Fears of a pro-Russian turn as Yermak appointed new head of Ukrainian President’s Office

Andriy Yermak. Photo: president.gov.ua 

Politics

When Volodymyr Zelenskyy became president of Ukraine, one person in his team was not greatly welcomed by both Zelenskyy’s opponents or by and supporters. It was Andriy Bohdan who took the helm of the Presidential Administration. Bohdan managed to avoid lustration as a Yanukovych-era official and as a lawyer who used to work for oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskyi, Bohdan was immediately perceived as the oligarch’s person in Zelenskyy’s team. While his dismissal was anticipated, the appointment of Andriy Yermak as his successor raises its own set of questions because of Yermak’s rather pro-Russian stance on Donbas issues.

On 11 February 2020, two decrees were published on the Ukrainian president’s site: one regarding Bohdan’s dismissal; the other on Yermak’s appointment.

In comments to the BBC, Ukrainian political experts speculated about the reasons for the replacement.

Iryna Bekeshkina, head of the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, suggested that Bohdan’s dismissal was a result of the numerous complaints about him and the president’s weariness of it. The expert does not regard Bohdan as Kolomoiskyi’s lever of influence over Zelenskyy. Still, according to Bekeshkina, the dismissal will serve as putting an end to suspicions of Kolomoiskyi influencing Zelenskyy.

Anatoliy Okysiuk, an expert at the Democracy House think tank, also notes that Bohdan’s dismissal aimed at showing Ukraine’s western partners that Zelenskyy is getting rid of toxic people around him. However, the expert adds no less important possible reasons for the replacement to the list. First, the desire to relaunch the Minsk process and Yermak is the one who is dealing with it. Second, a greater concentration of power in the hands of Zelenskyy’s inner circle.

“From a politician who promised to be more open, Zelenskyy is turning into a politician who creates a comfort zone around him,” Okysiuk says.

Who is Yermak

The media say that lawyer and film producer Yermak and former comedian actor and current president Zelenskyy met each other in 2011-2012 during Zelenskyy’s work at one of the nationwide TV channels.

Yermak joined politics after Ukraine’s 2019 presidential elections when Zelenskyy appointed him as his assistant.

Almost from the very beginning of his work for the president, Yermak was labeled as a shadow minister of foreign affairs. In particular, he was perceived as a curator of Ukraine’s relationships with the US and Russia.

As reported by RFE/RL, in an interview with the media, even the Minister of Foreign Affairs Vadym Prystaiko recognized Yermak’s involvement in moments critical for the president: for example the Normandy Format meeting.

Yermak’s involvement in Ukrainian policies toward Russia

“Appointing Yermak as head of the president’s office, Zelenskyy and his team moved to the second stage of the state’s dismantling, fixing the course on the capitulation in the war with Russia,” a statement of the Capitulation Resistance Movement, a coalition of activists protesting Ukraine’s perceived capitulation ot Russia, says.

The movement’s activists are confident that the key task for Yermak will be returning temporary occupied territories in Donbas to Ukraine on Russia’s conditions. In particular, holding elections there on Russia’s conditions, providing special status for Donbas, and amnesty for Russia’s collaborators.

At the beginning of February 2020, in one of his interviews, Yermak already stated that at the next Normandy meeting the government expects to discuss holding elections in the occupied Donbas in October 2020. Regular local elections across Ukraine are scheduled for October 2020

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On 13 February, already after his appointment as head of the president’s office Yermak met ambassadors from the G7 countries. During the meeting, he spoke about the elections in the occupied Donbas again.

“The president’s position is unchanged: we want to do everything we can to end the war and hold local elections throughout Ukraine at the end of October. We work 24/7 because it concerns the lives of our citizens,” he said.

During 2019, Yermak was involved in developments in the Russian direction when flying to Moscow to return Ukrainian political prisoners on 7 September. He was also active in commenting on the Minsk and prisoners swap processes.

Yermak also met then-assistant to Vladimir Putin, Vladislav Surkov, at the Normandy Format meeting.

Also, Yermak used to participate in Russia-Ukraine gas negotiations in Minsk, and it was he who signed the memorandum of the meeting. He was already approved by Dmitry Kozak who was recently appointed as the Kremlin’s head of policy towards Ukraine in place of Vladislav Surkov.

“I would especially like to emphasize the special role of presidential assistant Yermak, who had the political will, determination to take responsibility and to make a balanced, mutually acceptable, mutually beneficial decision,” Kozak said.

Recently Yermak confirmed that he already met Kozak after his new appointment.

“It seems to me that he is more inclined to dialogue [than Surkov] … We had constructive communication … I have a fairly positive [impression],” Yermak said.

It is noteworthy that Kozak is on the EU and US sanction lists due to his involvement in the occupation of Crimea.

Connection to Russian business

Further, during the course of last year, Ukraine’s media published investigations related to Yermak’s business connections with senior Russian government officials.

In particular, RFE/RL’s program Skhemy revealed Yermak and his father being business partners of Russian banker Rakhamim Emmanuilov. Emannuilov in his turn is related to Valeriy Ponomariov, Yedinaya Rossiya party member and senator from Kamchatka. Ponomariov’s connections lead to Serhiy Prykhodko, Deputy Head of the administrative office of the Russian government.

Another investigation was related to Yermak being a co-founder of the company Interpromfinance-Bezopasnost together with the company Sarych, which since the occupation of Crimea has been under the ownership of Vladimir Putin’s friend Arkadiy Rotenberg.

Yermak denies his relation to the Sarych company and blames the media for an “informational attack.”

Regarding Yermak’s work with the US, RFE/RL notes that it was he and not the Minister of Foreign Affairs or Bohdan who met the US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland in summer 2019. Also, Yermak was mentioned in the US in connection with Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. According to Giuliani’s letters to then-US State Department Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker, Volker helped Trump’s lawyer to meet with Yermak as with Zelensky’s representative.


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Edited by: Michael Garrood

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