Ukrainian leader seeks more independence, fires top aide

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks during a joint news conference with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday Jan. 31, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Pool via AP)

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KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine’s president dismissed his chief of staff on Tuesday in a sign of intensifying rivalries in his entourage and a possible move to distance himself from a powerful billionaire.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s administration released his decree ousting Andriy Bohdan and putting foreign affairs adviser Andriy Yermak in the post instead.

Ukrainian media long have reported about a political tug-of-war between Bohdan and Yermak. Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Penta Center think-tank, said Bohdan’s aggressive style “won him a lot of enemies and hampered agreements.”

Observers saw Bohdan’s dismissal as a sign that Zelenskiy, a former comic actor, wants to distance himself from billionaire tycoon Ihor Kolomoisky, who previously employed Bohdan as his lawyer.

Some said Kolomoisky, whose assets include a TV station that aired the sitcom featuring Zelenskiy, has sought to use his connections to the president to try to shape Ukrainian government policies and protect his business interests.

“The president wants to distance himself from Kolomoisky, who wasn’t hiding his ambitions to influence both domestic and foreign policies,” said Kyiv-based political analyst Vadim Karasev.

Ukraine took the center stage in the recent U.S. impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump. Those were triggered by a July 25 phone call in which Trump asked Zelenskiy to investigate his Democratic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden and Biden’s son Hunter, who was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. Trump won impeachment acquittal in the U.S. Senate last week.

Zelenskiy, who was elected in April, has sought to distance himself from the U.S. impeachment drama in an effort to retain bipartisan U.S. support. Such backing is crucial for Ukraine, which is has been stuck in a tug-of-war with Russia for years after Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and backed a separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine that has left 14,000 people dead since then.

Karasev said Kolomoisky was trying to make Zelenskiy take a pro-Trump position.

“Kolomoisky openly took the Trump side, trying to force Kyiv and Zelenskiy to play on just one side,” he said. “He did it in a rude and insolent way, and he paid for that now.”

Karasev noted that Yermak, the new presidential chief of staff, had met with Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani but made sure that Ukraine did not take a side in the impeachment.

“Yermak insisted that Kyiv should take a neutral stance in the impeachment of Trump, and Zelenskiy appproved that course,” Karasev said.

The analyst said the Ukrainian government was sending a signal to Washington and to Trump about its readiness to resume contacts.

——

Yuras Karmanau contributed to this report from Minsk, Belarus.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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