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The Oligarch Battle Behind Ukraine’s Presidential Election

The run-off between incumbent Petro Poroshenko and comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Ukraine-watchers say, is part of a struggle going back years.

Petro Poroshenko (Sergei Chuzakov/AFP/Getty Images)

If Ihor Kolomoisky wants to buy Ukraine’s presidency, as his critics allege, can you really blame him?

A lifelongraider,” as he calls those skilled at exploiting opportunity, Kolomoisky in his youth ferried electronics from Moscow to Ukraine during the collapse of the Soviet Union—a train line once graced by robbers in leather jackets who snuffed out passengers for any rubles they might have foolishly failed to hide. He started a tiny bank amid the USSR’s rubble: PrivatBank. It became the largest in Ukraine because you invested in cutting-edge technology—and perhaps, if the Ukrainian authorities are to be believed, a little bit of fraud. He survived both of Ukraine’s 2004 and 2014 revolutions. He became a billionaire. And when Ukraine was on the verge of collapsing after Russian troops invaded in 2014, he created an army to defend it. He put a bounty on Russian troops’ heads.

How did Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko repay Kolomoisky? He fired him. And then he nationalized his bank.

In a county where seemingly everything—from seats in parliament to the Crimean peninsula—can be swiped, Kolomoisky, according to his critics, has decided that comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the star on the network he owns, is going to be president. Whether or not oligarchs should have this kind of influence has been one of the most important questions in Ukrainian politics since it separated from the Soviet Union. Kolomoisky is also under investigation in the United States, The Daily Beast reported in early April, for possible financial crimes—an allegation he denies.

Zelenskiy and incumbent Poroshenko, having come in first and second in the first round of Ukrainian elections on March 31, will now face each other on April 21. Zelenskiy, predicted by soaring poll numbers to be the winner at this point, is a complete newcomer to politics in real life; prior to this, he had only played a high school teacher who accidentally becomes president of Ukraine on television. Poroshenko is the actual president of Ukraine, but suffers from low approval ratings. In the weeks before election day, the pair have traded scripted YouTube videos challenging the other to a debate, while their campaigns have each insinuated their rival has a drugs or drinking problem. The details of their political platforms at this point are almost irrelevant: The winner’s appetite to tackle corruption and power, a number of Ukrainian experts say, is more important than any political ideology they cling to.

Three things define an oligarch, Dmytro Yablonovskyy, the deputy director for the Center for Economic Strategy, a think tank in Kyiv, told me: media ownership, significant business interests, and a substantial political influence. Currently, five of the richest of these in Ukraine, including Kolomoisky and Poroshenko, Yablonovskyy argued in a 2017 report, control a sizable quantity of the country’s institutions and resources—from political parties to TV stations to gas. “The oligarchs are the state,” Yablonovskyy said.

The oligarch network began in the 1990s under former president Leonid Kuchma, and thrived in the post-Soviet breakdown, according to Mikhail Minakov, a senior fellow at the Wilson Center. The way he tells it, clans of oligarchs fought with each other until one won and ran for president—Viktor Yanukovych. In 2004, Ukrainians flooded to the streets in the country’s Orange Revolution, and broke up the oligarch network. But Yanukovych was again able to consolidate power until Ukrainians overthrew him for good in 2014. At that point, there were well-founded reports about “a meeting in Vienna and an agreement of oligarchs, where they decided to come together and support one candidate in Poroshenko,” according to Minakov. When Russian-backed separatists invaded eastern Ukraine and Crimea in 2014, the country’s oligarchs banded together like feudal lords, protecting their country—or their profits, depending on the view. Acting president Oleksandr Turchynov appointed Kolomoisky governor of the eastern Dnipropetrovsk region, where Kolomoisky reportedly spent $10 million creating his own private army to fight the Russians. But he clashed with the Ukrainian state as well. Poroshenko, elected that June, fired Kolomoisky, who explained his removal as an imbalance of the oligarch system. “When you have a coalition that consists of two gigantic factions and three tiny ones, you get coalition fights,” Kolomoisky told The Washington Post. “I’m (Poroshenko’s) employee, but I acted as an equal to him. And that was a discomfort.”

The competition among all of the oligarchs intensified as corruption and the war in eastern Ukraine continued. Meanwhile, inside Ukraine’s Ministry of Finance, officials were concerned that Kolomoisky’s prized possession, PrivatBank, was unsustainable. For roughly ten years, PrivatBank had been involved in a “large scale and coordinated fraud,” that centered around its loan department, according to the Ukrainian government. In the scheme, PrivatBank allegedly gave loans to its own shareholders that would be paid off with more loans to the shareholders, and so on—a Jenga tower that grew tall and unstable.

