Friday, October 31, 2014

Ukraine’s Election - Good Voters, Not Such Good Guys

KIEV, Ukraine -- To all appearances, Ukraine’s parliamentary election on October 26th was a triumph.

The poll results were promising, but the future for Ukraine is dauntingly difficult.

Reformists mostly won and voters rebuked the far right and far left. 

Western allies heaped praise on the pro-European, pro-democratic results.

Yet Ukraine remains troubled and deeply divided.

In an upset, the People’s Front party of Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the prime minister, narrowly beat President Petro Poroshenko’s bloc by 22.2% to 21.8%.

This means that Ukraine will keep two power centres, as Mr Yatsenyuk seems sure to stay in office.

Mr Poroshenko had hoped to win a majority and install a loyalist instead.

Now the People’s Front and the Poroshenko Bloc must form a coalition, probably with the third-placed Samopomich (Self-Help) party, led by the mayor of Lviv.

The six parties that reached a 5% threshold will fill half of the 450-seat parliament (Rada) from their party lists.

The rest will come from districts where deputies are elected directly and only later join party factions.

The vote reflected the western regions’ power in the new Ukraine.

Turnout was highest in the west, and relatively low overall at 52% (down from 60% in May’s presidential election).

In Lviv 70% of voters showed up, against only 40% in Odessa.

In Ukrainian-controlled areas of the Donbas turnout was just 32%.

Neither Crimea nor the separatist-held eastern regions voted (their 27 seats in the Rada will stay empty).

The Opposition Bloc, a revamped version of Viktor Yanukovych’s reviled Party of Regions, got into the Rada, after finishing fourth, with 9%.

The party won much of the south-east—Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv, Zaporizhia and even Dnipropetrovsk.

Joining them in parliament will be some 60-70 directly elected deputies aligned with the old regime.

Their presence will incense first-time politicians drawn from the Maidan movement who fought hard to oust Yanukovych.

It will also upset Ukraine’s volunteer battalions, including commanders of three powerful anti-rebel paramilitary groups who were elected.

Co-operation with the Opposition Bloc, which includes Yanukovych’s former chief of staff, Sergei Levochkin, will be unpalatable.

But Hannes Schreiber, of the EU delegation in Kiev, argues it will be “decisive to have the former ruling side in the dialogue”.

Failure to do so would increase feelings of exclusion in Russian-leaning regions, where Kremlin agents continue to sow dissent.

Ukrainian security services say they detained pro-Russian “diversion groups” in Kharkiv, Odessa, Zaporizhia, Mariupol and Kiev before the vote.

Even more destructive would be infighting within the coalition.

Whereas the parties’ broad pro-European aims are aligned, their business interests and personal ambitions are not.

Horse-trading for jobs and squabbling over reforms has already begun.

Mr Poroshenko and Mr Yatsenyuk have both put forward their own proposals.

Mr Yatsenyuk, who takes a hawkish attitude to Russia, has declared himself the election’s winner and put “restoration of sovereignty and territorial integrity” at the top of his cabinet’s priorities.

Mr Poroshenko, who has more allies among directly elected deputies, will not easily relinquish the reins.

He seems determined to direct reforms from the presidential administration, where his aides have spent months preparing draft laws, with a focus on deregulation, judicial reform and decentralisation.

After the 2004 Orange revolution, conflicts between the president and the prime minister plagued the government, which squandered the chance of broad change to the system.

Mr Poroshenko and Mr Yatsenyuk must learn from those mistakes.

“Delay with reforms is fatal for us,” Mr Poroshenko himself said.

At stake is the survival not just of the new government, but of Ukraine itself.

The economy, teetering on the verge of collapse, depends on foreign aid that is linked to reforms.

This week the EU promised more help.

But reforms are likely only to increase the pain for people ravaged by war and facing a gas-starved winter.

Ukraine has to contend with its rebels and with Vladimir Putin.

The separatist republics in Donetsk and Luhansk will hold elections on November 2nd, a vote that Kiev condemns but Moscow will recognise.

Ukrainian soldiers, two-thirds of whom did not vote because they could not leave their positions, still die on the front.

On their way to the polls during a freezing election day in Kiev, voters expressed only tepid hopes.

“The people won’t tolerate the politicians’ games any longer,” said Svetlana Ischenko, 68, in the foyer of Lesya Ukrainka Gymnasium.

“If we don’t change now, either Ukraine will fall to pieces or Putin will take us over.”

Unfortunately, she may be right.

