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Best Supporting Actor? After Big Win, Ukrainian Comic-Turned-President Seeks Prime Minister

After his party won a big victory in parliamentary elections, Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy's choice of prime minister could be crucial to the country's future.
After his party won a big victory in parliamentary elections, Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy's choice of prime minister could be crucial to the country's future.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy has steered his Servant Of The People party to a decisive parliamentary majority.

Now Ukraine's president needs someone to serve the people as prime minister and steer the strengthening economy to safer waters -- navigating mind-boggling corruption, a costly war with Russia-backed separatists, and potentially tough negotiations with Western financial lenders.

Zelenskiy has already signaled that he's leaning toward tapping an economist or someone with fiscal or policy background to be his new prime minister.

It's a task made easier by the fact that he won't have to horse-trade with a coalition partner.

But he'll still have to convince lawmakers in the Verkhovna Rada to endorse whomever he nominates. And the main opposition group, a Russia-leaning party headed by a man who has President Vladimir Putin as the godfather of his daughter, can still make life difficult.

"We want an independent, strong person with a professional education, who is respected in Ukraine, firstly, and who is respected in the West, who is really a model, an economic guru," he said in comments after the polls closed July 21.

Though the comment came in response to a reporter's question whether Zelenskiy intended to nominate the head of a smaller, upstart liberal party to be prime minister, for close watchers of Ukrainian politics, Zelenskiy's answer likely means someone with a technocratic background.

"Over the weekend, [Zelenskiy] highlighted herein the important role of [parliament] as a check and balance, and indicated that he will nominate a prime minister who is a respected economist, with good relations with the West and who has had no political career as yet," Timothy Ash, a London-based analyst, said in an e-mailed commentary July 22. "This suggests that he has someone clearly in mind. But it suggests a technocrat as prime minister."

Liberal-Minded Lithuanian

That short list includes Aivaras Abromavicius, who served briefly as economy minister under Zelenskiy's predecessor, and Oleksandr Danylyuk, a former finance minister.

Abromavicius, who had already publicly embraced Zelenskiy's administration, hailed the new election results, telling RFE/RL that it was "as good as it gets."

Former Ukrainian Economy Minister Aivaras Abromavicius (file photo)
Former Ukrainian Economy Minister Aivaras Abromavicius (file photo)

A liberal-minded native of Lithuania, Abromavicius served as economy minister midway through President Petro Poroshenko's administration. He resigned, however, in February 2016, issuing a scathing rebuke of Poroshenko and his business allies for not doing more to root out corrupt business deals and conflicts of interest.

Danylyuk served as finance minister until June 2018, when he was pushed out by then-Prime Minister Volodymyr Hroysman, also after a clash over corruption. As with Abromavicius, he pulled no punches with the announcement of his departure, saying "I will not sell out my country."

Former Ukrainian Finance Minister Oleksandr Danilyuk (file photo)
Former Ukrainian Finance Minister Oleksandr Danilyuk (file photo)

Danylyuk may already have a leg up in the Zelenskiy administration, having been appointed head of his national security council. He has already built important bridges with the United States, traveling to Washington earlier this month.

Economically, Ukraine is doing well, despite major structural problems, including the war in the Donbas. The economy is projected to grow between 2.7 percent and 3 percent this year, depending on whether you ask the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or Ukraine's central bank. Inflation is easing, which prompted the central bank to cut its main lending rate three days before the vote.

Tackling Graft

Kyiv has for years been dependent on Western funding to keep its books balanced, and talks are scheduled with the Washington-based IMF sometime beginning this autumn, in an effort by Zelenskiy's administration to unblock the latest $2 billion installment in a $3.9 billion overall loan deal.

A commitment by the government to fight corruption has been paramount for the fund, which put the installment on hold pending the formation of a new government.

'There Needs To Be Change' -- Ukrainian Voters Put President's Party On Course For Historic Parliamentary Majority
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"Court rulings, legislative initiatives, or other steps that invalidate previous achievements, and delays in implementing key reforms may increase the vulnerability of Ukraine's economy and pose an obstacle to further cooperation with the IMF," the central bank said in announcing the rate cut on July 18.

Another sticking point has been efforts to reform the country's natural gas sector, dominated by the state-owned company Naftogaz. The company, which oversees wells, drilling, and sprawling web of pipelines, contributed nearly 16 percent of the state budget in the first half of 2019.

But the company's size and clout has made it difficult to clean up. Poroshenko's government also struggled to modernize the national gas-tariff structure, which dates back to the Soviet era and holds consumer rates at artificially low levels.

'Excellent Choices'

Other potential candidates being bandied about in Kyiv include two Naftogaz executives, Andriy Kobolyov, the company's CEO, and Yuriy Vitrenko, who has been the point man for Naftogaz's ongoing fight with Russia's state-run gas giant Gazprom.

But both, along with other Naftogaz executives, were widely criticized after they were paid Western-sized performance bonuses -- seen by the Ukrainian public, and some lawmakers, as unseemly given the company is state-owned and the unhappiness with rising tariffs.

There's also Vladyslav Rashkovan, who served as deputy governor at the National Bank of Ukraine between 2014 and 2016 and whose base of support is in the powerful port city of Odesa. Rashkovan is also the deputy acting Ukraine director for the IMF, potentially giving him additional credibility with Western lenders.

Rashkovan, Kobolyov, Danylyuk, Abromavicius, or Vitrenko: "All would be excellent choices from the market perspective," Ash wrote.

According to a poll of more than six dozen Ukrainian and foreign businessmen, reporters, and analysts published on July 22 by the business journal NV, another leading contender is Maksym Nefyodov, another top official in the Economy Ministry who became head of Ukraine's custom service about a week before the parliamentary elections.

Nefyodov is seen as a rising political star and, at only 35, is perceived to be someone who would add to the youthful vigor Zelenskiy has tried to cloak his presidency with. He's a known supporter of the gay and lesbian community in Kyiv, relatively uncommon for prominent Ukrainian political figures.

As a deputy to Abromavicius, Nefyodov gained widespread renown for championing a system aimed at draining one particularly odious cesspool of Ukrainian corruption: public procurement.

Called ProZorro, the system was built by idealistic programmers, but Nefyodov embraced it-- and reformers and Western supporters held it up as a visible sign of reform in the fight against corruption.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.