Embarrassing secret recordings of officials have a way of surfacing in Ukraine. It’s part of the ruthless competition between rival law enforcement agencies, political officials and billionaire oligarchs — all vying for dominance.
But the raid set off other tremors as analysts struggled to figure out what it meant.
One interpretation was that Zelensky, a former TV comedian, was cracking down on Ihor Kolomoisky, an influential mogul who controls 1+1 and has close ties to the president. Or was it just another dust-up in Ukraine’s power struggles between elected officials and powerful oligarchs?
What is at stake?
This much is clear: Zelensky’s pledge to end corruption has been thrust to center stage. There’s no way to do that without breaking the grip powerful oligarchs have on Ukraine.
The country’s endemic corruption was the running narrative through President Trump’s impeachment trial in the Senate. Zelensky’s clean-government promise will define his political future.
If he fails to rein in the oligarchs and rampant judicial corruption, his reforms will sputter, and Ukraine will lose its best chance in decades to escape Russia’s influence and emerge as a pro-Europe, Western-leaning democracy, analysts say.
The nation’s economy is dominated by a small group of squabbling billionaires — who also control almost all major media. They have the power to damage, even ruin, a political leader who attempts to unravel their influence. Business titans routinely bribe judges to protect their interests.
But already, anti-corruption activists and Western financial analysts fear that Zelensky is shaping up to be like his predecessors, with promised reforms stalling.
Timothy Ash, a Ukraine specialist from BlueBay Asset Management, says it appears Zelensky will not move to rein in favored oligarchs. Judicial reform efforts were being frustrated, and disreputable judges remained, he added.
In his days as a TV comedian, Zelensky sold his comedy series “Servant of the People” — in which he played Ukraine’s president — to Kolomoisky’s 1+1. Kolomoisky has interests in metals, the media, energy and airlines, and he is one of Ukraine’s most powerful men.
Zelensky named his political party, Servant of the People, after his show, and it won a majority in Ukraine’s parliament. That bloc is strongly influenced by Kolomoisky and tends to vote for parliamentary bills that benefit him.
The last president to take on Kolomoisky — Petro Poroshenko, who sacked the oligarch as governor of Dnipropetrovsk in 2016 — lost the election to Zelensky, who had strong support from Kolomoisky’s 1+1.
Associates of Trump’s lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, reached out to Kolomoisky when Giuliani sought a meeting with Zelensky after the comedian was elected in April. Those associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, approached Kolomoisky for help in Israel, but he spurned them. Months later, however, Kolomoisky was in contact with them via text, according to a cache of messages released last month.
Zelensky immediately hired Kolomoisky’s lawyer, Andriy Bohdan, as his presidential chief of staff, a move that alarmed anti-corruption activists. Reports have surfaced of an FBI investigation into Kolomoisky over alleged financial crimes, including money laundering. But the magnate said in May that any probe would flop because he had committed no crimes. The FBI declined to comment.
Bearded, gray-haired and at times foul-mouthed, Kolomoisky is a brilliant chess player, according to those who know him.
When he meets someone, Kolomoisky immediately sums up their perceived weaknesses and vulnerabilities, according to associates. He initially agreed to be interviewed for this article but later did not respond to messages.
“What we are learning across the board really is that Zelensky is very much shaped by popular opinion and is not that willing to put his head above the parapet and rock the boat for reform,” said Ash, a London-based emerging markets analyst specializing in Ukraine.
“It’s a shame, really,” he added, “as much of this popular opinion is shaped by Ukrainian media captured by oligarchic interests, which are intent on keeping the status quo, where the state remains captured by certain oligarchs.
“Zelensky had the best conditions of any Ukrainian leader since independence to really transform the country in a positive way. Let’s hope he does not blow that chance.”
A fearsome reputation
Orysia Lutsevych, a Ukraine analyst at the London-based think tank Chatham House, said that although Zelensky was close to Kolomoisky, it was too early to say whether the president would be able to rein in the country’s powerful oligarchs writ large.
“Kolomoisky’s perception now is that it’s his time, regardless of what Zelensky thinks,” she said.
Kolomoisky also has a reputation as a formidable and frightening enemy.
Former central banker Valeria Gontareva made an enemy of him in 2016, when the bank nationalized Privatbank — Kolomoisky’s bank and Ukraine’s biggest — after $5.5 billion in deposits disappeared, risking a national economic crisis. Kolomoisky has denied wrongdoing.
Masked men with Kalashnikovs delivered a coffin with her blood-soaked effigy to the entrance of the central bank in 2017. Her house was vandalized. Fearing for her life, she quit her job four years before her contract expired and fled to London.
Gontareva accuses him of death threats and harassment, which he has denied.
On Sept. 5, Gontareva’s son’s car was burned in Ukraine. On Sept. 10, men with masks and machine guns searched her Kyiv apartment. Two days later, her home outside Kyiv was burned to the ground. (In August, she was struck by a car in London, but she remains uncertain as to whether that incident was linked.)
In September, a secret tape surfaced in which officials planned an intimidation campaign against her. Then, the director of the State Bureau of Investigations, Roman Truba, discussed the use of “psycho-tactics” against her with a colleague, mentioning a man nicknamed BAY. Truba later said the tape had been doctored.
Gontareva said she believes BAY refers to the presidential chief of staff and Kolomoisky’s former lawyer, “Bohdan, Andriy Yosipovich.” Bohdan did not respond to a request for comment.
“For me, it was absolutely clear that it was orchestrated by Kolomoisky,” Gontareva said.
Kolomoisky has taken legal action to get back his bank or be compensated. In April, the Kyiv District Administrative Court ruled the nationalization of Privatbank to be illegal. The central bank has twice appealed.
The International Monetary Fund sees the case as a litmus test on Zelensky’s presidency.
If Kolomoisky did regain the bank, Ash said, “the message would be that nothing has changed, and oligarchs still run the show, [and] the rule of law means nothing in Ukraine. I think there would be no foreign direct investment into Ukraine, which means subpar growth would continue, as it has for the past 30 years.”
A bill under consideration would prevent any nationalized bank from being re-privatized, and it reportedly contains a provision for compensation.
Judges at the influential administrative court, which ruled in Kolomoisky’s favor on Privatbank, have been accused by anti-corruption authorities of graft and illegal rulings. Anti-corruption campaigner Alexandra Ustinova called it “Ukraine’s most odious court” and said oligarchs such as Kolomoisky use it to “solve problems.”
Secret tapes emerged last year in which the court’s judges discussed in advance how cases must be decided.
Gontareva hopes that at 42, Zelensky decides he does not want to be the puppet of an oligarch.
“Let’s hope that he’s quite smart, even though he was a comedian,” she said. “Right now, he’s president, and let’s hope his mind would move to the right direction.”