Looming Confrontation in President Zelenskyy’s Entourage Could Lead to Reset of Ukrainian Government

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 17 Issue: 25

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov (left) with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (Source: carnegie.ru)

The recent appointment of Andriy Yermak to head the Ukrainian Presidential Office (see EDM, February 21) could increase tensions between President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and oligarch Ihor Kolomoysky; while the long-serving minister of interior, Arsen Avakov is likely to ingratiate himself to both sides simultaneously.

The recent changes in President Zelenskyy’s close circle signaled his readiness to be more independent from even his most experienced political operatives. On February 5, the heretofore chief of the presidential administration, Andriy Bohdan, 43, was replaced by Yermak, 48, a lawyer and film producer who had partnered with Zelenskyy in business for over a decade (Focus.ua, February 5). Yermak worked as a top advisor to Zelenskyy since the latter’s inauguration, in May 2019. Now, he will not only be in charge of the Presidential Office but his portfolio will also include various key foreign policy issues, including the conflict in Donbas. Therefore, Yermak is now domestically developing the reputation of Ukraine’s de facto vice president.

One prominent view among experts suggests that the staff reshuffle at the top of the Presidential Office reflects Zelenskyy’s efforts to rid himself of the remaining influence over him from Ukrainian billionaire Ihor Kolomoysky. Kolomoysky owns the Ukrainian television channel 1+1, on which Zelenskyy’s “Kvartal 95” and then “Servant of the People” comedy shows both ran. 1+1 also actively supported Zelenskyy’s candidacy in last year’s presidential race (see EDM, February 11, 13, 2019). Moreover, in 2014–2015, the recently dismissed presidential administration chief Andriy Bohdan worked as a lawyer for several companies affiliated with Kolomoysky (BBC News—Ukrainian service, April 18, 2019).

On the same day that Bohdan was replaced in the Presidential Office, members of the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) presented a search warrant to raid Kolomoysky’s 1+1 offices. The SSU was apparently looking for computer servers that allegedly contained recordings of a conversation between Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk, Finance Minister Oksana Markarova, National Bank of Ukraine deputy head Katheryna Rozhkova, and other top officials (Nv.ua, February 5, 2020). The conversation in question had been leaked publicly, on January 15, by an anonymous source. On the released audio footage, the Ukrainian officials could be heard privately discussing the political and economic situation in the country and, notably, Prime Minister Honcharuk complained that Zelenskyy had “no clue” regarding the economy, government bonds and other important fiscal issues (Liga.net, January 16)

Honcharuk did not deny that the words on the leaked tapes were his, and he quickly wrote a letter of resignation. But after being called into Zelenskyy’s office, the president stressed he was rejecting Honcharuk’s offer to step down and warned the government it would have only a few months to prove it could resolve key domestic issues, including setting fair salaries for ministers and top managers of state-owned companies (Nv.ua, January 17).

Some local experts argued that the secretly recorded conversation was released to the public by Kolomoysky’s allies in order to signal the oligarch’s declaration of open “war” against Zelenskyy (Pravda.com.ua, January 16). By discrediting Prime Minister Honcharuk and his Cabinet, Kolomoysky was purportedly seeking to change the government. Separately, Kolomoysky might try to sabotage the president’s majority Servant of the People political party by pressuring around 30 of its members of parliament who are loyal to the oligarch to vote against the important upcoming bill on land reform—the passage of which is a key preconditions for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to extend further loan guarantees to Ukraine (Liga.net, February 6). Such an outcome would pose a serious challenge to Zelenskyy’s administration as it tries to push through vital economic reforms and seeks to rescue the president’s falling political ratings. At the end of last year, Zelenskyy’s popularity dropped dramatically from 73 to 52 percent (RBC, December 4, 2019), although his level of trust among the population remains at 59 percent (Ratinggroup.ua, February 4, 2020).

If President Zelesnkyy finds himself needing to replace the current government, a serious contender for the top spot in the Cabinet might go to current Interior Minister Arsen Avakov. Having been appointed to his position in April 2014, Avakov is currently the longest-serving government minister, having already worked under three heads of state, including acting president Oleksandr Turchynov, Petro Poroshenko and now Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Avakov’s powerful interior ministry employs roughly 300,000 people and has secured an annual budget of 83 billion hryvnias ($3.3 billion), which is close to the country’s overall expenditure on military defense (RBC, November 6, 2019).

According to a recent investigation by the non-profit Anti-Corruption Action Center of Ukraine, Avakov has also been expanding his influence over the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI)—roughly an analogue of the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)—where he promoted several of his loyal deputies. Moreover, at least 39 Ukrainian members of parliament (the unicameral legislature has 450 seats) are loyal to Avakov, including the head of the Law Enforcement Committee, Denys Monastirsky (Pravda.com.ua, January 28).

And while Zelenskyy and his Servant of the People party still enjoy quite high public support, they appear to lack much representation “on the streets,” as most of their voters remain passive and prefer to stay home. On the other hand, not only does Avakov personally control the National Police and the National Guard, but many observers additionally emphasize his connections to various nationalist organizations such as the right-wing National Corps, whose activists participate in almost every significant protest rally in the country, including those that end up embroiled in heavy clashes against the riot police (Lb.ua, December 17, 2019). Such significant leverage over street demonstrations—simultaneously over the rioters and law enforcement—provides Avakov with the ability to send a powerful message to Zelenskyy’s Office. Furthermore, Avakov and Kolomoysky’s relationship itself has a long history of partnership, including in the country’s biggest (state-owned) oil company, Ukrnafta, where the oligarch owns 40 percent of the shares (24tv.ua, September 13, 2019).

Both Avakov and Yermak have strong ambitions to try to influence Zelenskyy. And both of these political heavyweights regularly accompany the president on his official travels abroad. Now, each of them is trying to push his own foreign policy agenda while providing private advice to the president and public commentaries on such matters. But in the meantime, Kolomoysky, one of Ukraine’s richest people, appears to be pursuing his own agenda that increasingly looks at odds with Zelenskyy’s. It remains to be seen how the president will deal with these challenges. But it seems clear that Avakov is trying to position himself to prevail no matter the outcome.