Ukraine’s central bank accuses Zelenskiy-linked oligarch of attacks

President’s ex-business partner Kolomoisky wants to regain control of nationalised bank

Ukraine's central bank has said billionaire Ihor Kolomoisky is attacking it in a bid to evade a $5.5 billion (€5 billion) debt and disrupt Kiev's talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), piling pressure on the nation's president to rein in his former business partner.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy gained fame as a comic on Mr Kolomoisky's television station, and it gave overwhelmingly positive coverage to the political novice's presidential election campaign this year.

Both men insist they have cut all business ties, but the oligarch is now causing a headache for the president by fighting to regain control of PrivatBank, Ukraine’s biggest lender, which was forcibly nationalised in 2016 amid allegations of fraud and money laundering by Mr Kolomoisky and another co-owner.

While legal battles continue in Kiev and London, the national bank of Ukraine (NBU) said on Wednesday it was facing media attacks and street protests fomented by Mr Kolomoisky, and the bank's former governor, Valeria Gontareva, urged Mr Zelenskiy to act urgently to prove his independence and commitment to reform.


‘Hired thugs’

“Over the past few weeks, the NBU has been besieged by speculations and slander in the media, paid rallies in front of the NBU building, and even an attempt by hired thugs to forcibly invade it,” the bank said in a statement.

“We believe that this pressure on the NBU comes from Ihor Kolomoisky . . . who owes the state $5.5 billion he siphoned off from PrivatBank before it was nationalised.”

The NBU said Mr Kolomoisky sought to create “chaos” at the bank so as to replace its current management with his allies, to avoid repaying funds he allegedly owes and to “interfere with Ukraine’s co-operation with international partners and, above all, the IMF, which supports the state’s position” on PrivatBank.

Mr Kolomoisky, who claims PrivatBank was nationalised illegally, told Reuters he had nothing to do with protests.

Ms Gontareva, meanwhile, said during a talk at the London School of Economics that Mr Kolomoisky “terrifies all our country daily . . . Intimidation of reformers is a reality in today’s Ukraine.”

PrivatBank was nationalised during her tenure as central bank governor from 2014-2017, and she sees recent suspicious fires that gutted her house outside Kiev and her daughter-in-law’s car in the city as part of a revenge campaign. Mr Kolomoisky denies having any link to the fires.

Spirit of reforms

"Unfortunately, the spirit of reforms evaporated," the Kyiv Post quoted Ms Gontareva as saying at the LSE, where she now works.

She urged Mr Zelenskiy and his government to “prove that he is truly independent . . . But nobody will believe their words anymore. They will only believe actions.”

Ukraine’s government, which is run by Mr Zelenskiy’s close allies, is in talks with the IMF over a new loan of at least $5 billion, and the lender would see any concession to Mr Kolomoisky as a sign that Ukraine is not committed to fundamental reform.

Mr Kolomoisky declared this month that Kiev should turn away from the IMF and seek money from Russia, despite five years of undeclared war between the neighbours that have claimed more than 13,000 lives.

"We'll take $100 billion from the Russians," he told the New York Times. "I think they'd love to give it to us today."

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin

Daniel McLaughlin is a contributor to The Irish Times from central and eastern Europe