Kyiv, Ukraine – Ukraine’s embattled Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk tendered his resignation following a scandal over what appeared to be leaked tapes of him lambasting the president’s “primitive” views on the economy.
But President Volodymyr Zelenskyy refused to accept Honcharuk’s offer to quit.
A man whose voice resembles that of Honcharuk is heard in three audio files posted on YouTube this week, which claim to be the recording of conversations between the prime minister and finance officials, including the finance minister.
Honcharuk, a 35-year-old lawyer who became Ukraine’s prime minister in August, is alleged to have said: “Zelenskyy has a very primitive understanding of the economy”, and is also heard describing himself a “layman” in economic matters.
Zelenskyy earlier said he would “consider” the resignation.
The Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s lower house of parliament – dominated by Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party – convened on Friday to discuss the resignation.
After the meeting, Zelenskyy refused the resignation bid.
“I decided to give you and your government a chance if you resolve some issues that are very important today and are of concern to our society,” the president told Honcharuk in a video released by his press service late Friday.
“Now is not the time to shake the country economically and politically.”
He instructed security officials to find the source of the leak.
“I demand that within two weeks, as soon as possible, we should get the information on who was recording,” he was quoted by his press service as saying.
Law enforcement agencies should “find who did it and work it all out,” he said.
Honcharuk blames ‘groups of influence’
Addressing the parliament earlier on Friday, Honcharuk said there had been attempts to sow distrust, but called for unity to prevail.
“Ukraine’s government keeps working as usual until the moment the president makes a decision,” he said.
“This is a political decision we are expecting from our political power.”
Some of the legislators shouted, “Get away!” after his speech.
Honcharuk also suggested unnamed powerful figures stood to benefit from his government being brought down.
“Many groups of influence, which are trying to gain access to financial flows, benefit from such presentation, but this is not true,” Honcharuk wrote on Facebook on Friday morning.
“I came to this post to execute the president’s programme. He is for me a model of openness and honesty. However, I wrote the resignation letter to the president with the right to submit it to Parliament to cast away any doubts of our respect and trust to the president.”
According to Ukraine’s constitution, only a parliamentary vote can dismiss a prime minister.
Honcharuk said on Friday the recording had been “doctored”, cobbled together from fragments of recorded government meetings.
“Its contents artificially create the impression that my team and I do not respect the president, who is our political leader,” Honcharuk said on social media.
He did not comment on whether it was his voice heard in the recording, but on Thursday said the furore would not “scare” him, as his government would be “even more stubborn in uprooting corruption and blocking the streams” of illegal financial operations.
His government, which largely consists of political first-timers and formerly junior officials, has been criticised for an inconsistent approach to reforms and a failure to live up to Zelenskyy’s populist election promises to upend the power of regional oligarchs, crack down on corruption and reform an economy hobbled by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and an armed conflict in two separatist provinces.
“His government could start the process of replacing elites, changing the system of decision-making that went against the wishes of several oligarchic groups in Ukraine, but on the other hand, they could not make this work systemic, they did not start the reforms [the public] expected from them,” Igar Tyshkevich of Kyiv-based think-tank The Future Institute, told Al Jazeera.
Other experts are even more dismissive of Honcharuk’s performance.
“On a scale of one to 10, it’s definitely a zero,” Kyiv-based analyst Alexey Kushch told Al Jazeera. Explaining his low rating, Kushch cited an industrial recession, a drop in gross domestic product growth and deflation stifling income growth, budget and trade deficits and shrinking foreign investment.
Ukraine is one of Europe’s poorest nations, suffering after a severe disruption of economic ties with Moscow. Millions of migrant workers work in the European Union or Russia, while Kyiv’s cash-strapped government is struggling to maintain its military fighting pro-Russia separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Honcharuk’s government has also faced two political crises not of his making.
The first is the ongoing scandal surrounding US President Donald Trump’s alleged attempts to pressure Zelenskyy into investigating Hunter Biden, the son of Trump’s political rival, Joe Biden, the former vice president of the United States. The White House briefly froze almost $400m in military aid in a move that could have reignited the separatist war, Europe’s most active armed conflict, in which more than 13,000 lives have been lost.
The second is the January 8 downing of a Ukrainian commercial airliner by an Iranian missile, which resulted in the death of all 176 passengers and crew on board.