Volodymyr Zelenskiy has railed against politicians hiding wealth offshore but failed to disclose links to BVI firm
Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s apparent business connections to Russia via Maltex are likely to prove controversial. Illustration: Guardian Design
It was a storyline that in earlier times would have seemed impossible. For four years, the actor and comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy entertained TV audiences in Ukraine with his starring role in the sitcom Servant of the People. Zelenskiy played a teacher who, outraged by his country’s chronic corruption, successfully runs for president. In 2019, Zelenskiy made fiction real when he contested Ukraine’s actual presidential election and won.
On the campaign trail, Zelenskiy pledged to clean up Ukraine’s oligarch-dominated ruling system. And he railed against politicians such as the wealthy incumbent Petro Poroshenko who hid their assets offshore. The message worked. Zelenskiy won 73% of the vote and now sits in a cavernous office in the capital, Kyiv, decorated with gilded stucco ceilings. Last month, he held talks with Joe Biden in the Oval Office. The Pandora papers, leaked to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and shared with the Guardian as part of a global investigation however, suggest Zelenskiy is rather similar to his predecessors.
The leaked documents suggest he had – or has – a previously undisclosed stake in an offshore company, which he appears to have secretly transferred to a friend weeks before winning the presidential vote. Zelenskiy has not commented on the claim despite extensive attempts by the Guardian and its media partners to reach him. His spokesperson Sergiy Nikiforov messaged: “Won’t be an answer.”
The files reveal Zelenskiy participated in a sprawling network of offshore companies, co-owned with his longtime friends and TV business partners. They include Serhiy Shefir, who produced Zelensky’s hit shows, and Shefir’s older brother, Borys, who wrote the scripts. Another member of the consortium is Ivan Bakanov, a childhood friend. Bakanov was general director of Zelenskiy’s production studio, Kvartal 95.
Still from Servant of the People, the satirical comedy show starring Volodymyr Zelenskiy in the lead as the Ukrainian president. Photograph: Kvartal 95
All are associated with Zelenskiy’s home town in southern Ukraine, Kryvyi Rih. After winning power, Zelenskiy brought these close allies into government. Bakanov became head of Ukraine’s SBU security agency. Zelenskiy made Serhiy Shefir his first assistant, an unpaid role that involves handling the president’s daily schedule. A fourth member of this close-knit group, Andriy Yakovlev, is a film director and Kvartal 95 producer.
Zelenskiy has said these appointments were about personal trust rather than financial cronyism. “I have a few people who work with me who have been my friends for a long time … They have no relation to business, or to the budget,” he told the Guardian in 2020.
A secret transfer
Before becoming president, Zelenskiy declared some of his private assets. They included cars, property and three of the co-owned offshore companies. One, Film Heritage, which he held jointly with his wife, Olena, a former Kvartal 95 writer, is registered in Belize.
But the Pandora papers show further offshore assets that Zelenskiy appears not to have revealed. Film Heritage had a 25% stake in Davegra, a Cyprus holding company. Davegra in turn owns Maltex Multicapital Corp, a previously unknown entity registered in the tax haven of the British Virgin Islands (BVI). Zelenskiy, the Shefir brothers, and Yakovlev each held a 25% stake in Maltex.
On 13 March 2019, two weeks before the first round of voting in Ukraine’s election, Zelenskiy gave his quarter stake in Maltex to Serhiy Shefir, documents show. It is unclear if Shefir paid Zelenskiy. Bakanov witnessed this secret transfer and signed the offshore papers.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his wife, Olena, at a polling station during a parliamentary election in Kyiv, Ukraine, in July 2019. Photograph: Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters/Alamy