On 26 April the Ukrainian parliament passed a vote of no-confidence in Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko. Two hundred and sixty-three MPs voted in favor of the decision from a wide range of parties including: the Communists, the United Social Democratic Party, the Working Ukraine group, the Democratic Union, Regions of Ukraine, and the Yabluko factions.
Yushchenko's opponents accused him of ruining the economy even though major economic indicators show that the economy has grown since Yushchenko took office in December 1999.
Only 69 voters supported the now "acting" premier and his reformist policy. Support came from the People's Movement of Ukraine, the Ukrainian People's Movement, the Reforms-Congress Party, and the Motherland Party, all traditional supporters of Yushchenko.
Events escalated on 19 April when parliament declared that the government's performance on the "Reforms for Wellbeing" program is unsatisfactory. The respective resolution won the support of 283 parliamentary members.
The following week, on 24 April, anti-governmental forces hastened to push forward the vote of no-confidence. Tensions within parliament were high and discussions descended into physical clashes amongst the deputies. The vote was postponed until 26 April, allowing time for Yushchenko to return from a state visit to Greece.
President Leonid Kuchma offered a controversial stance. Although he expressed his "dissatisfaction" at the outcome of the vote, and spoke in favor of "preserving stability in Ukraine," analysts have argued that Kuchma could have influenced the decision if it had been in his interest to do so.
As the no-confidence vote took place, up to 20,000 people picketed outside the legislature in support of Yushchenko and protesting against the alliance of Communists and pro-presidential factions that constitute the core of the anti-Yushchenko movement.
Yushchenko is currently continuing his responsibilities as prime minister after President Kuchma instructed the government to fulfill its duties until a new government is formed. Yushchenko accepted the instruction on the understanding that a new premier would be appointed within three to four days.
Behind the scenes
Many were shocked that parliament passed the no-confidence vote. Yushchenko gained the sympathy of many. Previously, as chief of the National Bank of Ukraine, he proved to be not only a talented economist, but a politician with a different behavior and outlook from the Soviet-type politicians that have dominated the Ukrainian political scene.
Under Yushchenko's premiership stable economic growth was recorded for the first time since Ukrainian independence in 1991. Gross Domestic Product (GDP) grew by six percent, industrial production increased by 12 percent, and light industry grew by 39.5 percent. Real improvements were made in fiscal policy, privatization and external trade. Yuschenko became the most popular politician in Ukraine with his popularity rate peaking at 60 percent. He was supported by international financial institutions and served as the embodiment of market reforms and democratization for Ukraine's Western partners.
However, Yushchenko's dismissal was not a sudden move and had been anticipated by attentive analysts for a long time. Yushchenko's reformist policy damaged the interests of powerful businesses—oligarchs—represented in parliament by pro-presidential factions.
The influential oligarchs have benefited from exploiting the shadow economy. They feared that the reforms of the Yushchenko administration would threaten their hold on Soviet-era state monopolies. The oligarchs are said to have generated their capital from having access to public assets during the perestroika period of the 1980s. During this time they were seemingly only interested in a transparent public policy and wished to gain full control over the expected privatization process.
President Kuchma has generally been critical of Yushchenko throughout his term. Kuchma appointed Yushchenko to the post of premier soon after he was re-elected to the presidency for his second term in 1999.
The appointment was a tactical move. Yushchenko was regarded as a pro-Western politician and was highly respected by Western financial institutions for his success during his time as chief of the National Bank of Ukraine. In order to secure funding from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the other financial institutions, Kuchma had to be seen as following the reformist approach. The appointment of Yushchenko was therefore critical to legitimize Kuchma's presidential role for another four-year period. However, even then, Kuchma feared Yushchenko's grassroots popularity.
The success of the no-confidence vote would have not become possible without support of the Communist faction—the largest faction in parliament—which provided 105 votes. The Communists have traditionally been in opposition to the existing regime and with the Yushchenko cabinet in particular. Since January of last year the Communist Party has found itself outside the parliamentary majority after Kuchma pressured the formation of a new majority comprising the pro-presidential and pro-government factions.
However, this time the Communists decided to vote on the side of the pro-presidential factions, leaving Yushchenko's supporters the minority. The Communists regard the dismissal of Yushchenko as their personal victory and they are now hoping their own representative will be appointed prime minister. At the very least, they hope to receive a number of key seats both in new cabinet and in parliamentary committees.
Change of cabinet and the fate of reforms
The West has already expressed regrets about Yushchenko's defeat; raising concerns that the pace of reforms may be slowed. Sweden, holders of the presidency of the European Union, EU High Representative Javier Solana and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, highly praised the activities of Yushchenko's cabinet. They commented that Yushchenko's cabinet had brought significant results in implementing economic and structural reforms in Ukraine, and said if the reformist orientation changes, this might undermine Ukraine's chances to integrate into the European community and enjoy support of international financial institutions.
French Ambassador to Ukraine Pascal Fieschi said that Yushchenko's resignation might threaten French investments in Ukraine. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said that after the forced resignation of pro-Western Yushchenko, and on considering President Kuchma's alleged involvement in the disappearance of journalist Georgiy Honhadze, Ukraine finds itself open to Russia's interference. Leading Western press has also been skeptical about the continuation of reforms in Ukraine.
However, President Kuchma said the pace of reforms would not be threatened. He has already accepted the government resignation and is conducting consultations with parliamentary factions in order to propose a new prime minister. According to the latest information, Kuchma promised to make his decision by 15 May.
