A National Casting: How Is President-Elect Zelenskiy’s Team Being Formed?
6 May, 2019
Ukrainian presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy (C) with his wife and members of his team at the headquarters after the exit poll has been announced, Kyiv, April 21, 2019 EPA-EFE/STEPAN FRANKO

Days before Ukraine went to the polls, a team of investigative journalists at published correspondence between staff of president-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s election headquarters. It talked about four groups of influence within the headquarters of the new president. These were called "Uncle" – referring to people associated with oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, "Kvartalivtsi" – referring to Zelenskiy’s partners in the Kvartal 95 Studio, an entertainment production company, "Nizhnie" – people close to lawyer Serhiy Nizhniy and "Regions" – those coordinated by Ilya Pavlyuk, former aide to deputy Ihor Kaletnik. Hromadske looked at who makes up Zelenskiy’s team and whether the four groups of influence really exist.

Close Social Circle  

“There are no groups of influence, there is a close social circle, and Volodymyr himself decides whether to listen to these people or not,” explains Kyrylo Tymoshenko, head of GoodMedia, which deals with media support for the campaign. Tymoshenko himself forms part of this circle with several others. Among them is Zelenskiy’s long-term partner from Kvartal 95 Serhiy Shefir, Kolomoisky’s lawyer Andriy Bohdan, Kvartal 95 screenwriter Yuriy Kostyuk and leader of the “Servant of the People” party Ivan Bakanov.

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Tymoshenko himself met Zelenskiy while the latter was working at the Inter TV channel. Tymoshenko's company has experience in logistical and media support for major political events. GoodMedia’s portfolio included events for outgoing President Petro Poroshenko’s Bloc and Ukrainian nationalist right wing political party Ukrop. The company also worked on Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman New Year’s address, business cards for Eurovision 2017 participants and presidential candidate Anatoliy Hrytsenko’s campaign promos.

“I don’t see any problems in that we work with different clients – it means that they come to us first and foremost as professionals,” Tymoshenko said. “The only people we probably wouldn't work with in a political sense are outright separatists."

However, GoodMedia prepared the project ‘Ukrainian Format’ on channel Newsone, which used to belong to pro-Russian Ukrainian MP Yevhen Muraiev.

“It was a media project, not a political one. We do not have a relationship with Muraiev as a politician or with his party,” Tymoshenko explained.

It was GoodMedia that “produced” the inauguration of President Poroshenko in June 2014. In response to questions on the date of Zelenskiy’s inauguration, several members of the team noted that they were looking to hold it before May 27.

Kyrylo Tymoshenko (L) at Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s headquarters, during Zelenskiy’s speech after the announcement of the first official exit polls, Kyiv, April 21, 2019. Photo: EPA-EFE/STEPAN FRANKO

“We prepared the whole event in seven days back then, I don’t see why we wouldn’t be able to prepare it within about the same timeframe this time too,” said Tymoshenko.

We asked several team members “who came up with the idea for the debate at the stadium?”. Some of them said that the idea was born collectively.

“At meetings, everyone could voice an idea or a problem. They were often in the form of a brainstorming session, but the decision was made, as a rule, by Volodymyr himself,” said the headquarters coordinator Aleksandr Kornienko

“Volodymyr can listen to people who he has known and trusted for a long time, for example, Serhiy Shefir, with whom he shares an office. They have almost a parental relationship,” says another interlocutor from the team. “He is the one who knows everything about the campaign, after Volodymyr.”

Before the stadium debate, Zelenskiy and several other people, reportedly including Kostyuk and Tymoshenko, left the headquarters and spent about a week preparing for the meeting.

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“We closed ourselves off for almost a week to prepare – all the questions had already been voiced to some degree, so I wouldn’t say that it was difficult. But it was impossible to concentrate at the headquarters, where hundreds of people work,” said Tymoshenko.

