June, 25

Servant of the People on the verge of collapse: how Donbass caused a quarrel inside Zelensky's team

04/09/2020 10:15:00 am
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The mono-majority, formed in the Verkhovna Rada by the Servant of the People presidential party, was quite arbitrary from the very beginning, but over the past few weeks, the split in the political force has reached its peak. This can be clearly seen from the last parliamentary voting sessions: the "servants" gave 206 of the 226 required votes for the opening of the land market, 198 – for the "anti-Kolomoyskyi" law on the non-return of banks to former owners, personnel initiatives also did not collect a minimum of 226 votes. At the same time, the number of the Servant of the People faction is 248 deputies. All these decisions were made only with the help of the votes of other factions and groups.

"The mono-majority did not exist before, but now it has come to a final end. Quarantine and resonant bills have revealed this abscess. As the saying goes, the masks have slipped, and now everything will not be the same as before. Our party began an open war against each other. We do not even need anonymous telegram channels to sort things out. Our deputies openly turn against each other on Facebook, within the walls of the parliament and for camera. Previously, Andriy Bohdan (former head of the President's Office, - ed.) keep all on a short leash, and now everyone is on his/her own wave", - one of the people's deputies of Servant of the People told OstroV.

But if the latest voting in the Rada showed the final part of split of the mono-majority, then its beginning can be well traced on the example of "peace initiatives" on the Donbass from head of the President's Office Andriy Yermak and ex-adviser of the National Security and Defense Council Serhiy Syvokho. It was then that part of the people's deputies of Servant of the People openly opposed the policy pursued by the closest associates of Volodymyr Zelensky for the first time.

Yermak's Advisory Council on pause

Many guessed on March 25, whether signing of the document on the establishment of the Advisory Council – initiative of head of the Presidential Office Andriy Yermak, would take place. According to him, this will be a platform where "the citizens of Ukraine, who today live both on the controlled territory and on the uncontrolled, will be able to talk about issues that are agreed upon in the Minsk agreements package". The agreements to create this new platform were reached in Minsk on March 11, the final signing was to take place two weeks later. This would have happened if the media had not leaked the documents, and the public and people's deputies (including those from the presidential Servant of the People) had not set themselves against such an initiative.

"Yermak was very angry. As you know, the documents should not have been got passed around in to the media. Everyone should have found out about the creation of the Advisory Council after the fact of its creation. It was planned to be done very quietly. And when a lot of people's deputies from Servant of the People joined the criticism, this made him crazy. If Yermak explained everything decently at the first meeting with the dissenting "servants" in the President’s Office, then at the meeting with the entire faction in the Verkhovna Rada, he let his tongue run away with him and directly accused the deputies of disrupting peace initiatives. However, he promised to consult with them at the end and notify them on the eve of signing any documents in Minsk", - one of the people's deputies from Servant of the People told us.

Despite the fact that due to coronavirus, the meeting of representatives of the Trilateral Contact Group was transferred to the online format, head of the President's Office Andriy Yermak persuaded President Volodymyr Zelensky to take this unpopular step and create the Advisory Council till the last. This was reported to OstroV by several sources from the president's entourage.

"The idea was to unblock the exchange of prisoners and open up the possibility of a Normandy format meeting, at least in the foreseeable future, without a specific date. Moreover, against the background of quarantine, such a decision would not provoke mass protests, so Yermak promoted this idea to the last. Only when several dozen deputies from Servant of the People openly opposed this and it became clear that it could not be passed quietly and calmly, the decision was made to put the question on pause, but I emphasize – this is a pause, no one refuses it. On the contrary, messages from the authorities that the Advisory Council is not a betrayal and real patriots will be its members and the bit will gradually appear in the media", - one of the employees of the President's Office told OstroV.

As for the Servant of the People party, a group of people's deputies "against Yermak", the so-called "patriotic core against betrayal", has already been formed there. According to some reports, they even wanted to create a separate association in the Verkhovna Rada, but decided to postpone it so far. We are talking about 60-80 "servants". As one of these people's deputies told our agency, they are determined – "after quarantine, Andriy Yermak should not be on the post of head of the Presidential Office or he should be removed from the Minsk talks".

"If it were not for quarantine, the reaction would be more severe and ultimatum-like. But now we need to solve other issues related to the fight against coronavirus and saving our economy", - he said.

But as soon as the heated discussions around the "council" calmed down, Andriy Yermak (not without the help of the same "servants") fell into a major corruption scandal. On March 29, MP from Servant of the People Geo Leros unveiled several videos with the brother of Andriy Yermak, Denys, who allegedly discusses appointments to various posts, in particular, at the Kyiv Customs, the Ministry of Infrastructure and Ukrzaliznytsia. It is assumed that separate appointments for large sums, allegedly, were agreed at the Presidential Office through Denys Yermak.

