Viktor Yushchenko was sworn in as president of Ukraine today, two months after massive protests over his loss in a fraud-plagued election plunged the ex-Soviet republic into political crisis.
Yushchenko, a Western-oriented reformer, took the oath of office in the Verkhovna Rada parliament, placing his hand on a copy of the constitution and on an antique Bible.
After the oath, some deputies repeatedly shouted ”Yu-shchen-ko, Yu-shchen-ko,” an echo of the chanting that filled Kiev during the protest demonstrations.
But others stood not clapping, a reflection of the deep political tensions that Yushchenko will face as the country’s third post-Soviet leader.
Yushchenko was declared the loser of a November 21 election that international observers said was badly marred by vote fraud.
Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators poured into Kiev’s streets to protest the vote and demonstrations went on for weeks.
The Supreme Court annulled the election and Yushchenko won a December 26 court-ordered rerun, beating Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, then the Kremlin-supported prime minister.
But Yanukovych raised a series of legal challenges to the revote, the last of which was rejected by the high court on Thursday, paving the way for the inauguration.
Yanukovych has vowed to take his complaints to the European Court of Human Rights. The court has no enforcement mechanism, but such a move could be an unwelcome shadow on Yushchenko’s intentions to push for Ukraine’s closer integration with the European Union and NATO.
“The people of Ukraine had a fair election, the handover of power, the Ukrainian nation has risen,” Yushchenko said in a brief address after taking the oath. “We have to work with the people and for the people.”
Yushchenko later was to make his full speech from an outdoor stage at Independence Square, the central gathering point for demonstrators during the protests that became known as the “Orange Revolution” after Yushchenko’s campaign colour.
Tens of thousands of people had gathered at the square hours before Yushchenko’s speech.
“This is the end of the big game. After this, with Yushchenko Ukraine has the opportunity to become a real state, a real nation – not Russia’s back yard,” said 35-year-old Bohdan Mysorsky, one of the throng waiting in sub-freezing temperatures for the speech.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer was one of many dignitaries, including representatives of more than 40 countries, who came to the inauguration.
Another was Georgian Parliament Speaker Nino Burdzhanadze, a leader of the 2003 protests that forced a government change in her country and that became a model for Ukraine’s demonstrators.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell, also attending, met with Yushchenko before the inauguration.
“The United States wants to do everything we can to help you meet the expectations of the Ukrainian people after this turmoil,” Powell said at the start of the meeting.
“I’m sure that on Independence Square you will see hundreds of thousands of people with very bright eyes,” Yushchenko said. “None of that would have been possible without our partners who share the same democratic values as we do, in which I include President Bush and you.”
In contrast, Russia sent relatively low-level representation – Sergei Mironov, head of the upper house of parliament.
US President George W Bush called Yushchenko yesterday to congratulate him on his election and on ”democracy’s victory” in Ukraine, White House spokesman Brian Besanceney said in Washington.
“The two leaders also discussed their support for the people of Iraq and for democracy in that country,” Besanceney said.
Ukraine has 1,650 troops in Iraq, the fourth-largest contingent in the US-led military operation, but Yushchenko has promised to withdraw them.
This month, after eight Ukrainian soldiers were killed in an explosion in Iraq, outgoing President Leonid Kuchma ordered plans for withdrawal by the end of June.
Among the challenges Yushchenko faces is likely to be substantial opposition in the country’s east, the stronghold of support for Yanukovych, who had been expected to move Ukraine closer into Russia’s sphere of influence.
The east has a large Russian-speaking population, and many there fear a rise of Ukrainian nationalism under Yushchenko that could result in discrimination against them.