Could the Former President of Georgia Be the Next Ukrainian Prime Minister?

Avakov leans in to speak with Yatsenyuk at his desk
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk (R) listens to Interior Minister Arsen Avakov during a government meeting in Kiev, Ukraine November 25, 2015. The PM has come under intense pressure from coalition allies over his dropping popularity. Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters

Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk may have survived a move to sack him last week, but there are still many reasons to believe that his days in power are numbered.

After a failed parliamentary vote of no confidence, Yatsenyuk lost three of the four partners from his pro-European coalition whose backing put him in government in 2014. To make matters worse the leader of his largest and only other partner, President Petro Poroshenko’s Bloc, called on him to resign hours before the vote.

Lawmakers cannot now sack Yatsenyuk on their own, having failed to do so last week. Their only option is to put him to a vote of no confidence in September, when they will have to go through the same political process and hope for a better result. Until then, unless Poroshenko dissolves parliament and calls for new elections—an option he has said he will keep as a last resort—only Yatsenyuk can decide when to call it quits.

Meanwhile the Prime Minister, whose popularity slipped into the single digits in October, will have to find a way to govern despite his declining support. But behind-the-scenes there are several politicians being touted as potential successors.

The charismatic reformer—Mikheil Saakashvili

The former President of Georgia was given a Ukrainian citizenship and appointed Governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region last year. His public persona as an uncompromising reformer has made him one of Ukraine’s most popular politicians. His crackdown on corruption as President of Georgia saw the country improve in Transparency International’s index from 133 to 67 place in four years. Saakashvili’s government also made strides toward for NATO and E.U. membership, which entailed post-Soviet institutional reforms that run parallel to some of Ukraine’s current efforts.

He has also been publicly pitted against Yatsenyuk —a petition on the President’s site to see him replace Yatsenyuk gathered over 30,000 signatures in September. Footage from a December meeting of politicians also showed Saakashvili trade insults and accusations with both Yatsenyuk and his Interior Minister Arsen Avakov.

According to Andrew Wilson, Ukraine analyst at the European Council for Foreign Relations, the former Georgian leader has momentum but he may struggle to assert himself without a party behind him.

“Saakashavili is on the rise, but his chances would be better after an election in which his new party did well,” he says. Currently Saakashvili’s Movement for the Purification of Ukraine, focuses on “cleansing” Odessa of corruption but it has not stood for general election as a parliamentary party.

The young protégé—Volodymyr Groysman

Ukraine’s speaker of parliament has held several senior posts, despite being only 38. He served as Deputy Prime Minister for Yatsenyuk during the PM’s first government, in the immediate aftermath of the toppling of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014.

Groysman has been coy about his possible appointment as Prime Minister, saying on Tuesday “There are currently no offers made by either the President or the coalition lawmakers for Volodymyr B. Groysman to become Prime Minister.”

Unlike Yatsenyuk, however, Groysman is a member of Poroshenko’s party, which is both a help and a hinderance to him. Yatsenyuk’s perceived reluctance to follow through on the promises of Poroshenko’s anti-corruption reform programme contributed to the drop in his popularity.

“Groysman would be seen as a Poroshenko crony,” Wilson says, referring to Groysman’s status as a fellow party member to Poroshenko. “Though that might not stop the President from pushing him forward.”

The Acceptable outsider—Natalie Jaresko

Natalie Jaresko is, like Saakashvili, a new arrival in Ukrainian politics and her experience as an investment banker has served her well in managing Ukraine's Ministry of Finance since 2014.

The American-born Ukrainian minister has won the respect of the rest of the cabinet and her lack of long term experience in Ukrainian politics has also convinced many voters that she is less likely to be susceptible to corruption.

The outgoing Economics Minister Aivaras Abromavicius, who resigned days before the Yatsenyuk decision, issuing a scathing indictment of corruption in Ukraine, tipped her as the woman for the job. He praised her “unblemished reputation” on his blog earlier this month.

According to Wilson, Jaresko is “everybody's favourite technocrat”, however she may not have sufficiently powerful allies in the business sector to mount a successful bid for the top job. “Her relative lack of dirty alliances may stop her getting the job,”  says Wilson.

The famous face—Yulia Tymoshenko

The one-time talisman of Ukraine’s push towards Europe and away from Russia, Yulia Tymoshenko remains a compelling figure in Ukrainian politics. Although her Fatherland party finished behind Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk’s in the 2014 elections, she did support their coalition until withdrawing last week.

She has experience as Prime Minister, leading the country during the 2009 gas stand-off with Russia, however that ended with her jailed for alleged misuse of her powers. She maintains the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych fabricated the charges, however despite her being freed following Yanukovych’s ousting, her sentence were not overturned by the European Court for Human Rights.

A recent tour of Washington reacquainted U.S. congressmen with the woman who was once dubbed Ukraine’s Iron Lady.

Yet Tymoshenko still has only 45 seats in parliament and it remains to be seen whether she can benefit from Yatsenyuk’s drop in popularity. Her name began trending on social media on the day Yatsenyuk’s fate was being decided this month, though it was more because users were sharing images of her new hairstyle, as opposed to an outpour of hope that she would take his place.

She has called for early elections in the hope that she can increase her presence in parliament at the expense of both Yatsenyuk and Poroshenko.