“How negotiations were held in the lead up to the preparation for the debate at the stadium is a different story. We really couldn’t understand what the second stage was for, we raised this during the negotiations, then a tent appeared in the middle of the field that no one had agreed on. In the end, it was removed by the police.”

In response to the question of why Zelenskiy did not come to the Public Broadcaster debate, Tymoshenko stated: “We said everything we wanted to say. And it was heard by 82% of television viewers and millions on the Internet. We didn’t want people to have to listen to talk about the drug addict and the puppet at the expense of the taxpayers. Listen, we wanted it to be interesting. Wasn't it interesting at the stadium?”

Presidential candidates Petro Poroshenko (left) and Volodymyr Zelenskiy during the debate at the National Sports Complex Olympiyskiy, Kyiv, April 19, 2019. Photo: EPA-EFE/SERGEY DOLZHENKO

The team refused to discuss who will hold a position in the presidential administration. Several people at the headquarters, including those who call themselves “advisers,” say that the position is expected to be filled by someone from Zelenskiy’s close circle — for example Shefir or Bakanov. The latter leads the "Servant of the People" party, but also deals with U.S. relations. However the team won’t reveal to what capacity and the exact role.

In addition to Shefir and Bakanov, Bohdan’s name also comes up.

“It was him who ‘made’ Zelenskiy president,” insists one of the advisers, who was introduced to Zelenskiy by Bohdan. “He understands how the work of state bodies is structured, has a wide circle of contacts and often, when no one knew how to move forward, he had a solution.”

Bohdan is restricted by the lustration law. According to the law “On cleansing power,” he cannot hold a government position for 10 years, because he twice held the position of government plenipotentiary for anti-corruption policy in the government of Mykola Azarov. Journalistic investigation “Schemes” in early April discussed Bohdan’s meeting with Chairman of the Constitutional Court Stanislav Shevchuk – this body is authorized to repeal the law. Bohdan himself denies that he ever discussed the issue of lustration at the Constitutional Court, and calls this the personal revenge of the law’s author, Yury Derevyanko, for having liquidated a scheme in the work of the Justice Ministry, thanks to which the latter was allegedly profiting.

"He can work without a government appointment," Zelenskiy’s team notes. But many questions surround Bohdan’s proximity and conflict of interests, because he is Kolomoisky’s lawyer on matters involving PrivatBank and maintains regular contact with the oligarch.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy shakes hands with lawyer Andrei Bohdan at the headquarters after the announcement of the first official exit polls, Kyiv, April 21, 2019. Photo: EPA-EFE/STEPAN FRANKO

Only time will tell if Zelenskiy is going to get rid of this conflict of interest and distance himself from the oligarch.

“I think Volodymyr will gather all the oligarchs and talk to them. There may be certain conditions – for example, to return the country’s capital. The old Kuchma scheme (Leonid Kuchma, former President of Ukraine, - ed.) of “balance between the oligarchs” cannot work now,”, says a member of Zelenskiy's team.

But at least one of them – Kolomoisky – does not think such a meeting is a good idea, as he stated in an interview with

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“I consider this a utopia. I am already investing in Ukraine – all my assets are there,” he said. “Firstly, there is barely anyone to gather. Secondly, to bring everyone together – that’s also a utopia. If you want to talk to someone, do it face to face. You don’t speak with big business in the same way you would with a collective farm. Money loves silence, no one will start telling their secrets.”

Nobody talks about the government posts, Zelenskiy’s team almost unanimously assures.

“The office is formed according to other principles – no one distributes the posts like this,” says Tymoshenko. “But this does not mean that they don’t exist. There are candidates in all structures where the president should appoint his people. For example, it is obvious that the person in the General Staff of the Armed Forces should be respected by the military, but it’s wrong to announce them now. Furthermore, for candidates in power structures, there really is a safety issue.”

At the same time, a few people on the team hint that Tymoshenko will deal with communications in the presidential administration. Tymoshenko himself does not deny that he is currently busy preparing materials and negotiations with Poroshenko’s administration staff.

