Monday, March 31, 2008

Bush Starts Europe Tour In NATO Aspirant Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- US President George W. Bush arrived in Ukraine Monday at the start of a tour to push NATO allies for more support in Afghanistan and to reach a compromise with Russia on defence plans.

US President George W. Bush

At talks scheduled for Tuesday with Ukraine's pro-Western President Viktor Yushchenko, Bush was expected to stress US support for the country's plans to join the NATO military alliance.

Bush will also be "pushing hard" for the alliance to embrace both Kiev and Georgia as potential members during a NATO summit that starts Wednesday, US National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley said.

"We think it's very, very, very important that, Georgia and Ukraine, that we welcome their aspirations to be part of NATO, that we have an active engagement in helping them move in that direction," Hadley said aboard Air Force One as Bush flew to Europe.

"I believe that NATO benefits and Ukraine and Georgia benefit if and when there is membership," Bush said ahead of his visit to Ukraine, where he touched down late Monday evening.

Analysts predicted however that neither country would be allowed to start the formal accession procedure at the April 2-4 meeting of alliance leaders in Romania.

Ahead of Bush's arrival, protesters demonstrated against accession both on Ukraine's politically sensitive Crimea peninsula on Saturday and in Kiev on Monday.

The protests underlined significant opposition to membership in Ukraine and by its giant neighbour Russia, whose president Vladimir Putin has been invited to the Bucharest meeting.

In Kiev, a few thousand protesters on Monday set up tents and hurled abuse at Bush and NATO.

"NATO is war, death and tears," read one banner, while another suggested Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko leave the country.

Amid a delicate patch in relations between Washington and Moscow, Bush is also to hold weekend talks with Putin in Russia.

Moscow-based defence analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said wider strategic considerations meant Georgia and Ukraine would not gain an immediate green light from NATO.

He said Bush was seeking a softening of Russian opposition to US plans to set up missile defence sites in the Czech Republic and Poland, as well as Russian agreement to allow NATO supplies to transit through Russia to Afghanistan.

In part, Bush wants to prove the success of his Republican party's policy on Russia and thus support the Republican candidate John McCain in the US election period, Felgenhauer said.

"It's a grand deal that involves a lot of things outside -- not only Ukraine and Georgia."

On the presidential plane Air Force One, Hadley expressed hope that Bush and Putin would resolve their differences over the missile shield during their weekend talks.

"I think we're moving in a direction... where Russia and the United States could have missile defence as an area of strategic cooperation," he said.

Another theme of Bush's tour is to persuade NATO states to commit more troops for Afghanistan, where failure would be seen as a personal blow.

"Part of our collective mission... for the NATO meeting is to encourage people to take our obligations seriously," Bush said on the subject.

Hadley returned to the theme.

"We've been saying for some time that all of us need to do more in Afghanistan, and I think you're going to see countries coming up and doing more," he told reporters.

Ahead of Bush's arrival here, Ukraine's desire for NATO membership was stressed by Yushchenko's chief spokesman, Alexander Chaly.

"We hope the United States will clearly support our ambition to join the membership action plan," a formal step towards membership, Chaly said.

Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili was more strident. He warned NATO against "appeasing" Russia and drew historical comparisons with the appeasement of Nazi Germany, in an interview with The Financial Times daily in Britain.

Several NATO states oppose giving Georgia and Ukraine the go-ahead, notably Germany, which has sought close ties with Putin and Russia's president-elect Dmitry Medvedev.

In Kiev, analyst Vladimir Fesenko said Ukraine would not be deterred by Western hesitancy.

"Ukraine is interested in the process more than the final result... NATO membership is a pretext for integration with Europe," said Fesenko, who heads the Centre for Applied Political Research.

Source: AFP

The Hollowing Of A Hero

MOSCOW, Russia -- Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko never fails to disappoint. Of course, most successful revolutionaries are later regarded as disappointments, even failures, in one way or another. That's the nature of revolutionary euphoria once it deflates. Yet even in such company, Yushchenko stands out.

Viktor Yushchenko

America, despairing of Yushchenko's endless dithering and willingness to compromise Ukraine's independence from Russia, abandoned its support for him over a year ago. Recently, the European Union foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, in a brutal session with Yushchenko in Brussels, let him know that the EU, too, had had enough of his temporizing and political machinations.

Neither message, however, appears to have had any effect on Yushchenko, whose only concern nowadays is his own political survival. Thus, he is focused on reaching a deal with his former, pro-Russian opponents to secure a second term as Ukraine's president in 2010 rather than on opinion in the West or among his supporters.

Indeed, it now seems clear that Yushchenko was only a reluctant leader of a democratic revolution. From the moment of his victory in 2005, he sought to distance himself from those who supported him and, instead, to forge an alliance with those who opposed Ukraine's democratic and free-market transformation, preferring the crony capitalism that had developed since Ukraine gained its independence. Now he wants to formalize that alliance.

Yushchenko's plan is breathtakingly cynical. With his popularity ratings having plummeted to around 10 percent, he can no longer command the allegiance of the bulk of Our Ukraine, the party that he created but which now (thanks to his unpopularity) is reduced to junior partner status in the coalition government led by Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Instead of trying to recover support, Yushchenko and his coterie of advisers want to link the rump of Our Ukraine that they still control with the Orange Revolution's opponents, the Party of the Regions, which would then dump the unelectable Viktor Yanukovich, Ukraine's erstwhile prime minister and Yushchenko's one-time nemesis, as its standard bearer.

Of course, there are problems with Yushchenko's plan. One big hurdle is his support for Ukraine's NATO membership, which he is hoping to push at the alliance's summit meeting in Bucharest next week.

Understanding that NATO is not popular in eastern Ukraine, the seat of support for the Party of the Regions, Yushchenko has been trying to force Tymoshenko, who has been more cautious about NATO because of its current unpopularity, to embrace NATO membership publicly.

Even in a normal democracy, politicians who switch parties are regarded with suspicion. Winston Churchill, for example, found "crossing the aisle" a hard act to shake off. Moreover, Yushchenko is no Churchill, and Ukraine is a very young democracy. To be sure, unlike Russia or other parts of the ex-Soviet Union, Ukraine has shown itself capable of handling the tumult of free and fair democratic elections. But is it really ready for the type of political summersault Yushchenko is preparing.

Moreover, Yushchenko's survival instinct will do nothing to restore his reputation; indeed, it will likely bury it once and for all. Years of unfulfilled promises have undermined any faith in Yushchenko's word among most Ukrainians. Openly mocked for his dithering, he recently issued a decree requiring his cabinet to see him off at the airport whenever he travels. Tymoshenko acidly remarked that she is always happy to say farewell to the president.

It is Yushchenko's rivalry with Tymoshenko that is goading him on. Her vote total more than doubled after Yushchenko dropped her as prime minister in 2005, and now she is leading in the polls for the presidential election. With much of Our Ukraine now backing her, Tymoshenko stands out as the only proven vote winner in the government coalition.

In contrast, Yushchenko's lack of commitment to the political struggle against the Party of the Regions gives scant credence to his belief that the best way to defeat this party's efforts to turn back the clock in Ukraine is to cut political deals with it.

All of this would be comic if it were not so tragic. Yushchenko regards Tymoshenko's activism as an insult to his instinctive caution, which goes so far as to back the continuing existence of the shadowy gas intermediaries that have made energy security Ukraine's biggest problem.

The only question now is whether Yushchenko sees himself as politically strong enough to sack Tymoshenko and seek to govern with the support of his historic rivals. America and the European Union should make it clear that so naked a political betrayal will push him permanently out of favor in the West.

Source: International Herald Tribune

Friday, March 28, 2008

Streets Of Kiev Swamped With Vehicles, Empty Of Law

KIEV, Ukraine -- Road rage spread to top levels of Ukrainian government recently with the number two cop in the former Soviet republic cutting off the head of parliament in heavy traffic, and then giving him the finger.

Speaker of Parliament Arseny Yatseniuk.

The SUV duel pitted Oleksy Kozha, vice commander of an elite traffic police unit called "Kobra" against Arseny Yatseniuk, the speaker of Ukraine's national legislature.

Yatseniuk, a pro-Europe politician and at 37 Ukraine's youngest- ever parliament speaker, had been picking his way down Kiev's Prospekt Pobedy (Victory Prospect), an eight-lane, tree-shaded esplanade through one of Kiev's best neighbourhoods.

In the Soviet era, Victory Prospect was popular for lovers' walks, but now the thoroughfare is jammed at most hours, and polluted 24/7, as the road is the main automotive link between the booming Kiev centre and its burgeoning Western bedroom communities.

Kozha, behind the wheel of late-model red Porsche Cayenne, was reportedly zig-zagging through heavy traffic at high speed. Such driving by the wealthy is common in Kiev, where unwritten traffic law permits violation of road regulations, provided one drives a particularly expensive automobile.

Unfortunately for Captain Kozha's up-to-that-point-successful police career, one of the vehicles cut off by the weaving Porsche was Yatseniuk's black Toyota Landcruiser.

By both car value and government post, and according to the same unofficial but scrupulously enforced rules, Yatseniuk is a Ukrainian driver that other drivers offend at their peril.

What followed is embarassing for Ukrainian President Viktor Yuschenko's campaign to bring his country's roads up to European standards, and at the same time a fine example of how traffic law is not enforced on Ukrainian roads nowadays.

Yatseniuk accelerated, attempted to flag Kozha down, and received for his trouble Kozha's middle finger in the Cayenne's rear view mirror. The police officer stepped on the gas, and the Porsche rocketed into anonymity among the common automobiles.

The MP then, according to his account, reported Kozha's license plate to the national police force who, again according to Yatseniuk, failed for a full week to locate a late model, red Porsche Cayenne cruising about in Kiev at high speed.

"They (the police) were protecting one of their own," Yatseniuk alleged. "And so it was very lucky I happened to find the Porche by accident myself."

Yasteniuk's claim he stumbled onto the Cayenne has been widely questioned by Ukrainian media and government watchers, some even lampooning the idea of a vigilante Yatseniuk prowling the streets of Kiev in his Toyota, like a TV detective.

