Volodymyr Zelenskiy has rejected the resignation of his prime minister, who was under pressure after leaked audio seemed to show him criticize the president for his lack of knowledge. Is the premier the victim of a plot?
The new year in Ukraine has begun in crisis mode. On January 8, the country was in shock following the downing of a Ukraine International Airlines jet over Tehran. And now, the government is facing a crisis.
On Friday, Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk announced he had tendered his resignation, days after leaked audio appeared to show Honcharuk disparage President Volodymyr Zelenskiy as having a "very primitive" understanding of economics.
Just hours later, Zelenskiy rejected his premier's resignation over the "unpleasant" tape situation. "I've thought about it," Zelenskiy said in a video released by his office, "and it seems to me that it would be proper to give you and your government a chance."
At issue is a leaked audio recording of a meeting of a small group of government officials, at which Honcharuk and several ministers were present. In the six-minute recording, they talk about, among other things, the problems associated with the unexpectedly rapid recovery of the national currency, the hryvnia.
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In the conversation, Honcharuk appears to say Zelenskiy doesn't understand much about the economy — though he also apparently describes his own limited understanding as well.
The recording was published on an anonymous YouTube channel; the audio quality is poor, but it seems to be authentic. It has, however, been spliced together; on Friday, Honcharuk said the audio was made up of different fragments of what had been said at government meetings. In his short appearance before parliament on Friday, the prime minister emphasized his loyalty to Zelenskiy.
Prime minister suspects plot
The revelations weren't exactly an eye-opener, and most likely didn't come as a surprise to Zelenskiy's voters. Before his victory in the presidential election last April, the 41-year-old Zelenskiy was a successful actor, comedian and TV producer, with no political experience and no background in economics. Honcharuk, at 35 the youngest prime minister in Ukraine's history, previously studied law and worked in the commercial property sector.
The prime minister sees himself as the victim of a plot, set up by people whose lucrative businesses are being destroyed by his government reforms. He didn't name names, but media are speculating that a powerful oligarch may be behind the leak. Others, like former President Petro Poroshenko, suspect the Russian secret services.
Honcharuk has only been in office since the end of August. In less than half a year, he has launched far-reaching changes, replaced top personnel and, above all, pressed ahead with the digitization of the civil service sector. Kyiv's extension of a gas transit agreement with Moscow in late December counts as one of his government's biggest successes to date.
There has, however, also been criticism. In recent days, media reports about pay increases given to his ministers and to CEOs of state companies — some of them dramatic — have prompted outrage. Honcharuk has sought to justify the raises, saying the aim is to combat corruption.
Rejecting Honcharuk's resignation, Zelenskiy ordered an investigation to find out who was behind the recording. "I demand that within two weeks, as soon as possible, we obtain information on who conducted this recording. Find out who did this and deal with it," Zelenskiy said in comments released by his office. There are two possibilities: either one of the participants in the conversation made a secret recording, or else the room was bugged with a concealed listening device.
More leaks to come?
With Zelenskiy's support, Honcharuk now has a good chance of remaining in office for the time being. In Ukraine, it's not the president who decides on the prime minister's dismissal, but the parliament. And with Zelenskiy already having rejected the resignation, Honcharuk's resignation offer won't even make it to the lawmakers.
But anything remains possible: The people behind the scandalous recording have announced further revelations are on the way.