Source: The Economist

Ukraine Conflict: The 'Cyborg' Defenders Of Donetsk Airport

DONESTK, Ukraine -- Mention a cyborg to a Ukrainian these days and they probably won't think of "cybernetic organisms", or man-machines of science fiction.

After months of fighting rebels, the soldiers at Donetsk airport are viewed by Ukrainians as superhuman.

Instead, the word now conjures up images of rugged, heavily armed men holed up inside what remains of Donetsk Airport in war-torn eastern Ukraine.

The airport has become a symbol of Ukraine's fight against separatists, and the "cyborgs" are Ukrainians who have held on to it despite persistent rebel attack.

The nickname was first used online and has since become a media staple in Ukraine.

It stuck, because to some the Donetsk airport defenders' exploits have appeared superhuman.

The separatists have been trying to capture the airport since May, allegedly with backing from the Russian military.

Even though a ceasefire was declared in early September, the airport remains a scene of fierce fighting almost every day.

It is located on the northern edge of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine's biggest city and a key rebel stronghold, which separatists use as a springboard for their attacks. 

And against this backdrop of violence, the pro-Russian rebels are to hold elections on 2 November, in this region and in rebel-held areas of neighbouring Luhansk, in defiance of Ukraine, but with the support of the government in Moscow.

The airport is sandwiched between the Ukrainian and separatist-controlled zones, which means that surrounding it and cutting off supplies completely is difficult.

Built only a couple of years ago, ahead of the Euro 2012 football championships co-hosted by Ukraine and Poland, the airport is estimated to have cost around $860m (£537m; €685m).

But now the glittering showcase has been reduced to a heap of twisted metal, and its runway is littered with burnt-out tanks and shattered airliners.

Rebels are very close to the main terminal building and have even entered some of its floors.

The Ukrainians, however, are holding out on others.

So far, this has been enough to keep the separatists at bay.

It is not clear how many people on either side have died in the fighting for the airport; retrieving the bodies is so dangerous that some are reportedly left to lie among the debris.

So why are both sides so determined for control over the airport? 

Clearly it would allow munitions, hardware and manpower to be airlifted into the conflict zone.

But, given its current sorry state, it is going to be a while before the airport is able to handle flights.

For now, its significance is as symbolic as it is practical.

In addition to deliveries from the army, the airport's embattled defenders receive many of their supplies from Ukraine's volunteer movement.

President Petro Poroshenko himself donated some night-vision goggles.

But behind the media image of the cyborgs, there is a grim reality to the soldiers' lives.

Some of the Ukrainian fighters inside the ruins of the airport have taken to social media to describe what it is like being there.

"It's cold. It's dark. It's dangerous all the time. All this affects how you think. You get used to shots being fired pretty quickly," writes Maxim Muzyka.

"You get used to everything," he adds.

Just like civilians outside the conflict zone, the soldiers take selfies and post videos of what is going on around them.

"Not everyone likes the name," says Vasily Holoveshchenko who paints a sobering picture of life at odds with the superhuman image they have been given.

"We are humans. Almost every one of us is married with children. Our thoughts are human too - we want this to be over soon."

Source: BBC News Europe

Russian Gas Set To Flow To Ukraine Again After New Supply Deal Agreed

KIEV, Ukraine -- EU steps in as guarantor for Kiev in three-way agreement, with sanctions against Russia in place as Ukraine conflict continues.

The natural gas taps are set to be turned on once more in Ukraine, with a three-way agreement meaning energy supplies will come in time for winter.

Ukraine, Russia and the European Union signed a deal on Thursday on the resumption of Russian natural gas supplies to Ukraine for winter after several months of delay during the conflict in Ukraine.

European commission president José Manuel Barroso, who witnessed the three-way signing ceremony in Brussels as he prepares to leave office on Friday, said:

“There is now no reason for people in Europe to stay cold this winter.”

Talks had been broken off in the early hours as Moscow sought more guarantees from the EU that it would help Ukraine pay for its natural gas.

They resumed on Thursday evening before reaching a deal.

EU officials said both Russia and Ukraine had bargained hard for commitments from the western bloc, with Moscow looking for EU cash to help Ukraine pay off debts to Gazprom, and the Kiev authorities anxious to get a deal that they could present to domestic voters as not overpaying for vital Russian supplies.

Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said in Kiev that the EU had agreed to serve as guarantor for Kiev in holding Russia to an agreement, notably on the price Ukraine would pay.

