Thursday, December 31, 2009

IMF Lowers Loan Bar To Allow Ukraine To Pay For Gas

WASHINGTON, DC -- The International Monetary Fund said Wednesday it had eased loan criteria for Ukraine to allow the government to use international reserves to meet its debts, including gas payments.

Ukraine, which has been hammered by the global financial and economic crises, was granted its request for a modification of its $16.4-billion-dollar standby arrangement, the IMF said in a statement.

The IMF said it had agreed to lower the end-December floor of Ukraine's net international reserves by approximately $2.0 billion dollars.

"This important step will enable the Ukrainian authorities to use existing resources to make external payments due -- including gas payments -- within the framework of Ukraine's program with the fund," the Washington-based institution said.

"It does not involve any new disbursement by the IMF," the fund noted.

The head of Russian gas giant Gazprom said Friday that Ukraine had cut back on purchases of Russian gas since mid-December and appeared to be facing serious cash problems.

"Ukraine is experiencing serious problems with payment," Alexei Miller said on Russia's Vesti channel in comments carried by the Ria-Novosti news agency.

Ukraine has until January 11 to pay for gas, according to Gazprom, which has cut off supplies to the country over unpaid bills repeatedly in the past.

Ukraine has been seeking the next installment of $3.8 billion dollars from its IMF standby loan.

So far the government has received a total of $10.6 billion dollars of the $16.4-billion-dollar credit extended in November 2008 to help Ukraine cope with the global economic crisis.

Acting Finance Minister Igor Umansky a week ago was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying that the IMF had turned down the request for the new installment to be disbursed this year due to concerns over the intense campaigning for a presidential election on January 17.

Umansky led a delegation to appeal for the release of at least half the new credit installment -- or about $2.0 billion dollars -- in talks at the IMF's Washington headquarters this month.

He said negotiations with the fund would continue in January.

Cash-strapped Kiev this month called its financial situation without the IMF loan money "extremely difficult."

Ukraine has been hard hit by the economic crisis after the global slowdown triggered a massive slump in its export-dependent heavy industrial sector.

The IMF loan -- by far Ukraine's biggest source of foreign income in 2009 -- is crucial to help the country overcome the crisis, but the IMF has been exasperated by political infighting and new laws on wages and pensions.

Source: AFP

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Poll: Yanukovych Ukraine’s Next President

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine’s opposition leader Viktor Yanukovych will most likely defeat Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in the runoff vote to become the country’s next president, the latest opinion poll suggested Tuesday.

Viktor Yanukovych with Russia's Vladimir Putin (L). It appears the Kremlin will once again have its own man, in Kiev.

Ukrainians will go to polling stations on January 17, 2010 to pick the next president, but the runoff between the two most popular candidates will probably be required on February 7.

“Without any doubts and questions Viktor Yanukovych and Yulia Tymoshenko will come to the runoff,” Iryna Bekeshkina, a senior analyst with Democratic Initiatives, said.

Yanukovych was likely to score 33.6% support in the first round of voting, followed by Tymoshenko’s 19.2%, the poll organized and paid for by Democratic Initiatives, a non-profit group, shows.

In the runoff, Yanukovych was likely to defeat Tymoshenko 44.3% vs. 28%, according to the poll.

“It is impossible to overcome the 16% gap in one month,” Oleksandr Vyshniak, the head of Ukrainian Sociology Service, which handled the poll for Democratic Initiatives, said.

The poll was conducted between December 12 and December 26 among 2,010 respondents throughout Ukraine with the margin of error at 2.3%.

The new president will define the country’s foreign and defense policies for the next five years.

The poll also found that an unusually high number of voters – at about 18.8% - will vote against both Yanukovych and Tymoshenko, underscoring the high level of dissatisfaction with policies associated with them.

“Scandals are turning voters away from going to polling stations,” Bekeshkina said.

Incumbent President Viktor Yushchenko will probably finish the No. 5 among 18 candidates with 3.7% popular support, the poll suggested.

The figure shows Yushchenko has failed to boost his rating over the past two months by fiercely criticizing Tymoshenko’s economic policy.

The poll also underscores a steep rise of Serhiy Tyhypko, a former governor of the National Bank of Ukraine, who was likely to score 9.23% support to become the No. 3 most popular politician.

The figure may eventually help propel Tyhypko to the post of the prime minister under certain political configuration, analysts said.

Arseniy Yatseniuk, a 35-year old former speaker of Parliament, has received 6.1% support from respondents to become the No. 4 most popular candidate, according to the poll.

Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko recorded support from 3.4% of respondents, followed by Parliamentary Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn’s 2.6%, nationalist Svoboda leader Oleh Tiahnybok’s 1.6% and former Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko’s 1.3%.

At least 5.3% of respondents said they would vote against all candidates, while 11.1% said they are still to decide who to support among the candidates.

Source: Ukrainian Journal

Oil Drops From Five-Week High As Russia, Ukraine Reach Accord

LONDON, England -- Crude oil fell from near a five-week high as Russia reached an agreement with Ukraine on oil exports to Europe, allaying concerns of a supply disruption.

Russia agreed to pay 30 percent more to transport oil to Europe via Ukraine next year, according to Ukrainian state energy company NAK Naftogaz Ukrainy. Crude climbed to a five- week high yesterday as Iran, holder of the second-largest oil reserves, continued a crackdown on political protests.

“This takes one of the geopolitical risks off the table, I assume there’s not going to be a disruption in Russian flows to Europe,” said Olivier Jakob, managing director of Petromatrix GmbH in Zug, Switzerland. “If prices are still $78 to $80 at the start of next week there should be some downward pressure as stocks are so plentiful.”

Crude oil for February delivery declined as much as 50 cents, or 0.6 percent, to $78.27 a barrel, in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. It was at $78.69 at 12:55 p.m. London time. Oil gained 72 cents to $78.77 yesterday, the highest close since Nov. 18.

Futures have advanced 77 percent this year and tripled in the past decade.

Brent crude for February settlement was at $77.31 a barrel, down 1 cent, on the ICE Futures Europe exchange at 12:55 p.m. local time. It rose $1.01, or 1.3 percent yesterday, to $77.32 a barrel.

Source: Bloomberg

2009: Ukraine Becomes World's Third Largest Grain Exporter

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's grain harvest will exceed 49 million tonnes in 2009, country's Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has said.

Ukraine used to be referred to as the "Breadbasket of Europe".

To date, the harvest is about 48.5 million tonnes, she said at a news conference yesterday, adding, "I think that it will be slightly more than 49 million tonnes."

Timoshenko associated the aforesaid achievements amid the economic crisis with the governmental funding of the agricultural sector.

"We created an agrarian fund, as banks had stopped crediting farmers," the Ukrainian prime minister said.

"In 2009, Ukraine first ever became the world's third grain exporter after the United States and the European Union, outstripping Russia and Canada," Timoshenko stressed.

She also reported about the increase of the state grain reserves to 1.416 million tonnes in 2009 from 724,000 tonnes in 2008.

In 2008, Ukraine's grain harvest amounted to 53.3 million tonnes and was the biggest for the years of its independence.

Source: Press Trust of India

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

AP Interview: Presidential Frontrunner Says Ukraine Paid Too High A Price On Democratic Reform

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine has paid too high a price for the democratic reforms ushered in by the 2004 Orange Revolution, according to the pro-Russian front-runner in the country's presidential race, who pledges to bring back the "rule of law" if elected next month.

Viktor Yanukovych

Viktor Yanukovych, whose Kremlin-backed election victory in 2004 was overturned by the Supreme Court amid allegations of fraud, says the pro-Western revolution that brought his rivals to power has led to political chaos, corruption and a dismal economy.

"So what did this Orange Revolution give us?," Yanukovych asked in an interview Monday with The Associated Press. "Freedom of speech? That's very good. But what price did the Ukrainian people pay for this? For the development of this democratic principle in our country, the price was too great."

Democracy is "above all the rule of law," which the Orange Revolution has failed to bring, he said.

Since taking power in 2005 on a wave of hope and excitement, the revolution's leaders have disappointed many Ukrainians, fostering nostalgia among some for the stable, if autocratic, rule of an earlier era.

The Orange Revolution took Ukraine out of Russia's orbit, as the pro-Western leadership sought membership in the European Union and NATO. It also deepened animosity between the pro-Russian east and the west of the country, where Ukrainian nationalism is strong.

Yanukovych said his first priority as president would be to revive the use of the Russian language in schools and in the workplace, a move that would reverse the "forced Ukrainization" of the millions of Russian-speaking Ukrainians who support him.

"This is the main question that we have to solve right now, the one that is very seriously worrying the people," he said.

This change would comply with the one wish Russian President Dmitry Medvedev made last week for the Ukrainian elections.

"The only thing I really want is for the future president ... to be intent on warm, heartfelt, even brotherly relations between our countries, and for the Russian language not to be insulted," Medvedev said in a televised interview.

With elections less than three weeks away, Yanukovych, 59, is leading in the polls. The former electrician told the AP that he would put his weight behind Moscow on issues ranging from trade to security.

He repeated his pledge not to seek membership in NATO, Russia's Cold War foe. But he said he would give his full support to Medvedev's proposal for a joint European security regime, which has gotten an icy reception in most of Europe.

He also promised, if elected, to do everything in his power to speed Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization.

Viktor Yushchenko, the current president and the leader of the Orange Revolution, is going into the vote with approval ratings in the single digits. He has been at loggerheads with his former ally, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, for most of his time in office, causing political gridlock that has deepened the country's economic collapse and alienated voters.

