KYIV – A Washington lobbying firm has told RFE/RL that it has been hired by Ukrainian comedian and presidential front-runner Volodymyr Zelenskiy to burnish his international image and set up meetings between members of his camp and officials in the U.S. capital.
Zelenskiy and his Servant of the People party, which shares the same name as his hit TV sitcom in which he stars as a teacher who accidentally becomes president after a video of him ranting against corruption goes viral, has hired Signal Group Consulting for $60,000, John Procter, who handles media relations at Signal Group, confirmed to RFE/RL in an April 14 e-mail.
A Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filing made public on April 17 said Signal Group was hired on behalf of the candidate by Marcus Cohen “to elevate the profile of Volodymyr Zelenskiy – Servant of the People.”
However, Zelenskiy denied any such contract had been signed with the Signal Group.
According to Procter, the Signal Group began short-term work for Zelenskiy last week that includes facilitating meetings for the candidate’s team members with officials on Capitol Hill and the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, members of the news media, and the think tank and policy community.
The hire shows the importance to Zelenskiy of Western support, a campaign official who requested anonymity to speak about the issue with media told RFE/RL.
Zelenskiy has no immediate plans to visit Washington, that campaign official said. But he met President Emmanuel Macron in Paris last week, hours before a separate meeting between the French leader and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. The talks at Elysee Palace included prospects for the settlement of the five-year war against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
France and Germany are involved in so-called “Normandy format” talks with Ukraine and Russia to try to end the conflict. But Zelenskiy has said in recent days that he would like to bring Washington and London into the negotiations.
According to sources in the Zelenskiy camp and an e-mail obtained by RFE/RL, Signal Group was arranging meetings for Zelenskiy’s campaign chief of staff and Servant of the People party leader Ivan Bakanov, as well as senior economic adviser Oleh Dubyna.
Dubyna, a former chairman of the board of Ukraine's national oil and gas company Naftogaz Ukrainy, as well as energy minister and vice prime minister in Viktor Yushchenko's government, has not previously been named publicly as a member of Zelenskiy’s team.
Dubyna also served as an adviser to President Leonid Kuchma in 2002-03. In 2007, Dubyna was appointed the head of Naftogaz by then-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who allegedly forced him to sign a controversial gas contract with Russia in 2009 under threat of being fired. He resigned his office in 2010 after the presidential election.
But in a Facebook post, Zelenskiy denied Dubyna was a member of his team. He also said no such lobbying contract existed with the Signal Group.
“Volodymyr Zelensky's team did not involve any lobbying companies or agencies to organize a visit of our representative to the U.S.," it said. "We do not have a contract with Signal Group.”
Zelenskiy faces Poroshenko in an April 21 runoff vote.
Polls show him way out in front of Poroshenko, whose popularity has plummeted over the course of a five-year presidency in which he has set Ukraine on a Westward course but failed to tackle entrenched corruption.