The recent appointment of Andriy Yermak to head the Presidential Office of Ukraine (see Eurasia Daily Monitor, February 21) could increase tensions between President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, while the long-serving minister of internal affairs, 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 Office, Andriy Bohdan, 43, was replaced by Mr. Yermak, 48, a lawyer and film producer who had partnered with Mr. Zelenskyy in business for over a decade (Focus.ua, February 5).
Mr. Yermak worked as a top advisor to Mr. 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 the Donbas. Therefore, Mr. 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 Mr. Zelenskyy’s efforts to rid himself of the remaining influence over him from Ukrainian billionaire Mr. Kolomoisky, who owns the Ukrainian television channel 1+1, on which Mr. Zelenskyy’s “Kvartal 95” and then “Servant of the People” comedy shows both ran. 1+1 also actively supported Mr. Zelenskyy’s candidacy in last year’s presidential race (see EDM, February 11, 13, 2019). Moreover, in 2014-2015, the recently dismissed Presidential Office chief Mr. Bohdan worked as a lawyer for several companies affiliated with Mr. Kolomoisky (BBC News – Ukrainian service, April 18, 2019).
On the same day that Mr. Bohdan was replaced in the Presidential Office, members of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) presented a search warrant to raid Mr. Kolomoisky’s 1+1 offices. The SBU 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 Kateryna 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 President Zelenskyy had “no clue” regarding the economy, government bonds and other important fiscal issues (Liga.net, January 16).
Mr. Honcharuk did not deny that the words on the leaked tapes were his, and he quickly wrote a letter of resignation. But after President Zelenskyy called him into his office, he stressed that he was rejecting Mr. Honcharuk’s offer to step down and warned that the government 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 Mr. Kolomoisky’s allies in order to signal the oligarch’s declaration of open “war” against Mr. Zelenskyy (Pravda.com.ua, January 16). By discrediting Prime Minister Honcharuk and his Cabinet, Mr. Kolomoisky was purportedly seeking to change the government. Separately, Mr. Kolomoisky might try to sabotage the president’s majority Servant of the People political party by pressuring around 30 of its members of the Verkhovna Rada who are loyal to the oligarch to vote against the important upcoming bill on land reform – the passage of which is a key precondition 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 the Zelenskyy 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, Mr. 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 Zelenskyy finds himself needing to replace the current government, a serious contender for the top spot in the Cabinet might be current Internal Affairs Minister Avakov. Having been appointed to his position in April 2014, Mr. Avakov is currently the longest-serving government minister, having already worked under three heads of state, including Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov, President Petro Poroshenko and now President Zelenskyy. Mr. Avakov’s powerful Internal Affairs Ministry employs roughly 300,000 people and has secured an annual budget of 83 billion hrv ($3.3 billion U.S.), 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, Mr. Avakov has also been expanding his influence over the State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) – roughly an analogue of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) – where he promoted several of his loyal deputies. Moreover, at least 39 Ukrainian members of Parliament are loyal to Mr. Avakov, including the head of the Law Enforcement Committee, Denys Monastirsky (Pravda.com.ua, January 28).
And while Mr. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Avakov with the ability to send a powerful message to President Zelenskyy’s office. Furthermore, Messrs. Avakov and Kolomoisky’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 Mr. Avakov and Mr. Yermak have strong ambitions to try to influence Mr. 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, Mr. Kolomoisky, Ukraine’s richest person, appears to be pursuing his own agenda that increasingly looks to be at odds with Mr. Zelenskyy’s. It remains to be seen how the president will deal with these challenges. But it seems clear that Mr. Avakov is trying to position himself to prevail no matter the outcome.
The article above is reprinted from Eurasia Daily Monitor with permission from its publisher, the Jamestown Foundation, www.jamestown.org.