the outcome "democratic," indicating that she will not contest it.

Mr. Poroschenko said in Kiev that his first action as president will be to visit the embattled eastern Ukrainian area known as Donbas, where armed separatists, with the backing of neighboring Russia, have seized police stations, staged a referendum and declared "people's republics."

Central authorities in Kiev called off the vote in Donbas' main centers of Donetsk and Luhansk, angering voters who went to polling stations to register their support for a united Ukraine. But they allowed it to go forward in Mariupol, a major Donbas city, and smaller towns and villages.

Mr. Poroshenko also promised talks with Russia, whose president, Vladimir Putin, recently referred to eastern and southern Ukraine as "Novorossiya" or "New Russia," implying designs on the region after Russia's annexation of Crimea in March. (The two people's republics announced Saturday they were uniting under the name "Novorossiya.")

"Russia is our neighbor. Relations with the Russian Federation have assumed the greatest importance over the past 200 years," Mr. Poroschenko said. "I am convinced that we can hold talks" with Russia, he said, stipulating that the U.S. and European Union must also take part in talks. "We have much to discuss," he added.

But he stressed that Ukraine will never recognize the "illegitimate referendum" in Crimea and what he termed Russia's "occupation."

Mr. Poroshenko has been a minister of trade and foreign affairs in past governments, speaks English, and has a low-key manner. The big question when he takes office is how he will manage to hold Ukraine together and cut corruption that has impoverished the countryside, particularly the Donbas region.

He must also rebuild a police force that in the east has been an enabler for the pro-Russian forces and reconstruct a military force that has proven to be ill-trained, ill-equipped and lacking the leadership to defend the country.

President Barack Obama called the election "another important step" in Kiev's efforts "to unify the country and reach out to all of its citizens." He noted that in parts of eastern Ukraine, "some courageous Ukrainians still were able to cast their ballots."

But the polls never opened in Donetsk and Lugansk, where armed separatists stalk the streets in balaclavas.

"Kiev decided that we would not open the polls in Donetsk because of threats against voters," said Maxim Rodinsky, press secretary of the city administration, which the "Donetsk People's Republic" hopes to supplant.

The decision by the central government led major monitoring bodies to pull out, starting with the intergovernmental Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

In Odessa in the country's west, where violence in early May claimed the lives of 48 people, elections proceeded without any serious problems.

That was also true in some parts of eastern Ukraine, though voter turnout reportedly was low.

The big surprise was Mariupol, a city of a half-million south of Donetsk where "people republic" gunmen seized a building and brought in mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and assault rifles just a few blocks from the regional election headquarters and a polling station.

"There were no incidents, not only at our polling station but also in the whole city," said Igor Anatolievich Shevchenko, chairman of Polling Station 14. But he said the turnout was just 10 percent -- well below the 50 percent or more for the whole of Ukraine.


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