Ukraine is defiant

2014-06-08 15:00

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Ukraine’s new president, Petro ­Poroshenko, said his country would never give up Crimea and would not compromise on its course towards closer ties with Europe, spelling out a combative and defiant message to Russia in his inaugural speech yesterday.

The 48-year-old billionaire took the oath of ­office before Parliament, buoyed by Western support but facing an immediate crisis in relations with Russia as a separatist uprising seethes in the east of his country.

Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in March, weeks after street protests ousted Poroshenko’s pro-Moscow predecessor, Viktor Yanukovich, in a move that has provoked the deepest crisis in relations with the West since the Cold War.

“Citizens of Ukraine will never enjoy the beauty of peace unless we settle our relations with Russia. Russia occupied Crimea, which was, is, and will be Ukrainian soil,” Poroshenko said in a speech that drew a standing ovation.

He had told this to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin when the two met on Friday at a World War 2 anniversary ceremony in France, he said.

Poroshenko, who earned his fortune as a confectionery entrepreneur and is known locally as the Chocolate King, said he intended very soon to sign the economic part of an association agreement with the European Union, as a first step ­towards full membership.

This idea is anathema to Moscow, which wants to keep Ukraine in its own post-Soviet sphere of influence.

His voice swelling with emotion, Poroshenko stressed the need for a united Ukraine and the importance of ending the conflict that threatens to further split the country of 45?million people. He said it would not become a looser federalised state, as advocated by Russia.

“There can be no trade-off about Crimea and about the European choice and about the governmental system. All other things can be negotiated and discussed at the negotiation table. Any ­attempts at internal or external enslavement of Ukraine will be met with resolute resistance.”

Poroshenko, Ukraine’s fifth president since ­independence, won a landslide election on May 25 after promising to bridge the East-West divide that has split the country and thrust it into a battle for its survival.

More than 100 people were shot dead by police in Kiev in the street protests that eventually brought Yanukovich down. In the east, scores of people, including separatist fighters and government forces have been killed in fighting since April.

The uprising in the east is not the only challenge facing Poroshenko, who inherits a country on the verge of bankruptcy, still dependent on Russia for natural gas and rated by watchdogs as one of the most corrupt and ill-governed states in Europe.

Since Poroshenko’s election, government forces have stepped up their operations against the separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine who want to split with Kiev and become part of Russia.

The rebels have fought back, turning parts of the Russian-speaking east into a war zone. On Friday, they shot down a Ukrainian army plane and killed a member of the interior ministry’s special forces in the separatist stronghold of Slaviansk.

Poroshenko vowed to have no truck with “bandits” but urged pro-Moscow separatists to lay down their arms, offering a guarantee of a safe corridor for Russian fighters to go home.

“Please, lay down the guns and I guarantee ­immunity to all those who don’t have bloodshed on their hands.”

But a jarring message from the eastern rebels, who have declared their own “people’s republics”, spelt out the scale of the separatist challenge facing him.

“What they [Kiev’s leaders] really want is one-sided disarmament and for us to surrender. That will never happen in the Donetsk People’s Republic,” a top separatist official, Fyodor Berezin, said by telephone from Donetsk, an industrial hub where rebels have occupied strategic points.

“As long as Ukrainian troops are on our soil, I can see that all Poroshenko wants is subjugation. The fight will continue,” he said.

Government forces shelled rebel positions in Slaviansk yesterday and manned checkpoints on roads into the city.

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