Quietly, Ukraine’s Ministry of Finance shared concerns about fraud with PrivatBank officials. By the summer of 2016 Poroshenko was urged to nationalize PrivatBank, according to two former Ukrainian government officials. He stalled for months because of Kolomoisky’s political power, according to one. In December, Poroshenko was ready to sign off on the takeover but there were concerns inside the ministry of finance that Kolomoisky would retaliate: PrivatBank employed 26,000 people, consisted of 30 percent of the banking system and processed 75 percent of payments in Ukraine, a former senior official in the ministry of finance told me. “We didn’t know if Kolomoisky had the red button [to halt the bank’s operations] and would use it just two weeks before the Christmas holidays to shut the country down.”

The Ukrainian government nationalized PrivatBank on December 18. Kolomoisky ceded power without incident, and Poroshenko was praised by the international community.

In the United States and other Western countries, Poroshenko has frequently been viewed as a benevolent oligarch. He made his billion by buying a state-owned candy factory during the breakup of the Soviet Union and becoming the Willy Wonka of Eastern Europe. His campaign to become president in 2014 was based on the idea that someone like him could rise above corruption. But even those who worked for Poroshenko say that something changed in the year after he won, his reform effort stalling in 2015. His campaign promise of an anti-corruption court lay unfulfilled for years. (Only this month, ahead of the Poroshenko-Zelenskiy run-off, was it finally launched. A spokesperson for his campaign did not respond to interview requests) Media investigations have repeatedly suggested that Poroshenko’s allies benefit from graft. “Poroshenko is very adept at creating this smokescreen of assurances to the West and then fulfilling about 15 percent of them,” said John Lough, a researcher at Chatham House. “Look at the National Agency for Corruption Prevention, which he allowed to be sabotaged. At the end, he increasingly looks and sounds like someone whose mission it is to save the old system.”

In a country used to corrupt characters, the fresh presence of Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a comedian whose show appears on Kolomoisky’s network, has been a welcome plot twist, although he has generally refused to give specifics about his political plans.

The belief that Zelenskiy’s presidential bid is Kolomoisky’s doing—revenge against Poroshenko for nationalizing PrivatBank—has been present since the start of his campaign. While lacking proof, the critics spouting the theory are not without evidence they can point to. Zelenskiy, in addition to technically being an employee of Kolomoisky as a star on a network he owns, has received significant free airtime on the network. The comedian has also reportedly flown to Kolomoisky’s home 13 times in the past two years, sometimes with the oligarch’s attorney.

Both Zelenskiy and Kolomoisky deny the plot, Zelenskiy saying he would not give PrivatBank back to Kolomoisky, and Kolomoisky telling a local media outlet that if the government wants to keep PrivatBank they can—although he’d like the $2 billion in capital back. A spokesperson for Zelenskiy told me Kolomoisky had no role in the campaign. Both men also say their meetings and phone calls have not been about politics during the campaign season.

However it began, Zelenskiy’s candidacy has grown serious—a recent poll estimated he would receive more than 70 percent of the vote against Poroshenko in the second round. And the winner of the elections will likely have to decide what to do about PrivatBank. Days before the final vote, a court in Kyiv said the takeover of PrivatBank was illegal in a decision of far-reaching political implications.

Zelenskiy celebrated his first-place results in the March 31 round of Ukraine’s presidential elections by renting a swanky nightclub. House music thumped inside the dark club, where a smartly dressed Zelenskiy spoke with reporters for fewer than three minutes after his victory. There was a ping pong, air hockey and foosball table. Curiously absent were any non-elite political supporters—a fitting atmosphere for an election defined by billionaires.

In the crowd of tailored blazers and white sneakers towered Serhiy Leshchenko, a prominent anti-corruption activist and member of parliament, sporting an orange sweater. With a reputation for being one of the most incorruptible figures in Ukrainian politics, he was a striking figure at Zelenskiy’s victory bash.

Leshchenko recently said on a local talk show that he is trying to persuade Zelesnskiy to be an anti-corruption advocate. He doesn’t deny Kolomoisky’s influence on Zelenskiy’s campaign. But “the influence is not one to one,” he told me.

Zelenskiy “is a blank page,” he told a Ukrainian TV channel in February. “He has a very low level of specific knowledge about different things and I think we still have a chance to catch him and to put him on our side of the field. We still have a chance to write on this blank page.”