By Natalia Zinets and Pavel Polityuk
KIEV (Reuters) – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy signaled a potential reshuffle of his government on Wednesday that local media said could include axing Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk in favor of businessman and veteran politician Serhiy Tihipko.
Confidence in Zelenskiy’s government has slid since the actor and comedian scored a surprise landslide election victory last year promising to root out corruption and end the war with Russian-backed rebels in the eastern Donbass region.
But progress on either front has been patchy, and while the 42-year-old Zelenskiy remains Ukraine’s most electable politician, his public trust score has fallen from a high watermark of 79% in September to 51% in February, according to a survey by the Kiev-based Razumkov Centre think-tank.
Honcharuk’s position had already come into the spotlight in January after the leak of an embarrassing audio recording that suggested he had criticized the president in a closed meeting with the finance minister and central bank.
Any reshuffle would come just as Ukraine is trying to secure the release of billions of dollars in loans from the International Monetary Fund, a move contingent on Kiev’s progress in passing reforms and tackling graft.
“I am conducting interviews with many people now,” Zelenskiy said in a response to a question from reporters on whether he had met Tihipko about giving him a government post. “And I also met with Mr. Tihipko. It’s true.”
Tihipko has not commented on media reports that he had been offered the prime minister’s job. The president’s office referred back to Zelenskiy’s comments when asked whether Tihipko had been interviewed for the post of premier.
A source familiar with the situation said work in the prime minister’s office was carrying on as normal, adding that over the last three months there had been constant efforts to remove Honcharuk.
Tihipko, 60, has been deputy prime minister twice, first under President Leonid Kuchma in a short-lived 1997 government, and then again in 2010 under President Viktor Yanukovich, who eventually fled to Russia after the 2014 Maidan street protests.
He has also been central bank governor and co-founded PrivatBank, the former Soviet republic’s largest lender.
Zelenskiy has prioritized ending the war in Donbass but while he has implemented some confidence-building measures with Russia, including prisoner swaps, the conflict simmers on.
In October, 48.2% of Ukrainians rated those in power as better than their predecessors, but that figure declined to 29.5% in February, according to the same Razumkov survey.
(Additional reporting by Ilya Zhegulev; Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Mark Heinrich)