Most likely Yatseniuk did what most Ukrainian drivers do when they want to track down a vehicle - they get a friend in the police to run a check on the license or they just buy the police automotive data base illegally for 10 dollars, at one of the city's thriving bootleg CD markets, observers said.

Kozha, his cover blown, initially claimed he was innocent.

"I am a calm driver. I don't use rude gestures, and in any case I don't know how to insult someone using my finger," Kozha told reporters in late February. "I didn't do it."

The stand-off ended dramatically and unpleasantly for Kozha when President Yushchenko, Yatseniuk's political patron, threw Kozha and his boss out of a nationally-televised meeting of police bosses with the words: "You are sacked ... a shame to your uniforms ... leave immediately!"

In early March, Yushchenko declared his intention to dissolve the Kobra special police unit - a tacit admission of defeat in his campaign to reform the police, as Kobra had been formed, and Kozha hired, to root out corrupt traffic cops.

Yatseniuk has said he wants Kozha to explain to a judge, how on a $400 (€256) monthly salary, a policeman can afford a $110,000 (€71,000) Porsche. Kozha claimed he is the victim of a political vendetta, and that he will sue to clear his "name and honour."

But the problems on Kiev's increasingly crowded roads remain. Thousands of new cars are registered each month, car sales were up 50 per cent just over last year, and automobiles routinely drive on the sidewalks.

And now, cars may no longer be towed in Kiev because of a court challenge to the proposition a tow truck operator may legally touch a citizen's personal transport, no matter how illegally parked.

Source: DPA

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Roadblocks In Ukraine For Hosting Euro2012 Football

KIEV, Ukraine -- The boss of Ukraine's preparation programme to co-host the 2012 European football championship accused the government of dragging its feet on overhauling the country's shoddy roadways, the Interfax news agency reports.

Evhen Chervonenko, Director of the national agency for Euro2012.

Evhen Chervonenko, director of the national agency for Euro2012, at a meeting in the Black Sea resort city Livadia Tuesday accused officials in Ukraine's Ministry of Transport of ignoring foreign investment offers to upgrade the former Soviet republic's roads.

'We have an offer in hand from American investors, and if we get approval from the Ministry of Transport work could begin,' Chervonenko said.

'But they seem to have their own plans...and nothing is being done.'

Ukraine and Poland in April won rights from UEFA to host the prestige tournament.

Since then, Ukraine particularly has done practically nothing to get ready for the event -- a massive undertaking requiring the repair of thousands of kilometres of roads, the construction of dozens of hotels, and a top-to-bottom overhaul of the country's weak service industry.

UEFA officials have increasingly expressed worry at the slow pace of Ukrainian preparations, and even hinted if the Ukrainians fail to speed up work, they could have the tournament taken away from them.

Ukrainian government estimates place the cost of preparation for Euro2012 as high as $4 billion - roughly 20 percent of a year's annual budget for the East European nation. The lion's share of the money would go towards bringing Ukraine's currently weak road network to a European standard.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko this week put brakes on hopes the government would nonetheless fund the preparation effort, saying 'we must get funding from private industry...the government does not have it'.

'The biggest threat to getting ready is the loss of support from the ministry of transport,' Chervonenko said.

'If we don't solve the road problem we can't host the tournament.'

Ukraine's government has attempted to repair roads using foreign investment in the past, with varying results. An EU-financed stretch from Kiev to the Hungarian border was completed on time and under budget, and is comparable in quality to an average European trunk road.

A privately financed road involving Turkish and Italian developers, connecting Kiev to the Black Sea port city Odessa, has however been widely criticised for cost overruns, and shoddy workmanship.

UEFA general secretary David Taylor in late January criticised the speed of Poland and Ukraine's preparations, saying, 'There has been progress, but it needs to be accelerated.'

Source: DPA

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

World's Tallest Man Struggles To Fit In

PODOLYANTSI, Ukraine -- Leonid Stadnik's phenomenal height has forced him to quit a job he loved and to stoop as he moves around his house.

Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko talks to Leonid Stadnik, 2.59 meter (8,5 feet) tall, a Ukrainian veterinarian and the world's tallest living man according to the Guinness World Records, outside the Presidential office, Kiev, Ukraine, Monday, March 24, 2008.

But Stadnik, who Guinness World Records says is the world's tallest human, says his condition has also taught him that there are many kindhearted strangers.

Since his recognition by Ukrainian record keepers four years ago, and by Guinness last year, people from all over Ukraine and the world have sent him outsized clothing, provided his home with running water and recently presented him with a giant bicycle. And on Monday, he got a new car, courtesy of President Viktor Yushchenko.

"Thanks to good people I have shoes and clothes," said the 37-year-old former veterinarian, who still lives with his 66-year-old mother.

In 2006, Stadnik was officially measured at 8 feet 5 inches tall, surpassing a 7-foot-9-inch Chinese man to claim the title of the world's tallest person.

His growth spurt began at age 14 after a brain operation that apparently stimulated the overproduction of growth hormone. Doctors say he has been growing ever since.

While his size is intimidating, Stadnik charms visitors with a broad grin and childlike laugh. He seems at times like a lonely boy trapped in a giant's body, even keeping stuffed toys on his pillow.

Stadnik's stature has brought attention, but he struggles to lead a normal life.

All the doorways in his one-story brick house are too short for him to pass through without stooping. His 440 pounds cause constant knee pain and often force him to use crutches.

Stadnik loves animals, but had to quit his job as a veterinarian at a cattle farm after suffering frostbite when he walked to work in his socks in winter. He could not afford custom made shoes for his 17-inch feet.

But his fame has taught him not to despair.

A German who said he was his distant relative asked Stadnik for a visit several years ago. On the trip, Stadnik got to sample frog legs in an elegant restaurant and saw a roller coaster at an amusement park — both for the first time.

Shortly afterward, Stadnik came home one day and saw a new computer connected to the Web sitting on his desk — a gift from a local Internet provider. Company workers "sneaked into the house like little spies" to install the equipment, Stadnik joked.

Since then he has made many online friends, including several in the United States, Australia and Russia. Stadnik hopes to learn English so he can communicate better with his Anglophone contacts; currently, he relies on computer translations, which he says are often inadequate.

On Sunday, an organization for the disabled in his home village of Podolyantsi, 125 miles west of Kiev, gave Stadnik a giant bike so he can ride to the grocery store in a nearby village. The group also presented Stadnik with a fitness machine.

"I have always dreamt that my life and the life of my loved ones ... would become more comfortable," Stadnik said. "My dream is coming true."

On Monday, he traveled to Kiev to get a new, shiny-blue van. Stadnik struggled to squeeze himself into the passenger's seat, his knees nearly reaching up to his face. Yushchenko then briefly took the beaming Stadnik for a drive.

Village authorities have promised to supply gas.

His neighbors joke that they may also benefit from Stadnik's success. "Of course we are proud of him — we may have gas here soon thanks to him," said the 75-year-old Nila Kravchuk.

Since he quit his job, Stadnik has concentrated on managing the family garden and caring for his three cows, his horse and assorted pigs and chickens. He lives with his mother, Halyna, and his 42-year-old sister Larysa.

Stadnik says his dream is finding a soul mate, just like the former titleholder, China's Bao Xishun, who was married last year.

"I think the future holds that for me," he said.

Source: AP

Monday, March 24, 2008

Russia's Threats To Ukraine, Georgia Are Challenges to U.S., NATO

WASHINGTON, DC -- Representatives of the Russian government and the Kremlin are multiplying their threats to Ukraine (as well as to Georgia) ahead of next week’s NATO summit, where Membership Action Plans (MAPs) for the two countries will be considered.

Putin continues to exert pressure on Ukraine, Georgia not to join NATO.

Moscow realizes more clearly than some NATO governments that this issue is a defining one for the Alliance at its April 2-4 summit in Bucharest.

Government-run Rossiya Television aired a quintessence of such threats against Ukraine in its “National Interest” flagship political roundtable on March 22. The participants, who were until recently positioned as hardliners in the Russian spectrum, are nowadays in the policy mainstream.

Kremlin political consultant Gleb Pavlovsky warned on the program that Ukraine shall be “destroyed, divided” if it pursues a MAP leading to NATO membership.

To deter Kyiv from pursuing a MAP, Pavlovsky recommended that Russia should raise the full range of complaints regarding the Russian language and rights of ethnic minorities in Ukraine and present Ukraine with a “yes-or-no choice.” Should Kyiv choose the “no,” Russia should “reconsider the [1997] framework treaty” with Ukraine.

This clearly implies de-recognizing Ukraine’s territorial integrity, which is a centerpiece of that treaty. With this, Pavlovsky is replaying the themes he used during Ukraine’s 2004 presidential election campaign, which his team of political consultants based on threats to split eastern Ukraine from the rest of the country.

On the same program Konstantin Simonov, general director of the National Energy Security Foundation, warned that Ukraine’s economy would collapse without Russian gas.

Consequently, “If they do not see Russia as a political partner, they will not be getting any money from us” -- that is, Russia would abruptly raise the price of gas for avowedly political reasons.

In a link-up from Brussels, the Russian envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin threatened that granting MAPs to Ukraine and Georgia “would signify the breakup of their national states.”

He also warned the Alliance that it cannot tell Russia that it has no right to veto NATO decisions while at the same time requesting Russian assistance in Afghanistan, where the NATO operation faces a “fiasco for the entire alliance.”

Granting the MAPs would be “madness” and a matter for “adventurers” at NATO, Rogozin warned. In using such epithets Rogozin must be aware of NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer’s indirect public signals that he supports the MAPs and opposes any indirect Russian veto.

Rogozin and other Russian government officials have in recent weeks multiplied threats to deprive Georgia of Abkhazia and South Ossetia permanently, if NATO approves a MAP for Georgia.

Last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened to target missiles at Ukraine if it joins NATO. Now the threats to Ukraine’s territorial integrity signify an escalation of this campaign.

Visiting Israel, Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov warned that putting Ukraine and Georgia on a track to NATO through MAPs would result in the “gravest consequences” to U.S.-Russia relations.

