raider,during the collapse of the Soviet Union—a train line once graced by robbers in leather jackets who snuffed out passengers for any rubles they might have foolishly failed to hide. He started a tiny bank amid the USSR’s rubbleRussian troops
How did Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko repay Kolomoisky? He fired him. And then he nationalized his bank.
In a county where seemingly everything—from seats in parliament to the Crimean peninsula—can be swiped, Kolomoisky, according to his critics, has decided that comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the star on the network he owns, is going to be president. Whether or not oligarchs should have this kind of influence has been one of the most important questions in Ukrainian politics since it separated from the Soviet Union. Kolomoisky is also under investigation in the United States, The Daily Beast in early April, for possible financial crimes—an allegation he denies.
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Quietly, Ukraine’s Ministry of Financeconcerns about fraud with PrivatBank officials. By the summer of 2016 Poroshenko was urged to nationalize PrivatBank, according to two former Ukrainian government officials. He stalled for months because of Kolomoisky’s political power, according to one. In December, Poroshenko was ready to sign off on the takeover but there were concerns inside the ministry of finance that Kolomoisky would retaliate: PrivatBank employed 26,000 people, consisted of 30 percent of the banking system and processed 75 percent of payments in Ukraine, a former senior official in the ministry of finance told me. “We didn’t know if Kolomoisky had the red button [to halt the bank’s operations] and would use it just two weeks before the Christmas holidays to shut the country down.”
The Ukrainian government nationalized PrivatBank on December 18. Kolomoisky ceded power without incident, and Poroshenko was praised by the international community.
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In a country used to corrupt characters, the fresh presence of Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a comedian whose show appears on Kolomoisky’s network, has been a welcome plot twist, although he has generally refused to give specifics about his political plans.
The belief that Zelenskiy’s presidential bid is Kolomoisky’s doing—revenge against Poroshenko for nationalizing PrivatBank—has been present since the start of his campaign. While lacking proof, the critics spouting the theory are not without evidence they can point to. Zelenskiy, in addition to technically being an employee of Kolomoisky as a star on a network he owns, has received significant free airtime on the network. The comedian has alsoflown to Kolomoisky’s home 13 times in the past two years, sometimes with the oligarch’s attorney.
Both Zelenskiy and Kolomoisky deny the plot, Zelenskiy saying he would not give PrivatBank back to Kolomoisky, and Kolomoisky telling a local media outlet that if the government wants to keep PrivatBank they can—although he’d like the $2 billion in capital back. A spokesperson for Zelenskiy told me Kolomoisky had no role in the campaign. Both men also say their meetings and phone calls have not been about politics during the campaign season.
However it began, Zelenskiy’s candidacy has grown serious—a recent poll estimated he would receive more than 70 percent of the vote against Poroshenko in the second round. And the winner of the elections will likely have to decide what to do about PrivatBank. Days before the final vote, a court in Kyiv said the takeover of PrivatBank was illegal in a decision of far-reaching political implications.
Zelenskiy celebrated his first-place results in the March 31 round of Ukraine’s presidential elections by renting a swanky nightclub. House music thumped inside the dark club, where a smartly dressed Zelenskiy spoke with reporters for fewer than three minutes after his victory. There was a ping pong, air hockey and foosball table. Curiously absent were any non-elite political supporters—a fitting atmosphere for an election defined by billionaires.
In the crowd of tailored blazers and white sneakers towered Serhiy Leshchenko, a prominent anti-corruption activist and member of parliament, sporting an orange sweater. With a reputation for being one of the most incorruptible figures in Ukrainian politics, he was a striking figure at Zelenskiy’s victory bash.
Leshchenko recently said on a local talk show that he is trying to persuade Zelesnskiy to be an anti-corruption advocate. He doesn’t deny Kolomoisky’s influence on Zelenskiy’s campaign. But “the influence is not one to one,” he told me.