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Zelensky ousts controversial administration head for chief Russia negotiator

EPA-EFE//SERGEY DOLZHENKO
Andrey Yermak answers questions of media during his first press conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 12, 2020. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appointed Yermak as his new Head of the President's Office on February 11, 2020.

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced on February 10 that he had dismissed Andriy Bogdan from his post as Chairman of the President’s Office, a move that surprised many but was widely hailed after Bogdan’s appointment drew widespread criticism eight months ago when the administration took office due to his ties to Igor Kolomoisky, a widely-loathed but still powerful billionaire, who has tried to re-establish his place in Ukraine’s hierarchy after his arch-nemesis, ex-President Petro Poroshenko, was soundly defeated by Zelensky in the April 2019 national election.
Bogdan had previously served as Kolomoisky’s lawyer. The latter’s television channel backed Zelensky during the election campaign and those ties raised concerns that the Kolomoisky was trying to overturn the nationalisation of his former bank, PrivatBank, a key requirement for Ukraine’s cooperation with its international creditors. During the drawn-out legal battle with the government over control of PrivatBank, Bogdan represented Kolomoisky.
An explanation for Bogdan’s ouster has been given by Zelensky’s office, but most Ukraine watchers believe that the move to remove came after Bogdan lost a turf war with Andrey Yermak, a close associate of Zelensky’s who had been the latter’s special envoy to Russia and the US.
Bogdan was was himself a controversial figure due to his ties to the ousted government of pro-Russian former President Viktor Yanukovych and his own personal image that reminded many of a 1990s-style post-Soviet politician that included questionable style choices and behaviour. The general perception in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv is that Bogdan never really managed to shake the perception that he was entirely out of Kolomoisky’s camp.
Yermak is a former lawyer and film producer who became a figure in the impeachment of President Donald Trump. Yermak met Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani in Madrid last year at a time when Trump’s camp was pressing Ukraine to investigate the son of former Vice President Joe Biden who had worked at a Ukrainian energy company. Yermak’s dealings with Giuliani were frequently cited in Trump’s recently completed impeachment trial of Trump, which saw the president acquitted by the Republican-led Senate.
Most importantly, Yermak has been Zelensky’s chief envoy to Moscow and was instrumental in negotiating prisoner swaps with Russia, a move that is widely seen as a major confidence-building measure that is aimed at ending a war that has killed more than 13,000 people in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region since hostilities broke out between Ukraine’s armed forces and Moscow-backed separatists in April 2014.
Moscow appoints new Ukraine envoy
The appointment of Yermak came just as Moscow was set to announce that its long-time Ukraine policy czar, Vladislav Surkov, a half-Russian/half-Chechen Kremlin hardliner, would be replaced by former Deputy Prime Minister of Russia Dmitry Kozak.
Kozak was born in Kirovograd, a city in Ukraine’s industrial heartland, during the Soviet Union. Before entering public life, he was an officer in the Spetsnaz GRU – Soviet military intelligence’s special forces wing – in the late 1970s. Kozak later became a public prosecutor St Petersburg during the perestroika period of the 1980s before turning to politics. It was at this time that he became a close ally of Vladimir Putin, whose home city is St Petersburg.
Putin’s first reelection campaign in 2004 was supervised by Kozak and he was responsible for preparations for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, and also served as Putin’s personal representative to Moldova and its pro-Russian breakaway region Transnistria.
Possible thaw?
The new senior appointments in both Kyiv and Moscow appear to point towards a tentative detente to the two warring sides. Neither side has indicated that the timing of the announcements was intentional, but the simultaneous appointments are being regarded by many in Ukraine and Russia as signs that both Zelensky and Putin want a new approach to the five-year-old conflict.
Both sides have been keen to play down the prospect of an abrupt change in their relationship, but a senior source who worked with Yermak during the prisoner swaps indicated to the local media that the appointment of Kozak could be a step forward, saying, “Our experience with Kozak…shows he has been constructive, kept his word and we have had the impression he has been focused on achieving the results that we got.”

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