KYIV, UKRAINE —
In his first address as Ukraine's new president, Petro Poroshenko declared that Crimea "is, was and will be Ukrainian."
The billionaire businessman took the oath of office in Kyiv Saturday, in front of parliament, world leaders and dignitaries including U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.
Poroshenko — Ukraine's fifth president since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union — said in his inaugural address that he will not accept Russia's annexation of Crimea. Moscow sent troops to the Black Sea peninsula earlier this year and took control of it in March.
The new Ukrainian leader also pledged to open a dialogue with countrymen in eastern regions where pro-Russian separatists have clashed with Ukrainian forces.
He offered amnesty to fighters who lay down their arms and offered to negotiate an end to the violence.
- Born in 1965 in Bohlrad, near the southwestern city of Odessa
- Known as the 'Chocolate King' for his ownership of the Roshen confectionery business
- One of Ukraine's richest men, worth at least $1.3 billion
- Served in parliament and as foreign minister and economic and development minister
- Worked with both pro-Russian and pro-European political factions
- Was a key figure in the 2004 Orange Revolution
- Was first Ukrainian billionaire to support anti-government protests in 2013
- Won 55% of the vote in 2014 presidential elections
"I want peace and I will bring unity to Ukraine," Poroshenko said. "That's why I'm starting my work with a peace plan."
Poroshenko addressed eastern Ukrainians directly in a section of his speech in Russian. He promised a decentralization of power, respect for local communities as well as new regional elections.
Poroshenko has already held brief talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin about a possible cease-fire. They spoke Friday in France, during ceremonies commemorating the World War II battle of D-Day 70 years ago.
Many Ukrainians blame Russia for fueling violence in the east, where Russian fighters have been seen among rebels battling Ukrainian government troops. Moscow has repeatedly denied it is directing the rebels or has supplied their modern military equipment.
Meanwhile, Putin reportedly ordered the Federal Security Service to beef up protection of Russia's border with Ukraine. On Saturday, Russian news agencies said the move aims to prevent illegal crossings into Ukraine.
U.S. shows support
Biden attended the morning inauguration ceremony with the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, and several other officials and lawmakers. Later in the day, he announced the U.S. is offering Ukraine an additional $48 million to help Kiyv enact reforms, build law enforcement capacity, and strengthen national unity. The U.S. also pledged $8 million to Moldova and $5 million to Moldova. The extra aid must be approved by Congress.
The White House said Saturday that such activities complement long-term U.S. assistance programs designed to support reforms and build institutional capacity across a range of sectors.
After the ceremony, Biden passed up a motorcade to stroll a couple of blocks to a presidential reception at St. Sophia cathedral. He set off with U.S. Sen. John McCain, soon joined by the rest of the delegation.
As they walked, crowds lined the way. Some people applauded and yelled "thank you" and "USA."
At St. Sophia, Poroshenko stood on a red carpet, flanked by Ukrainian flags. He and Biden spoke quietly for a couple minutes before posing for photos. McCain came next, greeting Poroshenko with a hug.
Sens. Chris Murphy and Ron Johnson and Rep. Marcy Kaptur greeted Poroshenko together. "It’s wonderful to stand with you," Murphy told the new president.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was visiting his ancestral home in Saint Briac-Sur-Mer, France, where he expressed the hope that, "in the next few days, we can see some steps taken that will reduce the tensions."
Kerry said such measures offered "the possibility of a cease-fire, the possibility of Russia helping to be able to get the separatists to begin to put their guns away, get out of buildings and begin to build Ukraine."
Poroshenko under microscope
Poroshenko's supporters and critics are watching to see how he will engage with Putin and others.
Taras, a Kyiv resident standing outside St. Sophia's Cathedral with his wife and infant son, said he thinks dialogue is the way forward.
Poroshenko “has to negotiate with Putin,” he said, “because only by negotiations can we find a solution." The new president, Taras said, "should demolish the terrorists and restore order in the country.”
In restive eastern Ukraine, Denis Pushilyn, head of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic’s Supreme Council, dismissed the prospect of peace talks without concessions by the central government.
"After they withdraw military forces from our territory, after we exchange hostages and prisoners of war from both sides... then maybe a dialogue with Poroshenko will be possible," the Associated Press reported Pushilyn as saying shortly after the inauguration speech.
Pushilyn said the new president was unwelcome in eastern Ukraine, adding, “We did not elect him.”
Poroshenko was elected by a wide margin in May, rising to power on a wave of nationalism that followed the ousting of his Russian-backed predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, during protests in February.
A business perspective
The 48-year-old first came to prominence in Ukraine as a businessman, earning billions from his chain of Roshen candy stores.
Archbishop Stephan of Ukraine's Orthodox Church said he wonders if Poroshenko's money will get in the way of his ability to lead the people.
If Poroshenko “can be replanted into a position where he takes care of other people instead of his business, will he succeed?" the archbishop asked, adding, "I don't know. But we will pray that he will.”
Ukraine has long been divided between the pro-Russian east and the Europe-leaning west.
Poroshenko already has promised greater economic and diplomatic ties with Europe, a move that could anger Moscow and complicate his efforts to unite the country.
VO White House reporter Luis Ramirez contributed to this report. Some information was provided by Reuters, the Associated Press and AFP.