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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Yushchenko Fires His Government

Itar-TassTymoshenko on a visit to the Donetsk region Thursday.
KIEV -- Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko fired his seven-month-old government Thursday, dismissing the heroine of the Orange Revolution that brought him to power as well as one of its top financial backers.

The government's breakup, amid allegations of corruption, deepens a crisis that has cut into the popularity of the man whose dioxin poisoning and defiant stand against ballot-rigging seized the world's attention 10 months ago.

It left him looking isolated, especially in contrast to the broad coalition that joined in last year's mass protests, which many Ukrainians saw as a new start for their nation.

"We've stepped away from the goals of the revolution," Yushchenko told the Ukrainian people, saying he had to act against his friends for the sake of the nation. He accused them of turning against one another and focusing more attention on their infighting than on 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 his promises to end the corruption that blackened his predecessor Leonid Kuchma's reign.

But dissolution of the government led by the charismatic Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and Yushchenko's decision to accept 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 the gains of the Orange Revolution.

Instead, he could face a strong challenge from Tymoshenko, should she join the opposition. She has long chafed at having to tone down 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 last year on Independence Square -- 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.

In spite of the crisis, Yushchenko looked relaxed as he spoke before representatives from Ukraine's main television stations. But after delivering his prepared remarks, Yushchenko tried to leave without answering questions and had to be persuaded to stay by his press secretary, Irina Gerashchenko.

He had already been suffering a fall in popularity, and opinion polls showed that Ukrainians increasingly believed the country was headed in the wrong direction, citing rising prices and a lack of progress by the new government.

Thursday's dismissals came after Poroshenko, whose agency controls the 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.

"I have spent the last three nights thinking about how to keep together that which has already separated. ... 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. We had such an agreement and during the night it was changed, but not by me."

He later said that both Poroshenko and Tymoshenko remained his friends and that he hoped they would remain part of his team but they must agree to work together. He did not specify whether this meant he would consider welcoming them back into the government, or just count on their support in parliamentary campaigning.

Yushchenko has particularly close ties with Poroshenko, and is the god-father of one of his twins. "I considered, consider and will consider myself part of the president's team," Poroshenko said later Thursday. "I don't see myself not being next to the president."

Yushchenko's links with Tymoshenko, meanwhile, were always more fragile, and showed increasing signs of fraying in recent months over some of her government's decisions.

Vitaliy Chepinoga, spokesman for Tymoshenko, refused to comment. "Let the president speak his mind today; tomorrow we will comment," he said. Tymoshenko met with her Cabinet later Thursday, thanked them for their work, and then promised that they would "come back."

Yushchenko appointed the little-known Yuriy Yekhanurov, a former economics minister who now serves as governor of the eastern Dnipropetrovsk region, as acting prime minister, and asked the rest of the ministers to stay on until a new Cabinet is named. Analysts said they did not expect Yekhanurov to be anything more than a transitional prime minister. Many of the ministers said that they would happily retain their jobs, if asked by Yushchenko.

Some analysts warned that 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 a Yushchenko ally, lawmaker Yuriy Kliuchkovskiy, called the move a demonstration of the president's strong hand. "The force that the president demonstrated today gives hope for the future," he said.

Earlier Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Tomenko became the second top official to step down in a week, accusing Poroshenko and others of corruption. Yushchenko's chief of staff, Oleksandr Zinchenko, resigned Saturday and also leveled charges of corruption. Poroshenko said he was resigning to avoid appearing to pressure the investigation into Zinchenko's accusations. The Security Service ordered a special commission set up to investigate corruption allegations against officials.

AP reporters Natasha Lysova and Anna Melnichuk contributed to this story.