Controversial Appointments Made in Ukraine

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 42

Arseniy Yatsenyuk (C), newly named prime minister of Ukraine (Source: AP)

After impeaching the fugitive President Viktor Yanukovych on February 22, the new authorities in Kyiv have proceeded to form a new government. The first appointments show that this will be far from the national-unity government advised by the United States and the European Union. The new cabinet is dominated by two nationalist parties, while oligarchs have been appointed to head several key industrial regions in the east—despite the fact that a major demand of the Maidan protesters was an end to the corrupt oligarchic control of Ukrainian politics. In another controversial move, the parliament proceeded to cancel the language legislation, which was promoted by the previous authorities as a means to help speakers of Russian and minority languages feel more at home in Ukraine.

On February 27, the Ukrainian legislature—which, after dozens of defections, is no longer dominated by Yanukovych’s Party of Regions (PRU)—approved a new cabinet. The new prime minister is Arseniy Yatsenyuk, 39, a former banker, former foreign minister, former parliamentary speaker, and one of the leaders of the moderate nationalist party Fatherland (Batkivshchina). His deputies are police general Vitaly Yarema from Fatherland; the mayor of the central Ukrainian town of Vinnytsya, Volodymyr Hroysman; and Oleksandr Sych, the chief ideologist of the radical Ukrainian nationalist party Freedom (Svoboda) and an anti-abortion activist. Agriculture Minister Ihor Shvayka and Environment Minister Andry Mokhnyk are also from Freedom. Another Freedom representative, Oleh Makhnytsky, was appointed prosecutor-general on February 24 (http://ua.korrespondent.net/ukraine/politics/3310936-novi-oblychchia-vlady-heneralnyi-prokuror-oleh-makhnitskyi).

Fatherland is represented in the cabinet along with Yatsenyuk by Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, a former governor of Kharkiv and one of the few representatives in the government of the densely populated Russian-speaking eastern regions; Justice Minister Pavlo Petrenko; Infrastructure Minister Maksym Burbak; minister without a portfolio Ostap Semerak; and Social Policy Minister Lyudmyla Denysova, who served in this position in Yulia Tymoshenko’s government in 2007–2010. Energy Minister Yury Prodan also served in that cabinet. (http://podrobnosti.ua/power/2014/02/27/961501.html). Andry Paruby—the commander of the Maidan armed protesters who started his political career in Freedom’s predecessor party, the Social Nationalist Party in the 1990s, and is now in Fatherland—became secretary of the National Security and Defense Council (http://www.day.kiev.ua/ru/news/270214-andrey-parubiy-naznachen-sekretarem-snbo).

There are also several technocrats and Maidan representatives among the new ministers. Liberal economist Oleksandr Shlapak, who has served in various positions in the central bank and the government since the 1990s, is the new finance minister. Academic Pavlo Sheremeta is the new economy minister. Andry Deshchytsya, a diplomat, now serves as the minister of foreign affairs. Representatives of the Maidan protest movement received the portfolios of health, culture, education and sports ministers (http://vesti.ua/politika/40044-kabinet-ministrov-polnyj-spisok).

The liberal party Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms (UDAR), headed by the boxing champion Vitaly Klichko, actively participated in the anti-Yanukovych protests along with Fatherland and Freedom, but refused to participate in the cabinet, although it was offered the post of finance minister (http://klichko.org/ua/news/news/udar-pidtrimaye-priznachennya-kabinetu-ministriv). UDAR is more popular in the Russian-speaking southeast of Ukraine than Fatherland, let alone Freedom. Incidentally, the new government does not include representatives from any of the parties more or less popular in Ukraine’s southern and eastern regions. At the same time, Freedom—which is feared in the southeast for its xenophobic rhetoric—is clearly overrepresented.

The same is true also for the appointments of regional governors, who are not popularly elected but appointed from Kyiv. At least six out of Ukraine’s 27 regional governors are linked to Freedom, which is supported by no more than 4–6 percent of Ukrainian voters, according to national opinion polls (http://forbes.ua/nation/1366459-kogo-naznachili-gubernatorami; http://ukraine-elections.com.ua/socopros/parlamentskie_vybory). Yet the most controversial appointments are those of banker Ihor Kolomoysky to head his native region of Dnipropetrovsk, and of steel tycoon Serhy Taruta to head his home region of Donetsk. Conflicts of interest here are particularly likely, and these appointments are a signal that the central authorities are politically vulnerable in the largely Russian-leaning east, especially in the face of the threat of open Russian intervention. The government in Kyiv appointed oligarchs who hold real economic power in their regions and, therefore, should be more effective against local separatists than any politician linked to the anti-Russian nationalists. Kolomoysky openly supported the Maidan revolution, while Taruta has long backed Tymoshenko.

With an estimated worth of $2.1 billion, Kolomoysky is number 828 on Forbes’ 2014 list of the world’s billionaires (http://www.forbes.com/profile/ihor-kolomoyskyy/). His business partner Henady Boholyubov is a bit higher—number 764 with $2.3 billion. The two co-own Privatbank, which has been Ukraine’s largest bank for many years. Kolomoysky has also been active in the oil and gas industry, metallurgy, and transportation. Taruta is no longer on the list of international billionaires after he and his partners sold more than half of their shares in the metallurgy corporation Industrial Union of Donbass to Russia’s VEB in 2010 (http://kontrakty.ua/article/12533). The Ukrainian edition of Forbes estimates that he is worth $600 million (http://forbes.ua/ua/persons/185-taruta-sergej-alekseevich).

Another controversial move of the new authorities was to cancel, on February 23, the language law adopted by the previous government, which, in particular, promoted Russian to a “regional language” in areas of Ukraine with a substantial proportion of Russian speakers. In fact, this was one of the first decisions taken by parliament after Yanukovych’s ouster. Interim president Oleksandr Turchynov said on March 3 that he would not sign the cancellation, but instead would wait for parliament to draft a new law on languages (http://www.interfax.ru/world/362448). Turchynov’s statement came too late, however, as the language law’s cancellation became one of the triggers of the street protests against the new authorities in Ukraine’s southeast, backed by Russia. More dramatically, Moscow used the law’s annulment as one of the justifications for the ongoing military incursion in Russian-speaking Crimea (RT, March 3).

Clearly the new Ukrainian government is making an effort to take a significantly more unambiguous pro-European stance, in comparison to its predecessor. And this is likely to encourage ongoing international support for Ukraine from Europe and the United States. Nonetheless, the controversial make-up of the new cabinet and its swift rollback of the language laws may further exacerbate the southern and eastern regions’ apprehension or outright animosity toward the central government in Kyiv. Moreover, the nomination of oligarchs to head certain eastern regions is likely to infuriate the Maidan protesters, who remain in the streets as self-proclaimed guardians of the revolution. Therefore, it remains an open question whether Ukraine’s new government can hold together or maintain popular legitimacy long enough to survive until the country’s next democratic elections, scheduled for May.