Yanukovych, a barrel-chested hunting enthusiast, also denied that his 2004 presidential victory had been fixed. Instead the Supreme Court broke the law when it overturned his election and ordered another round of voting, he said.

"The third round of those elections was illegal," he said. "Why? Because five years have passed, and in those five years, the falsification of my election has basically not been proven. This means that those elections were legal. They were not rigged."

His campaign has focused on shaming Tymoshenko, his only real competition, for her leadership of the Orange Revolution, which he blames for turning Ukraine's government into one of the most corrupt in the world and its economy into one of the worst-performing.

"Democracy is above all rule of law, it is compliance with the law and constitution by everyone, and in these five years we have seen how the laws have been systematically broken, how the principles of the law have been replaced by political expediency," Yanukovych said.

In most of the country, the issues of language and national identity have been more divisive than bread-and-butter issues like unemployment. The word "Ukraine" derives from the Russian for "at the outskirts," an identity the leaders of the Orange Revolution have sought to uproot by promoting a unique Ukrainian identity. The use of Russian, seen by its opponents as a symbol of Soviet subjugation, has been phased out.

On a recent campaign trip to the Russian-speaking Crimean peninsula, where he enjoys broad support, Yanukovich poked fun at the Ukrainian language and the politicians who insist on speaking it.

As he mocked Tymoshenko's upbeat appraisals of the economy, he sarcastically switched into Ukrainian from Russian, drawing laughs from the crowd of about 2,000 supporters.

Switching back into Russian, he said, "I'm tired of hearing five years of this gibberish, and seeing this variety show performed by the Orange troupe."

Valentina Goncharova, a 59-year-old retiree who said she receives a pension of around $100 per month, said she supports Yanukovich not because of his promises of higher pensions and wages, but because of his pro-Russian views.

"The Crimea has always belonged to Russia," she said. "It has always been closer to Russia. I think that is why people support him here."

Source: The Canadian Press

Pirate Update: Ariana Crew Abandoned Again

NAIROBI, Kenya -- One of the most inhumane and cruel Somali piracy stories of 2009 involve the tragic happenings on MV ARIANA, the Greek/British-owned, Malta-flagged and Ukrainian-crewed cargo vessel held in Somalia for six months until a ransom between USD 2.8 million and USD 3.5 million was paid for the release of the 37,955 gross tonnage bulk carrier.

A female sailor is beaten by her ship's engineer so severely that she loses her unborn child; it is the MV ARIANA's tragic story of poverty, piracy, unexpected heroes, and a captive crew turning on themselves.

While one side of the coin is the criminal act of piracy committed by misled, desperate Somali sea-shifta, the non-Somali side must be held responsible for all the crimes and cruelties caused by the inaction of the shipowner-conglomerate represented by Greek national Captain Spyros Minas and the Ukrainian officials.


The simple case of an abduction for ransom, which the Somalis claim as compensation for the devastation of their livelihoods by toxic dumping and illegal fishing in earlier years, turned into a nightmare when one of the two female sailors of Ukraine nationality, who was five months pregnant, was beaten by the Ukrainian engineer onboard so severely that she suffered a miscarriage.

The Somali pirate captors who witnessed the scene in early July were so furious about the murder of the unborn child, that they wanted to take the Ukrainian man immediately ashore and execute him according to Sharia law.

Official Ignorance

After the sad news transpired and was immediately verified by an Ukrainian speaking doctor and gynecologist from Nairobi, who was allowed to give medical advice to the seriously ill woman, Larysa Salinska, the humanitarian branch of ECOTERRA Intl. immediately offered to evacuate both women from the vessel.

The offer was accepted by the pirates but persistently refused by the shipowner and never facilitated by the Ukrainian government, despite the fact that the situation of the woman became life-threatening because the miscarriage resulted in a serious infection.

“I was bleeding like a tap. I thought I would die from bleeding,” Salinska, 39, the ship’s cook, said tearfully on August 30 to the Kyiv Post.

It must be stated at this point also that the master of the ship, Captain Genadiy Voronov, was reluctant to demand the evacuation, because he believed the sick and the other woman on board, Natalia Los, were push-factors for an early release of vessel and all crew. He didn't calculate the cruelty and ignorance of the shipowner and his own governmental officials.

Spin, Spin, Spin

Though the fetus is still kept in the cold storage of the ship, it turns out that the crew of the seized Spanish fishing vessel FV ALAKRANA invented a story, which they later even narrated to a judge in Spain, saying they had visited the MV ARIANA, provided fuel, food and medicine, and also observed a third female person on board.

This third female was reported to be the 11 or 12-year old daughter of the second female sailor with blond hair and blue eyes.

All this is believed now to be part of spin-doctoring between Ukrainian, Spanish and Greek politicians of ministerial level to distract from their own failures and to aid a stronger European military approach for which the misled public outcry over these atrocities was seen as necessary to be approved by the European ministerial conference.

Abandoned Again

While the MV ARIANA had received fuel from another hostage ship to sail off the Somali coast after her final release on 12th December - two days later, as the shipowner claimed before the media - the Ukrainian sailors were not immediately relieved at the nearest possible harbour, but forced by Spyros Minas to sail towards Iran, despite what he knew about the fuel shortage.

The question as to why the ship didn't come to Mombasa or Dubai to exchange the crew and to do the bunkering has so far not been answered but led to immediate speculations that the cargo from Brazil might not just be soybeans and is not supposed to be inspected.

Another story has it that a deal among the release team comprising of the Greek shipowner representative, Ukrainian officials, members of the Kenyan armed forces and an Italian shipping firm went sour, which saw the arrest of the master and six armed Somalis from T/B SOLAND, owned by Southern Engineering of Mombasa, whose Director M. Esposito was not able today to get at least the Tanzanian master released on bond.

With all this turmoil it is obviously right what the Chief of the Foreign Intelligence Service of Ukraine (FIS) Mykola Malomuzh stated: "The crew will be back home earliest after the New Year".

Malomuzh says another tugboat is now heading to MV ARIANA for refueling, but that ship is delayed due to stormy weather. Meanwhile, BBC has reported the ARIANA ship owner, who should have coordinated all actions, has set the ship adrift. That information comes from Mikhail Voytenko, the director with the Maritime Bulletin.

"If the bulker reaches the port of designation in Iran, it's good. If not, the ship owner will get insurance," he said.

Extremely Dangerous

Andrew Mwangura, head of the the East African Seafarer's Assistance Programme sees the situation of the vessel as very critical: "To set her adrift is extremely dangerous to the heavily laden ship itself in heavy weather and as well to other ocean-going ships in the area. Such is irresponsible of the owner and demands a full investigation."

British company SEVEN SEAS MARITIME Ltd. from London are calling themselves the only agent, while the ISM manager is ALLOCEANS SHIPPING CO LTD from Athens, Greece and registered ship-owner is CANDELA SHIPPING of Malta - in order to evade tax and regulations by flying this flag of convenience.

The vessel has no ITF approved CBA (collective bargaining agreement)for the crew. Insured by the London P&I Club, this case seems to be another feast for those who profit from piracy, besides the pirates.

ECOTERRA Intl. Spokesman Hans-Juergen Duwe demanded on Christmas eve that a coalition warship immediately secure the MV ARIANA, assist the crew, and since all the EU NAVFOR or CTF vessels have legal and police personnel on board, start investigations into all the mysteries surrounding the vessel and the crew.

"The crew has the right to be rescued, not only from Somali pirates, but also from an inhumane shipowner. And the families as well as the public have a right to know all the truth!" Duwe stated in Germany.

Source: Salem-News

Putin Accuses Ukraine Of 'Abuse' On Oil Transit Deal

MOSCOW, Russia -- Prime Minister Vladimir Putin accused Ukraine Tuesday of "abuse" of Russian oil transits via its territory but predicted both sides would abide by contractual obligations to keep supply flowing to Europe.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

"We are ready to deliver (oil), we have a contract, but if any of the transit countries abuse, what can you do?" Putin was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying.

"We have a contract to deliver oil. I think that this contract will be fulfilled," he added.

His comments came after Ukraine said Monday it wanted to change the terms of its 2004 transit contract with Russia for oil shipments via Ukrainian territory to the European Union.

Earlier on Tuesday, Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin said Russian oil shipments to Europe through Ukraine will continue without disruption as the two countries renegotiate their transit agreement.

"We expect that there will be no problems with the transit," Sechin was quoted as saying by the RIA Novosti news agency.

Ukraine had sought and obtained an increase in the tariffs Russia pays to transit its oil through Ukrainian pipelines, but the two sides had still not agreed on how much oil -- subject to those tariffs -- Russia would "guarantee" to pump through Ukraine, officials said.

Sechin said Russia was still negotiating with Ukraine on the final terms of the new deal.

Disputes between Russia and Ukraine on pricing and transit of Russian natural gas shipped to EU clients have caused serious supply disruptions in recent years, but Ukrainian officials gave assurances that transit would continue even if talks were not concluded by the end of the year.

EU sources in Brussels also played down fears of another looming energy dispute between Russia and Ukraine that could have an impact on EU energy supplies.

Source: AFP

Monday, December 28, 2009

Cynicism Replaces Tide Of Orange As Ukraine Returns To Polls

OTTAWA, Canada -- The euphoric optimism of Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution has vanished like the tears of a long-spurned lover, replaced by profound cynicism as the country braces for its first presidential vote since that dramatic show of people power five years ago.

