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Ukraine: battle over which Victor is in charge

December 7, 2006

By Roman Olearchyk in Kiev and Guy Dinmore in Washington
Financial Times, London, UK, Thursday, December 7 2006

Viktor Yanukovich, cast as the villain in Ukraine’s Orange revolution, this
week tried to portray himself as a statesman on his first visit to
Washington since making a remarkable return as prime minister this summer.

However, his visit was overshadowed by an escalating power struggle with
Viktor Yushchenko, the increasingly marginalised pro-western president.

Their tussle over foreign and domestic policy has left many diplomats unsure
as to which Viktor is in charge.

Mr Yanukovich, who, in spite of backing from Moscow, suffered a humiliating
loss in the 2004 presidential elections, met Vice-President Dick Cheney and
Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state.

He unsuccessfully sought a meeting with President George W. Bush – a signal
that Washington prefers to keep its distance from the prime minister and
recognises Mr Yushchenko as Kiev’s top statesman.

In the first days of the trip, Mr Yanukovich played down the wrestling match
over authority with Mr Yushchenko, who was received with highest honours in
Washington during a post-Orange revolution visit.

Despite his support for ties with Moscow, Mr Yanukovich in Washington
pledged support for European integration. He also hinted that many of the
differences with his arch-rival were simply a matter of timing.

“I don’t consider there to be, practically, any differences with the
president with regards to the strategic goals for the next 25 years. All
questions lie in tactics,” he said. “Our actions in the international arena
should be based on pragmatism. We should not promise more than we can do.”

Following his talks in Washington, he said Russia and Ukraine would not be
friends against Europe and the US, but neither should the US and Ukraine be
friends against Russia.

“No one will try to push anyone, anywhere,” he said, rejecting pressure on
Ukraine to accept early membership of Nato.

The prime minister also said his coalition was close to passing the last of
two legislative bills required to allow Ukraine to join the World Trade

However, Mr Yanukovich’s words cannot conceal the deepening rift with Mr
Yushchenko over control of foreign and domestic policy. Last week, his
governing coalition in parliament fired Borys Tarasyuk and Igor Lutsenko,
Ukraine’s pro-western foreign and interior ministers respectively and both
Yushchenko allies.

A bill registered this week by Mr Yanukovich’s camp called for the ousting
of Anatoly Hrytsenko, the defence minister and Mr Yushchenko’s last ally in
the government.

Meanwhile, prosecutors launched a criminal probe into alleged corruption by
Oleksiy Ivchenko, a close associate of Mr Yushchenko who chaired the state
energy group.

This week, a Kiev court and a presidential decree reinstated Mr Tarasyuk. Mr
Yushchenko’s team believes the constitution gives him authority on foreign
policy but Mr Yanukovich last week said parliament formulated foreign

Mr Tarasyuk was fired after nearly spoiling Mr Yanukovich’s Washington
visit. Just days before the trip, the ministry informed US officials that
the premier’s visit would be postponed after he refused to seek presidential
approval on the trip’s foreign policy initiatives. Mr Yanukovich conceded to
presidential approval for the trip at the last minute but dismissed Mr
Tarasyuk in retaliation.

In a further indication of how petty the power struggle has become, Mr
Yanukovich’s government yesterday refused to admit Mr Tarasyuk to a cabinet
meeting, saying it did not recognise him as foreign minister.

Mr Yanukovich has gradually taken away authority from Mr Yushchenko since
forming a coalition government. He has also tried to revamp his image. In
Washington, he pledged to support democracy, dubbing allegations linking his
camp to fraud during the 2004 presidential vote as spin.

The rift between Ukraine’s two leaders could set Kiev on a path for repeat
parliamentary elections and a constitutional stand-off.

Mr Yushchenko’s allies have accused Mr Yanukovich of backing out of
promises to support speedy western integration and liberal economic reforms
and hope to return Ukraine to stronger presidential rule. They plan to ask
constitutional judges to reverse reforms that shifted key powers from the
presidency to parliament.

Ukraine’s parliament yesterday approved the long-awaited privatisation of
Ukr-telekom, the country’s largest telecommunications company, which
officials hope will repeat last year’s highly profitable sale of
Kryvorizhstal, a flagship steel mill. -30-

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