Sat, 23 Nov 2019

A song appearing to make flippant fun of an arson attack on the home of former National Bank chief Valeria Hontareva was seen by many in Ukraine as bad enough.

That it was performed by a famed choir and a comedian on a program produced by the television studio Kvartal 95, which was co-founded by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, made it worse in the eyes of critics.

That it aired on a TV channel owned by Ihor Kolomoyskiy, a tycoon who has ties to Zelenskiy and has been hostile to Hontareva, only added to the outrage.

The timing couldn't be much worse for Zelenskiy, who is facing renewed questions about his ties to Kolomoyskiy as the billionaire steps up efforts to overturn the central bank's decision in 2016, when Hontareva was its director, to take over the bank he owned, PrivatBank.

Zelenskiy, who had business dealings with Kolomoyskiy's media holdings during his career as a comic actor before he was elected by a landslide in April, largely ran on a platform of cleaning up corruption, including reining in the politically connected tycoons known as oligarchs.

Kolomoyskiy, who has taken jabs at Hontareva recently, was defiant, applauding the performance aired on his 1+1 station on October 20 and arguing that it was not in bad taste.

'What, is her house the only one that has burned down? How many homes in the Donbas have burned down?' Kolomoyskiy said in comments to RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, referring to the section of eastern Ukraine where Russia-backed separatists hold parts of two provinces and their war against Kyiv's forces has killed more than 13,000 people since 2014.

Hontareva, who currently resides in London, told RFE/RL that 'it's a complete disgrace to make fun of someone else's tragedy. But the fact that the song was performed by the national folk choir, which usually sings the national anthem of Ukraine at official events, is a double disgrace!'

In a message on WhatsApp, she said that Zelenskiy's Servant of the People party wants 'to turn our country into a farce show.'

Valeria Hontareva (shown during an interview in London on September 14) was injured in a hit-and-run car accident in August.

Economy Minister Tymofiy Mylovanov warned on Facebook that the 'joke' would send a message to already wary foreign investors confirming 'the ties between the oligarchs and the government.'

Seeking to calm tensions, Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk said on October 20 that Zelenskiy was deeply concerned about the attack on Hontareva's house and was pushing for a thorough probe into what happened.

Hontareva and her family have faced a series of attacks in recent months in what she says is retaliation for her actions to clean up the banking sector as National Bank chief from June 2014 to May 2017.

The attacks raised concern in the United States, one of the main Western supporters of Ukraine, about tycoon influence over Zelenskiy.

Hontareva's residence in the village of Horenychi, outside Kyiv, was set ablaze in the early morning hours of September 17. Nobody was hurt in the attack, which followed the torching of her daughter-in-law's car outside the family home in central Kyiv on September 5.

Hontareva was struck by a car in London and hospitalized on August 26. The car drove off and the driver has not been found. London police are investigating the incident.

Hontareva told RFE/RL in September that she believed that adversaries including Kolomoyskiy were going after her over her decision in 2016 to nationalize PrivatBank.

Kolomoyskiy is now contesting that decision in court, and Zelenskiy's election has fueled speculation that it could go his way.

Ditty No-No

The song in question, performed by female members of the famed Hryhoriy Veryovka Folk Choir and comedian Yevhen Koshoviy on the show Vechirniy Kvartal, or Evening Quarter, on channel 1+1 on October 20, is based on a Ukrainian folk tune titled The Flaming Pine Is Burning.

Among some of the rejiggered lyrics are the following: 'A house was burning, up in flames, a woman was weeping in London. The house is burning in Horenychi, and in London, Valeria is thinking of Valerich' -- an apparent reference to Kolomoyskiy whose patronymic is Valeriyovych.

Asked by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service what he thought of the performance, Kolomoyskiy first denied having seen it and then acknowledged that he had, voicing his approval and adding, 'Bravo!'

He also dismissed speculation that he had ordered it to coincide with Hontareva's birthday on October 20. 'I don't even know when Valeria Hontareva's birthday is,' he said.

Kolomoyskiy took another jab at Hontareva in remarks to Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. 'Maybe she has developed paranoia if she thinks that an entertainment program is a threat addressed to her,' he said.

Kolomoyskiy appears to have chipped away at government resistance to review the PrivatBank decision. Honcharuk told the Financial Times on September 17 that the government was seeking a 'compromise' with Kolomoyskiy over the issue of PrivatBank, a move that would likely frustrate Ukraine's Western backers and undermine Zelenskiy's reform message.

PrivatBank, the country's largest lender, was owned by Kolomoyskiy when regulators found a $5.5 billion hole in its balance sheet. It was nationalized soon after and is now overseen by the Finance Ministry.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy (in white) meets with Ihor Kolomoyskiy (in blue jacket) in Kyiv on September 10.

Hontareva, who fought corruption as Ukraine's top banker, has earned the ire of Kolomoyskiy, not least evident from recent comments. Asked about the car accident that injured Hontareva in London, Kolomoyskiy said with a smirk, 'I promised to send her a plane, not a car.'

In his Facebook post, Mylovanov said the song seeming to make light of the arson reflected poorly on Ukraine. 'Hontareva is under pressure from Kolomoyskiy because of the ruling on PrivatBank,' he said. 'Kvartal 95 is associated with the government, and jokes against Hontareva could be perceived as a confirmation that the government is linked to the oligarchs.'

Honcharuk sought to distance Zelenskiy from any unfolding scandal. 'It's wrong to link the president's stance [on the arson attack] with comedy,' he said at a televised briefing, adding that he did not approve of jokes 'making fun of people's misfortunes.'

Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, said on Twitter that 'Zelenskiy should condemn this celebration of lawless violence by his own.'

Zenoviy Korinets, general director of the Hryhoriy Veryovka Folk Choir, lamented the decision to have members take part in the performance. 'This wrong decision was mine, not the collective's, because the collective really didn't want to take part in the show,' Korinets told Ukrayinska Pravda.

According to Korinets, the choir members who took part were together paid 30,000 hryvnyas ($1,200) for their performance.

The Kvartal 95 studio was unrepentant, saying in a Facebook post that the show was 'sharp political satire, it has been, it is, and it will be. Even if some politicians don't like it.'

With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, Current Time, and Christopher Miller

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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