Honcharuk: Zelensky falls for Russian myths

 Ex-Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk sits for an interview with the Kyiv Post on June 12, three months after he was sacked from the top post.Photo by Volodymyr Petrov

Oleksiy Honcharuk was triumphant. At just 35, he was the youngest prime minister in the history of Ukraine. Looking down from the Verkhovna Rada’s rostrum at the parliament that appointed him in a flash vote on Aug. 29, 2019, he wasn’t hiding a broad smile.

When he was back to the parliament’s hall six months later to be voted out, there was no trace of that exultance. Now he was known for another record: The prime minister with the shortest time in office.

When Honcharuk sat for an interview with the Kyiv Post at an outdoor restaurant terrace in Kyiv on June 12, the brevity of his tenure was readily apparent. He attracted few looks. Some customers furrowed their brows, seemingly struggling to place the familiar face.

The hasty firing of Honcharuk and his Cabinet in early March came as part of a major reshuffling by President Volodymyr Zelensky. In just weeks, he replaced his chief of staff, prime minister, most of the Cabinet and the prosecutor general.

Most of the ousted officials were perceived as pro-Western, reformist figures. Some, like ex-Prosecutor General Ruslan Riaboshapka and ex-Chief of Staff Andriy Bohdan, were among Zelensky’s closest allies throughout his election campaign. Others, like Honcharuk, joined the president’s closest circle after he came in office and was recruiting allies.

In February and March, they were replaced by people who Zelensky appears to see as more loyal or effective.

In the case of Honcharuk, he was fired for the perceived absence of both qualities.

Zelensky accuses Honcharuk and his Cabinet of being timid, living in the Facebook bubble and being out of sync with the rest of the country. Perhaps more importantly, Zelensky was offended when a leaked recording showed Honcharuk talking about him in a seemingly condescending tone.

“I thought that me and him were one team,” Zelensky told Ukrainska Pravda in an interview published on June 11.

Honcharuk casts off accusations of ineffectiveness and disloyalty. In his view, he was kicked out because he ran afoul of the interests of various influence groups by shutting down corrupt schemes across government agencies and state companies.

Their private and public complaints about Honcharuk were mounting and made Zelensky doubt his prime minister.

The president’s outlook shifted under their influence, too.

“Zelensky changed,” Honcharuk told the Kyiv Post during the interview on June 12. “Zelensky that I started working with and Zelensky today are two different people.”

According to Honcharuk, the president’s “good intentions didn’t change” but he proved susceptible to fake news and anti-Western sentiments.

“All those myths about Ukraine being under foreign rule from Washington, or about the influence of George Soros in Ukraine — things that aim to discredit the pro-Western people in Ukraine — I think they influenced Zelensky,” said Honcharuk.

“I’m convinced that these myths are part of Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine. But certain Ukrainian influence groups and oligarchs use them in their interests. I think he became much more vulnerable to fake news than he used to be,” he added.

Despite their parting and mutual criticism, Honcharuk says he doesn’t dislike Zelensky now. They haven’t seen each other since Honcharuk’s unpleasant firing, but occasionally exchange text messages — though not often.

Short stint

Honcharuk’s stint as prime minister started on Aug. 29 and ended on March 4.

A lawyer by education and the former head of the Better Regulation Delivery Office think tank, Honcharuk was a fresh face after the three-year rule of Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman.

Honcharuk was an energetic young prime minister to match an energetic young president. He recorded video blogs and drove a scooter. The only thing off-brand was his unexpectedly strong taste for three-piece suits.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk at the meeting of the President of Ukraine with the leadership of the Ukrainian Parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, the Cabinet of Ministers and law enforcement authorities on Sept. 2, 2019. (Volodymyr Petrov)

In February, his Cabinet published a report titled “Top 100 Achievements.” The document is no longer available on the government’s website.

The achievements in the six months of work included: cutting home utilities prices, digitalizing state services, introducing cheap loans for small business, unbundling state energy company Naftogaz, increasing the collections by the Tax Office, drafting a new plan for privatizing state enterprises and so on.

Among his most prominent achievements, Honcharuk counts shutting down illegal gambling parlors that plagued Ukrainian cities. It happened after the parliament failed to pass legislation that would regulate them in December.

But it was announced as an initiative of the president, not the Cabinet.

“Everything good was always presented like it’s coming from Zelensky,” Honcharuk says.

Another key achievement he names is replacing the heads of state agencies that were notoriously corrupt: the Customs Office, Tax Office, State Land Register, State Roads Agency (Ukravtodor).

This, Honcharuk believes, was one of the sources of his trouble with Zelensky. The new heads of the agencies ended corrupt schemes, hurting the officials that milked them for years — most notably, he points out, at the tax office. A stream of complaints started to flow to Zelensky about the “incompetent” prime minister.

