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21 November, 2019  ▪  Oleksandr Kramar

The President’s franchise

Who runs Ukraine on behalf of Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and why

Petro Poroshenko was often criticized for his tendency towards micromanagement and inability to delegate. Volodymyr Zelenkskiy is the opposite. He increasingly shows that he is just a franchise for players with different interests in a conglomerate that can hardly be called a team.  

When Chief of Staff Andriy Bohdan responded to criticism of the new government’s appointments, he said the following: “You have to take off your pink glasses and realize that we are at war, so we take the people we find.” In some segments and areas, these people essentially play their own game that often makes one wonder about the side they do it for and the side they play against. This is especially important in the context of threats to national security and the prospects of Ukraine’s development that emerge in this situation.

Ancien influences

The influence of two of Ukraine’s top oligarchs from Dnipro, Ihor Kolomoiskiy and Viktor Pinchuk, has long been visible in Zelenskiy’s circle. Their weight and relations with Zelenskiy’s circle are comparable to the influence of Rinat Akhmetov and Dmytro Firtash in the power conglomerate under the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych. It looks like Kolomoiskiy has far greater influence than Pinchuk now. Andriy Bohdan, also known as a lawyer for Ihor Kolomoiskiy, is Chief of Staff in Zelenskiy’s Presidential Office; Dmytro Dubilet and Andriy Zahorodniuk, both sons of managers from Kolomoiskiy’s companies, are Minister of the Cabinet of Ministers and Minister of Defense respectively. Given Kolomoiskiy’s comments, he sees Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk as someone linked to Dubilet, even though Honcharuk chaired the grant-funded BRDO center established by Aivaras Abromavičiusprior to his current job; as well as some key ministers in Government who are close to Honcharuk, including ministers of energy, justice and education. Dmytro Razumkov, the leader of the Servant of the People in the elections and current Speaker of Verkhovna Rada, closely worked with Serhiy Tihipko for many years. 

Another powerful group is comprised of the people linked to Zelenskiy directly. They are his numerous friends, mates from school and university, and partners from show business. These include SBU Chief Ivan Bakanov, Zelenskiy’s long-time friend and neighbor; and Borys and Serhiy Shefir, the co-founders of Kvartal 95 — Serhiy Shefir is assisting Zelenskiy at the Presidential Office. The Presidential Office has a few people from Kvartal 95. Other appointments to various offices include the husband of Zelenskiy’s classmate in school, personal friends of Zelenskiy and the godparents of his children, the children of Zelenskiy’s teachers in university, and sons-in-law of his show business partners. Some, such as Vladyslav Bukharev, former MP with Batkivshchyna(Fatherland) appointed Chief of the Foreign Intelligence Service and Deputy Chief of the SBU later, are just his neighbors — although Bukharev’s wife works as a scriptwriter for Kvartal 95. 

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While many people appointed to key offices in the current government are publicly associated with certain groups of influence, they may well have a double bottom. For example, Chief of Staff Andriy Bohdan has a record of close interaction with Andriy Portnov, a notorious lawyer for Yanukovych, since 2007. They worked fruitfully in the Cabinet of Mykola Azarov and Yanukovych’s Presidential Administration. This work included fulfillment of tasks related to a major change of the Constitution in the spring of 2010 that allowed Viktor Yanukovych to fragment the Verkhovna Rada as fit him and expand his powers. Bohdan was part of Azarov’s delegation to Moscow in November 2013 followed by the decisions to not sign the Association Agreement with the EU.

When working together with Portnov at Yanukovych’s Presidential Administration during the Revolution of Dignity, Bohdan was apparentlyinvolved in the drafting of the regime’s punitive mechanisms against the protesters. These include the draconian laws passed on January 16, 2014. He received the certificate of honor from Mykola Azarov at the peak of the Maidan. Given this background and connections, Bohdan may obviously be more than a lobbyist for Ihor Kolomoiskiy’s financial interests — he may as well be a driver of the Kremlin’s geopolitical course for Ukraine, contributing to the undermining of Ukraine’s national security or surrender of its national interests, or even part of its sovereignty to Moscow. Ultimately, he has close connections with other figures of the former Yanukovych regime. One proof is his notorious visit to the Saint-Tropez wedding of Andriy Dovbenko, known as a lawyer in Serhiy Kurchenko’s entities, on the Day of Independence in Ukraine. 

Whose man is Andriy Yermak?

