Last week’s fight in the Ukrainian parliament between Prime Minister Yatsenyuk and a deputy of Poroshenko’s party has made world headlines.
In doing so it has obscured the single most important fact about political developments in Ukraine over the last two weeks.
This is that despite the collapse of his support and popularity Yatsenyuk is still Ukraine’s Prime Minister.
Talk of Yatsenyuk’s resignation or dismissal has circulated for months.
There was a flurry of such rumours back in April, which I briefly discussed at the time, pointing out that Yatsenyuk’s departure would not change anything and would certainly not make the Ukrainian government more moderate.
Since then Yatsenyuk’s unpopularity has if anything increased.
This is hardly surprising as the economy has gone from bad to worse and as rumours of corruption have swirled around him and his government.
This sets the background for the events of the last two weeks.
Prior to the parliamentary session last Friday rumours circulated that it would result in the dismissal of the government.
Virtually all the political parties in the parliament apart from Yatsenyuk’s own seemed to be uniting around a demand that he go. This consensus appeared to include Poroshenko’s party and Tymoshenko’s party – both members of the ruling coalition.
In the event, instead of being voted out of power, Yatsenyuk delivered a speech of quite extraordinary and offensive arrogance, provoking the altercation with the deputy that made world headlines.
In the days since no moves have been made to remove him, and he is still there.
Yatsenyuk’s rise, and his continued presence at the top of the Ukrainian power structure, would be inexplicable if Ukraine were a genuinely sovereign state.
Not only is he massively unpopular, he has never actually been popular. At the height of the Maidan protests in 2013-2014 he was overshadowed by his two erstwhile partners in the Maidan triumvirate – Klitschko and Tyagnibok.
Nor does Yatsenyuk have a strong political power base. Whereas at the time of the Maidan protests his partners Klitschko and Tyagnibok headed their own political parties – Udar and Svoboda – Yatsenyuk was no more than the caretaker leader of Tymoshenko’s party – despite being on poor terms with Tymoshenko herself.
The party Yatsenyuk now heads is almost entirely a post-Maidan construction, cobbled together by Yatsenyuk using the patronage his position as head of the Ukrainian government has given him. It is now so unpopular that it did not even dare to participate in the local elections that took place in Ukraine a few weeks ago.
Despite having no support inside Ukraine Yatsenyuk remains its Prime Minister for one reason only – he has the support of the United States.
This became obvious during the Maidan protests when US assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was overheard making a telephone call to US ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt insisting that Yatsenyuk and not Klitschko be made Ukraine’s Prime Minister (the famous “Nuland call”).
It continues to be true since.
There has been much discussion about the reasons for US Vice President Biden’s recent visit to Kiev.
Some have pointed to the comments he made in the Ukrainian parliament appearing to endorse the Minsk Agreement and calling for federalisation.
Others have speculated that his visit was connected to the continued Ukrainian military build-up in eastern Ukraine and the renewal of the fighting there.
Still others have speculated that it was to push the Ukrainians further on the road to “reform”.
Biden’s visit doubtless served multiple purposes. However the key reason for his going to Ukraine was because the US’s two local proconsuls – Nuland and Pyatt – have been struggling to control the political situation there as demands for Yatsenyuk’s removal have boiled over.
A visit from Biden himself – the US administration’s ultimate manager of Ukraine (he was already Yanukovich’s chief US interlocutor at the time of the Maidan protests, with the number of telephone calls between him and Yanukovich almost beyond count) – was therefore deemed necessary.
Rumours in fact circulated during Biden’s visit that Biden discussed Yatsenyuk’s removal with Poroshenko, and that he went over with Poroshenko a list of possible candidates to replace Yatsenyuk.
This included some unlikely individuals, such as former Georgian President Saakashvili and Finance Minister Jaresko – both persons who until recently had foreign (ie. non-Ukrainian) citizenships.
The most plausible candidate mentiohed was however Poroshenko’s close political ally – in fact his henchman – Rada Chairman Volodymyr Groysman.
In the event the days have passed and Yatsenyuk is still there.
Possibly Biden and Poroshenko agreed that Yatsenyuk be given a decent interval before being told to go. That however is pure speculation.
Yatsenyuk’s extraordinarily arrogant speech at the parliamentary session on Friday however on the contrary suggests someone who is sure of his political support, which suggests that what actually happened was that he got Biden’s backing.
If so then that says everything about where power in Ukraine actually lies.
As for Yatsenyuk himself, he comes across as just another in a long line of political leaders – including Chiang Kai-shek in China, Nguyen van Thieu in Vietnam, George Papadopoulos in Greece, Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire, Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan and Ahmed Chalabi in Iraq – whose virtues are invisible to everyone except their friends in Washington.