Ukraine Update 3/15/16: Ides of March Returns

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Written by Brian Mefford

1Since 44 BC, politicians have learned to “beware the ides of March”

On exactly 2060 years ago this day, Julius Caesar was murdered by a conspiracy of Roman Senators. Days before, a soothsayer had warned Caesar “Beware the Ides of March”. When March 15th, 44 AD began, Caesar ran into the soothsayer on his way to the Senate, and mocked him by noting that it was already the “Ides of March” and nothing bad had happened. The soothsayer replied, “aye Caesar, but not yet gone“. Minutes later, Caesar was stabbed 23 times.

On March 15, 2016 Premier Yatseniuk plans no visit to the Ukrainian Parliament. Nonetheless, the Ides have arrived and not yet finished. We will soon know if Ukraine’s parliamentary deputies will stab him politically and bring about his political death, or if he will avoid the fate of Caesar and live to survive another day.

There are three scenarios currently being discussed, with as much conspiracy, ambition and intrigue, that Brutus, Cassius and Casca (the main conspirators against Caesar) would be inspired.

First, there is still a scenario where Yatseniuk stays longer. While a majority agree he must go, there is not yet a secure majority to decide who replaces him. Thus by default, he remains possibly as long as late July. In Yatseniuk’s own public address “ten minutes with the Prime Minister” yesterday, he outlined the stark conditions for ousting him. The Premier said, “the president of Ukraine and his faction, which is the largest in the Verkhovna Rada, take full responsibility and present a new Cabinet and new prime minister, new program and hold talks with the parliamentary forces to support another government and alternative program. But we don’t have much time for talking. The price of delay is economic decline, the loss of control of the country, the loss of support of our Western friends and in the end – the loss of everything we have achieved over the last two years. Mr. President, dear Bloc of Petro Poroshenko, the faction of the Radical Party and Oleh Liashko, the faction of Samopomich and Andriy Sadovyi, the faction of Batkivshchyna and Yulia Tymoshenko. The choice is up to you. I have made my choice.” If Yatseniuk survives this week though, it will only be with significant changes to the Cabinet of Ministers. President Poroshenko is planning a visit to Washington on March 30th and the message is clear from the White House, “don’t come with the current government as it is“. That doesn’t mean that Yatseniuk must go, but major changes in the ministerial posts must be made, specifically the Prosecutor General. Thus, the first scenario is the least likely.

Second, Natalie Jaresko may become Premier and usher in a whole new Cabinet of Ministers. Last week this scenario gained significant momentum, but as often in Ukraine, no sooner does an idea take off then it dissipates into thin air. For the last two weeks, serious negotiations having been taking place between the President and Jaresko over what her government would look like. However Jaresko’s desire to have veto power over some controversial figures proposed by the President for cabinet posts appears to be a sticking point. Conversely the Presidential administration complains that Jaresko wanted “too many Soros people” – a reference to the controversial Hungarian billionaire. Another Bankova aide quipped, “we have enough oligarchs of our own, we don’t need a foreign one dictating terms“. Whether true or not, there is clearly resistance at the presidential administration to a Jaresko premiership. Nonetheless, Presidential spokesman Sviatoslav Tseholko hinted that a Jaresko premiership was still possible yesterday stating, “First, a technocratic government led by Natalie Jaresko, Ukrainian Minister of Finance. This is the case where all pro-European factions unite around the technocratic Cabinet. Second, the political government that can be led, for instance, by Lviv mayor Andriy Sadovyi. The third option will be presented in the proposal of Ukrainian members of parliament supported by 226 votes in the Verkhovna Rada“. It should be noted that Sadovyi quickly dismissed such rumors, since his faction has just 26 of 423 MP’s in parliament, and other Samopomich MP’s hinted that the faction was likely to support Jaresko if nominated. Thus, Jaresko may yet emerge as Prime Minister, but it will definitely not be a with a cheering roar in parliament and the current government.

2A Volodymyr Groisman selection as Prime Minister would be as unimaginative as the Dick Cheney Vice Presidential search in 2000.

Third, “the Groisman cometh…”. Poroshenko takes care of his hometown of Vinnitysia, and his protege Volodymyr Groisman was an effective mayor there. Nonetheless, the choice of Groisman as Prime Minister is as under-inventive as Dick Cheney’s “Vice Presidential Search” in 2000. Can he do the job? Absolutely yes. Will it bring it about the reforms Ukraine fundamentally needs? The odds are against it. In fact, it looks like a circling of the wagons by Poroshenko to protect his assets against an assault. Nonetheless, this scenario is the active “modus operandi” being pursued by Bankova street at this moment. In this scenario, Yatseniuk’s People’s Front would support Groisman in exchange for the Speaker’s post which Groisman currently occupies. Yatseniuk would then install his boyhood friend and current faction leader, Maksym Burbak, as the Speaker in a post he once held himself. Burbak gets high marks on loyalty to Yatseniuk, but his intellect will never qualify him to be a candidate for astronaut. In effect, Yatseniuk would assume the ‘grey Cardinal’ role if Burbak takes the Speaker’s chair. In addition, Yatseniuk is reportedly insisting that Interior Minister Arsen Avakov stay in his current post. To accomplish this, it will take all the votes for the Poroshenko bloc and People’s Front – plus at least nine independent MP’s (out of 53). In reality, they can easily have more than the minimum of 226 MP’s to form a parliamentary majority. However, ruling by math, and ruling by support of the population are two very different things. Key votes on decentralization, judicial reform and anti-corruption will need more than bare bones majority (in most cases they will need 300 votes). Thus, a Groisman premiership is a short term fix at best, and a recipe for greater problems for President Poroshenko at this point.

Just like Caesar’s murder, this week in Ukrainian politics shall be no less brutal…

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