Ukraine’s anti-oligarch law inadvertently shines the spotlight on presidential entourage with ties to Russia


On September 22, someone shot the car of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s first aide, Serhiy Shefir. The attack took place near the village of Lisnyky, outside of Kiev. According to the Home Office, more than ten bullets hit Shefir’s vehicle, injuring the driver, but Shefir himself escaped the injuries (Ukrinform.net, September 22). Anton Geraschenko, adviser to the Ukrainian interior minister, claimed that those who organized and carried out the attack on Serhiy Shefir’s car planned to kill everyone in the vehicle (Zn.ua, September 23).

On the very day of the assassination attempt, President Zelenskyy delivered a speech to the 76e session of the United Nations General Assembly. He called this perilous incident the price of change and reform in Ukraine (President.gov.ua, September 23). In addition, Zelenskyy told reporters gathered in Turtle Bay that he was fairly calm about any intimidation because “it seems to me that this is a transition to another level of relations between certain groups and the authorities” (President.gov.ua, September 22).

It seems that Zelenskyy was referring to the law on oligarchs, which the Ukrainian parliament passed a day after the assassination attempt. The bill seeks to compel “oligarchs” – especially wealthy and influential businessmen – to register and refrain from using their money or property to influence the political process. Under the proposed law, “oligarchs” would be prohibited from funding political parties or participating in privatization tenders, while senior officials, including the president, prime minister and head of the bank central, would be required to declare any relationship they have with them. (UAWire, September 24).

The opposition has severely criticized the legislation for its opacity. According to Artur Gerasymov, co-chair of the European Solidarity Party led by former President Petro Poroshenko, the legislation could lead to the usurpation of power by Zelenskyy because it could be selectively applied to his opponent, Poroshenko (Glavcom.ua, September 19 ). The former Ukrainian head of state owns the confectionery giant Roshen as well as auto factories, a shipyard and a TV channel.

The Shefir attack investigation examines Moscow’s potential involvement. But hours after the shooting, Shefir held a press conference, where he ruled out any possibility that the assassination attempt was motivated by his own professional activities. According to the presidential assistant, he had mainly been busy producing Kvartal-95, the Zelenskyy TV show aired before he became president (Unn.com.ua, September 21).

Local investigative journalists, by contrast, had previously uncovered evidence that following Zelenskyy’s electoral victory, Serhii Shefir had secretly met a number of Ukrainian tycoons, including Rinat Akhmetov, at his residence in the outside Kiev (Radiosvoboda.org, October 8, 2020). And in 2019, Shefir was pictured attending the birthday party of Grigoriy Surkis, a businessman and member of the pro-Russian Opposition Platform-For Life party, where he also met oligarchs Ihor Kolomoyski, Gennady Boholiybov, Victor Pinchuk and others (Pravda .com.ua, September 7, 2019).

Such a close examination of Russia’s subversive influence on Ukrainian politics, sparked by last month’s attack on Zelenskyy’s main aide, could inadvertently force a reshuffle of the entire entourage close to the president. Many of these people are known for their controversial backgrounds, including their pro-Kremlin attitudes as well as their more direct ties to Moscow. Among the most notable of Zelenskyy’s circle are Oleg Tatarov, Oleksandr Dubinsky, Oleskiy Arestovich and Ruslan Demchenko.

In August 2020, Zelenskyy appointed Oleg Tatarov deputy head of the presidential office. Previously, Tatarov held the post of Deputy Head of the Main Investigations Department at the Interior Ministry during the presidency of Viktor Yanukovych. He was also a vocal critic of the EuroMaidan protests. Apparently, in December 2013, at the height of the EuroMaidan revolution, Tatarov allegedly received the order of “Honored Advocate of Ukraine”, signed by then President Yanukovych (Pravda.com.ua, February 18, 2021) . Nevertheless, as recently as last spring, Zelenskyy called Tatarov a “professional” in his new team (Babel.ua, May 20).

On January 11, 2021, the United States Treasury Department sanctioned Oleksandr Dubinsky, a former leader of Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People (SoP) party. According to US officials, he was part of a Russian-linked foreign influence network that attempted to manipulate the 2020 US presidential election (Treasury.gov, January 11). Shortly after, Dubinsky was removed from his SoP party post and lost his post as head of the party organization in the Kiev region. But there has been no personal public condemnation of Zelenskyy, either as head of state or as founder of SoP. Further legal investigations into Dubinsky have yet to be completed, and he remains an active lawmaker and blogger. Notably, Dubinsky still runs the “Dubina TV” vlog (YouTube, accessed October 4 after his previous account was banned by YouTube.

On December 1, the head of the presidential office, Andrii Yermak, appointed Oleksiy Arestovich as his external advisor on strategic communications in the area of ​​national security and defense (President.gov.ua, December 1, 2020). During this time, Arestovich became the spokesperson for the Ukrainian delegation to the Trilateral Contact Group on the Donbass conflict. Over the past few years, he has grown into a popular blogger and military expert. According to his public statements, between 1999 and 2005 he served in the Main Directorate of Intelligence of Ukraine. In 2005, together with a leader of the Bratstvo (Brotherhood) party, Arestovich traveled to Moscow, where they both participated in a conference organized by the leader of the Eurasian Movement, Aleksandr Dugin, a famous Russian, philosopher, nationalist of extreme right-wing and Eurasian ideologue, who is said to have close ties with the Kremlin (Gordonua.com, March 16).

In June 2020, Zelenskyy appointed Ruslan Demchenko first deputy secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine. During Yanukovych’s presidency in 2013-2014, Demchenko would have become a “gray cardinal” in the Foreign Ministry. He also oversaw messages sent by Ukrainian embassies during the EuroMaidan revolution (Eurointegration.com.ua, June 16, 2020). The media claim that Demchenko supported the preparations for the so-called “Kharkiv Pact”, which was passed in parliament in April 2010, while he was Ukraine’s first deputy foreign minister (Hromadske.ua, 12th of March). The bill extended the period of stay of the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea from 2017 initially scheduled to 2042.

Now that Zelenskyy has openly declared war on the local oligarchs, the recent attack on his first aide Serhii Shefir inadvertently shows that the president could face another serious challenge. He will have to reshuffle his closest cadres who themselves have suspected or documented ties to Russia-oriented oligarchs and past pro-Russian political positions.

About Virginia Ahn

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