Europe is pulling its hair out over the lack of reform in Ukraine and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is threatening to cut off its funding, which would cause the economy to collapse. Yet despite all the external pressure, President Petro Poroshenko botched a government shake-up on February 16 that was supposed to bring the country back onto its westward-bound track.
Two heads were on the block at the Verkhovna Rada parliament's session that day: those of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and General Prosecutor Viktor Shokin.
With fragile state institutions losing despairing reformers almost on a weekly basis, Poroshenko attempted to reset the government by first pressuring Shokin to resign and then leaving Yatsenyuk in place by the skin of his teeth on condition that he gut and reform his cabinet.
Yatsenyuk survived a vote of no confidence in parliament as the PM continues to have his own power base in the Rada, but Shokin was finally forced to go.
Shokin has failed to bring to court a single important case in the last year in a country that the last Transparency International ranking considers to be the most corrupt in Europe. A close personal ally of the president, the prosecutor has been blamed for the almost total absence of anti-corruption action and in effect supporting the continuation of the oligopoly that has marred the country for the last 20 years.
Ukraine's friends have become increasingly explicit about the need to tackle the issue, to the point where they are threatening to abandon Ukraine if something doesn't change. Right up to the February 16 events, Poroshenko had been resisting increasingly loud calls from both within and without to sack Shokin as a first genuine step.
Things were so bad that US Vice President Joe Biden felt obliged to read the Rada deputies the riot act in a speech on the floor of the Rada at the end of last year. "You know what to do, so do it!" Biden said, referring to the long-promised crackdown on corruption. This year the IMF has threatened to cut off its support programme until there is "significant progress" on the reform front. Without meaningful reform, Ukraine's European dream will keep on dying.
Poroshenko's decision to sack Shokin is pivotal. Replacing him is both essential if Ukraine's reform effort is going to go anywhere, and enormously symbolic.
And the sacking was fluffed. Officially Poroshenko asked him to resign. Officially Shokin resigned. But Ukrainska Pravda reports that Shokin checked in with doctors and reported himself sick the day before, on February 15. As a legacy of the Soviet Union's labour laws you cannot be arrested or sacked if you are sick. It is a widely used dodge used by politicians and oligarchs when the heat becomes too hot: check yourself into hospital and wait for the fuss to blow over.
Now confusion reigns. No one is clear what Skokin's status is or what will happen next. Will he come back after he "gets better" or will the resignation stick and someone else will be appointed? The sidestep led to a torrent of rage on social media.
"@poroshenko, that is really scandalous: #Shokin hasn't resign & can't resign because he is on a sick leave why they think we are such idiots?" bne IntelliNews columnist and award-winning political activist Kateryna Kruk seethed on Twitter, starting a thread that was full of scorn and disappointment. What was supposed to be a day of decisive action ended in farce.
What is not clear is how sincere Poroshenko’s actions were. Was his call for both Yatsenyuk and Shokin to quit a genuine attempt to make a fresh start, or was this all political theatre designed to keep the IMF cash spigot open without having to upset the status quo?
It is impossible to say, but given the rising impatience amongst Ukraine's erstwhile supporters, the failure to produce a decisive result from the Rada session will only erode the dwindling confidence in Ukraine's ability to cope with the massive challenges it faces. If Poroshenko wants to prove his good intentions then he should appoint a new general prosecutor with pristine anti-graft credentials as soon as possible. Anything less, or leaving the Shokin question up in the air, could be the final straw that breaks the camel's back.
Ukraine is close to a coalition breakdown that could lead to snap parliamentary elections. However, Poroshenko underlined in his statement that parliament's dissolution "is not the president's obligation, but only his right".
Meanwhile, lost in the drama of no confidence votes and did-he-didn't-he resign hubbub was the detail of the government's progress report. Commentators have pointed out that the government has managed to achieve none of its major goals. And the few feathers it does have in its cap, such as the e-procurement system for state orders, were put in place by reform-minded ministers who have since quit the government in disgust at the lack of change.