Ukrainian president rejects prime minister’s resignation

In the audio recording, Oleksiy Honcharuk said President Volodymyr Zelenskiy knows nothing about the economy

epa08135338 (FILE) Ukrainian Prime Minister Oleksiy Goncharuk attends a parliament session in Kiev, Ukraine, 11 November 2019 (reissued 17 January 2020). According to reports, Ukrainian Prime Minister Oleksiy Goncharuk resigned on 17 January 2020 from the post after an audio recording allegedly him criticising Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy leaked. The President's Office Friday morning said Volodymyr Zelensky would consider the resignation letter. The decision will be announced separately as local media report.  EPA/SERGEY DOLZHENKO
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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy rejected his prime minister’s offer to resign and asked him to stay on the job Friday after he was caught on tape saying Mr Zelenskiy — a former sitcom star with no previous political experience — knows nothing about the economy.

In a video released by Mr Zelenskiy’s office, the president called the situation “unpleasant” but asked Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk and his Cabinet to carry on.

“I decided to give you and your government a chance if you manage to solve important issues that the public worries about,” Mr Zelenskiy said as he faced Mr Honcharuk across the table. “It’s not a moment when we can afford economic and political destabilisation.”

He instructed Mr Honcharuk to look into multi-million-dollar bonuses given to executives of the state-controlled gas company and high salaries for Cabinet ministers that angered many in the economically struggling nation, directing the prime minister to report his findings by February 4.

The furore comes at a fraught moment for Mr Zelenskiy, who has found himself in the middle of the impeachment case unfolding against President Donald Trump in Washington.

President Trump stands accused of withholding nearly $400 million (Dh 1.4 billion) in military aid to Ukraine to pressure the country’s leader to investigate his political rival Joe Biden.

In the audio recording that surfaced earlier this week, Mr Honcharuk was heard making what appeared to be disparaging comments about Mr Zelenskiy’s understanding of economics. He called Mr Zelenskiy “a layman” in economics and said the president should be better educated about the national currency.

Mr Zelenskiy, 41, is a former comedian whose only political experience before his election last spring consisted of playing a Ukrainian president on TV. He starred in “Servant of the People” as a high school history teacher who is propelled to the highest office after his rant against government corruption goes viral.

In a Facebook post earlier Friday, Mr Honcharuk praised Mr Zelenskiy as “an example of transparency and decency to me” and argued that the recording was manipulated, but announced that he was submitting a letter of resignation “in order to dispel any doubts about our respect and trust for the president.”

The offer to step down was subject to approval by the Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, which is dominated by Mr Zelenskiy’s party. It presented a legal quandary since Ukrainian law prevent the Cabinet’s dismissal for a year after it presents its program. Mr Honcharuk did so in September.

Analysts said the dismissal of Mr Honcharuk and his Cabinet would badly damage the president and upset Ukraine’s talks with international lenders.

“Zelenskiy fears an internal political crisis and doesn’t want problems in talks with Western investors and the International Monetary Fund,” said Volodymyr Sidenko, an analyst with the Razumkov Center think tank. ““Honcharuk’s resignation can destroy the idea of the government’s unity and cast a doubt on Zelenskiy’s ability to control the situation.”

Mr Sidenko charged that tycoons unhappy with the recent strengthening of the Ukrainian currency — a move that hurt their business — could be behind the scandal. “Several big oligarchs who own export-oriented businesses were interested in the resignation of Honcharuk’s Cabinet,” Mr Sidenko said.

Mr Honcharuk said that the recording was a compilation of “fragments of recorded government meetings,” and he blamed unidentified “influential groups” for making it look as if he didn’t respect the president.

“It is not true,” the prime minister insisted.

Mr Zelenskiy demanded an investigation into the source of the recording.

While Mr Zelenskiy is a member of Servant of the People party and Mr Honcharuk is an independent, it was Mr Zelenskiy who proposed him to the parliament as prime minister.