KIEV, UKRAINE — Ukraine handed chocolate tycoon Petro Poroshenko a commanding victory in its presidential election Sunday, giving the pro-European billionaire a chance to resolve a conflict that has created the greatest tensions between the West and Russia since the Cold War.
The new leader takes the office once held by pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in February after antigovernment protests. That revolt led to Russia's annexation of the Crimean peninsula, the rise of a separatist movement in Ukraine's east, and a torrent of violence that increasingly looks like a low-grade civil war. All are massive challenges that will test a longtime politician who has promised to navigate between Russia and the West.
Poroshenko, 48, moved Sunday to paint himself as a conciliator, declaring that his first official act after inauguration would be to visit the heart of the separatist rebellion in the Donbass eastern industrial region.
"The first steps of our entire team at the beginning of the presidency will concentrate on ending the war, ending the chaos, ending the disorder and bringing peace to Ukrainian soil, to a united, single Ukraine," he told a victory rally Sunday. "Our decisive actions will bring this result fairly quickly."
Poroshenko is a soft-spoken businessman who built a candy empire out of the ashes of Ukraine's post-Soviet economy. Forbes estimates his wealth at $1.3 billion. He has worked on both sides of the country's political divide, as foreign minister during the pro-Western presidency of Viktor Yushchenko and then briefly as economy minister under Yanukovych. But Poroshenko allied himself with protesters shortly after Yanukovych rejected a deal in November to move toward integration with the European Union.
Poroshenko has said he wants to lead Ukraine to closer ties with the EU.
But with violence preventing many citizens in pro-Russian eastern Ukraine from voting, it remained far from clear how much people there would accept Poroshenko's mandate. Separatists in the region had vowed to disrupt the vote, and they largely succeeded Sunday, with many polling stations shuttered, ballots stolen, and election officials threatened and even kidnapped. Citizens in eastern Ukraine have long been skeptical of centralized power in Kiev, and many voted May 11 in a separatist-organized referendum in favor of autonomy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said Saturday that Russia would "cooperate with the authorities that will come to power as a result of the election," but he added that he continued to consider Yanukovych the legitimate president of the country.
Exit polls released immediately after balloting ended showed Poroshenko taking more than 55 percent of the vote, avoiding a runoff that would have left Ukraine without an elected leader for three more weeks. His closest rival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, whom polls indicated garnered 12 to 13 percent, conceded. Official results will be announced today.
The Central Election Commission estimated voter turnout nationwide at 60 percent, a spokesman said. Turnout in the 2010 election — in which residents of eastern Ukraine and Crimea could vote freely — was 67 percent.
Many of the anticorruption civil society groups that occupied Kiev's Independence Square in opposition to Yanukovych fear that the new president could be an old-style representative of rule by Ukraine's wealthiest.
Poroshenko said Sunday that he wants to hold new parliamentary elections this year, a move that would pave the way for a full revamp of the government. Yanukovych's pro-Russian Party of Regions still holds a plurality of seats in the legislature.
In Kiev on Sunday, voters stood in long lines as they waited to fill out the large paper ballots for president. Many said they were choosing Poroshenko as a conciliatory figure.
Poroshenko "is the one person who is actually neutral," said Alexander Stelmakh, 36, a construction worker who came with his 3-year-old son to vote on the outskirts of the city.
But in Ukraine's troubled east, problems with voting were widespread, and pro-Russian separatists attacked polling places, according to the office of Donetsk's governor, Serhiy Taruta. Only 426 polling stations out of 2,430 were open in the region, and none in the city of Donetsk, which has 1 million residents, the Donetsk Regional Administration said.