On March 21 Ukraine’s parliament approved President Viktor Yushchenko’s choice for foreign minister, Arseny Yatsenyuk, 32. The appointment ends a standoff of nearly four months between Yushchenko and the Cabinet of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. The new minister has no experience with diplomatic work, but, despite his young age, he is an experienced government bureaucrat. His pragmatism and neutrality should help the presidential office and the Cabinet to overcome antagonisms, at least as far as foreign policy is concerned.
The parliament, dominated by Yanukovych allies, dismissed Yatsenyuk’s predecessor, the pro-Western Borys Tarasyuk, on December 1. The constitutional amendments of December 2004 had made it possible for parliament to dismiss Cabinet ministers, which had been the president’s remit under Yushchenko’s predecessor, Leonid Kuchma. Yushchenko did not recognize Tarasyuk’s dismissal, insisting that parliament’s right to dismiss ministers could not be applied to the two ministers whom, according to the constitution, it is up to the president to appoint, namely the foreign minister and the defense minister. Yushchenko ultimately backed down at the end of January, signing Tarasyuk’s resignation letter.
Parliament twice rejected Yushchenko’s effort to nominate Tarasyuk’s deputy, Volodymyr Ohryzko, on February 22 and March 20. The ruling coalition made it clear that Ohryzko was unpalatable for them because of what they perceived as his radically pro-NATO and anti-Russian convictions. They also accused him of bad manners and inhospitality in relation to one delegation of Russian policymakers that visited Ukraine last year. Ohryzko reportedly refused to speak Russian with the delegation, saying that it was his right to speak Ukrainian in his homeland.
Formally, nothing could prevent Yushchenko from offering Ohryzko to parliament for a third time, but he chose not to exacerbate relations with the ruling coalition. Late on March 20, he asked parliament to approve the first deputy head of his secretariat, Arseny Yatsenyuk, as foreign minister.
This was an unexpected move. Only career diplomats have so far served as foreign ministers in Ukraine, whereas Yatsenyuk is a trained economist and a former banker. Yanukovych’s Party of Regions had wanted Yushchenko to pick another deputy head of his secretariat, Oleksandr Chaly, who is a former deputy foreign minister. The influential weekly Zerkalo nedeli had predicted that Yushchenko would nominate Petro Poroshenko, a businessman who served as the secretary of the Security and Defense Council in 2005.
Despite the surprise candidate, parliament not only approved Yatsenyuk, but displayed an astonishingly high degree of support for this choice of Yushchenko – 426 votes “in favor” in the 450-seat chamber. Yatsenyuk is widely perceived as a politically neutral technocrat, whose work should not exacerbate the continuing confrontation between Yushchenko and Yanukovych. The ruling coalition does not perceive Yatsenyuk as Yushchenko’s man. “He is a flexible political figure, not associated with any political camp,” Kyiv analyst Volodymyr Fesenko told Interfax. “This should compensate for the lack of diplomatic education and the absence of a diplomatic career.”
Presenting his platform to parliament before his approval as new foreign minister, Yatsenyuk pledged that European integration would remain the main goal of Ukraine’s foreign policy. However, he made it clear that he would not insist on the fastest possible accession to the European Union, unlike Tarasyuk, whose Euro-optimism was viewed by the ruling coalition as excessive. Yatsenyuk’s statement that “Europe is not a goal by itself, but European values are” sounded very much like the statements on the issue that Yanukovych had made on his Western trips.
Yatsenyuk said that the EU will be Ukraine’s priority partner, while close ties will be developed with Russia, which Yatsenyuk singled out as one of the priority markets. He also promised that dialog with the United States will be deepened. Pragmatism was the keyword in Yatsenyuk’s five-minute acceptance speech. He pledged that Ukraine’s foreign policy will be guided primarily by economic considerations during his tenure.
Yatsenyuk has degrees in law and economics. In 1998-2001, he climbed the career ladder from a consultant to deputy chairman at one of Ukraine’s biggest private banks, Aval. In 2001, he was picked to serve as economics minister in the government of the Crimean Autonomous Republic. In 2002, he became first deputy to National Bank of Ukraine (NBU) Chairman Serhy Tyhypko. In 2004, when Tyhypko headed Yanukovych’s presidential election headquarters, Yatsenyuk managed the NBU in his absence.
Yatsenyuk resigned from the NBU in 2005, after the Orange Revolution, and went to Odessa to serve as deputy regional governor. In September 2005, the Orange Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov appointed Yatsenyuk as economics minister. In September 2006, Yushchenko picked Yatsenyuk for the post of first deputy head of the presidential secretariat. Liaison with parliament and supervising the Security Service were among Yatsenyuk’s tasks in Yushchenko’s team before his appointment as foreign minister.
(Channel 5, March 20, 21; Interfax-Ukraine, March 21; Zerkalo nedeli, March 24)