The Ukrainian cabinet’s retirement has made headlines across the world. President Viktor Yushchenko has had telephone conversations, concerning the domestic political crisis, with Vladimir Putin and Alexander Kwasniewski. Over the weekend, he also spoke with George Bush (a significant fact, by the way, for it is hard to recall when the US head of state has last called his Ukrainian counterpart; under the previous Ukrainian leadership such communications were carried out by lower-ranking US officials). Speaking with his US counterpart, President Yushchenko assured him that the events in Ukraine will not alter this country’s strategic course. Nor is official Kyiv overlooking the “Russian vector.” Oleh Rybachuk, the newly appointed State Secretary of Ukraine, flew to Moscow yesterday. Below, James Sherr, senior research fellow with the Conflict Study Center of the British Defense Academy, shares his views on recent developments in Ukraine.
What are the reasons for the crisis?
It pains me to say that the ultimate reason might be President Yushchenko himself. He is a thoroughly good person, but he has been brought to power to change a thoroughly rotten system. It was a system that made power, wealth and business inseparable and conspiratorial norms of conduct commonplace. Some have graduated from this school and repudiated it. Some wish to repudiate it and cannot. Some have no wish to. There can be no hope of changing such a system — changing its ethos and trajectory — unless you start with the top: the government, senior executive authorities, senior staffs and their norms and methods of working. The only criteria for choosing such people must be commitment and professionalism. It shouldn’t matter whether you are personally close to them or not. A government is not a family. It is a political enterprise, and politics is often a cold business. But Yushchenko is not a cold person. He needs to believe in people, and it would appear that some of those he believed in took advantage of his decency and trust.
The second reason, of course, is the struggle for power. It exists everywhere. But in contrast, say, to Britain, there are very few checks on this struggle in Ukraine, and the stakes are vastly higher. The fate of Britain does not depend on whether Tony Blair stays or goes or on who replaces him.
I find it difficult to believe that Brodskyy’s statement and Zinchenko’s resignation were unconnected events or that either acted without consultation with Tymoshenko. Whether the events were loosely or closely coordinated is a question for the insiders. But the intent seems clear: to force the President’s hand against Poroshenko. And the timing made sense. The latest opinion polls — not surprising, but alarming — made a change of course urgent. Of course, had Yushchenko simply dismissed Poroshenko and Tretyakov, that would have left Tymoshenko in a virtually unassailable position — and it would have left Yushchenko more than slightly dependent upon her. After all, Poroshenko and Tretyakov would not have liked being dismissed, and it is very unlikely that they would have behaved like friends afterwards. So while there are compelling, principled reasons for Zinchenko and Tymoshenko to stage this drama, it would be naive to pretend that they didn’t have political aims, too.
So, was the President’s dismissal of the Cabinet a bold counterstrike or not? It was certainly bold, even if it was his entourage who pushed, pulled and cajoled him. But was it wise? Would it have been bolder and wiser for Yushchenko to have dismissed his friends and stood with Yulia? For me at least, it is too early to say. The key question is whether the President really intends to retire Poroshenko to the gallery or whether he remains the power behind the scenes. The good news is that the Acting Prime Minister Yekhanurov brings to the task the ideal combination of qualities. He has a very sound grasp of the economy, is extremely competent, committed and free of personal ambition. Can he, Rybachuk and Tarasyuk provide the core of what is desperately needed — a coherent professional team — or do they lack the critical mass to do that? I think we will know the answers to these questions fairly soon.
What will be the impact of the latest events on the international image of the country?
Be in no doubt, the magic of the Orange Revolution was wearing off long before this crisis. But don’t underestimate the suspense and ambivalence felt outside the country. On the one hand, no one would dare form firm conclusions now. We are still in the middle of the Tsunami. On the other hand, observers and governments are alert to the positive as well as negative features of what has occurred. The negative features are obvious, and they will be worse if ambassadors report that a court camarilla is isolating and manipulating the President. But assessments will be guardedly positive if Yushchenko returns to centre stage, builds a cohesive team and launches a bold and sustained assault on the problems that Ukraine has inherited. Second, they will also be positive if instead of having an opposition inside government, arguments take place in the open and the lines between government and opposition are clear. And third and not least, it will be far better for the country, particularly after its constitutional reform, to have a political opposition dominated by Tymoshenko and her supporters than Yanukovych and his.
But most important for Ukrainians is this: I am convinced that, like the Orange Revolution, the current crisis will show that the greatest influence on the international image of Ukraine remains Ukraine itself.
(The article expresses the views of the author that are not necessarily those of the British Ministry of Defence)