Andriy Yermak has already responded to this scandal and appealed to the SBU and SBI with an appeal about investigation of the circumstances of how Geo Leros received these notes. The Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor's Office opened criminal proceedings on the fact of a possible influence peddling upon appointment to positions in government bodies.

The State Bureau of Investigation, in turn, carries out a pre-trial investigation into the distribution of this video by People's Deputy Geo Leros. The people's deputy himself explained that he received a flash drive with video recordings in the mail.

People's deputies from Servant of the People, who opposed the Advisory Council reacted to this scandal rather continently, but definitely. For example, Liza Bohutska believes that all those responsible should be punished if the information is confirmed. She also reproaches Andriy Yermak for appealing to the law enforcement agencies in case with Geo Leros.

"In my opinion, this is a headshot. After all, it would be much more correct for Andriy Yermak to file an application to the SBI and SBU with a request to study all the circumstances of his brother's possible corruption and, if confirmed, bring him to trial, as this brings shame on him and the President himself. Geo should not be touched at all", - she wrote on Facebook.

As for the reaction of Volodymyr Zelensky, to put it mildly, he was not enthusiastic about this scandal. Officially, he did not comment on the situation. According to OstroV, he had a rather emotional conversation with Andriy Yermak, but there is no talk of resignation yet.

"Zelensky issued a tough ultimatum – if this is true, they will not cover anyone up. But Yermak's resignation is inappropriate now. Firstly, the president is satisfied with his work, secondly, there is no one to replace him with, thirdly, Zelensky values ​​his contacts with the Russian party, and fourthly, it is simply inappropriate in the context of quarantine. Which solution will be pleasant after quarantine is still difficult to predict", - a source in the President's Office told our agency.

"Someone really wants to bring Andriy Yermak down, and the Advisory Council was just an excuse to launch the attack. The appearance of videos is a continuation, and this will not be limited to it. Of course, the ears of his predecessor Andriy Bohdan stick out there, but the real puppeteer of this story is not him for sure", - he added.

P.S .: Head of the President's Office Andriy Yermak unexpectedly decided to hold an online briefing on March 31, during which he spent most of the time talking about the fight against coronavirus (in fact, he simply repeated the already known information from the Ministry of Health) and then answered several questions from the Internet. Yermak put the increased focus on the Advisory Council, although he stubbornly called it the "Coordination Council" at this briefing…

So, the head of the President's Office spoke for a very long time and in detail about how the idea of creating it arose, who can enter it (it turns out that these are public figures and religious personages), that the final decision on its creation will be made after wider consultations with the Verkhovna Rada and civil society, that there will be no negotiations with terrorists, and so on. But the most important message he wanted to convey was that the decision to create the "council" was not canceled, but simply postponed for the duration of the consultations.

"The pressure on Yermak continues, telegram channels against him are a dime a dozen, Zelensky is quite dissatisfied. Therefore, Yermak gave this briefing to at least slightly break the tension and show that he was not hiding. After all, it was necessary to show that he is not going to resign after the scandal with records, but continues to work in his direction", - one of the officials of the Presidential Office commented on the briefing to OstroV.

Syvokho – without the NSDC, but with a "platform"

The National Platform for Reconciliation and Unity, which was presented in March by the NSDC Advisor (at that time), Serhiy Syvokho, was conceived as a combination of the government initiatives and the civilian sector to develop public policies in the field of building of a dialogue with the residents of CADLO. The platform has not yet managed to start its operation, but has already caused a lot of heated discussion about its feasibility, including from members of the team of President Volodymyr Zelensky.

For example, immediately after its presentation, nineteen people's deputies from Servant of the People officially applied to the NSDC with a demand to dismiss Serhiy Syvokho from the post of adviser to the secretary of this body.

"Thanks to the colleagues from faction, who supported. In fact, there are much more those who disagree with Syvokha and want to hear nothing about the "internal conflict", but not everyone managed to put their signature physically", - People's Deputy from Servant of the People Yehor Cherniev informed.

According to OstroV, the President's Office did not attach much importance to this, hoping that everything would calm down by itself. Nevertheless, none from the President's Office stood up for Syvokho publicly. Even President Volodymyr Zelensky did not react to the scandal surrounding the presentation of the Platform, although he was well aware of all the events (he had a conversation with Syvokho on the same day).

"If the Advisory Council of Yermak had not been added to Syvokho's Platform, he certainly would not have been fired. Moreover, he would have been interceded publicly. But the scandal with the "council" and the beginning of quarantine in the country have had their effect. Everyone is sorry that it just happened, there were big plans for this Platform", - sources in the president's team told OstroV.

It would seem that the scandal quickly arose and calmed down, but it became known on March 30 that Serhiy Syvokho is no longer a non-staff adviser to the Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council. This news was not published or voiced by the NSDC speakers; it did not appear on the official resources of the department. No. This is only a response to a request from one of the Ukrainian media.