This phrasing seems tailored for the Israeli audience by raising the prospect that Russia might not cooperate with the United States on anti-Iran sanctions. It seems to indicate that Moscow is trying to induce Israel to use its influence in Washington for not giving cause to such grave consequences in U.S.-Russia relations.

While some NATO governments blink, Ukraine’s leaders are standing up to these pressures. On March 17 President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko co-signed a set of letters to de Hoop Scheffer, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

The German government is the principal opponent to the MAPs while the French government is tacitly resistant, although Sarkozy’s personal stance remains unclear.

The Yushchenko-Tymoshenko letters express the hope that MAP approval at the upcoming NATO summit would confirm the irreversibility of Ukraine’s Western orientation.

The Ukrainian leaders “respectfully” address the view of those NATO governments that note a lack of consensus in Ukrainian society about NATO membership prospects for the country.

However, they note, the MAP goal is enshrined in the coalition agreement (of Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc) and the coalition government’s program. Their letters pledge to launch public education activities regarding NATO and allocate sufficient funding for this.

Yushchenko and Tymoshenko write that the authorities’ pursuit of MAP is not a political tactic, but a strategic course of independent and free Ukraine.

While the opposition in a democratic society has the right to dispute this strategy, Yushchenko and Tymoshenko express confidence that the moderate opposition (i.e., the Party of Regions) would revert to the pursuit of national interests and support a NATO MAP.

This latter expectation is not misplaced, considering that the first Yanukovych government in 2003-2004 during Leonid Kuchma’s presidency had supported the goal of Ukraine’s integration with NATO.

The March 17 set of letters is a follow-up to the Ukrainian top leaders’ mid-January request to de Hoop Scheffer for MAP approval at the upcoming Bucharest summit.

On March 21, a special session of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) adopted a decision on coordination among all branches of the authorities to implement MAP goals, if a MAP program is approved at the NATO summit.

As part of that decision, the authorities are to prepare a more effective effort through the mass media to inform the public about NATO. The NSDC announced that obtaining a MAP at the Bucharest summit is the joint goal of the entire state leadership.

The United States publicly backs that goal. On March 19 U.S. Ambassador William Taylor declared to a news conference in Kyiv that no country outside NATO can veto the approval of a MAP. Taylor suggested that this issue needs to be resolved this year, ahead of Ukraine’s 2009 presidential election campaign.

U.S. President George W. Bush is scheduled to visit Kyiv on March 31-April 1, en route to the Bucharest summit. Many expect Bush to express full support in Kyiv for a Ukrainian MAP.

However, it also seems possible that a Bush visit would become merely a consolation prize for postponing the MAP in deference to Russia, with Berlin perhaps earning in the process a title to Moscow’s appreciation.

By resorting to threats in order to derail the Ukrainian and Georgian MAPs, Russia is targeting not only these aspirant countries.

Through such threats and the accompanying wedge-drawing among European NATO countries, Russia is, in fact, targeting the Alliance itself, its policies, and the integrity of NATO’s decision-making processes.

Source: Eurasia Daily Monitor

Hopes Fade For Sailors Trapped Underwater

HONG KONG, China -- Eighteen Ukrainian sailors were feared dead Monday after they were trapped underwater in their capsized tugboat in Hong Kong for nearly two full days amid strong currents, rescue officials said.

Hong Kong's Director of Marine, Roger Tupper, speaks at a media briefing about the rescue operation of 18 Ukrainians who are missing in a ship collision.

The sailors would have survived 12 hours since the accident late Saturday based on the current water temperature of 17 degrees Celsius (63 Fahrenheit) at the 37-meter (120-feet) depth of the wreck, Roger Tupper, director of Hong Kong's Marine Department, told reporters Monday.

He said rescue divers have continuously knocked on the hull of the ship but the sailors have not signaled back.

"Their chances for survival are very slim," said spokeswoman Zhang Jianwen of China's Guangzhou Salvage Bureau, which is assisting Hong Kong rescue officials.

Tupper said, however, rescuers will continue their efforts until the Ukrainian vessel is retrieved and the bodies are located.

He said bad conditions and the upside down position of the wreck hindered rescue efforts.

"The current is very strong. The visibility is very, very short. It's completely dark. Even in daylight, it's absolutely black down 37 meters (120 feet)," Tupper said.

Zhang said the Guangzhou Salvage Bureau's divers were tying up the Ukrainian tugboat and preparing it for a move from to shallower waters to ease rescue efforts, he said.

Preparation for the move was expected to take several days and a large Chinese salvage ship will be dispatched to Hong Kong from nearby waters Friday, Zhang said. He said the salvage ship would arrive Friday or Saturday.

The tugboat Neftegaz 67 -- which had been detained in Hong Kong in 2003 with safety problems -- sank late Saturday when it collided with Chinese cargo ship Yao Hai in waters northwest of Hong Kong's outlying Lantau island.

The 80-meter-long (264-foot-long) Ukrainian vessel sank quickly but the Chinese ship suffered only bow damage and stayed afloat, officials said. Only seven of the 25 on the Ukrainian ship were found.

The Neftegaz 67 was detained in Hong Kong in September 2003 for safety problems, according to documents from Hong Kong's Marine Department.

The documents said that the ship did not provide "means of escape" or "escape breathing apparatus," and that vessel personnel were not familiar with safety procedures.

It was not immediately clear if those problems were addressed during the detention. Government spokeswoman Heidi Liu said she could not immediately comment.

People who answered the phone at Chernomorneftegaz, the Ukrainian oil and gas exploration company that operates Neftegaz 67, hung up on several calls from The Associated Press.

"We are hoping for the best," Chernomorneftegaz chairman Anatoly Prisyazhnyuk said in comments televised Monday.

Ukraine's ambassador to China, Serhiy Kamyshev, visited the site of the accident Monday. He told reporters afterward that 20 marine experts from Ukraine will arrive in Hong Kong on Tuesday, including some from Chernomorneftegaz, to assist with rescue efforts.

The cause of the Saturday's accident was not immediately clear. Officials say weather conditions were reasonable at the time of the accident and neither ship was overloaded.

Source: CNN

National Bolshevik Bolts For Ukraine

MOSCOW, Russia -- The fiancee of opposition activist Yury Chervochkin, who died last year of injuries suffered in a murky beating, has fled Russia and requested political asylum in Ukraine.

Murdered Russian opposition activist Yury Chervochkin.

Anna Ploskonosova, a 20-year-old activist with the banned National Bolshevik Party from Tula, submitted her asylum application to immigration officials in the central Ukrainian city of Vinnitsa on March 9, she said from the city by telephone Friday.

Yelena Mamentova, a spokeswoman for Ukraine's State Committee for Nationalities and Religion, which deals with asylum requests, confirmed that Ploskonosova's application had been received.

Ploskonosova is the latest of the organization's activists to flee to Ukraine to escape what they call fabricated criminal cases against them.

Her fiance, Chervochkin, was an National Bolshevik activist in the Moscow region city of Serpukhov. On Nov. 22, he called a reporter from opposition leader Garry Kasparov's web site,, to say he was being followed by local police officers.

Hours later Chervochkin, 22, was discovered unconscious outside his apartment building after apparently having been savagely beaten. He died on Dec. 10 after spending three weeks in a coma.

His fellow activists say he had been promoting an opposition rally to be held on Nov. 24. The opposition coalition The Other Russia has accused officers from the anti-organized crime department of the Serpukhov police of assaulting Chervochkin.

No suspects have been identified or detained in connection with the attack on Chervochkin, "despite very intensive efforts" by investigators, Yelena Zhukova, a spokeswoman for the Moscow region branch of the Investigative Committee, said Friday.

The opposition coalition The Other Russia has accused investigators of dragging their feet in the case.

Ploskonosova, meanwhile, had been facing charges of assaulting a police officer in Tula before she fled the country -- allegations she said were trumped up.

"They are saying that I punched a policeman in the eye," Ploskonosova said. "It was made clear that if I deny it in court, the punishment would be a long prison sentence."

Tula prosecutors say Ploskonosova attacked the officer during a Nov. 7 opposition rally in Tula. The crime she is charged with is punishable by up to five years in prison.

"It later became clear to me that authorities are trying by any means possible to put me in prison, so I decided to leave," she said.

Calls to the prosecutor's office in Tula's central district, which is handling Ploskonosova's case, went unanswered Friday. Calls to Tula's Central District Court, which is hearing the ongoing case, went unanswered as well.

National Bolshevik Party leader Eduard Limonov said Ploskonosova's case was "just one example of the mass repressions that are continuing in our country."

"What choice do these people have?" Limonov said. "It's either leave the country or go to jail."

Ploskonosova said she traveled by train to Ukraine on March 9 and had no problems crossing the border, as Russians do not require visas to enter the country. She then traveled to Vinnitsa, where she met with Dmitry Groisman, a local rights activist who has helped numerous Russian citizens -- including National Bolshevik activists -- seeking asylum.

Last month, Ukraine granted asylum to organization member Olga Kudrina, who was facing prison time for a 2005 political stunt in which she hung an anti-Putin banner from the since demolished Rossiya Hotel, near the Kremlin.

Another National Bolshevik activist, Mikhail Gangan, is currently awaiting a decision on his asylum petition to Ukrainian authorities.

Source: The Moscow Times

Where Europe Draws The Line

WASHINGTON, DC -- Mikheil Saakashvili kicked off the second wave of freedom movements in formerly Communist Europe in 2003 when he strode into the Georgian Parliament, rose in hand. Now he's president, and his country and his revolution are in danger of being stranded between a weakening West and a surging Russia.

President Bush meets with Georgia's President Mikhail Saakashvili, Wednesday, March 19, 2008, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington.

Last week he came to Washington in the somewhat desperate hope that President Bush would spend some of his last diplomatic capital to defend the two European democracies born on his watch.

Georgia's was the first of the "color revolutions"; the second was in Ukraine, which in 2004 shook off an attempt by Vladimir Putin to install a satellite autocracy.

