Castling Ukraine’s Reformers

While the former prime minister of Ukraine has lost his office, his resignation was a well-played move

Only a few hours after Arseniy Yatsenyuk resigned from his position as prime minister of Ukraine on April 14th, he appeared — in visibly high spirits — at the annual Kyiv Security Forum. “We have introduced a new political culture in Ukraine,“ he declared, “which we have never had before.” What the post-Maidan prime minister meant is the peaceful and legitimate transition of the government — apparently a sign of good health for the Ukrainian democracy. But is it?

Former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenuk holding the opening speech at the 9th Kyiv Security Forum 2016, April 14th

While Ukraine may not suffer from Russian-style authoritarianism, and its power is not as centralized as in Moscow, it already became obvious back in February that this parliament was as rotten to the core as the previous one, formed during the time of Viktor Yanukovych. The factions of Samopomich and Batkivshyna left the coalition after a majority of members of the parliament voted in favor of recognizing the government’s work as insufficient, yet failed the vote on Yatsenyuk’s resignation. Suddenly, deputies left the Rada, just as the vote was about to start — a clear sign of backroom logrolling, seen all too often in Ukrainian politics.

Two months later, Western leaders showed appreciation for Yatsenyuk’s efforts after he finally handed in his resignation. To his credit, under his leadership, Ukraine’s government marginalized the influence of the oligarchs in the energy sector, while also diversifying gas imports and finally escaping the country’s dependance on Russia. Important transparency reforms also took place on the initiative of the Ministry of Economics, and a National Anti-Corruption Bureau was established — although often enough sabotaged by the General Prosecutor’s Office. Abiding by the International Monetary Fund’s conditions for providing further financial aid to the country, Yatsenyuk even dared to increase gas price tariffs by 450 percent, a bold move that essentially boiled down to political suicide. Not to mention Ukraine’s probably most famous and popular police reform: bringing new young faces to guard the order on the country’s streets.

Eventually though his resignation, presented as a noble gesture, turned out to be a deliberate plan forged in best political tradition. As popular dissatisfaction with Ukraine’s former government continued to grow, the coalition began to crumble while other Western-oriented parties criticized the prime minister in an attempt to save their own approval ratings. Presenting himself as a figure ready to take over all of the responsibility for a country that was in a crisis as deep as the history of its corruption is long, Yatsenyuk refused to step down for two months, forcing the president to the bargaining table — knowing that, in case the parliament would be dissolved, both their parties would lose a majority of the seats or, worse, not even re-enter the Rada — just as the latest polls suggest with regard to Yatsenyuk’s party. Poroshenko therefore had to give in, also due to other factions’ understandable distrust towards his political force after what happened in February.

Presenting Poroshenko with an opportunity to have his preferred candidate fill the post of prime minister in return for his own political survival, Yatsenyuk’s resignation not only secured his party’s weight in parliament, but also succeeded in transferring most of the political responsibility to Poroshenko just at the right moment. Plus, Yatsenuk secured the position of the head of the parliament for his ally Andrii Parubiy. The recent political turmoil also became a challenge for the president, who was suffering from accusations due to corruption scandals at the Office of the General Prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who has resigned, and the open sabotage of the reforms by the latter, who is also still considered to be Poroshenko’s protegé. Meanwhile, a new general prosecutor still was not to be seen right up to a week ago. Last week, Poroshenko and his allies in the parliament negotiated with a coalition of the willing/ oligarch groups to push through a legislation allowing Yuri Lutsenko to become the next general prosecutor without the necessary legal education.

Interestingly enough, the same newly introduced legislation, while it abandoned the requirement mentioned above, added another one instead — 5 years of obligatory parliamentary experience, thus excluding every new member of the parliament after the elections in Fall 2014.

Whether Ukraine’s new head of government is about to deliver an actual reformist agenda is something that still remains to be seen. So far, Yatsenyuk is still in, waiting for his moment to return.

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