By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, October 28, 2008
MOSCOW, Oct. 27 -- Ukraine's feuding president and prime minister welcomed a proposed emergency bailout by the International Monetary Fund on Monday, but a fresh round of finger-pointing by their aides left it unclear whether the two could agree on legislation needed to win the $16.5 billion loan.
As Ukraine's currency fell to a historic low and its critical steel industry urged global action to stop a devastating slide in prices, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko scheduled a vote on the legislation for Tuesday and called on the nation's fractured political leadership to unite in the face of "global financial Armageddon."
Her former ally, President Viktor Yushchenko, also endorsed quick action on a legislative package that officials say includes unpopular spending cuts and other measures intended to strengthen Ukraine's wobbly banking sector.
But the outcome of the vote was uncertain Monday night, as each camp accused the other of trying to use the economic crisis to get its way in an extended political standoff over whether the country should hold early parliamentary elections.
Yushchenko and Tymoshenko were allies in the 2004 street protests known as the Orange Revolution, which brought Yushchenko to the presidency. He dissolved parliament this month after the collapse of his coalition with Tymoshenko and has called for elections in December that could oust her as prime minister. Tymoshenko opposes the elections and has blocked legislation needed to finance them.
In a statement Monday, Andriy Goncharuk, deputy chief of the president's secretariat, accused Tymoshenko of trying to use the economic crisis to "pursue an alternative foreign policy" and the IMF legislation to thwart the elections.
"Unfortunately, the position of the prime minister's office reduces the chances for the country to receive" the IMF loan, he said, adding that "mass unemployment" could result. He argued that elections were necessary to resolve the political stalemate in Kiev, which has increased investors' anxiety over the economy.
But Hryhoriy Nemyria, deputy prime minister for European integration, said it was Yushchenko who was putting the IMF bailout in jeopardy, accusing the president's allies of demanding a vote on funding for elections before they will consider the financial package.
"We cannot accept that," he said by telephone from Kiev. "It's a matter of priorities, and what can be a higher priority than dealing with the economic crisis?"
Nemyria added that it would be irresponsible for the government to spend $80 million on early elections during the crisis, especially given that Ukraine has had parliamentary elections in each of the past two years and that a presidential vote is scheduled for next year.
Elections would also make it more difficult for the government to implement the painful reforms requested by the IMF and needed to rescue the Ukrainian economy, he said. "There would be pressure on lawmakers to be populist, and they would criticize the government for agreeing with the IMF on policies that are very difficult and sensitive."
The largest party in the legislature, the opposition Party of Regions, has already come out against the IMF proposal, arguing that it is unnecessary and could further damage the economy. Its position makes it unlikely that the legislation would pass without some kind of truce between Yushchenko and Tymoshenko.
Ukraine's currency, the hryvna, has plunged more than 20 percent against the dollar, amid a run on banks that has drained more than $1 billion from deposits and a collapse in the price of steel, the nation's main export.
About 500,000 people are employed in Ukraine's steel industry, and layoffs of tens of thousands have already been announced. The government said Monday it was appealing to world metal producers to cut production and bolster prices.
Many analysts say the economy is fundamentally sound. But most of Ukraine's leaders agree that it makes sense to adopt the IMF legislation and get access to the loan in case it is needed, said Igor Borakovsky, director of the independent Institute for Economic Research and Policy Consulting. "The situation is not a full-fledged crisis, but everyone understands that externally and internally, the situation could radically worsen."
"In principle, the politicians are more or less very close in terms of the economics," he added. "But when it comes to the politics of the decision, it becomes very difficult. There is a very specific competition among them to take credit for the rescue, to be seen as the savior of the country, and right now, this competition is extremely detrimental."