Now, like the first wave of post-Communist democracies in Central Europe, Georgia and Ukraine are trying to consolidate their liberal regimes, and their independence, by joining NATO.

Both have formally asked NATO to choose them for a "membership action plan" at a summit two weeks from now in Bucharest. That would inaugurate a process of monitored reforms that could lead to full membership in a few years.

It's a logical step that already has allowed 10 European countries, from Poland to Romania, to adopt the institutions and receive the protection of the democratic West -- arguably the greatest achievement in NATO's history.

But the alliance and its leaders are weaker than they were a decade ago -- and more susceptible to intimidation by Putin. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in Soviet-dominated East Germany, has taken a public stand against membership plans for Georgia and Ukraine.

The French government of Nicolas Sarkozy is also resistant. Even the U.S. bureaucracy has been lukewarm; support for Georgia and Ukraine has ranked below missile defense and Kosovo's independence in Washington's dealings with both Europe and Russia.

That leaves Bush, who has called himself a "dissident president" in part because his sympathy for democratic underdogs is often greater than that of his own administration.

At the White House last Wednesday, Bush was "very motivated" and "very focused" about Georgia's cause, Saakashvili said the next day. The president held a news conference endorsing NATO membership for Georgia and made a telephone call to Merkel the same day.

The danger is that Bush's mobilization on behalf of the two democracies will be too late and too underpowered. Administration officials already have a fallback position: that Georgia and Ukraine be given some kind of temporizing assurance by NATO but not a membership plan.

"It's rubbish," the incorrigibly outspoken Saakashvili said in a meeting at The Post. "We can't fool ourselves. We can't fool our own people."

Most of all, NATO's face-saving formulas won't fool Russia. However it goes, the decision in Bucharest will send a powerful signal to Putin about the degree to which Western governments are prepared to tolerate his attempts to bully Ukraine and Georgia out of democracy and back into subservience to the Kremlin.

Already he's been far from subtle. Russia has banned trade with Georgia, has dropped bombs on its territory and recently shot down one of its unmanned aircraft.

Putin threatened to target Ukraine with nuclear missiles if it moved toward NATO and cut off gas supplies to Kiev just before a planned trip by its prime minister to alliance headquarters in Brussels.

"By refusing us, [NATO] will be sending a signal to Russia of, 'Go and get them. We are not going to mind too much,' " Saakashvili said. "Russia will be emboldened. They will conclude that they are on the right track when they stir up trouble with us."

The Germans argue, weakly, that it is trouble that they are trying to avoid -- that Putin has been pushed enough by NATO's support for Kosovo's independence and U.S. missile defense bases in Europe.

The trouble with that logic is that, by insisting on those Western priorities over Moscow's vehement objections while conceding on Georgia and Ukraine, NATO governments are effectively drawing a line in a still-unsettled post-Cold War European order.

On one side are Kosovo and the missile bases in Poland and the Czech Republic, which Putin is powerless to tamper with; on the other are the only legitimate democracies between Poland and Turkey, where the response to aggressive Russian meddling would be de facto acquiescence.

The Georgians are told that if they are put off at Bucharest they will have another chance in just a year, when a NATO summit celebrating the alliance's 60th anniversary is held in . . . Berlin.

Saakashvili is doubtful. "If we don't get it now, the window of opportunity could be closing, for a number of reasons," he said.

Though he didn't say so, one of them is that the "dissident" U.S. president on whose watch democratic Georgia was born -- not to mention his "freedom agenda" -- will no longer occupy the White House.

Source: Washington Post

Sunday, March 23, 2008

18 Ukrainians Missing After HK Ship Collision: Official

HONG KONG, China -- Marine divers were racing Sunday to try to save 18 Ukrainian crew believed to be trapped on the ocean floor in their overturned ship after two vessels collided off Hong Kong, officials said.

Workers on a boat conduct rescue operation at the water where the 80-meter-long (264-foot-long) Ukrainian boat, currently lying upside down at a depth of 35 meters (115 feet) in Hong Kong Sunday, March 23, 2008. Eighteen Ukrainian sailors were trapped underwater in their capsized tugboat after it collided with a cargo ship in Hong Kong waters, a marine official said Sunday.

"The top priority of the ongoing rescue operation is to locate the missing persons, both inside the vessel and on the sea surface," the director of the city's marine department, Roger Tupper, told reporters.

The missing were thought to be trapped in the engine room and cabins of a Ukrainian tug, the Naftogaz-67, which collided with a China-registered cargo ship, the Yao-Hai, late Saturday.

The Ukrainian vessel, which was carrying 24 Ukrainian crew and one Chinese sailor, sank quickly after the collision and came to rest on the seabed at a depth of 37 metres (120 feet), Hong Kong officials said.

Six Ukrainians and the Chinese sailor were rescued shortly afterwards, they said.

At Simferopol in Ukraine, the president of the energy company Chornomornaftegaz which owns the ship expressed hopes that the missing sailors would be found alive.

"We have not lost hope of finding the other sailors alive, as long as they are in the interior (of the ship) where there are still pockets of air," said Anatoly Prisiazhnyuk, who said he spoke by telephone with the ship's captain who was one of those who had escaped.

According to the captain, the collision happened because the Chinese vessel refused to give his ship the right of way.

"He had received from the controller permission to pass. The Chinese cargo ship should have let it pass, but it did not do that," said Prisiazhnyuk.

He added that the Naftogaz-67 had been operating since 2002 for the Swiss company Fortranse Ltd in the South China sea between China, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

It took divers six hours to locate the sunken vessel, which was found several hundred metres (yards) from the location initially given by maritime police, probably because it was moved by a strong current, officials said.

Nine attempts by divers to reach the wreck on Sunday were unsuccessful due to the current, poor visibility and the depth of its position, the government said.

A salvage vessel was dispatched to move the wreck to more shallow water, in the hopes of finding survivors on board.

Ukraine said it would send investigators to the scene on Sunday, Interfax reported from Kiev.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko called on his government to support the Chinese rescuers and "provide medical aide and all that is needed for the Ukrainian sailors who have been rescued," said his spokeswoman Irina Vannikova in Kiev.

Source: AFP

Tymoshenko Wants Kiev Mayor Out

KIEV, Ukraine -- This week, the Ukrainian parliament called an early election for the post of mayor of Kiev. This is a victory for Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s bloc (BYuT), which spearheaded a campaign to oust Kiev Mayor Leonid Chernovetsky, accusing him of corruption.

Yulia Tymoshenko (R) wants to oust Kiev Mayor Leonid Chernovetsky (L).

However, there is no unity in the Orange camp, so Chernovetsky may win if he runs for re-election. He can also appeal against parliament’s decision, which apparently was not legally sound.

Chernovetsky came to politics from the business world. He founded Pravex Bank in the early 1990s and he was elected to parliament. Chernovetsky sided with future President Viktor Yushchenko during the 2004 Orange Revolution.

In March 2006, he surprisingly won the mayoral election in Kiev. His opponents alleged that Chernovetsky won the hearts and minds of the poorest residents by distributing foodstuffs free of charge ahead of the election.

Having no big party behind him, Chernovetsky has had to walk a fine line between the main players in the city council, trying to be on good terms with both Yushchenko’s team and the Party of Regions (PRU) of former prime minister Viktor Yanukovych.

Chernovetsky’s opponents on several occasions have accused him of bribing city council deputies by illegally allotting them choice plots in Kiev for construction projects. Chernovetsky always denied those accusations.

Early this year, Chernovetsky had a quarrel with Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko. The two accused each other of corruption, and Lutsenko punched him in the face.

Relations between the mayor and Lutsenko’s People’s Self-Defense group – the junior partner in Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine-People’s Self-Defense bloc (NUNS) – were seriously damaged.

Chernovetsky also failed to find a common language with Tymoshenko, who at some point was rumored to harbor mayoral ambitions herself.

Tymoshenko was prompted into action by a mass defection of city council deputies from BYuT to Chernovetsky’s team. When Tymoshenko tried to replace the defectors with other BYuT members, appealing to the law on binding mandates that forbids deputies to change caucuses, the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) refused to back her.

A furious Tymoshenko demanded the dismissal of both Chernovetsky and CEC chairman Volodymyr Shapoval, a Yushchenko appointee.

On March 7, the BYuT pushed through parliament a resolution to set up an ad-hoc commission to investigate “violations of the constitution and laws” by Chernovetsky.

On March 12, the Cabinet voted to approach Yushchenko with a request to dismiss Chernovetsky over alleged illegal land deals. All BYuT representatives in the Cabinet backed the motion, but five NUNS ministers abstained, arguing that Yushchenko has no legal power to dismiss the mayor.

The head of Yushchenko’s secretariat, Viktor Baloha, said that the Cabinet had failed to come up with any documents to substantiate their charges.

Chernovetsky helped Yushchenko save face. On March 13, he sent a letter to Yushchenko suggesting a temporary absence. Yushchenko then suspended Chernovetsky for 15 days and set up a government commission to probe Chernovetsky.

Tymoshenko, however, was not satisfied. On March 16, she threatened a BYuT walk-out of parliament if lawmakers failed to call an early mayoral election.

This is necessary, she said, because the “Kiev mayor and his entourage created colossal corruption schemes in selling and distributing land and other property.”

Baloha and the PRU dismissed Tymoshenko’s demand as too radical, arguing that the commission set up by Yushchenko should first report on its findings and accusing Tymoshenko of undermining political stability.

However, on March 18 parliament voted in favor of conducting early elections for mayor and city council in Kiev. The motion was backed by 246 votes in the 450-seat body, including the votes of BYuT, NUNS, and the Communists.

Commenting on the motion, politicians from different camps agreed that Chernovetsky will likely appeal in court. Anatoly Matvienko, one of the leaders of NUNS, said that parliament had acted illegally, as the law allows the calling of an early mayoral election only if the illegal activities of a mayor were proved in court, which is not the case.

It is possible that Chernovetsky will win re-election, which will most probably be held in June, in line with legislation that gives 70 days to conduct a campaign in case of an early mayoral election.

