KIEV, Ukraine, AP – President Viktor Yushchenko fired his 7-month-old government Thursday, dismissing his dynamic prime minister — the heroine of the Orange Revolution that swept him to power — and accepting the resignation of one of the movement”s top financial backers.
The government breakup, amid allegations of corruption, deepened a crisis that has diminished the popularity of the man whose dioxin poisoning and defiant stand against election fraud seized the world”s attention last year.
It also left Yushchenko looking isolated, especially in contrast to the broad coalition that joined in the mass protests on Independence Square that many Ukrainians saw as a fresh start for their country.
"We”ve stepped away from the goals of the revolution," the president told the Ukrainian people, saying he had to act against his friends for the sake of the nation. He accused Cabinet members of focusing more on infighting than running the country of 48 million.
"I could not pretend that nothing was happening. Not for this did I survive a poisoning. Not for this did people stand on the square. I had to take radical steps," said Yushchenko, who rose to power on promises to end the corruption that blackened the reign of his predecessor, Leonid Kuchma.
But the dissolution of the government led by charismatic Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and acceptance of tycoon Petro Poroshenko”s resignation from the powerful Security and Defense Council came at a dangerous time. Parliamentary elections are six months away, and Yushchenko must win to cement his political gains.
Instead, he could face a strong challenge from Tymoshenko, whose personal style, combining up-to-the-minute couture with a traditional blond braid ringing her head, made her a highly telegenic symbol during the demonstrations late last year.
She has since chafed at having to stifle her more radical impulses in the interests of keeping Yushchenko”s team together, and her popularity — reflected by the chants of "Yulia!" that often drowned out Yushchenko”s speeches — has not diminished.
"The thing that the president did today can only be called a betrayal," said Valentyn Zubov, who speaks on behalf of Tymoshenko”s parliamentary faction.
Yushchenko”s popularity already was waning. Opinion polls showed Ukrainians increasingly believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, citing rising prices and lack of progress by the new government. Many greeted Thursday”s announcement with surprise and more disappointment.
"Ukraine is historically not lucky with its leaders, and each time less hope remains," said student Olena Udod.
Thursday”s dismissals came after Poroshenko, whose agency controls Ukraine”s military and law-enforcement services, and other top presidential aides were accused of corruption by some of their former Orange Revolution allies. Yushchenko called the allegations "groundless but very strong," saying they demanded a response.
"The key issue was the issue of trust," he said. "If there had been a possibility to preserve team spirit, to remain together, it would have been the best answer."
He later said that Poroshenko and Tymoshenko remained his friends and he hoped they would remain part of his team, but that they must agree to work together. He did not specify whether this meant he would consider welcoming them back into government or just count on their support in parliamentary campaigning.
Yushchenko is particularly close to Poroshenko, and is the godfather of one of his twins. "I considered, consider and will consider myself part of the president”s team," Poroshenko said Thursday. "I don”t see myself not being next to the president."
The president”s ties with Tymoshenko were always more tenuous and showed signs of fraying in recent months over some of her government”s decisions.
Her spokesman refused to comment. "Let the president speak his mind today; tomorrow we will comment," Vitaliy Chepinoga said. The ousted prime minister met with her Cabinet later Thursday, thanked them for their work, and promised that they would "come back."
To replace her, Yushchenko appointed Yuriy Yekhanurov, a former economics minister and current regional governor, as acting prime minister. He asked other ministers to stay on until a new Cabinet is named.
Seeking to reassure foreign allies, Yushchenko spoke with neighboring leaders to tell them Ukraine was not having a political crisis.
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the shake-up was nothing alarming but only part of Ukraine”s political transformation as a young democracy: "This is part of the democratic process. It”s not always neat."
Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski echoed that sentiment and said bilateral relations would remain solid.
But some analysts warned Yushchenko”s image could be hurt.
"Doubts had already emerged about his ability to make decisions, which are beginning to damage his image not only in Ukraine but also abroad," said Oleksandr Lytvynenko, a political analyst with the Razumkov think tank.
But lawmaker Yuriy Kliuchkovskiy said Yushchenko”s move only showed his strong hand. "The force that the president demonstrated today gives hope for the future," he said.
Four top officials have resigned since Saturday, including Vice Prime Minister Mykola Tomenko, who accused Poroshenko and others of corruption. The Security Service has ordered a probe into those allegations, and Poroshenko said he was resigning to avoid the appearance of putting pressure on the investigation.