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Ukraine’s government almost fell yesterday. It’s still in crisis. Here’s what happened and why it matters

- February 17, 2016
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, center, reacts after surviving a vote of no confidence in Parliament in Kiev on  Feb. 16. Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko called on the country’s embattled prime minister to resign, a move that would break apart the fragile ruling coalition, but Yatsenyuk survived the no confidence vote despite simmering political tensions. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

Yesterday, the president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, issued a call for the current prime minister of Ukraine, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, to resign, after which Yatsenyuk survived a vote of no confidence. To help make sense of these events – and their implication for both the short and long-term future of Ukraine – I emailed political scientist Oxana Shevel of Tufts University for her reaction. What follows is a lightly edited transcript of her answers to my questions:

Joshua Tucker: What exactly happened yesterday in Ukraine?

Oxana Shevel: The Ukrainian cabinet delivered its performance report to the Ukrainian parliament, and the parliament voted the cabinet’s performance unsatisfactory. However, the parliament failed to vote no confidence in the government and prime minister Arsenii Yatsenyuk. 194 lawmakers voted in favor of the no-confidence motion, 32 votes short of the necessary 226 for the vote to pass. The outcome of the vote was uncertain until the end, and many believed that the government might resign or be dismissed, especially after Poroshenko publicly called for the cabinet’s resignation.

Immediately after the vote of no confidence failed, allegations – based on analysis of the role call of the vote – surfaced that the president was not sincere in his call for a complete government reboot and therefore in his stated commitment to clean government. In particular, 22 members of the pro-presidential Petro Poroshenko Block failed to support the no confidence motion, including president’s closest associates and the business partner of his chief of staff. Porosheko sacrificed Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin, who resigned today following the president’s appeal for him to also step down. If allowing Yatsenyuk and the government to stay on while sacrificing Shokin was meant to show Western supporters that Ukrainian leadership is serious about reforms, the strategy may have worked. In today’s press briefing, the U.S. State Department’s deputy spokesperson called Shokin’s resignation “a signal of Ukraine’s seriousness about its reform process.”

JT: What precipitated these events?  Why now?

OS: Dissatisfaction with the government in Ukraine has been brewing for some time, in light of a devaluing currency, a hike in utilities prices against a drop in the living standards, and allegations of continued corruption in the highest echelons of the government. According to a representative poll from December 2015, just 8.7 percent of the population trusted the government and only 16.8 percent trusted the president. According to another representative 2015 poll, only 7.8 percent and 12.3 percent, respectively, believed that the prime minister and the president want to eradicate corruption.

The immediate prelude to the current crisis was the Feb. 4 resignation of reformist Economy Minister Aivaras Abromavicius, one of a group of foreign officials not linked to local corruption networks, who was hired to implement reforms after a pro-Western government took power in 2014.

Abromavicius stepped down, alleging that corrupt officials had blocked systematic reform and were attempting to gain influence over state enterprises. Seven other cabinet ministers resigned as well, although in the following days some of the officials recalled their resignations after intense negotiations with the president.

JT: What is at stake here?

OS: There are several important issues at stake, starting with the fate of a $17.5 billion international rescue loan from the IMF that Ukraine needs. A broader issue is whether or not the post-Euromaidan Ukrainian government can finally shed a legacy of endemic corruption that has plagued Ukraine since independence and move forward on the path of reforms, transparency and accountability, or if special interest, including individuals close to the president, prime minister and Yanukovych-era oligarchs, will continue to exercise informal – if not formal – control over economic decisions of the government.

The current government that came to power following the victory of the Euromaidan protest in early 2014 that erupted in a society frustrated with systemic graft and corruption perpetuated by former president Viktor Yanukovych. The victory of Euromaidan, dubbed as the “revolution of dignity” in Ukraine, created high expectations for the new government to live up to the expectations of clean politics for which scores of protesters sacrificed their lives.

Increasingly, however, the Ukrainian public has been getting disillusioned with the pace and scope of reforms while investigative reporters continued to reveal evidence of “gray cardinals” and business associates of high level officials, including the president and prime minister, attempting to advance their economic interests and sabotage anti-corruption measures.

JT: Are we likely to see additional political change in Ukraine in the coming months?  Will the government resign?  Will there be early elections? What does all this mean for Ukraine’s longer-range future?

OS: Yesterday’s vote of no confidence in the government failed, and the prime minister did not resign himself. According to Ukrainian legislation, the parliament can vote no confidence in the cabinet only once during each legislative session. This means that the current cabinet and prime minister could potentially stay until the end of July when the current legislative session ends.

However, given the clear lack of support for the prime minister within the governing coalition of four pro-Western parties (Petro Poroshenko Block, Popular Front, Self-Reliance and Fatherland), it is highly unlikely that the government can just continue business as usual or be able to govern effectively going forward. The most immediate outcome will likely be some degree of reshuffling of the cabinet, but this is unlikely to address either widespread popular dissatisfaction and lack of confidence in the Yatsenyuk  cabinet, nor internal disagreements within the formal governing coalition.

For now, most of the Ukrainian political class seems to want to avoid early elections. The president cautioned in his address yesterday that when Ukraine is fighting Russian aggression against its territorial integrity that political wars within Ukraine are “a dream of our northeastern neighbor,” and promised to do all he can to keep the coalition together and avoid early elections.

Early elections are also not in the interest of parties in the current governing coalition which are likely to do less well than they did in the November 2014 election, given the lack of economic improvement and other clear accomplishments. The Opposition Bloc, which unites former Yanukovych backers, could improve their standing, but not significantly enough for early elections to be clearly appealing. The fact that the Opposition Bloc deputies walked out during the no-confidence vote rather than voting against the government suggests that prominent oligarchs such as Rinat Akhmetov favor advancing their economic interest with the current government rather than through new elections.

However, without either the prime minister and current cabinet’s resignation or early elections, it is unclear how further deepening of the political crisis can be avoided. The government needs support in the legislature to pass bills, and if the current government has to rely on support not from the formal pro-Western coalition but from an ad-hoc coalition of business interests and oligarchs, including those who used to be in the Yanukovych camp, this will only further deepen societal disillusionment and the sentiment that the post-Euromaidan leaders have betrayed the sacrifices of the 2014 “Revolution of dignity” when people rose against the corrupt and kleptocratic rule of former president.

If two of the smaller parties that have been most critical of the Yatsenyuk government, Self-Reliance and Fatherland, formally leave the ruling coalition, it will shrink to below half of the legislative seats required for the coalition to exist, which would deepen the political crisis and potentially make early elections unavoidable.