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Zelenskiy Consolidates Power As Heavyweight Ukrainian Interior Minister Steps Down

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (right) and Arsen Avakov, who resigned from his interior minister post on July 13, at a training center in the Kyiv region in September 2019.

The departure of Ukrainian political heavyweight Arsen Avakov from the post of interior minister could open the door for President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to concentrate more power in his hands as he seeks to take on entrenched interests and advance a reform agenda.

Avakov quietly resigned July 13 without offering a reason for his sudden departure, leading to speculation Zelenskiy reached a back-door agreement with the influential minister to step down after seven years in office.

The 57-year-old Avakov is considered by many to be one of the most powerful people in the country after Zelenskiy and his chief of staff, Andriy Yermak. He oversaw about 300,000 law enforcement officials and a significant share of Ukraine's annual budget expenditures.

His long tenure at the helm of the Interior Ministry -- despite multiple changes of government, accusations of corruption and ties to tycoons, as well as calls for his resignation -- led some to describe him as “untouchable.”

However, his “forced” exit may be the latest sign that Zelenskiy is starting to assert himself against long-established players after two years in power, said William Pomeranz, deputy director of the Wilson Center's Kennan Institute.

“I think that this shows that Zelenskiy is more confident and wants his own people in these positions,” he said. “He is potentially consolidating his power.”

Zelenskiy, a former comic, was a political novice when he won the presidency at age 41 in a landslide in April 2019 on promises to clean up corruption and take on the tycoons who control power from behind the scenes.

When his Servant of the People party swept parliamentary elections in July of that year, Zelenskiy was handed a mandate to form a completely new government.

He filled it largely with young, inexperienced ministers, but kept Avakov in place, disappointing many supporters who saw the controversial interior minister as a representative of the old elite they had just dethroned.

Ongoing War

Adrian Karatnycky, a U.S.-based political analyst, said Zelenskiy needed Avakov until he could get a better understanding of the military and political situation in the country.

Ukraine has been engaged in a simmering war with Russia-backed fighters in parts of two eastern provinces since 2014, an issue that continues to dominate national politics.

Avakov, who played a major role in preparing Ukraine’s forces, was a “necessary element of stability” at a critical time, Karatnycky said.

As interior minister, Avakov oversaw most of Ukraine's law enforcement bodies -- from the National Police force on down to local police departments, as well as the National Guard, and some feared his departure could lead to significant disruptions.

The border guards, coast guard, Emergency Situations Ministry, and Migration Service also fell under his control.

Karatnycky credited Avakov with “whipping into shape” Ukraine’s degraded military force once war broke out, but said his legacy is mixed.

Opponents say Avakov failed to reform the law enforcement agencies, including by rooting out violence and endemic corruption, and to significantly bolster the rule of law. He rejects these claims, pointing to higher approval ratings for the police.

The public’s frustration with Avakov’s leadership spilled into the streets of Kyiv in June 2020 following several scandals, including a report that police officers allegedly raped and tortured a woman.

Despite Avakov’s low public approval rating, Zelenskiy backed the minister at the time.

However, the president has begun to assert himself more in recent months, including taking on oligarchic and other vested interests.

In February, he sanctioned Kremlin-friendly tycoon and lawmaker Viktor Medvedchuk and his media stations in a bold move that shocked Ukraine’s establishment. He said it was just the start of a campaign to bring the nation’s tycoons, who have been accused of blocking key reforms over the years, under control.

Zelenskiy clamped down on Kremlin-friendly tycoon and lawmaker Viktor Medvedchuk.
Zelenskiy clamped down on Kremlin-friendly tycoon and lawmaker Viktor Medvedchuk.

Zelenskiy then fired the head of the Constitutional Court in March after it scrapped the core of the nation’s anti-corruption legislation. A panel of judges from Ukraine's Supreme Court on July 14 overturned Zelenskiy’s decision.

In a move criticized by the United States and the European Union for not following good corporate government procedures, his cabinet in April replaced the long-time head of Naftogaz, the state-owned energy company and nation’s largest taxpayer, after it posted a large loss.

Ukrainian media in June began to report that Zelenskiy had grown frustrated with Avakov after the minister expressed opposition to some policies, including the use of sanctions against tycoons and the transfer of the National Guard and Migration Service to other ministries, which would have significantly reduced his influence.

Avakov has been an outlier in the cabinet.

He was the only remaining holdover from the government of Zelenskiy’s predecessor and rival, former President Petro Poroshenko.

And he was also the only minister who has been an independent political player with his own support base in parliament.

Avakov “was never an integral part of the [Zelenskiy] team,” said Karatnycky.

Zelenskiy nominated Denys Monastyrskiy, a lawmaker from his Servant of the People party and the head of the parliament's Law Enforcement Committee, to replace Avakov.

Monastyrskiy, 41, had previously served as an adviser to Deputy Interior Minister Anton Herashchenko, who is close to Avakov.

That has led some analysts to speculate that Zelenskiy and Avakov agreed on conditions of his departure, including not targeting him with criminal investigations.

In a response to RFE/RL, Zelenskiy’s office said that Avakov had no input in the choice of a successor and had shown no preference for Monastyrskiy.

Zelenskiy made the choice on his own and “expects” Monastyrskiy to make the ministry “more transparent and accountable,” it said in an e-mail.

Zelenskiy’s office praised Avakov for initiating and administering “many reforms at a very critical time for both Ukraine” and the Interior Ministry, but said that the “pace and scope of reforms needs to be accelerated and deepened.”

Zelenskiy wants Monastyrskiy to focus on “depoliticization, transparency, efficiency, and service-oriented transformation” of agencies within the ministry, including the Migration Service, it said.

Karatnycky described Monastyrskiy as a minister who would be less independent and more “sensitive” to requests from the presidential office than Avakov has been.

Welcomed Departure

Members of the business community and civil society cheered Avakov’s departure.

Morgan Williams, the president of the Washington-based U.S.-Ukraine Business Council, told RFE/RL that it backs turnover of office in general and that it can be detrimental when ministers hold their positions for “too long.”

Daria Kalenyuk, the executive director of the Kyiv-based Anti-Corruption Action Center, said Avakov treated the ministry as his own “personal army.”

She said his exit opens the possibility for pushing ahead with the stalled police reforms.

“Without change, things will not get better," she said. "And even if Monastyrskiy is an Avakov guy, it doesn't mean that he will behave like Avakov."

Pomeranz said Zelenskiy’s quiet removal of Avakov is timely, coming ahead of his much-anticipated trip to Washington later this summer to meet with U.S. President Joe Biden.

Avakov has been accused of corruption, with activists questioning how he acquired his wealth despite having worked in government much of his life.

The former minister is also considered to be close to tycoon Ihor Kolomoyskiy, whom the Biden administration blacklisted earlier this year for corruption, and he allegedly protected businessmen from investigations. Avakov has denied those allegations.

The Biden administration has taken a noticeably more vocal stance on corruption and stalled reforms in Ukraine than the previous administration, repeatedly calling on Zelenskiy to tackle the problems.

Pomeranz said Zelenskiy “needs to show he is in control” when he meets Biden because the U.S. president “has basically said ‘we are all for you, but if you don’t clean the country up, our patience will not last.'”

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    Todd Prince

    Todd Prince is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL based in Washington, D.C. He lived in Russia from 1999 to 2016, working as a reporter for Bloomberg News and an investment adviser for Merrill Lynch. He has traveled extensively around Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia.