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The VR fait accompli – in layman terms

December 16, 2015

Yesterday, a very wise and erudite friend from Poland, Slawomir Debski (who it is indeed a pleasure to know) contacted your author following the dowsing of Governor Saakashvili with a glass of water by Minister of Interior Avakov during a heated exchange at the national reforms council meeting presided over by President Poroshenko – and the implications thereof.

glas of pouring water with reflection1

As with all sensible foreign policy people with the ear of their government, he wanted “a feel” for how things are – which is particularly prudent when Poland happens to be an immediate neighbour and unapologetic supporter of Ukraine.

It thus spurred this entry which will attempt to explain in layman terms the political situation in Ukraine and within the Verkhovna Rada in particular.  Much of the nuance will be ignored and broad but clear brush strokes will (hopefully) paint the current state of affairs, frustrations and calculations that no doubt feature for many involved.

Naturally when Governor Saakashvili was appointed Governor of Odessa and given Ukrainian citizenship, one of the first questions asked was how long he would stay.  Even the President’s unveiling of the governor had within his speech a statement that the situation would be reassessed after 12 months.  The inference to be taken from that was either that the Governor had 12 months to make an impact, or that the President had other possible plans for him after he had been accepted within Ukrainian politics.

Governor Saakashvili’s path has not been easy – for he has no power to introduce, amend or repeal laws that would allow him to accomplish the reforms he wants to implement.  Most of those reforms it has to be said, are indeed necessary to improve the business, economic, transparency, anti-corruption and rule of law climate in the city and the region.

Indeed, Odessa is a very mercantile city and region.  Of all the Government of Ukraine reforms long since tauted, those that rank as mostly highly desired by Odessa, and by the proverbial country mile, are economic and judicial reform.  All other reforms “on the table” nationally register far, far behind.  In short the people of Odessa want to be able to make money with as little bureaucratic/governmental interference as possible – and then be able to defend it if somebody tries to take it in a court of law.   Education, social reforms etc., are a long, long way behind as priorities for Odessa.

There is no need to list Governor Saakashvili’s achievements or failures thus far in Odessa – suffice to say there have been both.  The achievements have been positive – the failures have simply meant the existing status quo survives.  Things have certainly not got worse for the average citizen of Odessa due to the actions of the Governor (within the constraints of his office).

The point is that nobody expected, nor expects, Governor Saakashvili to remain Governor of Odessa for years.  All knew he was far too big to stay a full President Poroshenko term.  That Misha would either eat himself during that time, or move on to bigger national affairs was generally accepted.

By August, it was clear that the Governor was getting frustrated by what he (correctly) saw as obstructionism in Kyiv.  He is, of course, not alone in that.  The list of ministers resigning during December after 12 months in post citing lack of reform continues to grow – and some good ministers such as Aivaras Abromavicius who will not resign, may well see attempts to promote them out of the way, allowing nefarious hands upon the Economics Ministry before the much needed privatisation of State owned enterprises occurs.

Battle lines within the political reformers and the old nefarious hands are drawn and matters are coming to a head.  A “Maidan” within the Verkhovna Rada seems inevitable – and very soon.  The only question is whether a majority coalition can remain solid enough to emerge on the other side as and when this happens.

Returning to late August/early September, quite clearly Governor Saakashvili smelt political blood in the water.  Prime Minister Yatseniuk’s political party was polling so poorly that it would have been slaughtered during the October local elections – so it did not take part.

For those with a keen eye and who notice such things, it was at this time Governor Saakashvili’s Facebook page took upon it a distinct but subtle change.  When he first arrived in May, all posts were written in two languages.  Russian first and then the same message in Ukrainian.  However, coinciding with his locking horns with Kyiv, and in particular Prime Minister Yatseniuk, his Facebook page then started posting in Ukrainian first and the same message in Russian second.  A small detail of course, but a detail that fitted with the Governor’s eye turning toward Kyiv with the Cabinet clearly still acting both slowly and also in certain people’s interest (Martynenko for example) – to the detriment of the Governor and what he was/is trying to do in Odessa.

It was also at this time when the ambitious pretender to Prime Minister Yatseniuk’s throne within the Presidential Administration, Boris Lozhkin, suddenly found himself under investigation for money laundering in Austria – thus killing his Prime Minister ambitions there and then.  Indeed, it is fair to say that Mr Luzhkin is probably on his way out, with Messrs Kononenko, Berezenko and Granovsky in.  For the record your author will be extremely surprised to see any successful money laundering charges brought against Mr Luzhkin as the money in Austria is subject to (deliberate) tax evasion, but not money laundering to this blog’s knowledge.  Mr Luzhkin was also instrumental in bring the “then Georgians” into Ukraine.

