Ukraine's new President sets course toward European Union
Petro Poroshenko made his fortune as the chocolate king
He talked tough on separatists in his inaugural address
It was a confident and forthright address by the new Ukrainian President.
With his wife, Maryna, and one of his four children looking on – as well as U.S. Vice President Joe Biden – Petro Poroshenko set a new course for Ukraine, one that was unabashedly European.
But he also had a warning for anyone who threatened his country: “Any aggressor at the border of Ukraine must recall the evangelical wisdom: He who comes with the sword will fall from the sword.”
In an address to Parliament that lasted nearly 30 minutes, Poroshenko, 48, frequently returned to the theme of peace, security and independence for Ukraine, and vowed to preserve the territorial integrity of the country. That integrity has come under threat in the last two months by what amounts to a rebellion in the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, one that’s led by groups of pro-Russia separatists who have declared “people’s republics” in both areas.
The speech appeared intended both to rally his supporters, with parliamentary elections imminent, and offer an olive branch to opponents.
Poroshenko said he was ready to talk to Ukrainians of all viewpoints, and directed remarks in Russian to the 6 million people living in the eastern Donbass region. He promised recognition of minority rights and the Russian language, and support for previously announced decentralization reform, which was one of the earlier demands of protestors in the East. But there would be a limit, he suggested.
“New powers will be granted to local governments, but Ukraine was, is, and will be a unitary state,” he said.
The new President struck a resolute note in dealing with armed groups in the East. He promised amnesty for anyone who puts down their arms but repeated he would not negotiate with anyone who had blood on their hands – people he described as “gangsters and killers.” He accused former President Viktor Yanukovych – who fled Kiev in February – of financing terrorism in the East, which had been brought to the brink of disaster. Russians who had crossed the border with weapons would be granted safe passage home.
The message to Russia and to President Vladimir Putin, whom Poroshenko met on the sidelines of the D-Day commemorations in France on Friday, was twofold. Ukraine could never be reconciled to the annexation of Crimea “which is and always will be part of Ukraine,” he said, drawing a standing ovation from parliamentarians. But at the same time, he acknowledged that “citizens of Ukraine will never enjoy the beauty of peace unless we settle down our relations with Russia.”
Poroshenko had said Friday that he hoped negotiations would begin with Russia as early as Sunday to defuse the confrontation in the East. Putin responded that the Ukrainian government should really be talking with its own people.
How those relations can be settled while Ukraine steams ahead toward integration with Europe will be Poroshenko’s greatest challenge. But of his ultimate vision for the country, he left no doubt. The association agreement and visa-free travel for Ukrainians to the EU were but the first steps “towards fully-fledged membership of Ukraine in the European Union.” Again, there was prolonged applause from his audience.
Whether the European Union is prepared for the cost and political risk involved in accepting Ukraine as its 28th member is very much open to doubt. But as an entrepreneur – a billionaire who has made his fortune in the candy business – Poroshenko made clear that he believed only massive investment and a sustained war against corruption could create a “modern, high-tech and defensible” Ukraine – a plan that could only be accelerated by looking to Europe.
He also promised a special program of investment aimed at eastern Ukraine, which suffers from high unemployment, a declining coal industry and decrepit manufacturing plants. But the immediate response from the self-declared leaders of the eastern regions was dismissive. A spokesman for Vasily Nikitin, Prime Minister of the Luhansk People’s Republic, told CNN that there would only be negotiations with Poroshenko’s government when the Ukrainian military left the region, a demand already expressed by his counterpart in Donetsk, Alexander Borodai.
Poroshenko later went to St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev to receive a multi-confessional blessing. At a military ceremony outside the cathedral, he seemed briefly overcome by the occasion – and perhaps the weight of office – with tears in his eyes.