Kyiv, Ukraine – Ukraine’s parliament has voted to accept the resignation of Oleksiy Honcharuk, the country’s youngest prime minister, who purportedly ridiculed President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s views on the economy as “primitive”.
Denys Shymgal, who was deputy prime minister in Honcharuk’s cabinet, will replace him and has promised to improve the economy by revising the 2020 budget and to cut ministers’ salaries.
The dismissal of Honcharuk, a 35-year-old lawyer, could be a boost for Zelenskyy, a former comedian who won last year’s vote with populist pledges to upend the clout of regional oligarchs, crack down on corruption and reform an economy cratered by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its backing of separatists in two southeastern provinces.
In February, Zelenskyy’s ratings fell below 50 percent for the first time as the government has been criticised for inconsistent reforms and failed attempts to negotiate a peace deal with the separatists and Moscow.
A scandal with leaked audio recordings of Honcharuk’s meeting with finance officials also hurt Zelenskyy’s popularity.
Posted online in mid-January, the recordings are of a man whose voice resembles Honcharuk’s saying that the president has a “very primitive understanding of the economy” and describing himself as a “layman” in economic matters.
The Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s lower house of parliament, is dominated by Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People party and voted Honcharuk out, with 353 legislators out of 411 present approving his resignation.
Before the vote, Zelenskyy said: “This is the first government where there is no high-level corruption. But not stealing is not enough. This is a government of new faces, but faces are not enough. New brains and new hearts are needed.”
According to Ukraine’s constitution, only a parliamentary vote can dismiss a prime minister, and the step entails the dismissal of the entire cabinet.
Shortly after dismissing Honcharuk, the parliament appointed Shmyhal as the new premiere. The 44-year-old used to head the western Ivano-Frankivsk region, a bastion of Ukrainian nationalism and anti-Russian sentiments.
Honcharuk ascribed his dismissal to the “dirt” in the media that followed his anti-corruption drive.
“We fought corruption in all areas,” he told the parliament. “We stopped many corruption schemes, and that is why in recent months, media poured tons of dirt on us.”
Observers, however, were less optimistic about his performance.
“The political credit on his personal card is over,” Kyiv-based analyst Alexey Kushch told Al Jazeera, citing Honcharuk’s “systemic miscalculations” that contributed to rapid deindustrialisation of the economy and budget deficits.
Honcharuk’s government has also faced two political crises.
The first was the political quagmire stemming from United States President Donald Trump’s attempts to pressure Zelenskyy into investigating Hunter Biden, the son of Trump’s political rival, former US vice president Joe Biden.
The White House briefly froze almost $400m in military aid in a move that could have reignited the separatist conflict that claimed more than 13,000 lives, but has largely been reduced to a smouldering, World War I-like trench war.
The second is the January 8 downing of a Ukrainian commercial airliner by an Iranian missile, which resulted in the death of all 176 passengers and crew on board.
Since 2014, Ukraine has become one of Europe’s poorest nations, suffering after a severe disruption of economic ties with Moscow. Millions of labour migrants flocked to the European Union or Russia, while Kyiv’s cash-strapped government is struggling to maintain its military fighting the separatists.
Last year, Ukraine’s gross domestic product per capita was about $3,000, while neighbouring Poland’s was five times higher.