Some critics of Russia question whether its motivation is financial or whether prolonging the wrangling with ex-Soviet Ukraine and its western allies suits Moscow’s diplomatic agenda.

Ukraine is in discussions with existing creditors, the EU and the International Monetary Fund.

The gas cut-off has had little impact for months.

But pressure is mounting for a deal as temperatures start to drop below freezing.

European energy commissioner Günther Oettinger, who has been mediating, also leaves office on Friday, making way for a new European commission.

“We can say to the citizens of Europe that we can guarantee security of supply over the winter,” he said of what he called the $4.6 billion deal to supply Russian natural gas to Ukraine.

Oettinger said the $4.6 billion deal should extend to the spring and that it was “perhaps first glimmer of a relaxation in the relations between neighbours.”

EU member states west of Ukraine would also, he said, have stable supplies, passing through Ukrainian pipelines, while Russia would gain the benefit of payment for its energy.

The two sides came close to an agreement in September, but last week differences were wide.

Weekend elections returned a pro-western parliament in Kiev, potentially stoking tensions with Moscow, although Russia’s EU envoy, Vladimir Chizhov, said on Thursday the mood could be more relaxed now the vote had taken place.

Ukraine’s Naftogaz company has set aside $3.1 billion in a special escrow account to pay the debt.

Kiev says it is working to raise more money from all possible sources of financing, including the EU.

The commission is considering Ukraine’s request, made last week, for a further loan of €2 billion ($2.5 billion).

Russia provides around a third of the European Union’s natural gas, roughly half of which is pumped via Ukraine.

Ukraine in turn relies on Russia for around 50% of its own natural gas.

However, despite having storage, Ukraine has a winter shortfall of around 3 billion to 4 billion cubic metres, depending on the weather. 

For Russia, the natural-gas sector contributes approximately a fifth of the national budget.

Sanctions on Russia, which EU officials decided to leave unchanged on Tuesday while the conflict in Ukraine continues, are sapping an already weak economy.

Source: The Guardian

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Russians Re-Write History To Slur Ukraine Over War

MOSCOW, Russia -- Vladimir Putin has turned the idea of fascism into a political tool, and now Russian historians are adapting to the Kremlin line.

Russian soldiers stand in formation as they swear an oath at the World War Two museum on Poklonnaya Gora in Victory Park, Moscow.

The trio of German historians, as well as a handful of their colleagues from Eastern Europe, flew into Moscow last week for what they thought would be a conference on the history of Nazi war crimes.

It was the fifth in a series of international summits held every other year since 2006, first in Berlin and Cologne, then in Slovakia and Belarus, to keep alive the memory of the towns and villages destroyed during World War II.

But the German co-chairman of the conference, Sven Borsche, began to feel that something was amiss in Moscow as soon as he met his Russian hosts.

“All they wanted to talk about was the conflict in Ukraine,” he says. 

Even without the simultaneous translations provided for the foreign guests, they would have gotten the political message.

The photographs shown by several of the Russian speakers put the atrocities of the Nazi SS right alongside pictures from the current war in eastern Ukraine.

There is not much difference, the Russian historians suggested, between the actions of the Ukrainian military in its war against separatist rebels and the atrocities that Hitler’s forces committed during World War II.

“Right now, fascism is again raising its head,” declared Yaroslav Trifankov, a senior researcher at the state historical museum in the Russian region of Bryansk, which borders Ukraine.

“Right now,” he said from the podium, “our brother Slavs in Ukraine have been so thoroughly duped and brainwashed by their puppet government, which answers only to the U.S. State Department, that they truly have come to see themselves as a superior race.”

This rhetoric—calling it an argument would overstate its relation to facts—has recently come into vogue among Russian historians.

Under their interpretation of history, the struggle that began with the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 continues for Russia today, in a direct line through the generations, with the conflict in Ukraine.

That is the connection President Vladimir Putin first presented to the Russian people in March, when he sent his troops to invade and annex the Ukrainian region of Crimea.

The Russian-speaking residents of that peninsula, he said in a speech on the day of the annexation, need Russia’s protection from Ukraine’s new leaders, whom he referred to as “neo-Nazis and anti-Semites.”

Ukraine’s ensuing war to prevent Russia from seizing any more of its territory has likewise been branded a fascist campaign against ethnic Russians.

Practically every arm of the Russian state, from the education system to the national police, has since taken up this message.

The state media have consistently painted Ukrainian authorities as “fascists” in the service of the U.S. government.

