Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Picture: REUTERS/VALENTYN OGIRENKO
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Picture: REUTERS/VALENTYN OGIRENKO

Kiev — From market-friendly reforms to a cooling of tension with Russia, Ukrainian voters are getting the rapid change they demanded when they upended the political establishment earlier in 2019.

But, rather than President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, it is a once-rogue billionaire who is the talk of the town as the new era unfolds.

Igor Kolomoisky, an industrial and media magnate worth an estimated $1.1bn, used his broadcasting empire to drive Zelenskiy’s former career as a TV comic. Tongues have been wagging for some time over how close the two men remain.

For starters, there was Kolomoisky’s abrupt return from self-imposed exile in Tel Aviv three days before Zelenskiy’s inauguration in May. The tycoon had fallen out with the president’s predecessor over the nationalisation of his bank, among other things. His TV channel embraced Zelenskiy in the run-up to the election.

There has since been plenty more grist for the rumour mill, though concrete evidence that Kolomoisky is influencing policy is hard to come by.

At stake is Ukraine’s nascent economic revival, which could be derailed if the billionaire succeeds in regaining control of Privatbank, the country’s number one lender. Such a step would suggest the oligarch class, a drag on previous reform efforts, can retain its vast power in the new Ukraine.

It would also threaten financial stability, according to the central bank, and could torpedo a new loan programme with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

“There’s a consensus among investors that the government is doing a lot of good things,” said Ihor Mazepa, who owns Ukrainian investment firm Concorde Capital. “But any wrong decisions on Privatbank would erase that positive effect very quickly.”

Zelenskiy and Kolomoisky have repeatedly said there’s nothing untoward in their relationship. But government appointments and developments around Privatbank are causing concern.

Zelenskiy’s chief of staff used to be Kolomoisky’s personal lawyer. Interior minister Arsen Avakov, publicly praised by the tycoon, was among only two officials to retain their places in the new government.

The head of Kolomoisky’s TV station and three of its journalists are legislators for Zelenskiy’s party. Another, Oleksandr Dubinsky, represents parliament on a committee that picks independent board members for state-controlled banks, including Privatbank.

Then there’s the central bank, a driving force in the government’s takeover of Privatbank. Dubinsky wants parliament to probe the its actions in recent years. The bank has complained about threats to current and former officials.

The past few days have seen speculation build. Zelenskiy met Kolomoisky in his office for the first time on September 10. The next day, Privatbank’s headquarters were raided by police.

Kolomoisky said later that he didn’t discuss the bank at his meeting with Zelenskiy and doesn’t want to get it back “at any cost”. Even so, he sees a “good window of opportunity” now the officials that handled the nationalisation aren’t around.

A Ukrainian court ruled in April that the takeover was unlawful in a case that’s pending appeal.

‘Sought-after guest’

Some within Zelenskiy’s team see evidence of Kolomoisky’s influence, while others play down fears he has undue sway. But Ukraine’s most powerful people seem to sense which way the wind is blowing.

Victor Pinchuk, another billionaire, held his annual flagship conference last week. Kolomoisky appeared for the first time in its 16-year history, and stole the show. Pinchuk called him “the most sought-after guest” at the event, which later featured movie star Mila Kunis.

Talking to journalists for more than four hours, Kolomoisky chuckled when asked whether he has any power over the government.

“I don’t have any influence over the president and his team,” he said.