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Ukraine’s Yushchenko Conundrum

What difficulties does Ukraine’s Viktor Yushchenko face in forming a new coalition after the March 2006 elections?

April 12, 2006

What difficulties does Ukraine's Viktor Yushchenko face in forming a new coalition after the March 2006 elections?

It is rare to see such a flameout as Ukraine’s President Viktor Yushchenko and his Our Ukraine party have suffered in the year from Ukraine’s Orange Revolution to the country’s March 2006 parliamentary elections.

The Ukrainian people catapulted Viktor Yanukovitch and his Party of Regions back to the forefront of politics with a first place finish with 32% of the vote, after coming up on the losing side of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution.

They dealt another blow to Yushchenko by giving the former “Orange” prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party 22% of the vote, well ahead of Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine party with 14%.

Democracy is indeed vibrant and coherent in Ukraine. Those who supported Yanukovitch in the presidential election confirmed that Yushchenko’s performance as president has not led them to rethink their original choice.

Likewise, a majority of the “Orange” voters have chosen to sanction the president by backing Tymoshenko.

Despite a flourishing of civil society during the last year, with a newfound openness for the Ukrainian press and media, why have Yushchenko and his coalition partners not been able to expand their base? And why did Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine party lose so much ground to Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party in these elections?

Were expectations unrealistic after the Orange Revolution, with people expecting “too much, too fast”? Did Ukraine’s economic slowdown trump Yushchenko, with GDP growth declining from 12.1% in 2004, when Yanukovitch was prime minister, to 2.6% in 2005, when the Orange coalition came to power?

Speaking directly with Ukrainians, one finds a different reason: There is a heightened sense of disillusionment, particularly among those who supported the Orange coalition parties. Taking a taxi in Zhitomir, about 80 miles west of Kiev, a few months before the elections, I asked the driver what he thought about the political situation.

“I had never concerned myself much with politics,” he said. “But I went to Kiev and spent three days and nights out on Maidan in the bitter cold for the Orange Revolution, and now I’m fed up with these Orange politicians.”

I hear the same message from the person who sweeps the tennis courts in Kiev, from secretaries in offices and the managers in those same offices, even from civil servants in the government.

What are the people of Ukraine so fed up about?

The Orange Revolution was first and foremost a compact of integrity with the people. When Yushchenko dismissed the Tymoshenko government in September, he acknowledged that the government’s compact was not being fulfilled, stating that “at some point my colleagues simply lost the team spirit and faith…. I am convinced that it was not for this that millions of people stood in squares.”

Yushchenko was right, but his own compact with the people was already fragile. A few months earlier, he had stepped forward to defend his justice minister, who had been exposed for misrepresenting his education credentials. “If the justice minister is not held accountable for speaking the truth,” was the common refrain in Kiev, “then who in government will be?”

In July, Yushchenko lashed out at a journalist for questioning why his 19-year-old son was driving a high-end BMW and flaunting a platinum cell phone.

He later apologized, but his reactions with the justice minister and his son led people to question his personal commitment to end corruption and embrace a greater transparency in government.

In the meantime, investigations into high-profile political crimes, for which Yushchenko had promised answers and justice, remain unsolved, such as the murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze, Yushchenko’s own poisoning during the presidential election campaign and the electoral fraud that precipitated the Orange Revolution.

Moreover, when Yushchenko dismissed the Tymoshenko government in September, he created the impression that he was diverting attention from allegations of corruption that the state secretary in the presidential secretariat, Oleksandr Zinchenko, had leveled against people in Yushchenko’s inner circle.

Yushchenko then signed a political pact with Yanukovitch to secure the support of the Party of Regions for his nominee for prime minister, Yuriy Yekhanurov.

One point of the pact called for “the impermissibility of political repressions against the opposition,” effectively offering amnesty to perpetrators of voter fraud in the presidential election.

This pact marked the effective dissolution of the Orange coalition, just nine months after coming to power, and Yanukovitch’s return to the forefront of Ukraine’s political stage.

The Ukrainian people’s confidence in Yushchenko eroded further in January, when his team signed a gas deal with Russia in which a holding company, Rosukrenergo, was named to supply all of Ukraine’s gas imports.

Gazprom officials claim that they own 50% of Rosukrenergo and that the other 50% stake is held anonymously by Ukrainians. Yushchenko claimed ignorance when asked who was behind this stake: “I don’t know,” he said, “they may be Ukrainians, but I really don’t know who these people are.”

Does the president really not know which Ukrainians are allegedly behind a company with so pivotal a role for Ukraine’s energy security?

Now that the people have spoken, it is Yushchenko’s turn to choose. With no party holding an outright majority of seats, a coalition must be formed between at least two of the three leading parties to form a government.

Weakened by this electoral setback, Yushchenko nonetheless holds the cards to choose between an “Orange” majority with Euro-Atlantic ambitions or a majority with a pro-Russian tilt that covers Yanukovitch’s electoral base and is more appeasing toward Ukraine’s leading business interests.

For a reconstituted Orange coalition to succeed with a thin majority of 54% of seats in parliament, Yushchenko and his party would have to respect the voice of the “Orange” voters and cede control by making the necessary concessions for Tymoshenko to establish a cohesive team.

Such a coalition would have to overcome past tensions from Tymoshenko’s stint as prime minister, when she led a campaign of retribution toward Ukraine’s leading business interests. Yushchenko sought to heal such rifts after her dismissal with the appointment of the Yekhanurov government.

Yanukovitch’s first place victory and the internal pressures at play could point toward a Yanukovitch-Yushchenko alliance, with at least 59% of seats.

This would require overcoming the divergent priorities of integration with the West or expanding ties to Russia and the East, as Yanuovitch espoused during his election campaign.

This would also cede control back to the very person who just over a year ago was imploring then-president Leonid Kuchma to quash the Orange Revolution protests in Kiev to affirm the results of a fraudulent vote that would have given him the presidency.

Is it wishful thinking to consider that Yanukovitch and his Party of Regions have turned over a new leaf, embracing greater transparency and integrity in government?

On April 4, Ukraine’s parliament voted to lift the immunity of prosecution for local council deputies, an important step toward cleaning up local government. The measure received the least support among Yanukovitch’s Party of Regions, with only one deputy supporting it.

A third alternative to form a government would be a grand coalition of the three leading parties, with an absolute majority of at least 88% of seats. This would be the worst possible outcome: Ukraine needs above all a strong opposition.

A grand coalition would be a tenuous alliance and a recipe for corruption, where these parties could collude by divvying the economic spoils of power among the business interests that back them.

The question of who will lead the opposition is just as critical as who will lead the government. Tymoshenko established her credentials in opposition in the lead up to the Orange Revolution and since the dismissal of her government.

Yanukovitch has also demonstrated his capacity for leadership in opposition, which would only be strengthened by his recent electoral success — although his democratic credentials remain tainted from the presidential election.

However Yushchenko chooses, he must respect the voice of the Ukrainian people at the urns and then govern to restore his compact with them.