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Ukraine's Leader Rejects Premier's Resignation Over Leaked Audio

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 1/17/2020 Georgi Kantchev
a man wearing a suit and tie smiling and looking at the camera © Efrem Lukatsky/Associated Press

MOSCOW—Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky rejected the resignation of the country’s prime minister following the release of an audio recording in which he appeared to make disparaging comments about Mr. Zelensky’s understanding of economics.

Oleksiy Honcharuk, who has been in office since August, tendered his resignation early Friday but Mr. Zelensky later said that he would give Mr. Honcharuk a second chance, tasking him with overhauling the economy.

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A political novice and former economic adviser to Mr. Zelensky, Mr. Honcharuk has focused on accelerating economic reforms in Ukraine, one of Europe’s poorest countries. In December, his government gained a tentative approval from the International Monetary Fund for $5.5 billion in loans.

In the recording, which surfaced earlier this week, Mr. Honcharuk is heard discussing the economic situation in the country with cabinet ministers and other officials, according to Ukrainian media. Mr. Honcharuk appears to say that Mr. Zelensky “has a very primitive understanding of economic processes.”

A spokeswoman for Mr. Zelensky didn’t respond to a request for comment. Mr. Zelensky’s office on Friday gave law enforcement two weeks to determine who was involved in the making of the recording and find out who attended the meeting.

Mr. Honcharuk didn’t deny that the voice on the recording was his but suggested that the audio might have been stitched together from fragments of various government meetings.

“This content artificially creates the idea that my team and I do not respect the president,” Mr. Honcharuk said in a statement on his Facebook page. “But this is not true.”

Mr. Honcharuk said that he respects Mr. Zelensky and called him a “model of openness and decency.”

“However, in order to take away any doubts about our respect and trust in the president, I wrote a letter of resignation and handed it to the president with the right to submit it to Parliament,” he said.

Later Friday, Mr. Zelensky said that he won’t accept the resignation, saying that “now is not the time to shake the country economically and politically.”

The domestic political crisis adds to Ukraine’s international woes, including a central role in Washington’s impeachment drama, tensions with Iran over the shooting down of a Ukrainian airplane and a war with Russia-backed separatists.

Mr. Honcharuk has focused on fighting corruption, an endemic problem for Ukraine, which ranks among Europe’s most corrupt, according to Transparency International. Mr. Zelensky, a former television actor with scant political experience, was elected in April on an anticorruption platform.

Mr. Honcharuk said Friday that there is no corruption at the top level of government but acknowledged that it remains a problem at lower levels.

“Unfortunately, in a few months it is quite difficult to destroy criminal schemes that have been in place for decades,” he wrote. “Our opponents are accustomed to living in the shadows.”

Write to Georgi Kantchev at georgi.kantchev@wsj.com

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