Saturday, October 31, 2015

Ukraine Soldier Killed By Rebel Fire At Donetsk Airport

KIEV, Ukraine -- A Ukraine soldier died Friday during fighting with insurgents near the shelled-out remains of the airport in Donetsk, a stronghold of the pro-Russian separatists, the army announced.


This photo taken on October 13, 2015 in Donetsk shows a bullet-ridden road sign in front of the destroyed Donetsk international airport.

"One soldier was killed and another injured" a military statement said.

Earlier in the day the army reported rebel fire against its positions in the village of Piski, an area controlled by Kiev forces near the flashpoint Donetsk airport which fell into separatists hands in January.

On Tuesday another Ukraine soldier was killed in a mortar fire exchange near the remains of the airport.

Such attacks highlight the fragile nature of the latest ceasefire, in place since September 1, in a conflict which has cost more than 8,000 lives in the past 18 months.

Donetsk airport was for several months the scene of fierce fighting between the Ukraine army and the pro-Moscow insurgents before falling into separatist hands, and remains one of the main flashpoint. 

The lull in fighting has raised hopes of an end to one of Europe's deadliest conflicts since the Balkan wars of the 1990s, but the process has been slow and periodic exchanges of deadly mortar fire still flare up.

The sporadic fighting and seemingly irreconcilable differences over the pro-Russian regions' future status within a unified Ukraine means that a peace process that was meant to be finished by the end of the year will drag on into 2016.

Source: AFP

Ukraine Leader's Wealth Grows Despite War, Economic Woes

KIEV, Ukraine -- The value of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's assets soared despite economic crisis and conflict while those of other tycoons shrank in an annual wealth list published Friday.


Petro Poroshenko, President of Ukraine, addresses the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly September 29, 2015 in New York.

The 50-year-old Western-backed president's business empire ranges from chocolates to media holdings still under his control.

Friday's independent Novoye Vremya weekly showed the Ukrainian leader -- often criticised for failing to curb the political powers of fellow tycoons -- ranked as the country's sixth-richest man. His assets reportedly rose by 20 percent to $979 million (889 million euros) -- only just supporting his claim he is no longer a billionaire.

Poroshenko retains control of a top TV channel and has failed to follow through on his promise to sell off his Roshen chocolate empire due to a lack of foreign interest and a dearth of rich-enough investors in Ukraine itself.

The president's official spokesman did not pick up his phone when contacted repeatedly by AFP. 

"Poroshenko's (wealth) rose thanks to the rise in value of his candy business that -- even in the midst of the deepest of crises -- is developing quickly, building new capacities and conquering new markets," the weekly said.

The wealth list is topped by metals magnate Rinat Akhmetov.

The 49-year-old Akhmetov is a controversial figure accused by some local media of impeding Poroshenko's efforts to halt the 18-month war in the pro-Russian east.

Novoye Vremya said Akhmetov's fortunes had plunged by 56 percent to $4.5 billion due in part to the sharp recent fall in global commodity prices.

Poroshenko's sworn political foe and banking giant Igor Kolomoyskiy came in third with an estimated fortune of $1.9 billion.

The 52-year-old grey-bearded and fiercely outspoken figure finds himself in the peculiar position of being at odds with both Kiev and Moscow. 

Russia's state media accuse him of funding Ukrainian neo-Nazi combat units that commit grave crimes in the separatist east.

Poroshenko's fight against Kolomoyskiy began with efforts to strip him of his indirect control of a state-owned oil company and culminated in the businessman losing his seat as governor of the industrially important Dnipropetrovsk region in March.

Kolomoyskiy's wealth reportedly slipped by 17 percent due to the country's financial woes.

All the others in the top 10 also lost money in the year since the last Novoye Vremya poll.

Ukraine's economy is on track to shrink by about 12 percent this year and only return to marginal growth should the eastern campaign end in 2016.

- 'No benefit to president' - 

Poroshenko promotes himself as a Western-style businessman who built his empire from the ground up and kept to transparency standards that most others simply ignored. 

Many of Ukraine's other mega-rich scooped up their holdings at cut-price rates in pre-arranged privatisation deals in which which they rewarded the government by funding its parliamentary parties and campaigning for them in the media.

But analysts said Poroshenko's reputation may still suffer for being the only one of the country's already-despised oligarchs to profit while presiding over Ukraine's worst crisis since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

"This will not benefit the president's ratings or help improve Ukraine's image as a nation run by oligarchs," Vadym Karasyov of Kiev's Institute of Global Strategies told AFP.

"The world views Ukraine as a poor country with a super-rich minority," Karasyov said.

