Selective use of justice against Poroshenko shows Zelenskyy is working for oligarchs
Imprisoning Poroshenko and ignoring Kolomoyskyi’s corruption in the banking sector would severely damage Zelenskyy’s reputation at home and abroad.
When President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was elected as Ukraine’s president there were concerns about his close ties to oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi. Servant of the People began airing on Kolomoyskyi’s 1+1 television channel in October 2015, only seven months after a near violent clash between his paramilitaries and President Petro Poroshenko.
The timing was probably no coincidence.Kolomoyskyi wanted revenge for being forced to resign as governor of the strategically important Dnipropetrovsk region adjacent to the war-torn Donbas, which led to his exile for the second time in a decade (the first time being during Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency).
Poroshenko’s de-oligarchisation campaign targeted two influential groups, one of which was Kolomoyskyi and the gas lobby headed by Dmytro Firtash who is fighting extradition from Vienna to the US to stand trial on corruption charges. Kolomoyskyi lost his two cash cows, which were Ukraine’s biggest banking group, Privat, and the state oil refining company UkrNafta. After Ukraine ended the direct import of gas from Russia in 2015, the gas lobby lost its ability to make lucrative profits from opaque gas intermediaries, such as RosUkrEnergo.
Because of this, both Kolomoyskyi and Firtash-Lyovochkin-Boyko sought revenge against Poroshenko. Ukraine’s two biggest television channels, 1+1 and Inter, which ares owned by Kolomoyskyi and the gas lobby respectively, hurled insinuations, scorn, and outright disinformation against Poroshenko for the duration of his entire presidency and thereby helped Zelenskyy win the election.
Kolomoyskyi is currently lobbying Zelenskyy to bring criminal charges against Poroshenko. Firtash-Lyovochkin-Boyko (through financial support and former Party of Regions maverick deputy Andrei Derkach) assisted Rudy Giuliani in his collection of questionable “evidence” that assisted United States President Donald Trump in his fight against impeachment charges and winning re-election this year.
Since returning to Ukraine, Kolomoyskyi’s priorities have been revenge and regaining PrivatBank and UkrNafta as his personal cash cows. In this, Kolomoyskyi is similar to other oligarchs in believing he is above the law while denying his own involvement in corruption, which is not the case as Kolomoyskyi has long been Ukraine’s biggest corporate raider.
An investigation by Kroll Associates that was commissioned by the National Bank of Ukraine (NBU) found that Kolomoyskyi and his oligarch partners had siphoned nearly six billion dollars over the decade prior to PrivatBank’s nationalisation in 2016. To forestall its bankruptcy and a possible collapse of Ukraine’s financial system, another six billion dollars were injected by the Ukrainian government. Today, PrivatBank is a profitable financial institution. The IMF is adamant that Kolomoyskyi , and other oligarchs at other banka that were closed down under Poroshenko, should have been punished.
Since Kolomoyskyi’s return to Ukraine, he has initiated numerous court cases to reverse the decision to nationalise PrivatBank and applied incessant pressure on President Zelenskyy and Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk to return PrivatBank to his ownership. This has been coupled with a reign of terror against former NBU Governor Valeriya Hontareva, which included a hit and run in London, where she is based, and the burning down of her home in Kyiv. Zelenskyy has ignored demands for an official investigation into these attacks.
The Ukrainian government initially considered the idea of returning PrivatBank to Kolomoyskyi. Meanwhile, the IMF and western governments warned that this was a red line that could not be crossed. Further cooperation with the IMF would have been curtailed if PrivatBank had been returned to Kolomoyskyi. It is though incredulous that the Zelenskyy had initially considered this possibility.
During a lunch at the September 2019 Yalta European Strategy in Kyiv, then United States Ambassador William Taylor walked out in protest after Kolomoyskyi arrived and joined oligarch Viktor Pinchuk.’s lunch table The entire YES conference was a show of support by Pinchuk to Zelenskyy as what had been termed the “Dnipropetrovsk mafia” in Soviet times had again returned to power.
There are on-going criminal investigations by the FBI into Kolomoyskyi and his associates who have undertaken, according to economist Anders Aslund, “the biggest case of money laundering in history … perpetrated by one single group.” The schemes bought real estate and industrial plants in the United States.
With the IMF, European Union and western governments calling on Zelenskyy to not return PrivatBank and to hold oligarchs involved in banking fraud accountable for their corruption, Kolomoyskyi has switched to a pro-Russian rhetoric. A Ukraine that has turned his back on Europe would not have to abide by IMF and European Union demands that come with financial assistance. This again showed how oligarchs are not pro-western or pro-Russian but pro-themselves.
Kolomoyskyi’s desire for revenge corresponds to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s long-time hatred for Poroshenko because of his dogged pursuit of a pro-European foreign policy and rejection of Russian demands for “peace” in the Donbas war. Because of this, Kolomoyskyi’s desire for revenge works well together with the revenge sought by Putin and his proxies in Ukraine in the “gas lobby” (Firtash, Serhiy Lyovochkin and Yuriy Boyko) who lead Ukraine’s pro-Russian Opposition Platform party.
Zelenskyy also has not forgotten the many insults he was subjected to by Poroshenko’s team during this year’s election campaign. Zelenskyy suffers from the Dunning-Kruger effect of disrespect for the older generation (in this case Poroshenko) coupled with a fervent belief that he is far more intelligent and politically savvy.
Ukraine is again on a slippery slope. If Zelenskyy continues to do Kolomoyskyi’s bidding, he will increasingly resemble Yanukovych whose applied selective use of justice against political opposition leaders Yulia Tymoshenko and Yuriy Lutsenko which undermined Ukraine’s European integration.
Zelenskyy’s team is being assisted in its pursuit of criminal charges against Poroshenko by Andriy Portnov, who was Yanukovych’s senior legal adviser and deputy chief of staff. Portnov returned to Ukraine at the same time as Kolomoyskyi and is also seeking revenge against Poroshenko.
Whistleblower Judge Larysa Holnyk has revealed that Portnov and Zelenskyy’s former chief of staff, Andriy Bohdan, pressured Roman Truba, the head of the newly created State Bureau of Investigations, to launch a number of criminal charges against Poroshenko. The whistleblower warned of “the huge risk politicising this issue carries for law enforcement bodies.” Bohdan had served in Yanukovych’s government headed by Prime Minister Nikolai Azarov when he never protested against selective use of justice against Tymoshenko and Lutsenko.
Serious concern over Zelenskyy’s intention to imprison former President Poroshenko is already being expressed by western leaders. Former President of the European Council Donald Tusk said in Zagreb after being elected head of the European People’s Party: “My first impression is that this is something really dangerous.” He added that he hopes “there is no room for politically motivated persecution.”
Remembering past examples of selective use of justice in Ukraine, Tusk warned that “any attempt to intimidate opposition leaders will be a matter of concern in Europe … whenever the authorities or people in power use justice against political opponents. In any form, whether in the medium or long term, it will become a tragedy not only for victims of persecution, but for the whole country.”
Imprisoning Poroshenko and ignoring Kolomoyskyi’s corruption in the banking sector would severely damage Zelenskyy’s reputation at home and abroad. Serious struggles against corruption must begin within his own team rather than going after his political opponents.
The threat of returning PrivatBank to Kolomoyskyi and the selective use of justice against Poroshenko, if actioned, would severely weaken Zelenskyy’s presidency and undermine Ukraine’s European integration. If Zelenskyy continues to play Kolomoyskyi’s fiddle he will face another Maidan, a move that will only benefit Russia and President Putin.
Taras Kuzio is a professor in the Department of Political Science at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy, and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute, School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.