Infighting and new fracas threatens Ukraine's coalition

Infighting and new fracas threatens Ukraine's coalition
By bne IntelliNews December 16, 2015

Following a physical assault on Ukraine's prime minister in parliament, two top members of the political establishment, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov and Odesa governor Mikheil Saakashvili, dragged the country's world image down another notch with a profanity-laden verbal clash and glass-throwing outburst during a filmed meeting of the National Reform Council.

On December 16, both politicians posted footage of the meeting two days earlier, during which Avakov accused the former Georgian president of having murky dealings with Russian business in the privatisation of a major Odesa chemical plant. Saakashvili in turn called the minister a thief with "millions and billions", to finally be told by Avakov that he would soon be called to account for his own wealth.

With the footage of the meeting now getting broad play in the media and internet, the altercation during a meeting chaired by President Petro Poroshenko highlights the bitter infighting within the ruling coalition tasked with rebuilding the country's shattered economy.

The incident followed a brawl in the country's parliament four days earlier, which started when Oleh Barna, a lawmaker from Poroshenko's Bloc, handed Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk a bouquet of red roses before grabbing him around the waist and beneath the crotch and hoisting him from the podium.

Saakashvili is a close Poroshenko ally and confidant, while Avakov is a member of Yatsenyuk's team. The latest spat indicates that tensions building for months are coming to a head after the 41-year-old Yatsenyuk, who took office one year ago, lost his immunity from votes of no confidence on December 11.

The outbursts run the risk of breaking up Ukraine's ruling coalition and needing snap parliamentary polls just as progress is being made resurrecting the economy, ruined by a 20-month insurgency in the industrial heartlands of East Ukraine and the collapse of trade links with Russia.

Deepening the discord in the cabinet, Saakashvili, know for his anti-corruption tirades and campaigns, broadened his thief accusations to include Yatsenyuk when he later posted the footage of his clash with  Avakov on Facebook.

"I feel sorry for calling the prime minister a thief, but feel more regret that this is true. [This is] our version of what happened at the presidential administration after my insistent requests. A videotape, which I received from the presidential administration," Saakashvili wrote.

During the altercation, he and the interior minister traded accusations, with the interior minister using increasingly abusive language and finally hurling a glass of water across the room at Saakashvili, but not hitting him or others seated at the table.

Poroshenko later used the word "infamous" to describe the incident. "The discussion at this platform [at the National Council of Reforms].often becomes tough and heated ... But coarse language and insults are inadmissible," the president said in a statement published on December 16.

In a chide directed at Avakov, who was born into an Armenian family in Azerbaijan but lived most of his life in Ukraine, Poroshenko said it was unacceptable to question colleagues' patriotism and tell them to "get out of Ukraine", as the minister did to Saakashvili. The former Georgian leader received his Ukrainian passport in the summer from Poroshenko as he assembled a team of reformers, many with roots in Georgia and other republics of the former Soviet Union.

"It was me who invited the international team of reformers to Ukraine, which has already become a truly Ukrainian team not only in terms of passports, but also in terms of spirit. I do not regret this decision," Poroshenko underlined.

On December 15, Yatsenyuk, Poroshenko and parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Hroysman signed a joint statement in which they underlined that the prime minister's resignation "is not on the agenda".

"Today, we need unity, mutual support and further joint work of the president, parliament and government as never before. The issue of resignation of the prime minister is not on the agenda," the statement reads. "We should focus on the interests of Ukraine, restrain political passion and demonstrate political culture worthy of a European country."

Barna, the MP who assaulted Yatsenyuk, later said of his actions:  'It was possibly not a very European way to behave, but I couldn't do otherwise. If he won't leave of his own accord, people will carry him out."

Rivalries between the teams of the president and the prime minister "have been apparent throughout the year and spill over every few months", commented Zenon Zawada at the Concorde Capital brokerage in Kyiv.

"Besides the threat to stability and reform efforts, this rivalry could lead to early parliamentary elections in 2016," Zawada wrote in a research note. "We believe the West could back a new political party for these elections after the failures to reform by the oligarch-sponsored parties."

After a recent vist to Kyiv, Timothy Ash, a credit strategist with Nomura International, also noted on-going battles behind the scenes for key leadership roles and positions, with Saakashvili tipped as a potential replacement for Yatsenyuk.

Many analysts have commented that the political infighting can be a cause of satisfaction for Russia, which continues to oppose Ukraine's efforts to integrate with the West.

"No doubt [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will highlight all this to visiting US Secretary of State [John] Kerry, i.e. 'have you noticed of late how your friends in Kyiv are behaving?'" Ash wrote in an emial ahead of the top US diplomat's talks in Moscow on December 14.