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Opinion: Ukraine's instability or Yushchenko vs. Tymoshenko

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MOSCOW, September 21 (RIA Novosti political commentator Peter Lavelle).

President Viktor Yushchenko's failure to have his nominee Yury Yekhanurov voted in as prime minister on Tuesday has plunged Ukraine into another round of political turmoil and instability. With parliamentary elections only six months away, Yushchenko now has no choice but to openly challenge former Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko and her supporters for power if the Orange Revolution is to remain relevant.

The inability of Yekhanurov to garner enough votes in Ukraine's parliament to become prime minister is a major blow to Yushchenko's prestige and an indication that his political foes, particularly Tymoshenko, have already launched their March 2006 election campaigns. For the next six months, Yushchenko will be faced with numerous challenges to tame what is now a rebellious parliament without alienating his core supporters, including the West, and reaching out to former political foes.

The first challenge facing Yushchenko is to deal with the transfer of many presidential powers to parliament, including having the legislature elect the prime minister and form a cabinet. Slated to take effect at the start of next year, Tymoshenko and her followers are calling to have this transfer of powers brought forward to next month. Not only would this move help Tymoshenko solidify her power base in parliament before the parliamentary vote, but it could also conceivably deliver her back to the premiership before the election.

To head off Tymoshenko's bid, Yushchenko has two options. First, he will have to reach out to former political foes - former presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych and former President Leonid Kuchma (as well as Russian leader Vladimir Putin, indirectly). Both are powerbrokers in the Russian-dominated east of Ukraine and Yushchenko needs their support to avoid the regional tensions that divided the country during last year's bitterly contested presidential elections. Second, for reasons of state and political stability, Yushchenko could dramatically backtrack on the transfer of presidential powers to parliament. Both options are fraught with risks. If not cautious enough, Yushchenko could alienate some of his core supporters in western Ukraine and open himself accusations from Western countries of "creeping authoritarianism."

The second challenge is Tymoshenko's political ambitions and her ability to spend lavishly on her campaign. Widely known to her critics as the "gas queen" after her tenure as deputy prime minister for energy, Tymoshenko's personal wealth is estimated at $1 billion. Not only is she a clever political operator, but she also has the financial punch to fund any opposition to Yushchenko.

There is an obvious, albeit very controversial, way for Yushchenko to deal with Tymoshenko - it is dubbed the "Putin-Khodorkovsky Option." Again, Yushchenko will have to be politically adroit to avoid the label of being called and "authoritarian" at home and deemed a disappointment in the West.

Proving claims of corruption against Tymoshenko would not be difficult - her insider dealings are the stuff of legend. Her attempts to "buy politics" today are no different from what Mikhail Khodorkovsky's during the 1990s. All Yushchenko has to do is release into the public domain a raft of compromising information about Tymoshenko's past business dealings and ask the prosecutors to investigate. The obvious risk for Yushchenko if he pursued this option would be the claim that he is using state apparatus against a political opponent. For this option to work, Yushchenko will have to convincingly explain that he will not allow the "privatization of politics" by any single individual, no matter how wealthy or known the person is.

Yushchenko's third challenge is the slowing economy in the wake of Tymoshenko's short tenure as prime minister. Falling steel prices, Tymoshenko's unpredictable and populist economic management, and confusion surrounding the review of past privatizations have witnessed GDP growth fall to 4% this year from last year's 12%. No politician likes to face the electorate with a controversial agenda when the economy is slowing.

Can Yushchenko save the Orange Revolution by reaching out to his former political arch-enemies and declare an "oligarch war" against Tymoshenko? There is hope to believe so. The most important reason the Orange Revolution has floundered is the lack of efforts to free the economy from the grip of oligarchs like Tymoshenko. The Orange Revolution's political breakthrough was not supported by a parallel breakthrough in the economy. This should be Yushchenko's primary objective. He will surely encounter claims of betraying the revolution and parroting the "authoritarianism" of Putin. If Yushchenko does not commit himself to this course, however, even the political achievement of the Orange Revolution will be in the balance.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the editorial board.

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