KIEV (Reuters) - Three Ukrainian cabinet members who had previously tendered their resignations will now remain in their posts, the government announced on Thursday, a show of unity a day after the abrupt exit of a key minister.
Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk held an emergency cabinet meeting that looked to repair the damage from the departure of Economy Minister Aivaras Abromavicius, which had been seen as a major blow to Ukraine’s fight against corruption.
Abromavicius quit saying he would not become a “puppet” for corrupt vested interests, and accused a close ally of President Petro Poroshenko of trying to siphon off state funds.
The move has highlighted deep divisions within the ruling coalition and prompted Ukraine’s western backers to warn that the country is reneging on the reform promises it made in exchange for billions of dollars in financial aid.
Yatseniuk said the government was determined not to stray from its reform drive. “Our principle is one for all and all for one. We came as a united team and we will work as a united, team,” he said.
“We demand ... an end to blackmail, political pressure (and) under-the-table dealings for positions of ministers, their deputies or the heads of state companies,” he said.
The health, agriculture and infrastructure ministers, who had also previously tendered their resignations, said they would continue to work in the cabinet provided they would be allowed to pass reform initiatives without political interference.
However Abromavicius, whom Ukraine’s international supporters championed as a key reformer, does not appear to have reversed his decision. Television footage of the meeting showed an empty chair next to Finance Minister Natalia Yaresko, where the economy minister would normally sit.
His resignation, followed by several of his deputies, has raised concerns among local politicians that Kiev’s relations with its Western backers could sour, threatening vital loan aid.
Parliamentary Speaker Volodymyr Groysman earlier said Ukraine was entering a “deep political crisis” and called for a government reshuffle.
The episode has shone an uncomfortable spotlight on Ukraine’s efforts to tackle corruption, which the government pledged to do when it came to power after the Maidan protests in the winter of 2013/2014.
“What happened is a catastrophe for the whole country,” Leonid Yemets, a lawmaker with People’s Front that belongs to Yatseniuk, told Reuters.
“Think about it: how can we now talk with out partners in the West, with our donors, after the minister comes out and says that the deputy head of the president’s faction is corrupt. Who will want to speak with us after this?”
Abromavicius accused Ihor Kononenko, an ally of Poroshenko, of lobbying to get his people appointed as heads of state companies, culminating in an attempt to appoint one of his people as Abromavicius’s deputy.
Kononenko denied the accusations as “completely absurd”, and said Abromavicius was trying to shift blame for his own failures in running the ministry.
Ukraine relies on aid money from its Western backers, including the International Monetary Fund, the United States and the European Union, to stay afloat.
In Washington, IMF managing director Christine Lagarde said that Abromavicius’ resignation was “of concern” but mentioned no changes to Ukraine’s funding program.
“If the allegations that he makes in his resignation are correct, then it’s obviously an indication that the anti-corruption measures that were committed to by the government are not yet working,” Lagarde told a media briefing on Thursday.
She added that such measures need “to be implemented and enforced rigorously, because the authorities are accountable not only to the Ukrainian people, but also to the international community.”
Ukraine’s economy shrunk by more than 10 percent last year, dragged down by its war against pro-Russian separatists, who have taken control over a swathe of the country’s eastern industrial heartland.
The government is hoping the IMF will soon decide to disburse a third tranche of loans - worth $1.7 billion - which has been delayed since October.
“The consequences of (the economy minister’s) announcement are hard to predict, but it’s clear that they are very negative,” said a lawmaker from Poroshenko’s faction, who declined to be named. “It could lead to the postponement of the IMF tranche.”
Writing by Matthias Williams and Alessandra Prentice; Additional reporting by Alessandra Prentice and David Lawder; Editing by Toby Chopra and Meredith Mazzilli