Kamikaze on a string
"There was no collusion!" President Petro Poroshenko told MPs of his faction abruptly Wednesday evening [17 February]. It is not hard to guess that the conversation concerned the failed dismissal of Yatsenyuk's government. He said that Bankova [the street where the presidential office is located] did not organize any special operations because he was expected to go on his own. "I expected him to stand up and sat this right after [leader of the president's bloc faction Yuriy] Lutsenko's speech," the president's voice rumbled. However Yatsenyuk was obviously unaware. MPs were listening to the president, but without trust. "Nothing to expect, who would admit a collusion now?" they said once out of the door.
A banal stereotype born in the first hours after the Tuesday performance – that what happened was President Poroshenko's great victory as he fooled everyone around – was crumbling to pieces. It was no victory at all in fact but a colossal defeat whose political implications for Poroshenko can be quite comparable with what Viktor Yanukovych faced after 16 January 2016. I would like to make a point here that they are political. Because all of them, Petro Poroshenko Bloc (PPB) MPs and the president, the president and the Cabinet of Ministers, and whatever is left of the coalition, need to co-exist somehow. Up until an election, which will benefit Fatherland, Self-Help, the not yet created "Saakashvili's party" and a number of small parties. However it is of absolutely no advantage to the People's Front and the PPB. The West does not want this election either. Therefore the chance of it taking place is low. At least for now.
So, now that the emotions have subsided, it is time to dissect what happened and why and what will follow.
Reasons and options
President Petro Poroshenko repeatedly said that he is unhappy with the government performance. We heard his criticism of the government during the latest news conference and in numerous statements. But there is one important detail. The criticism always concerned the Cabinet of Ministers as a whole. Petro Oleksiyovych avoided giving personal assessments of Yatsenyuk. That is because Bankova is happy with how things are at the moment. It needs a weak, unbalanced, and as loyal and manually-controlled as possible prime minister. And the Cabinet of Ministers which can be controlled. As well as flows inside it.
This is for starters. The second point is that the mantra that an upgrade of the Cabinet of Ministers will immediately make things right can be "sold" forever. To the Ukrainian society and Western partners. Well, they would say, we are unlucky to have this prime minister but this is what we have to live with.
It had worked until recently. In fact, up until the demarche by [Economic Development Minister Aivaras] Abromavicius, which produced a risk of crushing the image of President Poroshenko rather than that of Prime Minister Yatsenyuk. That is because accusing his right hand of corruption de facto means accusing the guarantor. The next spin of a political crisis triggered by Abromavicius's statement demanded a snap and resolute action.
Both Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk had several options.
The most obvious one was to zero out the Cabinet of Ministers at all. Considered as alternative replacements for Yatsenyuk were Volodymyr Hroysman (who had the highest chance), Natalie Jaresko and even Pavlo Klimkin (who in his wildest dreams has not thought of premiership). But the scheme would not work without the votes of the People's Front while Yatsenyuk flatly refused to leave on his own despite Oleksandr Turchynov's sincere advice to do so. The PPB faction categorically refused to to legitimize the "third arrival of Arseniy" and the information background which was taking shape made it clear that nothing would be easy here. That is why Oleksandr Valentynovych [Turchynov] suggested that if Yatsenyuk made it nice while delivering the performance report, he would be able to go with his head raised high. And even score some points. Something like, now see how you will do without me. But Arseniy Petrovych did not heed the advice. It was then that Bankova decided to try and fool everyone. Which they did to their own headache.
It was clear to anyone who meticulously analyses Ukrainian politics but not just casts it a superficial look through the prism of Facebook posts: Yatsenyuk will not be sent off. The top confidants from both sides were way too quiet the previous evening and in the morning of the historic day.