Everyone likes to make a clean start on New Year’s Eve, even more so for one that starts a new decade. Unfortunately, Ukraine is going into 2010 with most of the unsolved problems from the previous decade.

President Viktor Yushchenko, greeted as a hero during his 2008 Canadian tour by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, both houses of Parliament, and members of Canada’s 1.2 million-strong Ukrainian-Canadian community, barely registers in polls and is expected to be trounced in the first round of voting on Jan. 17.

His Orange Revolution partner-turned-rival Yulia Tymoshenko, the charismatic though erratic prime minister, is running second in polls to Viktor Yanukovych, who was portrayed by the western media as a Moscow stooge when he ultimately lost that 2004 showdown.

Yanukovych, the Regions Party leader, has a political resume so blemished it would spell doom in any democracy not so deeply influenced by regionalism and corruption.

Yanukovych was imprisoned twice in his youth (once for a robbery, once for assault), has questionable literacy skills (his claim to be a university professor was challenged when he misspelled “professor” and made numerous other grammatical and punctuation errors on an 2004 election document), is a painfully awkward public speaker, is beholden to several oligarchs (in particular shadowy billionaire Rinat Akhmetov), and was tainted by the rigged 2004 election.

Yanukovych initially won that vote, but the victory was soon nullified after fraud was detected and hundreds of thousands of protesters, wearing Yushchenko’s orange campaign scarves and hats and waving orange flags, took to the streets to successfully demand a new vote.

The drama of Yushchenko’s subsequent win was heightened by the botched attempt earlier that year to kill him with poison, which left facial scars that looked like war wounds. His approval rating soon soared above 60 per cent.

Today, thanks to a brutal recession, chronic infighting with Orange partner Tymoshenko, and numerous scandals, the current president is polling at around three per cent.

For those enthused by political horse races, the Ukraine election has much to offer. While Yanukovych is leading in polls, many observers believe he has limited appeal outside the country’s Russian-speaking south and east.

That means the populist Tymoshenko, a strong public speaker, could pull off a come-from-behind win in the second round of votes to take place Feb. 7.

More sobering, however, is the sour mood of Ukrainians in a country that has long been viewed as strategically crucial in the West’s ability to contain Russian aggression.

Polls indicate that roughly three-quarters of the population view politicians as self-serving and corrupt, while a November survey by Washington, D.C.-based Pew Research Center concluded that Ukrainians were among the most bitter citizens of ex-communist countries since the collapse of the old Soviet Union during the 1989-91 period.

Ukrainians ranked a distant last among those surveyed on several questions relating to their appreciation of democracy and free enterprise, according to Pew survey in September of 1,000 Ukrainians, which has an error margin of four percentage points.

An astonishingly low 30 per cent per cent said they approve of the change to democracy – the only one of nine countries with a score lower than 50 per cent. Just 36 per cent of Ukrainians polled approved of the move to capitalism.

Ukraine’s pervasive cynicism, corruption, and petty squabbling among political leaders is disturbing for many members of the 1.2 million-strong Ukrainian-Canadian community that is one of the most influential diasporas in Canada.

“The fights between them (Orange Revolution heroes Yushchenko and Tymoshenko), and in particular between the gatekeepers and insiders in both camps, is just abominable. It’s horrible, terrible,” Canada Ukraine Foundation chairman Bob Onyschuk, a Toronto lawyer, said in an interview.

Marco Levytsky, publisher of the Edmonton-based Ukrainian News, said there is “considerable disillusionment” within the Canadian diaspora, which is overwhelmingly from western Ukraine, is hostile to Russia, and therefore mostly opposed to Yanukovych’s Russia-friendly political movement.

“Yushchenko has been a great disappointment and Tymoshenko seems to be concerned about power for the sake of power rather than about real reform.”

Both Canadians said their main concern has been recent electoral law changes, which they fear will increase the likelihood of fraud.

The Canada Ukraine Foundation has pressed, so far without success, for the Harper government to fund community members to attend the presidential elections as observers.

(The Canadian government, which lists Ukraine as the only European country in its top-20 list of targets for development assistance, is contributing instead to a delegation of observers from the Organization for Security and Co- operation in Europe.)

While the 2004 election was often described by the western media as a battle over whether Ukraine would join the West or fall under Russia’s domination, many analysts say public concerns then and now are predominantly over incessant corruption.

Transparency International ranks Ukraine as the 146th most corrupt country on the planet, in an unflattering tie with a group of countries that includes dictator Robert Mugabe’s corrupt and impoverished Zimbabwe.

The ranking is particularly shocking given that the country is, according to the United Nations, the 85th most developed country in terms of measurements such as per capita income, health and education.

While examples of corruption are rife, perhaps the most disheartening for Ukraine-watchers occurred the day in 2005 when Yushchenko, a former central bank president with a modest government salary, was confronted by the media with evidence that his 19-year-old son was driving around town in a $150,000 US sports car, living in an outrageously expensive apartment, and carrying a platinum-plated cellphone said to be worth $50,000 US.

Yushchenko called journalists names while shooting back that the items were all gifts from his son’s wealthy friends.

But the event led the public to conclude that “corruption had spread into Yushchenko’s closest circles,” wrote University of Victoria political scientist Serhy Yekelchyk in his 2007 book Ukraine: Birth of a Modern Nation.

Historians say two factors have created huge barriers standing in the way of a single democratic force being able to get a political mandate to bring in sweeping economic and political reforms.

The first is the country’s regional divisions that are rooted in centuries of conquest by outsiders. The Russian-speaking population in the south and east is naturally friendlier to Moscow and more hostile to Ukraine’s unsuccessful attempts, as advocated by Ukraine nationalists in the West and cheered on by the Canadian diaspora, to develop close formal and informal ties with Europe and the U.S.

The second factor, which is exacerbated by the first according to British historian and author Andrew Wilson, is the way Ukraine bloodlessly established its independence from Moscow in 1991 and again in 2004.

In neither case was there an actual “revolution” leaving real battle scars and prompting actual regime change, so the communist apparatchiks and their cronies in power before independence kept their clout.

While Onyschuk holds out hope that Tymoshenko can win and provide an impetus for reform, Levytsky is simply hoping the country’s fragile democratic institutions aren’t irreparably wounded by election fraud.

“The hope is that, despite the leaders, the civic society will eventually prevail and the leaders will have to more or less serve the people,” he said.

Source: Canwest News Service

Ukraine To Develop Offshore Oil, Gas Fields In Black Sea

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine is set to start developing offshore oil and gas fields in the Black Sea from 2010, the country's prime minister says.

Ukraine's Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko.

"There are oil and gas reserves to last Ukraine for 150 years. From 2010 ... we will launch large-scale development at the expense of government funds," Yulia Tymoshenko said on Saturday.

She said the offshore natural gas and oil reserves would belong to the nation, not to "certain corrupt groups."

The Ukrainian government earlier planned to develop a section of the Black Sea shelf near the Kerch Strait together with the US oil company Vanco.

The Kerch area's reserves are estimated at 10.8 billion cubic meters of natural gas. Production at this section would allow Ukraine to increase its annual gas production by 4 billion cubic meters, and oil by 3 million tons.

Ukraine presently produces about 20 billion cubic meters of gas and 4 million tons of oil a year which is about 20 percent of its annual consumption.

Source: Press TV

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Ukraine's Orange Revolution Sours

KIEV, Ukraine -- Five years after Victor Yushchenko became the disfigured face of the Orange Revolution, it is tempting to believe the conspiracy theories that he was never actually poisoned at all.

2005 saw euphoric celebrations in Independence Square when Viktor Yushchenko was inaugurated.

The skin that was once hideously pockmarked is gradually recovering, and with the help of make-up, there is little sign of the attack that nearly killed him back in 2004. Indeed, were it not for the blood tests that confirmed the presence of lethal dioxin poisons, the wear and tear on his cheeks might be simply the strains of steering Ukraine away from Russia's grasp and towards the West.

To this day, though, the Ukrainian president remains "vigilant" about his personal security - not that he thinks there was anything particularly personal about the original attack, which was blamed on pro-Kremlin political rivals. Whoever wins next month's presidential elections will find themselves in the firing line, he says, if they try to take Ukraine down the same path he has done.

"It was not about me, Yushchenko," he said in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph last week. "Ukraine was proving a bad example for Russia, and a good example for Europe, and that was the problem. Irrespective of the name of the next president, if he or she is a democrat, a pro-European politician, they will have similar problems."

One other thing, however, also looks certain - that new president is unlikely to be Mr Yushchenko. The man once hailed as democracy's battle-scarred posterboy is trailing far behind in the contest, scraping just single figures in some polls. After personifying the hopes of the Orange Revolution five years ago, he now symbolises the way its glow has faded, having failed to secure either European Union or Nato membership.

It marks a sour end to what began as a Christmas political fairy tale five years ago, when Mr Yushchenko and his glamorous blonde ally, Yulia Tymoshenko, formed a kind of "Beauty and the Beast" alliance against the Moscow-favoured Viktor Yanukovych.

When Mr Yanukovych triumphed in what was seen as a rigged presidential election, Kiev's Independence Square filled with half a million protestors, who camped out night after night in sub-zero temperatures.

People power finally triumphed when Ukraine's supreme court ordered the vote to be re-run on Boxing Day, ushering in Mr Yushchenko as president and Ms Tymoshenko as prime minister.

Last week, though, the unusually early cold snap that covered the square's Stalinist-era architecture with thick snow was the only reminder of those euphoric days. Mr Yushchenko and Mrs Tymoshenko, once iconised in Time and Elle magazines respectively, have proved unable to get along, leading the government into paralysis.

