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Lawyer For Ukrainian Oligarch Claims He Planted Seed Of Zelenskiy Presidency

"I had no doubt that [Zelenskiy] would win the presidential race," says lawyer Andriy Bohdan.
"I had no doubt that [Zelenskiy] would win the presidential race," says lawyer Andriy Bohdan.

KYIV -- Ukrainian President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy has worked hard to publicly distance himself from one of the country's wealthiest and most controversial oligarchs, Ihor Kolomoyskiy, and show a public eager for change that he is the antiestablishment insurgent chosen by 73 percent of voters in last weekend's election.

But comments made to Ukrainian media by a lawyer working for both Kolomoyskiy and Zelenskiy who appeared by the candidate's side throughout his campaign could undermine that effort.

Andriy Bohdan, a typically secretive lawyer and former deputy minister, has claimed that he was among the first people to plant the seed in the comic Zelenskiy's mind to run for the presidency.

"I am one of those who persuaded him [to enter politics]…It was more than five years ago," Bohdan said in a joint interview with reporters from independent Ukrainian news outlets Novoye Vremya and Ukrayinska Pravda published on April 26.

The comments, coming from someone with presumably intimate knowledge of Kolomoyskiy's thinking and operations, are likely to fuel criticism suggesting Zelenskiy, a political neophyte, is the oligarch's project.

The 41-year-old Zelenskiy is linked to Kolomoyskiy through the oligarch's ownership of TV station 1+1, which hosts Zelenskiy's comedy programs and hit sitcom, Servant Of The People. In Servant, Zelenskiy plays Vasiliy Holoborodko, a fictional history teacher who is thrust into the presidency after his video rant about the country's problems goes viral.

But reporters have found other links between the two, including shared security details and vehicles and possible meetings abroad in the run-up to Zelenskiy's candidacy.

Zelenskiy's Oligarch Connection
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While the links do not prove that Kolomoyskiy financed Zelenskiy's campaign or is influencing him, critics have raised concerns about the connections. Both men have said their relationship is strictly business, although Kolomoyskiy did tell the BBC in an interview in Israel, where he remains in self-exile amid open investigations into his business practices in Ukraine, that "Ukraine needs not just one Zelenskiy. It needs millions of Zelenskiys."

Kolomoyskiy took on a prominent role as governor, helping his Dnipropetrovsk region ward off possible unrest after armed, Russia-backed separatism broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014. But he fell out of favor with President Petro Poroshenko's administration amid murky corporate disputes and the 2016 nationalization of PrivatBank, one of independent Ukraine's first privately owned banks, in a case that is still the object of court cases.

Poroshenko won a special presidential election in May 2014 as a compromise candidate after Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country amid a deadly crackdown on pro-EU protests and other street unrest.

Bohdan told the reporters that he and Zelenskiy met often, in Kyiv and elsewhere, in 2015. He called their early contacts "ideological, philosophical meetings, about the war, about the future, about Russia, about what is happening [in Ukraine]."

It was late 2015 when Bohdan floated the idea to Zelenskiy to run for parliament, he said. Lawmaker Boris Filatov had recently vacated his seat after being elected mayor of the city of Dnipro, leading to an early election. That's when Bohdan said he called Zelenskiy to ask for a meeting.

"I even flew to Odesa to meet him," he said.

A placard depicting then-Ukrainian entertainer and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy (right) and oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskiy in Lviv on February 8.
A placard depicting then-Ukrainian entertainer and presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelenskiy (right) and oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskiy in Lviv on February 8.

Bohdan said his plan was to convince Zelenskiy to win a seat in parliament and then use it as a launchpad to the presidency.

But according to Bohdan, Zelenskiy turned down the offer, saying it would be "wrong" and fearing that by the time the next presidential election came around he would be seen as merely another of the political elite.

"He was right, looking back today," Bohdan said.

The idea arose again in March 2018, when Bohdan said he ordered a presidential poll that included Zelenskiy. When the poll results came back with the comedian in sixth place, Bohdan knew he might have a real chance.

Bohdan declined to say whether his decision to push Zelenskiy to run was coordinated with Kolomoyskiy. "He never took it seriously," Bohdan claimed of his oligarch boss.

But he said Kolomoyskiy began to believe in October or November that Zelenskiy had a shot at knocking out incumbent Poroshenko or, if not, of at least laying the groundwork for a political party ahead of parliamentary elections slated for October 2019.

In December, "We saw the [polling results of various runoff scenarios] in the second round" of the election, Bohdan said, adding, "I had no doubt that [Zelenskiy] would win the presidential race."

The press office of Zelenskiy, who announced on April 26 his departure for a two-day vacation in Turkey, did not respond to RFE/RL's request for comment on Bohdan's remarks.

Zelenskiy defeated Poroshenko in a landslide in a two-man runoff on April 21, winning 73 percent of the votes, compared to Poroshenko's 24 percent. He is expected to be inaugurated in early June.

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