Popular comedian Volodymyr Zelensky won the Ukrainian runoff presidential election hands down on April 21. More than 73 percent of those who came to the polling stations cast their ballots for him. For the first time in any post-Soviet state’s history, an individual without any experience in politics, security or public administration was elected president. Zelensky defeated incumbent Petro Poroshenko, who had been in politics for two decades. The victor’s views regarding the complex foreign policy, security, and economic problems facing Ukraine, however, have been difficult to parse, including based on his vague or even rather naïve-sounding responses to journalists’ questions during the campaign (YouTube, December 25, 2018 and March 21, 2019; RBC, April 18, 2019).
Consequently, at least in the beginning, President-elect Zelensky will have to rely heavily on his staff and advisors. But details about his team have been emerging only bit by bit, and Zelensky refused to share too many details of his personnel plans even at his post-election briefing, on April 21 (Ukrinform.ru, April 22). This has provided fuel to earlier suspicions that Zelensky is not free to independently choose his own people, but rather that significant input or even direction regarding personnel may be coming from the person believed to have been behind his campaign, oligarch Ihor Kolomoysky, who reportedly lives in self-imposed exile in Israel.
Kolomoysky’s television channel 1+1 has for years been broadcasting satirical shows of Kvartal 95, a comic group that first propelled Zelensky to public fame. And Zelensky chose 1+1 to announce his decision to run for president this past New Year’s Eve. Thereafter, this television station and Kolomoysky’s other media outlets backed Zelensky’s campaign, which otherwise relied on social media posts (see EDM, February 13). Zelensky and Kolomoysky have never denied their business ties; but both refute charges of Kolomoysky’s role in Zelensky’s election campaign.
Still, Kolomoysky has never disavowed that he wanted to see Poroshenko defeated. He fell out with Poroshenko in 2015, when the president fired him as Dnipropetrovsk province governor. Later on, Poroshenko supported the nationalization of PrivatBank, Ukraine’s largest bank, until December 2016 co-owned by Kolomoysky and Hennady Boholyubov (see EDM, February 11). Poroshenko claimed that Zelensky would try to return PrivatBank, into which the government has poured billions of dollars, to its former owners, but Zelensky has repeatedly denied this (Interfax, April 19).
Ukrainian investigative journalists from Skhemy (a joint project of RFE/RL and UA:Pershy) found that Zelensky had traveled 13 times, during 2017–2018, to Switzerland and Israel, where Kolomoysky resides. They further reported that Kolomoysky’s lawyer Andry Bohdan sometimes accompanied Zelensky on those trips (YouTube, April 16). Bohdan is a former deputy justice minister, and he served on various state anti-corruption bodies under Poroshenko’s predecessor, Viktor Yanukovych. Notably, Bohdan’s smiling face appeared behind Zelensky toward the end of his public debate with Poroshenko, at a stadium in Kyiv, on April 19. Journalists also spotted Bohdan at Zelensky’s election headquarters. Zelensky’s campaign manager, Dmytro Razumkov, claimed the lawyer was Zelensky’s friend (Bihus.info, April 9).
Razumkov himself is the son of a former key advisor to Ukraine’s second president, Leonid Kuchma. Razumkov junior used to be a member of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. While presenting a part of his victorious team on a talk show (airing on 1+1), Zelensky said that, during the campaign, domestic politics were the remit of Razumkov, who also served as one of the public speakers for Zelensky’s staff. Oleksandr Danylyuk, a former finance minister (April 2016–June 2018) and a former advisor for economic reforms to Yanukovych, was helping Zelensky to communicate with the business community and foreigners. Incidentally, as finance minister, Danylyuk oversaw PrivatBank’s nationalization. Ukraine’s parliament fired Danylyuk a year ago because of his conflicts with Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman over taxation policies and personnel. Zelensky said Danylyuk advised him on foreign affairs as well as finance and banking (YouTube, April 18).
Several other former government officials were also on the 1+1 stage, but curiously, Aivaras Abromavicius was absent. Abromavicius, a liberal reformer who resigned as economy minister several years ago, had been seen accompanying Zelensky during his campaign meetings along with Danylyuk,. Another conspicuous absence was that of crusading journalist Serhy Leshchenko, who, identified as an advisor to Zelensky, gave a rare interview about the campaign to a Russian media outlet last month (Novaya Gazeta, March 22).
Once inaugurated, which is expected in May, Zelensky will be entitled to replace only two ministers—of foreign affairs and defense. He also can replace the prosecutor-general and the head of the Security Service (SSU). Prime Minister Groysman’s government will have to resign only after the election of a new parliament, which is scheduled for the fall of this year. However, it has been speculated that Zelensky, thanks to the political capital earned from his presidential victory, could have a space of several days or weeks to dissolve parliament and call early elections in May or June to replace the ruling coalition and the government—both of which were formed under Poroshenko. Zelensky himself indicated such a possibility (RBC, April 18).
Zelensky apparently already has a candidate in mind for defense minister, Colonel Ivan Aparshin, whom Zelensky publicly presented as his expert for defense and security. Aparshin served in different defense-related government positions between 2005 and 2014. He wrote in a recent blog post that Zelensky’s incoming team plans to continue Ukraine’s close cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), abandon conscription service to the Armed Forces, make defense spending more transparent, and reform the defense industry company Ukroboronprom, which was involved in several corruption scandals recently (Obozrevatel.com, April 22; see EDM, February 28). As for the next foreign affairs minister, Leshchenko earlier indicated that Danylyuk could be offered the post (Nv.ua, April 3), but Danylyuk more recently told reporters that he was not interested (Interfax, April 21).
Despite a number of notable links to the disgraced former Yanukovych administration, many individuals trotted out as members of Zelensky’s incoming team, as well as those publicly associated with it, have serious experience and clear pro-reform credentials. Nevertheless, it remains to be seen which of them will actually be hired by the president-elect, and what role if any in the formation of the next administration might be played by Kolomoysky.