Poroshenko empty-handed in Washington

Petro Poroshenko

For the new Ukrainian government, the time of euphoria is over. President Petro Poroshenko visited the United States for President Obama’s nuclear security summit, but for a long time it was not clear if he would even get a meeting with Obama.

In the end, Poroshenko was granted a brief meeting and photo opportunity with the U.S. president, but the main conversation was with Vice President Joe Biden, who currently oversees Ukraine for the White House.

Obama’s reserve was easily explained. The Ukrainian leader basically came empty-handed to Washington, having promised much that he has not yet delivered.

At the top of the U.S. agenda is evidence that the Ukrainian government is making progress on reforms and its compliance with the Minsk agreements on the conflict in southeastern Ukraine. As State Department spokesperson John Kirby declared on March 17, “we’re going to continue to press on political reforms in Ukraine” to make sure that the Ukrainian government keeps its end of the bargain.

For his part, the Ukrainian president was still seeking to obtain American weapons and ensure that Washington keeps up its pressure on Moscow. It was also important for him that Ukraine receive another $3 billion IMF loan and $1 billion in U.S. loan guarantees. Biden told Poroshenko that the U.S. would provide Ukraine with an additional $335 million in security assistance and that the loan was conditional on the formation of a new government.

Before he left for Washington, Poroshenko made a similar point to his fellow politicians. “They are still hoping for Ukraine in the U.S., but we have to find strength to elect the new government. $1 billion in U.S. loan guarantees and the new Congress-approved program to defend our state are at stake here. No resolution [of the government crisis] means no U.S. guarantees and no program,” the Ukrainian president stated during the parliament meeting with deputies from his own party.

Both Poroshenko and Ukraine’s Western partners have spoken out against the idea of holding pre-term parliamentary elections to halt the current government crisis.

Poroshenko is being a bit disingenuous here, however. He is the main author of the current stalemate in Kiev, having persuaded his old adversary Arseniy Yatsenyuk to step down after two unsuccessful attempts.

But far from resolving the crisis, this merely meant that the old governing coalition had ceased to exist without a new one being formed.

Poroshenko’s plan was that his close ally, parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Groysman, would become prime minister, while Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front Party would retain the Interior Minister’s portfolio, currently headed by Arsen Avakov, and Yatsenyuk’s old college friend Pavlo Petrenko would keep the job of Justice Minister. Yatsenyuk’s party would get a few more ministerial jobs and possibly the parliament speaker’s seat vacated by Groysman. The current deputy speaker and Maidan activist Andriy Parubiy would then move up to the speaker’s seat.

However, having destroyed the old balance of power in Ukraine, Poroshenko failed to create a new arrangement. The now unpopular Popular Front bent under pressure, but junior coalition partners, who help provide the president with a majority in parliament, were less willing to accommodate his wishes.

The Samopomich (Self-Reliance) party led by Lviv Mayor Andriy Sadovy refused to do a deal and joined the ranks of the opposition.

Oleg Lyashko’s Radical Party and Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) Party initially said they were willing to discuss joining a new governing coalition, but Lyashko later backed out, saying his demands were not being heeded. According to members of the presidential party, Lyashko had his eyes on the job of parliamentary speaker, a demand that both Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk considered to be excessive.

This left Tymoshenko’s party as the only potential coalition partner left. Tymoshenko did not want positions in government, she wanted legislation to go through parliament instead. She wanted the Rada to reduce utility charges and gas rent, adjust salaries for inflation, and raise the minimum wage. The trouble is that some of these demands directly contradict the IMF conditions for cooperation with Ukraine.

When Yuriy Lutsenko, who runs the Petro Poroshenko Bloc group in parliament, told Tymoshenko that her demands were blackmail, she simply walked out of the room where the negotiations were being held.

The upshot was that Poroshenko had failed to meet the deadline for forming a new government before he traveled to Washington. The Petro Poroshenko Bloc and People’s Front may try to get out of the impasse by persuading non-aligned parliamentary deputies to vote for a new government, but they were unable to do so before the president left for Washington.

Perhaps the only thing that the Ukrainian president was able to appease his Western partners with was the ouster of the disgraced Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin. Washington’s displeasure with Shokin was so strong that the U.S. ambassador openly expressed his satisfaction with the removal and made additional American aid conditional upon the appointment of an acceptable replacement. But as the position is still vacant and the Prosecutor’s Office is mired in scandals, that mitigates Poroshenko’s ability to come back from Washington with good news.

In the end, the Ukrainian president traveled to Washington almost empty-handed. He could not bring realistic proposals on overcoming the Minsk stalemate in the Donbas or show off any reform successes. In fact, the opposite was true: he had to explain how it was that his own political ambitions had jeopardized Ukraine’s political stability.

In all likelihood, the White House was not expecting any historic breakthroughs from Poroshenko and his allies. But their stubborn insistence on acting purely according to their own political interests despite the interests of both their Western partners and Ukraine can only lead to a continued deterioration in relations between the two countries.


The article was originally published by Carnegie Moscow Center

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