That, in turn, has stymied efforts at economic and political reform, and convinced Brussels bureaucrats - already suffering from enlargement fatigue - that Kiev's government is far from ready for EU membership. To complete the drift back to square one, Mr Yanukovych - the man painted as the pro-Kremlin villain from the last elections - is favourite to win again this time, with or without fraud.

Moscow, which viewed 2004's turmoil as a Western-inspired coup d'etat in its backyard, looks on gleefully.

If it is dispiriting for the Orange Revolution's figureheads, it is even more so for its student-based grassroots support, who were originally denounced as CIA-backed subversives when they threw their weight behind Mr Yushchenko's moderate Our Ukraine party. Nazar Pervak recalls how he was shown on government television as an aggressive young rabble-rouser, causing a rift with his father, a judge.

"It was extremely cold, like it is out there now," said Mr Pervak, 27, sipping coffee in an Independence Square cafe. "But it was very exciting - shopkeepers gave free food and clothes, businessmen even paid for hotels for protesters who came in from outside Kiev.

"Today, though, I feel very disillusioned, because we didn't use the great chance we had properly. Integration with Europe did not come true either. Now Western Europe simply accepts that Ukraine is now under Russia's influence."

So what went wrong? Critics pin some blame on Mr Yushchenko, who failed to use his momentum to give the Augean stables of Ukrainian politics the Herculean spring clean it needed. Parliament remains full of corrupt, criminal MPs, whose punch-ups in the chamber rival those of Ukraine's legendary boxing duo, Klitschko brothers.

Thanks to constitutional wrangling and a problem with "electoral tourism", whereby politicians switch allegiances in exchange for favours, it is also hard to get much done.

The Yushchenko-Tymoshenko alliance was also forged more on a mutual dislike of Moscow than on any common policies, and over time, they have even parted company on that. Ms Tymoshenko now favours patching things up with Russia, a move seen as a betrayal by Mr Yushchenko, whose relations with the Kremlin are worse than ever.

In August, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev withdrew Moscow's ambassador to Kiev, accusing Mr Yushchenko of being "anti-Russian". In an echo of the Litvinenko case in Britain, Moscow also refuses to extradite a suspect in the poisoning plot who moved to Russia.

Many Ukrainians also question whether Ms Tymoshenko or Mr Yushchenko really merited their Orange halos in the first place. Ms Tymoshenko, despite her pretty face, is seen as a quarrelsome opportunist, while Mr Yushchenko, although viewed as competent and honest, comes across as slightly plodding.

Certainly, interviewing him is not like meeting some Eastern European Tony Blair - he is prone to monologues rather than soundbites, and reluctant to concede fault.

Asked why his popularity has slipped so badly, he responds firstly by insisting that he is still going to win, and then by reciting economic growth statistics at length. When The Sunday Telegraph tries to interrupt after five minutes, he tuts and continuing regardless.

"Last year 23 million tourist visited Ukraine. This figure was 21 million for Turkey. One million Ukrainians travelled to Europe last year, two times more than 2007..." The list goes on and on, reminiscent - to Western ears at least - of Communist-era reports on annual tractor production.

Mr Yuschchenko is also under fire for campaigns to demolish all Soviet-era monuments, and to get the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s, when up ten million Ukrainians died, recognised internationally as a Stalin-sponsored genocide. Not only does it seem like a diversion from more immediate problems, it alienates some of the 20 per cent of Ukrainians who are ethnic Russians, who do not share his anomisity to Moscow anyway.

"The nationalist Ukrainians are trying to divide people into Ukrainian and Russian," said Viktor Knyazev, 31, an adviser in an import-export firm. "Other people died in that famine too, not just Ukrainians."

"Both Stalin and Lenin were negative figures, but at least they managed to keep order," added his wife Larisa, 28, who, like her husband, wants Mr Yanukovic back in power. "Why can't we have good relations with Russia?"

As things stand, the vote on January 17 is expected to end in a run-off between Mr Yanukovych and Ms Tymoshenko, heralding a gradual thaw with Moscow. Yet despite having the same old faces to vote for, the youthful Orange Revolutionaries are not entirely despondent.

"There is a total disbelief in these candidates," admitted former activist Dmitry Yurchenko, 27. "But the Orange Revolution did at least change attitudes to politicians - there is a free media now, and people realise they can demand things if they want."

What is really needed, they argue, is for a new post-Orange Revolution generation of voters, devoid of the "Post-Soviet" mentality that does not readily question political leaders, and expects them to be omnipotent. "Once Yushchenko was in power, Ukrainians thought everything would simply change," said Mr Pervak. "They don't take responsibility themselves."

Mr Yushchenko, meanwhile, may have more time to spend beekeeping, a hobby he has enjoyed since childhood. Compared with running the affairs of 47 million Ukrainians, managing the industrious populations of his hives is a relaxing task. Yet for a man who detests Stalin, it is perhaps a strange choice - after all, with their armies of loyal workers, are bees not natural communists?

"No," he replies firmly. "Communists lose their ideals, they are people who bring injustice, who killed tens of millions of my people."

With that, the world's only apiarist-president is off, pausing only to show an advice note from one of his junior civil servants on constitutional reform. It probably won't solve his electoral ills, but that isn't the point. In the old days, he says, no lowly functionary would dare tell the president how to do his job. "That's the Orange Revolution for you."

Source: Telegraph UK

Saturday, December 26, 2009

End Of Decade

KIEV, Ukraine -- First, some of the decade’s high points: Democracy triumphed, but only briefly, in the dead of the 2004-2005 winter. Millions of Ukrainians are living better than a decade ago. Many are eating better. Consumer goods are in abundance and many more people can afford them. More cars clog the city streets. Almost all teenagers have mobile phones, even if they have no money to use them.

A decade of revolutionary progress and hard setbacks.

Today, in fact, it is possible to purchase almost anything, including power, political patronage and university degrees, just like 10 years ago. And herein lies some of the nation’s intractable problems.

For all the signs of progress, Ukraine’s achievements don’t decisively add up to a nation that is starting 2010 in better shape than it started the year 2000. Instead, the nation embarks on the new decade hobbled by many of the same old problems: distrust, corruption, instability, billionaires who stifle both democracy and the economy, a judicial system incapable of dispensing justice, a demographic crisis and dire poverty for a quarter or more of its 46 million people. And on and on.

Still, taking into account decades and even centuries of misery, Ukrainians may have never had it so good. But millions – perhaps four million Ukrainians – have left the nation in frustration and in search of better lives and better jobs abroad, while many of those stayed behind in the homeland are quick to say that their lives are hard and should be better.

Overall, the nation is freer, but still poor and corrupt.

Here is a look back:

Heroes to zeroes

The 2004 Orange Revolution is the decade’s highlight. It briefly enhanced national self-esteem and raised hopes. But the subsequent political breakup of heroes President Victor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko created instability, with the nation ending the decade in stagnation and economic recession.

The decade started with former President Leonid Kuchma grabbing power after his 1999 re-election. When hundreds of hours of his taped conversations and the Sept. 16, 2000 murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze showed that Kuchma may have grabbed too much power, people started to revolt.

The disobedience of the Ukraine Without Kuchma rallies in the early 2000s paved the way for the 2002 parliamentary election triumph of Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine and Tymoshenko’s eponymous bloc. This national assertiveness culminated in the successful street protests of the Orange Revolution, which overturned the Nov. 21, 2004, presidential election rigged for Victor Yanukovych.

Yushchenko was swept into office with high popularity and international adulation. He is ending his five-year term with almost no public support, in no small part because of his administration’s inability to solve crimes and rein in the nation’s high-flying billionaire oligarchs who control such a large share of the nation’s economy.

Boom goes bust

Fueled largely by raw material exports and a credit boom, Ukraine’s decade of robust economic growth came to a screeching halt in the fall of 2008, and then slipped into reverse. The ongoing recession translated into extended furloughs, mass layoffs, a credit drought and a nation edging closer to default and bankruptcy.

The central bank spent billions of dollars to prop up the hryvnia, but failed to arrest its slide from Hr 5 to the dollar to Hr 8. The International Monetary Fund rode to the rescue with a $16.4 billion line of credit, but abruptly stopped its lending at $11 billion after it blanched at the fiscal irresponsibility of the nation’s leaders.

In rescuing the nation’s commercial banks, perhaps billions of dollars were misspent or stolen. The ex-chief executive officer of Nadra Bank, Igor Gilenko, was among the many accused criminals on the lam by year’s end.

Lawlessness reigns

The birth of new media and death of Internet journalist Gongadze, co-founder of one of the country’s first news websites, Ukrainska Pravda, started the decade. The murder triggered civil disobedience and nationwide protests.

Digital recordings implicated Kuchma in the crime and so many more: rigging court rulings and elections, illegal surveillance and blackmail. But the authorities spent the rest of the decade squelching any meaningful criminal investigation into the tapes revealed by Mykola Melnychenko, a former Kuchma bodyguard.

Law enforcement – from police to prosecutors and judges – remains impotent, corrupt or unwilling to solve the nation’s major crimes.

Information age

In other areas, Ukraine joined the world in logging on to the Internet, blogging and connecting with each other on social networks, on You Tube and by texting. But traditional media – including TV stations with national reach – remained under the ownership of competing groups of influential businesspeople. While censorship is gone, few would argue that Ukraine’s public and media are truly free, at least in the information sphere.

