The political honeymoon between Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko appears to be over. Yushchenko has thwarted Tymoshenko’s planned visit to Moscow, torpedoed planned appointments to her government, disagreed with her privatization plan, and come up with a package of bills aimed at diminishing the role of the prime minister and the Cabinet.
Yushchenko was weakened by the constitutional reform of December 2004, which made the prime minister and parliament considerably stronger vis-à-vis the president than under his predecessor, Leonid Kuchma. Reversing the changes is out of the question, as Yushchenko has never had the required two-thirds majority in parliament. However, Yushchenko has never concealed that he would like to make the presidency stronger, if not by reversing the amendments then by other means, such as exercising control over the prime minister or adopting laws diminishing the Cabinet’s powers.
Yushchenko’s tug-of-war with Tymoshenko’s predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych, ended with the September 2007 snap parliamentary election. Yushchenko had been unable to boost his powers at the expense of the prime minister because Yanukovych held the majority in parliament. Now the situation is different, as Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine-People’s Self-Defense bloc (NUNS) is part of the parliamentary majority, so Yushchenko can directly influence decision-making in parliament.
He has come up with a package of bills aimed at boosting his authority. One of the bills is meant to amend the law on the Cabinet of Ministers that was passed in January 2007 and further diluted presidential powers. If parliament passes the amendments, the president will be authorized to disagree with the parliamentary majority’s choice for prime minister; parliament will not be allowed to dismiss the ministers of foreign affairs and defense – the only two Cabinet ministers whom the president appoints; the Cabinet will have to obey decisions made by the National Security and Defense Council – a body chaired by the president; and regional governors – who are appointed by the president – will have the right to veto the Cabinet’s appointments to the regional offices of Cabinet ministries.
Yushchenko wants the Interior Troops, which have so far been subordinated to the interior minister, to be renamed “National Guard” and be subordinated to the president. He also believes that the president, rather than the Cabinet, should appoint the chief of the special communications and information protection service.
He has made it clear that NUNS will not back several key appointments to the cabinet, which Tymoshenko wanted to make on January 18, until the bills aimed at increasing presidential power are passed. Segodnya and Ukrayinska pravda reported that Yushchenko also rejected Tymoshenko’s choice for chairman of the Anti-Monopoly Committee, Davyd Zhvania. According to the newspapers, Yushchenko believes that although he formally represents NUNS, Zhvania is in fact in Tymoshenko’s team.
Yushchenko has taken additional steps to clip Tymoshenko’s wings. After returning to the post of prime minister this past December, Tymoshenko declared her intentions to remove the RosUkrEnergo intermediary company from the natural gas trade between Ukraine and Russia and to charge more for Russian gas transit to Europe. Tymoshenko insisted that Ukraine would benefit from buying gas directly from Gazprom rather than RosUkrEnergo and from simultaneously raising transit fees for Russian gas. Yushchenko disagreed, arguing that Ukraine buys gas at a lower price than its neighbors under the current scheme, and that charging more for gas transit would complicate relations with Gazprom.
Tymoshenko planned to go to Moscow to discuss gas issues with Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov and Gazprom on January 23. Yushchenko’s secretariat, however, said that it would be better for Tymoshenko to go to Moscow together with Yushchenko on February 12, when the Yushchenko-Putin commission gathers. Interviewed on TV on January 20, Yushchenko warned the Tymoshenko cabinet against revising the existing scheme of gas trade and gas transit fees.
Most recently, Yushchenko asked Tymoshenko to drop her privatization plan for 2008. Meeting Tymoshenko on January 21, Yushchenko said that the plan had been prepared too hastily, and that a law to make privatization more transparent should be passed first. Tymoshenko planned to use privatization proceedings to compensate Ukrainians for the savings lost in the defunct Soviet savings bank (see EDM, January 15). A successful compensation campaign should boost Tymoshenko’s popularity among the poor, improving her chances to win the next presidential election.
Speaking in her native Dnipropetrovsk on January 14, Tymoshenko made a statement that was widely interpreted as a warning to Yushchenko. She said that she is happy to carry on as prime minister, but she may consider running for president “if the Cabinet is limited by certain restrictions, if they start putting forward certain conditions.” Yushchenko on several earlier occasions denied the rumors saying that he had agreed to Tymoshenko’s premiership in return for her promise to not run against him in the next presidential election.
(Itar-Tass, January 14; Ukrayinska pravda, January 17; Segodnya, 1+1 TV, January 18; Zerkalo nedeli, January 19; Inter TV, January 20; Ukrainsky novyny, January 21)