How will President Zelenskiy communicate with the people? Through the press at regular press conferences and through other channels, Tymoshenko assures.

“Let's be honest: we screwed up Ukrainian Youtube, young people are watching Russian bloggers, and something needs to be done about this,” he said.

"The public broadcaster has great potential, we could build our own Channel One and give people, including those in the occupied territories, a real information alternative, get them interested."

The roles of advisers Oleksandr Danylyuk, Aivaras Abromavičius, Serhiy Leshchenko remain unclear. Of the three, only Danylyuk was officially presented as a member of the team who would be going with Zelenskiy to the Presidential Administration. It is said that he is the one who organized the meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron. Danylyuk continues to work in the area of foreign affairs with the status of "adviser".

“We have never discussed appointments, so for the time being I am helping with contacts and advice,” says Leshchenko.

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“We haven’t talked about posts,” Abromavičius repeats the same notion. “Working in the presidential administration is not what interests me.”

Advisor to Volodymyr Zelenskiy and former Minister of Finance Oleksandr Danylyuk at the Zelenskiy headquarters after the second round of presidential elections, Kyiv, April 21, 2019. Photo: Bohdan Kutiepov/Hromadske

Casting Experts

“We brainstormed the list of experts together,” recalls one of the team members. “We had this idea to get experts to participate in roundtables on various topics – we specifically selected people with different views, so that Volodymyr could firstly see different approaches to solving various problems, and secondly, look at these people during discussions.”

Some participants of these roundtables were uncomfortable during discussions. Hromadske’s interlocutors who took part in these meetings refused to name them.

“The process is open,” says team member Svyatoslav Yurash. He joined the team in February and claims that the team’s work has always been decentralized. “Different people who could compete with their ideas were invited to show their problem solving skills. And although the doors were open to all, not everyone came at once. Of course, those who joined earlier, and also "proved themselves in battle" have more credibility. "

“There were those who declined,” said another source at headquarters. “They were like, what if you don’t win the election, and we get noticed here?”

Ukrainian diplomat Bohdan Yaremenko, who advises the team on foreign policy, attended several such meetings: “We, experts at the Maidan of Foreign Affairs, worked in several areas – foreign policy, military reform, occupied territories. These are dozens of different experts. We collaborated with many in absentia – via the Internet (in general, we do most of the work without leaving the office). Experts don’t always agree on everything. The results were supposed to be consolidated by Ruslan Stefanchuk.”

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Stefanchuk is the ideologist of the team and the lead expert. He has known Zelenskiy since their time working on comedy show KVN. Some people at the headquarters call his approach somewhat "academic." It was Stefanchuk who brought several more experts to the team, in particular, Iryna Venediktova, who would be responsible for the direction of judicial reform. It was also Stefanchuk who brought the head of Jurimex law firm, Danylo Getmantsev, to the team. Getmantsev once worked as an assistant to the former deputy secretary of the head of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine Volodymyr Sivkovych, who is accused of organizing the dispersal of Euromaidan. Getmantsev claims that he stopped working with Sivkovych back in 2010.

"We parted on bad terms, I don’t want to comment on it,” he said.

Lawyer and assistant to presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy Ruslan Stefanchuk at the headquarters on the night of the second round of elections, Kyiv, April 21, 2019. Photo: Bohdan Kutiepov/Hromadske

Leshchenko introduced gender expert Maryna Bardina to the team. She works as an aide for him.

“She is young, intelligent and energetic, I suggested she go with me to a pertinent meeting of anti-corruption experts in January. This was an important moment in understanding Zelenskiy’s future political plans,” recalls Leschenko.

“We talked about gender equality. I cited examples from the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report study, showed Ukraine’s 100+ position on the number of women in parliament and said, Volodymyr, it’s worth inviting women to the party,” Bardina recalled. “That conversation took place, after a while they called me and invited me to advise them further.”

