Can Ukraine’s ‘political kamikazes’ rescue country from collapse?

Editor’s Note: Michael Bociurkiw is a writer and commentator on world affairs. He worked in Ukraine for the U.N. and as a media analyst for Canada’s election observation mission in 2012. He has written frequently on Ukraine since the 1980s for many media outlets. The views expressed in this commentary are solely his.

Story highlights

Ukraine's parliament appoints new government after ousting President

Appointees include Kiev protest figures, personal doctor of a former President

Bociurkiw: Maidan protesters believe they have power as long as they remain on streets

Bociurkiw: Government must restore order quickly and obtain Western investment package

CNN  — 

It was an incredible scene – Ukraine’s acting President Oleksandr Turchynov revealing the list of cabinet appointees for the new “government of national unity” to thousands of protesters Wednesday in Maidan Square in Kiev.

Boos and cheers could be heard as the names were announced one by one – ranging from an Emory University MBA graduate (Minister of Economic Development and Trade) to an investigative journalist to a cosmetologist who once served as the official physician to disgraced former President Viktor Yuschenko. When all is said and done, an Afghan war veteran may serve as no less than the defense minister.

Michael Bociurkiw

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Let there be no doubt. The street, or Maidan, protesters are filled with swagger after defiantly occupying the capital’s main square for months – and after braving sniper fire and eventually forcing President Viktor Yanukovych to flee his palatial home for safer climes.

Political scientists will undoubtedly debate the wisdom of granting unelected masses an effective veto power over the formation of an emergency government. In fact, judging from the reaction of the crowd towards the decision to retain the acting minister of internal affairs (who controls state security organs), Arsen Avakov, may have to be reversed.

Overall the selection of this motley crew represents an innovative process which brings together technocrats, professional politicians and street-hardened activists – some of whom are still recovering from injuries sustained from agents of the ousted regime.

Standouts include Arseniy Yatseniuk, 39, named as Prime Minister and a practiced politician who has been the chief opposition voice at Maidan Square. While closely associated with former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko – who was freed from prison in the wake of last week’s protests – he can at least do business with the West and talk tough with hard-nosed IMF suits. A realist, on Wednesday he warned that the new government will need to invoke some very unpopular decisions, given the dire state of the economy. “We are a team of people with a suicide wish – welcome to hell,” he said.

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Then there are those literally plucked from the rough and tumble trenches of Maidan. Tetiana Chornovol, the feisty opposition politician and investigative journalist who was severely beaten last year, has been named head of the anti-corruption bureau. It’s a fitting role given that Chornovol was one of the few journalists to report on the excesses behind the high walls of Yanukovych’s palatial home outside Kiev.

Then there’s Dmytro Bulatov, the “Auto Maidan” protest leader who says he was kidnapped and beaten so badly that he had to go overseas for treatment. At 35, a small business owner, and with no track record in public service, he has been named acting minister for youth and sports. Olha Bohomolets, the medical doctor who ran the makeshift clinic during the height of the assault on Maidan and treated many sniper victims, was appointed to the new post of Deputy Prime Minister for Humanitarian Affairs. Incidentally, Bohomolets also has ties to the Orange Revolution as the personal physician of Yuschenko.

One glaring omission is Ukrainian Eurovision star, Ruslana, who stoked the passion of the Maidan crowds for weeks on end – even travelling to Europe to lobby politicians for assistance.

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Commenting on the composition of the interim cabinet, the newly-ordained poster child for Maidan, western Ukrainian nationalist Volodymyr Parasiuk, said: “There is a very low culture among our politicians. They are afraid to take responsibility on themselves. They do not believe in the strength of the Ukrainian nation. There are so many educated students – and we can create a new generation of politicians.”

It appears that Maidan activists believe they have influence over major public policy for as long as they are in control of Kiev’s main square.

Keeping the Maidan activists happy is one thing; sustaining the international community’s engagement in Ukraine is another. The most important signal that needs to come from the formation of this government is that stability is returning, that the government is prepared to take some of the painful decisions to right the economy, create the conditions for investment and immediately obtain Western financial assistance. One of the first steps will be the most painful and unpopular: reducing or removing gas subsidies.

In parallel to this, an earnest and credible hunt for officials from the previous regime – those accused of corruption or criminal acts – must go on at a quick pace and with transparency, probably with international forensic assistance. The jaw-dropping scope of the corruption is still coming to light as documents are being recovered and leaked. Recovering ill-gotten wealth will be an urgent priority as it will help the national treasury fill its empty coffers. Given the scope of the thievery, Ukrainian officials may want to look at a unit akin to the Philippine Commission on Good Government (PCGG) that was formed to recover ill-gotten wealth after Ferdinand Marcos fled his country.

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The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of Michael Bociurkiw.