"As of March 24 (the date the request was sent - ed.), Syvokho is not an adviser to the Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine on a voluntary basis", - the NSDC responded to the request for Detector Media.

The ministry named no reasons for the dismissal of Syvokha, having added that people's deputy from Servant of the People Maksym Tkachenko (one of the closest associates of Volodymyr Zelensky, first deputy head of the Verkhovna Rada Committee on the De-Occupation and Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories) was dismissed from the post of adviser to the NSDC secretary along with him.

Serhiy Syvokho reacted to this message on the same day, having noted that he would now be able to fully concentrate his forces on his National Platform.

"No need to write something – everyone understands that the NSDC clerks are no longer interested in the topic of Donbass. It is good to enter offices with the topic of peace, and then sell the country and bury your head in the sand under pressure from an active minority. From a formidable and important body, the NSDC turned into a fiction. Maksym Tkachenko and I were not very upset about the lost documents, but we are worried about the lost Donbass. Therefore, we will continue to help the president in his aspiration for peace! I am glad that I can now focus on the National Platform for Reconciliation and Unity. There are already a lot of us! We continue the work! Peace be with us", - he wrote on Facebook.

But not everything is so carefree and calm, as Syvokho describes. According to OstroV, dozens of continuous requests and unofficial reports from the people's deputies of the Servant of the People presidential party are behind his dismissal. In addition to the official letter, they used various messages to "crush" the NSDC secretary Oleksiy Danilov, "who was simply tired of being drawn into it".

"As for the people's deputies from Servant of the People, their main complaint was not against creating and operating the Platform, but against scandals to which Serhiy Syvokho is related. In particular, his statements about the "internal conflict" in the Donbas, about the need "to correct mistakes, forgive and ask for forgiveness" from the residents of CADLO, the calls to return pensions to the residents of the occupied Donbass and so on. Of course, the NSDC secretary did not want to associate with such a person and his messages, so Syvokho was quietly fired without thinking twice together with his comrade in the Donbass issues Maksym Tkachenko. Danilov did not appoint Syvokho as his adviser, he has no need of him, it was a request from the President's Office, so the farewell was quick and smooth", - OstroV was told at the President's Office off the record.

As for the National Platform, Serhiy Syvokho is going to actively engage in it, including with the informal support of President Volodymyr Zelensky. Now no one undertakes to say in what format this will happen. Many projects are paused due to quarantine in Ukraine. At the same time, according to our agency, Serhiy Syvokho and his team are actively developing a plan for the actual launch of the Platform.

"Syvokho really got peeved. Not so much at the NSDC or people's deputies from Servant of the People as at the President's Office and Volodymyr Zelensky personally. He got peeved because they did not defend him, did not make a single comment in his direction. Of course, he was explained that this would entail great reputation losses now, and he is supported out of public view, but there is an unpleasant feeling left behind. In any case, no one pulled the plug, Zelensky still supports this initiative", - people's deputy from Servant of the People told OstroV.

What comes next?

"The main question now is not the Advisory Council from Yermak or the Platform from Syvokho, no. The most important thing is what is the next step? How to plan the reintegration of Donbass now? This topic is hardly raised in the president's team now, everyone is focused on the fight against coronavirus and the solution of questions with the IMF. But according to early plans, a new meeting of leaders of the Normandy four countries should take place in April, and a new exchange of prisoners was to take place before the end of March. All these issues have now been suspended. At least in the Office of the President, there is very little talk about it now", - one of the president's team members told our agency.

Vice Prime Minister and Minister for the Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine Oleksii Reznikov believes that the exchange of prisoners may take place in the near future, but is in no hurry to give even approximate dates.

"He has the accurate lists, prepared. Here the question is whether that party will confirm, we really hope. My feeling is that this is possible. Exchange is the most likely element of the Minsk process, if our internal history here does not hinder it", - he said.

Head of the President's Office Andriy Yermak stated at a briefing on March 31 that the exchange could take place in the next two weeks. But any 100% agreements were out of the question.

"This process continues, it is complicated today with the pandemic. Therefore, the lists are being finalized, they are being updated. There were some difficulties, after all, representatives of the Red Cross were not allowed. But we received confirmation from the TCG participants once more, there was a conversation between the president and the head of the Red Cross about the immediate sending of representatives of the Red Cross to that territory. This will help us to improve the lists of all the people who are there… I really hope that, this is about a week, 10 days, or 2 weeks, and we will start to conduct these exchanges", - he stated.

As for the Normandy format meeting, here Andriy Yermak has a more pessimistic scenario. In particular, he accused the "other party" of the fact that it is not fulfilling its obligations (at the last meeting in Paris) and therefore, there is no agreement on holding a new summit. Most likely, such a meeting should not be expected during quarantine, as the leaders of the countries are busy with their internal affairs. This means that the question of the occupied Donbass, which, incidentally, is closed for entry and exit today, has frozen and is moving nowhere.

Vladyslav Bulatchik, OstroV