Ukraine’s Former Prime Minister on Dirty Politics, Populist ‘Bullshit,’ and Life After ‘Political Suicide’
Shortly after stepping down from power in Ukraine, Arseniy Yatsenyuk met with FP to discuss his future -- and Ukraine's.
After popular protests ousted Russia-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014, Arseniy Yatsenyuk was named the country’s acting prime minister — a job he called “political suicide” at the time.
It’s been a tumultuous two years since then: Less than a month after his appointment, the Kremlin annexed Crimea, and in April 2014, war broke out in eastern Ukraine between Russia-backed separatists and Kiev. By late 2015, pressure against Yatsenyuk and the slow pace of reforms began to boil over, made manifest when a lawmaker tried to physically lift him by the waist and groin from his podium in the Ukrainian parliament, sparking a brawl in the legislature. In February, Yatsenyuk narrowly survived a no-confidence vote brought against him by members of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s parliamentary faction, sparking a tense political crisis in the country. In April, the pro-Western leader resigned as prime minister.
But Yatsenyuk — tall, bald, and outspoken — still views his shaky tenure as a success. In an interview with Foreign Policy in Washington last week, Yatsenyuk defended his track record on reform, expressed frustration over his high-profile fallout with Poroshenko, and lamented the rise of populist politics in Ukraine.
“We are still facing tremendous challenges, but what we’ve done in the last two years we were never able to do in the last two decades,” Yatsenyuk said. “From my political standpoint, if you ask me if I would change anything, I would answer, ‘No.’”
A former foreign minister, economy minister, parliamentary speaker, and acting central bank chief, Yatsenyuk came to power with promises to clean up government and implement tough reforms. As prime minister, Yatsenyuk took the lead on a series of complex reforms: simplifying the country’s burdensome tax code, pushing through austerity packages to comply with the terms of a $17.5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund, and restructuring Ukraine’s outstanding debt to forestall a potential default. His willingness to get his hands dirty on reforms in Ukraine’s rough-and-tumble politics earned him strong backing from Western governments, especially Washington.
But in his push to tackle those deep-seated problems, Yatsenyuk faced strong suspicions from the public, as well as political friends and foes, that he had foregone the fight against corruption and had instead reverted to making back-room deals with Ukraine’s oligarchs.
Yatsenyuk acknowledged that he could have done a better job with his “strategic communications” in explaining and selling the complex reforms to the public and recognized that his tough style of pushing legislation earned him few friends in the Ukrainian parliament.
“Look, you know, politics is not the best thing in the world. Definitely not the cleanest one,” Yatsenyuk said. “I was offensive against [parliament] every single time. I can even say it was political blackmail and political intimidation in order to grab the votes. But it’s all about the result. In the end, we succeeded to pass every single piece of legislation.”
Yatsenyuk and Poroshenko rode a wave of pro-European sentiment into power. The two men’s political parties — Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front and the president’s Poroshenko Bloc — were the major partners in a pro-Western coalition in Ukraine’s legislature. Despite their auspicious start, Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk soon turned on each other, and their rocky relationship was showcased in Ukrainian media. Yatsenyuk said that lawmakers from Poroshenko’s party were criticizing him “on every single bloody TV show” to tarnish his name and hurt his popularity.
The dysfunction saw Yatsenyuk’s approval rating evaporate, hitting single digits in 2016 before dwindling to close to zero prior to his April resignation. But the episode also hurt Poroshenko’s popularity, with his approval rating hovering below 10 percent.
In his conversation with FP, Yatsenyuk remained coy about his future political aspirations, saying that what he does next will be for voters to decide. But many analysts believe that despite his low poll numbers, the former prime minister is biding his time while he prepares for a return to the political spotlight.
“The story of comebacks is not unusual in Ukrainian politics,” Balazs Jarabik, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told FP. “Yatsenyuk wants to be a mover and a shaker of policymaking. Whether it’s a top role or not, he’ll find a way to be influential.”
Despite Yatsenyuk’s resignation as prime minister, his People’s Front is the second-largest political party in the Ukrainian parliament and maintains several key cabinet posts. In addition to behind-the-scenes power, Yatsenyuk also has a strong working relationship with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden — whom he met in Washington last week — and senior State Department diplomat Victoria Nuland, who, in a notorious leaked phone call at the height of Ukraine’s political crisis in February 2014, said she preferred Yatsenyuk for a senior position in the country’s fledgling government. “Yats is the guy who’s got the economic experience, the governing experience,” Nuland said at the time.
Following Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk’s feud, the pro-European political coalition fractured, and several parties went into opposition, including former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland party and the right-wing Radical Party, headed by Oleh Lyashko. Tymoshenko, whose popularity is on the rise, emerged as a major critic of rising energy prices due to natural gas reform demanded by the IMF and championed by Yatsenyuk, and Lyashko has sought to capitalize at the polls by attacking the austerity measures adopted by Kiev.
“The world has entered a vicious cycle of stupid populists, who are playing with the sentiments and the hearts and minds of ordinary people,” Yatsenyuk said. “They promise everything: low taxes, new jobs, high wages and salaries, a wealthy and happy life. It’s bullshit.”
But in an eventual political return, Yatsenyuk’s greatest challenge could be other self-styled liberal reformers, including Volodymyr Groysman (Yatsenyuk’s replacement as prime minister), former Georgian President and current Governor of Odessa Mikheil Saakashvili, and a collection of liberal lawmakers in the recently rebranded Democratic Alliance party, said Orysia Lutsevych, the manager of the Ukraine Forum at Chatham House, a London-based think tank.
“Many people lost faith that Yatsenyuk can break the old system. Now he will have to compete against a bunch of new parties as a member of the elite,” Lutsevych told FP.
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