The main political event in February is the resignation of Andrii Bohdan and appointment of Andrii Yermak as the head of the President’s Office. This personnel decision is the result of the apparatus struggle of different groups of influence in the President’s Office for “access to the body of Zelenskyi”.
After the victory of Yermak, this apparatus struggle is expected to go beyond the President’s Office and affect the government, anti-corruption authorities, local authorities and oligarchs. The problem is that earlier Andrii Bohdan has acted as an instrument of checks and balances for all groups of influence from the side of broad anti-Bohdan coalition (Yermak, Bakanov, Shefir brothers, Razumkov and other groups). Now we do not see a person who could balance the influence of the native of “95th quarter” Andrii Yermak on Zelenskyi. A number of Ukrainian media have rightly written that Yermak will now play the role of Vice President. He may eventually gain a powerful influence, like Viktor Medvedchuk did as the head of the Presidential Administration under the President Leonid Kuchma.
What can change in public policy after the appointment of Andrii Yermak:
- Deepening of negotiations with Russia on Donbas.
President Zelenskyi is convinced that the appointment of Yermak will bring new dynamics in the negotiations with Russia on Donbas. We have great doubts that the negotiation process with the Kremlin will succeed, as the negotiating positions of Kyiv and Moscow are very different, particularly, in terms of access to the uncontrolled border and amendments to the Constitution as regards the special status for the SADLR. Second, Yermak has run out of the potential of short-term tactical solutions that bring temporary success (return of captured Ukrainian ships, exchange of prisoners, reduction of escalation in Donbas, holding the Normandy meeting, etc.). It was very easy for Yermak to demonstrate effectiveness without being tied to the post, without being politically responsible or loaded with bureaucratic work.
We believe that changing the leadership of the President’s Office from Bohdan to Yermak, without a clear strategy on Donbas, will not lead to a solution to the conflict. Zelenskyi will have to make complex political decisions on amending the Constitution in terms of granting special status to the SADLR. At the same time, Yermak is considered an ideologist for accelerating the normalization of economic relations with Russia (in terms of resuming trade with Russia, direct supplies of Russian oil and gas to Ukraine, water supplies to occupied Crimea, lifting the economic blockade from Donbass, etc.). There are many pro-Russian voices around Zelenskyi, who believe that trade with Russia will save the Ukrainian economy from collapse and offset losses from the Association Agreement with the EU. It is quite possible that, Andrii Yermak will begin to resolve these economic issues after the government’s renewal, with the mediation of Russian colleague Dmitry Kozak.
- Government reboot.
Andrii Yermak is the main initiator of the government reboot and Honcharuk’s resignation. In his interviews, Yermak openly says that he does not understand how Honcharuk could become Prime Minister and that he did not recommend him. Yermak has been interviewing candidates for positions of ministers and heads of central executive authorities for about a month. According to available information, Yermak plans to appoint Halyna Tretiakova to the post of Minister of Social Policy; appoint developer Ihor Nikonov as Minister of Economy and Development; restore the Ministry of Occupied Territories and Reintegration for his business partner Oleksii Reznikov.
Vice Prime Minister Denys Schmigal (client of oligarch Akhmetov) who has recently been appointed as the Minister of Decentralization and Community Development, is closely linked to Yermak. By the way, Mr. Shmigal is considered one of the favourites for the post of Prime Minister after the possible resignation of Honcharuk.
Yermak also plans to restart the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and dismiss Vadym Prystaiko, as well as Defence Minister Andrii Zahorodniuk (according to the media, Yermak has certain interests in the arms market). Yermak has business interests in the field of the film industry. Therefore, Marina Kuderchuk became the Head of the Ukrainian State Film Agency upon his patronage, after the results of the scandalous competition.
Sensitive issues for Yermak include Artem Sytnyk’s dismissal and continuation of communication channel with Trump’s representative Rudy Giuliani. Trump’s entourage wants the dismissal of the NABU Director Artem Sytnyk who has played a major role in the investigation of the Party of Regions’ Black Book, which involved Trump’s advisor Paul Manafort. Trump calls it “a plot of Democrats and the US Ambassador to Ukraine M.Yovanovitch against Trump in the interests of Hillary Clinton”.
- Reboot of the President’s Office and regional administrations.
Yermak said at his briefing that he would not change the team of deputies. However, people in the President’s Office say that Yermak plans to dismiss at least three deputies of Bohdan and is already looking for people. At the first meeting, Yermak announced a program of staffing reserve for the President’s Office to attract new and ambitious young managers to the President’s Office. When Yermak worked as an assistant to the President on foreign policy, he recommended Zelenskyi the Heads of Luhansk, Donetsk, Mykolaiv and Zaporizhzhia regional administrations. Now the main goal of Yermak is to take the Odesa region and appoint the Head of the Kyiv State Administration. As for Kyiv, there are two candidates – developer Ihor Nikonov (partner of the Mayor Vitalii Klychko) and presenter Andrii Palchevskyi. In addition, the people of Yermak are already closely integrated into Kyiv authorities – Maksym Boiko and Oleksii Kuleba will be responsible for permits for the construction and landscaping in Kyiv (the most corrupt areas of work in the KCSA).
The new head of the President’s Office has announced at a briefing that he wanted to revise and strengthen the regional policy of the President’s Office, especially in the context of preparing the “Servant of the People” for the upcoming local elections. Yermak’s desire to influence regional politics and party building may lead to conflicts with Oleksandr Korniienko, the formal leader of the “Servant of the People” project.
- Increase of informal politics and the role of oligarchs in authority structures.
Yermak is called an advocate of informal politics conducted without unnecessary noise, as well as public policy and consultation with all stakeholders, as is customary in democratic countries. Yermak himself has openly stated in public interviews that he had working contacts with key Ukrainian oligarchs – Kolomoiskyi, Akhmetov, Pinchuk, Firtash and other big businessmen.
There is one fairly strategic component in the appointment of Yermak. According to the information that widely circulates in political circles, Yermak could be Zelenskyi’s political successor in the next presidential election (Yermak is a diplomat who has no family and can devote himself fully to politics). Zelenskyi constantly says that he has come for one term. Thus, there are discussions in his team about finding a successor. Names of Razumkov and Yermak are among the possible candidates. Therefore, in terms of internal political competition, one should expect an intensification of the fight between Razumkov and Yermak for the status of Zelenskyi’s political successor. Most likely, Yermak will win this fight as a representative of the “95th Quarter” clan.
In addition, before the appointment, Yermak launched an active collaboration with opinion leaders, experts and the media. Many top political scientists and experts receive salaries from Yermak and promote his political agenda in the media and through other channels of information.