Source: AFP

NATO Commander: Russia's Syria Deployment Aimed To Take Eyes Off Ukraine

WASHINGTON, DC -- NATO's top commander says Russia's military deployment to Syria was aimed at showcasing Moscow's resurgent armed forces, but also to distract Western attention from the simmering conflict in Ukraine.


U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove.

The comments by U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove on October 30 came the same day that Russia staged a major test of its strategic and tactical missile forces, firing multiple ballistic and cruise missiles at testing ranges throughout the country.

Breedlove told reporters at the Pentagon that Moscow continued to defy the so-called Minsk agreements that resulted in a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine's Donbas region.

He said Russia was supplying command-and-control units, artillery spotting and support, and other materiel to the separatists.

"Folks have taken their eye off of Ukraine a little bit because of what's happening in Syria," Breedlove said.

"It's technique they've employed in the past, a couple of times. Invade Crimea. Take the world's eyes off of Crimea by invading Donbass. Take the world's eyes off of Donbass by getting involved in Syria."

"This is part of a larger construct by Russia and we need to be thinking holistically about our response," he said.

"We need to remember that these are connected." 

The conflict between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists who hold parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, has killed more than 8,000 people since April 2014.

The Russian missile tests, which appeared to be the largest it has conducted in at least a year, included the launch of a Kalibr cruise missile from a Russian ship in the Caspian Sea, as well as intercontinental ballistic missiles from a nuclear submarine in the Barents Sea in the north and one in the Sea of Okhotsk, off Russia's eastern coast, the Defense Ministry said.

The exercises also included the firing of a land-based Topol missile from Plesetsk in northwestern Russia, Tu-160s strategic bombers launching cruise missiles in the northern Komi region and the Pacific peninsula of Kamchatka, and an Iskander cruise missile fired at Kapustin Yar in southern Russia.

The tests, and Breedlove's comments, come as rhetoric between Moscow and the West continues to ratchet up, with U.S. and NATO aircraft flying in sometimes close proximity to one another in Syrian airspace.

They also come as NATO stages its largest training exercises in more than a decade, with 36,000 troops from 30 countries participating in the drills off of Spain and Portugal.

NATO officials said the Trident Juncture drills had been planned for months, but also highlighted the alliance's concerns with Russia's often bellicose actions in Eastern Europe and elsewhere.

The Russian military campaign in Syria, which began on September 30 after weeks of a stealth build-up of troops and equipment, is its largest outside the former Soviet Union in decades.

With advanced military weaponry such as Su-30M fighter jets and the Kalibr cruise missiles being used in the air campaign, many analysts believe the Syria operation is aimed at sending a message that Russian military capabilities have returned in full.

Earlier this week, two strategic Tu-160 bombers flew within 2 kilometers, and at a height of 150 meters, to the U.S. aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan in the Pacific Ocean off East Asia, prompting officials to scramble F/A-18 fighter jets to escort the bombers.

Asked why he thought the Kremlin had deployed to Syria, where the regime of President Bashar al-Assad is a close ally, Breedlove said, "Putin wants to be seen as equal on the world stage, as a world power."

"Putin needs eastern Mediterranean ports and airfields. Putin sees the Assad regime as a guarantor of those ports. Putin wants the world's eyes off of Ukraine, to put the focus on Syria, then normalize Donbass. I think he wants to take the world's eyes off of Ukraine," he said.

Source: Radio Free Europe

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Ukraine Ban On Russian Symbols Fuels Fight Over National Identity

SEMYONOVKA, Ukraine -- A young policeman knocked on Ivan M. Papchenko’s front door one recent afternoon, brandishing a complaint from the National Memory Institute of Ukraine and demanding to know why this village had resurrected Lenin.


Ivan Papchenko, center, and the Lenin statue moved from town square to a remote spot in a park in Semyonovka, Ukraine.

Semyonovka stood accused of being a “de-communization” scofflaw.

Papchenko, the local Communist Party chief, refused to concede that anything was remotely amiss.

The Lenin statue, he said, was long gone from the town’s Red Square.

The expanse of naked asphalt, even more dreary without the statue, does not exactly conjure up the grand Moscow version.

Instead, Semyonovka’s 12-foot, silver-colored Lenin with his right arm extended had been propped back up on a plinth tucked away in a leafy park.

“We want to preserve this small corner of Soviet history,” said Papchenko, 67, a stout former school principal whose multiple gold molars attested to his own life in the U.S.S.R.

“If they destroy all signs of the past whenever the ideology changes, what will be left?”

Ukraine has embarked on a quest for a new identity, a fallout from the hybrid war that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia unleashed in early 2014.

The country is trying to separate itself from the long historical baggage of the Russian and Soviet empires.

Vladimir Vyatrovich, 38, a historian and the head of Ukraine’s National Memory Institute, predicted somewhat rashly that if the effort succeeded in Ukraine, it would cause fateful reverberations next door.

