Zelenskyy’s cabinet changes are disturbing

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy

Marco Levytsky, Editorial Writer.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s recent cabinet shuffle has been met with considerable criticism in the media. Many pundits view this as a reversal of his commitment to reform and a sop to oligarchic interests.

Chief among the concerns was the replacement on March 4 of Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk with his deputy, Denys Shmyhal, who worked as a top manager in oligarch Rinat Akhmetov’s electricity and energy company DTEK. Akhmetov was the chief financier and unofficial leader of the Party of Regions during the Yanukovych years and instrumental in arranging contacts between Yanukovych and U.S. President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who was convicted of tax and bank fraud in 2018. During his tenure, Honcharuk replaced a number of managers in regional and central electricity agencies, which was deemed unfavorable to Akhmetov.

On March 10, Zelenskyy appointed Vitaliy Shubin as acting energy and environmental protection minister. Before joining the cabinet, Shubin worked as an executive for two companies of Akhmetov’s DTEK, between 2011 and 2014.

In a March 6 article for Euromaidan Press, Bohdan Ben, a researcher in the field of social and ethical philosophy and in the field of local governance, noted several other new ministers who carried a lot of historical baggage. Among them:

Minister of Social Policy Maryna Lazebna, who worked as head of a department in Mykola Azarov’s government and head of the state service for employment in 2013-2014, during the Yanukovych era. She left her governmental office after the Maidan but has now returned.

Minister for the Development of Municipalities and Territories Oleksiy Chernyshov, who reportedly has links to oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi. He has also cooperated since 2003 with pro-Russian businessman Oleksandr Feldman, now people’s deputy from the Oppositional platform.

Minister of Sport Vadym Hutsait, who reportedly has business in Russia that he failed to declare as a public official, and has also been accused of plagiarism. Hutsait also worked for years as an assistant to a people’s deputy from the Yanukovych Party of Regions. He was mentioned in anti-corruption journalist investigations.

Almost all prominent Ukrainian economists and political commentators share skepticism about the new government with its old faces, links to some oligarchs, or the pre-Maidan officials, writes Ben.

“Serhiy Fursa stresses that Honcharuk’s government was dismissed because it crossed oligarchic interests in some points, in particular Kolomoiskyi’s Privatbank and Akhmetov’s electricity industry.

“A media campaign against the so-called Sorosiata, which reads as the derogative “George Soros’s piglets,” was an introduction to the dissolution of the former government. Led mainly by the pro-Kremlin media linked to the Oppositional Platform, the campaign aimed to accuse Honcharuk’s government of serving western capital instead of the people. Although there were some disputable policies carried out by the government, few would disagree that the general continuation of reforms aimed at establishing fair rules in Ukraine would be harmful to oligarchs,” Ben continues.

Another Euromaidan contributor, Vitaly Portnikov is even more critical.

“The Zelenskyy-Kolomoyskyi-Medvedchuk coalition confidently rules Ukraine with the tacit support of Akhmetov. It is a coalition of treason, Putin’s coalition,” he states. Viktor Medvedchuk, to whom he refers, is chairman of the pro-Russia political organization Ukrainian Choice and an opponent of Ukraine joining the European Union. Russian president Vladimir Putin is the godfather of Medvedchuk’s daughter Darina.

“Zelenskyy’s task is simply to clear the way for Medvedchuk. It is needed because Ukraine will not defeat Russia, but the oligarchs need to earn money. And how can they earn it if there is no stability and the damned West hangs over your head? But this way neither the West, nor the Russian threat, nor the crazy patriots with their irritating speeches and desire to resist are a problem any longer. This way there is no need to resist. You just need to relax and make money in the large slave market that they will have finally turned Ukraine into,” he states.

That may be a bit of an overkill, but there is nevertheless cause for concern. One particular action that is disturbing is the March 5 dismissal by the Verkhovna Rada of Ruslan Ryaboshapka – who has enjoyed widespread support from Ukrainian civil society and anti-corruption organisations – as prosecutor general. What is most disconcerting is the reason cited for Ryaboshapka’s sacking by David Arakhamia, who leads Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People faction in the Ukrainian parliament, namely, his reluctance to authorise a notice of suspicion in a case against former President Petro Poroshenko. This anti-Poroshenko campaign is politically motivated and draws the obvious comparison with ousted dictator Viktor Yanukovych’s persecution of Yulia Tymoshenko.

Zelenskyy has attempted to defend his cabinet shuffle by stating that the previous cabinet was not effective enough.

“When you’re making such deep changes in the country, you can’t fail. It’s not about your personal ratings, it’s not that you can be kicked from power, it’s that Ukraine may not ever have a chance again to do this,” he said.

Maybe so, but the people he chose to replace them leave much to be desired. And they leave the future of Ukraine in question.

Zelenskyy must remember he was elected to reform the country – not to kow-tow to old-guard oligarchs and pro-Russian interests.