Calling in the votes.

Photographer: Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

Ukraine Resists Its Own Revolution

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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Ukraine is proving itself a nation prone to popular revolt and immune to revolution.

For evidence, see Tuesday's political drama, when a government and prime minister elected on the euphoria of the Maidan "revolution of dignity" in 2014 were subjected to a vote of no-confidence.

President Petro Poroshenko triggered the vote after being embarrassed into action by the resignation of Ukraine's economy minister, Aivarus Abromavicius, who left in a Jacobin blaze of denunciations. Abromavicius accused politicians of being in the pockets of Ukraine's oligarchs, blocking reforms, and perpetuating the system of endemic corruption that the Maidan uprising sought to end. He specifically called out Ihor Kononenko -- a close business associate of Poroshenko -- for forcing associates into key management positions at state-run companies to extract profit.

So Ukraine's president -- who also faces the threat of abandonment by the International Monetary Fund if he doesn't tackle corruption -- called for the country's hated general prosecutor to resign; for Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to do the same; and for parliament to produce "a full restart of the government." Given that Poroshenko's party is the biggest in parliament, you'd think Yatsenyuk's time was up. Far from it: He survived the vote.

That's because many legislators in Poroshenko's own parliamentary bloc didn't back the motion. Nor did the Opposition Bloc, widely considered to be under the control of Ukraine's richest man, Rinat Akhmetov. Another party, controlled by multibillionaire Ihor Kolomoisky, also abstained. So with the help of two oligarchs and a wink from Ukraine's president, the no-confidence motion fell 32 votes short of the 226 required.

Abromavicius was just one of many who smelled theatrics, with oligarchs yet again the puppeteers. He later tweeted:

Such Machiavellian plots are common to politics everywhere. They don't explain the apparently indestructible nature of Ukraine's political system, where oligarchs are so entrenched that little can be achieved without them. They invariably emerge as part of the solution, even when they are the problem.

Western diplomats have an interest in keeping Yatsenyuk in place, too. They know that the alternative is likely to involve instability and new elections that might produce a far less attractive array of parties in parliament. That's the last thing Ukraine or its supporters need as European governments decide whether to renew sanctions against Russia in July. And with the ruling coalition disintegrating, it may happen anyhow.

The same dynamic applied when pro-Russians and Russian agents began destabilizing eastern Ukraine following Crimea's annexation in 2014. Under threat and with its security forces divided, Ukraine's transitional government turned to the oligarchs to step in as regional governors and stabilize the east. Poroshenko, himself an oligarch once worth more than $1 billion, was elected president to lead the fight against Russia -- and his own kind.

Perhaps this is the oligarchs' last gasp. Shortly before the no-confidence vote, parliament passed amendments to Ukraine's privatization law, which should make it easier to get loss-making state properties into private hands -- a key demand of both the IMF and Ukraine's reformers. And Poroshenko signed a law to reform public procurement into effect.

So maybe the oligarchs will slowly loosen their grip on Ukrainian politics, back reforms, and end the corruption that has so weakened and impoverished their country. I very much doubt it. That would be a revolution.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net