Eager crowds listened to the Ukrainian President’s inaugural speech Saturday, hoping for answers to one question: will there be peace?
“I don’t want war. I don’t want revenge,” Petro Poroshenko said after taking the oath of office. But he promised to meet anyone challenging Ukraine’s territorial integrity with military might.
He alluded to a Biblical verse by saying, “those who enter with the sword will be met with the sword.”
The country will build the means to do so, rearming the Ukrainian army must be a priority, Poroshenko said.
“No one will protect us, if we do not protect ourselves,” he said.
He called for separatists in Ukraine’s east who have taken up arms to lay them down and offered amnesty to those who “do not have blood on their hands.”
Poroshenko said corridors would open to allow fighters who have joined separatist forces from outside the country to leave Ukraine.
All languages will retain respect, including Russian, he said. And the government will be decentralized.
“New powers will be allocated to regional powers,” Poroshenko said.
But there will be no federalization, as many separatists have demanded. Ukraine will be one unified country, he said.
Poroshenko, one of the world’s richest men and an experienced politician, took the oath of office in the country’s parliament before at least three European Presidents and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.
He was passed symbols of high office before taking to the podium for his speech.
The man who became a billionaire as a chocolate maker quickly vowed to continue Ukraine’s move to the West in no uncertain terms.
Ukraine’s natural place is with Europe, he said, adding that he’s prepared to sign an economic partnership agreement with the European Union as soon as EU officials approve it.
The agreement is just one step to Ukraine becoming a member of the European Union. He received a standing ovation for the remark.
Ukrainians have reason to look forward to a brighter future, he said. “We are being supported by the whole world.”
But the new President inherits a country with a burgeoning armed conflict in its east.
Violence there is taking lives daily, and the government troops and rebel fighters are beefing up their might.
The names of the cities Donetsk and Luhansk have transformed into monikers for flashpoints of tensions between Russia and the West as the government in Kiev tears its ties with Moscow to embrace Europe and the United States.
But ethnic Russian separatists in the east and south yearn to stay with Moscow. The Kremlin, holding fast to centuries-old ties, is helping them dig in their heels after annexing the region of Crimea, which before 1954 was part of Russia.
Poroshenko addressed the move directly. The territorial integrity of Ukraine is not up for discussion, he said.
Security prospects have seemed elusive, but on Friday, a ray of hope pierced the ominous clouds between Moscow and Kiev during D-Day celebrations in France, where Russian President Vladimir Putin came together with Western leaders to honor common sacrifices made to defeat fascism in World War II.
Putin came face-to-face with Poroshenko.
Afterward, Poroshenko announced the start of negotiations between the two sides Sunday, his second day in office.
“A representative of the Russian Federation will come to Ukraine to discuss the first steps as to peaceful resolution of the situation,” spokeswoman Irina Friz quoted the President as saying on Friday.
Russia is to help Kiev close border crossings, Poroshenko said.
Foreign fighters may have crossed into Ukraine to join the separatists Moscow has supported, and Kiev maintains that weapons have flowed in across them.
“I can say that all the issues have not been easy, including the reaction to Crimean question I have raised. Still, we will be working on reaching the goals we have set and the negotiations start Sunday,” Poroshenko said.
Tough on armed separatists
As relieving as negotiations seem, the President does not seem shy of confrontation.
He won the Presidency in May’s election with a stern platform that called for few compromises with the separatists or Moscow, and both have called for him to call back the Ukrainian army from separatist strongholds.
He has threatened to send it marching into them.
It seems unlikely that Poroshenko will accede to the demand of the Prime Minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Borodai, who said there would be no talks until Ukrainian forces left the Donetsk and neighboring Luhansk regions.
Poroshenko’s inauguration speech will be scrutinized in Donetsk and Luhansk, and beyond.
He walks the tightrope between making Ukraine part of Europe and reassuring Russia that its interests in the neighborhood will be acknowledged.
He has said that dialogue with Russia is necessary for peace and security.
And on Saturday, he set the tone for his country’s future.