In a TV skit that may have political and economic repercussions, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s former comedy group Studio Kvartal 95 mocked the Sept. 17 arson of the house of Valeria Gontareva, the former governor of the National Bank of Ukraine, who led a cleanup of the corruption-riddled banking sector. The skit aired on Oct. 19, on the eve of Gontareva’s birthday.
In the skit, Yevhen Koshovyi, a comedian and friend of Zelensky, sings “The house burned, blazed,” a parody of the Ukrainian folk song “The pine burned, blazed.” He is joined on stage by the National Veryovka Folk Choir.
“The house burned out of shame,” the song’s punchline goes — a line that appears to blame the arson attack on Gontareva and criticize her tenure at the National Bank.
Zelensky founded Kvartal and led the group up until becoming president in May. Actors say he is still involved in the creative process. Zelensky has not commented on the skit.
Studio Kvartal 95’s shows are broadcast on the 1+1 television channel, which belongs to oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky. He is also one of the former owners of Ukraine’s largest bank, PrivatBank, which was nationalized in 2016 after investigators discovered a $5.5 billion hole in its books.
Gontareva played a central role in the nationalization, which has earned her the ire of Kolomoisky. She alleges that the oligarch has organized a series of attacks against her, which she terms a “terror campaign.” Kolomoisky denies these allegations.
Now, the scandalous musical number has led many to speculate that the oligarch orchestrated it.
The involvement of the Veryovka choir, a government-funded cultural institution, in mocking Gontareva has sparked particular public anger.
“It’s a shame! The mocking of human grief is impossible to imagine in a civilized society!” Gontareva told RFE/RL, adding, “There was no doubt about the cynicism of Kvartal 95 for a long time. But the participation of a national choir in this is a shame for the whole country.”
Kolomoisky denied his involvement in the skit but told RFE/RL that he exclaimed “Bravo!” when he watched it, saying he liked the part about the house “burning out of shame” the most.
“I did not and do not participate in the creation of Kvartal 95’s content, especially not in honor of Gontareva’s birthday – she doesn’t deserve that honor,” Kolomoisky said.
President Zelensky co-founded Studio Kvartal 95 and was its co-owner until he exited the company after becoming president. The studio’s actors have said Zelensky continues to participate in creative processes and is still present in the studio’s work chats.
“Vova (Zelensky) checks everything. He proofreads the texts,” Yelena Kravets, an actress at Studio Kvartal 95 and a friend of Zelensky told Svitske Zhyttia, a program that airs on 1+1 TV.
The Veryovka National Folk Choir was paid Hr 30,000 ($1,199) for participating in the skit, according to its general director, Zenoviy Korinets.
“Kvartal (95 Studio) had carefully asked me: ‘We have this program, we make fun of presidents, the former and present authorities.’ I’ve made not a very moral decision. I should apologize to Valeria Oleskiivna (Gontareva),” Korinets said on 112 TV channel.
The Veryovka choir is accountable to the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports. Minister Volodymyr Borodyansky said he is ashamed of the choir and also apologized to Gontareva in a Facebook post.
“In my value system, rejoicing in the fact that a person’s house burned down is malevolence, which promotes impunity. This behavior model cannot be supported or justified – it can only be cut out,” Borodyansky said.
Tymofiy Mylovanov, Minister of Economic Development, Trade and Agriculture, said the skit negatively affects the investment climate in Ukraine.
“Most foreign investors see Gontareva as a prominent reformer,” he wrote on Facebook. “According to foreign observers, Gontareva is under pressure from Kolomoisky for the decision on PrivatBank. They also don’t understand how much the current government is independent of Kolomoisky and other oligarchs. Kvartal 95 is associated with the authorities. And jokes against Gontareva can and will be seen as confirmation of ties between oligarchs and the authorities.”
Gontareva has been the victim of a string of attacks that she says have led her to fear for her life. Before her house in the village of Horenychy, Kyiv Oblast was destroyed, Gontareva was hit by a car in a pedestrian crossing in London, which left her hospitalized with multiple injuries, including bone fractures. She is awaiting a number of operations due to her injuries. U.K. police are still investigating the incident.
Then, on Sept. 5, a family car belonging to her son and daughter-in-law was torched outside of the family’s home in Kyiv in another apparent arson. On Sept. 12, masked men armed with assault rifles raided Gontareva’s unoccupied apartment in Kyiv.
Kolomoisky has effectively denied any involvement in the campaign against Gontareva.
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