By Ivan Lozowy
THE UKRAINE INSIDER
Vol. 8, No. 3
September 23, 2008
ITEM A.: THIRD TIME THE CHARM?
The collapse of the Yushchenko-Tymoshenko coalition which became official on September 16 is the culmination of nine months of intense work by Yushchenko’s chief-of-staff, Viktor Baloha. Ever since Tymoshenko was named Prime Minister last December, Baloha has gone to great lengths to undercut her. Every action of Tymoshenko’s was countermanded or undermined by Yushchenko and publicly criticized by Baloha or his subordinates in the Presidential Secretariat.
This process has been helped along by Tymoshenko’s own charismatic chaotic and devil-may-care approach. But the bottom line has been what is, in the view of Yushchenko’s team, the need to rein in Tymoshenko. Because of his own detachment and passivity, Yushchenko’s popularity has remained in the single digits whereas presidential elections are only a year away. There was no secret as to what Tymoshenko would do once she became Prime Minister a second time. She would do what she did before, in 2005, namely, privatize and attempt to redistribute former state property through re-privatization efforts while handing out government money in populist measures aimed at increasing her poll ratings.
Accustomed in the 1990’s to running the large quasi-state energy holding United Energy Systems of Ukraine, Tymoshenko has reached new heights as Prime Minister. Now she controls a budget of hundreds of billions of hryvnia, all geared to increase her own popularity.
It was this process that Baloha’s persistent and quite successful countermeasures were designed to disrupt. Thus it was only natural that, until this summer, the bitterest conflict between Tymoshenko and Yushchenko was over the State Property Fund. Last spring, Tymoshenko used her usual heavy-handed tactics to try and install her associate, the MP Andriy Portnov, as the head of the State Property Fund. This initiative backfired when Baloha called in the heavy guns, getting the Procuratura to initiate criminal cases against officials helping Portnov.
Despite repeated efforts, Baloha was unable to dislodge Tymoshenko because the parliamentary majority underpinning her government was difficult to manipulate. Apart from Tymoshenko’s own block, BYuT, the majority was based on the Our Ukraine coalition with the National Self-Defense organization headed by Minister of Internal Affairs, Yuriy Lutsenko, who is closely allied with Tymoshenko. For its part, Our Ukraine is chaired by Vyacheslav Kyrylenko, who also heads the party’s parliamentary faction, who is not very close to Baloha and who has tried to lead an independent line.
Baloha thus created his own party in back in March, Single Center (See The Ukraine Insider, vol. 8, no. 2 from May 6, 2008). He also got two of his associates, the MPs Ihor Rybakov and Yuriy But, to leave the Yushchenko-Tymoshenko coalition. But because of parliamentary rules, these moves did not affect the governing coalition.
Following the short-lived Russian-Georgia war in August, however, Baloha seized his chance.
Tymoshenko had famously got on very well with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, but she was conspicuously absent in the public sphere when Russian tanks rumbled into Georgia. Baloha’s subordinates at first spread rumors then spoke openly of an alleged agreement between Tymoshenko and Russia’s Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that she would not criticize Russia over its actions in the Caucasus. The rumors spoke of two additional points on which Tymoshenko had folded in to the Kremlin’s demands: she would leave the Russian fleet in Krym’s (the Crimea’s) Sevastopol alone and would not allow the Odesa-Brody pipeline to pump oil to Europe in detour of Russia. In return, Tymoshenko would receive Russia’s blessing and even, possibly, financial support for her presidential bid in 2009. Taking into account the Kremlin’s appetites, Tymoshenko’s own actions and the confidence with which one of Baloha’s direct subordinates has accused Tymoshenko of “treason,” this version seems likel!
Accusations against Tymoshenko of treason made an impact within the Our Ukraine parliamentary faction, which includes representatives from such patriotically inclined parties as Rukh and the Ukrainian National Party. During a meeting of the Our Ukraine parliamentary faction hastily convened on the night of September 2, for the first time there was a majority against further cooperation with BYuT and the fate of the Yushchenko-Tymoshenko coalition was sealed.
The direct cause of the September 2 meeting was a series of votes cast in the Rada, or parliament, that day in which BYuT voted together with the Party of Regions. This voting constituted an end run by Tymoshenko around Yushchenko, avoiding his obstructionist methods by cooperating with his former rival for the presidency, Viktor Yanukovych, head of the Party of Regions.
Yushchenko and Baloha were aghast. They had just been declared irrelevant in parliament. But, stoking the fires of indignation at Tymoshenko’s “betrayal,” Baloha was able to achieve the collapse of the Our Ukraine – BYuT coalition. Small wonder then that, as Tymoshenko herself said, immediately after the collapse Baloha and several friends, including the MPs Rybakov and But, left Ukraine on a charter flight to celebrate in a foreign, undisclosed location.
With new elections expected by the end of December, Baloha expects his Single Center party to enter parliament, with him in the role of king-maker. Where is the President in all this? Following docilely along. Rumors of the degree to which Baloha has come to dominate Yushchenko’s actions and even thinking have reached legendary proportions. Yushchenko has only helped along such surmises, as when, in response to complaints from some MPs as to Baloha’s inordinate influence, Yushchenko responded: “I am Baloha.”
(In the following issue: Baloha’s genius of destruction)
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(c) Ivan Lozowy