A months-long political crisis in Kiev came to an end on April 14, when Ukraine’s Rada (parliament) approved a new prime minister. Expectations that the government will move on needed reforms and anti-corruption measures, however, are low.
Kamikaze prime minister?
The previous prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, had served since the Maidan Revolution in February 2014. Early on, Yatsenyuk equated his tenure to a kamikaze mission, noting that the reforms the government would adopt would carry heavy political costs. He proved right. By early 2016, his National Front party, which won over 22 percent in the October 2014 party-list vote in the Rada elections, polled in the low single digits.
Reports of a widening rift between Yatsenyuk and President Petro Poroshenko grew last autumn, though they still had reason to stay together. The National Front party and Poroshenko Bloc formed the core of the majority coalition in the Rada, and neither party could expect to fare well in early parliamentary elections.
Early on, Yatsenyuk equated his tenure to a kamikaze mission, noting that the reforms the government would adopt would carry heavy political costs.
The crisis took a twist in mid-February, when the Rada passed a resolution expressing disapproval of the work of Yatsenyuk and his cabinet…but then failed to pass a vote of no-confidence that would have led to Yatsenyuk’s dismissal.
Speculation nevertheless intensified over his looming replacement, with American-born Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko mooted as a possibility. Volodymyr Hroysman’s name also came into play. Hroysman, a member of the Poroshenko Bloc, is closely connected to the president. He had a reputation as a reformer and effective mayor of the city of Vinnytsia, though his performance as Rada speaker was mixed. For example, he opposed the finance ministry’s proposed tax reform, even though it was a requirement of Ukraine’s program with the International Monetary Fund.
When Yatsenyuk announced his resignation on April 10, Hroysman appeared the front-runner to succeed him. His appointment took longer than expected, however, as he reportedly rejected some suggestions from the president’s camp for ministers, seeking to put in place his own people instead. Backroom negotiations and a fair amount of horse-trading as parties jockeyed for ministerial positions took place April 11 to 13. Finally, the Rada approved Hroysman on April 14.
Low reform expectations
At first glance, the composition of the new cabinet is a far more political group than its predecessor, which comprised many technocrats. It is devoid of names with established reputations for pressing reform or fighting corruption. My conversations on the margins of the Kiev Security Forum on April 14 to 15 turned up few expectations that the new cabinet will proceed with the kinds of reform actions and, in particular, measures to combat corruption that the country needs.
The International Monetary Fund will watch the cabinet’s actions before it considers releasing an additional tranche of funding for Ukraine. One unsettling sign: The incoming finance minister suggested that some adjustments might be sought in the IMF’s criteria. Historically, when Ukrainian finance ministers seek adjustments to IMF criteria and programs, they do not aim for changes that will accelerate reform.
At first glance, the composition of the new cabinet is a far more political group than its predecessor.
Some in Kiev worry about the close relationship between Hroysman and Poroshenko. But that relationship may have one upside: it ties Poroshenko more closely to the prime minister and his success or failure. Too often in the past, Ukrainian presidents have stood some distance from the prime minister, positioning themselves to escape responsibility for difficult government policies rather than throwing their full political weight behind the prime minister’s efforts.
Poroshenko did not fully back Yatsenyuk. As one Ukrainian observer put it, the president often seemed more interested in explaining or rationalizing the status quo rather than trying to change it. Now, if Hroysman and the new cabinet fail to deliver, it will reflect more directly on Poroshenko.
A friendly push
If my Ukrainian interlocutors are correct, the new government will pursue the needed reforms at best only half-heartedly. Among other things, that could leave in place the current system in which oligarchs exercise outsized and unhealthy political influence. That will impede Ukraine’s prospects of getting on the path to becoming a modern European state.
The International Monetary Fund, United States, and European Union should help the Ukrainian president and prime minister make the right decisions: to press forward a program of genuine reform and, at long last, a real anti-corruption campaign. The West should make clear that further assistance will depend on such actions.