Europe Insight
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24.03.2016

Premier from the closet

Why former Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko may be the best candidate to lead government

The intensification of the socio-economic and political crisis in Ukraine, the failure of reforms in state governance and the national economy, as well as the final collapse of the national anti-corruption policy clearly speaks to the need for a complete reset of the country’s executive branch.

Over the past several months, it was a lazy politician or expert indeed who did not talk of the possible resignation of Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s ministerial cabinet. However, Ukrainians cannot yet take on and get rid of ineffective government just like that – since represented within the government is a complex balance of the interests of the president and various financial and industrial groups.

This situation is aggravating for outside players with stakes in the Ukrainian political arena. The US and, especially, EU recognize the collapse of their political and material investments in Ukraine and demand, if not compensation, then at least the emergence of people on Grushevsky who are sane and can be negotiated with.

It is exactly this situation which has caused the public search for candidates alternative to Yatsenyuk for the post of government head. Among them are Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko, the odious governor of Odessa Oblast Mikhail Saakashvili, Verkhovna Rada Speaker Volodymyr Groysman, and Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovyi. The problem is all of these people possess many qualities making them unfitting for leadership of the ministerial cabinet at present: exceeding ambition, foreign political skeletons in the closet, dubious business and even poor popularity among the people.

In this context, it would make sense to rummage through the closet of Ukrainian politics and pull off its dusty shelf a man about whom, perhaps, everyone has safely forgotten, someone who disappeared from the country’s political arena many years ago but all the same has never ceased to be a politician. This man is former president of Ukraine Viktor Yushchenko.

Like the current prime minister, Yushchenko has practically zero legitimacy (public confidence in him dropped to critically low levels long before the end of his presidential term [2005-2010]), but in contrast to Yatsenyuk, the ex-president no longer retains an iota of political influence and, most importantly, has absolutely no political ambitions.

Listlessly participating in the 2010 electoral campaign and taking fifth place with difficulty (5.45%), coming in ahead of only truly comical characters, Yushchenko subsequently went into retirement, occupying himself with his favourite activity – collecting antiques and studying Ukrainian history. If he becomes head of the government, the former president will, physically speaking, be unable to fundamentally change the balance of forces, even if he wants to very strongly. And this is why his candidature might be acceptable for all of the internal “stakeholders” of the cabinet of ministers.

In particular, Yushchenko has sufficiently smooth relationships with all key financial and industrial groups in Ukraine, even with the “Donetsk” clan. In his time, the former president was able to find a specific, but generally effective approach to communicating with both “old” (Yefim Zviagilskiy, Volodymyr Rybak) and “new” (Rinat Akhmetov, Borys Kolesnikov) members of this alleged community of politicians and businessmen.

The ex-president is the godfather of the current head of state Petro Poroshenko. And in Ukraine, a godfather is a special person. There is a reason they say “We make those who we rely on godfathers” and at the same time “People we rely on become like family!” So the return of Yushchenko with his mentality typical of a little farmer to the Ukrainian political apex will not strengthen Poroshenko’s position, but it might help make the authorities’ power more consolidated, which clearly cannot be said of it now.

Yushchenko would be acceptable for the new post not only for domestic political parties but also for external players. He is sane and it is possible to negotiate with him. Moreover, he proposes an artless and quite concrete economic programme based on defeating the shadow economy.

Additionally, in Ukraine there is no supporter of Euro-Atlantic integration more consistent than the former president. It was during his administration specifically that the foreign policy goal of  joining the EU and NATO definitively became Ukraine’s top priority. Yushchenko would entirely suit not only Europe but also the US. But this is not so much due to the stories about his Chicago-born wife which have become legendary in Ukraine – foreign roots are the norm for top rank officials in this country – and more because of the real experience of effective partnership that existed between Kiev and Washington during the years of his presidency.

Finally, despite the notoriety of his extremely nationalistic views, Ukrainization policy and complicated relationship with Donbas, Yushchenko lacks the determination and aggressiveness that could drag Ukraine into a fresh round of full-scale military conflict in the east of the country.

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