UD. 19 March 2016.  By Iryna Terlecky

Government disarray distracts from the real issues and stretches the patience of international partners. 

The political manoeverings over the post of Prime Minister have continued to rumble, as Arseniy Yatseniuk hangs on to power, in spite of a popularity rating in the country of only 1%, and little support in Parliament from other parties.

After the failed no confidence vote, members of parliament from the Poroshenko bloc have continued to try to find ways of unseating Yatseniuk. 

Speculation mounted that Natalie Jaresko, the American-born Finance Minister credited with keeping Ukraine out of default and maintaining international financial confidence, would be offered the job. 

Many pointed out that this would strengthen Russia’s propaganda, which portrays the Ukrainian government as a mere puppet of the West, but in the search for both competence and international trust, many others saw Jaresko as the best option.

Rumour had it that she might be prepared to take the job, provided that she had a free hand to give key Cabinet posts to technocrats. 

However, these moves appear to have come to nothing. Yatseniuk has refused to resign of his own accord, and Ukraine’s parliamentary rules do not allow a further vote of no confidence in this parliamentary session – which mean Yatseniuk continuing in post until at least September. 

Yatseniuk’s opponents were frantically searching for other ways of unseating him, including by trying to introduce new legislation to allow a vote of no confidence in individual Ministers, but that too seems to be coming to nothing, and it seems likely that Yatseniuk is safe for now.

“Yatseniuk will remain in place for the next three-four months. It’s simple - there are not yet enough votes to remove him or to put someone in his place,” Oleksiy Honcharenko from the Poroshenko bloc told Reuters.

The view from the West

The biggest risk from the current political crisis is that Yatseniuk’s government will not be able to command enough votes in parliament to take through key further elements of reform, which could lead to months of stagnation. 

Western exasperation with the situation is being voiced in the clearest of terms. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said on Tuesday,

“Ukraine’s leaders have been locked for months in a cycle of political infighting and indecision about how to restore unity, trust and effectiveness in the reform coalition, and reboot the government and its program… Every week that Ukraine drifts, reform is stalled, IMF and international support goes undisbursed, and those inside and outside the country who preferred the old Ukraine grow more confident.”

Nuland also warned that voters were becoming ever more disillusioned with the pace of change and what she called “the unholy alliance of dirty money and dirty politics” still controlling the country.

Reform – just enough

Ukraine’s parliament this week finally adopted a bill introducing electronic income and property declarations for public officials.

However, in what many have seen as an indication that Poroshenko himself is lukewarm about real reform, the legislation adopted is significantly weaker than the original in February, which envisaged prison terms for those who violated disclosure requirements. 

Parliamentary consideration on 16 February ended in scandal when Vadym Denisenko, a member of the Bloc of President Petro Poroshenko, slipped in amendments just before voting, that weakened the bill’s requirements and postponed the law’s introduction by one year. 

The ‘castrated’ bill was nevertheless adopted to widespread public outrage.

Ukraine’s EU partners were less than impressed. 

Leaders of Ukrainian parliament factions had a series of meetings in Brussels in early March, where they received a warning that a strong declarations law must be adopted and come into force this year.

As a result, Poroshenko vetoed the law on 12 March and sent it back to parliament. 

However, he added several amendments of his own and they weaken the law still further. 

He raised the amounts above which declarations have to be made, introduced fines rather than criminal charges for all but the highest of infractions, and deleted the requirement to explain the origin of art objects or jewellery.

Critics have said that the punishment is too weak and too much discretion is left to judges, which increased the risk of corruption. 

Nevertheless, a weary anti-corruption campaign accepted the law as the best possible compromise in the circumstances. 

Yegor Sobolev, Head of parliament’s committee for preventing corruption, said;. 

“It’s better than nothing…I’m afraid that in our conditions a fine will be the only penalty ever executed... But transparency without punishment is better than punishment without transparency.”

Progress – just in time

The final requirement which would allow the EU to grant Ukraine visa-free travel was put in place in the nick of time, hours before the deadline and as Poroshenko was about to travel to Brussels to present a key report on Ukraine’s progress. 

Ukraine’s authorities finally elected the board of directors for the National Agency for Prevention of Corruption. 

This is a vital component in the anti-corruption efforts of post-EuroMaidan government and civic activists, which will oversee the execution of the law on electronic assets declarations for officials, adopted by Verkhovna Rada on 15 March, as well as funding for political parties.

The agency has been idle for a year since its creation in March 2015, as the special commission could not select enough members to the agency’s board of directors. 

In December, after months of fruitless meetings, the commission elected two board members. At least two more were needed to launch the agency. 

Early this week, the commission members still had no compromise, but with Poroshenko due in Brussels on 17 March, pressure mounted. 

The missing two members were finally elected on the afternoon of 16 March, including the election of an independent civic activist that the political nominees had earlier blocked. 

About two hours later, Poroshenko’s plane took off to Brussels, with jubilant messages on social media that Ukraine has fulfilled all 138 of the EU’s requirements and that visa-free travel will now be a reality. 

The latest news is that the European Commission has announced it will prepare a proposal for the European Parliament to grant visa-free travel and, in addition, both the EU and US have confirmed that sanctions against Russia will remain in place until Minsk 2 is implemented.

However, optimism might still yet be dampened with the news that Viktor Shokhin, the deeply unpopular General Prosecutor, reported to have resigned in mid-February, is back at work after being on holiday. 

Parliament will have to find a majority to vote him out of office. 

If he stays, then the questions about Poroshenko’s real commitment to reform will become much louder and harder to answer.

And in the real war…

Violations of the ceasefire agreement and attacks against the Ukrainian army are increasing. 

Militants are again using heavy armour in the Luhansk sector with one tank launching almost two dozen shells at Ukrainian positions. 

Zaitseve and Avdiivka remain two flashpoints in the Donetsk sector where militants opened mortar fire eight times in one day alone, with 29 attacks recorded. 

Hostile attacks were registered along the entire frontline, from Krasnohorivka and Mariinka to the Azov Sea, including a total of 12 attacks in the Mariupol sector yesterday.

More than 1,600 Russian soldiers from 26 Russian military units have been killed during the armed conflict in Donbas, said Oleksandr Tkachuk, Chief of Staff at the Security Service of Ukraine, at a briefing at Ukraine Crisis Media Centre. 

He added that today 6,000 Russian military personnel and about 40,000 militants fight in Donbas.

Meanwhile, the Russian-backed separatists in Donetsk province have now begun issuing their own ‘passports’. 

Alexander Zakharchenko, self-proclaimed leader of the DNR, said that everyone will be required to have a DNR passport to vote in local elections, and that he is not concerned about the passport not being recognised. 

“South Ossetia and Russia recognise us - what other countries do we need? The other countries will recognise us in due course.”

And finally…

Nadiya Savchenko called off her ‘dry’ hunger strike but continues to refuse food. 

Her final statement to the Russian court has become an iconic symbol of Ukrainian defiance. 

Despite being on hunger strike, the BBC reported that when she spoke, her voice was strong - and angry. At one point she leaped on to the bench and showed the three judges her middle finger - a furious demonstration of what she thinks of Russian justice, which has been shown across the world. 

Her formal statement was read by a translator, in which she called President Vladimir Putin a “tyrant” and her trial a “farce” directed by the Kremlin.

In spite of statements of support from Western leaders, including the G7, Nadiya Savchenko remains in a Russian prison on false charges, awaiting a sentence on 21 March which has long been determined by the Kremlin.

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