Stakes High In Effort To Govern Ukraine

YALTA, Ukraine -- The power struggle in Ukraine enters a new phase Tuesday when rival parties headed by two former enemies decide whether to bury their differences sufficiently to govern together in a broad coalition.

Marriage of convenience?

A political marriage of convenience between President Viktor Yushchenko, who has led Ukraine's experiment with democracy for 18 months, and Viktor Yanukovich, the man he defeated in a bitter repeat election, could end a stalemate that has left the country without a government for four months.

But even if Yushchenko and Yanukovich cut a deal, it is by no means certain that personalities would be replaced by policies - or indeed that a coalition could be sustained.

The stakes are high, from Ukraine's standing with the European Union and NATO to the fragile balance between the country's east, which generally backs Yanukovich's Party of the Regions, and its west, which supports Yushchenko. A continuation of the deadlock produced by parliamentary elections in March could also shake investor confidence.

If a coalition is not forged by July 25, Yushchenko is obliged by the Constitution to dissolve Parliament and call new elections, even though the results might again not produce a clear winner and could sharpen tensions in the country.

"I hope politicians will find the wisdom to produce a compromise by July 25," Yushchenko said Saturday. "I will not permit the country to be torn asunder by politicking."

Since March, two previous attempts to build a coalition have failed and political squabbling has intensified, culminating last week in spectacular fistfights in Parliament.

"The political parties have done everything possible to increase the confrontation in the Parliament," Prime Minister Yuri Yekhanurov said. "The conflicts are growing. The citizens are divided. Reconciliation has been forgotten."

Even advisers to Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko, the leaders of the Orange Revolution that ushered in a new era in December 2004, admit that they have squandered an extraordinary groundswell of support.

Yushchenko, 52, gained world sympathy after he was poisoned during the disputed 2004 election campaign, but since then has spent his time battling with Tymoshenko. Their relationship became so untenable that he sacked her as prime minister last September.

Tymoshenko, 45, has managed to alienate most of the political parties with what they call her uncontrollable ambition. During her short stint as prime minister, she went on a wild spending spree, raising pensions and expanding the budget.

Amid this infighting, the camp of Yanukovich, 56, also a former prime minister, has revamped its image by hiring an American public relations firm that also advises Senator John McCain, a possible Republican presidential contender, and portraying the Party of the Regions as the movement that could forge a national consensus.

This reinvention of Yanukovich, who was supported by President Vladimir Putin of Russia in the 2004 presidential campaign, allowed him to win the most votes - 32 percent - in the March elections. Tymoshenko received 22 percent and Yushchenko a poor 13 percent.

Yushchenko and Tymoshenko considered forming a coalition in order to prevent Yanukovich from leading the government, but the negotiations - strongly backed by the Bush administration - collapsed this month.

"Personal ambitions have ruined the Orange Revolution," said Ksenia Lyapina, a legislator and member of Yushchenko's Our Ukraine party.

Now, with the possibility of a Yushchenko-Yanukovich coalition looming, many questions remain.

First, there is the key matter of who would serve as prime minister. Yushchenko has ruled out appointing Yanukovich, fearing that this would be seen as a sellout by some supporters of the Orange Revolution. It could also be exploited by Tymoshenko and her supporters, who said over the weekend that they would go into opposition.

Second, the stability of any future government could be undermined by a parliamentary system under which legislators may switch political allegiance on an ad hoc basis - a set-up that suits the powerful oligarchs involved in much of Ukraine's economy.

Finally, what unites Yushchenko and Yanukovich is not political convictions but their deep dislike of Tymoshenko. Supporters of the two men say they want to keep her from becoming prime minister, among other reasons, because a new Constitution introduced in January gives that office greater powers than those of the president. But it is far from clear that their feelings about Tymoshenko will be enough for the creation of a stable coalition.

Aleksander Kwasniewski, the former Polish president and a strong supporter of the admission of Ukraine to the European Union and NATO, tried last week to mediate among the politicians, warning them that they were squandering the Orange Revolution and international good will. "I am very afraid and very pessimistic," he said. "It is difficult to be an advocate of Ukraine if you cannot understand the situation here. Time is slipping away."

Source: International Herald Tribune