Ukraine Politics

In this photo provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, left, talks with Ukraine's Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk in Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, Jan.17, 2020. Honcharuk earlier submitted his resignation to parliament following a leaked audio recording which suggested he had criticised the president. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy rejected his prime minister's offer to resign and asked him to stay on the job Friday after he was caught on tape saying Zelenskiy — a former sitcom star with no previous political experience — knows nothing about the economy.

In a video released by Zelenskiy's office, the president called the situation "unpleasant" but asked Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk and his Cabinet to carry on.

"I decided to give you and your government a chance if you manage to solve important issues that the public worries about," Zelenskiy said as he faced Honcharuk across the table. "It's not a moment when we can afford economic and political destabilization."

He instructed Honcharuk to look into multimillion-dollar bonuses given to executives of the state-controlled gas company and high salaries for Cabinet ministers that angered many in the economically struggling nation, directing the prime minister to report his findings by Feb. 4.

The furor comes at a fraught moment for Zelenskiy, who has found himself in the middle of the impeachment case unfolding against President Donald Trump in Washington. Trump stands accused of withholding nearly $400 million in military aid to Ukraine to pressure the country's leader to investigate Trump political rival Joe Biden.

In the audio recording that surfaced earlier this week, Honcharuk was heard making what appeared to be disparaging comments about Zelenskiy's understanding of economics. He called Zelenskiy "a layman" in economics and said the president should be better educated about the national currency.

Zelenskiy, 41, is a former comedian whose only political experience before his election last spring consisted of playing a Ukrainian president on TV. He starred in "Servant of the People" as a high school history teacher who is propelled to the highest office after his rant against government corruption goes viral.

In a Facebook post earlier Friday, Honcharuk praised Zelenskiy as "an example of transparency and decency to me" and argued that the recording was manipulated, but announced that he was submitting a letter of resignation "in order to dispel any doubts about our respect and trust for the president."

The offer to step down was subject to approval by the Rada, Ukraine's parliament, which is dominated by Zelenskiy's party. It presented a legal quandary since Ukrainian law prevent the Cabinet's dismissal for a year after it presents its program. Honcharuk did so in September.

Analysts said the dismissal of Honcharuk and his Cabinet would badly damage the president and upset Ukraine's talks with international lenders.

"Zelenskiy fears an internal political crisis and doesn't want problems in talks with Western investors and the International Monetary Fund," said Volodymyr Sidenko, an analyst with the Razumkov Center think tank. ""Honcharuk's resignation can destroy the idea of the government's unity and cast a doubt on Zelenskiy's ability to control the situation."

Sidenko charged that tycoons unhappy with the recent strengthening of the Ukrainian currency — a move that hurt their business — could be behind the scandal. "Several big oligarchs who own export-oriented businesses were interested in the resignation of Honcharuk's Cabinet," Sidenko said.

Honcharuk said that the recording was a compilation of "fragments of recorded government meetings," and he blamed unidentified "influential groups" for making it look as if he didn't respect the president.

"It is not true," the prime minister insisted.

Zelenskiy demanded an investigation into the source of the recording.

While Zelenskiy is a member of Servant of the People party and Honcharuk is an independent, it was Zelenskiy who proposed him to the parliament as prime minister.

Associated Press writers Daria Litvinova and Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report from Moscow.

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