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After Ukraine Vote, a New Test: Burying a Legacy of Dysfunctional Politics

  • 29.10.14 13:34

After Ukraine Vote, a New Test: Burying a Legacy of Dysfunctional Politics

For much of its post-Soviet history, the Ukrainian government has been a mud pit of vicious rivalries and sinister back-fighting between presidents and prime ministers, contributing to mismanagement, corruption and even charges of violence. That dysfunction has hobbled the country, leaving it one of the poorest on the European continent and often beholden to the whims of Russia.



So the question always lingers over a Kiev government that its citizens have learned to regard as guilty until proven innocent: Will that poisonous legacy come back to snuff out the ideals of Maidan, where hundreds of thousands protested last winter — and scores died — demanding a European future?



It certainly cast a shadow this week as Ukrainian voters choosing a new Parliament made clear that they wanted President Petro O. Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk to work together to pursue a pro-European course.



Although the two men have been allies since the outbreak of mass street protests in Kiev last year, the election also revealed the fault lines of a tense, new rivalry like those that proved so debilitating in the past: between President Viktor A. Yushchenko and his prime minister, Yulia V. Tymoshenko; between Mr. Yushchenko and another prime minister and former president, Viktor F. Yanukovych; and between Mr. Yanukovych and Ms. Tymoshenko, whom he imprisoned.



After his party, People’s Front, scored a surprising first-place finish, Mr. Yatsenyuk moved swiftly on Wednesday, declaring that he would take charge of forming the new ruling coalition in Parliament — proving that he plans not only to keep the prime minister’s job but also to be an equal partner with Mr. Poroshenko in shaping post-Maidan Ukraine.



Several analysts said they believed that Mr. Poroshenko and Mr. Yatsenyuk were smart enough to avoid the pitfalls of their predecessors.



“I believe they can and have gotten along,” Adrian Karatnycky, an expert on Ukraine at the Atlantic Council of the United States, said. “This is not a repetition of the debilitating Yushchenko-Tymoshenko or Yushchenko-Yanukovych years. Lots of potential for blowups, but in the end, they are kith and kin.”



“Yatsenyuk and Poroshenko,” Mr. Karatnycky said, “are the most competent leaders Ukraine has ever had.”



Others, however, see reason for apprehension and not only because of the country’s troubled past.



Mr. Poroshenko and Mr. Yatsenyuk failed to reach an agreement to campaign in the parliamentary elections under a single-party umbrella. Among the nation’s political elite, it became generally well understood that Mr. Poroshenko was hoping to replace Mr. Yatsenyuk with Volodymyr Groysman, a deputy prime minister and close personal ally from Vinnytsia, where the president grew up.



By some accounts, negotiations to form a single party broke down after disputes over how many appointments to the government, known as the Cabinet of Ministers, each man would control. By other accounts, the talks collapsed in a petty clash over the party name.



“It’s politics now, and each of them wants to be the main person,” said one Ukrainian political insider who has had dealings with both men and spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to be seen as taking sides.



Though Mr. Poroshenko ultimately won control of more seats in Parliament, the People’s Front led by Mr. Yatsenyuk edged out the president’s Bloc Petro Poroshenko in party balloting, 22.2 percent to 21.8 percent, according to the returns.



Under the current Constitution, the prime minister has much more authority over the day-to-day operations of the government, though the president is head of state and controls the military and foreign policy.



By personality, Mr. Poroshenko, a billionaire confectionary magnate, and Mr. Yatsenyuk, a wonkish technocrat well-liked by Western colleagues, are extremely different from their predecessors, who often reflected a Slavic imperiousness.



Some analysts said that one of the clear messages of Sunday’s election was that voters do not want a single figure dominating all aspects of the government, as was the case with President Yanukovych.



Alyona Getmanchuk, the director of the World Policy Institute, a political research organization in Kiev, and others said this was one reason to be optimistic that Mr. Poroshenko and Mr. Yatsenyuk would work as a team.



“People’s Front did so well because for many people it was an election for prime minister, not a Parliament,” Ms. Getmanchuk said. “They wanted Yatsenyuk reappointed, and the most important is that they didn’t want Poroshenko to monopolize power. They didn’t want a Yanukovych-lite scenario when a president grabs all the power including the government and Parliament.”



Mr. Yatsenyuk, who is nicknamed the Rabbit because of his resemblance to the cartoon character in the Soviet version of Winnie the Pooh, acknowledged even as he cast his own vote on Sunday that his political future depended on the election returns.



The surprise first-place finish of People’s Front has clearly emboldened him, while at the same time delivering a reality check to Mr. Poroshenko.



At a news conference on Wednesday in Kiev, Mr. Yatsenyuk said that he was seizing the initiative in forming the new majority, but stressed that it would be a partnership with Mr. Poroshenko.



With a war against pro-Russian separatists still simmering in the east and its economy ever on the brink of collapse, Ukraine faces several tough months ahead, including the prospect of painful austerity measures that Mr. Yatsenyuk is expected to take the lead in formulating.



In that sense, his success at the ballot box could prove to be a huge benefit for Mr. Poroshenko.



Should the government’s popularity dwindle in several months, or should it fail to meet public expectations, Mr. Yatsenyuk could end up taking the blame and being forced to resign.



That would not only deflect the heat from Mr. Poroshenko but also allow him to name Mr. Groysman as prime minister.



For now, though, the president’s plans for Mr. Groysman have been put on hold. “There have been assumptions that he would like to see his protégé Volodymyr Groysman as prime minister, and they even went to Europe together,” Andryi Pavlovsky, a member of Parliament from Ms. Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party, said. “But the election results undermined his plans.”



Nevertheless, Taras Berezovets, a political consultant in Ukraine, said that viewing the election as a setback for the president was a mistake.



“We are not talking about Poroshenko’s defeat,” he said. “The high result for People’s Front is because some of the president’s supporters voted for Yatsenyuk and so for a new deal between the president and prime minister.”



“Nobody wants monopolization of power,” Mr. Berezovets said. “As for rivalry,” he said, “there is no sign of jealousy so far.”



Geoffrey R. Pyatt, the United States ambassador to Ukraine, expressed a similar view in a radio interview on Wednesday. “What I see,” Mr. Pyatt said, “is an election that has helped draw Ukraine together.”



NYTimes, 29.10.2014
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