Andriy Yermak is responsible for international relations in Zelenskiy’s team. Officially, he is a lawyer with no diplomatic experience. He remains in the shadow and seems to have no ambition for official top jobs. At the same time, he almost fully controls the establishment of international relations for Volodymyr Zelenskiy — both with Russia, and with the West, including the US. Yermak’s publicly available biography says that he was advisor for Elbrus Tadeyev, former MP with the Party of Regions born in North Ossetia, a republic in Russia.   

Tadeyev has been known in Ukraine since the early 1990s when he was invited to come to Ukraine by Boris Savlokhov, a mafia boss of Ossetian origin and the organizer of one of the then-most powerful organized crime groups in Kyiv (he died in prison in 2004). Elbrus was one of the representatives of the Ossetian diaspora in Kyiv close to Savlokhov. In September 2009, the then-Minister of the Interior accused him of involvement in the conflict of criminals from the Caucasus in Kyiv. His cousin from Ossetia was involved too. Tadeyev and the athletic men linked to him were also visible during the EuroMaidan. According to media reports, Elbrus was together with Oleksandr Popov, Head of the Kyiv City State Administration, and Party of Regions MP Nestor Shufrych on the night of November 30, 2013, when the Berkut was beating protesting students at the Maidan; according to these reports, he also managed the titushkywho attacked barricades of the protesters at Liuteranska Street. 

A recent investigation by the Skhemyproject revealed that Andriy Yermak co-owns a business with representatives of the Caucasus diaspora in Moscow who are linked to the Russian leadership and Vladimir Putin personally. The official record of legal entities in Ukraine lists that Andriy Yermak co-owns two Ukrainian companies, ZAT InterPromFinance Ukraina and TOV M.Ye.P., with Rakham Emanuilov, a Russian citizen. Emanuilov is part of an influential Moscow community of the Mountain Jews or Caucasus Jews. One suggested explanation for its influence is that Putin’s classmate Ilham Rahimov is a member. Yermak has commented on this, saying that these are his father’s friends. It is more likely, however, that these are the contacts he established thanks to close cooperation with Tadeyev and other representatives of the Ossetian and the Caucasus diaspora in Kyiv. The key role after the murder of his brother Boris has been played in it by his younger brother Rustam (Ruslan) Savlokhov — he was chief trainer of Ukraine’s team for free style wrestling until 2018 and was a stakeholder at InterPromBank. It is worth mentioning in this context that Ruslan Savlokhov publicly supports Volodymyr Zelenskiy. 

Interestingly, another investigation by Skhemyand The Insider attracted the attention to the fact that someone by the name of Sam (Semyon) Kislin, the owner of an American company Trans Commodities, was a key figure whose help Yermak sought to secure arrangements between Zelenskiy and Trump’s circle during his visit to the US. Originally from Odesa, Kislin is considered to be closely linked to Ukrainian and Russian organized crime by the FBI, including to the late mafia boss Yaponchik and the Chornyi brothers of the Izmailovskaya OPG — the latter is the Russian abbreviation for the organized crime group.  

If we assume that Zelenskiy’s foreign policy is in the hands of Savlokhov with hopes that rest on their informal ties in the Russian, as well as American and Western establishment, this can hardly bode well for Ukraine. The interests of the people involved in these chains are far from the interests of Ukraine, from its security, territorial integrity and sovereignty. For example, mass media have reported on Savlokhov’s alleged dealings with Aleksandr Khodakovsky, the commander of the “DNR” terrorists from the Vostok batallion — he organized arms trade for Transnistria and Armenia with Khodakovsky. Other reports speak about his interests in the smuggling of goods across the contact line in the Donbas.

Who is Danilov?

Another dark horse appointed to a key position is Oleksiy Danilov from Luhansk Oblast and with professional background in Luhansk and the region. He has replaced Oleksandr Danylyuk as Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council. It looks like his appointment also happened thanks to the figures forgotten in Ukraine’s public politics but not marginalized in terms of their real influence on Ukraine’s economy and politics — and he might respectively represent their interests in the top echelons of power. Known as mayor of Luhansk in the 1990s, representative of Viktor Yushchenko in the 2004 election campaign and Head of the Luhansk Oblast State Administration in 2005, he is apparently far from being Yushchenko’s man.  

According to media reports, he was brought to Yusuchenko’s headquarters by Mykhailo Brodsky, a link that ensured Danilov’s promotion in the team of Yushchenko and Tymoshenko in 2004-2007 — initially as Head of the Luhansk Oblast State Administration, then as MP from Batkivshchyna. That is why Danilov did not stay in Batkivshchynamuch longer after Brodsky broke up with it with a scandal in the late 2006: Danilov no longer featured as MP from this party after the Verkhovna Rada dissolution in 2007, nor did he hold any top positions in it. 

