Volodymyr Zelensky used to play a school teacher on a hit Ukrainian TV show called "Servant of the People." The premise was simple: a video goes viral of the teacher sounding off about corruption and, before you know it, he’s elected president. The program did so well that Zelensky formed a political party called "Servant of the People," ran for president against incumbent Petro Poroshenka, and won election by a margin of three to one – not on TV, but for real. Evidently, life imitates art so perfectly in the Ukraine that it’s sometimes hard to tell where one begins and the other leaves off.
At least that’s the way it used to be. Now reality is leaving comedy behind as it veers off in a distinctly nightmarish direction. Zelensky’s troubles have been mounting since the fall when he found himself caught in the middle of a Washington psychodrama over whether Donald Trump tried to pressure him into investigating Joe Biden after a Ukrainian oligarch hired Biden’s son, Hunter, for a high-paid, no-show job.
Zelensky got himself into more hot water a few weeks later by coming out in favor of special elections in the Ukrainian east where a pro-Russian revolt is now in its seventh year. Backed by German neo-Nazis, some 12,000 ultra-rightists poured into the streets of Kiev, shouting anti-Semitic epithets at a Jewish president they accused of betraying the country to Moscow.
On Jan. 8, an Iranian anti-aircraft missile downed Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, killing all 176 passengers and crew members aboard. And then, just last week, Zelensky launched a cabinet reshuffle strongly indicating that rather than a servant of the people, the Ukrainian presidency is reverting to its tradition role as water boy for the oligarchs.
Ukraine watchers are still trying to figure out what it all means. But so far it looks like Zelensky, contrary to his Boy Scout image, is reaching out to two of the Ukraine’s most powerful oligarchs, Rinat Akhmetov and Dmytro Firtash, in order to balance off a third – a foul-mouthed and violent gangster named Ihor Kolomoisky.
It also looks like the Ukraine is headed for another round of instability. Considering that this is the country whose job is to "fight Russia over there and we don’t have to Russia here," as the inimitable Adam Schiff put it during the Senate impeachment trial, Washington foreign-policy strategists might be interested to know that a key US ally is falling apart amid renewed factional warfare.
Here’s the story so far. After neo-Nazi-led protests in February 2014 toppled an allegedly pro-Russian Ukrainian president named Viktor Yanukovych, the baton passed to a billionaire chocolatier named Petro Poroshenko, who turned out to be no less corrupt. Convinced that only a non-politician could clean up a political system rife with dishonesty, the country turned to Zelensky to clean out the Augean stables.
But there was a problem. Rather than squeaky clean, Zelensky was actually a business partner with the aforementioned Kolomoisky, owner of the 1+1 television channel that hosts his show. In the two years prior to the election, he had reportedly traveled fourteen times to Geneva and Tel Aviv, where Kolomoisky was in exile. And while no one knows if Kolomoisky financed his campaign, there’s no doubt that, after falling out with Poroshenko, he saw Zelensky’s overwhelming victory as his ticket back into power.
Less than a month after Zelensky’s election, therefore, he flew from Israel to his hometown of Dnipro, about three hundred miles southwest of Kiev. A co-owner of Zelensky’s production company was reportedly on board, while Kolomoisky’s lawyer, Andriy Bohdan, who had helped run Zelensky’s campaign, would the next day sign on as Zelensky’s chief of staff.
So Zelensky was clearly Kolomoisky’s man. But then things turned rocky as Kolomoisky sought to wrest back control of PrivatBank, a financial institution that the government had seized after he and a partner allegedly looted it to the tune of $5.5 billion. Anything but subtle, he hired picketers to bang sticks and drums outside the Ukrainian central bank, the institution responsible for the takeover and allegedly organized a harassment campaign against Valeria Gontareva, the central bank’s ex-chief. First, someone torched her son’s car. Then someone torched her Kiev home. Finally, someone ran her down as she was crossing an intersection in London, putting her in a wheelchair.
All of which couldn’t have been more embarrassing for Zelensky since the IMF was threatening to withhold credit if he didn’t clean things up. When someone leaked an embarrassing tape of his prime minister, Oleksiy Honcharuk, complaining that his boss has a "primitive" understanding of economics, Zelensky could have fired him on the spot. But he fired Bohdan instead and sent the security police to raid Kolomoisky’s 1+1 offices where the tape may have originated.
Then came the cabinet shuffle. This time, Honcharuk found himself out on his ear, replaced by Denys Shmygal, a former business executive at an energy holding company owned by Akhmetov, the Ukraine’s richest businessman. The economics portfolio was offered to Roman Zhukovskyy, whose mother is reportedly Dmytro Firtash’s financial manager, although Zhukovskyy for unknown reasons turned it down.
It was Zelensky’s way of signaling to two top oligarchs that he wants them on his side. This didn’t mean that Kolomoisky was out, however. To the contrary, Zelensky was also careful to appoint a Kolomoisky loyalist as minister for regional development and to keep on board another Kolomoisky pal, minister of the interior Arsen Avakov. Avakov is tarred by corruption and is also a long-time patron of Andriy Biletsky, head of the Ukraine’s ultra-right Azov Battalion, which Foreign Policy magazine recently described as "a place where far-right extremists and self-confessed neo-Nazis could make themselves at home." Vitaly Shabunin, a Ukrainian anti-corruption official, speculates that "Avakov’s law enforcers may come in handy" if Zelensky does something controversial and finds himself in trouble.
Instead of a purge, the result is a tenuous balance of power that can only lead to renewed warfare. The economy is flatlining, the IMF is getting nervous, Zelensky’s popularity is plummeting – and, to make it all worse, three top oligarchs are poised for a showdown. Back in 2013, neocon doyenne Victoria Nuland bragged that the United States had pumped $5 billion into the Ukraine over the years in order to further its "European aspirations." So why is it now in worse shape than ever?
Daniel Lazare is the author of The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace, 1996) and other books about American politics. He writes a weekly column for Antiwar.com. He has written for a wide variety of publications from The Nation to Le Monde Diplomatique and blogs about the Constitution and related matters at Daniellazare.com.