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Who is Rustem Umerov, Ukraine's soon-to-be defense minister?

by Elsa Court September 4, 2023 11:06 PM 4 min read
Rustem Umerov (R) with President Volodymyr Zelensky (L) in Saudi Arabia in May 2023. (Rustem Umerov / Twitter)
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When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced on Sept. 3 that Rustem Umerov was Ukraine's soon-to-be defense minister, he said the former MP "needs no introduction."

Days before, Umerov had been rumored to be the main candidate to replace Oleksiy Reznikov, who had held the post since November 2021 and whose ministry was lately tangled in two major corruption scandals.

Umerov, 41, an investment banker from Crimea, has had a political career like no other – moving from a member of parliament in opposition to Zelensky's rule to the head of the country's State Property Fund and a key player in the early peace talks with Russia.

Umerov was born in what is now Uzbekistan, where Soviet authorities deported his family as part of the Kremlin's ethnic cleansing campaign against the Crimean Tatar people.

As the Soviet Union collapsed, Umerov and his family were able to return to Crimea.

After finishing university, Umerov worked in telecommunications through the 2000s.

Zelensky announces dismissal of Defense Minister Reznikov
President Volodymyr Zelensky announced the decision to dismiss Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov on Sept. 3 and replace him with 41-year-old Rustem Umerov, the chairman of the State Property Fund of Ukraine. “I believe that the ministry needs new approaches and other formats of interactio…

In 2007, he became an adviser to Mustafa Dzhemilev, the leader of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People, and became a delegate to the Qurultay, the national assembly of the Crimean Tatars.

In 2013, Umerov founded the investment company Astem.

A year later, Russia launched its war against Ukraine, occupied Crimea, and began a campaign of intimidation and harassment against the native Crimean Tatar population that didn't support the annexation.

Umerov's political career began in 2019 when he was elected to parliament on the ticket of Holos (the Voice), a liberal political party currently in opposition to the president's Servant of the People faction.

However, Umerov was among the very few opposition lawmakers who soon landed a government appointment.

In 2021, Umerov became a co-chair of the newly established Crimea Platform, a Zelensky-led platform that aims to bring attention to Russia's occupation of Crimea.

Umerov later said that the experience of being born into a family living in deportation, returning to his homeland, and later losing it again has taught him how to persevere and fight to protect what is rightfully yours.

When Russia began its full-scale invasion in February 2022, Umerov was one of a handful of figures selected to join the Ukrainian delegation to negotiate prisoner swaps, evacuations of civilians, and the Black Sea Grain Initiative.

In the early days of the full-scale invasion, Umerov was also a part of Ukraine's delegation in peace talks with Russia in Belarus and Turkey.

Concerning these negotiations, "I'm not here for idle talk," he told French newspaper Le Monde in July 2022. "I want to save the country."

Umerov was among the key Ukrainian actors that brokered a deal with Russia that allowed Ukraine to export over 33 million metric tons of agricultural goods from Ukrainian ports.

Umerov also took an active part in the September 2022 prisoner exchange, in which Russia released 215 prisoners of war, including Azovstal defenders. They were swapped for 55 Russian prisoners of war and Viktor Medvedchuk, Ukraine's high-profile pro-Kremlin politician and Putin's former right-hand man in the country.

In September 2022, Umerov was appointed head of the State Property Fund, a government body that regulates the policy of privatization of state assets.

In the first half of 2023, the State Property Fund gained Hr 1.82 billion ($49 million) from privatization, the largest amount in 10 years.

Rustem Umerov in Kyiv on May 9, 2022. (Photo by Dogukan Keskinkilic/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In 2023, Umerov became even closer to Zelensky, being part of Zelensky's to Saudi Arabia in May, and joined First Lady Olena Zelenska on a visit to the United Arab Emirates in March.

He was a guest at the inauguration of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in June.

In August, he returned to Saudi Arabia for a two-day summit in Jeddah to discuss the implementation of Ukraine's peace formula between international partners.

Lawmaker Yaroslav Zhelezniak, representing the 20-member Holos faction, said, "Umerov is one of the best people for the job."

Zhelezniak told the Kyiv Independent that the defense minister is primarily a person tasked with providing the army with provision and ammunition. For that, Zhelezniak said, the new minister must have experience holding high-rank negotiations.

"Umerov is one of the best negotiators," he added.

His experience, both within politics and outside of it, shows that Umerov is clearly capable of adapting to different contexts, Olga Onuch, professor of comparative and Ukrainian politics at the University of Manchester, told the Kyiv Independent.

Umerov is perhaps lesser known to the average Ukrainian voter, but he's far from a political outsider, Onuch explained. During his time in parliament, he was "extremely active" and authored dozens of bills.

Moreover, the choice of someone from a different political faction suggests that Zelensky is acting from a position of strength and able to build cross-party connections, which is a "good sign" for Ukraine, Onuch said.

This, as well as the fact that Umerov is a figure who operates within the Crimean Tatar elite, is "a very strong signal to Ukraine's allies," Onuch concluded.

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