Ukraine's embattled Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk survived a vote of no confidence held in Kyiv late on February 16, as parliament rounded on him and President Petro Poroshenko demanded a "total reformatting" of the cabinet amid plummeting public confidence.
Yatsenyuk's head had seemed firmly on the political chopping block: Parliament first deemed the performance of the government over the past year "unsatisfactory", with 247 lawmakers supporting the motion. However, the ensuing vote of no confidence in the government failed as only 194 lawmakers supported it instead of the necessary minimum 226 votes.
The motion was torpedoed by the pro-Russian Opposition Bloc, controlled by billionaire Ukrainian businessmen Rinat Akhmetov and Dmitry Firtash, triggering accusations by pro-Western lawmakers that oligarchs had saved Yatsenyuk and his cabinet.
Before the vote, in a report to lawmakers that reviewed the government's work in 2015 and its agenda for this year, Yatsenyuk said his cabinet had done all it could under difficult circumstances.
"We have built the foundations for a new country, let's build a new Ukraine, do not stop, reforms are the only way forward," he said.
A few hours earlier, Ukraine's controversial Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin resigned under pressure by President Poroshenko as he appeared to bow to growing international pressure to clean up his country's institutions.
It was unclear if Poroshenko had specifically called upon Yatsenyuk to resign as well. According to a Tweet by his spokesman Svyatoslav Tsegolko, the president did make such a request. However, this was not included in his formal statement, which Tsegolko appeared to interpret as a call for both officials to step down.
It was obvious that there was need for a "complete reset of the cabinet" as it has "lost the coalition's trust", Poroshenko said in the statement. "To restore this trust, therapy is not enough. One should resort to surgical means," he continued, adding that a new cabinet could be formed by the existing parliamentary coalition.
Poroshenko said that Yatsenyuk is still able to choose "a better way" to implement such a "reformatting", indicating that he foresaw him remaining in the post for now.
The call for the exit of Shokin, a close associate of Poroshenko who is at the centre of new claims of rot in law enforcement, was more explicit.
"This morning I have met and had a serious conversation with the prosecutor general. I have suggested Viktor Mykolayovych [Shokin] should write a letter of resignation," Poroshenko said. "Unfortunately, the Prosecutor General's Office has failed to gain the public's trust."
The president appeared to be reacting to rising demands by Western governments to tackle corruption in Ukraine's state structures, including the prosecutor's office. Shokin has been widely criticised for his failure to investigate corruption allegations against former and current top officials and lawmakers during his year in the post.
On February 15, Shokin's deputy Vitaliy Kasko announced his resignation, citing corruption and a culture of cover-ups in his office. Kasko claimed Shokin had "taken away all functions and tools to investigate and control proceedings in cases initiated by our [Kasko's] team".
West's patience tested
Kyiv's Western backers, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF), have shown increasing exasperation with the slow pace of reforms and anti-corruption measures under the pro-Western government that came to power in 2014, when mass protests toppled the former president Viktor Yanukovych.
The situation can lead to further delays in the release of $3.3bn in IMF credits held back already since last year, when the Fund agreed a $17.5bn bail-out programme for Ukraine and its war-shattered economy.
Poroshenko said in his statement that a firm stance regarding public confidence should be taken towards the government, fuelling speculation that if not now, he will soon move to replace Yatsenyuk with another figure acceptable to the West. Potential candidates include parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Hroysman, and US-born finance minister Natalie Jaresko, although it remains unclear if she would accept the job.
The president suggested that four factions of the ruling coalition in Kyiv should participate in an overhaul of the cabinet: the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, the People's Front headed by Yatsenyuk, the Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party, and the Samopomich (Self Reliance) party.
Earlier, three pro-Western factions in parliament – Batkivshchyna, Samopomich and the Radical Party – had pushed for the resignation of Yatsenyuk. However, if a vote of no confidence in the premier and his cabinet is held in parliament, the other factions would likely fail to find a compromise figure able to obtain the necessary 226 votes without those of Yatsenyuk's People's Front.
This scenario could trigger a political crisis and require snap parliamentary elections in Ukraine. However, Poroshenko underlined in his statement that parliament's dissolution "is not the president's obligation, but only his right".
"And I will exercise it only as a last resort, which we shouldn't allow to happen," Poroshenko added.