As Ukraine PM resigns, is government running out of time?

Volodymyr Groysman, an ally of President Poroshenko, is likely to take the spot – a move some see as strengthening the president's hand in pushing reform.

Gleb Garanich/Reuters/File
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk (l.) spoke with Parliament Speaker Volodymyr Groysman in late January in the file photo.

Ukraine's struggling prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, says he will resign Tuesday and throw his party's support to an ally of the almost equally embattled president, Petro Poroshenko, in a bid to consolidate the fracturing pro-reform governing coalition and give reforms a second wind.

Long-time observers are warning that this is the Last Chance Cafe for Mr. Poroshenko, an old political operative and confectionery tycoon who was elected almost two years ago on a sweeping reform platform that remains largely unfulfilled. 

The powerful parliamentary speaker, Volodymyr Groysman, now seems set to be elected to the prime minister's job by what experts say is a new, razor-thin coalition comprising not more than 230 deputies in the 450-seat Rada.

Supporters are stressing that this will greatly strengthen the president's hand, and end the squabbling between Mr. Yatsenyuk and Poroshenko that has virtually paralyzed government. It also averts, for now, the specter of new parliamentary elections that would have to be called if the governing coalition were to collapse. The parties of both Yatsenyuk and Poroshenko are facing all-time lows in public support, and could well be swept away in favor of radical new forces by an angry and disillusioned electorate.

"Groysman gave his consent to run for [the prime minister's] post on condition that the pace of reforms will continue," Dmitry Stolyarchuk, Groysman's press secretary, told the Monitor by telephone Monday. "I think he understands all the difficulties in this situation. We are running out of time to overcome the crisis. He knows it will be hard, but there is no option other than to do it."

Groysman, a professional manager and former mayor of Vinnitsa in central Ukraine, rose rapidly in government ranks following the Maidan Revolution two years ago. He is the chief author of Kiev's plan to outflank eastern separatists' demands for "federalization" with a Polish-style effort to redivide powers between central and regional governments. The effort has generated enormous controversy and even triggered outbursts of violence by nationalist opponents. But a survey released last month by the International Republican Institute suggests that public attitudes toward their local governments have improved marginally since Groysman's plan was implemented last year.

"I think we now have a real chance to move forward and get back on the path of reforms," says Olexander Chernenko, a former civil society activist and Rada deputy with Poroshenko's party. "Groysman is an adequate professional, and if he is allowed to work, and parliament supports him, we could really see light at the end of the tunnel for Ukraine."

Yatsenyuk, who was notoriously approved by US deputy secretary of State Victoria Nuland in a leaked telephone conversation during the Maidan Revolution as "Yats.... the guy who's got the economic experience, the governing experience," to be prime minister, has since deeply disappointed both his foreign backers and the Ukrainian public. His party is so unpopular that it declined to even field any candidates in last fall's regional elections, and he leaves office with a public approval rating that's within the margin-of-error of zero.

The new coalition will need to quickly deliver some tangible achievements in the floundering battle against corruption and behind-the-scenes oligarch rule. It also needs to move forward in the stalled Minsk-II peace process, by passing constitutional changes that would grant special status to the rebel republics of Luhansk and Donetsk – a profoundly controversial issue in Kiev – or risk the conflict becoming a permanent blight on the country's future prospects.

Most experts admit that after two years of serial disappointment, optimism is in short supply.

"They can create the coalition, but can they make it work?" says Vadim Karasyov, director of the independent Institute of Global Strategies in Kiev. "Two very different and divided forces, Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk's parties, have come together with only one common goal: to avoid elections. Nobody is thinking about reforms, only about survival."

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