Russia’s modern identity basically started with the 17th-century invasion of what is now Ukraine, Mr. Vyatrovich said.

“So the moment when Ukraine finally manages to become a totally independent state will also be the moment when Russia’s imperialistic identity ends.”

Mr. Vyatrovich helped push four “memory laws” through Parliament last spring.

The laws dumped the Soviet traditions for commemorating World War II, opened up what K.G.B. secret police archives remained in Ukraine and sought to rehabilitate certain Ukrainian independence fighters whom Moscow had long pilloried as Nazi collaborators.

The fourth law, the one with arguably the most tangible effect nationally, required the removal of all names and symbols linked to the Communist or Nazi past.

A fight has emerged over the Communist symbols, however, not unlike that between supporters and opponents of the Confederate battle flag in the southern United States.

For opponents, the Lenin statues might as well be Russian agents.

“A concentration of Lenin statues is a sign of danger where ‘polite people’ might appear,” Mr. Vyatrovich said in an interview.

Polite people is the Russian euphemism for the anonymous Russian Special Forces troops who seized Crimea.

His allies argue that the statues clash with the democratic values that Ukrainians want to instill in the next generation.

Fans of the Communist-era symbols tend to be older Ukrainians who still long for the Soviet era.

They and others argue that Ukraine faces far more severe problems, like an economic nose dive, that should take precedence, and furthermore that the state should not mandate historical interpretation. 

“They behave like Bolsheviks: ‘We have to wipe out the past!’ ” said Georgiy V. Kasyanov, a historian and education reform activist.

“They think the Soviet legacy can be destroyed by destroying statues of Lenin or by renaming streets, which is false. They are wrestling with ghosts.”

Critics call destroying the symbols a sop to the small but vocal right-wing movement. The main font of a new identity, they argue, should be a definition of citizenship that incorporates Tatars, Jews, Poles and others ostracized for centuries.

Lenin statues and Lenin streets used to be ubiquitous.

“This was Leninland,” Mr. Vyatrovich said, with 5,500 statues in Ukraine when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

By the time of the Maidan uprising in Kiev that toppled the pro-Russian government in February 2014, Ukraine was down to about 1,300 Lenins, he said.

Five hundred more have come crashing down since.

Many towns hit on the idea of selling the statues — often bronze — for scrap and paying wage arrears or buying new streetlights or even, occasionally, armored cars for volunteer fighters.

Some efforts proved more successful than others.

One of the largest Lenin statues in Ukraine, in the city of Kharkiv, was dismembered.

Activists hoping to pay for military equipment for volunteers fighting separatists in eastern Ukraine tried to auction it off piecemeal online, including an ear that weighed nearly 80 pounds.

The sellers rue the day they rejected a $2,000 offer for the ear as too low — they never got another bid, according to one organizer.

Apart from the statues, 910 cities and towns need new names, as do tens of thousands of streets.

Some places have balked at rebranding.

Dnipropetrovsk, for example, Ukraine’s third-largest city, was named in 1926 in honor of Grigory Petrovsky, a now forgotten leader of the Russian Revolution.

It became famous as the Soviet Union’s “rocket city” with that name and wants to keep it.

Each City Hall has until Nov. 21 to make the changes.

If they do not, Parliament will do it for them by Feb. 21.

Many towns established websites where residents can vote on new names.

In Kiev, a television comedy show suggested the modern landmark Moscow Bridge be renamed the Not Moscow Bridge.

City Hall in Kiev said it would pull down about 100 statues.

In the southern port of Odessa, one sizable Lenin statue was recast as Darth Vader, complete with a Wi-Fi router in his headgear.

In Semyonovka, in northeastern Ukraine some 10 miles from the Russian border, about 20 street names need changing.

They have not gotten very far.

One proposal would rename Collective Farm Street after Maxim Grachov, a 29-year-old who died fighting the separatists.

In some ways, Semyonovka is a typical Ukrainian town that time forgot.

Farmers clop along on horse-drawn carts.

Dozens of little log cabins grace the unpaved side streets.

The toilet for the squat apartment block that houses the Communist Party office is in an outhouse. 

Semyonovka’s Lenin statue survived its initial removal intact, lifted by a crane and carted off Red Square.

“I wept,” said Ivan Kovalenko, 69, a retired engineer.

“The West said it could not defeat us with weapons, so it decided to destroy us from within with prostitution and democracy.”

An outcry ensued, at least among older people who remember when Semyonovka had 15 thriving factories and 15,000 people.

Most of the factories are shuttered, and the population has shrunk to around 9,000.

Did bringing down Lenin suddenly make their lives better, statue lovers have asked bitterly.

