PRAGUE, May 25, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- All seemed in order as the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada convened for its first session today -- but the composure on the Ukrainian parliamentary rostrum was short-lived.
A dispute among deputies erupted immediately after the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, Our Ukraine, and the Socialist Party -- the three allies in the 2004 Orange Revolution -- proposed that the session be postponed until June 7.
By that time, they pledged, the three groups will have agreed on the principles of a renewed coalition. The motion eventually passed with 240 votes.
Dissent came from the ranks of the Party of Regions and the Communist Party, whose members argued that the Orange Revolution allies have had enough time to agree on a coalition and should allow the legislature get to work.
The March 26 parliamentary vote in Ukraine, which was internationally praised as fair and democratic, produced a legislature comprising five forces: the Party of Regions (186 seats), the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc (129), Our Ukraine (81), the Socialist Party (33), and the Communist Party (21).
Over the past two months, the five parliamentary groups have held several joint meetings chaired by President Viktor Yushchenko and many bilateral and trilateral conferences devoted to the formation of a parliamentary majority, but all of them proved fruitless.
In mid-April the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, Our Ukraine, and the Socialist Party signed a protocol pledging to work toward creating such a parliamentary majority. Their subsequent efforts led to the preparation of two draft coalition accord -- one endorsed by the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc and the Socialists, the other worked out by Our Ukraine.
The Tymoshenko Hurdle
The main stumbling block in the coalition talks is the question of who will become prime minister. Tymoshenko has made no secret of her desire to regain the post she held before being dismissed by Yushchenko in September. But the restoration of Tymoshenko as prime minister is exactly what the president and his political partners from Our Ukraine would like to avoid.
Yushchenko officially split with Tymoshenko after she accused some of his closest allies of corrupt practices and of running a "second" government. All of them were subsequently elected to the Verkhovna Rada from the Our Ukraine list. If the former Orange Revolution allies eventually decide to restore their coalition and Tymoshenko becomes prime minister once again, the old conflict may reignite.
There is also another source of potential discord between the president and Tymoshenko. Tymoshenko promised during the election campaign to cancel a gas-supply deal that Yushchenko's cabinet signed with Gazprom in January. The deal raised the gas price for Ukraine from $50 to $95 per 1,000 meters and gave RosUkrEnergo, an opaque Swiss-based company owned half by Gazprom and half by two Ukrainian businessmen, the role of sole supplier.
The cancellation by Tymoshenko of the gas deal with Gazprom could lead to a serious conflict between Kyiv and Moscow. Russia could cut gas supplies to Ukraine, as it did for a short time in January, or impose trade sanctions, as it recently did with regard to Georgian and Moldovan wines. Ukraine, which currently sends some 22 percent of its exports to Russia, would hardly benefit from any trade ban from Moscow.
Another hurdle to an Orange coalition is the Socialist Party's opposition to some goals pursued by Yushchenko's presidency. In particular, the Socialists object to Ukrainian aspirations to join NATO. They also object to the privatization of land, thus undermining Yushchenko's efforts to implement reforms he pledged during the 2004 Orange Revolution in an effort to bring the country closer to the European Union.
If Our Ukraine doesn't allow Tymoshenko to realize her dream of regaining her seat as prime minister, she will most likely switch to the opposition, and Yushchenko will have to seek a coalition with the Party of Regions led by Viktor Yanukovych -- his former presidential rival.
Such a coalition, with 267 votes in the Verkhovna Rada, would provide solid support for its cabinet, provided that the two seemingly mismatched parties could adopt a consistent program.
But for Yushchenko, this coalition option is fraught with much more serious dangers than mere differences of opinion on foreign policy. The Party of Regions, which won the March 26 vote, would most likely demand the post of prime minister. It is not clear whether Yushchenko would prefer Yanukovych or someone else from his party to Tymoshenko as prime minister.
Under the constitutional reform that went into effect in January, presidential powers in Ukraine were substantially reduced to the benefit of the parliament and the prime minister. Since the Party of Regions has many politicians with great experience in running the government under former President Leonid Kuchma, Yushchenko should think twice before handing the keys to the cabinet over to them. Such experienced politicians could do more to diminish the role of the president in practice than the constitutional reform did in theory.
Yushchenko told the Verkhovna Rada today that he will expect the new cabinet to embody his future vision for Ukraine.
"The government should be made up of those who, as a single team, will ensure Ukraine's development on the basis of European values, who are capable of consolidating the nation, stimulating economic reforms, and respecting the rights and freedoms of the people," Yushchenko said.
However, the president could find these goals very difficult to achieve -- not only because of discrepancies among the potential coalition parties but also because of the personal ambitions of their leaders.
Yushchenko supporters attend a rally in Kyiv on December 26-27, 2005
RETHINKING THE ORANGE: The March 26 elections are the first major national referendum on President Viktor Yushchenko and the ideals of the Orange Revolution that brought him to power in early 2005. Opinion polls in Ukraine indicate widespread dissatisfaction with developments in the country since Yushchenko took power. The results of the elections are expected to clarify whether Yushchenko will be able to step up the implementation of his reformist policies declared during the 2004 Orange Revolution or whether he will get mired even deeper in political wrangling with his opponents...(more)
Click on the image to view a photo gallery of some of the key players in the Ukrainian elections.