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Half-empty chamber greets Ukraine's new president

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Feb. 25, 2010, 5:17 p.m. |

Ukraine's President Victor Yanukovych holds his hand on the bible as he takes an oath in the parliament in Kyiv.
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New Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych vowedFeb. 25to create "a European state outside of any bloc," but the crippling lack of concensus in his government was clear in the half-empty hall during his inaugural address. His short, unemotional speech showed a determination to save the economy and preserve ties with the West forged by the outgoing leadership. But his more specific pledges have suggested a turn back toward Russia in energy policy and military cooperation, policies that threaten to further polarize the nation.

Yanukovych took the oath of office in the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, receiving a ceremonial scepter that he raised in triumph over the deputies in attendance.

But members of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko's party snubbed the event. Their empty half of the chamber emphasized the kinds of divisions that have paralyzed Ukraine's government in recent years and continue to do so.

Since his victory in a Feb. 7 runoff vote, Yanukovych's Party of Regions has struggled to form a new coalition that could pass urgent reforms and oust Tymoshenko, his political nemesis.

This has proven a losing fight so far. Having defeated her by only 3.5 percentage points in the presidential contest, Yanukovych enters office with a shaky mandate. He also inherits an economy crippled by the global financial crisis and a nation whose political loyalties are deeply divided.

He has broad support in the Russian-speaking east of the country, but in the Ukrainian-speaking west, he lost in virtually every region to Tymoshenko.

But the new president, once considered a Kremlin lackey, promised to carve a unique geopolitical path for Ukraine and pull its economy back from the brink.

"I think that the state can not only be saved from a social-economic collapse, but can quickly be put on the path of accelerated development," Yanukovych said in his inaugural address.

Where his predecessor had railed against Russian bullying in the region, Yanukovych pledged a more balanced approach.

"People don't like it when you show them a fist. They have more trust in those who extend them a hand," he said, appearing anxious to hold his composure.

Neither Tymoshenko nor outgoing President Viktor Yushchenko showed up for the inauguration. Both of them came to power on the back of mass street protests against Yanukovych in late 2004.

Dubbed the Orange Revolution, those protests succeeded in getting the Supreme Court to overturn Yanukovych's rigged election victory and order a revote, which Yushchenko, a fierce Kremlin critic, won by a narrow margin.

But Yanukovych has since made a comeback, capitalizing on the Orange leadership's failure to deliver on promises of economic growth and European integration. Yushchenko, who has called Yanukovych's victory a "Kremlin project," did not make it past the first round of voting in January.

Tymoshenko alleges vote fraud, but she has dropped her court case on the issue, claiming the court is controlled by Yanukovych's supporters.

International observers called the 2010 vote free and fair.

Where his predecessor had offended Russia by seeking NATO membership, Yanukovych has scrapped the idea of joining the EU or NATO. He has instead pledged to focus on the country's endemic corruption and economic woes, issues that Yushchenko was accused of ignoring as he single-mindedly sought ties with the West.

Yanukovych, a native Russian-speaker, is expected to bring Ukraine closer to Moscow. He has said he will welcome Russia into a consortium that would jointly operate Ukraine's natural gas pipeline network, restoring influence that the Orange leaders had worked to revoke.

He has also said he would extend Russia's lease on a naval base in the Ukrainian port city of Sevastopol that is due to expire in 2017. Russia's Black Sea fleet stirs emotions in Ukraine, and Yushchenko had fought to kick it out, calling the fleet a hostile presence on Ukrainian soil.

Yanukovych's first visit will be to Brussels next week, and immediately after he will travel to Moscow on March 5, his advisers said Thursday.

Analysts pointed to the need for Yanukovych to strike a balance between East and West and unite the country.

"These statements (about the Black Sea fleet) are capable of very strongly pitting at least half the country against Yanukovych," said Viktor Nebozhenko, a sociologist at the Ukrainian Barometer, a think tank in Kiev.

"Yanukovych will need to change if he wants to become president of more than just the east and south of the country," said Vadim Karasyov, head of Ukraine's Global Strategies Institute.
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