As President Viktor Yushchenko struggles to adapt to a situation in which his party controls neither the cabinet nor the parliament — and the prime minister is not his ally, let alone his appointee — he may also lose control of the regions. Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych has apparently decided it is high time for his Party of Regions (PRU) to use the advantage of having control of most of Ukraine’s regional councils, after winning not only the national, but also most of the local, elections in March 2006. Yanukovych wants to get rid of pro-Yushchenko regional governors and, should he not succeed, the PRU may try to push through parliament a law abolishing presidentially appointed governors altogether.
At a cabinet meeting on September 28, Yanukovych suggested that Yushchenko should dismiss five regional governors for poor performance. He named Poltava region’s Valery Asadchev, Ternopil governor Ivan Stoyko, Kharkiv governor Arsen Avakov, Kherson governor Borys Silenkov, and Chernihiv governor Mykola Lavryk. Asadchev represents the pro-Yushchenko Ukrainian People’s Party, and the other four are from Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine.
Yanukovych was confronted by Yushchenko appointees Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko and Justice Minister Roman Zvarych, as well as the newly appointed deputy head of Yushchenko’s secretariat, Arseny Yatsenyuk. They warned Yanukovych against taking hasty decisions. Zvarych argued that Yanukovych’s draft document regarding the five governors had not been assessed by the Justice Ministry, as required by law. In response, Yanukovych threatened to dismiss Zvarych. Yanukovych recalled that Zvarych’s party, Our Ukraine, is still not formally a member of the government coalition, so the chairs under Zvarych and other Our Ukraine representatives in the cabinet are shaky.
Yushchenko’s reaction to Yanukovych’s request was predictably negative. In an unprecedented show of contempt for Yanukovych, he refused to attend the cabinet meeting, although he had been scheduled to participate. Speaking on the following day in Ternopil, one of the regions whose governor Yanukovych wants to fire, Yushchenko rejected Yanukovych’s request, warning him against “hasty decisions on personnel.” He said that the cabinet should coordinate its decisions regarding regional governors with the presidential secretariat. The cabinet accepted this condition on October 3, suggesting that Yushchenko should study the situation with the five governors jointly with the cabinet.
Yushchenko does not want to sack the five governors, arguing that Yanukovych is guided by nothing more than political considerations, as their economic performance has not been bad. The problem is that the constitution is on Yanukovych’s side. Article 118 states that the president appoints or dismisses regional governors at the request of the cabinet. This was a formality before the constitutional reform that came into effect this year, as all previous cabinets consisted of presidential appointees, so the president’s choice of a governor was by default also the cabinet’s choice. Now that it is parliament, not the president that hires and fires the prime minister and the cabinet, nothing should prevent the prime minister, if he is not an ally of the president, from disagreeing with the president’s choice of governors.
The current situation, however, looks like a stalemate. Yushchenko does not want to accept Yanukovych’s opinion, and Yanukovych apparently does not see how he can enforce his will regarding the five governors he wants to remove. A possible way out for Yanukovych is to try and abolish regional governors altogether. During a visit to Donetsk on September 29, Yanukovych said that a regional government reform bill will be offered to parliament later this fall, providing for scrapping the regional state administrations, i.e. governor offices, and replacing them with regional executive committees that would be subordinated to regional councils, rather than to the central executive.
If parliament adopted this reform, governors would be abolished as early as next year, Yanukovych said. Yushchenko, in that case, may lose control over the regions, which are currently run by governors, most of whom are his appointees. Most of the regional councils however, except those in the west of Ukraine, are controlled either by the PRU or by PRU-dominated local coalitions. Yanukovych’s reform plans, however, contradicts the constitution, which subordinates regional governments to the central executive.
Meanwhile, seven local deputies in PRU-dominated Kharkiv went on a hunger strike on October 2, protesting Yushchenko’s refusal to dismiss Kharkiv governor Avakov, who was on Yanukovych’s list. The seven issued a statement accusing Yushchenko of violating the constitution. They quoted the same Article 118, which stipulates that the president has to dismiss a governor if two-thirds of deputies on a respective regional council vote no confidence in the governor. The Kharkiv regional council voted no confidence in Avakov in a vote of 105-1 with three abstentions in June 2006. Avakov appealed against the council’s decision in courts, which have not taken any decision so far, the statement said.
(Channel 5, September 28; Ostro.org, Ukrayinska pravda, September 29; Partyofregions.org.ua, October 2; Ukrainski novyny, October 3)