Fall from grace

In a recent interview, Zelensky listed his grievances about Honcharuk and his Cabinet’s performance.

“They were hiding from the media,” he told Ukrainska Pravda. “They were young and afraid. They were flirting with the audience of Facebook, conducting the reforms in a way that would bring them the approval on Facebook. And no one cared about what was happening in the streets.”

The same complaints about the Cabinet, almost word-for-word, were laid out by then-Chief of Staff Bohdan in an interview with the Kyiv Post in October. He said that the ministers didn’t want to appear on political talk shows and promote their reforms for the wider population.

Honcharuk remembers it differently.

“I was appearing on talk shows all the time, at least once a week,” he says. “Our ministers didn’t go off the TV screens. Maybe we needed to do it even more?”

He also disputes the account of his Cabinet doing superficial reforms “for Facebook” that ignored the needs of regular Ukrainians.

“Zelensky and I were in agreement when it came to priorities,” Honcharuk recalls. “For example, it was important for him to lower utility prices for households, and we lowered them as much as it was possible. Apparently it wasn’t enough.”

Honcharuk recalls one example of Zelensky scolding him for being in a Facebook bubble. When the government changed the algorithm of financing state colleges, rectors of those colleges that started getting less budget money complained to Zelensky, Honcharuk recalls.

“He told me, ‘See, you don’t hear them because they are not on Facebook.’ But it’s not true, we always consulted with a wide circle of people,” Honcharuk says.

But while Zelensky might have been annoyed with Honcharuk and his Cabinet’s performance, it was a leaked recording that played the critical role in his decision to dismiss him.

Then-Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk (R) and members of the Cabinet of Ministers react during the March 4 emergency session of parliament which sacked Honcharuk and most of the Cabinet after only six months in office. Honcharuk was succeeded by Denys Shmyhal (L). (Volodymyr Petrov)

In mid-January, a recording was published online of a meeting between Honcharuk, several of the government ministers and the head of the National Bank. In it, they were talking about how some economic steps need to be presented for Zelensky. The most incriminating thing on the tape was Honcharuk mentioning that the president didn’t have a deep understanding of economics.

Zelensky found it to mean that Honcharuk was teaming up with the National Bank against him. He wanted it to be the other way around.

“It was an unpleasant situation for me personally,” he told Ukrainska Pravda in early June. “I thought that we had the same stance and were one team. It should have been the two of us talking to the National Bank about lowering the policy rate, which is something we worked on a lot. He should have been on the team with the president, not with the National Bank.”

The National Bank indeed has been gradually reducing Ukraine’s policy rate, from 18% in 2019 to 6% on June 11, the lowest rate in its history.

After the recording was published, Honcharuk was invited to the president’s office. When he came, expecting a conversation, he was met with a film set. Zelensky’s office recorded the talk and released a 10-minute video of the president reprimanding the prime minister for his government’s shortcomings and setting new priorities, and Honcharuk listening obediently.

Several weeks later, Zelensky summoned him again. This time, he informed the prime minister that it isn’t working and he needs to resign.

On March 4, 353 out of 422 lawmakers supported his resignation — considerably more than voted to appoint him.

It wasn’t done in a way to spare Honcharuk humiliation. Zelensky showed up in the parliament and delivered a speech about the government’s ineptness.

“It was a Cabinet of new faces but new faces aren’t enough,” he said. “We need new brains and new hearts. This Cabinet knows what to do — but it’s not enough to know.”

On the next day, Prosecutor General Riaboshapka got an even more humiliating experience as lawmakers from Zelensky’s party berated him before replacing him with Iryna Venediktova.

“It’s hard to imagine that any decent experienced people would be rushing to take a job (in the government) after seeing such treatment,” says Honcharuk.

Oligarchs did it

Honcharuk’s firing made at least one person happy. Ukraine’s notoriously combative oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky developed a strong dislike for the prime minister.

Not only did Honcharuk oppose his efforts to retake ownership of PrivatBank, which was nationalized in 2016 after $5.5 billion was allegedly stolen from it, but also sought to stop the oligarch’s influence on Centrenergo, a state energy company.

Just one week before he was fired, Honcharuk’s Cabinet fired the head of Centrenergo, who allegedly was linked to Kolomoisky. After his appointment in 2019, Centrenergo started buying coal from Kolomoisky. The Cabinet sought to regain control over the company, which was being prepared for privatization.

The decision reportedly upset Zelensky.

“There were indeed many discussions,” Honcharuk says carefully, without going into detail.

It appeared to be the final straw. Honcharuk was told to resign and was voted out days later.

Centrenergo was governed by a Kolomoisky person for three more months. Only in late May did the State Property Fund succeed in changing the company’s management.

