Ukrainian Prime Minister Resigns After Leaked Recordings Criticizing Zelensky Surface

Prime Minister of Ukraine Oleksiy Honcharuk speaks during a media briefing in Kiev on January 8, 2020. - All passengers and crew on board the Ukrainian Boeing 737 plane that crashed shortly after take-off from Tehran on January 8, 2020 were killed, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said. (Photo by Genya …
GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images

Ukrainian Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk tendered his resignation on Friday after he was allegedly secretly recorded saying that President Volodymyr Zelensky does not understand economics.

Zelensky urged law enforcement agencies to find out who illegally recorded Honcharuk and determine who else was at the meeting where he made his controversial remarks.

A YouTube channel called “How to Trick the President” posted three audio clips this week from what it claimed to be an informal meeting between government and central bank officials attended by Honcharuk. In one of the clips, Honcharuk can be heard saying Zelensky “has a very primitive understanding of economic processes.”

The thrust of the conversation caught in the leaked recordings was that Honcharuk wanted the officials at the meeting to come up with simple and easily understood ways of explaining fluctuations in the value of Ukraine’s currency, the hryvnia, to President Zelensky.

Honcharuk is heard on the tape referring to himself as a “dummy” on such matters during the conversation and noted that much of the news they needed to convey to Zelensky was good. One of his primary concerns was explaining to Zelensky that a stronger hryvnia did not necessarily mean consumer prices would increase. 

“We need to tell him, ‘Look, Vova. Just because the exchange rate is smaller right now, it doesn’t mean that the olivier that will stand on your New Year’s table next year will cost more,’” Honcharuk’s voice said. Vova is a nickname for Volodymyr, while olivier is a popular Russian recipe for potato salad.

Honcharuk chose some rather unfortunate and patronizing words to express his concerns. Looking for a way to tell Zelensky that the currency is stronger due to public confidence in the new administration, the prime minister said, “He doesn’t have this in his head. We need to show and it needs to look very realistic, we’ll talk. Until the president has an answer to this question, he will have an empty space there.”

“And this crap on the topic of bonds will fly to him. It gets into the head because there is fog,” Honcharuk said of Zelensky’s understanding of bond speculation.

Honcharuk was arguably more critical of the assembled officials than he was of Zelensky during the meeting. At one point in the recording, he said the president “thinks you don’t have a plan – and you actually don’t have a plan.”

Another participant in the recorded conversation, Finance Minister Oksana Markarova, was as critical of Zelensky as Honcharuk was. “We have real problems and imaginary ones, and to the president we need to explain the imaginary ones,” she said, implying that Zelensky is prone to believing in rumors and social media panics.

The firestorm of controversy that erupted after the recordings were published nevertheless settled on Honcharuk, perhaps due to the perception that he needed to take responsibility for the entire conversation because he was the prime minister, because he was expected to be more supportive of Zelensky, or because Zelensky’s supporters are exceptionally sensitive to insinuations that he is not qualified to be president, having worked as a professional comedian before entering the presidential race as a neophyte and winning a huge victory over incumbent President Petro Poroshenko last April. 

Some Ukrainian media reports also described unease with the poor understanding of economics displayed by Honcharuk during the recorded conversation and fears that the controversy would paint the entire administration as a crew of naive young idealists who could be easily manipulated by Ukraine’s corrupt oligarchs. Honcharuk, at 35 years of age, is the youngest prime minister in the history of independent Ukraine.

Zelensky himself did not appear terribly upset by the recording. He was more concerned that a meeting of top officials was surreptitiously recorded, describing it as a “matter of national security” to determine who made the tapes.

“I demand that in two weeks, as soon as possible, we receive information. Who made these recordings? Find out who did this and deal with this,” the president urged Ukrainian law enforcement and security agencies on Friday.

“There was a lot of fake news in the media about various officials attending the meeting. There’s a photo in the media. You must find out whether all these people were really participating or not,” Zelensky added, noting that the authenticity of the audio and the full list of people who attended Honcharuk’s meeting have not been established. He suggested some of the words included in the published recordings could have been spliced in from other occasions.

“To clear all doubts regarding my respect and trust in the president, I have written my letter of resignation and have sent it to Mr. Zelensky,” Honcharuk said in a Facebook post on Friday morning.

He described the audio recordings posted online as a smear compiled from “fragments of recorded government meetings” by “influential groups” looking to take down the Zelensky administration.

Honcharuk said the impression of contempt for Zelensky conveyed by the recordings is “not true.” He applauded Zelensky as “a man for whom Ukrainians have expressed unprecedented trust” and said he has “managed a lot” in just a few months.

“I came to the position of fulfilling the program of the president. He is for me a model of openness and decency,” he wrote. “However, in order to take away any doubts about our respect and trust in the president, I wrote a letter of resignation and handed it to the president with the right to submit it to Parliament.”

Zelensky’s office confirmed receiving Honcharuk’s letter of resignation on Friday but did not immediately respond. Based on information from a source inside the Ukrainian president’s office, Radio Free Europe (RFE) speculated Zelensky could demonstrate his famed sense of humor by refusing to accept the resignation and instead applauding Honcharuk’s demonstration of loyalty by offering to step down.

RFE cited several cabinet officials who expressed their support for Honcharuk this week, including information minister Mykhailo Fedorov.

“Our government is the first in the history of Ukraine that does not steal, has not come up with quotas, and has no personal goals. We did not come to win political ratings. We came with the president to make real changes. I support Honcharuk. Our whole team does,” Fedorov wrote in an Instagram post that showed him standing beside Honcharuk.

RFE found some skeptics in Ukraine who thought the entire episode could be a gigantic political stunt intended to generate public sympathy for Zelensky and/or Honcharuk, perhaps a gambit intended to produce a vote of confidence in Honcharuk from lawmakers flocking to his defense or impressed by his willingness to fall on his sword. These critics noted that if Honcharuk really wanted to resign, he would have addressed his letter of resignation directly to the parliament, since they would ultimately make the decision to accept it, so Zelensky can do little but pass the letter along to parliament if he wants Honcharuk to resign.

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