Ukraine’s new government will hurt the president’s ratings

#CriticalThinking

Picture of Taras Kuzio
Taras Kuzio

Taras Kuzio is Senior Fellow at the University of Alberta’s Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies

Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who became prime minister of Ukraine immediately after Euromaidan revolutionaries took power in late February 2014, had the herculean task of undertaking unpopular reforms after he inherited a bankrupt country from kleptocrat President Viktor Yanukovych. This was made doubly worse by Russia’s undeclared war that destroyed a fifth of Ukraine’s industrial capacity. Nevertheless, Prime Minister Yatsenyuk, under pressure domestically from the dire economic and financial crisis and externally from the IMF, EU and western governments, accomplished strategic reforms during his two years in office.

Ukraine’s economic, social and financial reforms are the responsibility of the prime minister and government, while fighting corruption and assuring the rule of law come under the authority of President Petro Poroshenko. It is clear that Yatsenyuk has been a more effective leader than Poroshenko, whose performance in his areas of responsibility has been lacklustre. Not a single senior figure from the Yanukovych regime, or any of the riot police who murdered over 100 Euromaidan protesters, has been criminally convicted. Indeed, one member of the presidential administration told me last month that Yatsenyuk’s government was the best of nearly 20 Ukrainian governments since 1991.

The new Groysman government was met with derision by Ukraine’s netizens

The Ukrainian parliamentary vote to replace Yatsenyuk with Volodymyr Groysman as prime minister is a step backwards for reform, and will in time be a defeat for President Poroshenko, even though he lobbied for his appointment. Groysman is a regional politician from Poroshenko’s home region of Vinnytsya in western-central Ukraine, and was promoted by the Petro Poroshenko Bloc to the position of parliamentary chairman after the October 2014 elections. He is clearly a Poroshenko man, which has important ramifications for the president, as he will now be seen as responsible for both the socio-economic-financial remit and the corruption-rule of law field. Taking on greater accountability through a monopolisation of power is the surest path to reducing one’s popularity, as all public discontent will henceforth be targeted at the president.

Yatsenyuk and Poroshenko have led the ‘pragmatic’ wing of the pro-European political spectrum in Ukraine, of which President Viktor Yushchenko and his Our Ukraine party also belonged. The group were given two chances to prove themselves after the 2004 Orange and 2013-2014 Euromaidan revolutions, and on both occasions have shown they are tepid reformers at a time when Ukraine’s corrupt and inefficient economic system needs a thorough overhaul. They have been unwilling or unable to change the rules of the game in the relationship between big business and politics, and have therefore sought to retain close ties between themselves and oligarchs. Poroshenko is himself an oligarch, and the only Ukrainian tycoon whose assets have increased since 2014.

The ‘romantic’, or better described as the ‘radical’, wing of Ukraine’s pro-European political spectrum is likely to win the next elections. A newly-published poll found that Yatsenyuk’s Popular Front party has collapsed in support to 1%, while the Poroshenko Bloc is in 5th place with only 11%. The new poll gives a combined 33% to Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchina (Fatherland) party, Lviv mayor Andriy Sadovyy’s Samopomych (Self Reliance) party and former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili’s budding new political force. Although it has not yet been registered, Saakashvili’s embryo party is slightly more popular than the Poroshenko Bloc.

All public discontent will henceforth be targeted at the president

Ukrainian citizens are discontented by the continued economic-financial crisis, but more importantly by the absence of progress on justice and fighting high-level corruption and the continued influence of oligarchs. The new Groysman government was met with derision by Ukraine’s netizens as catering to oligarch interests, and indeed the parliamentary vote only succeeded with the support of two factions close to oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi. Ukrainian netizens believe this was also a missed opportunity to bring in a ‘technical’ government headed by the highly-respected former Finance Minister and Ukrainian-American Natalie Jaresko.

Nevertheless, the government reboot was given a positive spin by Dnipropetrovsk mayor Borys Filatov, an ally of Kolomoyskyi, who joked about the heralding of multiculturalism in Ukraine. ‘Look for good things in this change. The prime minister is a Jew while the speaker (Andriy Parubiy) is a Ukrainian nationalist. Aren’t we living in a wonderful country?’ It is true, indeed, that Ukraine’s vibrant civil society and flourishing independent media are showing no sign of giving up on the European values they supported during the Euromaidan revolution.

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