City Hall initially quieted the debate in April 2014 by erecting Lenin in the secluded spot.

Then the issue came roaring back to life along with the memory laws.

Members of the committee assigned to deal with the Communist symbols started hearing from anonymous phone callers who growled that if the committee did not remove the statue, someone else would.

Still they resisted.

And continue to.

A woman wearing a navy blue bathrobe, hearing why foreigners were visiting recently, came bowling over, shaking her fist.

“You think Lenin’s statue is the biggest problem we have?” she yelled.

“Try living on a pension of $40 a month. How much do you live on? At least Lenin organized the electrification of this country. Pretty soon we will be back to the conditions that existed before Lenin.” 

Young residents shrug off the statue’s fate.

The stalwarts, however, plotted to save it.

They hit on the idea of historical value, declaring their silvery Lenin part of a small local history museum.

The National Memory Institute will not have it, Mr. Vyatrovich said.

“If it is in a public place, it is still totalitarian propaganda.”

Source: The New York Times

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Has Ukraine's 'Revolution Of Dignity' Left Women Behind?

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution called for dignity and justice, but one year later gender equality is not a priority on the Ukrainian political agenda – not even for female lawmakers.


Svitlana Zalishchuk

In 2010, former Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov enraged women across Ukraine when he declared “conducting reforms is not women's business.”

Today, Svitlana Zalishchuk is one of the newly elected female lawmakers proving him wrong.

With her cascade of blonde hair and sapphire eyes, Zalishchuk is a striking figure.

Recently described as one of “the most honest and toughest anti-corruption lawmakers”, her gentle, measured manner can be deceptive: she is a fighter, driven towards her vision for an accountable, transparent and stronger Ukraine.

She insists that we meet on Maidan after a vigil held for Georgiy Gongadze – a journalist kidnapped and brutally decapitated in 2000; one of Ukraine’s most shameful emblems of corruption and rotten governance.

It’s a fitting setting given Zalishchuk’s important role as a coordinator in the Euromaidan revolution as well as her impressive career as a political activist, journalist and initiator of a number of civic campaigns, including “Stop censorship!” and ‘Chesno’ – an organisation advocating for greater political transparency.

Zalishchuk was elected as a deputy of Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, in November 2014 alongside 47 other women – making up 11.1% of the Rada’s total composition.

This set a record in the political history of Ukraine, along with the election of the first female Deputy Chairman of Parliament, Oksana Syroyid.

Despite this progress, the gender imbalance within the Ukrainian political framework is still evident. 

“The Rada was historically created to be a man’s world,” Zalishchuk explains “there was one time, for example, when I had an argument with a male politician – he said very vulgar, sexist things to me.” 

This behaviour in the main chamber is not a rare occurrence, echoing comments made by Yanukovych during his presidential election campaign when he declared that his female opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko, should “go back to the kitchen.”

In April 2013 the far-right party Svoboda, then in opposition, registered a bill that would have criminalised abortion even in cases of rape.

Svoboda member, Oleksandr Sych, who in February 2014 briefly became one of the vice ministers to the Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine, was widely quoted as saying that rape "cannot be proved" and that women should “lead such a lifestyle so as to not be exposed to the risk of rape. In particular, [they should not be] drinking alcoholic beverages in questionable company.”

Displays of hyper masculinity and sexist prejudice towards women dominate the Ukrainian political scene.

There is a tradition of fist-fighting in the main debating chamber, children are barred from the premises, and politics remains the only profession that does not allow maternity leave.

Several female lawmakers have spoken out about the impossibility of juggling family duties with the pressures of political life.

But Zalishchuk is trying to change things:

“Yesterday we actually registered a petition to allow children into the Rada and for the installation of a baby changing room – we are constantly lobbying for the introduction of 30% female quotas in the make up of deputies. 

“We need voting reform: we need to bring more women into politics.”

Throughout Ukraine’s history of women’s rights there has been a lack of coherency between a projected, progressive image and a deeply conservative reality – often framed by the superficiality of the propaganda of the time.

The Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, for example, introduced female suffrage in 1917 and became the first state to legalise abortion in 1920 along with the rest of the USSR – seemingly one of the most radical regimes of the past century.

Alongside it’s vibrant strand of feminist literature, including the celebrated works of Marko Vovchok, Lesia Ukrainka and Olha Kobylianska, Ukraine is also the birthplace of two extremely influential and radical feminist organisations: the Ukrainian Women’s Union of the 1920s and FEMEN, who tellingly, have since moved to France and abandoned their actions in Ukraine saying that they fear “for their lives and freedom”.

