Ukrainian government collapse threatens permanent crisis

Ukraine has lost another government. Tymoshenko has lasted only 8 months as Prime Minister, only a few weeks longer than her first attempt in 2005.

Senior Policy Fellow

The Ukrainian government has collapsed. Actually, it first more or less fell apart on 2 September. But on 16 September parliamentary chairman Arseniy Yatsenyuk announced that it had ‘officially’  collapsed. None of the alternative options look good. Ukraine now faces ongoing crisis until the presidential elections scheduled for either late 2009 or early 2010. The Ukrainians win no awards for timing. They failed to wait until the EU-Ukraine summit on 9 September was out of the way; and have strengthened Russia’s hand at the very moment when it has declared its ‘privileged interest’ in the region.

The outgoing ‘Orange’ coalition was made up of the two parties that backed the original ‘Orange Revolution’ in 2004: President Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine in alliance with ‘People’s Self Defence’ (NUNS) and the Block of Yuliya Tymoshenko (BYT), the current Prime Minister. The reason for the delay was that only 39 out of 64 NUNS deputies originally voted to leave the coalition: prominent leaders like former Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk and former Defence Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko wanted to have one more go at putting it back together. That possibility has now gone, though NUNS has torn itself further apart in the process.

What other options are there now? BYT, with 156 deputies, and NUNS, which has 72 when all are present are correct, had only the barest of parliamentary majorities in any case (228 out of 450). The largest party in parliament is actually the east Ukrainian Party of Regions, with 175; but it is just short of a potential majority either on its own or in alliance with the final two small parties – the Communists on 27 and the Block led by former parliamentary chairman Volodymyr Lytvyn on 20.

One option would be for BYT to ally with Regions. This would have some logic. The alliance would have a two-thirds’ constitutional majority and the power to force through many long-delayed reforms (the budget, judicial reform) – but it could also do the opposite and use that power to entrench the interests of both parties’ business supporters. Tymoshenko was relatively quiet during the Georgia crisis and has been trying to position herself as more friendly to Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population. Yushchenko’s supporters have imputed darker motives to the prime minister, accusing her of trading her new line for Russian support to supplant him as president.

A BYT-Regions alliance might persuade Russia to go easy on gas price negotiations this winter; but such a volte-face by the former ‘orange princess’ would be a leap too far for the Western powers, and would alienate voters in western Ukraine, possibly allowing NUNS to revive. Regions’ business wing has long preferred to deal with the other businessmen (very few women) in NUNS.

President Yushchenko is apparently serious about ordering yet another dissolution of parliament and scheduling early elections in December 2008. This is delusional. His constitutional powers in this respect are limited. In 2007 Yushchenko dissolved the last parliament on shaky legal grounds; but the West and much of the Ukrainian public bought the utilitarian argument that new elections were necessary to ‘reboot’ the political system. New elections now for narrow partisan advantage would try everyone’s patience. They might also be suicidal, as NUNS is polling at 5% or less. BYT and Regions would end up on top, but they might also lose votes. Plenty of new party ‘projects’ are on the drawing board, aiming to tap the support of voters who have grown disillusioned with the main parties. The most intriguing rumour is a possible new party to be led by Yatsenyuk and Regions’ leading moderate Raisa Bohatyrova, whom Regions expelled for supporting Yushchenko’s line on Georgia in August. The new party has the reported support of Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man and previously Regions’ main financial supporter.

The idea of as NUNS-Regions coalition is last year’s thing. It was twice mooted in 2006 and 2007, but its time may be passed. The two parties have taken opposing lines on Georgia, and it is hard to see how Yushchenko could escape from such an arrangement to launch his bid for reelection.

Muddling though is always an option, and one in which the Ukrainians have had plenty of practice. But the ideal scenario would be a ‘big bang’: simultaneous parliamentary and presidential elections, together with a referendum on a new constitution. Then Ukraine might finally free itself from the logjam that has existed since the first Orange coalition collapsed in September 2005. Without it, the present stalemate will suit Russia just fine.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.

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Senior Policy Fellow

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