Ukraine: Zelensky Fires Chief of Staff, Appoints Aide Who Met with Giuliani

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a joint news conference with US Secretary of State in Kiev on January 31, 2020. (Photo by KEVIN LAMARQUE / POOL / AFP) (Photo by KEVIN LAMARQUE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
KEVIN LAMARQUE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Tuesday fired his chief of staff, Andriy Bohdan, replacing him with a senior aide named Andriy Yermak.

Bohdan was a controversial appointment for his ties to billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky, owner of the TV station that made professional comedian Zelensky a star with a sitcom about an ordinary guy who becomes president. Yermak is an interesting choice of replacement because his name came up during the recent U.S. impeachment hearings as a Ukrainian official who spoke with President Donald Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani.

According to Reuters, Bohdan appears to have lost a long-running “turf war” with Yermak, an outcome Zelensky alluded to in a recent interview where he complained about internal political struggles getting in the way of implementing his agenda.

Bohdan’s baggage included a stint working as a lawyer for Kolomoisky, whose connections with Zelensky and his administration have been a source of dismay for Ukrainians concerned about their government’s long history of corruption. 

“Bogdan represented Kolomoisky in a legal battle with the government over control of Ukraine’s biggest commercial lender, PrivatBank, a case that has weighed on whether the International Monetary Fund will disburse new loans to Ukraine,” Reuters noted.

The battle in question saw Kolomoisky retreat to Switzerland in 2017 after the government seized PrivatBank on charges that Kolomoisky embezzled $5.5 billion dollars from it. Before that debacle, Kolomoisky was popular among Ukrainians for his fiercely anti-Russian stance.

Zelensky campaigned as a reformer looking to break the grip of oligarchs on the Ukrainian system, so his ties to an oligarch of his own were always troublesome, especially once Kolomoisky returned to Ukraine after Zelensky’s surprising election victory and began working on some controversial construction projects.

Radio Free Europe noted the extensive support given to Zelensky’s campaign for president by Kolomoiski’s 1+1 television channel, which also ran Zelensky’s shows during his career as an actor and comedian, including his smash hit “Servant of the People,” a show about an everyman who wins the presidency in a surprise election. As TV and movie website IMDB pithily observed, it is “the only known fictional show to end because it became true.”

Zelensky’s relations with Kolomoisky have deteriorated to the point where the SBU, the Ukrainian security service roughly analogous to the FBI, raided the 1+1 TV offices last week, hunting for evidence in last month’s big Ukrainian political scandal, leaked audio recordings that forced the resignation of Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk. Honcharuk was illicitly recorded in a meeting where he said Zelensky “has a very primitive understanding of economic processes.”

“By the way, I like this channel because our product is there, because it’s a long relationship,” Zelensky said when asked about the raid on Tuesday, insisting there was no political dimension to the investigation.

For his part, Yermak is also a former lawyer and a film producer whose role in the impeachment drama was summarized by Reuters:

Yermak met Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani in Madrid last year at a time when Trump’s camp was pressing Ukraine to investigate the son of former vice President Joe Biden who had worked at a Ukrainian energy company.

Text messages between Yermak and U.S. officials were released by U.S. House committees as part of efforts by Democrats to impeach Trump on charges he had abused his power by asking Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. Trump was impeached by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives but acquitted last week at a trial in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Analysts quoted by Ukrainian media said Bohdan had an overbearing style as chief of staff that “won him a lot of enemies and hampered agreements.” They also thought Zelensky was clearly trying to distance himself from Kolomoisky, in part because the billionaire wanted Zelensky to take positions that more strongly favored U.S. President Donald Trump.

“Kolomoisky openly took the Trump side, trying to force Kyiv and Zelensky to play on just one side. He did it in a rude and insolent way, and he paid for that now,” political analyst Vadim Karasev told Canada’s Globe and Mail.

Karasev thought Yermak’s elevation to chief of staff sent a message to Washington because Yermak “insisted that Kyiv should take a neutral stance in the impeachment of Trump, and Zelensky approved that course.”

Somewhat confusingly, Karasev told the Washington Post on Tuesday that Yermak should be seen as a friend to Giuliani and Trump whose appointment would open better channels of communication with Washington.

“It’s a sign that Zelensky is ready to distance himself from Kolomoisky and to appoint someone distant from him. The American administration didn’t support Bohdan for the appointment due to his close ties with Kolomoisky,” Karasev said.

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