From market-friendly reforms to a cooling of tensions with Russia, Ukrainian voters are getting the rapid change they demanded when they upended the political establishment this year.
But, rather than President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, it’s a once-rogue billionaire who’s the talk of the town as the new era unfolds.
Igor Kolomoisky, an industrial and media magnate worth an estimated $1.1 billion, 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 nationalization of his bank, among other things. His TV channel embraced Zelenskiy in the runup to the election.
There’s since been plenty more grist for the rumor 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 No. 1 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 program with the International Monetary Fund.
“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 lawmakers 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 Sept. 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 nationalization aren’t around.
A Ukrainian court ruled in April that the takeover was unlawful in a case that’s pending appeal.
Some within Zelenskiy’s team see evidence of Kolomoisky’s influence, while others play down fears he has undue sway.
“It’s old news that they had a business relationship in the past,” said Lenna Koszarny, a founding partner and chief executive officer at private-equity firm Horizon Capital. “Now the president has power in the country, he should be able to withstand any kind of pressure from any business group -- whether local or foreign.”
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.