Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky rejected his prime minister’s offer to resign and asked him to stay on the job Friday after he was caught on tape saying Zelensky — a former sitcom star with no previous political experience — knows nothing about the economy.
In a video released by Zelensky’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,” Zelensky said as he faced Honcharuk across the table. “It’s not a moment when we can afford economic and political destabilization.”
He instructed Honcharuk to look into multimillion-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 Feb. 4.
The furor comes at a fraught moment for Zelensky, who has found himself in the middle of the impeachment case against President Trump in Washington. Trump stands accused of withholding nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine to pressure Zelensky to investigate Democrat Joe Biden and other political rivals.
In the audio recording that surfaced this week, Honcharuk was heard making what appeared to be disparaging comments about Zelensky’s understanding of economics. He called Zelensky “a layman” in economics and said the president should be better educated about the national currency.
Zelensky, 41, is a former comedian whose only experience related to politics 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, Honcharuk praised Zelensky 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 Zelensky’s party. The situation presented a legal quandary because Ukrainian law prevents the Cabinet’s dismissal for a year after it presents its program. Honcharuk did so in September.
Analysts said the dismissal of Honcharuk and his Cabinet would have badly damaged the president and upset Ukraine’s talks with international lenders.
“Zelensky 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 Zelensky’s ability to control the situation.”
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,” Sidenko said.
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.
Zelensky demanded an investigation into the source of the recording.
Though Zelensky is a member of Servant of the People party and Honcharuk is an independent, it was Zelensky who proposed him to the parliament as prime minister.