Ukraine’s Premier Offers Resignation as Political Infighting Grows

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Author: Anton Troianovski, The New York Times

In a leaked audio recording, Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk appears to criticize the economic acumen of President Volodymyr Zelensky.

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 leaks of clandestine audio recordings that appear to show Mr. Honcharuk criticizing the president’s knowledge of economics.

It was unclear whether Mr. Zelensky and the Ukrainian Parliament would accept Mr. Honcharuk’s resignation, or just take it as a public show of contrition and move on. But the developments 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."

Mr. Zelensky’s office said that the president had received Mr. Honcharuk’s letter and would consider it. For Mr. Honcharuk to leave his post, however, the Ukrainian Parliament would need to vote to dismiss him.

Even if Mr. Honcharuk remains 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.

By Anton Troianovski, The New York Times