Constitutional gridlock

The nation ends the decade still trying to find a Constitution that works. Kuchma sought stronger presidential powers in 2000, but was rebuffed. Yushchenko wants changes to the Constitution he agreed to amend in 2005 to end the Orange Revolution. The guiding document today muddles executive authority, diluting presidential powers and giving the prime minister many executive roles.


The hryvnia is worth half of what it was in 2000 against the dollar and inflation has worsened its buying power. In 2000, Yushchenko became prime minister and helped to mitigate the economic lows of the 1990s. He and his deputy prime minister, Tymoshenko, squeezed out corruption from the electricity sector and started paying wages and pensions on time.

Combined with his successful introduction of the hryvnia in 1996, Yushchenko was building his reputation as a successful economic manager. But the Yushchenko-Tymoshenko pair did nothing to break Kuchma’s grip over law enforcement or the doling out of state assets to favored insiders in rigged privatizations.

Government stakes in chemical factories and regional energy utilities were put on the auction block and sold like fattened calves to oligarchs within the president’s close circle. As the 2004 election neared, Kuchma undertook the mother of all scams by selling the country’s largest steel producer Kryvorizhstal to his son-in-law, Victor Pinchuk, and Donetsk billionaire Rinat Akhmetov for $800 million, a small fraction of its worth.

Re-privatization became the mantra of the Orange team of Yushchenko and Tymoshenko. They re-sold Kryvorizhstal to ArcelorMittal in late 2005 for $4.8 billion – six times the Akhmetov-Pinchuk price of a year ago – in a fair, open, transparent, competitive, televised auction. The success was never repeated, before or since, in the nation’s history.

International affairs

Relations between Kyiv and Moscow deteriorated significantly after the 2004 Orange Revolution, following the defeat of Kremlin-favored presidential candidate Yanukovych. Yushchenko embarked on an agenda to bring Ukraine closer to NATO and the European Union, irritating Moscow.

In the end, Ukraine came no closer to either. Yushchenko further alienated Ukraine’s big neighbor by seeking to win international recognition of the Holodomor famine of 1932-1933 as Soviet genocide of millions of Ukrainians who starved to death.

Ukraine and Russia sparred over the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea and the 2008 Russia-Georgia war. Disputes over natural gas pricing prompted Moscow to cut off supplies twice, in 2006 and again in 2009.

At decade’s end, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was flirting with his counterpart, Tymoshenko, keeping his distance from Yanukovych and doing nothing to conceal his contempt for Yushchenko.

Ukraine’s reputation suffered in many parts of the world as unending tragedies, disasters and political infighting gave rise to questions about whether the nation can govern itself. “Ukraine fatigue” arose in Europe.

The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America shifted the attention of one of Ukraine’s friendlier international patrons. The U.S. remained bogged down in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq through much of the decade, and is now beset by its own economic troubles and spiraling debt.

Death, disease, despair

From an estimated 54 million persons living in Ukraine in 1991, the decade closed with just under 46 million people estimated to be living in the nation today. There are 8.5 million less Ukrainians than 10 years ago.

The nation has yet to find the key to reversing its demographic slide and public health crisis. With one of the highest death and suicides rates in Europe, Ukraine is the European leader in HIV/AIDS prevalence and tuberculosis.

It is a world leader in smoking and child alcoholism. The number of Ukrainian drug addicts increased exponentially over the last decade. Officially, Ukraine has more than 500,000 hard-drug users but, unofficially, it is believed to have many more.

Poverty may be at the root of much of this social breakdown. Some 26 million Ukrainians earn less than Hr 1,567 ($200) monthly, according to Myroslav Yakibchuk, the head of the National Forum of Labor Unions in Ukraine.

No one knows for sure, because so much of the economy remains in the shadows. Some experts say that real disposable income increased by 178 percent in the last 10 years.

But debts also grew, reaching $19 billion (about 30 percent of gross domestic product) in sovereign foreign debt and more than $100 billion in foreign debt, private and public.

And simply changing the calendar doesn’t wipe the slate clean.

Source: Kyiv Post

Fears Of New Russia-Ukraine Gas Dispute On The Rise

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine is dismissing Russian claims that it is having trouble paying its gas bill despite a shortage of IMF funds and cold temperatures.

Ukraine Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko denied accusations on Saturday by Russian gas exporter Gazprom that the country would be unable to pay its energy bills.

"We - Ukraine - are clearly and confidently managing our financial life during the crisis," she said, according to the Russian news agency Interfax.

Gazprom had asserted that Ukraine had further cut back its gas purchases in the middle of December, leading chief executive Alexei Miller to assume that the nation was facing fiscal difficulties.

"We assess the situation with payments for Russian natural gas deliveries in December as very alarming," Miller told state television.

"In the middle of December, there was a trend of a reduction of gas off-take which confirms that Ukraine is facing serious difficulties with gas payments," he said.

Politics of energy

The International Monetary Fund had extended a 16.4-billion-dollar credit in 2008 to assist Kyiv with the global financial crisis.

But the fund is now withholding the next payment due to worries about political infighting in the run-up to the presidential election.

Ukraine has a January 11 deadline to make payments on its supply of gas, according to Gazprom. In November Tymonshenko and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin met and vowed to prevent a repeat of the gas shortages of 2006 and early 2009 across Europe.

The European Union, which receives one-fifth of its gas from Russia, had met with Ukrainian government officials earlier in December to assuage the fears of another gas crisis.

Source: Deutsche Welle

Visiting Kiev, The Capital Of Ukraine And A Cradle Of Russian Culture

KIEV, Ukraine -- Some cities are love at first sight. People fall for Paris in the taxi from the airport. Others take you slowly. Kiev is like that.

Kiev's St. Sophia's Cathedral has survived centuries of warfare.

I've walked the streets of this Ukrainian capital almost every day for a year. I've watched white-tailed eagles on a vast swampy island in the middle of the Dnieper River, listened as unseen nuns filled a vaulted church with their harmonies, marveled at the parade of tall women in stilettos clicking confidently down icy sidewalks and suffered a mild concussion myself when my feet shot out from under me in a frozen alley.

I've passed markers commemorating millions of murders. I've negotiated for a baggie of turmeric with a man from Samarkand. I've lost my bearings in candlelit catacombs, felt the sting of the winter wind on the city's high bluffs, watched twilight envelop golden-domed churches and talked to the genius behind the city's strangest museum. (And I'm not talking about the toilet museum, either.)

I've discovered wooden windmills, taxi-driver poets, gilded icons, robed monks, blues singers, cheap river cruises, horseradish vodka and a few new things about myself. Perhaps the only thing I haven't encountered in Kiev is a dull day. It is an unsung capital, full of surprises. During the day, you may be startled by the sudden cascade of sound that tumbles out of churches on religious holidays -- the "raspberry bells," it's called. By night, you may flinch at the concussion of the boisterous fireworks that Ukrainians send arcing over the city four or five nights a month.

Sixteen months ago, I walked away from my desk at The Post. Shortly afterward, my wife landed an 18-month job in Ukraine.

We arrived on a fall day as the sun was setting and had our first meal at Oscar's Place, a three-table restaurant on the street where we'd be living. My wife, who speaks Russian, told the barmaid that it was my first night in Ukraine. Don't order, she replied. I'll bring you real Ukrainian food. She did. And it was great, though the first dish -- salo, slices of raw pork fat served on black bread -- is best if washed down with vodka.

Since then, I've been spending the afternoons writing and exploring the city and the mornings studying Russian. (Almost everybody in Kiev speaks both Russian and Ukrainian. I picked Russian because I've always dreamed of reading Chekhov in his native tongue.)

I began with a seven-word vocabulary: Yes, no, please, thank you, hello, goodbye and beer ("peevo"). That was enough to get started. People I met were happy to communicate. Gestures and pantomime worked wonders when words failed. I found myself thinking: I doubt this would work with the French.

To my chagrin, I found that people sometimes addressed me in English before I opened my mouth. Was it my clothes? No, I was usually wearing black jeans and a black pullover, like every other man in town. Shoes? In Washington, I could always spot tourists by their shoes. But my low black boots were exactly what many Ukrainians had on. Finally I asked. Turned out, it was my face.

I never thought I looked American, but apparently I do, at least in Slavic countries. Most people here have better cheekbones than Tom Cruise. I don't.

Tragedy and rebirth

Kiev is an old city, one of the cradles of Russian culture. The Russians, in fact, call it the mother of cities. Legend has it that in A.D. 560, three Viking brothers rowed down the Dnieper with their sister at the steering oar. She picked the spot where they settled and named it for the eldest brother, Kyi. Sounds like she was in charge.

Although Kiev is spread out along both sides of the Dnieper, I generally walk the oldest sections, which are scattered along the hills of the west bank. The golden domes of churches, monasteries and bell towers adorn the ridge above the river, as if some giant had dropped a handful of Christmas decorations.

The center of Kiev remains a remarkably intimate place for a big city (2.7 million). Not many high rises. Lots of quirky streets and eccentric apartment buildings festooned with sculptural reliefs -- lions here, gods and goddesses there, laurel wreaths above the windows. There's a concrete rhino poking out of one building. And in some sections, the facades are frosted with a layer of ceramic tile.

If you squint past the drab Soviet architecture that mars some of the city, you can see enormous beauty. But there is sadness in it. People used to say that New Orleans was "the city that care forgot." Nobody ever said that about Kiev.

