A closely contested vote of no confidence failed to oust Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk from his post yesterday, the latest in a series of high-stakes gyrations that have brought Ukraine’s governing coalition within a hair of collapse.
Though the governing coalition has always been a fraught enterprise, making uneasy allies of Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front and President Petro Poroshenko’s bloc, the precipitating factor in this latest crisis was not internal tensions. Rather it was the resignation of the technocrat reformist economy minister Aivaras Abromavicius two weeks ago. As he left his post, he made a point of pointing his finger directly at Porosehnko’s longtime friend, associate, and notorious parliamentarian “fixer” Ihor Kononenko for attempting to have his cronies placed in key positions at various state-owned enterprises (as well as within the economic ministry itself).
Then, a week ago, International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde threatened that Ukraine could lose the remaining $11 billion tranche of a $17.5 billion bailout if Kyiv did not do more to fight endemic corruption.
Finally, on Sunday, the final blow came: Ukraine’s deputy prosecutor-general, Vitaly Kasko, stepped down from his post, accusing his boss, Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin, of blocking investigations into various allegations of corruption. Shokin, widely reviled by reformist activists, is accused of protecting a select group of Yanukovych-era elites who managed to retain favor with President Poroshenko. Poroshenko, for his part, has squandered a great deal of goodwill and political capital to shelter Shokin since calls for his resignation began to build last summer.
Though both of the scandals seemed to point Poroshenko’s way, it is Yatsenyuk who enjoys the much lower approval ratings of the two men—less than one percent by some counts. Yatsenyuk is in fact the most unpopular politician in the country by most measures. But Yatsenyuk could not be removed without his entire party leaving the coalition, thus automatically triggering new elections. Western diplomats, and the United States in particular, have been stridently pleading with the governing coalition to stick together for the country’s sake. Coalition unity was, after all, the main thrust of Vice President Joe Biden’s speech to the Rada in early December. The results of any new elections are highly unpredictable, and could easily bring an even less reform-minded government to power.
Thus, to square the circle, it appears that Poroshenko engineered what amounted to a theatrical spectacle—a feigned political near-death experience for the unpopular PM that would quiet some of the harsh criticism that the government was not doing enough.
It may have all been a staged set piece, but it was a highly compelling spectacle to watch nevertheless. At 3pm yesterday, an hour before the parliament was set to convene, Poroshenko issued a dramatic statement calling on both Shokin and Yatsenyuk to step down. Then, just ahead of what was to be a non-binding vote disapproving of the government’s performance, Yatsenyuk took the podium and delivered a fiery and unrepentant speech. When asked by the Speaker of the Parliament Volodomyr Hroytsman to wind up his monologue, he balefully asked for “5 more minutes—this could be my last speech!” (Hroytsman’s leering response—“Why so pessimistic?”—in retrospect appears quite telling.)
Before the disapproval vote easily passed with 247 votes (226 were the minimum required), reformists circulated a petition to proceed with a vote of no confidence against Yatsenyuk. All of Poroshenko’s bloc—136 parliamentarians—are said to have signed the petition. But when it came to the actual vote, at 8pm in the evening, only 94 of Poroshenko’s people voted against Yatsenyuk, netting only a total of 194 votes. The despised Yatsenyuk survived yet again. With the vote concluded, Hroytsman hastily gaveled the assembly to a close, foreclosing any further debate.
A mass of people who had gathered outside the Rada to chant anti-government slogans were stunned. The bloc of young reformer parliamentarians, who have gravitated to the banner of former Georgian President and current Governor of Odessa Mikheil Saakashvilli in recent weeks, and who were pushing hard for the no confidence vote, also appeared blindsided. In a show of growing dissatisfaction within Poroshenko’s own faction, reformist MP Mustafa Nayem didn’t mince words:
The failure of the vote on the resignation of the government was the result of an agreement between oligarchs on one side – Renat Akhmetov, Ihor Kolomoisky and Sergei Levochkin and on the other side Arseny Yatsenyuk and Petro Poroshenko.
On balance, then, Porosehenko appears to have sacrificed his reviled prosecutor general, but only symbolically heeded the popular calls for a ‘reset’ of the government. (In line with the Byzantine world of Ukrainian politics, of course, rumors have been circulating throughout the day that Shokin may not have actually been shown the door. Paranoid distrust of Poroshenko on this matter, coupled with a bizarre statement by Shokin’s own deputy stating that his boss was on sick leave, and the lack of any announcement from the President’s office as to the official acceptance of Shokin’s resignation, has left many reformers wondering whether they have been denied even this victory. The American embassy in Kyiv warmly welcomed the news of the resignation, so at this point it would be difficult to imagine to have Poroshenko backtrack on the matter.)
According to parliamentary procedures, another no confidence vote against Yatsenyuk cannot be held for another six months. This does not mean that the maneuvering for advantage is over, however—not by a long shot. Earlier in the day, Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party, joined by a pair of Poroshenko’s own MPs, quit the ruling coalition, calling the entire episode a ruse to keep the status quo in place. Poroshenko’s coalition is thus now entirely dependent on the Western-oriented Samopomisch for its governing majority. Samopomisch party leaders are slated to meet tomorrow to figure out their next steps. Yatsenyuk for his part said that he is exploring deals with various other forces, in pursuit of what he called a “reformatting” of the coalition.
Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk are still standing—just barely—as the country as a whole teeters on a precipice. Ukraine’s economy shrank by 10 percent last year, and the Hryvna has lost 11 percent of its value since just the start of this year. With more crises surely ahead, there’s little hope of economic reprieve in the near or medium term. Somewhere in the Kremlin, President Vladimir Putin is surely rubbing his hands with glee.