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New Ukrainian parliament: Fresh start or off on the wrong foot?

Roman Goncharenko / dcNovember 27, 2014

Forming a coalition took longer than expected. Now, critics warn that Ukraine could once again be consumed by political discord. The atmosphere leading up to the first session of the new parliament was bleak.

Kiew Parlament
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Some media outlets in Kyiv saw it as a bad omen: Yukhym Zvyahilsky was supposed to have been the first MP to be sworn in at the initial session of Ukraine's new parliament on Thursday. At least, that's what was on the parliamentary agenda. At 81 years of age, he is the oldest MP. But Zvyahilsky is a controversial mining magnate from the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk and member of the once-powerful pro-Russian Party of Regions, which was toppled by the opposition protests last winter.

And so the government began searching for a way to tone down the symbolic effect of his appearance. In the end, it was decided that all 420 MPs of the Verkhovna Rada would be sworn in simultaneously. After all, political leaders want the emphasis to be on the country's fresh start.

Existential challenges

At first glance, it seems a new chapter is starting with the parliament elected at the end of October. New parties - some of which were founded just months ago - emerged as the victors. For the first time, there is a broad pro-European majority. The pro-Russian parties, on the other hand, are either not represented at all (the Communist party) or were severely weakened, as is the case with the Party of Regions, the party of former President Viktor Yanukovych, now living in exile in Russia.

Expectations are high, and the challenges are existential. The new parliament should, above all else, "destroy the corrupt administrative system and end the war in eastern Ukraine," Kyiv-based journalist Serhij Rudenko told DW. If it fails, Ukraine would likely once again face a snap election next year.

Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk,
Yatsenyuk, left, and Poroshenko: How well these two cooperate will play a large role in deciding Ukraine's futureImage: Reuters/Andrew Kravchenko

German writer Winfried Schneider-Deters, who lives in Ukraine, said that the new parliament will have to work with the government to prevent "a looming economic crisis." For months, Ukraine's economy has been in decline; the national currency, the hryvnia, is losing value with each passing day. The 2014 budget deficit could reach dramatic proportions: According to some estimates, Ukraine is facing a budget hole of around 10 billion euros.

Weeks of coalition negotiations

With this in mind, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko promised to establish a new governing coalition "within one or two days" of the parliamentary election. But this proved to be wishful thinking. Negotiations stretched over a period of almost four weeks before five of the six parties represented in parliament agreed to form a coalition. Represented in it are the Poroshenko Block, the People's Front of newly re-elected Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the Fatherland Party of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the Self Reliance Party based in western Ukraine, as well as the Radical Party of right-wing populist Oleh Lyashko. The Opposition Bloc, which is made up of many representatives of the Party of Regions was excluded.

Observers in Kyiv blamed the power struggle between Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk for the delay in forming a coalition. As a parliamentary democracy, Ukraine's prime minister has more power than the president. The election results scuppered Poroshenko's obvious desire to install a prime minister from his own party.

Conflict over minister posts

By the start of December, the new government should be confirmed, the president has said.

Winfried Schneider-Deters
Schneider-Deters is optimistic, but not everyone shares his views for the future of UkraineImage: Winfried Schneider-Deters

But observers are skeptical. Ukraine has a tradition of long coalition negotiations and arguments over the distribution of cabinet portfolios - sometimes extending over several months.

"Conflicts between those in power can endanger the existence of the state," said Serhij Rachmanin, deputy editor-in-chief of renowned Kyiv weekly "Dserkalo Tyschnja."

"The biggest danger is that the conflict between Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk will break out again," said Ukraine expert Schneider-Deters. It reminds him of the conflict between former President Viktor Yushchenko and Tymoshenko when the two were in power between 2005 and 2010.

Hope in the Maidan generation

But Schneider-Deters said there is reason to be hopeful this time. "It could be that because of its very detailed formulation, the new coalition contract has been fitted with something like a corset that will force it into cooperation," he said. Additionally, new politicians have been elected - politicians who were part of the opposition Maidan movement and who are tired of "business as usual." However, his stance is considerably more optimistic than that of many other observers in Ukraine.