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1 July, 2016  ▪  Bohdan Butkevych

Bouillabaisse de president

What is Petro Poroshenko's team and who are the centres of influence in it

A lot of myths and legends circulate about how the Ukrainian government and its presidential branch actually operate. There is no doubt that in addition to the official structures with approved personnel, there are also some sort of inner-circle clubs. Few can imagine exactly what they look like and how the informal centres of decision-making around the president function. That is why there are a lot of rumours, gossip and different theories. The nature of Petro Poroshenko's decisions suggests that he is unlikely to have a fully-fledged "presidential team": it is more a number of situational alliances that are created for specific tasks. These groups inherently vary in quantity and quality, depending on their degree of influence. This article examines the unions that are most often talked about in political circles today.

Firstly, something known as the Strategic Seven exists. It includes President Poroshenko, his Chief of Staff Borys Lozhkin, Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroisman, National Security and Defence Council Secretary Oleksandr Turchynov, Prosecutor General – until recently head of the Petro Poroshenko Bloc in parliament – Yuriy Lutsenko, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov and ex-PM Arseniy Yatseniuk. The latter has managed to preserve his influence and weight in Ukrainian politics, thanks to his "golden share" (no coalitions are possible in parliament without his party). Now it is said that the Seven is becoming an Eight with new Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada, Andriy Parubiy.

Nevertheless, a considerable pause in meetings of the Seven/Eight started immediately after Yatseniuk's resignation and the appointment of Hroisman as Prime Minister. The Ukrainian Week's sources on Bankova Street report that Yatseniuk has not visited the Presidential Administration for at least the last three weeks. Indeed, following the latest redistribution of positions and financial flows there do not seem to be any critically important problems that would require the former prime minister’s personal involvement. And Yatseniuk has no desire to have a reunion with the president with whom he has, to put it mildly, an uneasy relationship. However, we can be certain that the Seven will start work again soon: the issue of elections in the Donbas is on the agenda.

RELATED ARTICLE: How the President's powers have changed over two years under Poroshenko

In addition to the Seven, there are other conglomerates of confidants close to the president.  But before we consider them, another important thing should be emphasised. Although de jure the Chief of Staff is BorysLozhkin, de facto Petro Poroshenko takes a hands-on approach to managing all the processes in his team and PA himself. All Bankova employees we were able to talk to confirmed this. It is a big mistake when people sometimes try to compare him to Viktor Yushchenko. In contrast to the third president, who preferred to deal only with the issues that interested him – culture and history, the current, fifth head of state seeks to control everything himself, have a good understanding of all the issues and make decisions entirely on his own. He can listen to advice, but does everything his own way. Recommendations regarding appointments to certain posts do not go down well with Mr. Poroshenko either. On the contrary, they are more likely to cause suspicion.

He is more reminiscent of Leonid Kuchma, during whose presidency our current leader entered the political scene. Although, of course, both the psychological makeup and management style of these two men are completely different: while Kuchma was a classic Soviet factory director who in an almost fatherly way was always eager to know about everything in his company, Poroshenko is more of a tradesman who seeks to manage his warehouses and shops with a firm hand. He does not tolerate internal competition, demands absolute loyalty and really does not like to work with the people who knew him during his ascent to the Olympus of power. It is an interesting detail that almost all of Poroshenko's entourage from his Vinnytsia period are now out of the picture.

So, let's start with the "situation room" – a team of analysts who officially work for Poroshenko as part of the Presidential Administration, led by Rostyslav Pavlenko and in actual fact by Chief of Staff Borys Lozhkina. Mr. Pavlenko used to lead the analytical department of the UDAR party. Situationally, deputy Chief of Staff Vitaliy Kovalchuk, who brought his former UDAR team with him when he was forced out of Klitschko's party in June 2014, is also part of this group.

RELATED ARTICLE: Why the President's party is vulnerable to fragmentation

This team's official remit is to work on developing strategy and analytical calculations for the president.Its composition is not clearly formalised and varies depending on the subject matter being discussed. These "situationals" try to involve experts on the problems that the president needs advice about. The main issues that this group of analysts deals with are public administration, current events, international relations, political strategy and so on.