Anyway, with Governor Saakashvili smelling political blood as afar back as August, and the immunity from removal from office of the Cabinet of Ministers, and the Prime Minister, passing on 12th December after their first year in office, the Governor has increased the tempo and intensity of political attacks in particular upon Prime Minister Yatseniuk, who only a few days before VP Biden’s visit decided he could no longer protect his friend Mr Martynenko and look the VP in the eye whilst asking for the US continued support for his embattled position.

To be clear, the US and US Embassy Kyiv have a very clear eyed view of the pros and cons of Prime Minister Yatseniuk, what he was and is involved with, and also with whom.  The same can be said for all prominent Ukrainian figures.  Thus VP Biden will not have entered into any conversations with anybody he met without knowing very well what they are up to.  Thus the Prime Minister had no choice but to have Mr Martynenko fall on his political sword a few days before meeting VP Biden as the smell of corruption was just too rancid.

The “Team Saakashvili” political assault upon Prime Minister Yatseniuk (and perhaps Interior Minster Avakov henceforth) has been one of claims of corruption and protection for those engaged in it by Arseny Yatseniuk from the Governor.  Those around the Governor tacking a slightly different track and stating that a Prime Minister with a popularity rating of a margin of error in any poll (about 2%) should simply resign from the role.  In both cases they have a strong and valid point prima facie.

The mathematics of the Verkhovna Rada however, work in defiance of Ukrainian public opinion – and it is these mathematics that have so far kept Prime Minister Yatseniuk in his role.

The 80 something MPs of Prime Minister Yatseniuk’s People’s Front party will not accept any other Prime Minister than their party leader.  As the second largest party in the coalition, should Mr Yatseniuk be removed by Verkhovna Rada vote, then the coalition collapses and an early election would be necessary – and there are few in the political or external diplomatic classes that want to see an early Verkhovna Rada election.

The US, Canada, EU, IMF et al., do not want to see early Verkhovna Rada elections as it will mean no reforms for 4 or 5 months during campaigning, results, and coalition forming.  To be blunt, with US, German and French elections in 2016 and 2017, notwithstanding the UK in/out referendum regarding the EU, there will be a lot of internal navel gazing by current powerful supporters of Ukraine.  Outcomes may have different views upon Ukraine, unless it is proving to be a foreign policy success story to which appropriate political flags can be attached in a quest for shared glory.

Internally of Ukraine, the President’s Solidarity Party, theoretically could come to a deal with the Prime Minister’s Party regarding its assimilation post Yatseniuk departure, offering the same ministerial posts as agreed under the current party quota agreement within the current coalition agreement.  There is a but however – even if this be so, come the next scheduled Verkhovna Rada elections, Solidarity will in no way win by such a margin that all those assimilated could hope to return under the presidential banner.

Why?  Because naturally Governor Saakashvili will at some point launch “Team Saakashvili” as a political party – and it will be successful.  Probably very successful.  It will undoubtedly pull from Solidarity, People’s Front, Batkivshchyna and Samopomich constituencies – with serious constituency injuries for all concerned.

There will be no home for the majority of existing MPs within “Team Saakashvili” to be sure.  There will be a few exceptions should they show a desire – the obvious and untainted reformers – but otherwise Governor Saakashvili has a list of vetted, western education/western business experienced people from his appeals to help in Odessa.  That list is in the hundreds when it comes to vetted, competent and uncorrupted 25 – 45 year old Ukrainians.  Indeed the most controversial name on his party list would probably be his own.

The immediate Interior Ministry response, after its Minister dowsed the Governor in water in front of the President, of releasing a video of Governor Saakashvili with a Russian oligarch (Dmitry Mazelin) in Odessa and inferring his nefarious agreement to sell Odessa Port Side to him is simply poor judgement on the part of Arsen Avakov.

Let us be blunt – if Governor Saakashvili cannot get the Cabinet of Ministers to repeal, amend or create legislation to facilitate reforms in Odessa (and beyond) – how can it be reasonably believed that the Governor can insure the sale of Odessa Port Side to a Russian oligarch when he has no official input into the privatisation of any State owned enterprise?  How could he manipulate and/or influence the Cabinet of Ministers and State Fiscal Service to facilitate such a sale when he can’t get minor legislative changes from the same Cabinet of Ministers?  It also raises questions as to who took the video and why?  Has the Interior Ministry got Governor Saakashvili under surveillance? Upon whose order?

Anyway, the next Verkhovna Rada elections may well see several new parties.  The Opposition Block will further split into a Akhmetov/Kolasnikov/Novinsky led/financed party, and also a Firtash/Liovochkin “Party of Peace and Regional Development” entity.  The pro-Presidential ex-Regionaires Nash Krai will probably get to the national legislature too.  In short, the ex-Regionaires will further split again.

There may also be a “pro-reform” party appear – it takes only the “Anti-Corruption Platform” group that currently exists within Solidarity to split and form as a political party that would cross the electoral threshold.

