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Why Did President Zelenskyy Appoint Former Kolomoisky's Lawyer as Head of PA?
27 May, 2019
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President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy (L), Head of the Presidential Administration Andriy Bohdan (C), and oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky. Courtesy

Previously exiled oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, whose PrivatBank was nationalized in December 2016 returned to Ukraine last week and so has his business partner Hennadiy Boholyubov.

Whilst Kolomoisky has given out a lot of frank interviews recently and previously served as head of Dnipropetrovsk regional state administration before the feud with Petro Poroshenko and subsequent exile, his former personal attorney (and now head of Zelenskyy’s presidential administration) Andriy Bohdan has not been in the spotlight since the Euromaidan revolution and the change of government.

Bohdan’s appointment as head of the presidential administration (PA) on May 21 sparked a heated discussion in the Ukrainian society because the position is viewed as one of the most influential in the country. He is one of the few persons with experience in politics who have been appointed so far, the rest mostly being Zelenskyy’s partners and friends. Moreover, Bohdan’s previous service in ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s office has raised many concerns in the civil society.

Many opposed the appointment of Bohdan and a petition on the president’s website for him to be dismissed quickly gathered the necessary 25 thousand signatures for Zelenskyy to consider and respond. Two lawsuits to the Supreme Court followed. Bohdan also arguably falls under the “lustration” law, which prohibits him to work in state service until 2025.  

A Decision Maker Who’s Destined for Disposal?

Novoye Vremya newspaper journalist Ivan Verstyuk tells Hromadske that he remembers speaking to Zelenskyy’s HQ asking what type of politician Bohdan is. In response, they reassured him that “Bohdan is the most creative guy able to come up with important decisions that are required” on the spot. Verstyuk believes that the reason he got the position is that he is experienced enough to produce the decisions Zelenskyy needs to run the office on a daily basis.

Former Chief-of-Staff to President Viktor Yushchenko, Oleh Rybachuk thinks that Zelenskyy’s logic is understandable, but he does not see the long-time survival of Bohdan in the current position. Rybachuk reckons that Bohdan will accept some of the negativity and will then be “disposed of” sticking to the Ukrainian “tradition” to change heads of presidential administration every year. Former chief-of-staff also holds the opinion that the team does not matter too much at this time because “Ukraine does not have well-established traditions” and nobody is willing to take political responsibility.

READ MORE: What We Know About New Head of Zelenskyy's PA Andriy Bohdan

At the same time, Bohdan has worked in the anti-corruption institution under Viktor Yanukovych and Mykola Azarov (2010-2014) on top of being Kolomoisky’s personal attorney which makes “his track record quite poor,” Verstyuk argues. However, the journalist notes that Zelenskyy is trying to build a personal relationship with each deputy head of presidential administration and it will be him, not Bohdan who will actually control them.   

Former Chief-of-Staff to President Viktor Yushchenko Oleh Rybachuk (R) and Analyst at NGO Centre UA Yegor Poliakov (L) speak to Hromadske's Nataliya Gumenyuk on May 26, 2019. Photo credit: Hromadske

Rybachuk believes that Zelenskyy’s childhood friend, partner and first deputy head of current PA Serhiy Shefir is actually the most trusted person in the president's team. Most sensitive and confidential issues that arise will be treated by him and not by Bohdan, thus mitigating certain risks.

"Bohdan has been in the parliament and has advised the government, but there is a problem with his moral principles," Rybachuk adds.

Kolomoisky’s Influence on Zelenskyy

At the same time, Verstyuk mentions that the Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko recently stated that there are no legal reasons for PrivatBank to claim the money from Kolomoisky since the deadline to pay off all of the loans he owes has not yet passed. This shows “how old-style politicians try to satisfy oligarchs like Kolomoisky thinking this might bring them political prospects”, he believes.

Rybachuk, who spent significant time speaking to Kolomoisky as the chief-of-staff in Yushchenko administration notes that the oligarch is not normally open to talks with the press. The fact that he has given more interviews over the past few months than in all the previous years means that “he is bluffing a lot”.

Rybachuk believes if Kolomoisky had a strong say on Zelenskyy, he would never demonstrate it, Taking in consideration his “nervous and hysterical behavior” in the latest interviews, Rybachuk predicts an unavoidable clash for Zelenskyy because “Kolomoisky is his biggest political risk”.

If this scenario unfolds, Bohdan could be the best advocate of president Zelenskyy against the “bully oligarch” because he knows Kolomoisky’s loopholes and pressure points, former chief-of-staff forecasts.

Thus he could perform his mission and leave fairly soon after the expected confrontation.

Editor-in-chief of Ukraine Business News James Brooke, however, believes in a very close relationship formed over the ten years of Kvartal 95 shows on Kolomoisky’s TV channel 1+1, which is testified by Zelenskyy’s frequent flights to Zurich, and later Tel Aviv where the oligarch was in exile.  

Lack of Promised Young Talent

Rybachuk believes there is a problem due to the absence of political institutions in Ukraine. Western leaders also have childhood friends but they appoint people from their political parties.

[Ukraine’s] presidents are looking for friends, somebody with whom they were in prison, somebody with whom they have been playing games.

This way Ukraine is paying the price for political parties not being institutions, Rybachuk argues.

Brooke notes that in the month between the second round of the elections and the inauguration there was no indication of Zelenskyy engaging the “Euromaidan generation” or “the talented 30-somethings”. In his inaugural speech Zelenskyy appealed to a large country “from Uzhgorod to Luhansk,” but “all we see is Kryvyi Rih” (Zelenskyy’s hometown, -ed.) in the PA.

Editor-in-chief of Ukraine Business News James Brooke (C) and Novoye Vremya journalist Ivan Verstyuk speak to Hromadske's Nataliya Gumenyuk. Photo credit: Hromadske

Brooke views the Kolomoisky connection as very negative, testified by the oligarch’s recent interview to the Financial Times where he uses Greece and Argentina as role models for Ukraine hinting at a default.

Brooke argues that the IMF is “only the tip of the iceberg” because if it is knocked out, the E.U., the EBRD, and European investment bank money will leave Ukraine. Successful work is also important in the context of attracting foreign investments because they constantly track Ukraine’s progress and a default would not be acceptable. According to Brooke who recently spoke to the IMF, the red line for them is PrivatBank which has over $5.5 billion of taxpayers money.

They do not want to see “privatization” or any compensation for “the piggy bank that was looted by the former owners,” Brooke argues.

No Exclusivity for Kolomoisky

Addressing the popular belief in a close relationship between Zelenskyy and Kolomoisky, Rybachuk says that “Zelenskyy is the guy whom any media owner would die to have” citing Inter channel as an example. Thus he believes it to be a non-argument. Rybachuk notes that Zelenskyy acted against Kolomoisky’s will when he announced a meeting with all major business owners, instead of exclusive ones.

Thus Zelenskyy will be able to hear the issues they all face, the topic the basic understanding of which the head of state already has, Rybachuk remarks.

In support of Rybachuk’s argument, Verstyuk mentions Zelenskyy’s meeting with Victor Pinchuk, long time enemy of Kolomoisky and owner of a rival media group. This move diversified his relations with oligarchs and big businesses, the journalist reasons.

READ MORE: Privat Empire: What Does Oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky Own in Ukraine?

Analyst at NGO Centre UA Yegor Poliakov thinks the change of channel might be on the cards, but only after the parliamentary elections. Over the next two months, Zelenskyy and Kolomoisky will try to work out their balance of interests.

After Zelenskyy gets a coalition or a majority going, he will reassess his options in terms of partnerships, Poliakov reckons.

/Interviews by Nataliya Gumenyuk