Bankova was sending a signal: they are not going to say good bye to the Cabinet of Ministers but they will fray their nerves in earnest. The People's Front said in confidence that 40-45 votes were missing to ensure the cabinet's dismissal. After all it happened just like that. The People's Front "wavered" only after the lunch and the release of the president's statement. Here is a quote: "The request for the full restart of the Government is already obvious. The Prime Minister has an opportunity to choose the best way to implement this request." Pay attention, it is the same modus operandi: he did not name Yatsenyuk but "the full restart of the government" while the prime minister "has an opportunity to choose". At the same time, his promise to "ask" Shokin to leave is just a distraction. Shokin for Bankova is like a suitcase without a handle: it is hard to carry but it is a pity to drop, and if you decide to drop it after all, why not do this with the maximum PR profit.
And people took the bait by the way – the phrase about the Cabinet of Ministers was received right as the presidential administration wanted to, and [presidential friend MP Ihor] Kononenko was immediately forgotten. And the People's Front, as I said before, wavered. It was namely after the president's address was published that Yatsenyuk ordered his office to prepare a resignation statement, just in case.
Bankova witnessed and had fun but this did not change the initial plan. The position of the Opposition Bloc, the People's Will (which was going to "topple" Arseniy Petrovych on Monday but then suddenly changed its mind by Tuesday), the Olympian serenity of Yatsenyuk, [Justice Minister Pavlo] Petrenko and [Interior Minister Arsen] Avakov and, what is most important, the position of speaker Hroysman offered a persuasive confirmation. Volodymyr Borysovych [Hroysman], should it be necessary, can take a bill through parliament at the 27th attempt and save the Cabinet of Ministers from dismissal. Not of his own will, of course.
Did Bankova recognize the risks when it was launching a plan entitled "not quite dismissed Yatsenyuk"? It is obvious it did, there are smart people there. This means that they considered the risks to be less dangerous than what other scenarios could offer.
Bankova is facing several threats.
The first and the most significant one is an election. The ratings of the president's Solidarity leave something to be desired. Mildly speaking. The People's Front and Arseniy Yatsenyuk have long stopped being a sponge for any negative feedback, they have been overloaded. Poroshenko's allies who said "the closer we are to Yatsenyuk, the lower our rating is" were right. And that is just what happened.
However in this regard the presidential administration has the West for a strategic ally. After the Abromavicius story, several ambassadors of key donor countries at once, who previously stood up for Arseniy Petrovych with all their might, told Petro Oleksiyovych directly: "If you know how to replace him and with whom, do it. But there should be no election."
Addressing his faction's MPs late on 17 February, Petro Oleksiyovych himself said the following: "There are commitments before our international partners therefore I will not initiate the government's dismissal on my own." And this: "Our partners told us: do not get involved into a dismissal story if you do not understand who the next prime minister, what the composition of the cabinet, what the coalition agreement and what its calendar of implementation are going to be. Otherwise our (financial – editorial note) cooperation will be frozen."
Since Bankova did not have exact answers to these questions, they decided not to change the status quo. Only one thing is unclear: why were these smart words said to MPs (with these accents namely!) after the Tuesday events but not before them? On Wednesday [17 February], the president even sounded somewhat offended: I was not breaking your bones to make you vote for the dismissal and now you are throwing mud at me. Using his own words: "those who want to split the faction lie on the [TV] air". And then he cast an angry look at young MPs.
Threat No 2 is Avakov. It is not Arseniy Petrovych but Arsen Borysovych who irritates the presidential administration the most. It is no secret at all that Bankova seeks total control over all uniformed agencies. That is why MPs controlled by oligarchs did not support Yatsenyuk's dismissal. Yes, Arseniy Petrovych is not an obstacle to many of them (oligarchs), to put it delicately, while they earn their money almost the same way they did during fatter times. And if he leaves, they will have to make an agreement with someone else. Or, to put it correctly, with Bankova. And this costs times as much, more difficult and time consuming.
Comrade oligarchs have already experienced what the methods of work of Mr Kononenko are like. Apart from material interests, they also had security concerns. There is nothing about Avakov as a person but about the fact that his presence in power creates certain balances. Yes, they are tilted and curvy but these are balances. Everyone still clearly remembers all too well what the Family's monopoly can bring. And the name of this Family is not important.
