Lawmaker fired as Zelensky’s advisor after criticizing administration for talking with Russian-led militants

President Volodymyr Zelensky (R) and his Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak (L) attend a special government session at Unit.City innovative park, in Kyiv, on March 13, 2020.Photo by Volodymyr Petrov

President Volodymyr Zelensky is willing to begin direct negotiations with Russian-led militants, yet he might lose the support of his party in the process.

Lawmaker Geo Leros, a member of Zelensky’s 248-seat Servant of the People faction in parliament, criticized the president’s plan to negotiate with Russian-led militants in an interview with the Censor.net news website on March 19.

“I was outraged when I found out that the document is real,” said Leros, referring to a document signed by Ukraine in Minsk on March 11 and leaked by Ukrainian media.

According to it, Ukraine pledged to create a so-called Advisory Council together with the Russian-led militants. Many found it outrageous, since it demonstrated a drastic shift from Ukraine’s established policy of holding negotiations only with the aggressor state, Russia, and not legitimizing its proxies as independent entities by negotiating with them.

The next morning after the interview was published, on March 20, Leros was fired from serving as Zelensky’s advisor-at-large, a post he had held since late June.

The document on the Advisory Council will be officially signed in the upcoming weeks, Andriy Yermak, the president’s chief of staff, told journalists on March 13.

According to a Kyiv Post source close to the president’s office who wasn’t authorized to speak to the press, the Minsk meeting scheduled for March 25, will be held through a conference call, with Ukrainian representatives remaining in Kyiv, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

After Yermak announced plans to create the council on March 13 and the document was leaked, 45 lawmakers from Zelensky’s party made a statement where they expressed their dissatisfaction with the move. They urged the president to back down from a joint council with Russian proxies. Among them was Leros.

After that, Yermak met with the dissatisfied lawmakers and tried to persuade them that the administration was doing the right thing. Leros wasn’t persuaded.

After the interview came out, Zelensky fired Leros, who placed the blame on Yermak.

“I see that Yermak read my interview,” Leros wrote on Facebook.

Darya Zarivnaya, Yermak’s press secretary, told the Kyiv Post that Leros’ firing was Zelensky’s decision, not his.

Leros isn’t the only lawmaker from Zelensky’s party who insists that the administration is in the wrong.

Lisa Yasko, a Servant of the People lawmaker and head of Ukraine’s delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), on March 23 wrote an op-ed for the Evropeiska Pravda news outlet criticizing the idea of holding direct talks with Russian proxies.

“This decision won’t strengthen Ukraine’s (diplomatic) position. This decision won’t strengthen the president’s rating. This decision doesn’t unite Ukrainian society,” wrote Yasko.

Public outcry

Internal conflicts in the governing Servant of the People party began escalating ever since Yermak’s March 13 statement when he announced the creation of the Advisory Council.

The council will consist of 10 representatives from Ukraine, 10 from the Russian-led militants and an additional representative from each of the four observers – the OSCE, France, Germany and Russia.

This would be the first time since Russia began its war against Ukraine in 2014 that talks would be held with Russian proxies, with Russia as an official observer.

“There is a risk that, with his signature, the head of the President’s Office will de jure recognize the militants,” Leros told Censor.net.

“Me and the president are one team, but there are people who are setting him up,” he added. “I think such hucksters should not be in power.”

His comments transparently hinted at Yermak, a former lawyer and entrepreneur who now leads the talks with Russia.

Yermak wasn’t the only target of Leros’ interview. Another one was Serhiy Sivokho, a controversial advisor to Oleksiy Danilov, head of the National Security and Defence Council, who was placed in charge of developing a program of reconciliation between the occupied territories of Donbas and the rest of Ukraine.

Sivokho has been criticized for statements that many see as echoing Russian propaganda, such as referring to the war as an “internal conflict.”

Leros and 18 other Servant of the People lawmakers, most of whom signed the previous statement against Minsk, asked for Sivokho’s removal, but were denied. Sivokho, like Zelensky, was a comedian prior to entering politics. The two men worked together for over 15 years.

“Yermak agreed that such dialogue platforms should not be connected with the state,” said Leros. Yet, Sivokho wasn’t fired.

No legalizing proxies

In her opinion piece for the Evropeiska Pravda news outlet, Yasko gave four reasons why Servant of the People lawmakers are against Yermak’s deal.

She wrote that these documents will change the format of talks from Ukraine-Russia, to Ukraine-Russian proxies, with Russia as an observer. That would basically legalize Russia’s attempt to call its war against Ukraine, which killed over 13,000 people, a civil war, she wrote.

According to Yasko, Ukraine will lose leverage against Russia in international courts, sanctions imposed on Russia for invading Donbas will be lifted and Russia’s propaganda will overrun all Ukrainian efforts to shine light on what is really happening in Donbas.

While the article by Yasko differed from Leros’ interview in tone and approach, both publications had one thing in common: They said they were backed by a large group of party members.

“I hope (a meeting with Zelensky) will take place in the near future, as the number of lawmakers who are worried about this is a lot more than those who signed up,” said Leros.

Yasko’s article was widely shared on Facebook by lawmakers from the Servant of the People faction.

(C)KYIV POST 2020

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