Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

Yushchenko accepts a new poison chalice

The Scotsman - 24 January 2004

Amid pageantry, formal ceremony and a final gathering of orange-clad supporters, Viktor Yushchenko was finally installed as Ukraine’s president yesterday, ending two months of political turmoil.

Having achieved victory, the liberal reformer now faces the even tougher challenge of uniting a country divided by the election and rebuilding bridges with Russia, whose leaders had backed his rival, Viktor Yanukovich.

He is also faced with the thorny decision of whether to prosecute government officials blamed for election falsification, corruption and the alleged poisoning attack that has left his face pockmarked.

Such a move, while demanded by his supporters, would do little to ease tensions in a country dangerously split along geographical lines between the Europe-friendly west and the pro-Moscow east.

In a solemn inauguration ceremony in the Kiev parliament yesterday, Mr Yushchenko kissed a Bible and the Ukrainian constitution before receiving two badges of office: a golden chain and a golden mace.

Among the guests were Colin Powell, the outgoing US Secretary of State, seven presidents of former communist states and relatively minor dignitaries from Moscow.

Mr Powell told Mr Yushchenko: "I want to assure you that you will continue to enjoy the full support of the American government and the American people."

There were scenes of delight in Kiev’s Independence Square, the site of the massive popular protest that helped bring Mr Yushchenko to power, when he arrived to address the crowds.

"This is a victory of freedom over tyranny," he said. "The victory of law over lawlessness."

Standing beside his wife and five children, he said his top priority was closer relations with western Europe.

"Our way to the future is the way of a united Europe. We, along with the people of Europe, belong to one civilisation. We share similar values."

The diplomatic wounds in the wider world may take time to heal: Russia was furious at seeing Mr Yushchenko win.

In an attempt to ease tensions, the new president is set to fly to Moscow today, his first foreign visit as head of state, to meet his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

Mr Yanukovich needs to reassure Russia that Ukraine’s turn towards the West will not see ties with Moscow severed.

But the meeting is likely to be strained. Mr Putin had agreed with the previous president, Leonid Kuchma, to incorporate Ukraine in a Moscow-centred free-trade area, a plan that looks to have been dashed as Mr Yushchenko bids for European Union membership.

Mr Yushchenko hopes to forge new links with the West later this week when he is set to travel to several European capitals and meet EU and Council of Europe officials.

The European Parliament, which he is due to address on Thursday, is expected to call for an association agreement between the EU and Ukraine and for talks to begin on eventual EU membership.

"The European Union is under pressure to help. They have to deliver," said Charles Tannock, vice-president of the European Parliament’s human rights commission.

Mr Yushchenko inherits a country where change is long overdue. Since becoming independent with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine has languished in the economic doldrums as one of Europe’s poorest nations.

Where once it was nicknamed the "breadbasket" of eastern Europe, agriculture has now withered through lack of investment.

Mr Yushchenko will also need to mould a stable government from a fractious parliament, finding a prime minister with enough clout to punch through long-overdue reforms.

Yesterday’s ceremony marked the end of two tumultuous months that began when international monitors declared the results of the original president poll, on 21 November, invalid.

At first Ukraine’s government ignored protests, insisting its candidate, Mr Yanukovich, was the rightful winner.

But after three weeks of protests the authorities gave way, agreeing to fresh elections on 26 December, which Mr Yushchenko won.

The protesters were back on the streets last night, many in reflective mood.

Anna Voznitsa, 24, a hotel administrator, said the "orange revolution" had put her country on the map. "Many people thought we were a part of Russia before," she said. "Now they understand what Ukraine means."

But she said realism would quickly take the place of euphoria. "We won the victory but it is not the end," she said. "We know what is the programme of Mr Yushchenko. Now the important thing is to prove his words."