Taunting the Kremlin

Yushchenko names a billionaire populist -- a woman who played a key role in the "orange" revolution -- as Ukraine's prime minister.


Ian Traynor
January 25, 2005 9:01PM (UTC)

President Viktor Yushchenko moved swiftly Monday to overhaul the government of Ukraine, putting key allies in position, abolishing the presidential administration inherited from his predecessor and, most controversially, naming a billionaire populist as the new prime minister. The new president also sped off to Moscow for delicate talks with President Vladimir Putin, who backed the loser in the dramatic Ukrainian contest of the past two months. Both sides Monday sounded conciliatory in a nervous encounter in the Kremlin.

But Putin is likely to be less than pleased with the naming of Yulia Tymoshenko as prime minister. The charismatic and blunt-speaking Tymoshenko is, temperamentally, the opposite of the mild-mannered Yushchenko. She played a key role in the "orange revolution" that toppled the regime of Leonid Kuchma last month, but it remains to be seen whether her fiery nationalist rhetoric will be appropriate to the demands of running a country riven by the tumult of the past two months.

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As well as naming Tymoshenko -- an appointment that needs to be endorsed by Parliament in Kiev in a fortnight -- Yushchenko abolished the presidential administration, which operated like an all-powerful Soviet-style Politburo under Kuchma, and created a secretariat to be headed by his aide, Oleksandr Zinchenko. Another close aide and businessman who helped fund the Yushchenko campaign and was tipped as a possible prime minister, Petro Poroshenko, was put in charge of national security and defense, where he is expected to order a shake-up of secret police and security structures.

The prime minister designate, 44, is wealthy, a former deputy prime minister and a gas magnate who made her fortune in questionable circumstances in the mid-'90s when she was closely associated with the former prime minister, Pavel Lazarenko. He was recently found guilty of extortion and money-laundering by a Californian court. Last year the Russian authorities issued an international arrest warrant for her, alleging bribery of Russian officials.

She dismissed the allegations as politically motivated. She further angered Russian officials last week by telling a Moscow newspaper that Russians should follow the example of Ukraine. "Join us," she said. "The Orange Revolution should be exported wherever possible." Despite her nationalist rhetoric, however, Tymoshenko's native language is Russian, not Ukrainian, and she is from the pro-Russian eastern area of Dnipropetrovsk.

Acknowledging that his mission to Moscow was a "tricky" one Monday, Yushchenko signaled that he wanted to get relations with Putin back on an even keel after months of tension during which the Russian leader invested enormous clout and resources in a failed attempt to deny Yushchenko the presidency.

Putin sought to rewrite the story of the past few months. "Russia has never acted behind the scenes in the post-Soviet space," Putin told Yushchenko at the Kremlin, according to the Interfax news agency. "We have only been doing what the Ukrainian government asked. You know this. It's not a secret."

Yushchenko's aim is to assert Ukraine's independence from Moscow, while Putin and the Russian political elite retain unashamedly proprietorial attitudes toward the former Soviet republic. "We are counting on continuity," said Putin. Yushchenko sounded wary but conciliatory. "I want to form a successful policy toward Russia. I am sure this honest position will be treated with understanding by Moscow," he said. "Millions of Ukrainian citizens understand that Russia is a great country and Ukraine's old strategic partner."

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Ian Traynor

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