KYIV -- In the first few weeks of Volodymyr Zelenskiy's presidency, fact following fiction has been more of a rule than an exception.
In season one of Servant Of The People, the TV show that brought the comic actor fame and helped catapult him to the presidency in an April election, fictional head of state Vasyl Holoborodko ditches his motorcade for a bicycle and relocates his offices to Kyiv’s outskirts to free the capital of traffic jams.
Since his inauguration a month ago, Zelenskiy has shrunk his motorcade from eight cars to two but is unable to ride a bike to work “for security reasons,” he told reporters recently.
Now, borrowing another page from the script of his sitcom, Zelenskiy says he will move the presidential administration from its longtime location on Bankova Street to the more aptly named Ukrainian House. But there's a plot twist: The building is on a busy cobblestone roundabout smack in the center of Kyiv, prompting concerns the move may disrupt the flow of the city and make traffic worse.
Zelenskiy’s counterargument, essentially, is that function follows form: He has said the relocation from the hulking building on Bankova -- with its towering columns, labyrinthine hallways, secret corridors, and golden ornamentation -- is necessary to rid the office of the presidency of its reputation for opacity and corruption and instead encourage openness and transparency.
Built in the Brezhnev era, between 1978-82, Ukrainian House -- a five-story structure with a large atrium inside -- served as a museum dedicated to Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin until the Soviet Union collapsed and Ukraine gained independence in 1991.
But despite its Soviet roots it is now inextricably linked with the 2013-14 Euromaidan street protests that pushed Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukoyvch from power: It was used by riot police as a staging ground before protesters ousted them and turned it into a center to support the uprising. Since then, it has functioned as an exhibition center.
News of the planned relocation -- and the accompanying renovation of Ukrainian House -- came in a slickly produced video shared on Zelenskiy’s social media accounts, with graphics that made it look almost like an episode of Servant Of The People.
The plan to transform it into the new space for the president and his staff foresees the building becoming an open, glass-walled “European-style office” -- as one official described it in the video -- with administration offices on the top three floors and co-working spaces on the second floor. A cafe and pedestrian area are planned for the ground floor and the square outside -- European Square -- which will get a new fountain and benches.
In the video announcement, Zelenskiy was presented with the choice of having his office face the Dnipro River or look out over European Square. He said he preferred the latter because “it’s symbolic.”
In addition to the traffic-congestion fears, critics of the move have raised concerns over costs of the renovation and funding from the state budget. Andriy Bohdan, Zelenskiy’s chief of staff, said the financing would come from grants given by nonprofit organizations in European Union countries.
“We won’t take a penny from the budget,” Bohdan said.
‘Corrupt Old Way’
As for the Bankova building, the headquarters of Ukraine’s president since independence, Zelenskiy said he would like it to become a museum.
Zelenskiy and his associates have complained about its mazes of hallways and ornate -- or gaudy -- interior. The president’s office, for example, is adorned with marble and golden trimmings -- bathroom included. Many of the other rooms feature crystal chandeliers and exotic wooden ornaments.
For some in Ukraine, whose post-Soviet path to prosperity has been slowed by persistent problems with graft, the building represents what one official described as the “corrupt old way.”
The Bankova building was last renovated during the presidency of Yanukovych, the Moscow-friendly leader accused by Ukrainian authorities who succeeded him of fleecing the state of up to $100 billion along with associates before he abandoned office and fled to Russia in the face of the Euromaidan protests.
In the video, a deputy director of the National Art Museum told Zelenskiy that there is another piece of symbolism, going back a century, in the planned move.
“When the first Lenin museum appeared in Kyiv in 1919” -- after a brief period of Ukrainian independence that was snuffed out for decades under Moscow’s Soviet-era rule -- “it occupied the Central Parliament building,” Olha Balashova said. “You now want to move to a former Lenin museum. This is like historical justice.”