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April 4, 2019

Who is really advising Zelenskiy?

By Daniel Szeligowski

Showman Volodymyr Zelenskiy may soon become the next president of Ukraine. His chances of winning the second round, slated for April 21, are high. He has long prepared to go into politics, thus his victory in the first round was neither sudden nor unexpected. However, he lacks any political experience and seems to have little understanding of domestic or foreign policy, which makes many in Ukraine and the West increasingly wary of his potential presidency.

In this situation, understandably, much focus has been placed on his future political agenda. Western leaders have called on Zelenskiy to reveal his plans, yet it is fair to say that as of now they simply do not exist. Zelenskiy has been a blank page upon which almost anything might be written. His views on a wide range of political issues are only now being shaped. Therefore, more important than what he says, or does not say, is who has his ear.

There are four main groups around Zelenskiy who try to influence his thinking.

The first group is made up of technocrats and people with governance experience who have briefed Zelenskiy mainly on economic and anti-corruption policies. Among them are former members of the Ukraine’s Cabinet of Ministers, highly regarded on the international arena for their integrity and previous accomplishments in government. They truly hope that Zelenskiy, if elected, will listen and that he really wants to change Ukraine. So far, he has been open to advice but seems to learn relatively slowly.

The second group—opportunists and spin doctors—have enormous political ambitions. They have been less visible than the technocrats, but their standing in Zelenskiy’s inner circle is stronger. At least one person who occupies a prominent position on Zelenskiy’s election staff may be the next ”grey cardinal” in Ukrainian politics if the comedian wins.

The third group—the old guard of the country’s rotten system of governance—has a long record of corrupt political and business deals. They still hold vast influence over the situation in Ukraine and are in possession of vast resources. They have pressed on with efforts to secure a place for themselves in the event that Zelenskiy triumphs.

The fourth group and probably the most influential is Zelenskiy’s friends from Kvartal 95 and the comedy industry. They make up the lion’s share of the campaign staff. Their position, which may be further strengthened over time, stem from the fact that Zelenskiy is very distrustful of people. Kvartal 95 members have been a kind of sanitary cordon for Zelenskiy, largely walling him off from the old guard. Yet, some are ready to get their hands dirty and go into politics, too.

If Zelenskiy wins, we should expect to see friction between these groups, as each jockeys to gain the upper hand and impose their own agenda. While Zelenskiy’s personal friends and spin doctors seem to be in a privileged position, representatives of the old guard should not be underestimated.

Zelenskiy is widely considered to be close to powerful oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, and some evidence backs up this hypothesis. The oligarch’s media empire, especially the 1+1 TV channel, has promoted Zelenskiy constantly. Kolomoisky’s trusted people have been working close with the candidate, and some are even his personal friends. Nevertheless, the nature of the Zelenskiy-Kolomoisky relationship is opaque. If Zelenskiy incurred a debt, not necessarily in financial terms, which needs to be paid back to Kolomoisky after the election, this would weigh heavily on his decision-making as president.

Still, Kolomoisky seems to be one of many shareholders in the Zelenskiy project. According to Zelenskiy’s interim financial report, people close to some fugitive Ukrainian businessmen and even to former members of the Yanukovych administration have contributed to his election fund. This raises reasonable questions about the degree to which Zelenskiy would be an independent political figure and whether he could abandon his patrons in the future.

On March 31, as the exit polls came in, Zelenskiy told a large crowd, “Today a new life starts, without corruption.” Whether Zelenskiy is serious about fighting corruption and bringing new faces into politics, we will only see when he presents the Servant of the People party list for the parliamentary elections in October. For oligarchs, the situation in the Verkhovna Rada matters most. Therefore, one needs to scrutinize the list to see if Zelenskiy will deliver on his promise.

Daniel Szeligowski is head of the Eastern Europe Program and Senior Research Fellow on Ukraine at the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM). He tweets at @dszeligowski.

Image: Ukrainian comic actor and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy reacts following the announcement of the first exit poll in a presidential election, with his wife Olena seen nearby, at his campaign headquarters in Kyiv, Ukraine March 31, 2019. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko