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The Race to Be Ukraine’s Next Prime Minister Is Heating Up

Ukraine's two-month political crisis could finally be coming to an end.

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It’s been a rough two months for Ukraine’s shaky government. In early February, the country’s economy minister resigned in protest amid accusations of high-level corruption in the ruling coalition. Later, a public feud between Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and President Petro Poroshenko prompted a no-confidence vote against the premier that he barely survived. Since then, the government has been plagued by infighting and behind-the-scenes jostling that has eroded public trust and left the future of a vital International Monetary Fund loan hanging in limbo.

But with a vote planned for this week in the Ukrainian parliament, the bitter standoff may come to an end, leaving the country with a new cabinet and prime minister for the first time since October 2014 elections following the ouster of former President Viktor Yanukovych.

After the no-confidence vote against Yatsenyuk, Poroshenko’s allies have been maneuvering in parliament to oust the prime minister in favor of two influential candidates: U.S.-born Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko, trusted by Ukraine’s western creditors, and Parliamentary Speaker Volodymyr Groysman, a close ally of the president.

Last Thursday, Groysman emerged as the leading contender to replace Yatsenyuk after he was formally endorsed as prime minister by the Poroshenko Bloc, the president’s party and largest in the legislature. Since then, Groysman has been building support among the fractured pro-Western coalition in Ukraine’s parliament before a crucial legislative session slated for Tuesday. Groysman’s nomination came two days after Jaresko officially threw her hat into the ring to be prime minister, announcing that she would aim to push reforms in a “technocratic government.”

Speaking to reporters last week, Poroshenko urged lawmakers to agree on a candidate for prime minister whom he could propose to the legislature for a Tuesday vote, before heading to a summit in Washington. Poroshenko did not mention who his preferred candidate would be, but said that a new government was needed to end the political impasse facing the country.

“President Poroshenko will work with any prime minister the coalition appoints,” Yarema Dukh, a spokesman for the presidential administration of Ukraine, told Foreign Policy. “Choosing the next prime minister is not the president’s decision, but a decision should be made soon.”

The next prime minister will come to power amid a tense political climate, with Ukrainians and the country’s Western backers losing patience with setbacks in fighting corruption and modernizing the economy. In contrast to the Illinois-native Jaresko, who has earned praise in her term as finance minister, Groysman speaks limited English and is relatively inexperienced in dealing with foreign creditors.

Moreover, signs are emerging that Jaresko may not have a place in a Grosyman-led cabinet after her stalled bid to become prime minister. Speaking to reporters last Friday, the parliamentary speaker said that former Slovak Finance Minister Ivan Miklos — one of Jaresko’s advisors — would be a possible ministerial appointment. Miklos later told reporters that he provisionally agreed to take the finance minister post in the new government.

Many foreign nationals are working in the Ukrainian government and have become citizens in order to take up their posts. Miklos is not a Ukrainian citizen, and his bid is complicated by Slovakia’s strict laws against dual citizenship. Under Ukrainian law, any member of the government must be a citizen of the country, meaning Miklos is trapped in legal limbo.

“It is unacceptable for me to lose my Slovak citizenship so a solution lies now with the Ukrainian side, which will probably have to change Ukrainian legislation,” Miklos told Dennik N, a Slovak newspaper Monday.

Miklos’ possible appointment as finance minister could ease concerns by international creditors, like the IMF, with whom the Slovak has dealt with in the past. In February, IMF chief Christine Lagarde warned that the country’s political crisis and nascent reforms would jeopardize a $17.5 billion bailout, a crucial financial lifeline for Ukraine.

Balazs Jarabik, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told FP that Miklos is “more of a political animal than Jaresko ever was” and, like the current finance minister, has strong credentials on reform.

Groysman has gathered steam before Tuesday’s likely vote, but the deadlock in government is far from over. A parliamentary majority is required to approve his appointment, but Yatsenyuk’s party is still the legislature’s second-largest. Poroshenko’s allies have struggled to gather enough support to oust Yatsenyuk. If they are to succeed, more behind-the-scenes power-brokering is likely to take place in Ukraine.

“Yatsenyuk survived the past 20 years in Ukrainian politics and could survive this period as well,” Jarabik said. “Meanwhile, his party should be well represented with some key positions in the next government.”

Photo credit: ANDREW KRAVCHENKO/AFP/Getty Images

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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