Only 35 years old and with just three months of government experience, Oleksiy Honcharuk has become Ukraine’s youngest-ever prime minister amid a stalling economy and war in the east.
Ukraine‘s new president, 41-year-old Volodymyr Zelenskyy, himself a political novice and a popular comedian before winning April’s election, nominated Honcharuk on Thursday after weeks of consultations.
Honcharuk’s candidacy was quickly approved by MPs as Zelenskyy’s new “Servant of the People” party holds a majority after parliamentary polls last month.
He replaces Volodymyr Groysman, 41, who offered his resignation after Zelenskyy’s inauguration.
The young lawyer is little known to the public and has given few interviews. A source in the president’s office told the AFP news agency he prefers to “quietly do his job”.
The appointment is in line with Zelenskyy’s pledge to bring in fresh faces and shake up Ukraine’s stagnant politics.
Honcharuk, who studied law and public administration before cofounding a law firm at the age of 24, is considered a supporter of liberal economic reforms. Some have described him as a “team player” and “workaholic”.
Before becoming deputy head of the president’s office when Zelenskyy came to power, he managed for several years an EU-funded NGO that works to improve the business environment in Ukraine.
Zelenskyy’s election win took place against a backdrop of war that has killed more than 13,000 people in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk region, with government forces fighting Russia-backed separatists. The conflict followed Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 which in turn came after Ukraine overthrew Moscow-backed leader Viktor Yanukovich earlier that year.
Analysts say it is unlikely Honcharuk will be able to steer government policy and will remain largely in the shadow of the presidency.
“Honcharuk cannot be an independent prime minister, even if he wanted to,” analyst Volodymyr Fesenko told the AFP.
A high-ranking source who has previously worked with Honcharuk described the experience as “moderately positive”.
The source said Honcharuk had a “well-structured” vision and is adept “at setting priorities that can achieve results”.
But in government the best he can hope to do is play a “positive technical role” with the support of the president’s office, the source said.
Some observers saw Honcharuk as a creature of oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi, who owns the television station that aired the sitcom that made Zelenskyy a star.
Honcharuk has been reportedly close to Andriy Bohdan, Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, who had close ties with the oligarch.
“Honcharuk is a technical figure, who will convey the interests of the group of people linked to Kolomoyskyi and Bohdan,” said Volodymyr Sidenko, an analyst with the Razumkov Center, an independent Kiev-based think-tank.
“These people will now play a key role in distributing financial flows.”
‘Eastern European tiger’
In rare interviews, Honcharuk has pleaded for continued cooperation with the IMF, calling it “crucial” for Ukraine.
The country is looking to work with the IMF for the next three to four years, he told Novoe Vremya magazine, with hopes this would help Ukraine become “an Eastern European tiger”.
Honcharuk also supports revoking a ban on the sale of fertile agricultural land – a decision much awaited by Western investors and creditors, but to which the vast majority of Ukrainians are opposed.
Oleksandr Parashchiy, head of analytics at investment bank Concorde Capital, said the main challenge for the new government is “not to disappoint people’s expectations, which will be difficult”.
“The main thing that is expected is economic reforms and the fight against corruption,” Parashchiy said.
Honcharuk himself seemed upbeat about the country’s outlook.
“Soon positive changes will accelerate significantly,” he wrote on his Facebook page after meeting World Bank President David Malpass in Ukraine last week.
“Everything will be fine,” he captioned a picture. “Stay tuned!”