Volodymyr Zelensky, the former comedian just elected as Ukraine’s president, has sent emissaries to Brussels to try to bolster his credibility and convince the EU that he will push through anti-corruption and judicial reforms.
A delegation of advisers led by Oleksandr Danylyuk, a former finance minister under outgoing president Petro Poroshenko, has held talks with European diplomats in the run-up to Mr Zelensky’s inauguration this month.
The initiative aims to reassure Kiev’s European allies of the new leader’s ability to manage extensive domestic change and deal with Russia, more than five years after Moscow invaded Crimea.
EU support would be “crucial”, Mr Danylyuk told the Financial Times. “The hope of the new president is that we will build a strong team to push full speed with reforms,” Mr Danylyuk said. “The priorities are absolutely clear: the fight against corruption, rule of law and economic reforms.”
The Ukrainian delegation in Brussels met EU member states’ main foreign policy committee.
Mr Zelensky was unknown in political circles until he ran for president and said little about his specific policies during the campaign. Mr Danylyuk acknowledged that EU countries were “very curious” to know more about the incoming president’s plans after his landslide victory over Mr Poroshenko last month.
“Out of 28 countries, 20 asked very detailed questions, which shows they are involved, they want to understand and they want to help,” Mr Danylyuk said.
EU diplomats also spoke positively of the meeting. “They had a very good, reform-oriented agenda. It gives me some hope,” one said.
Mr Zelensky has so far declined to reveal who he will appoint to top positions in his presidential office, the army, state security services and the prosecutor’s office.
Western diplomats say confidence would be boosted should he name Mr Danylyuk and other reformers with experience, instead of individuals considered to be close to controversial oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, whose television channel provided strong support during Mr Zelensky’s election campaign.
An early test for Mr Zelensky’s domestic reform credentials will be his handling of PrivatBank, a commercial lender nationalised from Mr Kolomoisky and partners in 2016 after officials identified a $5.5bn balance sheet hole. Government efforts to recover losses through asset recovery litigation against Mr Kolomoisky and his associates are key conditions for further multi-billion-dollar assistance from the IMF and western backers.
Mr Kolomoisky denies any wrongdoing, claims the bank was wrongfully expropriated from him and has through litigation sought to reverse the move while seeking reimbursement for damages.
Citing a Friday phone call with IMF chief Christine Lagarde about the legal battle over PrivatBank, Mr Poroshenko’s office said both expressed serious concerns that “denationalisation of PrivatBank . . . may endanger the financial stability of the state”.
Ms Lagarde, in a statement summing up the talks, said: “It is crucial to safeguard the important progress made during the president’s tenure in advancing key reforms, and especially to ensure the independence of the central bank and maintain the stability of the banking system.”
Mr Danylyuk said the new administration wanted the PrivatBank case “properly addressed”, without giving details.
He added that Mr Zelensky was committed to exiting all his business interests to avoid any prospect of real or perceived conflicts of interest.
Mr Kolomoisky’s TV channel has aired Mr Zelensky’s comedy performances and television shows. The two men also share the services of the same lawyer, Andriy Bogdan, who has expressed readiness to serve in a top position under a Zelensky presidency.
On foreign policy, Mr Zelensky has pledged to keep Kiev firmly on a path towards EU integration and Nato membership. He has taken a defiant stance towards Russia after President Vladimir Putin suggested both countries should unite into a single state, given their close cultural ties.
Mr Zelensky retorted last week that Moscow’s territorial grabs, economic pressure and “illegal detainment of Ukrainians in captivity” meant relations between the two countries “most certainly can’t be called ‘brotherly’.”
“After the annexation of Crimea and aggression in [the eastern Ukraine region of] Donbas, the only thing we have left “in common” is the state border,” he said. “Russia must return the control of every inch of the Ukrainian side.”
Get alerts on Ukrainian politics when a new story is published