Dafna Rachok, a gender studies expert at the Central European University, highlights this inconsistency:

“Though it is sometimes stated that the USSR emancipated Ukrainian women and that the post-socialist regime pushed them back into the kitchen, there's very little evidence to support this claim. Certainly, a number of progressive changes were made in the USSR of 1920s, but some of them were later suppressed in 1930s – homosexuality, for example, was re-criminalised in 1933 and remained a criminal offence until 1991. In any case, these changes didn't really free women from the double burden of having to take on work and domestic chores. It is also unclear whether these changes were ever really understood and supported by general public.”

The same discrepancy can be seen between the reputation of Ukrainian women at home, and how they are regarded internationally.

At home, women are respected as long as they are fulfilling their traditional roles as strong, moral, centre-pieces of the family and society, while just a quick Google search will reveal the depressing, foreign stereotyping of Ukrainian women: advertisements for “mail-order brides” and dating sites promising to introduce you to the “beautiful, sexy, submissive lover of your dreams” flood the results.

Sex tourism continues to be a chronic issue in Ukraine – often, as Rachok mentioned, blamed on the break up of the Soviet empire, which forced women, faced with no income or opportunities, into sex work or the pursuit of richer, Western partners.

If women’s current position within the public sphere is bad, aspects of the private realm are worse.

The bloody conflict in Ukraine’s east and Crimea has aggravated women’s immediate position in society, with the majority of IDPs made up of women (66%) and children.

According to recent reports, there has also been a spike in rates of domestic and sexual violence, often stemming from soldiers suffering from PTSD returning to their wives and families from the front.

Displacement has also led to an increase in the number of women now turning to sex work and vulnerable to human trafficking.

Ambassador Madina Jarbussynova, OSCE Special Representative and Co-ordinator for Combating Trafficking, elaborated on the effects of war: “experience shows that large scale and uncontrolled movement of people in a conflict situation creates a favourable environment for organised criminal activity and increases the risk that people will fall into situations of human trafficking. This includes forced participation in military activities, sexual and labour exploitation, organ removal, recruitment into criminal activity and even forced recruitment of child soldiers.”

In an interview, Natalia Karbowska, Chair woman of the Ukrainian Women’s Fund, explains that these problems are exacerbated by Ukraine’s culture of silence.

“The main challenge with this violence is that it’s still a taboo issue in Ukrainian society: everything that happens at home, stays at home.”

Karbowska says that this culture was strengthened by Soviet propaganda and now, by the government’s failure to act.

“Soviet society was supposed to be perfect, so imperfections and problems were talked about in private. Women never even thought you could discuss it. Today, we hear about this violence all the time - but there is no data, the government is not collecting it and ignoring it.”

The economic crisis has also had a particular impact on women, whose pay is already lower than that of their male counterparts.

And with the collapsing currency, they are now earning much less than before.

Despite the gravity of the situation, gender equality, and provisions for vulnerable women, is not a priority on the political agenda.

When quizzed about her feelings towards this, Zalishchuk shrugs: “It cannot be any different. There are bigger, primary challenges like reform and tackling corruption which need immediate solutions and we do not have rich resources.”

Indeed, Karbowska claims that little-to-no government funding is being channelled towards women’s issues.

“I saw the draft of UN Resolution 1325 – which acknowledges the disproportionate and unique impact of armed conflict on women and girls – which Ukraine recently announced it would implement. But there is 0% funding in state budget – this is an indication of lack of interest by the government. It’s all words and no action…”

Karbowska hopes that the new wave of politicians will see the bigger picture – she sees political and social equality as issues of national security:

“When vulnerable women are being neglected – even by people who look and act like feminists – this means we are not living in a real democracy or a progressive society.”

Despite the lack of urgency, Karbowska is still optimistic:

“Every crisis is an opportunity. Women are now more visible in society: in civic society, politics, journalism and even as female soldiers. More women are making decisions, and I think this conflict has opened up opportunities for women… There are even women making reforms now – they really are proving Azarov wrong.”

Source: Open Democracy

Why A 'Star Wars' Emperor Won Office In Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- Less than two years after Ukraine's "revolution of dignity," local elections on Sunday handed power in the south and east to former supporters of the ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych.


The vote also created sizable ultranationalist factions in a number of local legislatures, including in the capital.

The election proved voters' growing mistrust of the political class, which was only partially reshaped by the revolution, and revealed a disappointed nation that still is divided along an east-west line. 

Standoff in Ukraine 

The vote was an important milestone for Ukraine.

President Petro Poroshenko has vowed to decentralize the country by giving cities and communities more political and budgetary powers.

Ukraine is scrapping its system of regional governors appointed from Kiev and giving authority to local legislatures, an attempt to shift from a Soviet-style supercentralized state to a European nation managed from the bottom up.

It's a good idea.

But unless oligarchs and corrupt local bosses are kept out, the country risks getting a version of medieval feudal disunity instead of European self-government.