Everywhere, you sense layers of tragedy and rebirth. The churches of Kiev make the point. Near our flat, you can find the remains of a church destroyed by invaders in the 13th century. A few hundred yards away, on the same hilltop, stands St. Michael's Monastery of the Golden Domes, home to my favorite bells. A church has been on that spot for more than 900 years, but today's lovely cerulean building is a recent reconstruction of an old church that communists blew up in the 1930s.

The nearby streets include ornate pre-Soviet facades and a few cold examples of Stalinist gigantism. You meet many self-congratulatory statues but scads of modest, carefully sculpted portraits, too. They're easy to miss. Most jut just above eye level from the sides of old apartment buildings.

Each shows a distinguished painter or agronomist or writer or ballet master . . . who had an apartment in the building the memorial is bolted to. As you walk along, you think of the aging physicist skittering across a frozen curb here or the lovely actress memorizing lines from "Uncle Vanya" on a park bench just there.

On one of my earliest walks, not far from our flat, I found a small stone sculpture of the silhouette of a child inside the outline of a robed woman, perhaps an angel. It commemorates the Great Famine of 1932-33. Unlike most famines, this one was man-made. Ultimately, the man who made it was Stalin.

He demanded impossible amounts of grain for export. Desperate to comply, local bosses kept supplies of grain locked in warehouses while Ukrainians starved. Estimates of the death toll range from 2.5 million to nearly 10 million. It was mostly ignored in the West.

Children suffered terribly. Some people survived by eating corpses. Standing in the wind in front of the memorial and feeling very small, I tried to grasp the enormity of it.

Perhaps because my great-grandfather Capt. Frank C. Robbins fought there, I think about the carnage of Gettysburg, one of the bloodiest battles of America's bloodiest war. Seven thousand died at Gettysburg, so -- assuming that 5 million died -- Ukraine's Great Famine killed more than 700 Gettysburgs.

The worst of the famine was not here in Kiev, but in villages. But walking down the city's lovely old streets, passing people whose families almost all endured the famine, you can't help admiring the grit and grace of Ukrainians.

Ukrainians don't get a lot of respect from Westerners. Theirs is the largest country in Europe, save for the European part of Russia. Ukraine was part of the Russian empire and then a republic within the Soviet Union. It became independent in 1991. A pro-Western government took over after the peaceful protests of the "Orange Revolution" of 2004. But a lot of Americans think it is still part of Russia. Someone in the United States sent a letter to a friend here addressed to "Kiev, Russia." It arrived.

Green hills, broken hearts

When I think of the city, the color that comes to mind is not orange but green. It's a very leafy place.

A beautiful string of parks stretches along the hills above the river. It's probably the best walk in the city. Eventually, you reach the high-walled Kiev-Pechersk Lavra. Once one of the most important centers of Orthodox Christianity and home to 1,000 monks, it was taken over by the Soviet government in 1930. Religious activities resumed over time. Today, some buildings are secular cultural museums and some are part of a religious complex operated by the Orthodox Church.

Beneath several of the churches is a labyrinth of tunnels, used by reclusive monks in times gone by and now the resting place for many saints. Carved into the 660 yards of stone tunnels are a number of tiny, elegant churches fitted with glittering gold icons. Parts of the cave complex are open to the public. For me, lighting a candle and walking through the cramped, whitewashed passages is both strange and moving. Along with tourists, devout worshipers come here to kneel and pray next to the small, glass-topped coffins.

Part of the Lavra encompasses the secular exhibitions -- which run the gamut from displays of ornamental gold fashioned by the mysterious Scythian peoples who once ruled the Ukrainian steppe to the marvelously quirky Museum of Micro-Miniatures.

The latter grew out of the imagination of one man, Mykola Syadristy, who set out to make items so tiny they could only be appreciated when viewed through microscopes. My favorite consists of a human hair, drilled hollow and then polished to transparency. Inside this tiny tube, Syadristy managed to insert a miniature rose.

Now 72, Syadristy often hangs around the museum. His picture is on the wall, and it's easy to pick him out if he's there. One afternoon, my friend Karen, who speaks fluent Russian, and I struck up a conversation with him. We thought he would regale us with stories of his secret techniques -- how he made the minuscule maiden with an umbrella who sits on the proboscis of a life-size golden mosquito, or how he placed an entire desert caravan inside the eye of a needle.

Our initial question produced an uninterruptible 15-minute oration, but it wasn't about how he put a chess set on the head of a pin. It was about Marx, Engels, Lenin and the shortcomings of Ukraine's current leadership.

The more you talk to Ukrainians, the more you realize that for all their toughness, their hearts have been broken by politicians.

President Viktor Yushchenko, who led the Orange Revolution, seemed poised to become the country's George Washington. But in the run-up to this winter's election, his approval rating is in the neighborhood of 2 to 3 percent, making him perhaps the world's most unpopular elected leader.

Part of the reason is that the financial crisis that shook the United States has been catastrophic here. You wonder how much Ukrainians can take. Unemployment is up. The economy is sagging. People who have been sacked can't get at their savings because banks are in trouble.

But you can walk the streets here and still see plenty of shiny cars threading their way around the rattling Russian-designed Ladas. On the sidewalks march Ukrainian women in glittering shoes and fur-trimmed leather jackets. On the outskirts, marshy fields erupt with hulking McMansions.

It's as if Ukraine is somehow sure that its encounter with misfortune will have a storybook ending, an attitude captured in the local saying: If Khevrya hadn't fallen into the puddle, she wouldn't have gotten married. Although no handsome stranger has pulled Kiev out of the mud lately, people here have a profound understanding of misfortune.

The reality of that hits home as you walk south from the old monastic citadel. The city falls away on either side and the view is dominated by Kiev's perhaps most dramatic landmark: Rodina Mat, the mother of the country.

She is tall, she is titanium, she has a 53-ton sword, she is not particularly happy.

The statue stands atop a museum dedicated to World War II's Eastern Front, and the story inside the museum is more than sobering. Moving through the museum, I often wonder why I knew so little of it until now.

In history courses in high school and college, I got the standard American account of the war: Blitzkrieg, Dunkirk, Battle of Britain, Churchill with a defiant cigar, D-Day, pretty girls showering GIs with flowers in Paris, Battle of the Bulge, our tanks rumbling toward Hitler's bunker. Victory.

Well, no.

Walking through the museum made me want to learn more about the "Great Patriotic War" and the mammoth battles of the Eastern Front.

In the United States, we revere my father's contemporaries as the "Greatest Generation." And their bravery and sacrifice is beyond question. But when the Greatest Generation handed down the story of the war in Europe, they often neglected to mention that it was the Red Army that broke Hitler's back.

The Soviet losses were staggering. In 1941, at the First Battle of Kiev -- which I had never really heard of before I got here -- the Soviet army suffered 700,000 killed, wounded and captured. If you count German losses and civilian carnage, the figure approaches 1 million -- or 20 to 25 Gettysburgs, where 50,000 were killed or wounded. That's just one of the battles fought at Kiev. There were others.

Then there's the secluded gully where in two days in September 1941, the victorious Germans shot 33,771 Jews. Executions of Jews, communists, partisans, gypsies and others continued at the Babi Yar ravine until 1943. A hundred thousand may have died there. Maybe more.

The Soviets erected a grandiose marker in a nearby park in 1976 but didn't quite have room on the tablet to mention that the people shot to death were mostly Jews. Eventually a memorial in the shape of a menorah was built in the woods nearby, overlooking the lip of the ravine.

Yet despite all this sadness and grief, there is wonder and splendor, too. Twist your way down the street known as St. Andrew's Descent, past the wedding-cake architecture of St. Andrew's Church and the tiny cafes clinging to the slope, and you can almost image you are seeing Kiev 100 years ago, when the great novelist Mikhail Bulgakov ("The Master and Margarita") lived and worked in a little house on the right.

To find much of this charm, you must look around, or at least understand, the top layer of the city: the Soviet layer. It has a special grimness. Peeling back the layers of a place takes time. I was in Miami for 16 years and spent most of the time trying to figure out what was at the heart of it. It's a slippery place. I never got to the center, but I did figure out that the center wasn't very important. It was what was on the glittering surface that mattered.

Kiev is the opposite, I think. Yes, it's a city with plenty of tricks. But it has been around for more than 14 centuries. Kiev knows who it is.

The place where I feel the heart of Kiev most intensely is looking at the green and golden domes of St. Sophia's Cathedral. This building somehow survived the attack of Batu Khan and his Golden Horde in the 13th century. Down the street, the khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, burned down an even older church with 3,000 Kievans inside. St. Sophia's also survived the czars, the Bolshevik Revolution and Hitler. It survived Stalin's penchant for blowing churches to smithereens.

Kievans tell of a legend that the call of the city's church bells can weave a shield over the city.

Looking at them with my foreign eyes, I consider the centuries of faith here and think about being from a culture where a shield involves missiles or lasers.

And it occurs to me that when I leave, the thing I will miss most of all will be the bells.

Source: The Washington Post

Friday, December 25, 2009

Ukraine Facing 'Serious Problems' Paying For Gas: Gazprom

MOSCOW, Russia -- The head of Russian gas giant Gazprom said Friday that Ukraine had cut back on purchases of Russian gas since mid-December and appeared to be facing serious cash problems.

A pipeline is seen at the Russian gas compressor station in Sudzha near the Russian-Ukrainian border in January 2009. The head of Russian gas giant Gazprom said Friday that Ukraine had cut back on purchases of Russian gas since mid-December and appeared to be facing serious cash problems.