There is also a smaller argument: It is Avakov who adds Arseniy Petrovych courage during political confrontations. If you deprive him of that, you will pull the rug from under his feet. That is why long time ago, even before the conflict between Avakov and Saakashvili, Arseniy Petrovych told the president: "Arsen and Arseniy will only leave the Cabinet of Ministers together. No other way."
To neutralize threat No 2, Bankova added the next phase to the plan "not quite dismissed Yatsenyuk". They said that since the situation after the Tuesday vote was so difficult, some members of the Cabinet of Ministers need to be urgently replaced. Yuriy Lutsenko listed the ones which should better be kept after the faction meeting on Wednesday. Neither Petrenko nor Avakov were listed, of course. Apart from anything else this means that Bankova did not learn a lesson. It means that the presidential administration does not understand: MPs rose up against Arseniy Petrovych Yatsenyuk himself, not individual ministers. And without replacing him, any talks of a "reset", "new approaches" and "principles" are absolutely useless.
Threat No 3 is communication with his own faction. Here Bankova suffered a crushing defeat. The faction de facto became a sacrifice to a collusion. Only individual members were aware of the details of the plan while even people from the closest circle were kept in the dark, which quite naturally made them feel offended. Take, for example, Nina Yuzhanina. She showed up for the faction meeting late on Wednesday with a list of 13 names of the "werewolves" who signed the motion to have the government dismissed but did not vote for it. As one of the PPB's top speakers on the issue of the dismissal, Yuzhanina found herself in an awkward situation. And she was quite justifiably enraged.
There are 80 per cent of the faction like her. If not more. This does not go without leaving a mark. It is obvious one should expect the PPB to shrink soon. The question is how many will remain.
What is next?
Fatherland announced its withdrawl from the coalition on Wednesday. Self-Help did the same on Thursday after long-time consultations. The latter's decision was predictable but very doubtful from the self-preservation point of view. It is easy to predict that criminal cases against Self-Help's prominent representatives will follow not only in Kharkiv but across the whole country. And Andriy Ivanovych [Sadovyy, Lviv mayor and head of the Self-Help party] will not be able to help his supporters for the lack of tools.
Next. As we all remember if a coalition collapses, the law says a new one should be formed within 30 days. Otherwise a repeat election should be held. Certainly, the president has the right, not a commitment, to call it but I would really like to see how Petro Oleksiyovych dares to delay announcing it in front of the West's eyes, should such circumstances arise.
The law also tells us that the coalition is formed by factions. Yes, there are two directly contradicting decisions of the Constitutional Court transparently hinting that it can be formed by individual member MPs; there are also other legal loopholes but this is hairsplitting typical of the Yanukovych regime. Times have changed and today (once again, in front of the West's eyes) hardly will anyone dare to commit such outright manipulations. This means that there is only one solution: to successfully complete the talks with Oleh Lyashko. Understanding that he now holds a golden share, the leader of the Radical Party has already said that he is ready for a "reunion with the family". The question is how much it will cost the "family". Literally.
The math is simple. Currently, the People's Front has 81 MPs, the Radical Party, 21, and the PPB, 136, which makes a total of 238. This figure does not include potential "renegades" from the PPB but it is enough with a certain reserve. It is not a constitutional majority but it is better than nothing. For cases of strategic voting, they can solicit the help of non-affiliated MPs and the People's Will. The history knows the example of the Party of Regions whose coalition existed with 227 MPs for quite long. And they managed to get some work done. It was even enough to pass government initiatives. And all 227 MPs looked back at Bankova for directions. And ministers did the same.
The same will happen this time too. Every remaining member of the Cabinet of Ministers perfectly understands to whom they owe keeping their posts. And this is not to Yatsenyuk.
What is more, Bankova is waiting for Yatsenyuk to kick the ball. We did what we could, they think, now the ball is in his field. The world was promised a "full reset" of the government not for nothing. There are at least two vacancies in the Cabinet of Ministers for that. Arseniy Petrovych and his allies can live with this. The prime minister's team still believes that reforms will produce results very soon, literally the other day, and its rating will start growing. Well, if not the other day then in the autumn for sure. However something tells me that this Cabinet of Ministers will not make it until the autumn. For reasons beyond its control.