Newly inaugurated President Viktor Yushchenko was headed east on his first official trip as Ukraine's leader for a visit yesterday to Moscow to smooth relations with the Kremlin before pursuing his goal of closer ties with the EU.
Yushchenko, in his first full day in office, faces a delicate balancing act in meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin, who strongly supported the losing candidate, Viktor Yanukovych. The Kremlin has voiced concern about losing sway in Ukraine under Yushchenko. Historically, Russia has seen Ukraine as part of its sphere of influence. Ukraine is home to the Russian navy's southern fleet and a key transit route for Russia's economically vital gas and oil exports.
But Yushchenko on inauguration day on Sunday made no hesitation in showing he wants to shift the balance.
"Our place is in the European Union," he said to a crowd estimated at more than 100,000 people in Independence Square, the downtown Kiev expanse where huge crowds of protesters gathered after Yushchenko lost a Nov. 21 runoff vote widely criticized as fraudulent.
The demonstrations -- which became known as the "Orange Revolution" after Yushchenko's campaign color -- paralyzed the government of former president Leonid Kuchma for weeks and raised fears of spilling into violence.
But the Supreme Court invalidated the election results and ordered a Dec. 26 rerun, which Yushchenko won.
Yushchenko took the oath of office on Sunday in the Verkhovna Rada parliament, placing his hand on a copy of the Constitution and on an antique Bible.
At Independence Square, the throng that had waited for hours in subfreezing temperatures greeted Yushchenko with loud chants of approval.
"My heart is filled with the brightest feelings, my soul is rejoicing," said Nadia Levok, a 42-year-old doctor in the crowd.
"The heart of Ukraine was on Independence Square," Yushchenko told them. "Good people from all over the world, from faraway countries, were looking at Independence Square, at us."
"This is a victory of freedom over tyranny," he said.
After his trip to Moscow, Yushchenko is to embark on several days of visits to Western European countries including an appearance at the European Parliament, to push his drive for closer ties.
To become a viable EU candidate, Ukraine would have to show substantial progress in resolving a wide array of problems; Yushchenko promised to turn the country around after years of corruption, widespread at almost every level of government, and he pledged to safeguard freedom of speech.
"We will create new jobs. Whoever wants to work will have the opportunity to work and get an appropriate salary," he declared to this nation, where many still live in poverty and much of the economy exists in the shadows, adding nothing to government coffers.
"We will fight corruption in Ukraine. Taxes will be enforced, business will be transparent," Yushchenko said. "We will become an honest nation."
In a promise clearly aimed at appeasing the country's large numbers of Russian-speaking people, Yushchenko said: "Everyone can teach his children the language of his forefathers."