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The meaning of the conflict in Ukraine’s government

The meaning of the conflict in Ukraine’s government
Article by: Vitaliy Portnikov
Translated by: Anna Mostovych

The conflict between Arsen Avakov and Mikhail Saakashvili, which has turned out to be the main event in the political life of the country over the past several days, has generated numerous commentaries by regular users of social networks as well as by the president of Ukraine.

But to call this conflict a personal one is to fail to see the essence of what is happening in Ukraine’s government. Avakov and Saakashvili had no reason for a personal conflict. But there was a political reason for it. The conflict began with the election of the country’s new president, even before Saakashvili’s appearance in the political life of Ukraine. Petro Poroshenko turned out to be a head of state with very limited constitutional powers. As a close associate of Viktor Yushchenko, Poroshenko was quite aware of how helpless and awkward a head of state can appear who has such limited powers and how easily he becomes “easy prey” for his own prime ministers. Viktor Yanukovych, Yushchenko’s successor and Poroshenko’s predecessor, solved the problem simply — first by bypassing the Constitution with the obedient government he had created and then by changing the Basic Law itself with the help of a compliant Constitutional Court. However, Poroshenko did not want to behave as did Yanukovych in the china shop of Ukrainian politics. An experienced player, Poroshenko relied on political methods. Taking advantage of a high degree of hope if not of confidence after the elections, Poroshenko formed his own eponymous political bloc, which was soon formed into a party.

However, the parliamentary elections did not bring the results the president had expected. Yes, the Poroshenko Bloc became the main faction in parliament, but the unexpectedly strong results of the National Front — the party of Oleksandr Turchynov and Arseniy Yatseniuk — did not allow for the creation of a real “presidential” government.  A viable coalition should have included several parties, but Poroshenko was able to overcome the competition even here — the government was staffed almost entirely with ministers from his bloc or with technocrats appointed according to his bloc’s quota. The National  Front received only four portfolios, but they were important ones:  the posts of prime minister, minister of internal affairs and justice.

The president controls much of the government. After the elections, he recommended “his own” ministers: ministers of defense and foreign affairs, the head of the security service, the prosecutor general, as well as the heads of regional administrations, appointed in consultation with the government. Since the National Council for Television and Radio Broadcasting is formed partly according to the presidential quota and partly through parliamentary quota, which includes members of the president’s party, even here Poroshenko has a stable majority. However, the head of state, despite such extensive staff, political, and economic opportunities, does not have direct responsibility for reforms. And he does not have full control of the government either. This is because the constitutional powers of the prime minister give him obvious independence and, most importantly, make him the partner of the country’s Western lenders. It would be odd to assume that the president does not understand this situation and that he accepts it.

Poroshenko was not interested in entering into an open conflict with his coalition partner, especially since Yatseniuk from the very beginning of the new presidency had agreed that the president would have the top political role. But Ukrainian politics has not able to endure two leaders. And who was there to inform the public about it? This messenger turned out to be the former president of Georgia. Practically from his first days in office as governor of the Odesa Oblast, Saakashvili has become a tireless critic of the prime minister and his team. He has criticized Yatseniuk for delaying reforms, for corruption in his circle, for poor performance by his ministries and agencies, for disastrous work with the international lenders. Saakashvili’s criticism fell on fertile ground — Ukrainian citizens are obviously unhappy with social issues, with the continuation of the oligarchy, and the absence of clear prospects for the country’s development. The fact that the Odesa governor’s criticism tends to bypass the president’s circle appears not to be noticed by society. Even someone who does notice it can easily explain such selectivity by the desire to enlist at least someone’s support. After all, such a vivid critic cannot be entirely alone!

Everything has worked out for Saakashvili. If until recently the president has been the main focus of popular discontent — for military setbacks, Minsk concessions, unsatisfactory work of the General Staff and the Prosecutor General’s Office and other “sins” that were more on the order of natural systemic failures than the result of personal mistakes — then it is now the prime minister who is the object of the country’s exasperation: for delaying reforms, social problems, and corruption. But criticism for criticism’s sake never happens in Ukraine, isn’t that right?

The president’s circle expected that the discrediting of the prime minister would force the National Front to abandon Yatseniuk and to agree to a less independent candidate for the post of the head of government — someone either directly connected to the president or politically neutral. Several names figured among the contenders for the post of prime minister, including Saakashvili himself. But here problems began within the president’s circle. The main lobbyist for appointing Saakashvili was Konstantin Grigorishin, an oligarch with a Russian passport who is close to the president and who is a longtime participant in the backstage battles of Ukrainian politics. However, Grigorishin is involved in a serious confrontation with the head of the presidential administration, Borys Lozhkin, and the “gray cardinal” of the Poroshenko Bloc, the deputy Ihor Kononenko, both of whom he has publicly accused of corruption.   Saakashvili clearly does not wish to participate in this fight. When during an interview on Radio Svoboda I asked the Odesa governor what he thinks of the lobbying efforts of Grigorishin, he was adamant: “one oligarch — one vote,” as is the case for any other citizen. He had to experience the validity of this thesis practically the very next day after our conversation. Before the  start of the Odesa  Economic Forum, Grigorishin gave Saakashvili his own list of corrupt schemes distributed among his chief opponents — from Yatseniuk to Kononenko.

Sakaaschvily ignored the allies of the president and concluded the proposed list with Yatseniuk. As evidenced by Saakashvili’s Georgian experience of cooperating with oligarchs, he has his own game according to which the rich man can be used and thrown aside if he goes against a former advocate, as did Bidzina Ivanishvili.

But it is clear that in this complicated game of “all against all” there is now a pause. The National Front is not preparing to abandon support for Yatseniuk, and the international lenders will not give a new loan installment if the government is dissolved and the budget agreements with the IMF are broken. In that case, the economic collapse would come so quickly that in only a few months entirely new passions would be evident in Ukrainian politics and entirely new people would be in leading roles. This is why the clash between Saakashvili and Avakov is the conflict after the battle. A battle which, by and large, has not yet taken place but has simply been postponed. Poroshenko knows how to wait.

Within a few months, if not a few weeks, the conflict will resume. Perhaps the opponents of the prime minister will be looking not so much for his replacement as for opportunities to dismiss the government. The president can view the possible early elections as a chance to form his own cabinet without the “alien” prime minister. And Saakashvili can see this as an opportunity to head the Ukrainian government. The former Georgian president is in a tricky situation. He cannot head his own party in Georgia since he has been deprived of citizenship. He cannot head a party that could be set up in Ukraine (or the president’s party) because he has not lived in the country for the five years required to participate in elections. However, Saakashvili can become head of government both in Georgia and in Ukraine if his supporters win. It would be most interesting if that happened at the same time in both countries and if Saakashvili had to choose.

But for now all these speculations resemble fantastic plots. The situation is changing too fast. The moods of Ukrainian are changeable. And next year the president could again become the “anti-hero” because of the need to implement the Minsk agreements, while the attitude toward the prime minister may become more conciliatory if there is even the slightest economic growth. But this still will not resolve the conflict at the center of the government. In fact, conflicts between Ukraine’s presidents and prime ministers have existed since the early 1990s and will end only when the interests of the state take precedence over the interests of the ruling powers.

And for that it is necessary to build the state itself.

Translated by: Anna Mostovych
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