Billionaire Petro Poroshenko was sworn in as beleaguered Ukraine’s fifth president Saturday, a chocolate tycoon who carries the hopes of citizens such as student Maria Chebanova on his shoulders.
Ms. Chebanova, 18, was walking Kiev’s Maidan Independence square Saturday, a modest walk from the Parliamentary chamber where Mr. Poroshenko was inaugurated in a ceremony attended by foreign dignitaries including Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.
Mr. Harper, the only Group of Seven leader to journey to Kiev for the swearing-in, released a statement calling the event inspiring and noting the big challenges facing Ukraine, which has been beset by corruption for decades.
Mr. Poroshenko, who was elected May 25, represents a new chapter for Ukraine, which is struggling to find a stable economic footing and coping with Russian efforts to destabilize its neighbour.
“My whole family voted for him,” Ms. Chebanova says of Mr. Poroshenko.
“My hopes are high and so he has to live up to them,” said Ms. Chebanova, who attends Taras Shevchenko National University of Kiev and stood on the Maidan during the popular uprising this past winter that led to the ouster of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych.
There are still thousands of protestors living in makeshift barracks in Maidan Square, which looks like a rag-tag village of army tents. Barricades made of tires, wood, wire, as well as posters and flags and shrines to killed protestors still dominate the square.
At one point a bride dressed in white posed on the tire barricades for photos.
“I love it this way,” Ms. Chebanova says of the cluttered Maidan. It used to be merely an open space surrounded by sterile government buildings, she says.
“It shows our spirit. It never showed our spirit before. It didn’t feel Ukrainian before. Now it does.”
Top of Ms. Chebanova’s list is the economy, beset by unemployment and rising energy prices, not dealing with Russia which annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in March.
“He is an entrepreneur and our economy is so low, it seems it’s never been lower,” says the student.
She doesn’t consider recovering Crimea a priority and believes there is no world power than can make Russian President Vladimir Putin back down.
“To be honest I don’t believe in turning Crimea back” to Ukraine control, the student said.
“In Crimea they are not Ukrainians,” she said, noting the high proportion of ethnic Russians in the peninsula.
Ms. Chebanova said however she does not want Ukraine to lose more territory.
“I believe he’s going to be very delicate” with Russia rather than “burning any bridges” with Moscow.”
Vera Ivanova, 53, was also touring Maidan square Saturday, said she’s not Russian despite her surname, which she got from her husband.
She said she loves Russia but doesn’t consider Moscow’s current leadership representative of Ukraine’s neighbour. “Putin is not Russia.”
Ms. Ivanova said willing to give Mr. Poroshenko a chance. “It was a good election.” She recalls him visiting the Maidan during the winter protests. “It is what we hoped for and we have to give him a chance.”
In a speech to Parliament Saturday, Mr. Poroshenko sent a message to support to eastern Ukraine where pro-Russian separatists are clashing violently with Kiev’s military. The West blames Moscow is behind this uprising.
He said he would not abandon eastern Ukraine to insurgents but would allow decentralization of a power in regions and guarantee ethnic Russians language rights. Mr. Poroshenko spoke of unity, saying he would not “divide Ukrainians into the right and wrong ones.”
Mr. Poroshenko said his democratic election and taking of power undermines accusations, levelled by Russia, that after Mr. Yanukovych’s ouster the Kiev government was somehow illegitimate.
And, he said firmly, he would not cede any territory to Russia.
“Ukraine’s territory integrity is not for discussion.”