The PRU and the Communists have weak positions in Kiev and will hardly field strong candidates, while the situation in the Orange camp is the opposite: too many hopefuls and no unity. BYuT reportedly rejected NUNS’s proposals on coming up with a single candidate.

There are at least five popular politicians among the Orange camp who do not conceal mayoral ambitions.

These are Lutsenko (NUNS); Kiev Council deputy Vitaly Klichko, who is a former world boxing champion (unaffiliated); former deputy prime minister and former deputy speaker of parliament Mykola Tomenko (BYuT); former mayor Oleksandr Omelchenko (NUNS); and former vice-mayor Mykhaylo Pozhyvanov (BYuT), who chairs the state committee for material reserves.

Source: Eurasia Daily Monitor

Kotelnik Too Strong For Brave Rees At WBA Cardiff

CARDIFF, Wales -- Hard-hitting Ukrainian Andreas Kotelnik dethroned Gavin Rees as the World Boxing Association (WBA) light-welterweight world champion with a last round stoppage of the Welshman here Saturday.

Ukraine's Andreas Kotelnik, right, and Britain's world champion Gavin Rees in action during the WBA Light Welterweight bout at Cardiff International Arena, Cardiff Saturday March 22, 2008.

Rees produced one of the boxing upsets of 2007 when he took the title from Soulyemane M'Baye.

But from the third round on, when his nose started to bleed, Rees - whose trainer is Enzo Calzaghe, the father and coach of undisputed super-middleweight champion Joe, started to be picked off by Kotelnik.

And the challenger finished the bout 30 seconds from the end of the last round, and what would otherwise most likely have been a crushing points victory, when he dropped Rees with a powerful right hand.

Defeat was the Welshman's first in 28 bouts as professional and it also meant Enzo Calzaghe had seen another of his fighters lose a world title this month after Enzo Maccarinelli, the former World Boxing Organisation (WBO) cruiserweight champion, was knocked out by fellow Briton David Haye.

"He hits so hard," the 27-year-old Rees told Setanta Sports after his defeat. "I didn't think he was going to hit that hard.

"He caught me on my right ear in the third round.

"I didn't know what was happening then to be honest.

He added: "I'll be back. It's my first career loss - I'm only 27."

Enzo Calzaghe praised Rees's bravery, saying: "Sometimes you can lose and still be champion. That's tremendous, tremendous heart."

Kotelnik said he'd always been prepared to go 12 rounds. "I expected Rees to be that strong because he's the world champion and I expected to go the distance with him."

Source: AFP

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Ukraine Opposition Halts Parliament Over Kosovo Issue

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's Party of Regions blocked the country's parliamentary rostrum Friday demanding the withdrawal of Ukrainian peacekeepers from Kosovo and the Interior Minister's resignation.

Pro-Russia Viktor Yanukovych is at again.

Over 20 Ukrainian peacekeepers were wounded and one later died in hospital following clashes in the Serb-dominated area of Mitrovica on March 17, when UN police and NATO-led KFOR troops launched an operation to regain control of a UN court building seized last week by ethnic Serbs.

As the Supreme Rada began its work on Friday morning, the Party of Regions proposed a bill on the withdrawal of Ukrainian peacekeepers from Kosovo, which was unanimously rejected by the parliamentary coalition.

The Party of Regions, led by former prime minister Viktor Yanukovych, also demanded that Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko resign for giving misleading information on the Kosovo incident.

"He [Lutsenko] said NATO had no connection to this operation. But the operation was commanded by KFOR, which has a direct link to NATO," Nestor Shufrych, one of the party's leaders, said.

The Interior Minister earlier called on parliament not to make any decision on the issue of the withdrawal of troops from Kosovo and asked the Party of Regions to avoid speculation regarding NATO, adding that the operation was conducted under the command of the UN mission in Kosovo.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Volodymyr Ohryzko told journalists after a meeting of the National Security and Defense Council on Friday that Ukraine is not planning to end its peacekeeping operation in Kosovo.

"The question of withdrawing Ukrainian peacekeepers is not on the agenda," Ohryzko said.

The Foreign Minister added that the government will demand that the UN establish a two-party committee to investigate the incident with the Ukrainian peacekeepers.

Yanukovych's party blamed the death of the Ukrainian peacekeeper on the country's authorities, which are seeking NATO membership, saying they were putting political interests before the lives of Ukrainians.

Lutsenko blamed the UN for the incident and called for an investigation to find and bring those responsible for the soldier's death to justice.

Serb rioters attacked UN forces with rocks, grenades and Molotov cocktails as they tried to remove protesters from inside the courthouse.

In all, more than 60 UN police and KFOR troops, and over 70 Serb protesters were wounded in the worst outbreak of violence in the region since Kosovo unilaterally declared independence on February 17.

Work by the Supreme Rada was blocked for a few weeks last month by the Party of Regions and the Communist Party, who demanded a referendum on the country's accession to the NATO Membership Action Plan (MAP).

The NATO-Ukraine commission is due to hold a meeting during the alliance's summit in Bucharest, Romania, on April 2-4, 2008.

Source: RIA Novosti

Friday, March 21, 2008

Pentagon: Georgia, Ukraine May Not Join NATO for Years

WASHINGTON, DC -- The Pentagon says U.S. support for efforts by Georgia and Ukraine to join NATO does not necessarily mean the countries will join the alliance anytime soon.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates

But a spokesman says Defense Secretary Robert Gates agrees it is time to start what could be a long process.

A spokesman says Secretary Gates discussed Georgia's effort to begin the NATO membership process during a meeting with Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili at the Pentagon on Thursday.

That was the day after President Bush met with the Georgian president and said he will urge NATO leaders at their summit in Bucharest next month to approve Georgia's Membership Action Plan.

Russia opposes the plan for the former Soviet Republics to join the western alliance. But Pentagon Press Secretary Geoff Morrell says even with Membership Action Plans that will likely not happen for a long time.

"I think it's important not to confuse MAP with membership," he noted. "It is what its name implies it is. It's a Membership Action Plan. You know that three of the countries that are up for membership in Bucharest, Croatia, Albania and Macedonia have been going through MAP for the past decade. So this can be a long process. And it's designed to encourage democratic and military reforms, and along the way to, sort of, recognize the progress they've made."

Morrell notes that countries with a NATO Membership Action Plan do not come under the alliance's protection unless and until they actually join, which must be approved by all the other members.

NATO leaders are expected to issue formal invitations to Croatia, Albania and Macedonia at their summit in April.

Albania and Macedonia have been working on their membership plans for nine years, and Croatia has been working on its plan for six years.

Source: Voice of America

Tymoshenko Most Popular Political Force In Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- Parliament’s March 18 vote to call pre-term elections for Kyiv’s city mayor was a second major victory for Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko this month, following the new gas contract with Russia signed on March 6.

Yulia Tymoshenko

The vote is symbolically important because Ukraine’s legislation requires that the president appoint the elected mayor to also be the city’s governor (head of the city’s State Administration).

The Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) is by far the most popular force in Kyiv, and therefore its candidate will presumably win the snap election.

Both victories will likely increase Tymoshenko’s already high popularity and give BYuT control over the capital city ahead of the 2009 presidential elections.

Tymoshenko and BYuT have now enhanced their credentials as anti-corruption crusaders. Meanwhile, President Viktor Yushchenko and the Party of Regions have been harmed by their continued support for a gas intermediary company and the corrupt and unpopular Kyiv mayor.

The normally cautious former Kyiv mayor Oleksandr Omelchenko and Kyiv city councilor and boxer Vitaly Klichko both suggested that the mayor had been under the protection of the presidential secretariat.

Yushchenko’s already damaged reputation will take yet another hit, because his chief of staff, Viktor Baloha, has publicly supported Chernovetsky.

This alliance has further widened the gulf between Yushchenko and Our Ukraine–People’s Self Defense (NUNS), as the latter had refused to send representatives to the presidential commission established to investigate Chernovetsky following his fistfight with NUNS leader and Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko on January 18.

The popularly held view is that the commission, controlled by Baloha, was set up merely to whitewash Chernovetsky. An alternative government commission, backed by BYuT and NUNS ministers, estimated that the cost of Chernovetsky’s abuse of office was $250 million, largely from land distribution deals.

Even before these two victories this month, Tymoshenko and BYuT had become the most popular politician and party in Ukraine. Her program to begin repaying lost Soviet-era savings only partially explains the growing popularity.

Other factors include poor policies undertaken by the opposition, such as boycotting parliament – which has been very unpopular among Ukrainians. Tymoshenko is seen as a reformer and anti-corruption crusader obstructed from undertaking popular policies.

If presidential elections were held now, Tymoshenko would win by a large margin. A recent poll gave a more modest level of support for Tymoshenko (25%) over Regions leader Viktor Yanukovych’s 23%, with Yushchenko badly trailing at 9%.

BYuT’s ratings have grown for the first time since the elections and if elections were held now it would probably take 40% of the vote, giving it more than 200 parliamentary seats, up from its current 156. Unlike NUNS and Regions, BYuT did not fear early elections if the blockade of parliament had led to its dissolution.

This year is turning into a triumphant one for Tymoshenko and BYuT, especially with presidential elections only one year away. Tymoshenko and BYuT’s support is growing throughout Ukraine, including in Regions’ traditional eastern Ukrainian strongholds.

Tymoshenko is catching up even faster to Yanukovych in southern Ukraine, also a potential swing region. Central Ukraine traditionally decides Ukraine’s presidential elections, and the region is now dominated by Tymoshenko.

Both Regions and Yanukovych have experienced a slump in popularity since the 2007 elections, falling from 34% to 21%. If parliamentary elections were held now they would obtain far fewer seats than BYuT.

Yanukovych’s personal popularity also slumped, from 30% to 20%, while the number of Ukrainians who hold a negative view of his activities rose from 37% to 50%.

NUNS received 14% in both the 2006 and 2007 elections, a 10% drop on 2002 when Our Ukraine first ran in an election. Since the 2007 elections, NUNS’s popularity has nearly halved to only 8%, due to the public airing of the bloc’s internal divisions and its retreat from an election promise to merge the nine member parties in NUNS.