The elections made that risk palpable.

A year ago, the outcome of Ukraine's first post-revolutionary parliamentary election was worth celebrating:

The remnants of Yanukovych's Regions Party were on the run.

Its successor, the Opposition Bloc, won a plurality in some Russian-speaking eastern regions, but its overall result was less than 10 percent, and it seemed to have only residual influence.

The far-right party Svoboda failed to get into parliament, showing that Ukrainian voters had spurned xenophobic, extreme nationalism.

The victory of the parties of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Poroshenko was evidence Ukrainians supported their reformist, pro-European orientation.

Enthusiasm faded, however, as Ukraine's economy shrank, oligarchs and corrupt bureaucrats squabbled, and an area surrounding two big cities in the east, Donetsk and Luhansk, remained firmly in the hands of pro-Russian separatists.

Yatsenyuk's party decided not to campaign in the local election because it expected a resounding defeat.

Poroshenko's political force was left with few allies as it tried to consolidate its support on the regional level.

It largely failed, apart from a reluctant alliance with Regions Party veterans in the Russian-speaking part of the country.

The vote count is still underway, but it is clear that the Opposition Bloc and other Regions Party splinters have done better than last year.

That doesn't mean more voters are leaning toward Russia:

The Regions Party was only pro-Russian when it served the economic interests of its leaders.

But Ukrainians seem to have voted for the same corrupt elites that have run their regions throughout the country's 25 years of independence, showing they have little confidence in the reformist rhetoric emanating from the government.

This is especially visible in Ukraine's second, third and fourth cities by population and its most important remaining business and industrial centers: Kharkiv, Odessa and Dnipropetrovsk.

In Kharkiv, a former Yanukovych backer with a criminal past, won the mayoral election by a landslide.

In Dnipropetrovsk, two politicians who don't support Poroshenko will compete in a runoff for the mayoral race.

In Odessa, where former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was appointed as governor to turn the region into a showcase of Western-style reforms, Saakashvili's candidate was defeated by a wide margin.

In the Ukrainian-speaking west, Svoboda radically improved its performance, coming in first in a few regions and second in critically important Lviv, Ukraine's cultural capital.

The ultranationalist party also won a surprising 10 percent of the vote in Kiev.

These results raise concerns there could be a nationalist rebellion against Poroshenko if he's seen as too soft on the separatists in the east.

The Poroshenko bloc has few successes.

In Kiev, its representative, former world boxing champion Vitaly Klichko, will probably hold on to the mayoralty after a runoff vote, and the party has a plurality in the city and regional councils.

A few other central Ukrainian regions leaned its way, too.

Nationwide, the party expects about 18 percent support. It had hoped to get 25 percent, down from almost 22 percent in last year's elections.

To retain a semblance of control over the newly empowered regions, Poroshenko and his team will have to make deals with oligarchs, local barons, nationalist militants and populists.

This will compound the country's barely manageable chaos.

It also will make more difficult an economic rebound or strict adherence to the economic program dictated by the International Monetary Fund as a condition of the country's financial rescue package.

Rooting out corruption now appears a remote prospect at best.

Ukraine's chaotic democracy prevents the country from turning into a Russian-style congealed, oppressive authoritarian state.

Yet corruption remains the glue holding together the politically, economically and culturally divided country.

Western observers said Monday that the elections "generally showed respect for the democratic process."

Nonetheless, they pointed out "the dominance of powerful economic groups over the electoral process" and "the fact that virtually all campaign coverage in the media was paid for."

No wonder Ukrainians weren't particularly enthusiastic about going to the polls.

The 46.6 percent turnout may seem acceptable by the standards of European and U.S. local elections, but, as commentator Leonid Shvets pointed out, the indifference of half the voters in post-revolution Ukraine signifies "a total mistrust of those who offer their political services."

Perhaps the best symbol of that mistrust and the renewed separation between the state and the people is the election of Dmitri Palpatin to the Odessa city council.

If his last name seems familiar, it is because he officially adopted the moniker of an evil emperor in "Star Wars" (also know as Darth Sidious).

The newly elected city councilor's day job is Emperor at Palpatin Finance Group.

And why not?

To many voters, the country's politics seem as real as those of a fictional galaxy far, far away.

Source: Bloomberg

They’re Brawling At The Polls In Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- It was better, at least, than fighting in a war. The balloting in Ukraine’s local elections on Sunday was messy and sometimes violent.


Candidates and voters lost their tempers, smashed each other’s faces, fractured digits and twisted arms at polling sites in Melitopol, Kharkiv and Odessa as tensions lingered in badly bloodied eastern Ukraine.

Most of the towns of the Donbass region, with its population of over 3 million people, were not able to vote because the territory remains in the hands of pro-Russian militants.