In late September, Russia’s main investigative body even opened a criminal probe accusing Ukraine’s leaders of committing “genocide” against ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine.

But the more recent involvement of the nation’s historians has marked a worrying turn in this endeavor.

It suggests a willingness to reinterpret even the most sacred chapters of Russian history, as the venue for last week’s conference seemed to suggest.

With the exception of the Kremlin’s gilded halls and, perhaps, the nearby tombs of Soviet leaders on Red Square, few places in the Russian capital inspire such awed respect among the locals as the Central Museum to the Great Patriotic War.

Its curved colonnade stands on a hill near the center of the city called Poklonnaya Gora, which in rough translation means, “the hill where one bows in respect.”

In the center of its inner sanctuary, the white-domed Hall of Glory, an enormous statue of a Soviet soldier stands with a sword at his feet; its sheath bears this inscription:

“He who comes to us wielding a sword shall die by the sword.”

The vast rotunda, done up in marble and gold, would be something like the Temple Mount if Russian patriotism were a religion, while the official history of World War II that the museum embodies would be at least a portion of its scripture.

By various official estimates, between 20 million and 30 million Soviet citizens died during the war against German fascists – more deaths than any single nation suffered in World War II – and the history of Soviet valor in that war still lies at the core of Russia’s sense of identity.

But it has, like any dogma, proven malleable in the mouths of its contemporary preachers.

“Nazism is again coming to us from Europe,” says Mikhail Myagkov, one of Russia’s leading historians of the Second World War and a professor of history at the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations, where most of Russia’s top diplomats are educated.

“The bacilli of Nazism have not been destroyed. Unfortunately, they have infected, among other countries, our brotherly nation of Ukraine,” he told a press briefing on the eve of the conference at the museum on Poklonnaya Gora.

The following day, in one of its auditoriums, Russian historians took the stage one after the other to draw an explicit link between the Hitler’s Reich and today’s Ukraine.

None of them mentioned Russia’s military support for the rebels in eastern Ukraine or the encouragement they got from Russia in rising up against the government in Kiev this spring.

Nor did the speakers dwell on the fact that the far right is hardly the driving force of Ukrainian politics.

The country’s new President Petro Poroshenko is a liberal Westernizer with no links to Ukrainian nationalist parties, and the supposed popularity of those parties in Ukraine was exposed this week as a Russian fabrication; in the parliamentary elections held on Oct. 26, they failed to win a single seat in the legislature.

But from the speeches presented at the conference in Moscow, one would assume that Poroshenko and his allies are all just resurrected Nazis in disguise.

As these speeches were translated for the foreign delegates, including guests from the Czech Republic and Slovakia, their faces turned gradually from confusion to disgust.

Joerg Morre, the director of Berlin’s Karlhorst Museum, which focuses on the history of the eastern front in World War II, began to fidget in his seat.

“I mean, to show the photographs of the Second World War and then switch in the next slide to what’s happening in Ukraine,” Morre told me during a break in the conference, “No way is that right. Now way!”

Borsche, the co-chairman, agreed with him: “It’s polemical!” he said. 

As the conference drew to a close, the two of them decided to voice their objections.

Morre, springing from his seat, took hold of the microphone and told the hall that he did not agree with the final declaration of the conference, which had been written by its Russian organizers.

Specifically, he took issue with the clause that declared, “Our generation is facing the task to deter [the] revival of Fascism and Nazism,” a thinly veiled reference to Ukraine, the German delegates felt.

“It has become clear that we have different views on what fascism means today,” Morre told the hall in nearly perfect Russian.

“Your point of view is not mine. So I call for this part of the resolution to be removed,” he added.

“I do not want to sign it, and I am not the only one.”

After some noisy debate, the delegates agreed to put the matter to a vote.

Practically all of the foreign participants raised their hands in favor of deleting the reference to a “revival” of European fascism.

All of the Russian participants, including a large group of high school students who had been herded into the auditorium about 15 minutes earlier, had the clear majority in voting to leave the text of the declaration unchanged.

So the hosts of the conference won out—a small but telling victory for the cause of Russian revisionism.

Outside the hall, Borsche seemed at a loss for words as he waited in the coat-check line.

He had served as one of the initiators of the conference and its co-chairman, flying in from Germany for the occasion to discuss a shared history of suffering during World War II.

But he says he had no idea that his Russian colleagues would use it as a chance to promote their political agenda against Ukraine.

“That’s not correct,” he told me.

