With one hand on a 16th-Century Bible and the other on Ukraine’s 1991 Declaration of Independence, Leonid Kuchma was sworn in Tuesday as this nation’s second president.
It was the first peaceful transfer of executive power in Ukraine’s turbulent modern history.
But even as he took over from outgoing rival Leonid Kravchuk, Kuchma called for “essential changes in Ukraine’s economic and political course” to avert economic disaster.
In a short inaugural address, Kuchma, 55, vowed to reform the country’s devastated economy, cut taxes, fight crime, liberalize foreign-exchange controls and sign a comprehensive treaty for closer economic ties with Russia.
In an interview on Russian television Sunday, Kuchma suggested that the way to renew those ties is through the creation of Ukrainian-Russian corporations for the production of weapons, space launchers and other high-tech equipment.
Kuchma’s pro-Russian tilt appears to have placated Russian-speaking separatists in the Crimea, where Kuchma won almost 90% of the vote in the July 10 elections.
In a symbolic move that would have been unlikely had Kravchuk won, Crimean President Yuri Meshkov joined other regional leaders in the marble-walled chamber of Parliament to watch Kuchma swear “to defend the sovereignty of Ukraine.”
“A normal man has come to power, and the political climate has improved,” Meshkov said after the ceremony. “We won’t be so tough in our positions now.”
Kuchma differs from his predecessor in his approach to ridding Ukraine of the 176 strategic nuclear missiles left on its territory when the Soviet Union collapsed.
He took a significantly less strident position in the Russian television interview than he had previously, saying, “The sooner we get rid of these missiles, the better for Ukraine.”
But on previous occasions he has opposed signing the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty until it is amended to accommodate Ukraine’s “inheritance” of nuclear weapons.
“The treaty is up for renewal next year,” Kuchma said at a post-election news conference with a shrug that suggested Ukraine might wait until then before signing.
Kuchma promised Tuesday that one of his first acts as president will be to propose legislation giving the Russian language official status alongside Ukrainian. The pledge drew cheers from some lawmakers but is likely to raise nationalist hackles.
As a peasant boy, Kuchma grew up speaking Ukrainian but spent decades in the exclusively Russian-speaking world of Soviet aerospace, eventually rising to head Ukraine’s largest missile factory. He took a few lessons to polish his rusty Ukrainian before the presidential campaign began.
Kuchma’s most daunting task will be to revive an economy in shambles. Kuchma estimates that four in 10 Ukrainians are unemployed.
Official statistics released Monday show a 40% drop in production in the first six months of this year, and output of some consumer goods has plunged 80%.
“The economy’s reserves left over from the Soviet Union are totally exhausted,” Oleg Soskin, the deputy head of a Kiev think tank, told Reuters news service. “Kuchma has no more than two months to get his reforms going.”