COMMENT: In Ukraine's Cesarean politics, “Alea Iacta Est”

COMMENT: In Ukraine's Cesarean politics, “Alea Iacta Est”
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who enabled an unpopular government survived a parliamentary vote of no confidence.
By Kateryna Kruk in Brussels February 24, 2016

The significance of February’s events in Ukrainian politics cannot be overstated: an unpopular government survived a parliamentary vote of no confidence thanks to the coordinated work of the country’s oligarchs, president and prime minister. The price Ukraine will have to pay for that support will be very high.

On February 15, Ukrainian Deputy Prosecutor-General Vitaliy Kasko, known for his pro-reform credentials, resigned. He said that instead of fighting corruption, the Prosecutor General’s Office was covering it up. The effect of Kasko’s resignation had the same effect as the resignation earlier in the month of economy minister Aivaras Abromavicius, in that it showed that no reforms inside the judiciary or executive branches of government are any longer possible. Top decision-makers have chosen the course to preserve the existing system, rather than change it in accordance with the vision of the Euromaidan revolution that ousted the previous corrupt regime of Viktor Yanukovych.

That evening, President Petro Poroshenko reportedly met with Prime Minister Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk for two hours, after which the premier went to meet with Poroshenko’s faction in the Rada in the hope of securing its support on the eve of the presentation of government’s progress report. It had become apparent that all coalition members except Yatsenyuk’s own People’s Front party were prepared to declare the work of the government unsatisfactory and to proceed with a vote of no confidence in it. It appeared there was wide political and societal consensus that the government should resign.

On February 16 all eyes were on the Rada in anticipation of the government’s report and a vote of no confidence. Yet that day brought nothing but disappointment.

First thing in the morning, the parliament voted for three laws tied to the so-called “visa-free package”, which is a bundle of laws needed to be passed in order for the EU to grant visa-free travel for Ukrainians. One of them, the law on e-declarations, was immediately criticized by experts and EU diplomats as insufficient in meeting the anti-corruption commitments of the Ukrainian authorities. While social media exploded with anger that the Rada was about to kill citizens’ chances of having a visa-free regime, MPs were wandering between the rows collecting signatures for the vote of no confidence. According to the Rules of the Procedure of the Rada, 150 signatures were needed in order to proceed with the vote. About an hour before Yatsenyuk’s report was delivered, it was announced that enough signatures had been collected.

What happened in next can be filed under the title “Chronicles of Ukrainian conspiracies”. Just a few minutes after Yatsenyuk began with his rather unconvincing report on the government’s progress, the presidential administration issued a video appeal by Poroshenko calling on Yatsenyuk and the thoroughly discredited prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, to resign. The president also said that the “time for partial changes had passed and what we need now is a total reset of the government that has lost the support of over 70% of Ukrainians”. Shortly after that it became known that Shokin had submitted a letter of resignation. Back in the Rada, Yatsenyuk’s government was listening to the assessment of its work from the Heads of Parliamentary Committees. Almost all of them assessed it as unsatisfactory, just as 247 deputies who voted for the respective resolution. And right when everyone thought a vote of no confidence would be a formality, the Rada failed to fire Yatsenyuk with only 194 votes out of the 226 needed for his resignation.

Behind the scenes at the Rada

A closer look into why there were not enough votes to fire Yatsenyuk reveals an unpleasant truth about the reality of Ukrainian politics today: Yatsenyuk remained prime minister because MPs close to the powerful oligarchs Dmitry Firtash, Rinat Akhmetov, Serhiy Lyovochkin and Viktor Medvedchuk didn’t vote for his resignation. Moreover, 24 deputies of the Poroshenko Bloc, who voted for the negative assessment of the government’s work, didn’t provide crucial votes for its resignation just 15 minutes later. These deputies are from the president’s inner circle, mostly connected to him via business. It is simply impossible that they would vote against the party line without the informal blessing of the president. At the end of the day, an unpopular government survived a vote of no confidence thanks to the coordinated work of oligarchs, the president and premier. I hope everyone understands that the price of such support will be very high.

In the following days, Batkivshchyna and Samopomich parties announced that they would leave the coalition, though continue voting for the “visa-free” laws. The broad coalition of pro-European parties with a constitutional majority is now dead. Yet to give you a sense of the surreal nature of Ukrainian politics, I will cite Yatsenyuk’s interview at the end of that tumultuous week: “After my work in the Cabinet there are no oligarchs left, we don’t have any representatives of big business structures in the government”.

If the government had collapsed on February 16, it would at least have allowed Yatsenyuk to save face and offer some hope for a long, but smooth way out of the political crisis. Instead, the costs of staying in office for a few months longer could be high: it is almost impossible that Yatsenyuk’s party as we know it can make it into a new Rada, while Poroshenko’s actions will negatively effect the support for his party as well. There is no way to justify an alliance with oligarchs in the eyes of post-Euromaidan society.

We have an unpopular government, a lack of a functioning coalition, a president cooperating with the despised oligarchs and an overall lack of trust in all these institutions. Elections seem challenging, but the inevitable course of action.

Recent events are also a big test for our foreign partners. Which side will the US and EU, the main supporters and donors of Ukraine, choose? History shows that at least one of them, the EU, prefers stability above all else. In Ukraine’s case, choosing “stability” means accepting that the position of the authorities reflects the interests of oligarchs and closing its eyes to the fact that international financial support will merely line their pockets. Soon we will see whether the West has learned its lesson in Moldova, where a strategy of thinking that even the worst government is better than new elections has led to anti-governmental protests.

The Ukrainian elites are repeating the old mistake of choosing money over the interests of the people; let’s hope that at least the West can learn from previous experience that stability at any price is too costly.

Activist, journalist and co-founder of Global Ukrainians, an international network of Ukrainians worldwide, Kruk was awarded the Atlantic Council Freedom Award for her work communicating the Euromaidan revolution to the world via Twitter. She predicted a frozen conflict in July 2014, which has largely come to pass, and now comments on the progress of crucial reforms in Ukraine.