Mykhailo Brodsky can hardly be seen as the ultimate beneficiary of Danilov’s appointment to the National Security and Defense Council. It is well known that Brodsky has a long record of relations with Ihor Kolomoiskiy, the key spobsor of Zelenskiy. Apart from that, media have lately been reporting about joint business between Brodsky and Nestor Shufrych who are both involved in managing the Kyiv River Station and construction on Rybalsky Island in Kyiv. The fact that Shufrych is equal to Medvedchuk and Putin is not news. Also, Brodsky and Medvedchuk have long-standing relations with the Surkis brothers who own many assets in different spheres, including energy. As a result, it is important to note that Oleksiy Danilov was not only mayor of Luhansk in the 1990s, but a member of the SDPU(o), a party where Medvedchuk and the Surkis brothers played the key roles.

More open source research reveals information about cooperation between Brodsky and Surkis brothers with Volodymyr Kysil in the tumultous 1990s. A well-known athlete and trainer since the soviet time, officially known as businessman and head of the Greco-Roman Wrestling Federation in Ukraine, Kysil is also referred to as a mafia boss in Kyiv in journalist investigations on the criminal world based on sources in law enforcement agencies. These sources link him to Kysil’s organized crime group, one of the biggest groups in Kyiv. 

Volodymyr Kysil died in a car crash in Vinnytsia Oblast in 2009. His son Vadym, born in 1972, inherited his business and his office as head of the Greco-Roman Wrestling Federation. According to media reports, he had been actively helping his father since the early 1990s. The question not highlighted in that article is what relations remain between Brodsky, Kysil Jr. and Surkis brothers today. Interestingly, Danilov is not the only representative of these groups in Zelenskiy’s team. Another possible protege of Vadym Kysil, — at least via the Greco-Roman Wrestling Federation — is Zhan Beleniuk, the first black MP in Ukraine and champion in Greco-Roman wrestling. Oboz TV features a video from March 2018 on the results of the XXII Kyiv International Greco-Roman Wrestling Tournament where Beleniuk was together with Vadym Kysil in the studio.  

What are they building?

Talks about disagreements between different representatives of Zelenskiy’s circle started in the early summer when news surfaced about the conflict between Ivan Bakanov as curator of the SBU newly appointed by the President and Chief of Staff Andriy Bohdan. More recently, a conflict has broken out between Bohdan and Oleksandr Danylyuk, the National Security and Defense Council Secretary who has since resigned.   

For now, however, there are no signs that this is the way for different representatives of Zelenskiy’s team to balance the new system in power or ensure mutual checks and balances as it often happens in countries with mature institutions and democratic mechanisms of checks and balances between different government agencies. In Ukraine’s context, the situation looks more like a feudal epoch where different people are given different spheres to feed on or like a distribution of spheres in the criminal world. Every “manager” fights to take control of as many processes as possible. This, however, does not mean that they are building a streamlined system to support Zelenskiy’s authority, let alone the needs of the state.  

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Instead, this means maximizing the influence of specific people within the power conglomerate in order to capitalize on its opportunities as soon as possible for personal interests. From this perspective, Zelenskiy’s hierarchy increasingly resembles that of Yanukovych. The only difference is that the key resources mostly concentrated in the hands of the Family under Yanukovych, while Zelenskiy has things in a more decentralized fashion so far. However, this does not diminish the risks of the country being pulled apart by different groups of influence in the coming years with no strategic vision of what Ukraine should be in 5, 10 or 20 years. 

By contrast to public pledges of quality changes in his HR policy, it has actually developed more favoritism and dependence on oligarchs under Zelenskiy. At least its carcass is made up of the people who have no statesman approach, focusing on personal demands and electoral reactions of the voters instead. Closely intertwined with Russia via business interests, they have no idea about national identity or key issues for the development and preservation of the state. And they see return to unhindered business with Russia as their key priority.  

“We hope that the Russian market will open for us after all in two years,” Kvartal 95 co-owned and leader Borys Shefir said in a notorious interview this summer. “If we were allowed to produce things in Russian in Ukraine, we could trade these products with Russia.” While representatives of Zelenskiy’s team officially distances themselves from that statement, saying that Borys Shefir holds no official positions in government, their policy confirms this: Shefir then expressed the true sentiments and intentions, even if he spoke too openly about them.

Translated by Anna Korbut 

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