By Will Freeman at ThinkProgress
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk announced on Thursday that he plans to step down after the populist Udar and far right Svoboda parties withdrew from the coalition governing the war-torn country. As fighting around the rebel stronghold of Donetsk intensifies and the civilian death toll rises, the government in Kiev can scarcely afford more obstacles to its decision making. Amid the political chaos, corrupt opportunists stand to gain the most.
Yatsenyuk called on Svoboda and Udar to nominate an interim Prime Minister to serve until new parliamentary elections can be held next fall. The fact that these two parties, respectively known for virulent anti-Semitism and corruption, are now wielding such power should be concerning for those who placed hope in the progressive elements within last winter’s Maidan protests. Svoboda, whose leader garnered just over one percent of the vote when he ran for president against Poroshenko in May, is notorious for promoting anti-Semitic views and praising Ukrainian insurgents who killed thousands of Jews during World War II. The Udar party, headed by former boxer Vitali Klitschko, advocates for reform but is “increasingly known for engaging in backroom deals and shutting other Maidan leaders out of power,” according to an editor for Belarus Digest Devin Ackles.
“A Full Reset”
Yatsenyuk, a pro-Western technocrat, made the decision to quit after weeks of parliamentary deadlock surrounding two highly divisive issues: allowing U.S. and E.U. companies to manage Ukraine’s aging gas facilities and ramping up military funding for Ukraine’s ongoing civil war with separatists in the east. He warned parliament’s failure to act risked the new government losing the support of the thousands who protested as part of the Maidan movement that toppled ex-President Yanukovych last February. “History will not forgive us,” he warned.
President Poroshenko welcomed the collapse of the coalition that had been struggling to agree on new policies. Under Ukrainian law, the withdrawal of Svoboda and Udar allows the president to dissolve the parliament until elections can be held next fall. “Society wants a full reset of state authorities,” Poroshenko said in a statement released Thursday.
While Ukraine elected a new president in May, many parliamentarians are holdovers from elections that occurred before Yanukovych fled the country. Critics allege that the withdrawal of Svoboda and Udar was planned to allow Poroshenko’s administration to silence dissenting voices in government. On Wednesday, after an MP from Yanukovych’s Party of Regions called attention to the killing of civilians by the Ukrainian military, right wing parliamentarians started a fistfight.
It’s clear that the gears of Ukraine’s government have ground to a halt, but a complete overhaul of the current parliament will only pile up more roadblocks for Ukraine’s leaders in the near future. “There is a lot to be concerned about,” said John Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. “Government unity is important for dealing with the current security dangers, but this is something for Ukrainians to work out.”
The Big Winners
The government shake-up also threatens to elevate the popularity of right-leaning nationalist politicians and parties that definitely strike a different tone from the pro-Western Maidan protestors who called for a more liberal, open society during last winter’s protest. While Ackles says recent polling suggests Svoboda will not recapture the 10 percent of votes it claimed in the last elections, its role in deciding the new prime minister gives it dangerous, oversized influence in shaping the interim government.
Ackles, an analyst at the Center for Social and Economic Research (CASE) Ukraine, told ThinkProgress that the big winner in the government’s reset will be Oleh Lyashko’s Radical Party. “Oleh Lyashko’s Radical Party has seen tremendous gains and will be a real player in the upcoming elections,” he said. “By polling at 15.5 percent from voters intending on participating in the elections, his party looks like it will be the second largest party in the new parliament, after president Poroshenko’s ‘solidarity’ party,” he added. “His party is even beating out the largest ruling party, [former Prime Minister Yulia] Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party.”
Lyashko was considered a laughable figure on the fringe of Ukrainian politics before the country’s current crisis skyrocketed him to fame. In May, he even managed to come in third in Ukraine’s presidential election with 8 percent of the vote. Known for donning military fatigues and posting videos of himself abducting and interrogating separatist leaders at gunpoint, Ackles said that Lyashko has gained a cult following of anti-Russia pro-Ukraine young males by lambasting members of the political opposition as “traitors.”
“A majority of his politics are ultra-populist, and not in a progressive sense of the word,” said Ackles. Despite playing on popular discontent over corruption, he added that Lyashko “has no reform program” and has embraced a luxurious lifestyle, which came to typify the flaws with Ukraine’s political system for so many Maidan protestors. Ackles said that Lyashko regularly charters private flights around the country and lives in a massive mansion outside Kiev “that someone making an MPs salary could not afford.” “When questioned directly about his income and what was not on his public declaration on Public Television, he skirted the issue and said that he had set money aside for a rainy day. When asked how much money, he wouldn’t answer,” Ackles told ThinkProgress. Beneath his fiery, populist rhetoric, Lyashko doesn’t seem all that different from the politicians Maidan protestors risked their lives to unseat.
Lyashko’s meteoric rise to fame, Svoboda’s sway over recent events, and the general breakdown of any semblance of working order in the current government all suggest that even if Kiev manages to defeat the rebels in Donetsk, Ukraine might not have transformed all that much from the days of Yanukovych. And if the pro-Western government of Petro Poroshenko ultimately fails to meet the demands of the disaffected protestors who sparked the current tumult by pushing Yanukovych from power last winter- essentially fulfilling Yatsenyuk’s warning -these same discontents may increasingly turn to radical parties and leaders for solutions.