The Pandora Papers’ revelations that President Volodymyr Zelensky concealed assets offshore, like many other top officials, has stoked criticism at home.
When Zelensky was campaigning for the presidency in 2019, he called for politicians to be transparent. However, he appears to have had secrets of his own, hidden away in offshore jurisdictions.
The Pandora Papers revealed that Zelensky and his inner circle were the beneficiaries of a network of offshore companies in the British Virgin Islands, Cyprus, and Belize, including some that owned expensive London property.
According to the investigation, Zelensky transferred shares in a key offshore company to his aide close to the 2019 election but arranged to continue receiving money from it.
Ruling administration’s reaction
“All this information has already been publicized by the opponents of Volodymyr Zelensky during the election campaign. Neither then, nor all the more so now is there anything compromising in this information,” Mykhaylo Podolyak, an adviser to the head of the President’s Office, told the Babel media outlet.
Journalists’ revelations have “absolutely nothing to do with money from the state budget or state positions,” he said, hence “there is nothing serious to comment on.”
According to Podolyak, Zelensky put his business offshore to protect it from “aggressive actions of the authorities of the time.” He also stressed that the activities the journalists had uncovered occurred before Zelensky came to power. “In fact, journalists once again confirmed the unconditional compliance on the part of the president with the anti-corruption norms of national legislation.”
Ukraine’s Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova said that she would not comment on journalists’ findings. “As a lawyer and a person holding the position of prosecutor general, I have no right to make any comments about this and to evaluate the narrative proposed in the film,” she said.
She did, however, address the revelations related to the PrivatBank $5.5 billion embezzlement case.
The journalists uncovered that law firms running offshore companies — used by former owners of PrivatBank Igor Kolomoisky and Hennadiy Boholyubov to funnel millions of dollars in depositors’ money abroad — lied to the financial monitoring agencies as to who was behind these firms.
Also, according to the journalists, Zelensky’s offshore companies accepted payments from Kolomoisky for video content. Kolomoisky’s 1+1 media holding was the key buyer of TV series, shows and films created by Kvartal 95 production studio, founded by Zelensky.
“The only thing I can say is that any information related to the activities of PrivatBank has long been available to our colleagues in the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU), has been checked, and is being scrutinized ‘to the last detail’,” Venediktova said. “For law enforcement, this story was not, and could not have been a surprise. The authenticity of the material is another question. Lawyers perceive the material from a legal perspective, not an artistic one, sorry.”
Petro Poroshenko, Zelensky’s predecessor and currently a lawmaker, brought the revelations of Pandora Papers before a consultative meeting of the heads of the parliamentary factions. His criticism of Zelensky caused representatives of Zelensky’s party, Servant of the People, to leave the meeting.
“Today, the entire world is talking about international crimes of the top leadership of the state and personally Volodymyr Zelensky,” said Poroshenko, who had also been caught hiding his assets offshore during Russia’s unfolding war in the Donbas, the Panama Papers leak revealed in 2016.
“Thanks to the actions of President Zelensky, Ukraine has gained a world reputation of a state whose leader is involved in global corruption, in laundering money stolen in Ukraine together with his business partner Kolomoisky,” said Poroshenko. His own relationship with Kolomoisky turned sour in 2015 and the oligarch then fled to Geneva. He returned to Ukraine right after Zelensky’s victory in the 2019 elections.
“Together with Kolomoisky $40 million were stolen. Zelensky is not Holoborodko,” said Poroshenko referring to the fictional character of a teacher turned president that Zelensky played in a TV series that made his name.
“This has been known since 2019 and it has not been investigated,” Poroshenko claimed. “The top political leadership is linked to the SBU (Security Service of Ukraine), which has a conflict of interest, and has jointly participated in these crimes with other law enforcement officials they control,” Poroshenko said referring to Ivan Bakanov, Zelensky’s childhood friend and chief of the SBU. According to Pandora Papers, Bakanov is also implicated in offshore activities with Zelensky.
“This is unacceptable,” Poroshenko added.
“We believe that Zelensky’s main problem is that the president’s former business partners have become ‘the authorities.’ Moreover, in the case of Serhiy Shefir, unofficial authorities,” the Anti-Corruption Action Center said in a statement.
Shefir is Zelensky’s chief aide at-large. The journalists revealed that he took over the shares in a key offshore company of Zelensky in 2019. However, Zelensky’s family continues receiving money from the offshore firm, the investigation claims.
“It is difficult to understand why the president’s principal aide who, as it appears, has a personal office in the President Office building and goes there as if to work, does not submit an asset declaration of his income and expenses,” the statement reads. “Shefir is not a civil servant, but he has far more influence on decision-making in the state than hundreds of thousands of civil servants who file asset declarations. We are sure that society has the right to know what wealth and expenses the first assistant has. Shefir, to whom Zelensky passed a portion of his offshore business before the election and who works as ‘a volunteer’ first aide to the president, now looks more like the president’s secret wallet.”
According to Anatoliy Oktysiuk, a political analyst at Democracy House think tank based in Kyiv, “Zelensky has been spotted in a corrupt relationship with Kolomoisky and the second half of this term will continue in conditions of constants conflict.”
“Vova,” he said of Zelensky, “is no longer an ordinary guy but an offshore crook like the rest of the old elites. And this will be the main political narrative.”
Yevhen Mahda, director of the Institute of World Policy in Kyiv, disagrees.
“Pandora Papers will not significantly affect voter confidence in Zelensky. His rating will not fall to such low levels, which will allow his opponents to call for early elections,” the political analyst told the Kyiv Post.
Political expert Viktor Bobyrenko believes that Pandora Papers will lower Zelensky’s rating, but will not bring him down. “Zelensky has a 15-17% stable electoral base, which will not be affected by anything,” he told the Kyiv Post.
According to Bobyrenko, the investigation will not have big coverage in Ukraine’s mainstream media as the most-watched TV channels – all owned by oligarchs – will support Zelensky by ignoring the story. “TV channels will not show this investigation, because it’s about all the oligarchs,” Bobyrenko said.
The video version of the investigation into Zelensky made by Slidstvo.Info investigative outlet – a member of Paradise Papers global – has attracted 450,000 viewers in 24 hours.
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