Ukraine’s Political Paralysis Gives Black Eyes to Orange Revolution Heroes
Ukraine, which has suffered a roundhouse blow from the economic crisis, has had no finance minister since February. It also has no foreign minister or defense minister...
Ukraine, which has suffered a roundhouse blow from the economic crisis, has had no finance minister since February. It also has no foreign minister or defense minister. The transportation minister just stepped down. The interior minister has offered to resign as well, after being accused of drunken behavior.
The president and the prime minister are no longer speaking, though they were once allies and heroes of the Orange Revolution, which brought a pro-Western government to power in 2005. The spirit of that uprising has apparently been squandered in a country that seems permanently gripped by political paralysis.
The public appears so frustrated that the leader of the opposition, who has close ties to the Kremlin and is often portrayed as the villain of the Orange Revolution, is the early favorite to win the presidential election next January.
The mood here is reflected in the popularity of a video clip that has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times in recent days. It shows the prime minister, Yulia V. Tymoshenko, who once enthralled Ukraine with her rousing slogans and peasant-braid-as-tiara hairstyle, just before she was to give a televised speech this month.
Her teleprompter suddenly malfunctions, and she snaps, “It’s all gone.”
Ms. Tymoshenko was referring to her text, but her words — which can also be translated as, “Everything’s fallen apart” — have been viewed as something of an epitaph for her political movement.
The deadlock has led the major European nations to voice growing alarm that Ukraine is incapable of dealing with its disintegrating economy.
They fear that an economic collapse here could reverberate throughout the former Soviet bloc and beyond.
On Wednesday, the foreign ministers of Germany and Poland made an unusual joint visit to the capital, Kiev. The German, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, declared that he was “extremely worried” about Ukraine, suggesting that its politicians must stop feuding if they wanted more assistance.
European officials also warned that Ukraine had fallen drastically behind on its preparations for serving as a host of the European soccer championship in 2012, and risked losing the event.
The major cabinet posts are unfilled in part because Ms. Tymoshenko and the president, Viktor A. Yushchenko, cannot agree on replacements. Ms. Tymoshenko used Parliament to dismiss the defense and foreign ministers, who are nominated by the president.
Behind the scenes, the president’s associates have contended that Ms. Tymoshenko is untrustworthy and has Machiavellian designs on power. Her side has responded that the president is a bumbling politician who is jealous of her charisma and public support.
Optimists in Kiev said the situation had worsened largely because the political class was jockeying before the presidential election, and they pointed out that the country’s leaders had always found a way to pull back from the brink. For example, they agreed on budget measures to comply with a $16.4 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund.
Whatever the discord, Ukraine is more free than most former Soviet republics, with a relatively uncontrolled news media and a far less repressive security apparatus.
Still, things have unquestionably soured. The popularity of President Yushchenko, who achieved worldwide attention during the Orange Revolution when his face was scarred in an attempted poisoning that remains unsolved, has sunk into the low single digits, and he is given little chance of winning re-election.
Mr. Yushchenko has been chided by even his own advisers for a lackluster bearing that has turned off the public, and it was in evidence this month at a nationally televised news conference.
He began with a statement that ground on for half an hour and was spoken without notable intensity, even when he attacked Ms. Tymoshenko.
Relations between the two have so deteriorated that Ms. Tymoshenko even tried this month to build a coalition with an Orange Revolution foe, Viktor F. Yanukovich, a former prime minister who leads the opposition in Parliament. That effort imploded in a cacophony of charges and countercharges.
Ukraine’s last finance minister, Viktor M. Pynzenyk, who is widely respected, acknowledged in an interview that the government had become hopelessly dysfunctional.
Mr. Pynzenyk said the politicians’ refusal to face up to the financial crisis with proper austerity measures had clearly worsened matters, and said they were running enormous deficits to pander to voters. He said he resigned because it was impossible to conduct the country’s fiscal affairs.
“People are disillusioned not with the Orange Revolution, but with the politicians,” Mr. Pynzenyk said.
He assailed the recent attempt by Ms. Tymoshenko to ally with Mr. Yanukovich. She had sought to amend the Constitution so that the president would be chosen by Parliament, not popularly elected.
Under their deal, Mr. Yanukovich would have been president and Ms. Tymoshenko would have occupied a strengthened post of prime minister. At the last moment, Mr. Yanukovich backed out.
“In my opinion, what happened in the last month represented a threat to establish an authoritarian regime,” Mr. Pynzenyk said. “Power has become the goal, and this is a very dangerous path.”
Ukraine has earned so much attention because it is one of the largest countries in Europe, with 46 million people, and serves as a vital transportation point for natural gas from Russia. Ukraine’s fractious politics have helped to strain relations with Russia, which has shut the flow of gas in payment disputes twice in recent years.
After the Orange Revolution, Ukraine was held up as an example of how countries, whether post-Soviet or elsewhere, could move past authoritarianism. But the problems here are now cited by Russian officials as evidence of what awaits countries that embrace a Western democratic model.
While Ms. Tymoshenko’s standing may have been damaged in recent weeks, she is considered a highly skillful politician who has mounted comebacks before, and polls indicate that she would be competitive with Mr. Yanukovich in the next presidential election.
Hryhoriy M. Nemyria, a deputy prime minister and Tymoshenko adviser, said Ms. Tymoshenko’s plan to change the Constitution was needed because lines of authority between the president and the prime minister were vague and bred conflict. Ukraine would be better off with a parliamentary system like Germany’s, he said.
He said Ms. Tymoshenko would be a formidable force in the election. “The thing she is definitely not lacking is leadership skills,” he said. “That is something that might be in great deficit in some of the other candidates.”
Oles Dony, a young member of Parliament who was active in the Orange Revolution and supported the president, said he believed that Ukrainians would not shy away from taking part in the presidential campaign, despite recent events.
“People are tired, not of politics, but of all these characters and their style of behavior,” he said. “But they are not tired of democracy.”