Politics

Ukrainian President Zelenskyy Struggles To Disassociate Himself From Oligarch Kolomoysky

Analysis 5 December 2019
Ukrainian President Zelenskyy Struggles To Disassociate Himself From Oligarch Kolomoysky

The National Bank of Ukraine (NBU) issued a statement, on November 27, complaining of pressure by businessman Ihor Kolomoysky and urging support from the mass media and the international community. Kolomoysky is a Forbes-listed billionaire and a former co-owner of Ukraine’s largest bank, Privatbank, which was bailed out and nationalized in 2016.

His media outlets backed former actor and comedian Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s victorious presidential election campaign last spring. The NBU said that Kolomoysky had directed “speculations and slander” against the NBU in order to “create a chaos of information” so as to discredit the national financial institution, avoid responsibility for Privatbank’s failure, and thwart Ukraine’s cooperation with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) (Bank.gov.ua, November 27).

The National Bank statement alleges Kolomoysky and people’s deputy Oleksandr Dubynsky were behind the protest rallies that have persisted for weeks in front of the NBU building. The protesters are demanding the resignation of NBU head Yakiv Smoly and his deputy Kateryna Rozhkova, and they have tried to break into the NBU building on November 25. According to the Bank’s statement, the demonstrators may be receiving payments for their participation.

The NBU also pointed out that President Zelenskyy and the government supported NBU demands that Privatbank’s former owners should repay to Ukraine the $5.5 billion that the state paid into the bank in 2016–2017, in order to keep it afloat (Bank.gov.ua, November 27). Kolomoysky, however, insists that the state should return Privatbank or pay him compensation (Epravda.com.ua, April 8). He, together with his business partner Hennady Boholyubov, sued Ukraine for the nationalization in 2017.

Dubynsky, whom the NBU called Kolomoysky’s mouthpiece, is a former star journalist who worked for Kolomoysky’s 1+1 TV. He has been prominent as one of the leaders of Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People faction, which controls a majority of seats in the parliament elected last July. 1+1, which for several years broadcast Zelenskyy’s satirical shows, was one of the few mainstream media outlets to openly back his presidential bid early this year.

After Zelenskyy’s victory, Kolomoysky returned to Ukraine from his self-imposed exile abroad, where he had spent several years after falling out with fellow oligarch and Zelenskyy’s predecessor in the post of president, Petro Poroshenko (Thebabel.net, May 16). Ever since, and especially after Kolomoysky’s visit to Zelenskyy’s office last September (Pravda.com.ua, September 10), which attracted a lot of media attention, the Ukrainian head of state and his team have increasingly struggled to publicly deny Kolomoysky’s influence.

Andry Bohdan, the head of the presidential office, said in an interview last October that Zelenskyy was tired of criticism in the media and social networks. Bohdan, who, incidentally, is a former lawyer for Kolomoysky, ruled out pressure on Zelenskyy by oligarchs, and he said Servant of the People had enough seats in the parliament to be independent of them. When asked about Zelenskyy’s meeting with Kolomoysky, where Bohdan sat opposite to Kolomoysky, Bohdan said Zelenskyy had met also with several other influential local businessmen (Pravda.com.ua, October 31).

Visiting Estonia most recently, Zelenskyy was forced to fend off a question about Ukraine’s orientation following Kolomoysky’s controversial interview to The New York Times. Kolomoysky told the paper that the United States was using Ukraine to weaken Russia, while providing little assistance. He suggested that Ukraine should stop seeking IMF loans and turn back to Russia for assistance instead, and he also appeared to suggest that Zelenskyy was on his side as far as the dispute over Privatbank was concerned. Incidentally, Kolomoysky also told the Times that he believed he was being targeted by the FBI for his financial dealings (The New York Times, November 13).

In Tallinn, President Zelenskyy said it was not up to Kolomoysky to decide on Ukraine’s geopolitical orientation. The Ukrainian people, said Zelenskyy, have already chosen European integration (Eurointegration.com.ua, November 26).

Kolomoysky is prone to making controversial statements, but the timing of this interview came at a particularly difficult time for Ukraine, ahead of a crucial IMF mission visit to Kyiv to review Ukraine’s application for a multi-billion loan, without which it may be difficult for the country to repay its foreign debt next year. Ultimately, the IMF left Kyiv without reaching an agreement (Interfax, November 23).

That was the second IMF mission to leave Ukraine empty-handed this past fall. The first one, after leaving in September, made it clear that the costs of bank resolutions in 2014–2016, including Privatbank, were a stumbling block in the loan talks. The mission also expressed concern over the NBU’s independence. Ahead of that visit, Zelenskyy’s newly appointed Prime Minister Oleksy Honcharuk made a careless statement to Western audiences, telling the Financial Times that a compromise agreement could be reached with Privatbank’s former owners; the newspaper, in turn, warned that could alienate Zelenskyy’s Western backers (Financial Times, September 17).

Prime Minister Honcharuk has been cautious recently, insisting that neither he nor President Zelenskyy would support returning Privatbank to the former owners nor compensate them for its nationalization (Liga.net citing the Voice of America, November 22). But this apparently has not fully convinced international lenders, and the NBU’s cry for help likely strengthened the IMF’s conviction that the situation in Kyiv remains fraught. Zelenskyy’s relationship with Kolomoysky appears increasingly toxic, forcing Zelenskyy to face a hard choice between personal ties and the national interest.

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