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PUTIN RESPONDS TO U.S. CRITICISM. At the EU-Russia summit in Sochi on May 25, President Putin made his first public response to recent criticism of Russian policies by U.S. Vice President Richard Cheney, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 10 and 23, 2006). Putin said that "the United States is one of our biggest partners. We value our relations with this country." He noted that "there are many...spheres, including the antiterrorist struggle, where nothing can substitute for the Russian-American partnership." Asked by reporters about Cheney's criticism of Russian policies toward Ukraine and some other countries, Putin replied, "As for our relations with other countries, we will discuss them directly with those countries." He added that Russia sees "how the United States defends its interests and what methods it uses." Putin argued that Russia similarly "searches for the most acceptable ways of solving its national tasks. I find it strange that someone can misunderstand this." He also said that "if our Ukrainian partners say they are satisfied with energy agreements with Russia and see them as not just acceptable but as the only right solution, then how can the leaders of other countries say that this is bad?" PM
CIS PREMIERS MEET IN TAJIKISTAN. Heads of government from the member states in the CIS met in Dushanbe on May 25, agencies reported. Tajik Prime Minister Oqil Oqilov said that integration is lacking among CIS countries, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. Georgian Deputy Prime Minister Giorgi Baramidze said that CIS membership has not helped Georgia with the peaceful settlement of conflicts, free movement of Georgian citizens, or economic relations, Avesta reported. "There is no point for us to remain in this organization," Baramidze commented. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Yuriy Melnik said his country is "not talking about" leaving the CIS, according to RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported, adding, "What we are saying is that the [CIS] structure should have clear priorities and has to be reformed." RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported that Georgia and Ukraine did not sign any of the documents approved by other participants at the meeting on May 25. DK
END NOTE: NEW UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT SETS DEADLINE FOR COALITION xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
OUR UKRAINE HEAD DISCLOSES 'PRINCIPLES' FOR RULING COALITION. Roman Bezsmertnyy, head of the Our Ukraine parliamentary caucus, said in a television interview on May 25 that coalition talks between Our Ukraine, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, and the Socialist Party over the next two weeks will touch upon "the entire set of parliamentary and governmental posts," the "Ukrayinska pravda" website (http://www.pravda.com.ua) reported. "I agree with my colleagues, Oleksandr Moroz and Yuliya Tymoshenko, who said today that the main thing is not posts, but principles," Bezsmertnyy added. He explained that in forming the coalition, Our Ukraine will insist on the principle that "all decisions should be made within the framework of the coalition." "The second principle is obligatory control and counterbalances. That is, if the [parliamentary] committee for economic policy belongs to one faction, the post of economy minister belongs to another," Bezsmertnyy said. Meanwhile, the daily "Ukrayina moloda" wrote on May 26 that Our Ukraine is going to propose Petro Poroshenko for the post of parliament speaker, implying that the party has already accepted the reinstatement of Yuliya Tymoshenko in the post of prime minister. "It is interesting that Our Ukraine has not foreseen the return of [acting Prime Minister] Yuriy Yekhanurov to the top echelons of the executive branch," wrote "Ukrayina moloda," which is edited by presidential adviser and close aide Mykhaylo Doroshenko. JM
NEW UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT SETS DEADLINE FOR COALITION
All seemed in order as the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada convened for its first session on May 25, but the composure on the Ukrainian parliamentary rostrum was short-lived. A dispute among deputies erupted immediately after the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, Our Ukraine, and the Socialist Party -- the three allies in the 2004 Orange Revolution -- proposed that the session be postponed until June 7.
By that time, they pledged, the three groups will have agreed on the principles of a renewed coalition. The motion eventually passed with 240 votes.
Dissent came from the ranks of the Party of Regions and the Communist Party, whose members argued that the Orange Revolution allies have had enough time to agree on a coalition and should allow the legislature get to work.
The March 26 parliamentary vote in Ukraine, which was internationally praised as fair and democratic, produced a legislature comprising five forces: the Party of Regions (186 seats), the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc (129), Our Ukraine (81), the Socialist Party (33), and the Communist Party (21).
