Ukraine’s prime minister ousted as President Zelensky seeks ‘new brains’

Oleksiy Honcharuk, who was recorded saying president knows ‘nothing’ about economy, forced to resign; Denys Shmygal confirmed as his replacement

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the Ukrainian parliament in Kyiv, Ukraine, March, 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the Ukrainian parliament in Kyiv, Ukraine, March, 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian lawmakers overwhelmingly voted Wednesday to accept the resignation of the nation’s prime minister after a six-month tenure in which his performance came under severe criticism from President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The president’s Servant of the People party dominates the Ukrainian parliament and took the lead in relieving Oleksiy Honcharuk of his post. Forty lawmakers abstained from the vote but the message of the 353-0 tally was clear.

Lawmakers later approved Deputy Prime Minister Denys Shmygal to be the new prime minister.

Addressing lawmakers before the resignation vote, Zelensky said Honcharuk, 35, failed to halt an industrial slump or meet tax collection targets.

“We need new brains and new hearts in the government,” the president said.

Ukraine’s newly elected Prime Minister Denys Shmygal speaks at the parliament session hall in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 4, 2020. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

Shmygal, 44, who was named deputy prime minister last month, previously served as head of the regional administration in Ukraine’s western Ivano-Frankivsk region.

“The citizens’ expectations are enormous and their patience is running out,” he told lawmakers, adding: “We need results today.”

Honcharuk first offered his resignation in January after he was caught on tape saying Zelensky — a former sitcom star with no previous political experience — knew nothing about the economy.

Zelensky called the situation “unpleasant” but asked Honcharuk to remain prime minister.

Two key Cabinet members also lost their posts in a broader government shakeup. Dmytro Kulba, the vice-premier for European affairs, was named the new foreign minister. The new defense minister is Andriy Taran, formerly the ministry representative in Ukraine’s United Nations delegation.

Zelensky said that while members of Honcharuk’s Cabinet weren’t mired in corruption, their efforts to eradicate graft haven’t been strong enough.

“It’s not enough not to steal,” he said. “We promised citizens to win the fight against corruption, and it hasn’t even been a tie.”

Ukraine’s Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk speaks during the business forum in Kyiv, Ukraine, October 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

During a short speech to lawmakers, Honcharuk cited low inflation and macroeconomic stability as among his achievements. He praised Zelensky’s leadership.

“We have a good president. He’s a decent and honest person,” he said.

Zelensky’s approval ratings have dropped significantly since his landslide victory in Ukraine’s April 2019 presidential election.

Former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko described the Cabinet reshuffle as an attempt by Zelensky to shore up his sagging popularity by “shifting blame for his own failures.”

Zelensky, 42, campaigned on promises to end the war with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine and combat the country’s endemic corruption.

Zelensky initiated a new round of talks to settle the conflict and an exchange of war prisoners, but clashes in the east have persisted.

Over the past few months, Zelensky also found himself embroiled in the impeachment case against US President Donald Trump, who was accused of withholding around $400 million in military aid to Ukraine to pressure it to investigate Democratic presidential rival Joe Biden.

Trump was impeached in December on two counts by the Democratic-run House, but the Republican-run Senate acquitted him on both counts.

Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Penta Center think tank based in Kyiv, said he thinks the Cabinet retooling is Zelensky’s response to growing public dissatisfaction.

“The main reason is disappointment and discontent, not just with Honcharuk, but with the government as a whole,” he said.

Fesenko noted that to secure a $5.5 billion loan package agreed to in December, the Cabinet will have to persuade the International Monetary Fund it that Ukraine remains on a path of reform.

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