Ukraine's Zelensky under fire over top appointments

Kiev (AFP) –


Ukraine's new president Volodymyr Zelensky came under fire Wednesday, just days after taking office, over key hiring decisions including appointing a chief of staff with links to a controversial oligarch.

Zelensky -- a 41-year-old comedian with no previous political experience -- won a landslide victory last month on promises of rebooting the political system and purging the influence of powerful oligarchs.

He was sworn in as president on Monday and the next day called early elections for July 21 in a move aimed at cementing his power.

In his inaugural address which won wide praise, Ukraine's youngest post-Soviet president vowed to halt the war with Russian-backed separatists and do everything to stop Ukrainians, as he put it, crying.

But some of Zelensky's first staffing decisions raised eyebrows, sparking fear that the president might after all be beholden to tycoon Igor Kolomoisky despite repeated denials.

Late Tuesday, Zelensky issued a decree choosing as his top aide Andriy Bogdan, until now Kolomoisky's personal lawyer.

Zelensky has shrugged off accusations that he is a front for the interests of Kolomoisky, who owns the television channel that broadcasts the new president's shows.

- Controversial hire -

Kolomoisky, 56, and the Ukrainian government have been locked in a high-profile legal battle over ownership of the country's largest lender, PrivatBank.

Authorities have accused the tycoon of syphoning $5.5 billion (4.9 billion euros) from PrivatBank before it was nationalised in 2016.

The oligarch reportedly returned to Ukraine last week after almost two years of self-imposed exile in Switzerland and Israel.

Critics said Bogdan's appointment was not just politically suspect but also illegal, as he had held government posts under the Kremlin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych ousted during an uprising in 2014.

Those who served under Yanukovych are now banned by law from taking certain top positions.

"Zelensky violated the law," said MP Yegor Sobolev, one of the authors of the legislation.

The president "puts himself above the law and shows the whole country his true attitude to the rule of law," said Tetyana Kozachenko, who was also behind the legislation.

US special envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker "strongly recommended not to appoint Bogdan" in telephone talks with Zelensky, local media reported.

But Bogdan said on television that claims he was breaking the law were "unfair" and that he had the right to serve in the new administration.

- 'Counterweight to Bogdan' -

In another controversial staffing decision Wednesday, Zelensky appointed Ivan Bakanov, leader of his virtual party, as first deputy chief of the SBU security service.

Bakanov has no security experience but is a childhood friend of the president.

Bakanov also worked as a lawyer for Zelensky's production company "Kvartal 95" and was his campaign manager.

Some foreign investors took issue with Bogdan's appointment.

"It is difficult to imagine how a person from Kolomoisky's orbit... will change the direction of his activity 180 degrees and will act not for the good of the oligarchs, but for the good of the country," Tomas Fiala, chief executive officer at the Kiev-based investment company Dragon Capital, told reporters.

In other staffing decisions, the respected former finance minister Oleksandr Danyliuk has reportedly been tapped to serve as Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council. An official appointment decree has not yet been published.

Timothy Ash, head of emerging market research at London-based Blue Bay Asset Management, praised the move.

"The makes him a key player in Ukrainian power politics in the run-up to elections -- and a counterweight to Bogdan," he wrote.

He suggested this could be his "holding position until parliamentary elections when Danyliuk would expect a role either as PM or deputy PM."

Zelensky's Servant of the People virtual party, named after the sitcom in which he played the role of president, is leading in opinion polls, with more than 40 percent of respondents saying they would vote for it.