Opening moves of Ukraine's novice leader draw criticism

Legal questions and oligarch's shadow dog TV star Zelenskiy's first days in power

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his chief of staff Andriy Bogdan attend a meeting with lawmakers in Kiev, Ukraine on Tuesday. Photograph: Reuters

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his chief of staff Andriy Bogdan attend a meeting with lawmakers in Kiev, Ukraine on Tuesday. Photograph: Reuters

 

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy is facing sharp criticism after just two days in power, over his efforts to dissolve parliament and revamp electoral law and his appointment of a top aide with close ties to a scandal-plagued oligarch.

Mr Zelenskiy parlayed his popularity as a television star into a landslide election victory last month, and he has vowed to bring new and honest people into power and to make Ukrainian politics serve the public rather than shadowy tycoons.

He has filled several senior posts in his administration with close allies from his production company, and on Wednesday named Ivan Bakanov – his campaign manager and a long-time friend and colleague – as deputy chief of Ukraine’s security service and head of the department for fighting corruption and organised crime.

Fraud allegations

As chief of staff Mr Zelenskiy chose Andriy Bohdan, a legal adviser on his campaign team who has worked as a lawyer for Ihor Kolomoisky, a billionaire businessman whose television channel broadcasts the erstwhile comedian’s shows.

Mr Kolomoisky left Ukraine in 2017 after falling out with former president Petro Poroshenko and seeing the authorities nationalise one of his major assets, PrivatBank, amid fears of collapse and fraud allegations. He returned to the country last week and is trying to regain control of the lender through the courts.

“I was a lawyer for politicians in all camps and, indeed, for a certain business wing and oligarch. However, I am giving up my lawyer’s licence and stopping that activity,” Mr Bohdan told Ukraine’s 112 television station.

“From that moment I won’t represent any individual in a criminal or other case,” he added.

“Oligarchs don’t run the country anymore, the [presidential] election changed that. Will they influence the life of society? Definitely not through the presidential administration.”

Mr Bohdan was a justice official under disgraced former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, making him subject to a lustration law that some experts believe bars him from being chief of staff; Mr Zelenskiy’s administration, which includes respected anti-corruption specialist Ruslan Ryaboshapka, disagrees.

Mr Zelenskiy also faces a legal challenge for dissolving parliament, which by law the president cannot do for 30 days after a governing coalition breaks up.

The ruling alliance announced its collapse last week, in an apparent bid to prevent Mr Zelenskiy calling a snap election, but he argues that it actually fell apart in 2016 after losing its majority following the departure of three parties.

Debate

“I know that some deputies plan to appeal to the constitutional court and I support this move,” said parliamentary speaker Andriy Parubiy.

Mr Zelenskiy submitted a Bill on election reform to parliament on Wednesday, but deputies refused even to place it on the agenda for debate.

His allies and critics blamed each other for the impasse, which came as a fresh survey suggested that Mr Zelenskiy’s new Servant of the People party will dominate parliamentary elections.

He says his priority is to end the five-year war in eastern Ukraine, where on Wednesday eight government soldiers were captured by Russian-led militants when their truck left a planned route for unexplained reasons and crossed the front line.