Ex-Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk sits for an interview with the Kyiv Post on June 12 in Kyiv. (Volodymyr Petrov)

When he came into the office, Honcharuk met individually with the oligarchs and richest businessmen, including Kolomoisky, Rinat Akhmetov, Victor Pinchuk and agriculture tycoon Yuriy Kosiuk. The purpose was to assure each of them that the government wouldn’t be giving preferences to their competitors, that there would be a level playing field.

But some of them wanted more than equal rules.

“Oligarchs were the ones who played the biggest role in pushing our Cabinet out because they couldn’t cut deals with us,” Honcharuk said.

The recording of Honcharuk’s meeting that offended Zelensky also had Kolomoisky’s fingerprints on it: An investigation found that the file was edited on the work computer of an employee of the oligarch’s TV channel.

When Honcharuk asked Kolomoisky about it, the oligarch said he had nothing to do with it.

On new Cabinet

Honcharuk’s replacement was Denys Shmyhal, a former top manager of oligarch Rinat Akhmetov’s energy company.

According to Honcharuk, he liked Shmyhal’s performance as governor of Ivano-Frankivsk in 2019. So when the president’s office recommended to make him deputy prime minister in February, Honcharuk agreed. He didn’t know that Shmyhal was being groomed as his successor.

Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk (С) greets his successor Denys Shmygal minutes before being sacked by parliament on March 4, 2020. (Volodymyr Petrov)

Out of 17 ministers in his Cabinet, only six stayed: Digitalization Minister Mykhailo Fedorov, Infrastructure Minister Vladyslav Kryklii, Justice Minister Denys Maliuska and the notoriously long-surviving Interior Minister Arsen Avakov. Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko and Deputy Prime Minister Dmytro Kuleba stayed, but switched places.

Now Honcharuk is watching his successor struggle with the disapproval of parliament.

On June 18, Shmyhal made a third attempt to get the parliament to approve his government’s action plan — and failed again. The plan, if approved by lawmakers, would protect the Cabinet from a vote of no-confidence for one year.

Honcharuk echoed widespread criticism that the Cabinet has been presenting a weak and undetailed action plan.

“It appears they didn’t take it seriously,” he says. “If you compare our action plan and their action plan… it is clear that those are works of completely different levels.”

Avakov ‘had to leave’

Civil society has criticised Honcharuk for making peace with having the toxic Interior Minister Avakov in his Cabinet.

Avakov, who has run the interior ministry for over six years, failed to clear the police force of corrupt and unruly officers, leading to cases of horrific police brutality and crimes. Activists and lawmakers have campaigned to fire Avakov.

“I thought that Avakov had to leave,” recalls Honcharuk. “Because he is a representative of an influence group, and I wanted the Cabinet to be clean of this.”

But he had no say in it.

According to Honcharuk, Zelensky wanted the interior ministry to answer to him directly. While the president legally appoints the defense minister, Zelensky said it would make sense to add the interior ministry in order to control all the security agencies. Honcharuk didn’t object.

Was he in a position to object?

Under Ukrainian legislation, the prime minister reports to parliament and is independent of the president. That wasn’t the case for Honcharuk, and it isn’t for Shmyhal.

With Zelensky having control of both his office and, through his party, the parliament, it effectively makes him the boss of whoever is prime minister — even if the Constitution disagrees. Zelensky never tried to hide the fact that the Cabinet answers to his administration.

At the same time, Honcharuk doesn’t complain about this disbalance of power. He insists that Zelensky gave him the freedom to act and he never felt like he didn’t have enough authority.

What now?

Honcharuk is still figuring out his professional future. But one thing is clear — he doesn’t want to go away.

“I’m definitely staying a public figure,” he says.

He wants to participate in state governance, and says he will “likely” create or join a political party in the future. But not yet: He says he won’t participate in the upcoming local elections, scheduled for October.

And he doesn’t swear off working with Zelensky again, at some point.

Zelensky told Ukrainska Pravda that when he asked Honcharuk to resign, he immediately offered him to take on another task — an ambitious project to build Kyiv City, a commercial development similar to the business center in London. Zelensky said that Honcharuk agreed but later changed his mind.

Honcharuk remembers it differently: He says that he never agreed to take on the Kyiv City project. He says it was mentioned along with several employment prospects for him, including a National Wealth Management Fund, but that nothing concrete was offered.

So instead, he is working on a project of his own: A document that would be a strategy for Ukraine for the next 10-15 years.

“When I was working in the government, I had no time to think about strategic things,” he said. “Now I’m working to put together all the ideas we had in the Cabinet into one document that would describe my vision for the development of the country.”

He will take several months to complete it. After that, he will try to find ways to implement it, including through the people who remain in power.

Will he offer his vision to Zelensky after everything that happened? He shrugs.

“God only knows. We’ll see,” he says.

(C)KYIV POST 2020

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