Yushchenko hails victory over tyranny

New president promises fresh start for Ukraine

Ian Traynor, Central Europe correspondent
Monday January 24, 2005
The Guardian

Two months of "people's power" on the streets and in the squares of Ukraine reached a celebratory climax yesterday when Viktor Yushchenko finally took the oath as president, promising the massed ranks of the Orange Revolution a fresh start after freedom's triumph over tyranny.

The 50-year-old former prime minister and national bank chief was sworn in as Ukraine's third president since the collapse of the Soviet Union 13 years ago, capping a bitter but joyous campaign for office and for democracy that erupted in November when the outgoing regime of Leonid Kuchma tried to steal the presidential election.

In scenes reminiscent of the popular ferment of 1989 that ended the Kremlin's rule over half of Europe, Mr Yushchenko yesterday addressed more than 100,000 supporters who braved sub-zero temperatures in Kiev's central square to mark the birth of a new era. "This is a victory of freedom over tyranny, of law over law lessness," Mr Yushchenko declared.

Former dissident heroes from the east European revolutions of 1989 were on hand with senior officials from the EU, Nato, and from the US, including Colin Powell, the outgoing US secretary of state, to witness what Mr Yushchenko and many others believe is the delayed onset of genuine Ukrainian independence.

Moscow sent a relatively lowly official. President Vladimir Putin miscalculated disastrously by opposing Mr Yushchenko and congratulated him grudgingly on his Boxing Day poll triumph only a few days ago.

Mr Putin, like much of the Russian elite, is worried at the takeover by the staunchly independent Mr Yushchenko. By contrast, President George Bush phoned Mr Yushchenko at the weekend to extol "democracy's victory" in Ukraine, while Mr Powell yesterday vowed that Washington would do its utmost to help Mr Yushchenko satisfy the vast popular expectation vested in him.

The new president, who will struggle to satisfy the popular hopes for his presidency given the wretched condition of the country, sent a conciliatory gesture to the Kremlin, telling the crowd that "everyone can teach their children the language of their forefathers" - a reference to the Russian language, which still holds sway in much of the country.

He will build on that gesture today by making Moscow his first stop as president, but will then travel to Strasbourg to address the European parliament, and then join world leaders in Poland for this week's events marking 60 years since the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz was liberated.

Mr Yushchenko signalled strongly that he would be clamouring at the doors of Brussels - a move certain to raise hackles at EU headquarters. "Our place is in the European Union. My goal is Ukraine in a united Europe. Our road into the future is the road on which a united Europe is headed."

EU policy towards Ukraine over the past decade has been much criticised for negligence. While the radical change in Kiev means that the EU is having to make up for lost time, its in-trays are overflowing.

Brussels is grappling with absorbing the 10 mainly east European countries that joined last year, is preoccupied with Turkey's bid to join, and has shown little capacity or will to react quickly and effectively to major convulsions around its borders.

Alexander Kwasniewski, the president of neighbouring Poland, less than a year in the EU but already Ukraine's strongest EU advocate, said he would work to boost Ukraine's western integration prospects.

"Many reforms and much work are needed by EU members and the European institutions must now extend their support and solidarity to the new pro-European Ukraine," said Denis MacShane, Britain's minister for Europe, who attended yesterday's inauguration.

Mr Yushchenko has his work cut out to turn around a country that was legendarily corrupt and brutish under the decade-long Kuchma administration. He promised jobs, a crackdown on graft and a fair tax system, as well as more rigorous tax enforcement and transparency in a business sector notorious for the power wielded by rapacious billionaire oligarchs. "We will become an honest nation," Mr Yushchenko pledged.

Widely regarded as a decent, mild-mannered technocrat, Mr Yushchenko has not yet formed an administration or appointed a prime minister. The prospects for good governance will hinge on his appointments, not least since there are question marks about the probity of some of the politicians and businessmen who helped orchestrate his campaign and now expect a payback.