Several interlocutors in the team say professionalism is important in the selection of team members. But what goes into this concept and does the “Ze team” consider it possible to work with individual members of former President Viktor Yanukovych’s team? For example, with the former lawyer in the Yanukovych administration, the architect of the criminal code Andriy Portnov. The team says any ties between them and Portnov are “nonsense,” but at the same time, one of the interlocutors at the headquarters adds: “He’s a great lawyer – no one is arguing that. But he’s a toxic man. Why would we want that?”

Kolomoisky, in turn, in an interview with also denies Portnov’s connections with Zelenskiy’s team, but says Portnov didn’t do anything bad for Ukraine.

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“We must distinguish between apologists of the regime and the usual prisoners of war... I’ve had normal relations with him for 20 years... I believe that looking from a law perspective, and not that of political responsibility, he didn’t do anything. They haven’t found anything on him in five years. He just worked, didn’t enrich himself. Well, of course, he served the regime.”

Advisors to presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Serhiy Leshchenko (L) and Maryna Bardina. Photo: Maryna Bardina / Facebook

Transfer of Power and Early Elections

Ukrainian legislation says nothing about how the President should transfer power to the next head of state.

In 2014, this wasn’t a question because Yanukovych fled the country. For three months between the Revolution of Dignity and the presidential election, the country was headed by acting president Oleksandr Turchynov. At that time, he was also the speaker of parliament. The former opposition, who came to power on the wave of the Maidan, then also said that they would bring new people to power. However, in practice, without communication with the "predecessors", nevertheless, it never happened. Immediately after being appointed Minister of Infrastructure, Maksym Burbak did not shrink away from the advice of Borys Kolesnikov, who held the same position in 2010-2012.

The situation that developed after the Revolution of Dignity is rather an exception to the rule. The former and future presidents, as a rule, meet and agree on a “transfer of affairs”. It happened in 2004. As one of Viktor Yushchenko’s assistants recalls today, this happened before the inauguration of the third president of Ukraine.

“It happened in the Presidential Administration. Leonid Kuchma and Mr. Yushchenko had a one-on-one conversation that lasted about six hours. Only those two people know the details of this meeting,” an interlocutor of Hromadske recalls.

Poroshenko, who is still the current president, has already announced that he and Zelenskiy have agreed to meet in the near future.

President Petro Poroshenko (left) agreed to meet with Volodymyr Zelenskiy (right) in the near future. In the photo, the presidential candidates are pictured during the debate, Kyiv, April 19, 2019. Photo: EPA-EFE/SERGEY DOLZHENKO

The new president will have to meet with the parliament – both Zelenskiy himself and his team constantly talk about plans to quickly implement important laws for the country. Voters are also expecting the new president to make quick decisions. But they will need to go through the Verkhovna Rada, whose deputies were elected during Poroshenko’s presidency.

How will he get "his own" parliament? The answer is snap elections. The formal reason for them – the absence of a coalition. The principal decision on this issue had not been made – several team members insist at once. The temptation to dissolve this parliament is great, Leshchenko assures. Snap elections would be partly beneficial to Poroshenko too, as they could give him and other associates a chance to get immunity.

“Poroshenko’s headquarters are prepared better than anyone for snap elections – he has been dismissed, although he is in moral decline. The majority generously sowed their districts with buckwheat and are ready to be re-elected. But in early elections, Poroshenko can also become the main anti-hero for society, and he will not be able to get above 15%, and the majority-runners will run away from him as soon as they understand that an ex-president tied to corruption is toxic for them. It is necessary to try to change the law on elections through a quick procedure, although the chances of that are minimal. If the Rada botches this chance in the coming weeks, it will be necessary to dissolve the parliament immediately, because it will not have the moral right to exist.”

How do you make the current parliament vote for open lists? “Probably look for allies. Until then, the probability of dissolution remains high – let them in the parliament think that,” a source at Zelenskiy’s headquarters said.

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/By Maksym Kamenev, Nataliya Gumenyuk, and Angelina Karyakina

/Translated by Natalie Vikhrov