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A new Prime Minister for Ukraine — what is going on with Zelensky’s entourage?

Ukrainian Parliament has approved Prime Minister Hocharuk’s resignation. The reshuffle happens in a very delicate moment for Ukraine, both politically and financially. As tensions between the president and his former supporter Ihor Kolomoysky increase, the competition for pulling the strings of the government is looming. 

The reshuffle

A striking majority of the Ukrainian parliament has voted today in favour of the resignation of Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk, paving the way for the long-rumoured governmental reshuffle and the appointment of Denys Shmyhal as the new PM. 

Tensions had been in the air since February 11, when Andriy Bohdan, the former lawyer of oligarch Ihor Komolysky, left his post as the head of the Ukrainian Presidential Office. Ten days later, presidential advisor Andriy Yermak, was appointed to the position and was given a seat on the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine.

According to local pundits, the power dynamics behind the reshuffle are even more complex than they might appear, and what would be going on is a fight for the de facto presidency of the country, with Kolomoysky as one of the main contenders. 

Ridding of Kolomoysky

One of the richest individuals in Ukraine, Kolomoysky is the owner of 1+1, the Ukrainian television channel which aired Zelensky’s “Kvartal 95” and “Servant of the People”, and actively supported the former comedian’s candidacy in the presidential race. Quite unsurprisingly, during the campaign, Zelensky was often dismissed as Kolomoysky’s puppet. Yet, over the last few months, ties between the two began loosening. In December, Zelensky confirmed the nationalisation of Kolomoysky’s bank, Privat — a fundamental condition to unlock a much needed $5.5 billion loan by the IMF. 

Despite this significant step forward out of the oligarch’s shadow, Zelensky’s support has been decreasing lately, and his public trust score has fallen from 79% in September to 51% in February. In this view, it soon became a shared opinion among experts that the personnel change at the top of the Presidential Office reflects Zelensky’s resolution to evade Kolomoysky’s remaining influence and give definitive confirmation of his will to eradicate corruption.

The axing of Honcharuk

In this increasingly tense atmosphere, the axing of Oleksiy Honcharuk from his Prime Minister post had been rumoured for a while.

In mid-January, recordings of a conversation between Honcharuk and other top officials were released on YouTube: in the conversation, the Prime Minister lamented that Zelensky had “no clue” regarding economic and fiscal issues. Some local observers have argued that the conversation was leaked to the public by Kolomoysky himself to undermine the Cabinet.

Yet, while the reshuffle was in the air, no-one was expecting Shmyhal to be appointed as a Prime Minister. Earlier last week, Jameston Foundation reported current Interior Minister Arsen Avakov as the hottest contender. Later on, local media began speculating on Serhiy Tihipko, a finance specialist and former Vice-Prime Minister. It was not until yesterday that Zelensky put forward the name of Denys Shmygal, a former worker of DTEK, the largest energy group in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s MP Oleksandr Dubinsky added that other replacements were also under discussion, including that of the Finance Minister, the Foreign Minister, the Defence Minister and the Prosecutor General.

Perspectives

Ultimately, the reshuffle signals a switch of direction for Zelensky, who won the elections under the promise to bring a new type of politics to Ukraine. It also reiterates Ukraine’s commitment to reform in the attempt to settle the loan deal with the IMF.

Yet, while the commitment appears very clear, there is concern that the circumvention of Kolomoysky will only stir the embers of the fight for power, as many of the strong men surrounding the President have serious ambitions to influence his mandate. According to journalist and researcher Mykola Vorobiov, Yemark and Avakov are increasingly trying to impose their foreign policy agenda over the President.

The outcomes of this confrontations and whether Zelensky is prepared to deal with it will be seen shortly. Yet, a message was sent: the President is serious about his electoral promises, and he is willing to stick to them.

By Flavia Di Mauro

Flavia Di Mauro è una studentessa di “World Politics” presso l’Università MGIMO di Mosca. Ha conseguito la laurea triennale in relazioni internazionali presso l’Università degli studi di Firenze. Tra i suoi interessi: relazioni Russia-Europa, teoria femminista, conflitti congelati e buona musica.

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