Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko has been visiting Canada this week. During the visit he addressed Parliament, which was expected to recognize the 1932-33 Ukraine Famine as an act of genocide on 28 May.
However, he left behind in Ukraine a growing row with his Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko over the privatization of property and the distribution of authority between the office of the president and that of his former Orange ally.
Tymoshenko has made plain her desire to provide compensation for those citizens whose deposits in the former Soviet Savings Bank were rendered worthless by the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. She intends to do this by privatizing a number of key companies, chief of which is the Odesa Portside Plant (OPZ), which produces ammonia and nitrogen fertilizer. The Prime Minister proposed to sell the plant at an auction, and then use the funds accrued to compensate investors and sponsor social programs. Such measures would presumably raise her popularity with the public on the eve of new presidential elections, which will take place late in 2009 or early in 2010.
The Prime Minister’s other key declared task was to remove the intermediary company in Ukraine’s discussions of gas questions with Russia: RosUkrEnergo.
Yushchenko, who hosted an energy summit this week in Kyiv, has stood in the way of both projects, most notably by opposing Tymoshenko’s plans to install her own candidate, Andrii Portnoy, as head of the State Property Fund. In early February, the Prime Minister suspended the Fund’s leader Valentyna Semenyuk and appointed Portnoy in her place. Yushchenko issued a legal appeal against the firing, which was duly turned down by the Constitutional Court. Ultimately, both the president and Prime Minister threatened to use force to back up their candidates. In addition, the Prosecutor-General, following the president’s instructions, has filed a criminal case against Portnoy for trying to privatize state property illegally.
These events have been accompanied by another conflict concerning amendments to the Ukrainian Constitution. It is no secret that Tymoshenko would prefer that more power be given to the Parliament. She has assured Yushchenko that he would be allowed to extend his term in office, albeit with weakened authority. Yushchenko has accused Tymoshenko and leader of the Social Democratic Party Viktor Medvedchuk of causing a political crisis through surreptitious changes to the Constitution, without broad public debate. The Constitutional Council appointed by the president, meanwhile, has reportedly completed its own draft of a revised Constitution that would bring about power sharing while setting up a second chamber, the Senate, which would appoint key officials nominated by the president.
Some supporters of the president accuse Tymoshenko of a naked grab for power that would see her as the main figure in Ukrainian politics. Yet neither Yushchenko nor Tymoshenko have any support from the largest parliamentary faction, the Regions Party of Ukraine, led by their old nemesis and former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.
Critics of Yushchenko complain that the president has no clearly delineated policy other than to remain in office, and that he has floundered, moving from one crisis to another and unable to put together a solid band of support in the Parliament. An April poll suggests that were a presidential election to be held at that time, the main contest would be between Tymoshenko and Yanukovych (both have the support of over 20% of the electorate), with Yushchenko a distant third at around 8%. Our Ukraine, Yushchenko’s political party, similarly commands only 8% support and won only one province in the 2007 parliamentary election. Such standings render Yushchenko a likely one-term president.
The president, however, is fighting resolutely. He has admonished Tymoshenko for unanticipated high rates of inflation in the country and ordered the Cabinet to come up with a viable economic plan. He has sent the Presidential Guard to patrol the State Property Fund, and he has declared the Odesa Portside Plant to be an object of vital strategic interest that cannot be subjected to privatization. He has dissolved Parliament twice since 2006, and it seems only a matter of time before he dismisses Tymoshenko for a second time (her first Cabinet in 2005 lasted for only nine months). At that point the confrontation would become an open contest for the presidency.
Yet none of these measures really address the main question, which is how Ukraine can bring about the sort of stable government it had under former president Leonid Kuchma in 1994-2004. Ironically, the much more democratic and far less corrupt regime established through the Orange Revolution has been mired by political in-fighting and power struggles, largely between the presidency and the Prime Minister’s office.
A version of this article appeared in the Edmonton Journal on 25 May.