"Ukraine is experiencing serious problems with payment," Alexei Miller said on Russia's Vesti channel in comments carried by the Ria-Novosti news agency.

Ukraine has until January 11 to pay for gas, according to Gazprom, which has cut off supplies to the country over unpaid bills repeatedly in the past.

"We are hearing and seeing that Ukraine is experiencing very, very serious problems in paying for supplies of Russian gas for December," Miller said.

"We estimate the situation with the payment for the December supplies of the Russian gas as very serious," Miller added.

Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov, speaking to AFP, said Ukraine would find it hard to cover its next gas bill after the International Monetary Fund turned down its request for a new loan tranche of $3.8 billion dollars.

Asked what will happen if Ukraine fails to meet the January 11 deadline, Kupriyanov said Gazprom would act "in accordance with the contract," a phrase the company has used in the past when turning off supplies.

"At the current moment there are no objective reasons for a new crisis," Kupriyanov added.

Ukraine's energy company Naftogaz declined immediate comment.

In January, a pricing dispute between the two countries resulted in Russian gas being cut to much of Europe for two weeks as winter temperatures plunged.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has repeatedly said that Russia will cut gas supplies to Ukraine again if the struggling ex-Soviet nation fails to pay for its energy supplies.

If Gazprom acts on its warning, the cuts would come amid intense campaigning for Ukraine's presidential election on January 17.

Last month, Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Yulia Tymoshenko vowed at a meeting in the Ukrainian resort town of Yalta that there would be no repeat of the gas crisis in 2010.

Ukraine has been hard hit by the global economic crisis which triggered a massive slump in its export-dependent heavy industrial sector.

The IMF extended a $16.4 billion dollar credit in November 2008 to help Ukraine weather the downturn, by far the country's biggest source of foreign income in 2009.

So far the government has received a total of $10.6 billion dollars but the IMF is withholding the next tranche of $3.8 billion dollars due to concerns over political infighting in the run-up to the presidential election.

Source: AFP

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Happy Holidays...

Hottest Heads Of State Ranks Leaders For Their Eye-Candy Appeal

WASHINGTON, DC -- If there is power in beauty, then the leader of the free world is Yulia Tymoshenko, the 49-year-old prime minister of Ukraine with the porcelain features and a halo of luscious golden braids. She's got the body of Barbie and the face of a Hummel figurine, not to mention the responsibility of leading 46 million people and the No. 1 ranking on the Web site

Yulia Tymoshenko is the hottest [looking] leader on the planet, at No. 1 according to and last at No. 172, is Kim Jong-Il of North Korea.

Joe Biden spoke to Tymoshenko on the phone Tuesday from his residence, five months after meeting her in Kiev and proclaiming that Ukraine boasts "the most beautiful women in the world."

What did the beauty and the, uh, distinguished-looking gentleman discuss?

1. The economic situation in Ukraine. (Not hot. Fugly, in fact.)

2. The war in Afghanistan. (Hot, but for the wrong reasons.)

No word on whether Biden blushed his way through the call. The vice president wasn't eligible for the ranking, but his boss was. President Obama came in at No. 15, despite the surf-ready torso and numerous magazine covers.

Obama landed directly behind the president of the Maldives, who's been swiping headlines throughout the year because he's young, attractive and walks to work, and because his island nation is drowning in the rising waters of the Indian Ocean. Even hotter than high cheekbones and bronze skin is a man wrestling with dire climatological forces.

"I have no comment on the hotness of the president or any other head of state," says deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton.

Comely world leaders can capitalize on their looks to goose their appeal, but they must stop short of seeming sexual, according to Barbara Kellerman, a professor of leadership at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. This might explain Tymoshenko's tightly wound braids, which bind her looks in tradition, or why Obama often looks paternally frumpy outside of work.

"He has gone out of his way to not seem hot," Kellerman says. "We've been reminded that he's a devoted husband at every turn, and the way he longingly looks into his wife's eyes suggests sexuality but only in terms of his wife. He's been chided for wearing jeans that are baggy. He's trying to be middle-of-the-road."

Still, Obama ranks ahead of rival beefcake. Vladimir Putin, that musky Muscovite, comes in at No. 18 and supermodel magnet Nicolas Sarkozy popped up at No. 28.

But what of the science behind this ranking? Who were the loony beauty experts who scrutinized the pores of presidents?

Turns out Hottest Heads of State was the idea of a temp/musician in New York named Derek Dobson. He came up with the concept after a night of drinking with friends. He, his brother and sister-in-law created the site and ranked the leaders simply because it's never been done before on the Internet, which is littered with the carcasses of a zillion lists. They threw the list onto a blog template and began to post polls and write irreverent entries on the hotness quotient of world leaders. Hilarious comments from around the world have been steadily rolling in for the past five months.

One recent commenter simply purred, "Mmmm . . . Jens Stoltenberg," in reference to the somewhat dashing prime minister of Norway, who's No. 2.

"Some of these people are mass murderers, so it's kind of flippant to be ranking them on their good looks," says Dobson, 28, of the list's more poisonous potentates. "I'm thinking of doing a post on Ahmadinejad [No. 48], but it's hard to write with that ironic flavor when you're talking about a possibly evil man."

Do crimes against humanity diminish a man's physical hotness? Can the silky hair of the president of Argentina (Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, No. 5) be compared to the piercing blue eyes of the president of Slovenia (Borut Pahor, No. 21)? The answers aren't the point. The fact that the ranking was viewed more than half a million times is the point.

Apparently, it all comes down -- like everything else these days -- to Sarah Palin. She is the first female leader to overtly flaunt her sexuality, according to Kellerman, the Harvard professor. She's a timely case study in the blendering of celebrity and politics, and of statecraft and sexuality. These days, a president or prime minister or even a pope (Benedict XVI is No. 171) can be reduced to their hotness, ranked by the masses, and subjected to the whims of a temping musician who lives in Brooklyn.

"It's part of a larger cultural shift, with leaders weakening in many ways," says Kellerman, whose recent writing focuses on empowered masses and diluted leadership. "One of the ways they're weakening is we are daring to do to them what we'd do to a movie star or rock star. This ranking would've been considered outrageous not too long ago."

Last, and maybe least, at No. 172, right behind the pontiff: Kim Jong-Il, who looks like everybody's grandmother.

Source: The Washington Post

IMF Turns Down Ukraine Plea For $2 Billion Loan

LOS ANGELES, USA -- The International Monetary Fund has rejected Ukraine's request for a $2 billion loan to help the recession-strapped country meet financial obligations by year's end, a senior Ukrainian official told the Financial Times on Wednesday.

IMF headquarters in Washington, DC.

In refusing to extend additional funds, the IMF cited the Ukraine government's failure to abide by its financial and economic obligations and infighting among the former Soviet state's political leaders, the Financial Times reported.

IMF officials could not be reached for comment late on Wednesday.

Ukrainian officials told the FT the government has other options to bring in the funds to pay natural gas import bills to Russia's Gazprom, and state employees' pensions and wages.

Kiev had expected to receive about $3.8 billion in a fourth tranche of IMF credit by the New Year under a $16.4 billion bailout plan. It has already drawn $10.5 billion under the program.

The IMF is withholding disbursement of the fourth tranche until Ukraine's political leaders begin working together to solve the country's financial problems amid a 15 percent drop in gross domestic product.

The situation is complicated by the upcoming Jan. 17 presidential election which has President Viktor Yushchenko, Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and ex-premier Viktor Yanukovich all competing for the office. A second round run-off, if necessary, will be held in February.

Alexander Ginzburg, an advisor to Tymoshenko, told the FT that the IMF could loosen cash reserve minimums for Kiev's central bank to allow the transfer to government accounts of billions of dollars in reserves built up with IMF money this year.

Yushchenko has vowed, however, to block such a move, the FT reported.

Source: Newstin

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Tymoshenko Looks To Europe

LUHANSK, Ukraine -- Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko pledged to pull Ukraine further toward Europe by cleaning up corruption and bringing order to the country if she wins the presidential election early next year.

Ukraine's Premier Yulia Tymoshenko, trailing in presidential poll, vows to clean up corruption, integrate with EU.

Campaigning in the country's industrial east, which traditionally favors front-runner Viktor Yanukovych, Ms. Tymoshenko said in an interview that voters have a stark choice between a European future and a corrupt past, embodied by her chief rival.

She said he is a political relic who represents "very powerful criminal groups" and accused him of working with President Viktor Yushchenko to derail her presidential bid by undermining the economy.

Mr. Yanukovych, in an earlier interview, accused Ms. Tymoshenko and Mr. Yushchenko of their own corruption and fueling "chaos" through ineffective leadership.

Ms. Tymoshenko is using fiery rhetoric in an attempt to attract voters disappointed by the country's lack of progress in eradicating corruption and prosperity after gaining independence in 1991 when the Soviet Union split.

Eighteen candidates are vying for the presidency in the Jan. 17 election, and none will likely get more than 50% of the vote, setting the stage for a runoff between the two leading candidates in February.

The France-sized country of 45 million was set on a democratic path in 2004 when street protests, known as the Orange Revolution, overturned a presidential election fraught with allegations that it was rigged and brought Mr. Yushchenko to power. But domestic political and economic changes foundered amid bitter infighting between Mr. Yushchenko and Ms. Tymoshenko, his ally during the revolution.

In the most recent polls carried out by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems this month, Mr. Yanukovych led with 31%, followed by Ms. Tymoshenko's 19%. No other candidate had more than 5% support. However, she is expected to pick up more votes from other candidates than Mr. Yanukovych in the runoff, which political observers expect to be tight.

