Yermak met with Giuliani in Madrid last summer, seeking a White House meeting for Zelensky while Giuliani pursued investigations sought by Trump of political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
Zelensky’s move to dump chief of staff Andriy Bohdan by presidential decree came after weeks of swirling rumors of bitter power struggles on his team. Before he joined Zelensky’s team, Bohdan was a lawyer for magnate Ihor Kolomoisky, who controls the Kyiv-based television network 1+1 as well as interests in energy and airlines.
Zelensky, a former TV comedian, has his own ties to Kolomoisky, whose television network used to run his comedy series, “Servant of the People,” in which he played Ukraine’s president.
Zelensky acknowledged that there has been friction within his staff. “They obstruct the working process. I have always been against such conflicts, as there are no winners and no draws,” Zelensky said in an interview with the Interfax news agency. “You can’t live amid a permanent conflict.”
Yermak made waves late last year when he suggested that Ukraine build a wall to cut off the war-torn eastern regions if a peace deal cannot be reached with the Russian-backed separatists. Since then, Zelensky has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and an exchange of prisoners has taken place, signaling hopes of progress. But rhetoric on both sides has sharpened in recent weeks.
Bohdan, 43, was Kolomoisky’s lawyer before joining Zelensky’s staff, after his election. He has publicly boasted that it was his idea for Zelensky to run for office, capitalizing on his popularity through the show. Bohdan ran the campaign and Zelensky was strongly supported by Kolomoisky’s 1+1.
With their help, Zelensky was swept into office last year on populist policies to end the corruption that has dogged Ukraine for decades and to stop the war in eastern Ukraine. But since taking power, Zelensky has struggled to shake off perceptions that he is beholden to Kolomoisky.
Zelensky faces doubts about whether he can push through promised reforms, including implementing the judicial changes necessary to stop Ukraine’s powerful elites from bribing judges to bring down the verdicts they want.
One risk for Zelensky is that Kolomoisky could retaliate and use his network to publish negative stories about the leader.
Bubbling under the surface since Zelensky’s election is a major dispute about Privatbank, formerly owned by Kolomoisky. The bank was nationalized by the Central Bank in 2016, after it was found that about $5.5 billion had disappeared from the bank’s coffers, threatening Ukraine’s economic stability.
The International Monetary Fund and other global financial institutions consider the matter a litmus test of Zelensky’s leadership.
In September, Bohdan was caught up in a controversy over a leaked audiotape in which Roman Truba, the director of the State Bureau of Investigations, spoke to a colleague about the use of intimidating “psycho tactics” against Valeria Gontareva, a former head of Ukraine’s central bank, who nationalized Kolomoisky’s bank in 2016. Gontareva later fled to London, citing death threats from the oligarch. Kolomoisky denies this.
Last summer, Gontareva’s son’s car was torched, her Kyiv apartment was searched by armed men in masks and a house she owns outside Kyiv was burned down by arsonists.
In the tape discussing intimidation of Gontareva, Truba mentioned a man with the initials BAY. Gontareva has publicly claimed that BAY refers to “Bohdan, Andriy Yosipovich.”
Bohdan has not publicly commented on Gontareva’s allegations. He also did not immediately comment on his dismissal.
Truba has said the tape was doctored, but Zelensky dismissed him in December. Last month, Truba appealed the firing, saying it was a political decision.
Vasim Karasev, a political analyst at the Kyiv-based Institute for Global Strategies, said Bohdan’s dismissal was a sign that Zelensky was turning away from Kolomoisky.
“It’s a sign that Zelensky is ready to distance himself from Kolomoisky and to appoint someone distant from him,” he said. “The American administration didn’t support Bohdan for the appointment due to his close ties with Kolomoisky.”
Yermak, however, had smoother channels with Washington.
“He became Giuliani’s friend and thus an understandable figure for Trump,” Karasev said.
Timothy Ash, an emerging markets expert on Ukraine, of BlueBay Asset Management, said the shift could presage a major personnel reshuffle.
“Bohdan previously worked as a lawyer for Kolomoisky so never really managed to shake the perception that he was in the Kolomoisky camp still,” he wrote in an emailed commentary.
Bohdan’s departure, he added, “would be well received by the market as it would give hope of a step forward in reforms, which at this stage seem to be running into sand.”
Dixon reported from Moscow.