Apart from Pavlenko, well-known political strategist Oleh Medvedev is a constant member, often joined by Ihor Hryniv, who has just become leader of the Petro Poroshenko Bloc faction in parliament, replacing Yuriy Lutsenko, who left for the Prosecutor General's Office. This same "room", according to our sources, includes political consultant Taras Berezovets.

This is quite a strong team. Recently, however, it has not exactly fallen out of favour, but rather just stopped tangibly shaping the president's most important decisions. That is to say, they continue to do their job, but Poroshenko is less and less inclined to listen to his analysts. This is due to a certain cooling down in relations between Lozhkin, Kovalchuk and the president. Rumours have long been circulating about the willingness of the former media mogul, Lozhkin, to leave the civil service, first and foremost because the formal Chief of Staff does not actually have the authority to take any major steps without the approval of his boss.

But Vitaliy Kovalchuk has an even greater score to settle with the head of state. It is likely that no one has yet forgotten the scandal that almost put paid to the entire process of Volodymyr Hroisman’s appointment as prime minister. To recap: Poroshenko originally wanted to send Kovalchuk to the Cabinet to take the position of first deputy prime minister. But Hroisman himself came out against this in harsh terms, which is very interesting in itself. As if to say, I do not need the "czar's supervision". The president sided with Hroisman, leaving Kovalchuk in the Presidential Administration, although it is said that he has been actively dreaming of a promotion for a long time. Either to the executive branch or as head of the administration. However, this situation clearly showed that his hopes are in vain, at least for now.

RELATED ARTICLE: What Ukrainian politicians think of elections in Donbas

The main reason for the weakening influence of the "situation room" is the rise of another "room", which we can deem the "party and business" one. It is curated by Serhiy Berezenko, known for involvement dirty elections and shady party construction, ex-head of the State Affairs Department and former member of ex-Kyiv mayor Leonid Chernovetskyi's team. He managed to occupy a prominent place in the current president's team following a recommendation from his uncle Anatoliy Matviyenko. This "room", above all, solves financial problems. According to our sources, these are the people that Poroshenko is most inclined to listen to now. There are no really big names among them, besides, Berezenko himself & Co. do not exactly seek out publicity. They include smear campaign managers, businessmen and so on. As a matter of fact, Berezenko's grubbiness was plain to see during elections in Chernihiv, when he hired the team of odious analyst Volodymyr Petrov, well-known for his provocative acts.

Allegedly, Berezenko's group has several of Bankova's recent operations, which sparked a backlash from society and the political scene, under its belt. In particular, the lightning-fast removal of MPs Yehor Firsov and Mykola Tomenko from their seats. And this "room" will be tasked with supporting pro-government candidates at the July elections in four majority districts. As Chernihiv showed last year, Mr. Berezenko is quite capable of coping with such tasks, despite the costs in public image.

Speaking of centres of influence, how could we ignore the grey cardinal of Poroshenko's team – odious MP Ihor Kononenko? An army friend and a man who has always been close to the president since his first steps in business, responsible for personnel matters and sorting out sensitive issues, a People's Deputy with huge offshore accounts and considerable financial opportunities. A man who knows everything about Poroshenko and clearly understands that his fate is firmly linked to that of the current president. The Ukrainian Week's sources on Bankova Street say that Kononenko's influence is increasing exponentially, parallel to the decline of the "situation room" and Lozhkin.

RELATED ARTICLE: Takeover of Ukrainian media under the Yanukovych presidency

He operates in conjunction with another odious businessman/MP and corporate raiding specialist Oleksandr Hranovskyi, who was also involved in the Panama offshore scandal. Allegedly, Kononenko is gradually eliminating all of his competitors from the presidential team: it is said that Yuriy Kosiuk, agricultural magnate and owner of one of Ukraine's biggest chicken producers, left the PA because of a conflict with him. His relationship with Lozhkin is rather strained too. We could also mention Oleh Svynarchuk-Hladkovskyi, a business partner of Kononenko and Poroshenko.

As you can see, the president's team is a rather motley mix of friends from his time in business, armchair analysts and shady "fixers". They are divided into several groups, which are conflicting with each other more and more as time goes on. And this undoubtedlyhas an immediate effect on the quality of management and personnel decisions made by Bankova. It seems that Petro Poroshenko has not yet managed to solve his biggest problem, which experts started talking about even before he was elected: he never had a real, united and strong team of associates, and he still does not now.

Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj

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