There is little reason to further labour the point, but as many readers will gather, there are few amongst the party leaderships (or their grey cardinals) that would see themselves doing particularly well from early Verkhovna Rada elections – except “Team Saakashvili”, the “Anti-Corruption Platform” when they launch, and Nash Krai.

Thus, with almost all seeing this outcome ahead, notwithstanding the foreigners demanding reforms without further delay or they will cut the cash, Prime Minister Yatseniuk and the 80+ People’s Front deputies propose a fait accompli for any that would seek to remove him.

It would, however, be a different matter if Mr Yatseniuk simply decided he has had enough and was going to see out the rest of his electoral mandate as party leader from the back benches – not that it would imply that his ability to frustrate reform and protect interests would be any less with the constant threat of pulling his 80+ MPs from the coalition.

The votes to remove him are clearly there within the Verkhovna Rada if and when the political nod from leaders is given – but there is simply no agreement upon any replacement acceptable to all.

So if the President sees no option but to retain Prime Minister Yatseniuk for the next few months at least whilst Constitutional majorities of 300+ votes are necessary regarding decentralisation and judicial immunity, is he in a position to sack Governor Saakashvili (whom he appointed, and has no democratic mandate) in order to quell the rebellion?

Well, he could – but the Governor is actually popular in Odessa – far more than any other Governor the Oblast has ever had.  Indeed according to most polls, Governor Saakashvili is a clear political favourite across much of the nation.  To sack him would send entirely the wrong signal regarding corruption and reform not only within Odessa but nationally.

It would also insure that Mr Saakashvili would launch his political party post haste, spend far more time in Kyiv and upon national television naming names and waving evidence (of varying quality) of corruption before TV cameras, and stir the reformist electorate.  Instead of (limited) control over the Governor, there would be no control over Mr Saakashvili – and political persecution accusations would swiftly follow once his party was formed and Arsen Avakov tried to politically sabotage him one way or another.

Indeed Mr Avakov may find himself a political corpse no differently to Arseny Yatseniuk should such amateurish YouTube clips and “assertions/inferences”  continue to be promulgated to a Ukrainian constituency currently far more inclined to believe Mr Saakashvili than any of the old Ukrainian political class within the Cabinet of Ministers.  If throwing water over Misha will do Minister Avakov no good in the public domain, his ministry releasing 15 second silent clips with inferred nefariousness over deals far outside Misha’s ability to deliver, will reduce him to ridicule.

After all of the above, less than nuanced outline now sketched, the question is now how to manage the situation by all concerned?

Can Prime Minister Yatseniuk be encouraged to resign of his own free will once he marshals his troops to assist in garnering 300+ constitutional majorities for various necessary constitutional amendments early in 2016?  (And even if he does the 300+ may not be reached.)  If so, what assurances will he be offered that his allegedly corrupt and nefarious deeds and associations will not result in a lengthy prison term?  Does he need to be offered a presidential appointment somewhere?  EU Ambassador or similar – still in the game, high profile and ego massaging, but out of the country.

Can a replacement be agreed upon if he did resign?

If Governor Saakashvili can see the current Verkhovna Rada mathematics clearly, and the constitutional majority requirements on the legislative time table, is his best course of action still to try and force the Yatseniuk issue with such political energy now, or should he perhaps whilst keeping the pressure on and in the issue in the public eye with slightly less gusto, spend more time marshaling his own troops, preparing for national “Team Saakashvili” party offices with competent corruption free management etc?  In short a clear policy for party creation and programming nationwide in preparation to maximise his result (which is likely to be good, but could be very good).  His time on the Ukrainian national stage will surely come after all.

How will President Poroshenko manage what are now clear battle lines between reformers and old guard that are entrenching within the Verkhovna Rada – and as personified by the Saakashvili/Avakov pantomime over which he presided at the National Reforms Council?

The Saakashvili/Avakov confrontation is after all, the personification of a clear divide within the rank and file of the Verkhovna Rada.  If political popularity polls are any judge of public mood, then there is a clear favouring, by the proverbial country mile, for Mr Saakashvili and what he is perceived to stand for.  President Poroshenko, and/or the old guard, would be very foolish to think that offering up trinkets such as Visa-Free with the EU will in any way placate public mood or demand for domestic reform – it won’t.

President Poroshenko is a manager, and not a leader, and he may be able to manage the fallout between Messrs Saakashvili and Avakov – at least publicly – but there is also a real possibility that this may all spin out of control very easily, if not with the individuals, then with the battle lines forming within the parliament.

Perhaps it’s just as well the festive break presents itself now providing time for cooler and more calculating heads to return thereafter – though it seems clear those heads will heat up again very quickly indeed if the current status quo is all that is on offer.

The probable immediate outcome – faux declarations of unity  and a Cabinet reshuffle that excludes removing the Prime Minister that will have to deliver and deliver swiftly to have even the remotest hope of longevity.

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