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Ukraine's leaders bicker as economy burns

Not long ago, they were Orange Revolution allies. Now, Tymoshenko and Yushchenko despise each other.

By Correspondent / February 18, 2009

Getting by: With Ukraine's economy in ruins, an elderly woman played the bayan in Kiev's subway Monday.

Efrem lukatsky/AP


Kiev, Ukraine

Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

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That's how many Ukrainian observers describe the very public, escalating power struggle between liberal president Viktor Yushchenko and his erstwhile ally in the Orange Revolution, the fiery populist prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko.

To many observers, Ms. Tymoshenko and Mr. Yushchenko are already fighting presidential elections that are nearly a year away and are using their official positions mainly to undermine any decisions taken by the other. In recent weeks, both have issued statements blaming the other for the country's galloping financial crisis, which has seen the hryvna plunge in value by nearly 60 percent, Kiev's main stock market fall by 75 percent, and most banks cease lending or even returning depositors' cash.

Dirty political laundry on national TV

In an internal memo leaked to the Ukrainian media late last month, Ukraine's finance minister, Viktor Pynzenyk, warned that the economy is on the verge of collapse: "We have entered an extremely serious and deep crisis. Ukraine's [economic] situation is the worst in the world."

Following the memo's publication, Yushchenko took to the airwaves to blame it all on the "populism" of Tymoshenko, whose 2009 budget incurs a huge deficit to pay public sector wages, pensions, and other social obligations. As a result of her "irresponsibility," Yushchenko charged, "salaries, pensions, and stipends will no longer be paid.... all this can bring about a social catastrophe."

Tymoshenko appeared on TV the next day to accuse the president of spreading "falsehood, panic, and hysteria. Everyone can see that the president is not the kind of leader they need when Ukraine is reeling under the blows of the global economic crisis."

Surveys show that nearly 85 percent of Ukrainians believe there is no government order in the country.

"It's a good thing when they compete in elections, but when they continue competing afterwards, it's disastrous," explains Vira Nanivska, president of the National Academy of Public Administration in Kiev. "It becomes impossible for needed decisions to be taken."

A revolution's bitter aftertaste

In 2004's Orange Revolution, Tymoshenko and Yushchenko worked together to defeat pro-Moscow leader Viktor Yanukovych. During weeks of protests in Kiev's freezing main square it was usually Tymoshenko, a passionate orator, who would warm up the crowds before turning the stage over to the more measured and cerebral Yushchenko.

Following Yushchenko's election as president, the two quickly had a falling out. Within a year, Yushchenko dismissed her from the prime minister's job. Tymoshenko has since clawed her way back to power in parliamentary elections and now leads a fragile majority parliamentary coalition.

"There was a binary charisma between them that won the Orange Revolution, but which has now acquired an equally compelling explosive force," says Dmytro Vydrin, a member of Yushchenko's National Constitutional Council.

Political rumbles remain from gas dispute

Last month, Tymoshenko traveled to Moscow to sign a deal with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ending a two week pipeline dispute that had cut energy supplies to 18 European countries. But she was forced to agree to a near doubling of the price for gas. Yushchenko subsequently denounced the accord as a betrayal of Ukraine's national interests, and vowed to overturn it – a threat he later retracted under pressure from nervous Europeans.