A Leak, a Resignation and Another Chance: Ukraine Infighting Grows

In a recording, Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk appears to criticize the economic acumen of President Volodymyr Zelensky. His resignation, though, was turned down.

Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk of Ukraine addressing lawmakers on Friday. 
Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk of Ukraine addressing lawmakers on Friday. Credit...Sergei Supinsky/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Anton Troianovski

MOSCOW — President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine is already juggling multiple international crises: A war with Russia-backed separatists, an unwanted starring role in the impeachment drama gripping Washington, and tensions with Iran over the downing of Ukrainian jetliner.

Now he is facing growing political turbulence at home.

Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk, an ally of Mr. Zelensky, tendered his resignation on Friday after clandestine audio recordings appeared to show Mr. Honcharuk criticizing the president’s knowledge of economics.

Hours later, Mr. Zelensky rejected Mr. Honcharuk’s resignation in a videotaped meeting that the president’s office posted to Facebook.

The back-and-forth indicated that Mr. Zelensky, a 41-year-old former comedian, faces a power struggle within Ukraine’s elite, despite landslide victories in the presidential election last spring and parliamentary elections last summer.

Mr. Honcharuk said the recordings of discussions with senior government officials had been doctored and leaked by people seeking to show that he and his team “don’t respect the president,” in hopes of impeding Mr. Zelensky’s efforts to fight systemic corruption.

“Many influential groups that aim to get access to financial flows would benefit from things appearing that way,” Mr. Honcharuk said on Friday in a statement announcing that he had submitted his resignation. “But this is not true.”

There was no clear indication as to who leaked the audio files, in which government officials discuss how to make a presentation about economic policy to Mr. Zelensky. A voice that sounds like Mr. Honcharuk’s can be heard describing Mr. Zelensky’s understanding of economics as “primitive.” The same voice also says, “I am a complete ignoramus in economics.”

Mr. Honcharuk said he was submitting his letter of resignation to Mr. Zelensky in order to “remove any doubt as to our respect for and trust in the president.” About nine hours after Mr. Honcharuk announced the resignation offer, Mr. Zelensky’s office made public a video saying that the prime minister would remain.

“You know my personal attitude to you, you know it well,” Mr. Zelensky tells Mr. Honcharuk in the video, sitting across from him in a grand meeting room. “I’ve decided to give you a chance.”

Even with Mr. Honcharuk remaining in office, the leak of high-level government discussions hints at the intensity of political infighting in Ukraine, as Mr. Zelensky takes steps to follow through on a campaign pledge to take on corruption and the country’s entrenched interests.

Mr. Zelensky has promised to rein in the business tycoons known as oligarchs, who have long held outsize sway in Ukraine with influential media holdings and deep political ties. Parliament has approved a raft of anticorruption laws in recent months, but analysts say it is too early to judge the effectiveness of the efforts.

“Unfortunately, it is rather difficult to destroy criminal schemes that were built up over decades in the course of several months,” Mr. Honcharuk said.

Mr. Zelensky’s office issued a statement saying the president had ordered law enforcement to find out within two weeks who was responsible for the recordings, which it described as stemming from a meeting between Mr. Honcharuk and other government ministers and central bank officials.

“The unsanctioned surveillance and recording of conversations must not occur in the offices of the state authorities,” the president’s office said. “This is a question of national security.”

The government has also announced a criminal investigation into different allegations of secret surveillance. That inquiry was based on published text messages suggesting that a United States ambassador, Marie L. Yovanovitch, was being watched in Kyiv.

Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Kyiv, Ukraine.