Ukraine’s president consolidates his control


DEMOCRATIC GOVERNMENTS in Ukraine have often been hamstrung by infighting, and the coalition that took power following the pro-democracy uprising of 2014 unfortunately was no exception. Now President Petro Poroshenko has moved decisively to consolidate his control, engineering the installation of a close ally as prime minister and filling other key posts with cronies. The result is that Ukraine’s attempt to fend off Russian aggression, stabilize its economy and integrate into the democratic West will now rise or fall with a leader whose commitment to reform is questionable. Without robust intervention by Ukraine’s Western allies, failure is probable.

Mr. Poroshenko and his new prime minister, Vladi­mir Groysman, talked a good game as Mr. Groysman presented his cabinet to parliament last week. They said they were committed to continuing an International Monetary Fund program that is keeping Ukraine financially afloat, to fighting corruption and to rejecting the economic populism proposed by many in parliament. But neither man has a record of supporting the radical steps Ukraine needs, including a sweeping reform of the judiciary, big increases in energy prices for consumers, and an uncompromising assault on corrupt oligarchs and vested interests.

In recent months Mr. Poroshenko has blocked a necessary clean sweep at the state prosecutor’s office, which has been protecting rather than prosecuting corrupt businessmen. Though he promised to sell his own business when he took office, Mr. Poroshenko did not do so, and thePanama Papers revealed that he had set up offshore accounts for his assets. For his part, Mr. Groysman put himself at odds with the IMF late last year by opposing a critical tax reform and delaying the adoption of this year’s budget, according to Anders Aslund of the Atlantic Council.

While former prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk feuded with Mr. Poroshenko and protected oligarchs close to his own party, he presided over a cabinet seeded with capable technocrats from outside Ukraine. Now they are all gone, including American-born Natalie Jaresko, who oversaw negotiations with the IMF and a debt restructuring as finance minister.

The good news, perhaps, is that Mr. Poroshenko cannot afford to break with the IMF or with European Union governments that, together with the United States, are helping to finance Ukraine and — barely — restraining Vladi­mir Putin from resuming military aggression. IMF aid has been frozen since last October; to restart it, the government should be required to take reform measures it has been resisting, such as an increase in gas prices. E.U. governments will pressure Mr. Poroshenko to implement constitutional changes that are part of a stalled peace deal with Russia. However, a recent escalation of attacks along a cease-fire line by Russian-backed forces should push that issue to a back burner.

The Obama administration has pressed the cause of reform in Ukraine, correctly noting that 2016 could be a turning point for the country if it cleans up its government and establishes the rule of law. Vice President Biden visited Kiev in December and has been prodding Mr. Poroshenko and Mr. Groysman with phone calls. According to a White House statement, he urged the new prime minister to move quickly on IMF commitments and the confirmation of a reformist chief prosecutor. Ukrainians can only hope their leadership was listening.

The Washington Post

By Editorial Board

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