Overall, more than five million Ukrainian citizens out of 45 million were unable to vote because of the lingering effects of the two-year conflict.

But the momentum has gone out of the rebellion, a ceasefire has been holding, and Moscow has turned its attention elsewhere.

Russian independent experts believe that, after his popular seizure and annexation of Crimea, President Vladimir Putin did not have a well developed plan for Donbass other than to turn it into one more shadowy separatist territory, similar to Transnistria in Moldova or Abkhazia in Georgia.

So the Kremlin never announced the end of the conflict in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of Ukraine.

Rather, one day last month Russian mainstream media simply stopped talking about the war in Donbass, entirely, and began to cover the Syria war instead.

But that’s not all good news for Kiev.

What the local elections showed is that even outside of Donbass the Ukrainian electorate remains torn between the pro-Russian east and the pro-Poroshenko center.

According to preliminary vote counts, Poroshenko’s Solidarity bloc was leading with 24.15 percent, the nationalist Svoboda party came second with 12.74 percent, and former Prime Minister (and political prisoner) Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivschyna garnered 11.46 percent.

As the voting proceeded, some brawls broke out.

An ambulance took one candidate, Roman Dundnik, to a hospital with a bruised chest and broken finger.

His impromptu sparring partner, another candidate named Anatoliy Demyanenko, ended up at a police station.

A political struggle with the richest man in Ukraine, Renat Akhmetov, boiled over in the city of Mariupol, on the line of control with rebel-controlled territories.

There, the election process failed completely.

Not one of the city’s more than 200 polling sites was able to open on Sunday morning, as more than 600,000 ballots remained in sealed boxes.

The ballots became the final issue, officially, but to local pro-Ukrainian activists the cancellation of the election was a victory in a big local war against the billionaire Akhmetov.

The post-revolutionary generation of candidates were upset the ballots for the elections were printed in a shop that belonged to Akhmetov, a figure also tied to one of the political parties of the pro-Russian Opposition Bloc.

“That makes our society doubt the legitimacy of these elections,” the head of the Mariupol regional administration said on Sunday.

Activists of several pro-Kiev political parties demanded to postpone the election.

“The Opposition Bloc made an attempt to take the election under their control, but we did not allow that to happen,” a local activist and politician, Galina Odnorog, told The Daily Beast.

Two more towns, Krasnoarmeysk and Svatovo, had to cancel the balloting.

As a result, the pro-Russian opposition felt angry and frustrated.

On Monday, the Kiev-based political scientist Mikhail Pohrebinskiy concluded that at the moment Ukraine is not able to organize legitimate elections in the eastern regions, even apart from Donbass.

“Authorities blocked elections in Mariupol, as they realized that pro-Kiev parties could not win in the region,” Pohrebinsky said.

Ukrainian nationalists from the Right Sector battalion, who have been asserting a larger role in Ukrainian politics now that the war is winding down, dragged grenade launches and machine guns to the country’s main square, Maidan Nezalezhnosti, and set up a tent “for people to come over and hold the weapons.”

“In spite of all the hard and sometimes violent moments we still have much more transparency now,” said Mustafa Nayem, an influential member of parliament.

By 6 p.m., many regions had more than 30 percent turnout.

Ukrainians were voting for 10,700 local councils and city mayors in elections.

One of the heroines of the hustings, this time around, was former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Her party, Batkivshchyna, was doing better this year than many of her rivals.

Not many Kiev politicians expected Tymoshenko’s return to politics.

But in the midst of the war, economic crises and internal fights between powerful clans and revolutionary political figures, many Ukrainians have started to see Tymoshenko as a high-profile figure, needed at this confusing times.

Batkivshchyna’s popularity grew during this election campaign, falling only one percent behind President Petro Poroshenko’s party.

She promised not to allow anybody to throw Ukraine back to the past, when one oligarch decided the fate of elections, but to be an independent self-sufficient country.

On election day, Tymoshenko praised the chance Ukrainian had to choose their leaders “in a peaceful, non-revolutionary way.”

Maybe in Ukraine, at a time when men still use their fists to settle political disputes, a woman’s presence is a welcome touch.


Source: The Daily Beast

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Ban Due On Direct Flights Between Russia And Ukraine

MOSCOW, Russia -- Direct flights between Ukraine and Russia will stop on Sunday, as new sanctions initiated by Kiev come into effect.


Passengers will have to go via third countries, or by train.

Moscow first called Kiev's ban on Russian airlines "madness", then announced that it would mirror the move.

Ukraine now says flights will end at midnight on Saturday, after last-minute crisis talks failed.

Up to 70,000 passengers a month will be affected.

The sanctions are intended to punish Russia for annexing Crimea and supporting armed rebels in eastern Ukraine.