If there is some lesson to be learned from the experience, it’s a familiar one, he said:

“The more people are convinced of their own opinion, the more they become estranged from other opinions. That’s a real difficult problem.”

And as Russia sets out to redefine what Nazism means, it is a problem that Western historians will somehow have to face.

Source: TIME

The Slow-Motion Dismemberment Of Ukraine Continues

KIEV, Ukraine -- Pro-Western parties swept Ukraine’s parliamentary elections on Sunday, which isn’t a great surprise given that not that many people in the more pro-Russian eastern part of the country voted.

People hold Russian flags, flags of nationalist movements and flags of the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk' and 'People's Republic of Luhansk' in eastern Ukraine as they take part in a rally in support of the self-proclaimed 'People's Republics', in Moscow on October 18, 2014.

Turnout was low in areas of Eastern Ukraine that are under Kiev’s control and didn’t happen at all in the self-declared independent republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Those places are holding their own elections this Sunday, with Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov saying on Tuesday, “We will of course recognize the results.”

The announcement was condemned by the government in Kiev, as well as the EU and UN, who accused Moscow of undermining the terms of a peace deal it supported in September.

This is a bit of a change of tack for the Russian government, which has previously stopped short of recognizing the “republics” as independent.

For instance, after separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk held secession referendums in May, the foreign ministry didn’t respond to requests for Russia to absorb the regions as they had with Crimea earlier this year.

The Putin government’s on-again, off-again relationship with the separatists makes some sense if the end goal is not actually to create new states in Eastern Ukraine or to absorb new territory into Russia, but to keep the pro-Western government in Kiev permanently destabilized and unable to control large portions of its territory.

Under the Minsk Protocol, the agreement hammed out by representatives of Ukraine, Russia, the separatists, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe last month, Kiev agreed to cede power to the regions so long as they stayed part of Ukraine.

Separate unrecognized parliamentary elections certainly seem to undermine that goal, as does continued shelling.

With voters in Eastern Ukraine either cut out of the process entirely or ambivalent about it, the polls did indeed give “strong and irreversible backing to Ukraine's path to Europe," as President Petro Proshenko put it.

But the country’s de facto dismemberment also seems to be accelerating.

Source: Slate

EU, U.N. Condemn Ukraine Rebels' Election Plans

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- The European Union and United Nations condemned plans to hold elections in rebel-held areas of eastern Ukraine on Sunday, with the EU explicitly denouncing Moscow's support for the separatists' plans.

A pro-Russian separatist guards his position near the Kholodnaya Balka mine in Makiivka, outside Donetsk, October 29, 2014.

In separate statements on Wednesday, two days after Russia said it would recognize the rebel ballots, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the EU's foreign affairs service said the voting would undermine last month's outline peace deal struck in Minsk between Kiev and Moscow.

While Ban's spokesman did not directly criticize Russia, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, the EU statement hit out at Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for his comments on Monday in support of the separatists' plans.

"We deplore Minister Lavrov's remarks about Russia's forthcoming recognition of the elections," the spokesman of the European External Action Service said, just as EU officials were trying to broker a deal in Brussels between Moscow and Kiev to ensure Russian gas supplies to Ukraine over the coming winter.

The EU echoed a call from the United States following Sunday's parliamentary election in Ukraine for Russia to help ensure people in Donetsk and Luhansk could vote in local ballots being organized nationwide by the Kiev authorities on Dec. 7.

Saying the Minsk accord called for local elections in those regions to be held in accordance with Ukrainian law, it added:

"The holding of 'presidential' and 'parliamentary' elections, called by the self-appointed authorities, would run counter to the letter and spirit of the Minsk Protocol and disrupt progress towards finding a sustainable political solution."

Ban's spokesman said the votes would be held in defiance of the national parliamentary victory of pro-Western parties. 

"The Secretary-General deplores the planned holding by armed rebel groups in eastern Ukraine of their own 'elections' on Nov. 2, in breach of the constitution and national law," he said.

"These 'elections' will seriously undermine the Minsk Protocol," he added.

"The Secretary-General urges all to uphold these agreements and work toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict."

The dispute over the rebel vote has intensified the geo-political tussle between Russia and the West over the future of Ukraine, going back to the overthrow by protesters of the country's Moscow-backed president in February.

Moscow supports the rebels, but it denies Ukrainian and Western accusations that its troops have taken part in fighting against government forces in a conflict that has killed more than 3,700 people.

Source: Google News