By Vijai Maheshwari* – POLITICO
Will a media, metal and aviation tycoon be the big winner of the Ukrainian election?
KIEV — With the second round of Ukraine’s critical presidential election less than a week away, it’s looking increasingly likely that the 41-year-old comedic actor Volodomyr Zelenskiy will trounce incumbent Petro Poroshenko on April 21.
Zelenskiy — a young comedian who rose to fame playing a humble schoolteacher who becomes president of Ukraine in the hit television show, “Servant of the People” — appeals to Ukrainians frustrated with the country’s oligarchic elite, and the failure to drain the swamp after the country’s 2014 revolution.
Ukrainians hope that Zelenskiy will fight for the common man instead. It’s a powerful narrative that has catapulted this political unknown within spitting distance of the presidency.
There’s just one major problem with it: the oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, whose television station 1+1 hosts Zelenskiy’s hit show.
Kolomoisky’s media outlet also provides security and logistical backup for the comedian’s campaign, and it has recently emerged that Zelenskiy’s legal counsel, Andrii Bohdan, was the oligarch’s personal lawyer. Investigative journalists have also reported that Zelenskiy traveled 14 times in the past two years to Geneva and Tel Aviv, where Kolomoisky is based in exile. Neither man could be reached for comment.
“While Donbas burns, our city is as quiet as a graveyard. And that’s thanks to our Governor Kolomoisky” — Dnipro restaurateur
Though the comedian has repeatedly denied being under the oligarch’s influence, Poroshenko’s team has been quick to smear him as a “Kolomoisky puppet.” These attacks haven’t dented the comedian’s popularity, however; his supporters are choosing instead to trust in his righteous schoolteacher persona.
Even those who believe the president’s slurs choose to ignore them as Kolomoisky is, paradoxically, well regarded by many in the country.
The 52-year-old oligarch, who has big stakes in media, metals and aviation companies in Ukraine — and whom the government has accused of embezzling over $5 billion from his Privatbank, the nation’s largest, before it was forcibly nationalized in 2016 — is an unlikely war hero. Kolomoisky denies the accusations of embezzlement and calls the nationalization “an illegal seizure of property without court order or compensation.”
Appointed governor of his home state of Dnipropetrovsk in east Ukraine in March 2014, he was instrumental in turning back the tide of Russian aggression by spending more than $10 million to create the “Dnipro battalion” that successfully defended the region from a separatist insurgency.
Ukrainians lauded Kolomoisky for standing his ground at a time when the country’s army was in tatters and its central government was weak, and for securing Ukraine’s eastern regions from further destabilization.
He scored further popularity points by entering into a public spat with Russian President Vladimir Putin, dismissing him a “schizophrenic dwarf.” Putin shot back, calling him a “unique crook” that had supposedly scammed Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich for billions of dollars.
When I visited the region’s capital Dnipro in the summer of 2014, the funny, heavyset oligarch with unkempt gray hair and nerdy glasses — who looks more like a college professor than a ruthless post-Soviet businessman — was the toast of the town.
His unquestioned support for a Ukraine independent of Russian influence had unleashed a wave of patriotism, with residents painting their balconies, sidewalks, storefronts — and even cars — in the sky blue and cornflower yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag.
“While Donbas burns, our city is as quiet as a graveyard,” boasted a local restaurateur. “And that’s thanks to our Governor Kolomoisky.”
At the time, the oligarch, who also owned the nation’s largest bank, could do no wrong. There was talk of him becoming prime minister, or even president. The Wall Street Journal ran a fawning story with the headline “Ukraine’s Secret Weapon: Feisty Oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky.”
“Having a Jewish president, who is also backed by a picaresque Jewish oligarch might cause any failings to be directed at the Jewish community” — Vladislav Davidzon, Jewish journalist
However, just as his position in post-revolutionary Ukraine seemed unassailable, Kolomoisky seemed to revert back to the ways of his corporate raider past in the chaotic, violent 1990s. The tycoon — who kept a live, five-meter-long shark in his office that he reportedly fed during meetings to unnerve his guests — has faced allegations of contract killings, intimidation and bribery linked to his business deals, claims he has repeatedly denied.
When Kolomoisky’s ally and chairman of Ukraine’s state-owned oil transport company, UkrTransNafta, was dismissed by Poroshenko in early 2015, the oligarch sent armed men in face masks to storm the firm’s headquarters at night.
He clashed angrily with journalists and parliamentarians that rushed to the scene, screaming that he “came to free the building from Russian saboteurs” in a rant that went viral on YouTube. After Special Forces rebuffed his violent and illegal raid, Kolomoisky was a marked man.
He was seen as directly challenging the authority of the state, and evoked fears of a weak Ukraine under Russian aggression breaking apart into fiefdoms controlled by rival oligarchs.
“The president must put Kolomoisky in his place,” thundered parliamentarian Serhiy Leshchenko.
The oligarch was fired from his gubernatorial post in March 2015, and his holding in Privatbank was forcibly nationalized over a year later. The government also succeeded in getting a court in London to freeze more than $2.5 billion of his overseas assets. Fearing for his safety after his right-hand man Hennadiy Korban was arrested on charges of murder and kidnapping, the oligarch fled for Switzerland then Israel in 2016.
Kolomoisky has been abroad ever since, waging war against his arch-nemesis, President Poroshenko. Playing the righteous Trotsky to Poroshenko’s evil Stalin, he has accused the president of being “totally immoral” and a “slave to absolute power.”
His television channel even broadcast allegations that the president had killed his own brother, who died in a car accident in Moldova in 1997. Poroshenko denies the allegation. Kolomoisky also set up his own nationalist political party UKROP — its name based on a derogatory Russian name for Ukrainians — which won two seats in parliament in 2016, but went nowhere after that.
With Zelenskiy’s meteoric rise, however, Kolomoisky has the upper hand again. Assuming the comedian wins the presidency as expected, Kolomoisky would most likely be free to return to Ukraine without the fear of arrest or “an ice axe” hanging over his head. He’s already fired the first salvo in his triumphant return to Ukraine by demanding $2 billion in compensation for the forced privatization of Privatbank. “I don’t need Privatbank, but I had $2 billion worth of capital. Return the money and that’s it,” he said in a recent interview.
Though Zelenskiy has repeatedly spoken out against giving the oligarch “preferential treatment” under his administration, their entangled business relationship has many questioning his public resolve. Kolomoisky is a cutthroat businessman schooled in the turf wars of the turbulent and lawless 1990s, while the comedian is a political novice with little experience playing fast and dirty. Will he be able to resist Kolomoisky’s demands?
Kolomoisky’s being Jewish also presents a unique problem for Zelenskiy in a country that has historically been anti-Semitic. Given that Zelenskiy is of the same faith, an alliance with the oligarch could provoke a backlash against the country’s thriving Jewish community.
“There are legitimate reasons to worry about the future of Ukrainian Jewry,” said Vladislav Davidzon, the editor-in-chief of the magazine Odessa Review. “Having a Jewish president, who is also backed by a picaresque Jewish oligarch might cause any failings to be directed at the Jewish community.”
There’s a memorable scene in “Servant of the People” where the embattled president, on the verge of being impeached, angrily rebuffs an overture from the oligarchs, and storms out of their meeting. Will the comedian as president act as tough on the oligarch as his television incarnation? That’s the question many in Ukraine are asking as Zelenskiy’s victory becomes ever more likely.
*Vijai Maheshwari is a writer and entrepreneur based in Moscow. He tweets at @Vijaimaheshwari.