Over the past two months, the five parliamentary groups have held several joint meetings chaired by President Viktor Yushchenko and many bilateral and trilateral conferences devoted to the formation of a parliamentary majority, but all of them proved fruitless.
In mid-April the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, Our Ukraine, and the Socialist Party signed a protocol pledging to work toward creating such a parliamentary majority. Their subsequent efforts led to the preparation of two draft coalition accords -- one endorsed by the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc and the Socialists, the other worked out by Our Ukraine.
The main stumbling block in the coalition talks is the question of who will become prime minister. Tymoshenko has made no secret of her desire to regain the post she held before being dismissed by Yushchenko in September. But the restoration of Tymoshenko as prime minister is exactly what the president and his political partners from Our Ukraine would like to avoid.
Yushchenko officially split with Tymoshenko after she accused some of his closest allies of corrupt practices and of running a "second" government. All of them were subsequently elected to the Verkhovna Rada from the Our Ukraine list. If the former Orange Revolution allies eventually decide to restore their coalition and Tymoshenko becomes prime minister once again, the old conflict may reignite.
There is also another source of potential discord between the president and Tymoshenko. Tymoshenko promised during the election campaign to cancel a gas-supply deal that Yushchenko's cabinet signed with Gazprom in January. The deal raised the gas price for Ukraine from $50 to $95 per 1,000 meters and gave RosUkrEnergo, an opaque Swiss-based company owned half by Gazprom and half by two Ukrainian businessmen, the role of sole supplier.
The cancellation by Tymoshenko of the gas deal with Gazprom could lead to a serious conflict between Kyiv and Moscow. Russia could cut gas supplies to Ukraine, as it did for a short time in January, or impose trade sanctions, as it recently did with regard to Georgian and Moldovan wines. Ukraine, which currently sends some 22 percent of its exports to Russia, would hardly benefit from any trade ban from Moscow.
Another hurdle to an Orange coalition is the Socialist Party's opposition to some goals pursued by Yushchenko's presidency. In particular, the Socialists object to Ukrainian aspirations to join NATO. They also object to the privatization of land, thus undermining Yushchenko's efforts to implement reforms he pledged during the 2004 Orange Revolution in an effort to bring the country closer to the European Union.
If Our Ukraine doesn't allow Tymoshenko to realize her dream of regaining her seat as prime minister, she will most likely switch to the opposition, and Yushchenko will have to seek a coalition with the Party of Regions led by Viktor Yanukovych, his former presidential rival.
Such a coalition, with 267 votes in the Verkhovna Rada, would provide solid support for its cabinet, provided that the two seemingly mismatched parties could adopt a consistent program.
Both parties represent the interests of major oligarchic groups in Ukraine, so in theory they could very easily agree on a set of basic economic reforms. But difficulties could emerge in the determination of foreign-policy priorities, as Yanukovych's party is generally seen as Russia-leaning, in contrast to the Western-oriented Our Ukraine.
But for Yushchenko, this coalition option is fraught with much more serious dangers than mere differences of opinion on foreign policy. The Party of Regions, which won the March 26 elections, would most likely demand the post of prime minister. It is not clear whether Yushchenko would prefer Yanukovych or someone else from his party to Tymoshenko as prime minister.
Under the constitutional reform that went into effect in January, presidential powers in Ukraine were substantially reduced to the benefit of the parliament and the prime minister. Since the Party of Regions has many politicians with great experience in running the government under former President Leonid Kuchma, Yushchenko might think twice before handing the keys to the cabinet over to them. Such experienced politicians could do more to diminish the role of the president in practice than the constitutional reform did in theory.
Yushchenko told the Verkhovna Rada on May 25 that he expects the new cabinet to embody his future vision for Ukraine. "The government should be made up of those who, as a single team, will ensure Ukraine's development on the basis of European values, who are capable of consolidating the nation, stimulating economic reforms, and respecting the rights and freedoms of the people," he said.
However, the president could find these goals very difficult to achieve -- not only because of discrepancies among the potential coalition parties but also because of the personal ambitions of their leaders.