Yushchenko Takes Oath as Ukrainian President

By REUTERS

New York Times

January 23, 2005

KIEV, Ukraine (Reuters) - Viktor Yushchenko became Ukraine's president Sunday and vowed to overturn its post-Soviet legacy by seeking a place in Europe for the people he led in a peaceful revolt against a rigged election and pressure from Russia.

Watched by Secretary of State Colin Powell, seven presidents of ex-communist states and relatively minor dignitaries from Moscow, Yushchenko took the oath of office in parliament to cap his two-month ``Orange Revolution.''

He then made his way to Independence Square, focal point of weeks of protests by supporters sporting orange banners, scarves and hats, and told hundreds of thousands massed there that they had every right to be part of a broader Europe.

``Our way to the future is the way of a united Europe. We, along with the people of Europe, belong to one civilization. We share similar values,'' Yushchenko told cheering supporters, many clambering on iron gates and telephone boxes for a better view.

In his 20-minute address on a chilly afternoon he made no direct mention of Russia, where he meets Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin Monday on his first foreign trip abroad before launching a tour of western and central Europe.

Yushchenko, his face disfigured from dioxin poisoning he blames on secret services, said Ukraine -- sandwiched between former imperial master Russia and three new members of the 25-nation European Union -- would act in its own interests.

``Our place is in the European Union,'' Yushchenko said, his U.S.-born wife standing with their five children nearby. ``We are no longer on the edge of Europe. We are situated in the center of Europe.''

``Ukraine will not be a buffer zone or a testing ground for anyone else,'' he said. ``We are prepared to respect the interests of other states. But for me and for you, national interests are above all else.''

STREET PARTY

Large crowds in orange regalia partied into the evening in the square and along Khreshchatyk, Kiev's normally elegant main thoroughfare. A tent camp, whose activists had refused to budge until Yushchenko was safely in office, was being dismantled.

The new president was due to attend an evening gala concert and then a reception next to the square.

Before being sworn in, Yushchenko appeared well aware of the turning point in Ukraine's history, telling Powell he was happy ``that I have lived to the time when the Ukrainian president is elected not in Moscow, not in Washington, but in Ukraine.''

Speaking after their talks, Powell said Ukraine could ``continue to enjoy the full support of the American government and the American people as you move forward to undertake the efforts that the Ukrainian people are expecting.''

The presidents of seven countries were in attendance -- Poland, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia and Moldova -- all ex-communist states committed to European integration.

Also there was former Czech President Vaclav Havel, leader of the 1989 ``Velvet Revolution'' against communist rule.

Yushchenko, a former prime minister and central bank governor, wants to eradicate corruption which he says was given free rein under former President Leonid Kuchma. Kuchma, in power for 10 years, watched proceedings in parliament impassively.

Ukraine is one of Europe's poorest countries, with average monthly salaries equivalent to little more than $100 and many people, especially in rural areas, getting by on far less.

Yushchenko has pledged to build on economic growth of recent years by establishing fair rules for investors and separating government from the interests of big magnates as he alleges was a common practice under Kuchma.

He must now put together a cabinet from the competing interests making up his election team.

Many disillusioned by endemic poverty see Yushchenko as one of their best hopes after 14 years of corrupt or inept rule.

``I now want prosperity for Ukraine,'' said Kateryna, a pensioner who came from Yushchenko's home region of Sumy in the north. ``I want Ukraine to live like other democratic countries.''

But the new president will have to win the trust of the country's Russian-speaking industrial east, which solidly supported his defeated rival, Viktor Yanukovich.

After taking the oath of office in parliament, Yushchenko clearly sought to overcome the legacy of the divisive poll.

``The people achieved honest elections, the transfer of power was legitimate,'' Yushchenko said. ``We have a single aim -- a democratic and prosperous Ukraine.''