Aides to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko spoke on Tuesday (1 March) of replacing the country’s premier in the next two weeks, while the incumbent, Arseniy Yatsenyuk said he didn’t believe a “reboot” of the government would work. EURACTIV.com reports from Kyiv.
Yatsenyuk sounded rather upbeat and determined to stay on as prime minister, as he spoke yesterday to a group of visiting Western journalists and scholars, invited by the Institute of World Policy, a Ukrainian think tank.
The premier survived a no-confidence vote on 16 February, which came hours after Poroshenko asked him to resign because he had lost the public’s trust.
The political crisis in Ukraine comes on the top of a deep economic and social crisis and a hybrid war waged by Russia against its neighbor. The living standards of ordinary Ukrainians have deteriorated dramatically, and the EU, which is struggling with successive crises, seems unable to respond to the wishes of many Ukrainians to become part of the European family.
According to rumours, Yatsenyuk would be replaced by his Minister of Finance, Natalie Ann Jaresko. But if Yatsenyuk’s aim was to dispel such rumours, she was sitting next to him during the 70-minute long exchange, in which both answered questions in good humour, including the most uncomfortable questions.
Yatsnyuk blamed three of the five coalition parties for destabilizing the country, saying they were “worse than the opposition”.
The first force to leave the coalition was Yulia Tymoshenkos’s Batkyvschina, and the second was Samopomich (Self-reliance), led by the popular Mayor of Lviv, Andriy Sadoviy, a rising star in Ukrainian politics. The third was the Radical Party of Oleh Lyashko, a populist allegedly financed by oligarchs.
At the end, there was only Poroshenko’s political party, Solidarity, and Yatsenyuk’s Political Front left, when Poroshenko called the no-confidence vote.
“The key problem we are facing is the lack of political maturity among the Ukraine’s political class,” said Yatsenyuk, who is a fluent English speaker.
Yatseniuk told his guests that he had informed the president that if he has an alternative, he would be ready for any discussions.
“We are in quite a turbulent political situation because the government is legally the government, but legally we lost the coalition,” Yatsenyuk said.
Yatsenyuk said that unlike Poroshenko, he did not rely on opinion polls, conveying the message that Poroshenko was too obsessed with the low ratings of his cabinet.
“The president is under pressure from his faction [who says] the quicker we get rid of this unpopular government, the quicker we can reboot,” Yatseniuk said, adding that he didn’t trust this narrative.
“In this very challenging time, the best way, and the only option we have is to stay united and move [forward] the reform agenda,” Yatsenyuk stated, noting that if the president decided otherwise, this was his prerogative. He added that according to the Ukrainian constitution the president had overwhelming executive powers and the premier was the “perfect scapegoat”.
“The prime minister has no authority neither to name anyone, nor to sack anyone,” Yatsenyuk said, in an attempt to explain the Ukrainian political system to the international audience.
“The true challenge is to achieve real unity in the cabinet,” Yatsenyuk said, repeating that under the different circumstances, his government managed to stay united. He made, however, no reference to the resignation of Minister of Economy and Trade Aivaras Abromavicius, who resigned on 3 February, saying overwhelming corruption had stifled his efforts to push through measures essential to getting growth back on track in the cash-strapped country.
‘Show me an example of more rapid reforms’
Yatsenyuk challenged the audience by asking if someone had examples of more rapid reforms than those conducted under his government. He mentioned, as an example, having alienated oligarch Dmytro Firtash from Naftogaz, the state energy company, despite the fact that Firtash was now reported to be investing his money in badmouthing the prime minister.
“We didn’t allow any corrupt privatisation in the last 24 months,” Yatsenyuk also said.
“You cannot imagine how many enemies we have,” said Yaresko, who time and again spoke in support of Yanukovich.
The narrative from the premier, however, differs greatly with what EURACTIV heard from Poroshenko’s aides. Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration, Rostyslav Pavlenko, spoke of the “problem of trust” in the cabinet, in the parliament, and in the Ukrainian society.
Pavlenko said that according to polls, 74% of the population, wanted Yatsenyuk to resign. The question, he added, would be resolved within 2 weeks. On 15 March, the parliamentary session will resume, and said that “quite harsh political statements and other things” were expected.
“We still have two weeks to understand who is the prime minister, how he or she would create trust, and if trust should be found under the so-called technical approach,” he said, with reference to a possible technocratic government to replace Yatsenyuk’s cabinet.
One issue on which Yatsenyuk and Poroshenk appear to agree, is that early elections are not in the cards. Pavlenko called this “a worse-case scenario”, while Yatsenyuk said that chances for snap elections were “extremely low”.
Messages to the EU
Yatsenyuk said some of EU member states had the “Ukraine fatigue disease” and said he kindly asked for the others not to be contaminated by it. He also said that if the EU would lose the UK following the June referendum, this would have “unpredictable consequences” on the Union.
Referring to the Dutch referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, he said that although a possible negative result could be legally ignored by government in the Netherlands, this would be “pouring fuel on the Brexit fire”.
He also called on the EU not to do “backdoor deals” with Russia.
Yatsenyuk is reported to have the support of US Vice President Joe Biden and of other officials in Washington thanks to his trademark anti-Russian rhetoric. This time, again, Yatsenyuk made use of strong language against Russia.
He said that apart from what Putin’s Russia did in Ukraine, it was also trying to destabilize Europe, by financing radicals and populists, and wanted “to grab the former Soviet republics in his sphere of influence”.
“They are moving, not towards an evil empire, but just toward an evil space,” he said, with an obvious reference to Ronald Reagan’s famous phrase of 1983.
“Russia is still a very sophisticated Soviet-style, KGB-constructed machine,” Yatsenyuk added.
Asked about his country’s expectation from the NATO meeting Warsaw on 8-9 July, Yatsenyuk said his country had the determination to behave as a NATO member, even though he understood that “not all member states are ready to grant [NATO] membership to Ukraine, neither today nor tomorrow”.
“Russia is a threat to the global order. And the more you invest in Ukraine, the less your member states are to invest in your military,” he said.
The perspectives of Ukraine’s membership in the alliance do not appear as realistic in the medium term, but there is no doubt that Ukraine has greatly improved its military capabilities during Yatsenyuk’s term, although as he said his country did not receive any lethal weapons from the Western alliance.
Jaresko said that NATO could learn from Ukraine about the hybrid war waged under Putin.
“It is no longer Ukraine needing NATO. It is very much a mutually responsible relationship. There’s no one having more experience in hybrid wars than Ukraine has,” she said, adding that American and Canadian missions to Ukraine learned from the country as much as the Ukrainians learned from them.
EURACTIV asked Yatsenyuk how he would respond to accusations that he had become very rich under his term, although no proof of this exists, and why Poroshenko didn’t abandon his chocolate business, as he had promised.
Yatsenyuk said he would respond in the most honest way, explaining that if he had done anything wrong, world law enforcement services were able to track money transfers of as low as $10,000.
“As a prime minister of this country, I did everything to fight corruption,” Yastenyuk said, adding that accusations that he had become rich during his term were “bullshit”.
Regarding Poroshenko, he said that according to his information, the president had left the management of his fortune to a trust fund.
Jaresko jumped in to say that Poroshenko’s chocolate business, Roshen, was a consumer business, and that it was in one of the most competitive segments of the country’s economy.
She said this was a business “made without politics”, very different from the easy fortunes made from privatization.