Ukraine leader forced to name ex-rival as prime minister

Posted in Europe | 03-Aug-06 | Author: Andrew E. Kramer| Source: International Herald Tribune

Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovych (foreground right) in Kiev, Ukraine, Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2006.
MOSCOW President Viktor Yushchenko of Ukraine, the reformer who rode a wave of popular protests to power in the Orange Revolution but lost credibility this year when his party came in third in parliamentary elections, was forced to nominate his former rival as prime minister early Thursday.

The appointment, which is likely to be approved by Parliament, sets up an unusual power-sharing government between the opponents in the scandal-tainted election of a year and a half ago.

Viktor Yanukovich, a strapping Moscow-backed politician who ultimately lost the 2004 elections, demanded the prime minister's job after his party won the most seats in parliamentary voting in March.

"I have taken the decision to put forward Viktor Yanukovich for the post of Ukraine's prime minister," Yushchenko said in a statement broadcast on Ukrainian television two hours after a midnight deadline for the nomination had passed, Reuters reported.

The Orange Revolution, viewed through this zigzag twist in Ukraine's recent history, loses some of the heady idealism that impelled thousands to take to the streets to protest Yanukovich's victory in the rigged 2004 election. The two men, at the time, seemed to embody a choice in Ukraine between the centuries-old path of allegiance with Russia, or emergence as an independent, pro-Western country.

Yushchenko said he had compelled his onetime nemesis to sign a policy statement confirming commitment to some of those ideals, like closer integration with Europe. The president had threatened to dissolve Parliament and call new elections unless his former rival signed.

It was unclear what concessions, if any, Yanukovich had made toward a key demand by Yushchenko: that Ukraine's bid for membership in NATO move forward.

Also unclear, under a constitutional reform introduced this year, was whether Yushchenko could reject a coalition of parties in Parliament that had nominated Yanukovich, a former convict from Ukraine's hardscrabble industrial eastern half.

Still, being forced to accept Yanukovich, a candidate openly supported by Moscow, undermines Yushchenko's efforts to guide Ukraine closer to political and economic ties with Europe, rather than Russia.

Yushchenko has presided over four months of a stormy deadlock after the March 26 parliamentary elections, where his Our Ukraine party won only 14 percent of the vote.

A fragile coalition between Yushchenko's party and that of his former prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, collapsed in July amid scuffles in Parliament. Ultimately, lawmakers opposed to this combination physically barricaded the podium to block a vote that could have brought the former Orange Revolution partners to power.

Hope for this pro-Western coalition in Ukraine ended when a former supporter of the orange group, the Socialist Party leader, Oleksandr Moroz, switched sides and joined Yanukovich's Party of Regions.

Moroz was rewarded by being elected speaker of Parliament. He also attended talks late Wednesday before the announcement.

That change in allegiance left Yushchenko short of votes for any candidate other than Yanukovich in the 450-member Rada.

The coalition he proposed Thursday will exclude the other leader of the Orange Revolution, Tymoshenko, though her party came in second in the March elections.

Yushchenko, who won the 2004 election after his face was disfigured in a poisoning with an industrial pollutant during the campaign, saw his popularity and power slip away amid infighting by the victors of that race.

Also, Yushchenko failed to negotiate cheap prices for natural gas from Russia, after the state monopoly Gazprom briefly embargoed Ukraine's energy supply in January. Higher prices struck hardest at the industrial belt in eastern and central Ukraine, Yanukovich's stronghold, deepening the political divide and playing into the hands of his pro-Russian party.