What is probably Ukraine’s most successful government since its independence is about to be dismissed by a temporary coalition of communists and oligarchic factions in the parliament (Verkhovna Rada). A no-confidence vote is scheduled for next week. The right-wingers backing the liberal prime minister, Viktor Yushchenko, are too weak to protect him. His only routes to political survival are that President Leonid Kuchma defends him, or that he sacrifice several key posts in his cabinet of ministers.
Yushchenko was appointed in December 1999 to resolve two key issues: the restructuring of Ukraine’s US$2.6 billion debt to foreign private lenders, which Ukraine was unable to repay on time, and the resumption of IMF loans. He took care of the first in March 2000. The IMF, however, failed to resume its financing, despite Kyiv’s impressive economic performance last year. Meanwhile, Yushchenko’s reforms in the energy industry and transparent privatization rules interfered with the interests of the businessmen in politics–oligarchs–who had grown accustomed to preferential treatment on the basis of their connections in the Kuchma administration. They therefore apparently no longer need or want him.
Yushchenko’s safety net has fallen. Ukraine’s constitution disallows any no-confidence motion for one year after a parliamentary-sanctioned government action plan goes into effect. And it was a year ago this month that the Rada approved Yushchenko’s plan. The year having run its course, Yushchenko–in a Rada dominated by his opponents–is doomed. The key oligarchic factions–Labor Ukraine, United Social Democrats, Democratic Union (former Regional Revival), and Regions of Ukraine–number about 130. Together with the Communists (112), who have never wavered in their opposition to Yushchenko’s pro-Western and market-oriented direction, they set up an informal anti-Yushchenko majority numbering over 240. According to the law, 226 votes in the Rada are enough to pass a no-confidence motion.
The first two steps of the process–150 signatures to launch the procedure and a vote of no less than 226 to introduce the motion on the agenda–have already been taken. By April 17, when Yushchenko reported to the Rada on his government’s performance, over 250 signatures had been collected. The communists had launched the collection, and were later joined by the oligarchic factions. On April 17, several minutes before Yushchenko’s report, 252 MPs in the 450-member body voted in favor of introducing the no-confidence motion. The fate of Yushchenko’s government will be decided in the actual vote next week.
In numerous interviews preceding the April 17 report, Yushchenko complained about the pressure the oligarchs were putting on him. In one television interview, in which he was especially outspoken, he claimed that “godfathers are dictating to Ukraine which government it should have” and alleged that he had been blackmailed in the office of a Rada deputy speaker. An influential politician, he said, threatened to fabricate a criminal case against one of Yushchenko’s former subordinates, if Yushchenko did not make personnel concessions. In the same interview, Yushchenko denied rumors about a confrontation with Kuchma, comparing their relationship to “relations between a father and a son.” Kuchma’s opponents claim that it is Kuchma who has orchestrated the current anti-Yushchenko campaign. The president could bring an end to it all by “saying a word” for Yushchenko to the oligarchs, as he reportedly did a year ago, when their Rada vote was decisive in approving Yushchenko’s action plan. Alternatively, Kuchma could also leave Yushchenko dangling by refusing to appoint a replacement, should the Rada vote no confidence in Yushchenko next week. In this situation, Kuchma would appoint Yushchenko as acting premier, thus weakening both Yushchenko and his opponents. Speaking on April 16, Yushchenko said that he would not agree to serve as acting premier.
But neither has he lost hope of negotiating a truce with the oligarchs. In his report to the Rada on April 17, Yushchenko said that his government was ready to compromise. Consultations between the government and the Rada center-right factions on April 17-19 showed that Yushchenko was ready to trade off several government posts against support from several oligarchic factions in the no-confidence motion. Kuchma made it clear that he would support such a trade-off. On April 18, First Deputy Premier Yury Yekhanurov said that the government would consider proposals from the Rada to fill the vacant post of deputy premier and a new post of industry and trade minister. Yushchenko has so far resisted pressure from the oligarchs concerning personnel issues. Without their representatives in his cabinet, he could continue an independent economic policy.
This trade-off may eventually save Yushchenko. Another circumstance in his favor is that it may prove difficult for his opponents to agree on a candidate to replace him. The parliamentary election campaign for the March 2002 elections will get underway in a couple of months, and appointment as premier of a representative of any big party would significantly improve that party’s chances in the campaign. Yushchenko, who is unaffiliated, could be the best compromise figure in the post of premier during the campaign.
On April 19, in a clear majority vote of 283, the Rada ruled that the Yushchenko government performance in 2000 was unsatisfactory. While this vote had no formal consequences for the government, it demonstrated the determination of Yushchenko’s opponents to oust him from office (Ukrainska pravda, April 10, 17; Financial Times, STB TV, April 14; New Channel TV, April 15, 18-19; Ukrainian radio, April 17).
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