Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's team has carried out the first government reshuffle of the year 2023. The parliament dismissed the Ministers of Education and Strategic Industries and appointed another Deputy Prime Minister–Mykhailo Fedorov, who previously led the Ministry of Digital Transformation.
While Mr Zelensky has taken a liking to Mr Fedorov, the latter has no ambitions to become Prime Minister instead of Denys Shmyhal, according to government sources. Mr Fedorov’s new position is supposed to help build an open economy that will make Western partners willing to lend money to rebuild Ukraine after the war, they add.
LIGA.net has found out what is behind the recent changes in the Ukrainian government.
Ex-Education Minister ‘Represented Old Enclave of Rectors’
On 20 March, 295 Ukrainian MPs voted to dismiss Serhiy Shkarlet from the post of Minister of Education and Science.
Mr Shkarlet had headed the Minister since December 2020, when he was appointed with minimal votes thanks to the now-banned pro-Russian Opposition Platform For Life faction.
Back then, the National Agency for Higher Education Quality Assurance found plagiarism in four of Mr Shkarlet's research papers, including his dissertation–something that the ex-Minister himself denied.
Following his dismissal, Mr Shkarlet said he would continue to work in education.
Mr Shkarlet himself and the fact that he’s been in office so long is a ‘phenomenon’, a member of the Ukrainian parliament’s education committee from the ruling Servant of the People party admits off the record.
The possible dismissal of Mr Shkarlet had been discussed even before Russia’s full-scale invasion, but was understandably postponed since, says Mykyta Poturaiev, a Servant of the People MP, says.
"Historically, our problems with education have been complex," he explains to LIGA.net, "and each new minister did not change it comprehensively, but tried to 'pull out the weeds' in certain areas. It was sort of a pass-the-ball between representatives of schools and universities.
A senior member of the ruling party’s parliamentary faction, who asked not to be identified, recalls that the candidacy of Mr Shkarlet was proposed to Mr Zelensky by a group of rectors at a meeting in the Office of the President in the summer of 2020.
"At the time, we asked [chair of the parliamentary education committee, Mr Serhii] Babak [to become the Minister], but he refused. And then, we searched for a very long time until the rectors 'accidentally' mentioned [Mr] Shkarlet, who was interviewed and the president liked him," the source says.
There was yet another consideration behind the appointment.
"It would be better to appoint someone from higher education, because there are students, and they can vote... But even then, part of the team was sceptical," a senior figure at the Office of the President, who spoke on condition of anonymity, says.
Now, according to Mr Poturaev, Ukraine needs innovative approaches and people who can offer them. He concedes that Mr Shkarlet’s appointment was the result of compromises and had been guided by them since. And when guided by compromises, one can forget about comprehensive and global reform of the system.
Oksen Lisovyi, who was appointed by the parliament on 21 March, will be in charge of education and science reform. For the past 13 years, he has been the head of the Small Academy of Sciences.
"Oksen is cool, he has a vision," Mr Poturaiev is convinced.
"The Small Academy of Sciences is on the verge of secondary and higher education and science. He told us at the fraction meeting what projects children are doing now. These are just great projects. Children are doing a lot, including sophisticated drones that are at war.
The opposition parties have nothing against this appointment either, with Oleksii Honcharenko, a member of former President Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity party telling LIGA.net that Mr Lisovyi's biography "gives hope".
‘No Money’ to Ukraine Without Open Economy
Assisting Mr Lisovyi will be Mykhailo Fedorov, who was brought by the parliament back into government with a significantly expanded mandate. As Deputy Prime Minister, he will be in charge of innovation, education, science, and technology.
Fedorov's priorities will be grant and fast-track funding for projects for talented scientists, fighting bureaucracy in education, and its digitalisation, including the expansion of Diia (‘Action’), a brand of e-governance in Ukraine, to the education sector, the Deputy Prime Minister's press service said in a statement to LIGA.net.
"Misha [Mykhailo] proved that if a person is not hindered and trusted, they can achieve results," Mr Poturaev says.
According to Roman Hryshchuk, a Servant of the People MP serving as a member of the education committee, Messrs Fedorov and Lisovyi will have to make many unpopular decisions.
"First, we need to prepare for what we can offer the liberated territories in terms of education," Mr Hryshchuk explains to LIGA.net.
"Second, what are we doing about rectorial feudalism and the number of universities that cannot provide the quality that applicants deserve? And third, the network of schools."
In addition to education, Mr Fedorov will be in charge of innovation.
"The war has made it clear that we need to build a strategy related to innovation and an open economy, because no one will give us money to restore Ukraine to the way it was before the war."
As Deputy Prime Minister with a wider portfolio of responsibilities, Mr Fedorov is expected to be able to initiate processes between ministries more effectively, the source explains, giving as an example the issue of education for children living abroad–of whom there are about 800,000.