Now in her second stint as prime minister after being fired by Mr. Yushchenko less than a year after the Orange Revolution, Ms. Tymoshenko blamed the president for the failure to push through economic changes and combat corruption, calling him a "very weak president, who is unable and unwilling to fight the lawlessness he declared war against."

Ukraine was hit hard in the fall of 2008, when demand for its major steel and chemical exports plunged. The International Monetary Fund stepped in quickly with a $16.4 billion loan, which has helped prop up an economy that has contracted 15% this year. The IMF cut off funding last month, though, after a rise in social spending that was supported by Mr. Yanukovych's political party and signed off on by the president.

Ukraine Finance Minister Ihor Umanskiy said Wednesday that he doesn't expect the scheduled $3.8 billion installment to be disbursed until next year.

In combative campaign speeches, Ms. Tymoshenko has slammed political opponents and corrupt officials for exacerbating the country's economic woes for their own benefit. She vowed in the interview to bring order to the country by establishing "dictatorship of the law" where "no crime would go unpunished."

"Tymoshenko is campaigning in Bolshevik style by finding enemies to fight against," said Yevhen Bystrytskiy, executive director of the Kiev-based International Renaissance Foundation, a democracy-promoting think tank. "Instead of talking about other candidates, she should present a platform of systemic reforms."

Ms. Tymoshenko's campaign has portrayed attacks on her as also being directed against the country.

"She plays on the idea that she is a fragile woman on the one hand, and she is the only real man in the country on the other," said Oleh Rybachuk, who worked for Mr. Yushchenko as chief of staff and served in Ms. Tymoshenko's government as deputy prime minister.

Ms. Tymoshenko said she would "build Europe in Ukraine" to pursue integration into the EU. She called for "pragmatic" relations with Russia, while urging Moscow to "respect" its neighbor.

Mr. Yushchenko accuses Ms. Tymoshenko of betraying Ukrainian interests in dealings with Russia, particularly in agreements to buy Russian natural gas. Ms. Tymoshenko has developed a strong relationship with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who has described working with Ms. Tymoshenko as "comfortable."

Ms. Tymoshenko is cooler on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization than the current president, who has irritated Russia with calls for membership in a bloc the Kremlin views as hostile. She calls for continued cooperation, but stresses the lack of support among Ukrainians for membership, talking instead of a pan-European security pact.

Mr. Yanukovych has also softened the pro-Russian message that failed to bring him victory in 2004, promising to foster closer ties with the European Union while strengthening relations with Russia that have become strained under Mr. Yushchenko.

But observers say both front-runners will struggle to make significant progress toward Europe, which would necessitate more transparency in politics and business.

"They both see Ukraine as part of Europe, so it's not so much about the direction, but the speed," said Mr. Rybachuk. "We have a train going toward Europe, but the speed at which we are going is clearly not fast-track with either."

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Prez: Govt Looting Accounts To Pay Bills

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine’s cash-strapped government appears to have looted some 6.2 billion hryvnias ($780 million) out of state-controlled accounts in its scramble to stay financially afloat, President Viktor Yushchenko said in a filing asking prosecutors to investigate the case.

Viktor Pynzenyk

The figure surfaced after the State Treasury released data showing that the Treasury’s account was holding 1.8 billion hryvnias, while it should have kept 8 billion hryvnias.

The most of the cash supposed to be sitting in the account was owned by local governments throughout Ukraine and state-owned business entities, with a number of them recently reporting failed transactions when they have tried to pay for services.

“What did the government do to this money? It has eaten the money up,” Viktor Pynzenyk, a former finance minister, said Tuesday. “The money is not there.”

The development underscores the depth of the government’s financial crunch in December, while Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko has been desperately seeking to borrow at least $2 billion from the International Monetary Fund.

The government needs to raise at least 60 billion hryvnias in revenue in December alone - almost four times it has been raising monthly so far this year - in order to meet original 2009 budget revenue forecast, analysts said.

The government has been facing similar financial problems throughout the past 12 months, but it had managed to cover the crunch due to massive lending from the IMF.

The IMF disbursed $10.6 billion, or almost 84 billion hryvnias, to Ukraine over the past 12 months, before suspending the disbursements in November after the government had failed to implement promised reforms.

Now the government has been desperately holding the talks with the IMF seeking to borrow again to prevent a major budget failure, analysts said.

But Pynzenyk, who quit the government in February following a clash with Tymoshenko over the size of budget deficit, said further borrowing without implementing reforms would be a mistake.

“Is that normal that the country cannot live without injections?” Pynzenyk said. “The loan can help bridge budget gap, let’s say we can cover November. But what’s next?”

Pynzenyk estimated that Ukraine’s budget deficit will widen by 15 billion hryvnias in December to 103 billion hryvnias for the entire year of 2009.

The government has officially forecast its 2009 budget deficit at 31.5 billion hryvnias.

The rampant borrowing and the depreciation of the hryvnia over the past 12 months has been increasing Ukraine’s state debts to levels that can become unsustainable, Pynzenyk warned.

Ukraine’s state debt rose to 280 billion hryvnias as of the end of September, up from 189 billion hryvnias as of the end of December 2008, increasing financial burden.

“The spending on interest is growing. It has doubled only in the course of this year,” Pynzenyk said, adding the government plans to spend 22 billion hryvnias on interest payments in 2010.

Source: Ukrainian Journal

Report: Weapons Flight Heading To Iran

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- The flight plan for an aircraft seized in Thailand with a load of illicit North Korean arms and ammunition shows that the mysterious plane was headed to Iran, a new report from arms trafficking researchers says.

Graphic showing the known movements of a cargo plane that flew from Pyongyang in North Korea to Bangkok, Thailand, with an illegal cache of missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and other war weapons.

According to the flight plan seen by researchers, the aircraft was chartered by Hong Kong-based Union Top Management Ltd., or UTM, to fly oil industry spare parts from Pyongyang to Tehran, with several other stops, including in Azerbaijan and Ukraine.

Thai authorities, acting on a U.S. tip, impounded the Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane when it made a scheduled refueling stop in Bangkok on Dec. 12, uncovering 35 tons of weapons, reportedly including explosives, rocket-propelled grenades and components for surface-to-air missiles. The plane's papers described its cargo as oil-drilling machinery for delivery to Sri Lanka.

The U.N. imposed sanctions in June banning North Korea from exporting any arms after the communist regime conducted a nuclear test and test-fired missiles. Impoverished North Korea is believed to earn hundreds of millions of dollars every year by selling missiles, missile parts and other weapons to countries such as Iran, Syria and Myanmar.

The report on the flight plan from the nonprofit groups TransArms in the United States and IPIS of Belgium was funded by the Belgian government and Amnesty International. It could not be independently verified.

The report says the plane was registered to Air West, a cargo transport company in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Asked to comment on whether the plane was bound for Tehran, company owner Levan Kakabadze told The Associated Press that he was unaware of the plane's final destination.

Speaking by telephone from Batumi, Georgia, Kakabadze said that he had leased the plane to the SP Trading company and could bear no responsibility for what happened next.

"I know that the flight documents listed the cargo as oil drilling equipment. It turned out that they were carrying weapons," Kakabadze said. "After leasing the plane, I can't be held responsible for what happened. It's a problem for people who leased the plane. I have nothing else to say."

The authors cite confidential e-mails saying that UTM had ruled out a direct flight from Pyongyang to Tehran.

The report also raises multiple questions, including why the plane would stop in Thailand, since arms traffickers would be wiser to fly over China toward the former Soviet republics and on to Iran, rather than the well-policed southeastern Asian country.

It says that the final flight plan shows that the aircraft stopped at an Azerbaijani air force base a few miles (kilometers) north of the capital, Baku, on its way to North Korea, and was expected to make a stop there on its way back from Pyongyang to Tehran.

An Azerbaijani aviation spokesman Tuesday denied the plane stopped in his country, which shares a border with neighboring Iran.

"The claims that the plane made a refueling stop in Azerbaijan have nothing to do with reality," said Maharram Safarli, a spokesman for the national flag carrier AZAL. "This plane has never landed in Azerbaijan."

The report, which was released Monday, also says that the aircraft's lease owner, SP Trading, which is located in New Zealand, was told that the equipment on board should be brought to Ukraine first for handling before its delivery to Pyongyang.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Petr Poroshenko has been quoted as saying that the plane was not Ukrainian. He said the plane landed in Ukraine on Nov. 13 empty and left empty on Dec. 8.

The researchers say that the plane's previous registration documents link it to Air Cess and Centrafrican Airlines, which are allegedly connected to accused weapons trafficker Victor Bout, who has been in prison in Thailand since he was arrested March 6 and is battling attempts to be extradited to the United States on terrorism charges.

But, the report said there was not enough evidence to link the plan definitively to Bout.

"In the arcane and esoteric world of former Soviet aircraft registration it is only possible to say that it is 'highly probable' that this aircraft is the same plane which, up to a decade or so ago, was part of a fleet of aircraft which 'quite likely' were under the control of Mr. Bout," it said.

"But this is rather like saying that possession of one's vintage Jaguar, which a decade ago was used as the getaway car in a bank job, makes one a bank robber."

The aircraft itself was formerly a Soviet air force plane that was later converted to civilian use in Ukraine before it was reportedly exported to Malaysia in 1997. It resurfaced in Swaziland in 1998 and was spotted again in the United Arab Emirates in 2003.

Source: AP