President Viktor Yushchenko is slowly coming to the realization that he has to co-exist with a disobedient prime minister that he cannot dismiss. This is a consequence of the constitutional reform that came into effect this year, curtailing presidential powers, and of the Yushchenko faction’s defeat by the Party of Regions (PRU) in the March parliamentary election. PRU head Viktor Yanukovych has been challenging Yushchenko on foreign and domestic matters alike, defying his instructions and orders ever since his appointment as prime minister last month. Yushchenko has responded by beefing up his Secretariat, which he apparently sees as a counterweight to the PRU-dominated Cabinet of Ministers.
Yanukovych defied the pro-Western Yushchenko most spectacularly in Brussels on September 14, saying that Ukraine is not ready to implement a NATO Membership Action Plan (see EDM, September 19, 26). Yushchenko chided him, and Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk and Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko publicly expressed their disagreement with Yanukovych. In response, Yanukovych recalled that foreign policy foundations are defined by parliament, not the president, according to the constitution. He also upbraided Tarasyuk and Hrytsenko — who were both appointed to the cabinet under Yushchenko’s quota — suggesting that they should discuss their differences with the prime minister before making their viewpoints public.
The extent of institutional rivalry between President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yanukovych manifests itself especially vividly on home turf. Yanukovych has not forgotten his election promises to raise the status of the Russian language, which Yushchenko, who believes that Ukrainian must be the only official language, bitterly opposes. Yushchenko, for his part, openly mistrusts Yanukovych on economic matters. On September 15, he accused Yanukovych of discriminating against exporters based in western and central Ukraine in value-added tax reimbursements, and he instructed the Prosecutor-General’s Office to check into this.
In painful blows for Yushchenko, the cabinet has returned several of his decrees. Yanukovych’s office said that Yushchenko had violated the constitution by ordering the decrees to be published before the cabinet had countersigned them. The decrees themselves were probably of secondary importance, and Yanukovych’s team made no secret that they were returned to Yushchenko just to make him realize that the time when the cabinet obeyed all instructions from the president has gone.
Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine party took the hint. It issued a statement on September 21 saying that the cabinet’s actions were tantamount to a coup. According to Our Ukraine, the prime minister signs presidential decrees only to confirm that he is aware of them and is going to implement them, meaning that Yushchenko’s decrees are valid without Yanukovych’s signature. Yanukovych openly defied this, telling the cabinet on September 25 that it is legally impossible to carry out presidential instructions if they are not signed by the appropriate cabinet minister and the prime minister.
Yushchenko is aware that it is very difficult to solve this and similar disputes in a situation where his rivals easily find contradictions and loopholes in flawed legislation. Yushchenko believes that it is necessary to amend the errors in the constitutional reform that was hastily adopted during the Orange Revolution of 2004, even if this amounts to reversing the changes. This, however, is impossible right now, as the current majority in parliament does not share his views. Finally, the results of recent public opinion polls add insult to injury for Yushchenko, showing that popular trust in him is lower than in Yanukovych.
Yushchenko has apparently decided that the potential of his inner circle, which forms the core of his Secretariat — formerly the presidential administration — has been exhausted. Revolutionary romantics are out, and Yushchenko is hiring tough managers that will be able to professionally respond to challenges posed by Yanukovych. On September 16, he replaced Oleh Rybachuk with Viktor Baloha as head of his Secretariat. Yushchenko trusts Baloha, a businessman and former governor of the Transcarpathian region, who was one of the leaders of the Orange Revolution. At the same time, Baloha knows the corridors of power from the inside, as he was part of the team of Viktor Medvedchuk — the chief of former president Leonid Kuchma’s administration — when Yanukovych was only rising to prominence.
Simultaneously, Yushchenko appointed former economics minister Arseny Yatsenyuk, former transport minister Viktor Bondar, and former deputy foreign minister Oleksandr Chaly as deputies to Baloha. Neither of the three has ever been a member of the Orange team, but they are considered top professionals in their fields, even though Yatsenyuk and Bondar are only in their early thirties. Chaly, after his resignation from the government in 2004, became one of the top managers of the Industrial Union of Donbas — Donetsk-based business rivals of Yanukovych’s key Donetsk-based ally, tycoon Renat Akhmetov. It is interesting that Chaly, unlike Foreign Minister Tarasyuk, is quite skeptical of NATO accession. On September 25, Yushchenko accepted the resignation of Iryna Herashchenko, his press secretary since 2001.
(Channel 5, September 16, 25; Kommersant Ukraine, September 18; Interfax-Ukraine, September 20, 21; Ukrayinska pravda, September 22)