A catastrophic decline in Yushchenko’s popularity has, according to a survey conducted by Ukrainian political consultant Volodymyr Fesenko, stabilized at only 10%. The president’s popularity rating temporarily rose to 20% after he disbanded parliament on April 2, 2007, but has since halved.

Yushchenko’s poor showing is primarily due to his inability to implement the anti-corruption and rule of law pledges that mobilized the Orange Revolution more than three years ago.

As Fesenko convincingly argues, the president’s future will be heavily dependent on his personal relationship with Tymoshenko.

However, presidential strategy in this regard seems to be the opposite of what is needed, as it is undermining the president’s ratings and also damaging the popularity of NUNS, whose honorary chairman is Yushchenko. It is no coincidence that the president and NUNS both have ratings in the 10% range.

Recent polls indicate that Ukrainian voters have proven to be far more sophisticated than Ukraine’s elites have ever given them credit.

As a young democracy, Ukraine’s free media and open political competition and discourse provides sufficient information for Ukrainians to pass judgment on their leaders, whether in polls or elections.

Source: Eurasia Daily Monitor

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Open Door To Ukraine, Georgia, Say Eastern NATO States, Canada

VILNIUS, Lithuania -- Nine ex-communist NATO members, plus Canada, have urged the rest of the Atlantic alliance to overcome splits and open the door to former Soviet republics Ukraine and Georgia at its April summit, Lithuania said Thursday.

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Violeta Gaizauskaite told AFP that Lithuania was among the 10 signatories of a letter addressed to NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer and copied to other member states.

She refused to give details of the content, but confirmed reports that it argued in favour of instigating a process that might lead to Georgia and Ukraine joining the alliance.

Gaizauskaite said the letter was also signed by Lithuania's fellow 2004 NATO ex-communist entrants Latvia, Estonia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Romania, plus Poland and the Czech Republic, which joined in 1999, and Canada, a founder member in 1949.

"We indeed got the letter on Wednesday," a member state diplomat at NATO's Brussels headquarters told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Russia vehemently opposes the NATO ambitions of neighbours and Soviet-era vassals Ukraine and Georgia, and has accused the Western alliance of trying to encircle it.

The Baltic News Service (BNS) agency reported that the letter said NATO's April 2-4 summit in Romania must offer Ukraine and Georgia a "Membership Action Plan" (MAP).

Such accords have been used in the past to help other former communist bloc countries meet NATO standards and steer them into the Western military club, and both Kiev and Tbilisi have been lobbying hard for one.

BNS said the letter argued that giving Ukraine and Georgia a MAP would increase stability and security in Europe, and stressed that a failure to act at the Bucharest summit would dent NATO's "open door" policy.

Gaizauskaite confirmed the BNS report was accurate.

Poland's PAP news agency, meanwhile, reported that the letter warned that turning down Ukraine and Georgia would mean "losing a chance to anchor these countries" in the Western defence camp.

In the face of Russian opposition, the issue of ties between the 26-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organisation and Ukraine and Georgia is expected to be one of the highest-profile subjects on the table at the summit.

Scheffer has himself said the summit should give a clear signal the alliance's door is open to both countries.

NATO works by consensus, so the unanimous approval of all members is required.

Despite support from NATO's powerhouse the United States, plus Canada and most of the alliance's ex-communist members, there is reticence among many other states.

The doubters include Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Spain, as well as ex-communist Hungary, which joined NATO in 1999, according to officials in several of the countries and NATO diplomats.

They are wary of provoking a further row with Moscow on top of a dispute over US plans to deploy an anti-missile system in the Czech Republic and Poland.

They are also worried that granting Ukraine and Georgia a MAP could be counter-productive, worsening Moscow's already strained relations with Kiev and Tbilisi.

The sceptics also point to a lack of public backing in Ukraine for the NATO policy of the country's pro-Western leaders.

While Georgians are mostly in favour, a concern there focuses on "frozen conflicts" with the potential to create problems for the entire alliance if Tbilisi is given a green light.

Separatists have controlled a swathe of northern Georgia since it broke free from the crumbling Soviet Union in the 1990s

Source: AFP

Premier Rejects Unity Calls For Kiev Vote

KIEV, Ukraine -- Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said Wednesday her party will soon nominate its own candidate for Kiev mayor, rejecting calls for her to back a single candidate on behalf of Ukraine’s governing coalition.

Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko

The remark puts Tymoshenko on a collision course against President Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine-People’s Self-defense group, which will probably be forced to nominate its own candidate for the election in early June.

“Our political force has the greatest level of support and it would be irresponsible to back a person that we are not completely responsible for,” Tymoshenko said at a press conference.

Oleksandr Turchynov, the first deputy prime minister and Tymoshenko’s closest ally, may be nominated as the candidate, Kommersant daily reported Wednesday citing sources. Tymoshenko refused to comment on the report.

The upcoming election, which has been pushed through by Tymoshenko, is seen by many analysts an important test-run ahead of the presidential election due late 2009.

Tymoshenko and Yushchenko are seen rivals at the next presidential election and the secret rivalry has been eroding the strength of the pro-Western government coalition currently in place.

Tymoshenko’s pledge to nominate her own candidate for the top post in Kiev, Ukraine’s biggest and the wealthiest city, is a further sign that she might be drifting towards the clash with Yushchenko.

“The democratic coalition has no chances of nominating a single candidate at the mayor election,” Vladislav Kaskiv, a member of the Our Ukraine-People’s Self-defense group, said. “The reason is simple: politicians view the city as the goldmine.”

Tymoshenko has been seeking to remove Kiev Mayor Leonid Chernovetskiy, a wealthy businessman, accusing him of controversial privatization of land plots in the city.

She seeks to reverse Chernovetskiy’s push over the past six months to give away about 1,700 hectares of land plots worth about $3 billion to dozens of controversial cooperatives whose ownership is not transparent.

Chernovetskiy denied the charges and pledged on Wednesday to run for office again, and to win.

Tymoshenko’s pledge to nominate the candidate denies speculations that she might try to strike a deal with Vitaly Klichko, a former world heavyweight boxing champion, and currently the most popular candidate.

Source: Ukrainian Journal

A Drop Of Justice

KIEV, Ukraine -- More than seven years after the murder of crusading journalist Georgiy Gongadze, a drop of justice has fallen.

The theory that Yushchenko (R) cut a deal during the Orange Revolution with Kuchma (L) to protect him from prosecution appears increasingly plausible.

On March 15, the Kyiv Appellate Court handed out prison sentences of 12 to 13 years each to three police officers convicted for their role in the killing.

While the convictions are a step towards justice in Ukraine, particularly for journalists, they fall far short of bringing closure to a case that Viktor Yushchenko described as a matter of honor for his presidency.

None of those who ordered the slaying have been brought to justice.

Those convicted claim to be unaware of who ordered the murder, saying they were merely following police surveillance chief Oleksiy Pukach’s orders.

Years ago, Pukach was held in custody for his alleged involvement, but vanished after being controversially released.

The Melnychenko tapes reveal the possible direct involvement of top officials, including former President Leonid Kuchma.

Meanwhile, the theory that Yushchenko cut a deal during the Orange Revolution with Kuchma to protect him from prosecution appears increasingly plausible.

Many doubt the prosecutor’s office's ability and desire to crack the case.

Ukraine’s leaders should launch an independent truth commission composed of apolitical legal experts and investigators to bring closure.

With the case so domestically divisive, it makes sense to appoint international experts of impeccable integrity.

Truth commissions have a mixed record (those ordering the murder of US President John F. Kennedy were never revealed), but proved effective in post-Apartheid South Africa.

Source: Kyiv Post

Yushchenko, Davis Discuss Ukraine’s Constitutional Reforming

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Secretary General of the Council of Europe Terry Davis met on Wednesday to discuss Ukraine’s constitutional reform, the press service of the Ukrainian president told Itar-Tass.

Secretary General of the Council of Europe Terry Davis

Terry Davis is on a visit in Ukraine.

Yushchenko informed the Secretary General of the Council of Europe about the activity of the National Constitutional Council and the drafting of a new Ukrainian constitution.

The president confirmed that the constitutional reform is a keystone of political stabilisation in Ukraine.

“All political forces understand that the constitutional reform is direct response to the stabilisation of the political situation in the country,” Yushchenko said.

He also called on the Council of Europe to recognize the Holodomor (famine) of 1932-1933 in Ukraine as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people.

The president thinks that it is necessary to work out a European educational program that will tell the historical truth about that tragedy, Yushchenko said.

Davis accepted an invitation to attend an international forum devoted to the 75th anniversary of the Holodomor in Ukraine that will be held in Kiev this November.

The parties discussed prospects for the adoption by the Council of Europe’s Cabinet of Ministers the cooperation plant between the organisation and Ukraine for 2008-2011.


Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Russia, Ukraine: New Scandal Impending

KIEV, Ukraine -- Russia and Ukraine will clash anew very soon, this time on issues of environmental protection. Kiev intends to demand from Moscow the compensation of billion dollars for polluting the Kerch Strait by petroleum.

An oil covered bird lies in front of Ukrainian soldiers removing oil pollution from the Black Sea shore at the Ukraines "Kosa Tuzla" island near Black Sea port Kerch November 15, 2007.

Past November, the storm broke up Russian tanker Volgoneft-139, sank freighters Kovel, Volnogorsk, Nakhichevan and damaged a few other vessels in the Kerch Strait between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.

The fuel oil spilled from the tanker, killing dolphins in the Black Sea and heavily polluting the nearby Sea of Azov.

Ukraine has finally calculated the damage, estimating at $1.457 billion the losses caused by the fuel oil pollution.

First Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Turchinov made the respective statement on Tuesday, during the sitting of the State Commission for Technogenic and Ecological Safety.

In the next move, Kiev is likely to attempt to enforce the payment on Moscow.

Source: Kommersant

Ukraine President Yushchenko To Attend Bucharest NATO Summit

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko will attend a NATO summit in Bucharest expected to discuss expansion of the alliance eastward, the Interfax news agency reported on Tuesday.

Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko

Yushchenko, a supporter of Ukraine's early membership in NATO, had delayed announcement on his plans to attend the April 2-4 meetings in Bucharest because of domestic opposition.

An acrimonious dispute over whether or not even to discuss NATO membership, pitting pro-Europe and pro-Russia political factions in Ukraine's national legislature, has stalled the country's parliament for more than a month.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel added fuel to the fire last week, speaking against Ukraine's and Georgia's joining NATO any time soon on grounds the countries lack widespread public support for the idea.

Merkel's remarks and Ukrainian domestic opposition notwithstanding, Yushchenko will during the Bucharest conference sign an agreement with NATO setting forth a precise step-by-step plan for Ukraine's membership in the Atlantic Alliance, said Oleksander Chaly, a Yushchenko spokesman.

Ukraine's population opposes membership in NATO by a 2 to 1 margin, largely because of NATO air strikes against Serbia, and deployments in Afghanistan, that are generally seen in the former Soviet republic as Western military aggression against a weaker Eastern nation.

The pro-Europe wing of Ukraine's political elite are much more supportive of the idea, in no small part because they see the alliance as a counterweight to pressure from Ukraine's giant northern neighbour Russia.

The pro-Russia wing of Ukraine's political elite for its part argues Ukraine's security would be best protected by friendly relations with Russia, and distance from NATO.

Source: DPA

Parliament Votes For Ouster Of Kiev Mayor

KIEV, Ukraine -- Parliament approved a resolution on Tuesday ordering early mayoral and local elections in Ukraine’s capital city, setting an important precedent that can be used to reshape local governments across Ukraine.

Kiev Mayor Chernovetskiy has been given a no-confidence vote by Ukraine's Parliament.

The resolution, which de-facto ousts controversial Kiev Mayor Leonid Chernovetskiy, is a major victory for Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, whose group is expected to perform strongly at the elections.

“I thought that no powers are worth much if we keep corruption intact in the capital,” Tymoshenko said before the resolution was approved.

Tymoshenko accused Chernovetskiy of holding controversial privatization of land in Kiev that had given away almost $3 billion worth of land plots over the past six months.

Chernovetskiy denied the charges, and a special commission set by President Viktor Yushchenko is probing the accusations.

The resolution, approved by a 246-5 vote, was supported by the governing coalition and by an independent group led by former Parliamentary Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn.

This is the first time ever that Parliament has effectively voted to oust a local government in Ukraine and to set an early election in a particular region, a practice that now can be used elsewhere.

The Kharkiv region, dominated by opposition Regions Party, was mentioned as the possible next region that may face early election later this year, analysts said.

The Kiev elections are due to take place 70 days after the resolution takes effect, and will probably be held in early June.

The Tymoshenko group enjoys the strongest support in Kiev, but analysts said cooperation with other pro-Western groups, such as Our Ukraine-People’s Self-defense and the Vitaliy Klichko Bloc, would be needed to win the elections.

“The problem of nominating the single candidate still persists,” Viacheslav Kyrylenko, the leader of Our Ukraine, said after the vote. “Unfortunately, our partners in the coalition and other political groups are not yet ready for the single candidate.”

Chernovetskiy, a wealthy businessman, won the election on March 26, 2006, by narrowly beating Vitaliy Klichko, a world heavyweight boxing champion, and an incumbent mayor Oleksandr Omelchenko.

Although Chernovetskiy was repeatedly elected to Parliament on the ticket of Our Ukraine, Yushchenko’s party, he had switched sides shortly after election to the mayor post, creating a coalition in the Kiev council with Yushchenko’s foes, the Regions Party.

The Kiev mayor gets automatically appointed by the president as the head of the Kiev State Administration.

Chernovetskiy is the owner of Pravex Bank he had created in 1990s. Last month Intesa Sunpaolo, an Italian banking group, agreed to pay 504 million euros, or $705 million, for 100% of Pravex, and the deal is expected to close within the next several months.

Source: Ukrainian Journal

HN: Avia Ashok Leyland To Build Plant In Ukraine

PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- Czech lorry maker Avia Ashok Leyland plans to build a plant in Ukraine, the daily 'Hospodarske Noviny' (HN) wrote Tuesday referring to a well-informed source.

The plant construction is being prepared but no more details will be published for now, the source said, adding that a more detailed information could possibly raise the price of land at a potential construction site.

A location is yet to be picked and no decision has been made on the parameters of the facility, according to the source.

Avia head Anders Spare refused to comment on the company's plans, HN said.

In the autumn of 2006, when Ashok Leyland bought into Avia, the then head of Ashok indirectly announced that a plant could be built abroad, the paper writes.

Avia entered the market in Ukraine last year by means of the US company Procter&Gamble that ordered 60 vehicles for the distribution of its products on the local market. Avia supplied 30 lorries last year, HN said.

Avia sales soared 75 percent to 713 cars last year.

This year, the company wants to increase production to 2,000 units, Spare said.

Avia produces more than 55 combinations of models weighing from 6.5 to 11.990 tonnes. These vehicles do not pay toll that is collected from lorries weighing 12 tonnes and more, the paper said.

In March 2005, Odien Capital Partners took over Avia from the collapsing South Korean car maker Daewoo and sold it to Ashok Leyland Motors of India in 2006.

Avia has been in the red since 1999, its losses in recent years caused primarily by high write offs.

Avia's loss in 2006 rose by a third to Kc965m on sales worth Kc430m.

Sales doubled and loss went down last year, according to preliminary results.

Source: Prague Daily Monitor

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Bush To Meet With Ukraine Leaders, Opposition March 31-April 1

KIEV, Ukraine -- President George W. Bush will meet with Ukrainian leaders and the opposition when he arrives in the ex-Soviet state for a two-day visit on March 31, Ukraine's presidential press office said on Tuesday.

U.S. President George W. Bush (R) shakes hands with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko at NATO headquarters in Brussels, in this file photo from February 22, 2005.

"As part of his visit, the United States president plans to hold meetings with Ukraine's top officials and opposition leaders," the statement said.

Bush will meet with President Viktor Yushchenko for closed-door talks on April 1, after which extended talks will be held, the statement said.

Yushchenko said last week that his country's moves toward membership of NATO would be discussed with Bush in Kiev.

He also said he was sure the NATO summit in early April would back Ukrainian leaders' request to allow the country to join the Membership Action Plan, which paves the way to jointing the alliance.

On leaving Kiev, Bush will travel to the summit in Bucharest, Romania.

Ukraine's drive toward NATO triggered parliamentary opposition protests and threats from Russia that it might target its nuclear missiles on Ukraine if it joined the military bloc.

Source: RIA Novosti

Ukraine Sends Senior Officials To Kosovo After Peacekeeper Dies, Others Wounded In Violence

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine is sending senior officials to Kosovo where one of its peacekeepers was killed and 20 were wounded in clashes with Serb demonstrators.

Peacekeeping forces came under fire in Serb riots in northern Kosovo where the Albanian majority declared independence a month ago.

Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko and a deputy foreign minister will visit Kosovo on Wednesday to assess the safety situation for the 370 or so Ukrainian peacekeepers there.

The Interior Ministry says decisions about Ukraine's future in the U.N. peacekeeping mission will be made after the visit.

The comment suggests Ukraine may consider pulling its forces out.

The Ukrainian policeman died of injuries from a hand grenade thrown during Monday's clashes in the northern Kosovo town of Mitrovica.

The violence wounded more than 60 U.N. and NATO forces, as well as 70 protesters.

Source: International Herald Tribune

Morgan Stanley To Open Office In Ukraine

TBILISI, Georgia -- In line with its strategy of building market-leading businesses in developing markets, Morgan Stanley on March 17 announced its intention to seek appropriate regulatory approvals to establish an office in Kiev , Ukraine .

The Firm also announced the appointment of Mr. Ihor Mitiukov as Managing Director and Head of Morgan Stanley’s Office in Kiev, reporting to Rair Simonyan, Head of Morgan Stanley in the region, and Franck Petitgas, Global co-Head of Investment Banking.

Mitiukov, who previously served as a Minister of Finance and Deputy Chairman of National Bank of Ukraine , will work closely with Pavel Fedorov, Head of Investment Banking in the region, to develop Morgan Stanley’s business in the country into the leading investment banking franchise.

“As we continue to develop our business in Eastern Europe, Ukraine with its growth potential is a strategically important market for Morgan Stanley,” commented Walid Chammah, co-President of Morgan Stanley and Chairman of Morgan Stanley International. “We believe that this is the right time to enhance Morgan Stanley’s on-the-ground presence.”

“We are very pleased that Ihor Mitiukov is joining the Firm to lead our business in Ukraine ,” added Rair Simonyan. “He is a talented executive with an extensive range of experience, and he will play a critical role in building our business in Ukraine .”

“I am delighted to be joining Morgan Stanley,” said Ihor Mitiukov. “As Ukraine is starting to open up to global capital markets, there is considerable demand from Ukrainian clients for investment banking and capital markets solutions and Morgan Stanley, with its global franchise, network and capabilities, is uniquely placed to deliver such solutions. This is a great opportunity to build a market-leading business and one to which I am very much looking forward.”

Source: The Financial News

Ukraine Turns To Germany, France To Back NATO Bid

KIEV, Ukraine -- In a letter addressed to the leaders of Germany and France, Ukraine has requested support for it bid to join NATO. But some European countries are concerned about alienating Russia.

Ukraine's leaders want to join NATO, but wonder what it would mean for ties with Russia.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko signed the letter, published on Monday, March 17, which promised a referendum would be held on NATO membership and that a pro-NATO campaign would bring around opponents within Ukraine.

The trans-Atlantic organization is expected to discuss Ukraine's request for membership at its two-day summit in Bucharest, which begins on April 2.

Germany and France are among the western European countries that have spoken out against granting Ukraine a so-called Membership Action Plan (MAP), a key step toward potential membership.

Fear of irking Russia

There is concern that supporting Ukrainian membership could disrupt relations with Russia, which sees the former Soviet republic part of its sphere of influence and strongly opposes eastward NATO expansion.