Even if Kuchma keeps his promise, Ukrainian legislation states that the presidential nomination has to be approved by parliament. This is where the pitfalls appear. The next premier should be a figure who is supported by both the oligarchs and the Communists in order to secure the necessary votes. This is a difficult task.
Although some analysts have said a new oligarch-Communist majority has emerged in parliament, this majority has rather situational character. Although both factions voted together to dismiss Yushchenko, the pro-presidential factions and Communists have traditionally belonged to different camps.
Moreover, the Communists are also in opposition to President Kuchma. Consequently, the two sides have different ideas on who should form the new cabinet.
Likely candidates for the premiership are Viktor Medvedchuk of the United Social Democratic Party and the deputy chairman of the parliament, Serhiy Tyhypko of the Ukrainian Labor Party, and Mykola Azarov, of the recently created Regions of Ukraine Party and the head of the state tax administration. Each represents a parliamentary group that would like to have control of the prime minister's post in the run-up to next spring's elections.
Other candidates are Mykhailo Hladiy, former prime minister and now the governor of the L'viv oblast (region), Oleksandr Omelchenko, the mayor of Kyiv, and the Minister for Energy and Industry, Oleh Dubyna, who joined the cabinet in January this year after Yuliya Tymoshenko was suspended from the post. The Communist Party is ready to propose four as of yet unnamed candidates for the post of premier.
According to many analysts, reaching consensus in parliament on the appointment of the next premier is next to impossible and the process of forming the new government could last for months.
However, it is too early to make predictions as to whether reforms in Ukraine will continue. On one hand, if the oligarchs, with support from the Communists, manage to vote out Yushchenko despite his grassroots popularity and support from Western democracies, they might well be able to find leverage in the formation of the new cabinet. On the other hand, controlling the cabinet is not the be all and end all, especially in light of the forthcoming parliamentary elections next spring. This is where strong opposition can play a role.
Yushchenko—new "leader of the nation?"
In his last parliamentary speech, and whilst speaking to crowds of supporters outside parliament Yushchenko said: "I am not abandoning politics. I am going away in order to return." Later, in an interview with the weekly Zerkalo Nedeli he confirmed his intentions to remain within politics and to run for a position in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.
However, there are at least two problems with this idea. Firstly, Ukraine's democratic movement has always lacked consensus and remained heterogeneous. Opposition has failed to emerge as a strong unified force even in the face of the political crisis, which escalated after disappearance of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze and the tape scandal.
On the other hand, the People's Movement of Ukraine, the Ukrainian People's Movement, and the Reforms and Order Party are united in the so-called Ukrainian Pravytsysa Alliance (Ukrainian Rightist). Throughout the political crisis they have not been in opposition to the president and showed some degree of dependency on him. They have now allied with the Motherland Party, the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian People's Party creating a united electoral block. They have proposed Viktor Yushchenko to lead it.
The Forum of National Salvation, the Ukraine without Kuchma committee and the For Truth Forum stand separately. They have a more radical stance and demand the resignation of President Kuchma. However, their actions have amounted to little.
The Motherland Party is led by the ex-Vice Premier Yuliya Tymoshenko. She openly spoke about staging opposition to President Kuchma after she was suspended from her previous post in January this year. Tymoshenko is also leader of the Forum of National Salvation. On 27 April, Tymoshenko formed a committee to prepare a referendum that she hopes will lead to the impeachment of the president. The committee already includes around 50 parties and non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
Some analysts say Yushchenko's resignation could serve as a catalyst to finally unite the above-mentioned democratic opposition forces. Despite the differences among these forces they all support Yushchenko and jointly organized thousands of people to protest the vote of no-confidence. However, it is likely that they all have a different vision of how the democratic coalition should be formed and what its aims should be. Consequently, they may be unable to produce an agreed common program and remain as a unified block in time for the approaching elections.
The second problem is that Yuschchenko does not seem to support all these forces. He still has not accepted the offer to lead the recently created electoral block. He has already conducted consultations with representatives of the parties that supported him in parliament but, so far, he has not conducted any meetings with the representatives of the Forum of National Salvation, the Ukraine without Kuchma committee or the For Truth Forum.
The chances that Yushchenko will agree to cooperate with the latter group are not high. When still prime minister, Yushchenko emphasized his support for the president. This became extremely evident during the so-called tape scandal, when Yushchenko joined the president and the chairman of the parliament in signing the so-called "appeal of the three," which actually said that no dialogue could be conducted with anti-presidential forces, and attacked the leaders of the Forum of National Salvation.
Whilst Yushchenko's fate as prime minister was being decided, he commented that his relations with President Kuchma were more like those of "a father and a son" and that voting him out of the premier's role was tantamount to voting out the pace of presidential reforms.
The coming months will be decisive for Ukraine. They will undoubtedly reveal whether the positive market reforms implemented under Yushchenkos' administration will continue or whether the oligarchs will once again win the favors of President Kuchma. Meanwhile, the Western institutions with a vested interest in Ukrainian development are watching with baited breath.
One thing is for sure, Viktor Yushchenko is not about to quit politics, and he may pose a future threat to Kuchma's position as president. However, he needs to align himself to a consolidated democratic opposition that can run for parliamentary elections next spring. Although the chances of success will initially be low, future prospects may increase if the different opposition forces can find a common ground and choose a true leader.
Iryna Solonenko, 7 May 2001
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