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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Yanukovych Sworn In As Ukraine President

Five years after the Orange Revolution ousted him from power, Ukraine's pro-Moscow opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych has been sworn in as president.

Trumpets blared inside Ukraine's parliament building this morning as a confident-looking Yanukovych prepared to take the oath of office after winning a close election earlier this month.

He takes over for Viktor Yushchenko.

The inauguration ends a disputed vote, but not a longstanding political crisis. Yanukovych's opponent in a runoff vote, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, says he stole his victory through fraud, and refuses to recognize the result.

The hall was partly empty during today's ceremony because deputies from her coalition boycotted the event.

But international monitors gave the election a clean bill of health, and during today's ceremony, central election commissions chief Volodymyr Shapoval repeated the ruling that Yanukovych had won by more than 3 percent of the vote.

Lawmakers applauded as Yanukovych took to the stage to be administered the oath of office. It was a remarkable turn of events for the pro-Moscow politician whose victory in a rigged presidential election in 2004 prompted hundreds of thousands of protesters onto the streets to take part in the Orange Revolution.

Yanukovych was soon ousted from power, after which pro-Western Yushchenko won a new election. He appointed his main ally Tymoshenko prime minister, but the two immediately fell out in bitter infighting that locked Ukraine into five years of political crisis that has stalled promised reforms and disillusioned ordinary Ukrainians.

Neither Yushchenko nor Tymoshenko attended today's ceremony.

'Difficult Situation'

In a speech after taking his oath, Yanukovych said Ukrainians made their voices clear in an election that had put the country on a new path.

"Ukraine is in an extremely difficult situation," he said. "There is no state budget for the current year. The debts on foreign loans are colossal. Poverty, a ruined economy, and corruption are only part of the list of the troubles that constitute Ukrainian reality."

Tymoshenko accuses Yanukovych of representing a group of corrupt business oligarchs who want to roll back the Orange Revolution's democratic gains and put Kyiv back under Moscow's influence. But the former communist official -- who served two jail terms for assault and robbery in his youth -- today said he would establish rules separating business from politics and continue the country's integration into Europe.

"Ukraine will embark on a foreign policy," Yanukovych said, "that will allow our country to fully benefit from equal and mutually beneficial relations with Russia, the European Union and the United States."

Yanukovych is expected to travel to Brussels on March 1 for his first foreign trip as president. At the top of his list of priorities will be to pull the country out of a devastating economic crisis, beginning by restarting talks with the International Monetary Fund, which last year froze a $16.4 billion bailout.

But Yanukovych is also widely expected to steer Ukraine toward Russia, which ridiculed the Orange Revolution and recalled its ambassador last year, saying it would not speak to then-President Yushchenko.

Yanukovych has indicated he would put an end to Ukraine's drive to join NATO and renegotiate a gas-supply deal with Moscow, which some believe would enable him to reestablish closer ties with Russia's Gazprom.

More Jousting To Come

While his inauguration today concludes a bitter election, it doesn’t end an ongoing political crisis that looks set only to escalate.

Tymoshenko has dropped a legal challenge against Yanukovych's election victory, but on February 22 said the portly politician with a reputation for public gaffes "is not our president." She's called on deputies from her coalition to oppose him.

Yanukovych, for his part, has vowed to remove Tymoshenko from office, which may only be possible though snap parliamentary elections later this year. He's also promised to rewrite the country's constitution to give the presidency more power.

In the meantime, the new president is maneuvering to form a new governing coalition and has named three candidates as his possible choices for prime minister. Two took part in the first round of the presidential election last month.

This month's election results reflected a country deeply split between its largely Russian-speaking east -- which overwhelmingly supported Yanukovych -- and its European-leaning West, which backed Tymoshenko.

But less than 50 percent of the electorate voted for Yanukovych, and many across Ukraine say they don't see any significant differences between him and Tymoshenko. Most say they want the new president to create jobs and establish effective governance, neither of which appear likely any time soon.

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