Last updated: September 3, 2008 8:11 pm

Ukraine’s coalition on brink of collapse

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Ukraine’s pro-western coalition descended into chaos on Wednesday even as western leaders sought to demonstrate their support for Kiev following Russia’s intervention in Georgia.

Ministers backing President Victor Yushchenko walked out of a cabinet meeting on Wednesday after their Our Ukraine party threatened to quit a coalition with the bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko, the prime minister.

Addressing the nation, President Yushchenko accused Ms Tymoshenko’s bloc of plotting an ”anti-constitutional coup” by voting in tandem with communists and the Moscow-leaning Regions party in favour of legislation to cut the president’s authority. “Without a doubt, the collapse of the coalition was a well-planned action,” he said. He threatened to dissolve parliament unless politicians agreed a new coalition. Andriy Portnov, a lawmaker backing Ms Tymoshenko, said the coalition could be saved if Mr Yushchenko’s camp apologised for ”systematically trying to sabotage” the government. The partners still have up to 40 days to try to reconcile their differences.

The west has been paying heightened attention to Ukraine because like Georgia it is a former Soviet republic keen to join both the Nato alliance and the European Union.

Russia’s military incursion in defence of the breakaway region of South Ossetia and occupation of large buffer zones in Georgia proper has raised fears that Moscow could next target Ukraine, a much larger country of 46 million where Russia and the West have also jostled for influence.

Moscow has denied suggestions it could challenge Ukraine’s territorial integrity, but has openly protested against the speedy westward integration drive adopted by Mr Yushchenko, including plans to join Nato.

Ukraine’s renewed internecine political warfare comes ahead of a visit to Kiev this week by US Vice President Dick Cheney. Mr Cheney is to stop off in Ukraine, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Italy to rally pro-western support against Moscow.

Fresh political turmoil is unlikely to help Kiev’s bid for speedy integration with the EU and Nato. Kiev hopes to conclude an agreement on closer integration with the EU at a summit in Evian, France, on September 9. Ukraine’s president also hopes Nato will grant his country a Membership Action Plan in December, a move that would kick start membership preparations.

Olexiy Haran, a political science professor in Kiev, said the political standoff in Kiev was more rooted in the ambitions of Ukraine’s political elite, than in any plot by Russia to undercut Kiev’s pro-west path. But he warned that ”Moscow would try to capitalise on it”.

”If the coalition collapses, Ukraine’s pro-western drive will not change in the long term, but it will suffer short term setbacks. This scenario would complicate Ukraine’s efforts to integrate closer with Nato and the European Union in the near term,” he added.

The latest twist in Ukraine’s complicated and cut-throat politics, is the culmination of an escalating rivalry between Ms Tymoshenko and Mr Yushchenko, both of whom are expected to spar for the presidential post in a contest that kicks off in 2009.

Mr Yushchenko’s camp has accused Ms Tymoshenko of siding with the Kremlin by refusing to adopt a resolution sharply condemning Moscow for its actions in Georgia. Mr Portnov rejected the president’s claims that Ms Tymoshenko’s bloc refused to support a resolution on the Georgia conflict. ”Our position is that such sensitive matters should be studied by a parliament commission, not adopted hastily.”

Ms Tymoshenko has expressed solidarity with Georgia and claims the accusations from the president’s camp merely aim to discredit her.

Collapse of the coalition would set the stage for either snap elections, or a new coalition that would include opposition parties that lean towards Moscow.

Speculation has abounded that either Tymoshenko’s or Yushchenko’s party could join forces with the Regions party of former prime minister Viktor Yanukovich. All three are almost certain to run in the presidential election in about 16 months, and analysts have seen the arguments between Tymoshenko and Yushchenko as political manoeuvring ahead of the poll.

Several Our Ukraine members told radio stations they had agreed that the party would leave the coalition, but the party itself has made no official announcement. The two parties have 10 days to sort out their differences and revive the coalition.

If they do not, the constitution gives parliament 30 days to create a new coalition. If that does not happen, the president has the right to call a new election. Analysts have said, and polls have shown, that in the event of an election now, Our Ukraine would lose seats, while both Tymoshenko’s Bloc and the Regions party would gain.

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