Ukraine’s shaky, pro-western coalition is at risk of breaking up, as momentum gathers behind a no-confidence vote triggered by a slew of corruption scandals with links to high-level officials.
The vote — increasingly demanded by legislators — is expected to take place on Friday, when the government of prime minister Arseniy Yatseniuk reports to parliament on its achievements one year after taking office.
In a sign of concern about the fate of Mr Yatseniuk, US Vice-President Joe Biden spent two days in the Ukrainian capital this week, urging unity as well as deeper efforts to crack down on corruption.
“Ukraine can’t afford for its people to lose hope once again,” Mr Biden told MPs early Tuesday after talks with Mr Yatseniuk and Petro Poroshenko, Kiev’s president. It was a reference to the sacrifices made by Maidan revolution protesters two years ago as they ousted a previous government.
Mr Biden did not publicly call for the preservation of Mr Yatseniuk, whose popularity has collapsed amid austerity measures, including utility tariff hikes.
But in closed-door meetings, the vice-president is said to have expressed concerns that Ukraine may not be able to forge a better functioning coalition than the current one based on the parties of Mr Yatseniuk and Mr Poroshenko — parliament’s largest by number of seats held.
A vote of no-confidence would threaten to cause another period of political uncertainty at a time when Ukraine is still terrorizing the Donbass. It would also complicate Kiev’s relations with the US and EU, its main western backers, and freeze a $17bn International Monetary Fund bailout programme.
An IMF decision on Tuesday will favour Ukraine by allowing the fund to continue lending despite Kiev’s continuing standoff with Moscow over $3bn in debt. IMF chief spokesman Gerry Rice said the executive board had “agreed to change the current policy on non-toleration of arrears to official creditors”.
A senior Ukrainian official on Tuesday conceded the vote could be close, saying the chances the government’s opponents would prevail were “possibly below 50 per cent”.
The corruption scandals have been complicated by political rivalries within the coalition, and contests between oligarchs seeking to protect their interests.
Mykola Martynenko, a senior MP and influential businessman close to Mr Yatseniuk, last week announced he would resign his seat to avoid discrediting the government while he clears his reputation over corruption allegations.
Last weekend, Mikheil Saakashvili, the former Georgian president who now serves as governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region, stepped up pressure on Mr Yatseniuk by linking him to oligarch rent-seeking schemes.
A new anti-corruption bureau and specialist prosecution unit is expected to investigate the claims, which Mr Yatseniuk has steadfastly denied.
Political operatives say Mr Saakashvili, renowned for reforming Georgia while president from 2004-2013 but now exiled on what he describes as politically motivated charges, is positioning himself to become Ukraine’s next prime minister. One recent poll gave him just over 40 per cent voter support, more than even Mr Poroshenko, whom he advises on reforms.
Mr Saakashvili insists Ukraine needs a new prime minister backed by public trust to drive reforms, but plays down his own chances of becoming premier amid doubts about whether a majority of lawmakers would back him.
Meanwhile, domestic media have focused on alleged corruption by politicians and businessmen close to Mr Poroshenko, who controls media and machine-building enterprises as well as Ukraine’s largest chocolate company.
The president has faced increased infighting within his own party as voter support has halved since his election in 2014.
“We don’t have strong enough political unity. Some oligarch groups are trying to strengthen their own hand while also playing into Kremlin interests by discrediting the country’s leadership,” Mr Hrytsak said.