Political Crisis in Ukraine Worsens

MOSCOW, Russia -- Ukraine's parliament voted Tuesday to dismiss the government, escalating the political crisis sparked by a doubling of natural gas prices.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko speak to media on his arrival to Kazakhstan's capital Astana, January 10, 2006.

President Viktor Yushchenko quickly moved to appeal in court what he called the "illegal and unconstitutional" dismissal and seemed to resist his party's call for imposing direct rule, at least until the March presidential election.

Analysts said it would be difficult to get a new government in place before the balloting.

"No one has the right to dismiss the government. It's utter lawlessness," Prime Minister Yuri Yekhanurov told reporters in Kiev, Ukraine's capital.

The 250-50 vote in the 450-seat parliament followed controversy over government negotiators' signing of an agreement last week to nearly double the price Ukraine pays Russia for natural gas and hand over control of gas sales to a little-known company half-owned by the Russian gas giant Gazprom.

Parliament deputies also voted to freeze consumers' electricity and natural gas prices through 2006.

The contract was a compromise with Russia, which had vowed to end long-standing below-market sales to Ukraine and charge prices equal to those paid by Europe — which would have quadrupled gas rates.

But even with the smaller increase, "the Ukrainian economy may fall into paralysis, and the country may lose markets," leaders of some of the country's top industries warned Tuesday.

Viktor Yanukovich, the former prime minister whose initial victory in the 2004 presidential election was turned over by Yushchenko during a nonviolent popular uprising known as the Orange Revolution, called for immediate consultations between the president and the parliament to form a new government.

Yanukovich, whose party has a significant lead in the polls, did not rule out himself as a possible nominee for prime minister. "We are prepared to discuss this issue together with the parliament. A specific decision will be made after such discussions," he said in remarks posted on his party's website.

Experts were mixed on whether the parliament acted legally in dismissing both the premier and the Cabinet and whether either can be done before the election. A constitutional amendment that took effect Jan. 1 calls for parliament, not the president, to appoint the government.

Yushchenko, who was on a working trip in Kazakhstan, accused the parliament of "doing everything to create chaos in Ukraine."

He said he would not "resort to pressure on parliament," an apparent reference to his party's calls for imposing direct presidential rule.

Analysts said the parliament was attempting to gain political leverage in an election whose outcome will determine the makeup of the next government.

"The pretext was the [gas] contract which was much worse than all the previous contracts. But the main reason, I think, is the desire of the parliament speaker to gain hold of the main levers of the election campaign," Socialist Party deputy Mikola Rudkovsky, who sat out the vote, said in a telephone interview.

Vladimir Fesenko, director of the Kiev-based Penta Center for Applied Political Studies, predicted any change of government would come after the election.

"The fact is that Yekhanurov leads the election list of the presidential bloc, Our Ukraine, and the parliament took the opportunity to show that a majority of political forces in the country do not support the policies of Yekhanurov," Fesenko said.

Source: LA Times