Ukraine’s Western-backed billionaire Petro Poroshenko has been sworn in as president as glimmers of hope emerged for a solution to the bloody crisis that has pitted his splintered ex-Soviet country against Russia.
Poroshenko took the oath of office in Kiev’s parliament on Saturday one day after holding his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin since a dominant May 25 election victory handed him the mandate to try and save Ukraine from disintegration and economic collapse.
The 48-year-old magnate – affectionately dubbed the “chocolate king” for his popular brand of sweets – first asked a packed session of parliament to pay a minute’s silence for the 100 people killed in three days of carnage in Kiev that led to the ouster of Ukraine’s Kremlin-backed regime.
He then vowed to give an amnesty to any insurgents who had “no blood on their hands” as the first step in a peace initiative designed to save the nation of 46 million, which has already lost its Crimea peninsula to Russian annexation, from splintering along ethnic lines.
“I am assuming the presidency in order to preserve and strengthen Ukraine’s unity,” Poroshenko said in an address that alternated between Ukrainian and Russia.
But he also added that he would never accept Russia’s seizure of Crimea or attempts to divert his pro-European course.
“Crimea will remain a part of Ukraine,” Poroshenko said firmly.
“This is the moment of truth. It is up to us to decide our future.”
Saturday’s solemn ceremony was attended by US Vice-President Joe Biden and European Council president Herman Van Rompuy along with more than 20 other dignitaries from countries that back Kiev’s new Westward drive.
But Moscow was only represented by its acting ambassador to Kiev – a telling sign of how far relations between the two neighbours have slipped since the February uprising.
Poroshenko is one of Ukraine’s more experienced politicians who held senior cabinet posts under both the Western-leaning government that followed Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution and the Moscow-friendly leadership of ousted president Viktor Yanukovych.
That pragmatic approach has instilled hope among many Ukrainians that he will be able to resolve an eight-week secessionist drive by pro-Russian militants in the eastern rust belt that has claimed 200 lives and grown even more violent since his election.
The new president must also address a two-year recession and tackle endemic corruption that has turned Ukraine into one of Europe’s poorest countries and fed large-scale public resentment.
A step in that direction may have been taken on Friday when he shook hands with Putin on the sidelines of D-Day commemorations in Normandy.
The 15-minute meeting was arranged by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a Russian speaker long viewed as the one European leader who can exercise substantial influence over Moscow because of strong trade ties.
Putin sounded a surprisingly upbeat note after his meeting with Poroshenko, saying the new president promised to unveil a peace plan as early as Sunday that would introduce a ceasefire and open the way for negotiation between the militants and Kiev.
But Putin also warned that Russia would have no choice but to slap trade restrictions on Ukraine should it proceed with plans to sign an historic economic treaty with the European Union in the coming weeks.