UD. 2 April 2016. By Iryna Terlecky.

Russia continues its offensive against Ukraine, while Ukraine’s government is still preoccupied with political infighting. 

New PM or Elections?

Arseniy Yatseniuk clings on to the post of Prime Minister, but perhaps for not much longer. 

Over the last two weeks, Natalie Jaresko, Ukraine’s Finance Minister finally threw her hat into the ring but the consensus appears to be that this was too late, as President Poroshenko seems to be supporting his ally, current Speaker of Verkhovna Rada, Volodymyr Groysman for the job.

On 27 March, Yatseniuk, in an Easter statement on Ukrainian television, made a last ditch attempt to distance himself from the political crisis and appeal for its resolution. 

He said that the current crisis was as a result of a moral vacuum at the highest levels without a clear view of how the people’s mandate for reform should be taken forward. 

“The campaign to discredit the government has lasted for over a year. Many of our decisions were difficult and unpopular, but there were no other recipes. Alternatives still don’t exist.”

He reiterated his willingness to continue to work within the parliamentary coalition to find solutions on the basis of transparent debate and to meet the reform imperatives that would retain international confidence in Ukraine. 

“The country is waiting for judicial reform – the upgrade of the judiciary, the public prosecution service and of the Ukrainian Constitution, which will enshrine the new distribution of responsibilities between president, parliament and government, and between central and local governments.” 

He urged all the parties to rise above ‘destructive infighting for petty interests’ and said that only internal unity would strengthen Ukraine’s position.

Yatseniuk is currently refusing to resign until a new coalition agreement is in place, with the Poroshenko bloc, his own People’s Front and Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna party. 

Although President Poroshenko has said that he hopes the crisis can be ended this week, this has been thrown into doubt as Tymoshenko put forward a string of demands as the price of an alliance. These included scrapping a tax on pension payments and rolling back energy price increases - the latter a key reform implemented under Ukraine’s bailout programme from the International Monetary Fund.

With the clock ticking towards the end of the 30 day period of grace before new elections have to be called, it remains uncertain whether the parliamentary factions can reach agreement in time.

And in the Prosecutor’s office…

Following his apparent resignation in February, discredited Prosecutor-General Viktor Shokin made a surprise reappearance back at work after what was said to be a period on holiday and pending ratification of his resignation by Ukraine’s parliament. 

Ukraine’s international supporters had for months called for the ousting of Mr. Shokin, who was widely criticised for turning a blind eye to corrupt practices and for defending the interests of a venal and entrenched elite. 

He was one of several political figures in Kyiv whom reformers and Western diplomats saw as a worrying indicator of a return to past corrupt practices.

Finally, on 29 March, the Ukrainian parliament approved a motion to accept his resignation with 289 votes for – comfortably above the 226 required. 

However, only an hour before the vote, Shokin fired his reformist deputy Davit Sakvarelidze on what are widely perceived to be fabricated charges of ‘violating ethical principles’. 

In a news briefing, Sakvaredlidze commented, that his dismissal was because he and his team had challenged the system and started identifying corrupt officials in the prosecution service at all levels regardless of their ranks and connections. He added that,”there’s a lot of honest people (at the prosecutor’s office) but this system is destroying them.”

The biggest concern from international donors, including the International Monetary Fund is that there has seemed to be a return to business-as-usual horse-trading and protection of business interests between Ukrainian politicians, officials and businessmen, which has stifled real progress on anti-corruption measures. 

It remains unclear whether President Poroshenko has ratified Sakvaredlidze’s removal from his post, or indeed, who might become Prosecutor-General in Shokin’s place, but it is equally clear that improved international confidence rests on those decisions.

The international dimension

On 6 April, the Netherlands will hold a referendum on whether they support or reject the Ukraine/EU Association Agreement. 

The agreement has already been approved by the Dutch parliament and ratified by the other 27 EU member states. It has also been provisionally in force since the start of this year, and would initially remain so regardless of the outcome of the referendum, according to officials. 

Until the MH17 tragedy the Dutch government was one of the closest EU countries to Moscow, with a huge amount of Russian trade flowing through Rotterdam’s port and scores of Dutch companies actively investing in Russia. 

The referendum debate is polarising Dutch opinion, with the ‘No’ campaigners being accused of parroting the Kremlin line about the threat of the EU’s expansion eastwards, while the ‘Yes’ supporters believe that a ‘No’ vote will only benefit President Putin. 

They say that there is no pressure from the EU saying that Ukraine can’t co-operate or trade with Russia and it is only Putin that is making it a black and white choice. 

‘No’ campaigners say that they are using the referendum as a political issue on the wider questions of EU direction and reform, but given that most of the main political parties have agreed to abide by the vote, the implications are uncertain and, at the very least, will create additional tensions within the EU which are unlikely to benefit Ukraine.

Trump’s take on Ukraine

As the US Presidential campaign primaries reach a peak, Donald Trump’s world view is coming under increasing scrutiny. 

In an interview on ABC, Trump seemed to row back significantly from speeches in late 2015 when he acknowledged that Ukraine had been invaded by Russia and the need for continued international support and pressure. 

He claimed that it was only the US that was fighting for Ukraine and, ominously, said that “Ukraine is very far away from us.” 

In a further odd take on the situation, he said that Germany and countries around Ukraine were ‘not opening up’ and ‘not protesting’. This comes on top of his pronouncements that Europe is a ‘hellhole’ for ordinary citizens, that Americans are not safe in Europe or their own country, and that NATO is obsolete.

We can expect more of the same in the run-up to the Republican convention, with Trump assembling a foreign policy advisory team that includes Paul Manafort, former political advisor to ex-President Yanukovych, and Carter Page, a former advisor and current shareholder in Gazprom. 

“Manafort is the worst example of a political lobbyist,” Ukrainian journalist Sergii Leshchenko told Quartz magazine. “He worked for the worst Ukrainian president.” 

Leshchenko also pointed out Manafort’s dealings with Dmytro Firtash, the Ukrainian oligarch whom the US has charged with bribery, and who has himself said that he wants to return to Ukraine. 

In an interview with Bloomberg news, Firtash was strongly critical of the government that he says has “brought the country to the edge of catastrophe”.

“If they remain in power longer, this may only make things worse,” he said. 

“I am not happy with the fact that our country is being governed from abroad, that Americans are governing Ukraine… Ukraine is still an independent country and these are Ukrainians who should govern Ukraine and not be under external management.”

The front line

Russia’s war against Ukraine has escalated over the last two weeks, with increasing heavy attacks from separatist forces across the line of contact. 

The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission has reported firing from heavy weapons which should have been withdrawn, while Ukrainian army sources have expressed their frustration with their orders, which are to fire back only when the contact line is breached – in accordance with the Minsk agreements.

And, as expected, Nadiya Savchenko was sentenced by a Russian court for 22 years for murder, with all her defence evidence disregarded. 

She has forbidden her lawyers to launch an appeal, and has said that she will start a dry hunger strike on 6 April, when the sentence comes into effect – to make good her pledge that she will be returned to Ukraine dead or alive. 

Diplomatic efforts are continuing for a prisoner exchange with two Russian officers held in Kyiv, which the Kremlin may agree to, now that it has achieved its  guilty verdict against Savchenko.

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