Ukraine's Poroshenko asks embattled PM to resign

Dmitry Zaks
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Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who announced his resignation on April 10, 2016, was previously a lawyer and a banker before taking office in February 2014

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who announced his resignation on April 10, 2016, was previously a lawyer and a banker before taking office in February 2014 (AFP Photo/Sergei Supinsky)

Kiev (AFP) - Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Tuesday asked Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to resign in the face of lost public trust in his ability to fight corruption and overcome a deep economic malaise.

Poroshenko's dramatic intervention came as opinion polls showed growing public disenchantment with the pro-Western team that took over the leadership of the former Soviet nation after the 2014 revolt.

Parliament was already considering Tuesday holding a vote of no confidence in the government after first listening to Yatsenyuk account for his 2015 performance and plans for this year.

A stony-faced Yatsenyuk arrived in the chamber just moments after the president's statement was released.

"We will accept any decision of this parliament," Yatsenyuk said in his opening remarks.

"But regardless what is decided, I ask parliament, the president and the responsible political classes to move further along the path of reforms."

Poroshenko himself said the current cabinet had made some early progress but had since lost voters' confidence.

"It is not clear that successful reforms can only be conducted by a government that enjoys sufficiently high public support?" Poroshenko said in a statement.

"In order to restore trust, therapy is no longer enough -- you need surgery."

Any Yatsenyuk resignation must still be approved by parliament -- a step that is likely considering the level of lawmakers' dissatisfaction with the current cabinet.

But the government's collapse could jeopardise the delivery of a massive IMF-led rescue package aimed at reviving Ukraine's shattered economy and putting it on a course toward sustainable growth.

Poroshenko has the option of calling early elections should lawmakers fail to come up with Yatsenyuk's replacement within two months.

But the presidency said that Poroshenko would consider holding early polls "only as a last resort".

- 'No real changes' -

Yatsenyuk was a passionate foe of Russia who endeared himself to the West by promoting belt-tightening measures that were promised but ignored by a succession of preceding leaders.

But the 41-year-old former banker's vows to clean up the government by cutting its ties to tycoons soon fell flat with voters who accused him of backing the interests of the very billionaires he had vowed to sideline.

Recent opinion polls show 70 percent of Ukrainians supporting Yatsenyuk's ouster and only one percent backing his People's Front parliamentary bloc.

"People expected real and quick changes from Yatsenyuk, and they did not come," political analyst Mykola Davydyuk told AFP.

And presidential party member Yuriy Lutsenko accused the government "of stopping its work in September or October and ever since only been trying to save itself" from a major overhaul.

Poroshenko's statement also sought the resignation of Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin -- a public hate figure who was widely accused of covering up corruption within his own agency.

Shokin was dealt a blow when a raid on the homes of two high-ranking prosecutors in July found large quantities of diamonds and cash.

- Western aid under threat -

Yatsenyuk assumed office in February 2014 -- just weeks before Russia's annexation of Crimea and the bloody pro-Moscow insurgency in eastern Ukraine that followed.

His resolute commitment to the European Union helped persuade the IMF to force other lenders to join a $40-billion (35.8-billion-euro) economic rescue package aimed at helping the Ukrainian government avoid a looming debt default.

But the political uncertainty that has rocked Ukraine since this month's resignation of its reformist economy minister and a top prosecutor over their alleged inability to fight state graft threatens to put that assistance on hold.

IMF chief Christine Lagarde warned last week that it was "hard to see" how the bailout could continue without Ukraine pushing through the economic restructuring and anti-corruption measures it had signed on to when the package was agreed.

Ukraine's economy shrank by about 10 percent last year while annual inflation soared to more than 43 percent even with the Western assistance in place.

A withdrawal of the funding could crush Ukraine's hopes of a 2016 economic revival and a modest budget deficit.

"If the government is quickly changed and filled with technocrats, there is a chance we can quickly emerge from this crisis," Dragon Capital investment company economist Olena Bilan told AFP.

"But if politicians are appointed, then we might see reforms rolled back. The crisis will end, but the country will not move forward."