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19 February 2020

Andriy Yermak becomes second most influential person in Ukraine

Andriy Yermak, a longtime friend of President Volodymyr Zelensky, was appointed the president’s chief of staff on Feb. 11, replacing Andriy Bohdan, who held the job for eight months.

He previously served as Zelensky’s foreign policy aide, leading a prisoner exchange with Russia and overseeing the infamous diplomatic backchannel with the U.S.

A day after being appointed, Yermak held a press conference in which he outlined his main goals: peace with Russia, increasing foreign investment and replacing regional governors.

Yermak, a soft-spoken negotiator, succeeds the pugnacious Bohdan, who was often praised for effectiveness but criticized for his disregard for rules and decorum.

“Bohdan was very provocative and expressive, and he accumulated a large amount of negativity,” says Oleksiy Haran, a professor of comparative politics at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy. “Zelensky decided to dispose of this ballast. Yermak won’t be so vocal. He’ll take a more careful approach.”

Who is Yermak?

Yermak and Zelensky go back a long way. Yermak worked with Zelensky’s Kvartal 95 studio as a copyright lawyer. He also founded Garnet Media Group, which produced Ukrainian films and TV shows.

At the same time, Yermak served as an aide to wrestler and lawmaker Elbrus Tedeyev between 2006 and 2014. Tedeyev represented the now disbanded Party of Regions, a pro-Russian force led by disgraced former President Viktor Yanukovych.

Yermak reemerged in Ukrainian politics in 2019. He was a part of Zelensky’s presidential campaign, but still not a public face. When Zelensky was sworn in as president on May 20, he appointed Yermak as his aide.

From then on, Yermak began accumulating power inside the president’s office.

Talking with Giuliani

At first, Yermak kept a low profile, while using back channels to lead Ukraine’s foreign policy at Zelensky’s request, bypassing the foreign ministry. Yermak was the link between Zelensky and Rudolph Giuliani, U.S. President Donald Trump’s lawyer, whose quest to frame former Vice President Joseph Biden led to Trump’s impeachment trial.

It started in May, when former U.S. Special Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker met Yermak during Zelensky’s inauguration. Volker introduced Yermak to Giuliani on July 19, days before the now-infamous phone call between Trump and Zelensky, which featured the U.S. president requesting an investigation into the dealings of his political opponent Biden in Ukraine.

According to Volker’s text messages, presented to the U.S. Congress in October, Yermak told the American officials that Zelensky would give in to their request and publicly pledge to investigate Burisma, a gas company that employed Biden’s son Hunter. He also said there would be an investigation into Trump’s allegations of Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections, a conspiracy theory that has been widely debunked.

However, Zelensky never made the promised statement.

Talking with Russia

Yermak was more successful in his dealings with Russia. He helped negotiate two prisoner swaps, one with Russia in September and another with Russia’s proxies in eastern Ukraine in December.

According to his interviews, during both exchanges Yermak worked closely with then-Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak.

In late January, Kozak was appointed third deputy head of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s administration, in charge of dealings with Ukraine. It happened shortly before the accession of Yermak to the top job, suggesting a connection.

“The bet is made on bilateral talks with Putin,” says Haran, adding that, previously, Ukraine tried to avoid one-on-one talks with Russia.

Yermak used to have business ties with Russian officials, including Putin’s former classmates, through a company he co-founded in Russia, according to a report by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. However, Yermak said that his Russian company was inactive and that he hasn’t been in touch with his former partners.

Now Yermak is set to play the main role in negotiating peace with Russia, whose war in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014.

Yermak accompanied Zelensky to the Normandy Format meeting, held between the leaders of Ukraine, Germany, France, and Russia, in Paris on Dec. 9.

During the meeting, Ukraine reiterated its agreement to implement the so-called Steinmeier Formula, which would give wider self-governance to the occupied regions of Donbas in return for local elections under Ukrainian law.

But Ukraine and Russia are in disagreement over key details of this arrangement, including whether Ukraine would have control of its eastern border before or after the election.

Zelensky wants to have the election in October, simultaneously with scheduled local elections around Ukraine. Yermak agrees, but says that, first, Russian military should leave Ukrainian territory.

Haran doesn’t think it’s possible.

“This naïve thought that we will be able to persuade Putin to make concessions to Ukraine will result in further concessions by Ukraine,” says Haran.

Domestic battles

Several months into his job as Zelensky’s aide, Yermak’s growing influence spilled over into domestic affairs, violating the unofficial separation of powers between him and Bohdan.

In late July, Yermak reportedly brokered a deal between Zelensky and former heavyweight boxing champion and Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko.

Zelensky’s administration sought to replace Klitschko as the head of the Kyiv City State Administration, a post he has held since 2014. Bohdan led the campaign against Klitschko, openly calling for his resignation. But it came to nothing. Ukrainian media and political observers claimed that Klitschko went around Bohdan and made peace through Yermak.

Andriy Bohdan, a former lawyer to billionaire oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, speaks into the ear of then-presidential candidate Volodymyr Zelensky during a presidential debate with his rival, President Petro Poroshenko, at Olympic Stadium in Kyiv on April 19, 2019. (Volodymyr Petrov)

Yermak had influence in other parts of Ukraine, too. Luhansk Oblast Governor Serhiy Haidai, in his interview with the Hromadske news outlet, said that it was Yermak who recommended him for the job.

In the recent months, Yermak took Bohdan’s place next to the president during multiple public appearances, both during foreign visits and domestic events. Meanwhile, Bohdan disappeared from the public eye.

During his Feb. 12 press conference, a victorious Yermak wasn’t shy about taking a few jabs at his predecessor. He started the briefing by talking about the importance of the media. Bohdan famously loathed the media and said the administration can speak to Ukrainians directly.

Just like Bohdan, Yermak will have immense power, according to Haran.

“We see an inexperienced president who isn’t comfortable with public appearances,” he says. “We’re returning to the time when the head of the presidential administration had extensive influence.”