KYIV – Whether Ukrainian Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk gets to keep his job could come down to whether President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a former comedian, has retained his sense of humor since taking the helm -- and whether he accepts the 35-year-old head of the government’s move as a sign of enduring loyalty.
Of course, there’s the question of whether Honcharuk’s intentions, which he outlined in a statement on Facebook after he sent a resignation letter to Zelenskiy on January 17, were even genuine. The prime minister himself told Reuters that people should not “jump to conclusions” about it. Zelenskiy’s office confirmed it had received the letter and said the president was considering his response.
News of Honcharuk’s resignation, coming just over four months after he was appointed by a newly elected Ukrainian parliament controlled by Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People party to lead the government, came as a shock to many, even despite a scandal that had been brewing in Kyiv for days.
The scandal began after an audio recording of Honcharuk allegedly disparaging the economic knowledge and competence of both himself and the president was uploaded to a YouTube account called How To Deceive The President, which has since been deleted. Three recordings were uploaded in all, but Ukrainian media have reported that as many as 14 exist.
Hours after Honcharuk sent over his resignation letter, Zelensky called a meeting of top law enforcement officials and tasked them with finding whoever was responsible for recording government conversations and leaking them.
“I demand to get information in two weeks, as soon as possible. Find out who did it and deal with it,” Zelenskiy said.
In a recording that made front-page headlines, the prime minister or someone sounding like him can be heard saying that Zelenskiy has a “very primitive understanding of the economy” and calling himself a “dummy” in economics.
After the recordings were published, a popular anonymous account on Telegram fanned the flames of the scandal, claiming that Honcharuk was preparing to resign.
In his statement, Honcharuk did not deny the voice in the recording was his but said that it had been created from various “snippets” of government meetings pieced together.
“Their content artificially creates the idea that I and my team do not respect the president,” he said. “In order to prevent any doubts about our respect and trust to the president, I have submitted my resignation to the president with the right to bring the issue to the parliament.”
Despite the scandal and Honcharuk’s subsequent resignation, a source inside Zelenskiy’s office told RFE/RL that the president does not plan to accept the prime minister’s resignation. Ukrainian news sites Dzerkalo Tyzhnia and Tsensor cited their own sources close to Zelenskiy as saying that the president would disregard the resignation request and keep Honcharuk. And some cabinet officials have come out publicly to express their support for Honcharuk.
“Our government is the first in the history of Ukraine that does not steal, has not come up with quotas, and has no personal goals,” Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s minister of digital transformation, posted on Instagram with a photo of himself standing beside the prime minister. “We did not come to win political ratings. We came with the president to make real changes.”
“I support Honcharuk. Our whole team does,” he said.
On Ukrainian television and social media, experts debated whether Honcharuk’s offer was genuine and pondered what sort of political game he was up to. Some suggested he was hoping for a literal or metaphorical vote of confidence from the president and parliament in the wake of the scandal.
Raising the stakes by submitting a letter of resignation, Honcharuk may have made a fatal mistake. It seems that Zelenskiy was not going to dismiss Honcharuk, but he does not like to be given ultimatums, even in such a servile form as Honcharuk did.”-- Ukrainian analyst Volodymyr Fesenko
Critics pointed to the fact that for a prime minister to resign, he must appeal to the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, which approves the government, and not to the office of the president.
“The president does not legally decide on the resignation of the prime minister, the Verkhovna Rada does,” Ukrainian political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko told RFE/RL. “Secondly, if this issue is resolved as a result of the [resignation] being submitted to the president, then this will be in violation of the constitution of Ukraine.”
In the current situation, the president may, however, ask the parliament to consider a vote of no confidence in the prime minister. But most signs point to that being unlikely, experts say.
And if it did come to that, David Arakhamia, head of Zelenskiy’s ruling party in parliament, reportedly said that only about 10 votes in favor of Honcharuk’s dismissal would be cast from within the faction – far from the number needed.
Still, some Western observers believe Honcharuk’s resignation presents an important test for Zelenskiy.
Timothy Ash, a London-based economist and expert on Ukraine, wrote in a note that “removing Honcharuk for saying what he thinks (even if somewhat disrespectful to the president), in a closed meeting, which was leaked, would I think send a very negative message to reformers in general.”
“I think Zelenskiy rejects the resignation,” he added. “But this is an important test of Zelenskiy's reform credentials.”
A Western diplomat in Kyiv who meets regularly with government officials and has been supportive of them told RFE/RL on the condition of anonymity that he thought Honcharuk’s move was little more than “PR and mea culpa.”
“He lists his government achievements and further plans and [expresses] deep respect for Zelenskiy,” the diplomat said.
Still, some experts say Honcharuk may have overplayed his cards.
“Raising the stakes by submitting a letter of resignation, Honcharuk may have made a fatal mistake,” Fesenko said. “It seems that Zelenskiy was not going to dismiss Honcharuk, but he does not like to be given ultimatums, even in such a servile form as Honcharuk did.”
“Therefore, now I am not sure of the reaction of President Zelenskiy,” he added.
Fesenko said the situation Honcharuk has found himself in resembles the past quandary of Oleksandr Danylyuk, the former head of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council and a one-time Zelenskiy ally who was rumored to have been considered for prime minister.
Danylyuk was dismissed by the president in late September after offering his resignation in a gesture viewed by observers then as a play to win over Zelenskiy, who had been slowly distancing himself from the ambitious and outspoken security chief.
As was the case back then with Danylyuk, Fesenko said that with Honcharuk, “the president could say: ‘Well, Oleksiy, since you turned out to be such a weakling, then leave, but of your own free will and send your statement to the Verkhovna Rada.’”