In an address over the weekend, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said the alliance needed to develop a new long-term strategy including improved dialogue and cooperation with Russia.

Opposition within Ukraine

According to opinion polls, the Ukrainian population is also opposed to the plan. During the Cold War, Soviet propaganda portrayed NATO as the enemy.

"The issue of the opposition political forces was not Ukraine's NATO membership, but the mechanism of making the final correct decision," read the government's letter.

During a visit to Moscow, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates were expected on Tuesday to talk with their Russian counterparts, among other things, about the possibility of NATO taking in both Ukraine and Georgia.

Washington backs membership for the two states.

Source: Deutsche Welle

Shaktar Donetsk Boss Apologises To Photographer

LOS ANGELES, CA -- Rinat Akhmetov, the multi-billionaire owner of the Ukraine's Shakhtar football side, has apologised to a photographer for a beating received by the newsman at a recent home game, reports Korrespondent magazine.

Ukrainian billionaire Rinat Akhmetov

'He (Akhmetov) called me twice and apologised personally...and said that what happened to me was a 'shocking incident',' said Ihor Tkachenko, a Unian news agency cameraman. 'He even offered to pay for any expensive medicines I might need.'

Rated by Forbes magazine as Ukraine's first or second richest man, the reclusive Akhmetov generally avoids contact with the press.

He only appears in public regularly as a serving MP, and during Shakhtar home matches.

Source: DPA

Monday, March 17, 2008

Blackberry Chic

KIEV, Ukraine -- While there are plenty of high-class (at least in terms of prices) restaurants in Kyiv, few of them match the polished chic and near-royal luxury of the newly opened restaurant Blackberry.

One of several Blackberry elegant halls.

The fact that this top-notch place is located on Khreschatyk near European Square, with its inner space visible to anyone walking down the street, adds a bit of kitsch and irony to its glamorous image.

Inside, the place is divided into several zones: the white hall, black hall and a golden gallery on a balcony, plus a fancy pink V.I.P. room with a separate entrance.

With its glossy interior with polished granite on the floor, chairs with golden colored upholstery, shiny big chandeliers and giant mirrors, Blackberry has already gained a reputation of a place to come and show off your new dress if you’re a woman or your new model girlfriend if you’re a man.

Even though there is no official dress code, the over-the-top design and the wait staff – who are extremely gallant, but don’t hesitate to pay close attention to what you’re wearing – imply you should dress your best.

It’s worth noting that the cuisine was created with as much care and attention to detail as the exterior of the restaurant.

The kitchen is managed by a young chef who used to work at Imperia restaurant and a female art-chef with loads of experience.

Together they came up with a culinary specialty menu that can be called “creative fusion.”

Lobster soup served with black pasta with trout; tuna tartar with soy sauce and seaweed; fresh spinach salad seasoned with a mix of lemon juice, balsamic vinegar and soy sauce with duck fillet and raspberries are among the menu offerings at Blackberry.

Source: Kyiv Post

Mountain Pride

SYDNEY, Australia -- Adventurer Tim Cope makes an unforgettable journey through the Ukrainian Carpathians on horseback.

Adventurer Tim Cope making his way through the Carpathian Mountains.

There came a scraping of hoof on rock then the clapping of stones tumbling down the gully behind me. I dismounted, the horses regained balance and my surroundings rushed into clarity. The slope above angled into curling mist that poured over unseen mountain tops and decapitated thick forest of pine and spruce.

Below, the mountainside fell away into space hovering over the village from where we had risen. As if painted on a vertical canvas there were colourful wooden cottages perched on the opposing side of the valley bordered by greying timber fences, haystacks and glistening spring pastures.

After three years on horseback with my three mounts and dog Tigon from Mongolia to Hungary, I had finally arrived in the Carpathians among the hardy mountain people known as the Hutsuls.

Arcing from Yugoslavia to Poland, the Carpathian Mountains hold some of the last vestiges of wilderness and traditional communities in Europe. They are home to diverse tracts of boreal and deciduous forests and lofty alpine environments where dwarf rhododendrons bloom in early summer and mountain lynx track prey through virgin snow in winter.

Bear and wolf sightings are not uncommon, and in the shadow of the Chorna Gora ridge in Ukraine there are timeless hamlets reachable only by horse and foot.

The Hutsuls who claim that their ancestors have lived in the Carpathians for thousands of years, are renowned for their independence, grit, and creativity.

They survived the many empires that washed over their land from Ghengis Khan and the Mongols, to the world wars of the 20th century when they fought both the Nazis and the Russians.

The bitterness and soul-destroyed feeling that one gets from much of the former Soviet Union is absent, and what's more commercialism hasn't affected the heart and integrity of society either.

The Hutsuls are ardently proud of their skills and traditions and, even now as Ukraine opens more to tourism, show few signs of straying in the face of a changing modern world.

The exposure and raw beauty of the high slopes had been electrifying, but one has to be immersed in the culture to really sense the heart of the Hutsuls. I descended to the village of Krivorivnya which is spread along the narrow winding valley of the Chornyi Cheremosh river.

Waiting for me in a long black robe with a striking beard and youthful face was Ivan Rebruk, the local mountaineer turned priest. He explained that during winter he used his mountaineering skills to bless every river, stream, well and house in the parish. Wearing traditional dress it took him two weeks of trekking to visit around 600 family homes. "This is important work because I can also gauge the community very well, who is in need and who is not. Among Hutsuls the church is still the heart of village life," he says.

Ivan would accommodate me for a week, and his unending energy to share his culture and home spoke volumes of the Hutsuls's pride.

There is a local legend that when God was giving out land, he forgot about the Hutsuls. All that was left were the inhospitable Carpathians, so to compensate he blessed the people with extraordinary creativity and a hardworking soul.

With Ivan it was easy to be convinced that this was true. We hiked up to the mountain hamlet of Berezhnitsa where he was due to direct a special celebratory church service. Young and old came streaming down from mountain abodes, many of whom were on walking sticks and well into their eighties.

Their colourfully woven vests, embroidered shirts and hats sparkled under a blue sky, and as the chapel filled and overflowed, many sat around talking, singing and drinking beer that was delivered by horse and cart.

A stiff 20-minute walk up the hillside Ivan introduced me to Vasil Yusipchuk, an 84-year-old who had been living in the mountains all his life and making traditional hats since the age of 16.

In his rickety top attic he hand-wove all the decorations with wool, and explained that for the Hutsuls, traditional dress carries the soul and spirit of their ancestors. In another corner of the attic was his coffin. "It is even older than you are!" he joked.

Most Hutsuls handcraft their own coffins, and are sure to do so with a light wood to make the job of carrying them down the mountainside easier.

Inside the coffin lay a complete outfit and pre-made inscription plates for the headstone. "We reserve our very best clothes for the most important meeting of our lives when we die and meet with God," he said.

Back in Krivorivnya, even the everyday was laced with the Hutsul love of art. Paintings, wood carvings, ornate well covers and countless roadside chapels abounded, and firewood was stacked in pretty haystack-like mounds.

Misha, a rough-looking, work-hardened man forged my horseshoes in his blacksmith workshop before shoeing all three of my horses, and then also turned his hands to playing the violin over dinner.

His wife proudly showed how she spun wool by hand and made traditional blankets called lizhniki on her loom. Ivan pointed out that they were not alone with their range of skills in the village.

Throughout my time in the Carpathians, babushkas would commonly greet me with clenched hands in the air and shout: "So you are off to the polonino? You are brave! May God be with you!"

It took me some time to realise that they were mistaking me for a local herder who had begun the annual migration up to high mountains. "Polonino" refers to the alpine pastures where Hutsuls live in the summer with their cattle, sheep, horses and goats.

In a meadow not far from Krivorivnya, Ivan took me to Poloninske Lito, the festival celebrating those who are about to brave the hostile slopes. There was a dazzling array of musicians in traditional dress carrying instruments from big double bass violins to the duda which is a local variety of the bagpipes, and the three-metre pipes called the trembita.

One could wander from stall to stall sampling local meals, watching live performances and of course trying a diverse array of locally made gorilka - homemade vodka. At one end hundreds suddenly gathered when young men in underpants began climbing up a 15-metre-high pole to claim prizes that were hanging from the top.

With a slightly sore and sorry head, I later began my own ascent to the high pastures of the Chorna Gora, a ridge that runs 30 kilometres, averaging heights of around 2000 metres. Along the way I passed herders struggling with overloaded carts up impossibly steep tracks pulled by hardy little horses.

The Hutsul horse is believed to be the descendant of the tough mounts left behind from the Mongolians in the Carpathians when they retreated from Europe.

A hard day of riding took us up onto a rocky ridge where snowdrifts were still scattered on the northern faces. With local mountaineers Grisha and Yuri leading the way, we camped by an alpine lake in which ice floes still drifted in the breeze.

The real attraction, however, could be found a little lower where families had already set up their summer homes. Long before you could see these grey, weathered grazing stations, you could hear the jingle of sheep, horse and cow bells drifting across the mountains.

At one station alone three young men were responsible for 400 sheep. Apart from protecting them from wolves and grazing, their job was to milk them three times a day for the making of brinza.

Brinza is a highly prized matured sheep cheese which is often eaten with the Hutsul maize meal dish of banush. When the sun set on a still night, I felt that life on the polonino had the freedom and enchantment of the stars.

Saying goodbye to the Hutsuls was the hardest of all my experiences in the Ukrainian Carpathians. I felt spoilt by a people who go to creative extremes to highlight the beauty of life in an environment where just surviving is hard enough.

Of course in the main valleys well-engineered roads make these places less isolated than they once were, and downhill ski resorts and mineral health spas can seem at times incongruent with Hutsul life.

However, at a closer glance, the Hutsuls have always co-existed and survived with the changing face of the world. As Ivan assured me "Hutsuls don't wear their costumes and save their traditions for the sake of tourism and profit.

They do so primarily for themselves, but are also more than happy to share their culture proudly with foreigners."

Tim Cope recently finished travelling by horse, foot and camel from Mongolia to Hungary on the trail of Ghengis Khan.

Source: Sydney Morning Herald