Ukraine tries to avert government collapse as president works on 'Plan B'

Ukraine tries to avert government collapse as president works on 'Plan B'
Ukraine's government clings on as West urges self-preservation.
By Sergei Kuznetsov in Kyiv February 11, 2016

Ukraine's Western backers have made it clear: the war-torn country must avoid a collapse of the ruling coalition and snap elections, which would only bring more instability. Kyiv's politicians are falling into line and seem ready to negotiate an exit from the current crisis, but sources say that President Petro Poroshenko and his associates are at the same time developing a plan of last resort, which could be implemented if the talks fail.

"My message [conveyed during a meeting] at Poroshenko's administration was: it's important [for] Ukrainian leaders [to] stay united, to abandon oligarchic interests feeding corruption, to move on key reforms," Geoffrey Pyatt, US ambassador in Kyiv, stressed after he and other G7 and EU ambassadors in Kyiv had met with Poroshenko, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and parliamentary chairman Volodymyr Hroysman on February 4.

The meeting was triggered by the shock resignation the day before of economy minister Aivaras Abromavicius, who cited high-level corruption and accused the first deputy head of the Petro Poroshenko Bloc in parliament, Ihor Kononenko, of pressuring him to appoint associates of the president's circle to head state enterprises.

At the same time, three other pro-Western factions in parliament – the Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party, the Samopomich (Self Reliance) party and the Radical Party – are pushing for the resignation of Prime Minister Yatsenyuk. However, the premier and his allies have a reliable weapon against the attempts to oust him: if a vote of no confidence were to be passed against Yatsenyuk, the other parties in parliament would likely fail to find a compromise figure able to obtain the necessary 226 votes without those of his People's Front.

Thus, the only remaining option for the country's main political players is to come to some kind of agreement in line with what the Western ambassadors have been urging: to keep the ruling coalition intact and put more reformists in the cabinet.

"The country will not survive any new elections … Who exactly will carry out reform is not important – the most important thing is that they should fight against corruption," the online newspaper Ukrainska Pravda quoted an unnamed source in Poroshenko's office as saying.

This negotiated approach gives Kyiv's elites some much-needed breathing space, though they do not yet seem to have a clear workable plan for any government reshuffle. "It is clear that they are trying to avoid early elections. This is also the wish of the West, including Washington; one of [US Vice President] Joe Biden's main messages during his last visit to Kyiv was to keep the post-Maidan coalition," Balazs Jarabik at the Carnegie Endowment, tells bne IntelliNews. "They are trying to buy time, by what I call 'putting out fires'."

Nonetheless, Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Kyiv think-tank Penta Political Centre, tells bne IntelliNews that possible snap elections are still being considered by Poroshenko's administration as an option, though on the understanding that they would only be a "last resort" and not before the International Monetary Fund (IMF) provides Ukraine with a new tranche of its $17.5bn support package.

Nuclear option

According to experts, politicians and their aides are trying to hammer out the details of a plan that has been prepared by Poroshenko's team for such an eventuality. If they are able to create an alliance with Odesa governor Mikheil Saakashvili (who has been actively involved in the creation of his own anti-corruption public project) and the Nash Kraj (Our Land) party, it will be possible to create a new parliamentary majority.

Currently, Saakashvili is actively signing up supporters for his public movement, including among well-known public activists and politicians in Kyiv. Even though Saakashvili and his associates have denied any intention to convert the movement into a political party, experts believe that this is their ultimate aim.

Meanwhile, Nash Kraj made striking inroads during the 2015 local elections: the party secured third place behind the Poroshenko Bloc and the Batkivshchyna party, which is headed by former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The party has support from Poroshenko's team, while it was considered during the latest local elections as a party that could attract voters who might normally support a pro-Russian Opposition Bloc.

"The Bankova [the Kyiv street where Poroshenko's administration is located] is considering such an option. However, this is only one of the scenarios; as of today it is not the main one," Fesenko tells bne IntelliNews.

The expert explains that the scenario of possible snap elections and the alliance with Saakashvili is daunting to Poroshenko's team because of its unpredictable nature. One of the big questions is whether Saakashvili would be a reliable political partner.

"Part of Poroshenko’s entourage is heavily opposed to the possible appointment of Saakashvili to the post of the prime minister. However, the president trusts Saakashvili at the moment," Fesenko says.

Meanwhile, Jarabik believes that a Saakashvili-run political movement "has its limits, no matter how popular they are right now tackling public anger and frustration with the corruption and mismanagement" in the country. "One thing is for sure: this looks so far like a third Maidan, channelling that anger into a political framework [and not social unrest] – and that is certainly good news for fragile Ukraine," the expert says.