As skirmishing with pro-Russia separatists continued in eastern Ukraine, billionaire Petro Poroshenko was sworn into office Saturday as the fifth president of post-Soviet Ukraine.
The 48-year-old chocolate magnate offered a peace plan to resolve the bloody conflict, but he warned that Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula was unacceptable, a point he also made Friday in France during a brief meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Russia occupied Crimea, which is and will be Ukrainian,” Poroshenko said at the solemn inauguration ceremony in parliament, prompting a standing ovation from lawmakers and guests. “Yesterday during the meeting in Normandy, I said exactly that to President Putin, that Crimea belongs to Ukraine.”
Poroshenko, holding his right hand on a 16th century New Testament, took the oath in the presence of dozens of foreign dignitaries, including U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland.
“I know that peace is the main thing the Ukrainian people want today,” he said. “I don’t want war. I don’t want revenge, despite the massive casualties sustained by Ukraine’s people.... I want peace, and I will achieve Ukraine’s unity.”
Poroshenko offered amnesty for pro-Russia militants, provided they “do not have the blood of Ukrainian soldiers and peaceful residents on their hands, and those who were not involved in financing terrorism.”
More than 200 people have been killed in the last two months in heavy fighting between government troops and separatist gunmen in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of southeast Ukraine, according to officials.
Poroshenko also offered to create “controlled corridors” for the evacuation of Russian fighters back to Russia, after which a peaceful dialogue would be possible with newly elected regional and local authorities.
Poroshenko did not directly lash out at the Kremlin, perhaps because of the brief meeting he had with Putin at the D-day memorial ceremonies in France. Instead, he blamed ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich and his clan, who are now living in Russia, for backing the separatists.
Poroshenko spokeswoman Irina Friz wrote on her Facebook account Friday that Poroshenko and Putin agreed to work toward a peaceful solution and “to take joint action to close the border in the area of military conflict and prevent constant Ukrainian border crossing by Russian militants.”
Russian Ambassador Mikhail Zurabov, who had been absent from his office since February, returned to Kiev and attended the inauguration. Zurabov is expected to initially represent Russia in talks with Ukrainian officials expected to begin Sunday, said Volodymir Fesenko, a Kiev-based political scientist.
“Zurabov is ideal for this role as he and Poroshenko have long been very good friends,” said Fesenko, director of the Penta Center for Applied Political Studies. “Even Putin himself now understands that the prolongation of the violent conflict in Ukraine is not in his interests either, and now that the legitimacy of Kiev authorities is hard to dispute, the Kremlin has to work together with Kiev to find a way to stop the bloodshed.”
Putin on Saturday ordered the Federal Security Service to strengthen protection of Russia’s border with Ukraine to prevent illegal crossings, the Itar-Tass news agency reported.
In his inaugural address, Poroshenko rejected the idea of the federalization of Ukraine, proposed by Russia. He pledged that Ukraine would remain a single state with the Ukrainian language the only official tongue.
But he guaranteed a place in Ukraine for Russian and other languages, and he gave a portion of his speech in Russian, specifically addressing residents of the volatile Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Poroshenko has promised to sign an association and trade agreement with the European Union as soon as possible, saying Ukraine is united around European integration. Yanukovich’s rejection of an EU economic agreement in favor of closer ties with Moscow is what led to months of protests and his eventual ouster.
“We, the people who were torn away from our great motherland — Europe — are returning to its fold,” Poroshenko said.
After his address, Poroshenko met at the Presidential Administrative Building with Biden, who said the U.S. was committing an additional $48 million in assistance to his government on top of a previous $1-billion loan guarantee and $73 million in security and crisis-response aid.
“There’s a window for peace, and you know as well as anyone, that it will not stay open indefinitely,” Biden said at the session.
“America’s with you,” the vice president added. “That is not hyperbole.”
Poroshenko — who won a majority of ballots in all regions of Ukraine except Donetsk and Luhansk, where separatists interfered with the May 25 presidential polling — “enjoys enough popular trust to break the situation, resolve the conflict and lead Ukraine to Europe,” political scientist Fesenko said. “But he needs to act fast.”
“People have such high expectations of Poroshenko after everything we have been through in recent months,” said university student Sergey Denysenko, 22. “He will not be forgiven if he fails.”
“I understand we are at a war and he has to handle it,” said pensioner Yevgeniya Karpenko, 67, “but he was elected for the whole term, and I expect him to handle social and economic problems as well.
“I am not complaining, but I think everybody here would like to live better. There is so much potential in this country, so many opportunities.”
Poroshenko promised to provide jobs and “decent wages as the first guarantee of internal peace and national security.”
As the new president spoke of peace and economic reform, mortar fire struck a power station near the town of Slovyansk, the epicenter of the fighting, prompting the evacuation of technical personnel and cutting off electricity to some areas, the UNIAN news agency reported.
Two Ukrainian soldiers were reported wounded Saturday morning as pro-Russia gunmen attacked a government checkpoint near Slovyansk, Dmitry Tymchuk, head of the Kiev-based Center for Military and Political Research, said on his Facebook page.
Special correspondent Butenko reported from Kiev and Times staff writer Loiko from Moscow.