KIEV, Ukraine -- Viktor Yanukovych was sworn in as Ukraine's new president Thursday, vowing to follow a path of neutrality in a switch from the strongly pro-Western stance of the defeated Orange Revolution leaders.
Yanukovych took his oath in a ceremony in parliament attended by a host of international dignitaries but conspicuously boycotted by his election rival, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and her supporters.
"I, Viktor Yanukovych, elected president of Ukraine by the will of the people, swear the oath of loyalty to Ukraine," he said, placing his right hand on a 16th-century Ukrainianlanguage gospel and a copy of the constitution.
"I vow to defend through my actions the sovereignty and independence of Ukraine and the rights and freedoms of its citizens," he said.
Yanukovych is expected to return his country of 46 million bridging Russia and the European Union to a more Moscow-friendly course, a reversal of the policies of his predecessor Viktor Yushchenko.
In an immediate statement of his foreign policy priorities, Yanukovych indicated he would not seek membership in NATO -- a major goal of the Yushchenko presidency -- or Russian-led military alliances.
"The challenges that the international community face mean we have to join together in a larger format. We are ready to participate in this process as a European, non-aligned state," he said.
He described Ukraine as a "bridge between East and West" and said it would have relations as equal partners with the European Union, Russia and the United States.
In a bid to prove he does not want to abandon EU integration, Yanukovych has chosen the European Union's headquarters in Brussels for his first foreign trip on Monday.
One of his leading aides, Anna German, said his visit to Russia would take place on March 5.
International officials attending the inauguration included EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, U.S. national security adviser James Jones and speaker of the Russian parliament Boris Gryzlov.
But rows of empty benches in the parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, signalled the absence of Tymoshenko and her party and showed that Ukraine remains far from much-needed political stability.
Yanukovych has called on Tymoshenko to resign gracefully after her defeat by a margin of some 3.5 per cent in the Feb. 7 presidential elections, but the charismatic prime minister has so far refused to budge, claiming to have sufficient support in parliament.
She has refused to recognize Yanukovych as president and alleged the elections were marred by widespread fraud, even though they were praised by international observers.
Of all Ukraine's past presidents, only the 1994-2005 ruler Leonid Kuchma was present.