Ukraine's Politics Descend Into Slapstick

Fistfights do not bode well for reform.

Political discourse.

Photographer: Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

Less than a week after U.S. Vice President Joe Biden asked Ukraine's political leaders to play nice, the quiet war between the teams of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and President Petro Poroshenko has turned publicly and comically violent.

The situation is growing increasingly reminiscent of Ukraine's previous attempt to break with Russia's dominance and embark on a European path. From 2005 to 2010, then President Viktor Yuschenko's faction clashed repeatedly with that of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, rampant corruption undermined the economy and reforms proved fake. This led to the election of President Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted last year in a bloody uprising. 

Biden's plea was timed to preempt a crucial moment: On Dec. 11, Yatsenyuk's year-long immunity from dismissal as prime minister expired, rendering him vulnerable to political attack. Biden warned Poroshenko that Ukraine's Western allies want to avoid the political upheaval that Yatsenyuk's firing would entail. Without the support of the prime minister's faction -- the second biggest in parliament -- the ruling coalition would fall apart, triggering an early election. The resulting campaigning could sideline reforms, sorely testing the patience of impoverished and often armed voters.

On Dec. 12, Yatsenyuk was defending his government's record in parliament when legislator Oleg Barna, a member of the presidential faction, approached him with a bunch of flowers. Nonplussed, Yatsenyuk took the bouquet. Barna then lifted him up in a body lock and attempted to drag him from the rostrum. Yatsenyuk clung to it, so Barna changed his grip, seizing the prime minister between his legs. Legislators from the Yatsenyuk party were already running to intercept Barna like a rugby team in suits. Soon, fists were flying all over the floor. Many Ukrainian legislators have risen through the ranks in mob-controlled coal and steel towns, and their Brioni attire is only a thin veneer.

"Possibly, this wasn't a very European way to act, but I couldn't do otherwise," Barna later explained. "If he won't leave of his own accord, people will carry him out."

That's not all. On Monday, Poroshenko called together his National Reform Council. According to some reports, his aim was to follow Biden's advice, erase the Barna incident and announce that he was going to work together with Yatsenyuk. It didn't turn out that way.

One participant was Mikheil Saakashvili, former president of Georgia and now the Poroshenko-appointed governor of the Odessa region in Ukraine, who earlier this month accused Yatsenyuk of involvement in financial schemes that, he claimed, drained $5 billion a year from Ukraine's coffers. Saakashvili's presence angered Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, a Yatsenyuk ally. According to an account he posted on Facebook, Avakov asked Saakashvili about a recently leaked video purporting to show a secret meeting between the governor and a Russian businessman interested in buying an Odessa chemical factory.

"The Odessa governor grew hysterical and started screaming at me," Avakov wrote. "I refrained from hitting him and splashed some water in his face." The minister went on to call the governor "a militant scumbag who is looking for a pretext to resign with a loud bang, having failed in his job."

Saakashvili's version is, of course, different. He gave a press conference after the incident, claiming that Avakov got mad after the governor openly called Yatsenyuk and his team corrupt, that Avakov "attempted to toss a glass at him" and demanded that he leave "their country." "I am here with serious intentions and for the long haul," Saakashvili said, holding up his recently acquired Ukrainian passport. "I'm not going to leave them alone."

Both Avakov and Saakashvili demanded that Poroshenko's administration release a video of the meeting, which had been filmed. Presidential spokesman Svatoslav Tsegolko refused. "Such street-style altercations disgrace the country," he wrote on Facebook. He was not alone in his embarrassment. "What is going on is truly a shame, a disgrace, a paucity of both spirit and ideas," Volodymyr Omelyan, who resigned last week as deputy transport minister, wrote angrily. "I'd resign again today if I could."

Bureaucrats drafted from the private sector after Ukraine's "Revolution of Dignity" are probably tempted to leave, too. Some, though, are trying to keep calm and carry on. "The government has been accused of corruption, and it denies the charges," said Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko, a U.S. citizen responsible for Ukraine's debt reduction deal with private creditors. "Though this is a coalition government, we work as one team. Don't try to split it."

Poroshenko can't say the same, even though he should. If he openly backs Yatsenyuk, Saakashvili may revolt and challenge him. The explosive Georgian is popular in Ukraine, and has more political experience. The president would probably prefer Saakashvili to Yatsenyuk as prime minister. Siding with the Odessa governor, though, would mean ousting Yatsenyuk , triggering an early election and irritating the U.S., where Yatsenyuk and Jaresko are popular figures.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's minions are enjoying the show. "The spiders are beginning to devour each other," Alexei Pushkov, head of the Russian parliament's  foreign affairs committee, tweeted on Tuesday. A dysfunctional, scandal-ridden Ukrainian government is just what Putin needs. Unfortunately, the combatants appear to be past caring. Saakashvili sees himself as a fearless anti-corruption crusader, though he hasn't accused anyone on Porosheko's team of graft despite numerous opportunities. Yatsenyuk is trying to keep his job and defend his record. Poroshenko is torn between remaining on good terms with the U.S. and consolidating power.

If this circus continues, another revolt could break out. The politicians in Kiev ought to realize that the whole country is watching. Their primitive aggression and venality could quickly become too much to endure.

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

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    Leonid Bershidsky at

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