"There is the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Reintegration, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Digital Transformation, the Ministry of Economy and the Ministry of Finance. Mr Fedorov will be able to coordinate these cross-cutting stories," they add.
Mr Honcharenko from the European Solidarity party emphasises that digitalisation and education are different areas, but "when a person shows results, and Fedorov does, there is a chance that he will show them in other areas as well."
Therefore, Goncharenko considers the recent personnel changes to be encouraging: "According to my information, this is a rare case in recent times when these changes are not completely directed by Andriy Yermak. Therefore, any pluralism is still better than the monopoly position of the OP leadership."
Kira Rudyk, first deputy chair of the Committee on Digital Transformation from the Holos [‘Voice’] party, supports the extension of Mr Fedorov's powers as well. She says that Mr Fedorov has long been involved in the digitalisation of education and the military.
Now he has "real powers to make a breakthrough," Ms Rudyk tells LIGA.net.
New Strategic Industries Minister to ‘Deliver’
The Ministry of Strategic Industries, also known in Ukrainian as Minstratehprom, was caught in the government shake-up as well: Pavlo Riabikin, who is rumoured to be appointed Ukraine’s ambassador to China, was replaced by Oleksandr Kamyshin, who has been chairing the board of Ukrainian Railways (Ukrzaliznytsia) since August 2021.
In government circles, Minstratehprom is informally referred to as a "suitcase without a handle", due to its small size and budget.
Even when Mr Kamyshin's candidacy was being discussed at a Servant of the People fraction meeting, its chairman David Arakhamia spoke of recent plans to eliminate the Ministry altogether, a person present at the meeting told LIGA.net on condition of anonymity.
But so far, such plans seem to have been abandoned.
"During the fraction meeting, I saw that [Mr] Kamyshin could not refuse the president, and, not really understanding the essence of the ministry, decided to try to do so using his corporate experience," a senior member of the Servant of the People fraction tells LIGA.net.
"Since half of our industry is in ruins now, it may be a good thing that he will try to start it from scratch."
The person, who wished to remain anonymous to speak freely on the matter, sees Mr Kamyshin's new position as a promotion: he will oversee the planned reorganisation of Ukraine Defence Industry, a conglomerate of state defence enterprises, and defence orders, including drones, in the near future.
They suppose another reason for Mr Kamyshin’s appointment might have come from Oleksandr Kubrakov, the Deputy Prime Minister responsible for reconstruction work.
"Therefore, it will be a positive thing for [Mr] Kamyshin to get a ministerial seat and sit next to [Mr] Kubrakov at government meetings," the source adds.
A source in Ukraine’s defence industry says that they have seen Mr Kamyshin’s "desire to work and sort things out."
If the Ministry of Strategic Industries, Ukraine Defence Industry, and the Ministry of Defence start working as a single team, efficiency will increase, Mr Poturaev believes.
Mr Honcharenko, in turn, hopes that Mr Kamyshin will be able to resuscitate the Ministry of Strategic Industries. According to him, the former chairman of the board of Ukrainian Railways is the first ministerial candidate in recent times to meet with the opposition European Solidarity fraction and answer their questions.
"It is obvious that the Ministry did not work under [Mr[ Riabikin. Therefore, the appointment of [Mr[ Kamyshyn is no worse than it was," he sums up.
'Old' PM Out?
The expanded mandate of Mr Fedorov's, who has held on to all the governments during Mr Zelensky’s presidency, is also part of a global reform of the state apparatus, which was developed by Mr Fedorov himself.
The first pilot project was the merger of the Ministry of Infrastructure and Regional Development under Mr Kubrakov, with him becoming ‘Deputy’ Prime Minister
Government sources, however, assure that the expansion of mandates of Messr Kubrakov and Fedorov is not a sign of possible change of the current Prime Minister, Denys Shmyhal.
"Denys [Shmyhal] was able to become a moderator of young reformers."
According to Mr Poturaev, the Prime Minister is "in his place", but warns that problems might begin when post-war recovery of Ukraine starts.
A senior member of the Servant of the People party insists that Mr Fedorov has no prime ministerial ambitions at all, despite the fact that the President trusts him greatly.
"[Mr] Kubrakov can [be the Prime Minister], but I'm not sure he wants to. Of course, if the president faces such a question [replacing the Prime Minister], Kubrakov is the most suitable," they add.
The Ukrainian government reshuffle might continue, though. Discussions are ongoing about dismissing the Minister of Youth and Sports, Vadym Hutzait, since the Prime Minister is personally lobbying for the Ministry to be eliminated and its mandate transferred to another.
Mr Shmyhal also wants to bring the Ministry of Agrarian Policy back under the Ministry of Economy.
"But he has not yet been able to convey this to [Mr] Zelensky in a meaningful way," the source concludes.