Ukraine MPs vote to sack cabinet over 'traitorous' gas price deal with Russia

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The Independent Online

Ukraine's government fell last night, for the second time in six months, when MPs voted to sack the cabinet in response to a "traitorous" deal with Russia over gas prices.

Viktor Yushchenko, the hero of the orange revolution of 2004, questioned the parliament's right to dismiss his government and ministers spoke of a bizarre legal vacuum opening up.

Mr Yushchenko hinted he might disband the parliament in response, as his supporters called on him to adopt direct presidential rule until new parliamentary elections could be held at the end of March.

The crisis was exacerbated by the fact that Mr Yushchenko was en route to the former Soviet state of Kazakhstan when his government was dismissed and said he had no intention of changing his schedule. The vote of no confidence by the Rada (parliament) was called during a debate on last week's gas crisis. Moscow switched off Ukraine's gas for three days, in response to Kiev's refusal to pay higher prices, hitting supplies across Europe before the two sides clinched a face-saving deal.

Mr Yushchenko and his team hailed the deal (which in effect doubled the price Ukraine pays for Russian gas) as a victory for Kiev and have since tried to argue that its economic independence has been safeguarded. Indeed, during yesterday's debate, Yuri Yekhanurov, Mr Yushchenko's Prime Minister, gave a spirited defence of the deal.

But MPs and opposition groups are unconvinced. They said yesterday they were unhappy with the government's handling of the crisis and accused it of selling out to Russia and betraying national interests.

The motion to sack the government, which appeared to take many MPs by surprise, was backed by 250 of the parliament's 450 members. Mr Yushchenko's former ally and one-time prime minister, Julia Tymoshenko, was among those who voted against the government, along with the Communist party.

The vote's outcome delighted the pro-Russian Party of the Regions, the main losers in the orange revolution.

Though it was ostensibly sparked by the gas row, analysts from across the political spectrum said it had as much to do with pre-election manoeuvring ahead of a parliamentary election on 26 March. Much is at stake since, under new constitutional changes, the parliament and the Prime Minister will become more powerful at the expense of the President, a state of affairs that has breathed life into Mr Yushchenko's opponents who have staged a comeback as his own popularity has fallen away.

Serious doubts about the deal struck with Russia have also emerged as the small print agreed in fraught, late-night negotiations has been made public. Though the deal was initially thought to be for five years, Ukrainian politicians are now saying they have no guarantee that Russia will not try to raise the price again in six months.

A perplexing question mark also hangs over the intermediary company that will supply all of Ukraine's gas needs in future. The identity of its principal owners has not been revealed and politicians such as Ms Tymoshenko have cast doubt over the legality of its business practices, suggesting that mafia figures may be involved, claims staunchly denied by the firm.

Finally, concerns that the price rise might be passed directly to consumers have gathered momentum as have fears of the impact on Ukraine's industry.

Mr Yushchenko has vowed to give a detailed response to the crisis this morning while his Prime Minister, Mr Yekhanurov, has suggested that the government might try to ignore the no-confidence motion.