Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko lifts his arms in greeting after the inauguration ceremony in Sophia Square in Kiev, Ukraine, Saturday, June 7, 2014.
KIEV, Ukraine – Billionaire candy magnate Petro Poroshenko took the oath in Kiev on Saturday to serve as the fifth president of Ukraine and pledged to bring peace and unity to the conflict-torn country as fierce battles that have pushed it to the brink of civil war raged on.
Poroshenko, 48, also boldly declared that he would chart a path toward European integration and would move immediately to sign a free-trade pact with the EU, saying, “The pen is in my hand.”
Inside a packed parliament, Poroshenko was sworn in more than three months after lawmakers ousted his disgraced predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia in late February and is evading mass-murder charges after his security forces killed more than 100 anti-government demonstrators in Kiev during the three months of Euromaidan protests.
The Kremlin has called the overthrow of Yanukovych illegal and said that Ukraine's interim government was a “junta” target Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine.
As a consequence, Russia invaded and annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March, setting off the most serious East-West conflict since the cold war.
Poroshenko said in his speech on Saturday that Crimea “is, and will be Ukrainian soil.”
After pledging to serve Ukraine and preserve its territorial integrity and unity, the so-called “Chocolate King” billionaire raised the Bulava, the Ukrainian scepter that symbolizes power.
“I am taking this presidential post to preserve and strengthen Ukraine’s unity, to ensure lasting peace and to guarantee reliable security,” Poroshenko said. “I know that peace is the most important thing that Ukrainian people desire now.”
“I don't want war…. I don’t want revenge. I want peace,” he said, prompting a standing ovation by Ukrainian officials and dozens of foreign dignitaries.
In a show of support, a delegation from the United States led by Vice President Joe Biden observed Poroshenko’s inauguration. The group also included Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, senators John McCain, Chris Murphy and Ron Johnson, and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt.
European Union President Herman Van Rompuy also attended.
Poroshenko also pledged to hold early local elections in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the hard-knuckled industrial territories in the east collectively known as the Donbass, to seek a solution to the deepening crisis that has cost the lives of more than 200 Ukrainians, including at least 61 servicemen.
“We need a legitimate partner for dialogue today. We won’t talk with murders, and we are ready to call early local elections in Donbass to form partners for dialogue,” he said, adding that he plans soon “to go to the east of the country with peace.”
Switching from speaking Ukrainian to Russian, Poroshenko addressed people in Donetsk and Luhansk directly. “What will I bring with me as president when I visit you in the near future? Peace,” he said.
Of the many challenges facing Poroshenko, none are more sizable than curbing the deadly violence in eastern Ukraine and returning peace to the restive regions.
The day before he took the oath of office, gunfights continued to rage in Slovainsk, the heart of the separatist insurgency, where rebels used MANPADS to down an An-26 plane carrying humanitarian aid to locals, according to Vladislav Seleznev, a spokesman for Ukraine’s anti-terrorist operation underway in eastern Ukraine.
He said that three Ukrainian troops were killed when the plane was hit and downed, while at least three more suffered injuries and are being treated in a hospital. Two more pilots were still missing. Some managed to parachute to safety as pilots steered the flaming plane away from a densely populated residential area of Sloviansk into a pastoral location outside the city.
Also on Friday, the Ukrainian army shelled nearby Semenivka, where dozens of heavily armed rebels had been holed up. The rocket attack left the town in shambles.
While Ukraine officials have pointed to gains in the military operation –- like the retaking of the Donetsk airport after it was seized by rebel gunmen -– it has been largely unsuccessful. In fact, the insurgents gained ground this week, seizing bases of Ukraine’s National Guard and State Border Service in Luhansk region, as well as a border crossing that can now be used as a corridor to funnel reinforcements and weapons from Russia.
The president promised in the days leading up to his inauguration to work to end the bloodshed and separatism in the east “in hours, not weeks.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday praised Poroshenko for his willingness “to immediately stop bloodshed in eastern Ukraine” after the two chatted briefly in an impromptu one-minute meeting during D-Day commemoration events in France.
Remarking on the encounter, Putin said that it was not Russia’s place to step in a halt the fighting, since it “is not a party to the conflict, but the Kiev authorities and the federalization supporters in the east.”
“I can’t tell you for sure how this all is going to be implemented and how this all is going to be formalized, but [Poroshenko’s] determination in general looked right to me, and I liked it. I hope the things will go exactly this way, and if this happens, then conditions will also be provided for the development of our relations in other fields, including the economy,” Putin said.
One option being considered by Ukraine appears to be declaring a state of emergency, or martial law, to bring the eastern regions under Kiev’s control. Poroshenko and his team have been tight lipped on any plans to do so, but security officials told the Kyiv Post on June 5 that the now-former interim President Oleksandr Turchynov had already ordered the country’s security services to prepare proposals.
Imposing a state of emergency, or martial law in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts would allow for Ukraine to close its border with Russia and evacuate the local population before ramping up its anti-terrorist operation. It could allow for the introduction of curfews, food rationing and limitations on travel for local residents. Most importantly, it would help authorities to coordinate all agencies participating in Ukraine’s anti-terrorism operation.
But before that happens, it appears as though Poroshenko will extend a final olive branch to separatist fighters there.
In his Saturday speech in parliament, he said he would work to decentralize power in Ukraine, placing more of it in the hands of regional governments, and guarantee free use of the Russian language. He stopped short, however, of saying the federalization of Ukraine would be considered, something Russia has asked for, and that he would grant the Russian language official status. That, he said, would be reserved only for Ukrainian.
As part of his peace deal, Russian mercenaries fighting among Ukrainians in the east would be allowed safe passage back to Russia and an amnesty would be granted to those who did not kill servicemen or civilians in fighting, or finance “terrorism.”
Separatist leaders, however, have repeatedly said that no negotiations are possible until Ukraine pulls its troops out of the regions.
Olexiy Haran, a political analyst and professor of political science at Kyiv Mohyla Academy, described the new president’s inaugural speech as “very strong – stronger than I had expected.”
“[Poroshenko’s speech], was very clear, and there was no diplomatic maneuvering. He spoke with a strong voice and delivered strong messages about territorial integrity, unity of the country, and what he said, that he is not going to change the balance of power, this is very important,” Haran told Mashable.
Also, Haran said, “It was symbolic that he switched to Russian when addressing people in eastern Ukraine. They will like that out there.”
Still, he added, Poroshenko has his work cut out for him.