In a development that dismayed many reformists, last week’s local elections in Ukraine saw oligarch-backed candidates win the mayorships of most of Ukraine’s major cities, beating out the candidates allied with President Petro Poroshenko’s reformist bloc. The turnout was not as high as reformists would have liked, and anecdotal evidence seemed to suggest that voters were frustrated by a perceived lack of progress on various promised reform packages, and were worn down by the stalled conflict in the country’s east.
The country’s prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, is personally bearing a lot of the blame for unsatisfactory progress on the reforms. His approval rating is below 2 percent, and, as a result, his party chose not to even contest any of the seats in last week’s elections. Now, feeling the heat from within his own party and beset by allegations of corruption himself, he has chosen to reshuffle his cabinet, sacking the energy, healthcare, and education ministers, and appointing a new deputy prime minister for European integration.
Politico ran a good interview with Yatsenyuk which is worth reading in full. A taste:
Like his predecessors, Yatsenyuk is now forced to enter his office through a hidden entrance to avoid a protest camp out front, his approval rating stuttering at a miserable two percent.
“When I was sworn in to the office of prime minister I knew this was a kamikaze mission, I had to clean the house,” he said.
“I had to pass three austerity packages, to impose market pricing in the energy sector, to impose new taxes, to entirely modernize Ukrainian social security system. I was obliged to do the most unpopular things in the history of this country.”
Another interesting political dynamic, which faithful TAI readers will remember was emerging earlier this summer, relates to Poroshenko’s appointment of former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili as governor of Odessa—a move seen by many as giving the rockstar reformer a proving ground before he takes on Yatsenyuk himself for the prime ministership. Yatsenyuk sounds rattled:
The former Georgian president has accused Yatsenyuk of pandering to the interests of oligarchs, particularly those of energy and aviation tycoon Ihor Kolomoisky. The prime minister’s response was to lash out at Saakashvili.
“This is the showcase of Misha,” an exasperated Yatsenyuk said in the interview, using the diminutive form of the Georgian’s first name and referencing charges brought against the former president in his home country.
“If Misha was so successful in Georgia, tell me why he can’t go back there. What’s up with the reforms of the judicial system in Georgia?”
While many Ukrainians regard Ukraine’s billionaire businessmen as criminals, Yatsenyuk says his dealings with oligarchs are necessary to get key business leaders on board with Ukraine’s reforms.
“I’ve met with all of the oligarchs — hundreds of thousands of people work at their companies — they have a number of assets in energy and industry. I have to explain to them — look guys, rules have changed, now you have to play by the rules.”
Getting the kind of thoroughgoing reform that Ukraine needs would be a challenge in any democratic polity. Though there is consensus on some best practices, the problem is so large and thorny that legitimate disagreement about methods is bound to arise, and, in a democracy, that often leads to some political instability. And given the other burdens facing Ukraine, political instability is not exactly a welcome development.