Ukraine's pro-democracy reforms in doubt

The pro-Russian leader ousted in '04 is poised to regain control as the Orange revolutionaries split.

Orange is out, at least for the moment, as Ukraine's political roller coaster seems set to reject at least some results of 2004's pro-democracy revolt and vault Moscow-leaning politician Viktor Yanukovich back into the country's driver's seat.

After a week of wild surprises in the 450-seat Supreme Rada, Mr. Yanukovich's Party of Regions announced Tuesday that it had formed a new "anticrisis coalition," holding a slender 12-seat majority, with the Communists and the formerly Orange-allied Socialists. Oleksandr Moroz, the Socialist leader, announced that he had forwarded Yanukovich's name to President Viktor Yushchenko as the new coalition's choice for prime minister. Mr. Moroz defected last week from a tentative Orange Coalition and was subsequently elected parliamentary speaker with Regions Party support.

Witnesses said the bitterly divided Rada dissolved into "pandemonium" at the news, with fisticuffs, angry shouting matches, and at least one attempt to storm the podium.

"This is really the least expected outcome," of Ukraine's three-month-old political crisis, says Oleksandr Shushko, an expert with the independent Institute for Euro-Atlantic Integration in Kiev. "It means that Yanukovich's forces have proved to be very well-organized and disciplined, unlike the democrats, and they have prevailed in the complicated game of coalition-building."

For Mr. Yushchenko, the choices are tough. He now has 15 days to accept a Yanukovich-led government, or employ his constitutional power to dissolve parliament and declare fresh elections. In televised remarks Monday, a weary-looking Yushchenko said he would never agree to a government that tried to reverse Ukraine's strategic course toward NATO membership and economic integration with the European Union. "I firmly declare and will proceed from the position that the current domestic and foreign policy course will be unchanged," he said. "I expect that this demand will be reflected in the activity of the future coalition."

Yanukovich, whose power base is in heavily Russified eastern Ukraine, opposes joining NATO and favors deeper economic integration with Russia. Improving relations with Moscow will be a top priority of his government, he told the official Russian RIA-Novosti press agency Monday. "We have no doubt that the tone of our relations should be changed, and we can correct everything before we reach the point of no return," Yanukovich said.

Hard-fought elections last March produced a split parliament. The Regions Party gained the largest group with 186 seats. The two main Orange parties fared well, but fell short of a combined majority. The Yulia Tymoshenko bloc holds 129 seats and Yushchenko's Our Ukraine has 81. That left the centrist Socialists, who won 33 seats, and the Communists, who secured 21 seats, holding the balance of power.

After nearly three months of wrangling, Orange parties announced their own coalition two weeks ago, which would have seen Ms. Tymoshenko restored to the job of prime minister. She was fired by Yushchenko last September amid mutual accusations of corruption.

Close Yushchenko ally, Pyotr Poroshenko, would have been elected to the powerful post of parliamentary speaker. That deal went down in flames last week when Moroz took his Socialists over to Yanukovich's side, scooping up the speaker's position for himself.

"Moroz's ambition doomed the Orange coalition," says Alexander Chekmyshev, deputy director of the Institute of Journalism in Kiev. "But many people, including in Yushchenko's camp, never wanted to see Tymoshenko become prime minister again. Things could now go many different ways."

Many Ukrainians blame Yushchenko for the failure to build a supportive governing coalition. "Yushchenko has shown a lack of practical leadership, and has lost his repuation as a successful manager," says Mr. Shushko. "He had a lot of time and opportunities, but it all fell apart. Now he's in a no-win situation.

"If he calls for new elections," he continues, "his party will probably lose much more ground to Tymoshenko. But if he supports Yanukovich's Red-Blue coalition, it will be bad for Ukraine's international reputation and for our reform prospects."

A furious Tymoshenko denounced the Socialists as "traitors" for abandoning the Orange camp and called the new coalition a "coup d'état." A fiery populist who stood beside Yushchenko throughout the Orange Revolution, she is urging new elections.

"The Supreme Rada, because it has betrayed its promises to the people, is illegitimate," Tymoshenko said in televised remarks Monday. "We will either become the coalition ourselves, or, if the law allows it, we will definitely be in favor of holding an early election."

The sudden appearance of a pro- Russian coalition is welcome news in Moscow, where President Vladimir Putin is preparing to greet leaders of the Group of Eight's rich democracies at this weekend's summit in St. Petersburg.

"This news will give Putin a big boost, just before the G-8 summit," says Alexei Mukhin, the director of the independent Center for Political Information in Moscow.

"Putin has always chafed at the support Western leaders gave to the Orange Revolution, and now he can say to them 'see how you misunderstood things in Ukraine?' " he says.

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