Ukraine's President Fires Cabinet

By Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 9, 2005

MOSCOW, Sept. 8 -- Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko fired his prime minister and entire cabinet Thursday after a simmering power struggle among leaders of last year's Orange Revolution erupted into very public infighting about alleged corruption in the government's top ranks.

The president appointed Yuriy Yekhanurov, a former economics minister and regional governor, as acting prime minister, replacing the firebrand Yulia Tymoshenko, and addressed the nation in an effort to calm the worst political crisis of his young term.

The mass dismissal signaled the end of the broad coalition that led a popular revolt after fraudulent presidential elections last November and brought Yushchenko to power.

Ukraine is the largest of three former Soviet republics in which a democratic opposition has taken power in this way. Western governments have been watching it closely for evidence of whether the new leadership can maintain unity and address endemic economic and social problems inherited from the communist era.

On Thursday, Yushchenko addressed the nation after a last-ditch effort to restore unity between the Tymoshenko government and his own presidential administration.

"I knew that there were definite conflicts between those people," Yushchenko said in his televised address. "I hoped that if each of them immersed himself in work, there would not be enough time for mutual intrigues." But he concluded that the government "lost the team spirit and faith."

The dismissal was triggered by a series of resignations by top officials who charged that some of the most powerful people around Yushchenko were using their positions to enrich themselves and reneging on one of the most important promises of last December's revolt, the eradication of endemic graft.

On Saturday, Oleksandr Zinchenko, Yushchenko's chief of staff, accused by name Petro Poroshenko, head of the Defense and Security Council, and Olexander Tretyakov, a senior presidential adviser, of "cynically carrying out their plan to use government posts to their own ends."

"Corruption is now even worse than before," said Zinchenko, announcing his resignation on television in a live nationwide broadcast.

As Zinchenko, a chief architect of the revolt, spoke, Poroshenko, a confectionary and media magnate who was a key financier of the Orange Revolution, stood scowling at the back of the room. Poroshenko moved to the podium when Zinchenko finished to angrily deny the accusations before reporters who were mesmerized by the verbal shootout.

"During my time in government, I did not become one penny richer or gain one share," said Poroshenko, whose candy factories have earned him the nickname Chocolate King in Ukraine. "I ask for one concrete fact that proves the accusations here today."

Zinchenko's resignation was followed Thursday morning by the departure of Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Tomenko. "I don't want to carry responsibility for people who have created a system of corruption," Tomenko said. "Today the president does not know what's going on in the country."

Poroshenko also resigned Thursday before Yushchenko dismissed the government.

Political analysts said the crisis stemmed in large part from the political enmity between Poroshenko and the now dismissed prime minister, Tymoshenko, who is one of the country's most charismatic leaders. Last year, she galvanized huge crowds on Kiev's Independence Square, the epicenter of the mass demonstrations that brought Yushchenko to power.

Poroshenko also aspired to the prime ministership. Igor Koliushko, head of the Center of Political and Legal Reform in Kiev, said in an interview that he used the security council chaired by the president to form "an alternative government" that was in constant conflict with Tymoshenko's cabinet.

"They tried constantly to change the decisions of the constitutional government," Koliushko said. "The split reached such a pitch that they couldn't possibly be together anymore."

Whatever the truth of the allegations of corruption, the public airing of such accusations was designed to force other divisions to a climax, analysts said. Disagreement over how to investigate alleged corruption in past privatizations of state industries is a central issue.

Yuschenko's camp favors a relatively limited look, while Tymoshenko's wants a deep probe.

Svitlana Kononchuk, head of political programs at the Ukrainian Center for Independent Political Research, said Yushchenko must accept some blame for the crisis.

"The war between Tymoshenko and Poroshenko has lasted for seven months," Kononchuk said. "Yushchenko gave a lot of freedom to his partners. He assumed that these people were professionals, efficient, and they understood the importance of the situation which Ukraine found itself in. Yushchenko hasn't become a politician yet. He imagined himself a symbol, not a manager."

Yushchenko, however, said Thursday that "the president cannot be a nanny for them."

A spokesman for Tymoshenko refused to comment on the cabinet's dismissal, but a Ukranian news agency, quoting unnamed government sources, said that the prime minister felt betrayed and was likely to seek a return to office after the next election. After that vote, the prime minister and cabinet will be chosen by parliament rather than the president, as they currently are. The powers of the prime minister will also increase at the expense of the president.

The crisis is likely to deepen public disillusionment with the government's failure to deliver quickly on some of the basic promises of the Orange Revolution, particularly rapid economic improvement. An opinion poll conducted last month found that 53 percent of respondents believed Ukraine was on the wrong path, up from 30 percent in April.

Yushchenko was also tarnished by recent accusations that his 19-year-old son was leading a lifestyle far beyond his apparent means. A Ukrainian Web site reported that Andriy Yushchenko, a student, was driving a high-end BMW, had a luxury $30,000 cell phone and lavished cash on restaurants and other locations around the capital. To the fury of many people in Ukraine, he also registered as trademarks the symbols of the Orange Revolution.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company