The fact that they have been introduced now, when a ceasefire is finally holding on the ground, shows how bitter relations remain.

Russia has accused Ukraine of shooting itself in the foot with the move, pointing out that most passengers are Ukrainian travelling to work in Russia, visiting relatives or in transit.

But two-thirds of all passengers travel on Russian airlines.

Russia's transport minister has estimated that the loss in ticket sales to both countries will run to around $110m (£73m) a year.

The ban is already angering passengers from both countries.

"The government does things and it's the people who suffer," Ukrainian Alexander Vyshnevsky said, after checking-in for one of the last remaining flights to Kiev from Moscow.

He had been visiting his Russian wife and daughter.

"Russia and Ukraine are like one country for me. Half of Ukraine is married to Russians. So this is total nonsense," Vyshnevsky added.

"This is stupid," Russian Konstantin Fokin agreed, before his own flight to Kiev.

His sister lives in Ukraine and travelling to see her will now be difficult.

"Lots of people have relatives in both Russia and Ukraine and they want to communicate. It's up to the authorities to stop this stupidity," Mr Fokin said.

Last-minute talks to find a compromise are under way - so far to no avail - and the chances of success look slim in this climate.

So as of Sunday, passengers will be forced to take longer, more expensive routes via third countries, or to brace themselves for a 13-hour trip by train.

Source: BBC News

Ukraine Election 2015: Unpredictable Local Races Could Bring Old Guard Back To Power

KIEV, Ukraine -- Amid the backdrop of a violent regional conflict and economic uncertainty, Ukrainians are set to head to the polls Sunday in hotly contested local elections where oligarchs are expected to try to maintain their grip on power.


A man stands near a currency exchange office in Kiev, Ukraine, Oct. 19, 2015. Ukraine said it was prepared to battle Russia in court after the Kremlin refused to join a critical debt swap deal for the beleaguered country that has been accepted by the majority of its other creditors on Oct. 15.

With the ongoing war in the east and the country’s gross domestic product forecast to fall by 12 percent by the year’s end, questions about potential voter turnout, eligibility issues and political corruption loomed large ahead of the elections for mayors and city and regional councils as Ukraine undergoes difficult reforms.

How citizens cast their ballots is likely to serve as a referendum on the government of President Petro Poroshenko who has seen his popularity drop.

Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk's approval rating has hit a new low in single digits.

Members from the party of former deposed President Viktor Yanukovych, now rebranded as the Opposition Bloc, could gain seats as the government undertakes slow economic reforms that have left the population frustrated.

“People are angry, disappointed and blaming the current government for many of their woes,” said Alexander Motyl, a professor of political science at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey.

“The opposition should have a decent showing and that should put the fear of God into the government.”

Ukraine has faced more than a year and a half of political and economic uncertainty following the Russian annexation of the Crimea peninsula in March 2014 and the subsequent start of a war in the industrial Eastern Donbass region that has pitted Ukrainian government forces against Russian-backed separatists.

More than 8,000 people have died in the conflict and at least 1.4 million have been displaced, according to figures from the United Nations.

Russia has continued to deny any direct role in the conflict.

Elections will not take place in the Donbass region and displaced citizens who are still registered at their former addresses will also be unable to vote. 

Voter turnout was expected to be high, but a pre-election poll showed 55 percent of Ukrainians were skeptical the local elections would create change, reported local newspaper the Kyiv Post.

New elections laws require runoffs if no mayoral candidate receives a majority of support in each city with a population of more than 90,000, and only 12 percent of survey respondents said they understand the updated rules that could bring another round of elections Nov. 15.

“They (the opposition) are playing the card that when they were in power things were much better than now,” said Maksym Yakovlyev, a professor of political science at the National University of Kiev-Mohyla Academy in Ukraine.

Yakovlyev said this strategy ignores the decisions made by former president Yanukovych that led to the Euromaidan revolution in 2014 that toppled him and led to current conditions.

The country’s economy has been battered since the revolution, with the conflict in the east destroying and closing many factories that accounted for around 20 percent of Ukraine’s GDP.

While Ukraine was able to secure a 20 percent write down on $18 billion worth of bonds in August, Russia has refused to accept the terms and wants to collect in full on a $3 billion bond note due in December.

Ukraine needs to lower its debts to meet conditions set by the International Monetary Fund to receive funds that are part of its $17.5 billion bailout.

Ukraine has vowed to fight Russia in court over the note.

Despite the war and faltering economy in the background, on the local level, Yakovlyev said Ukrainians were concerned about infrastructure and transportation options in cities as well as the fight against corruption.

With Ukraine undergoing decentralization, local officials are likely to gain more power and control over local budgets spurring competition in the upcoming elections with more than 140 political parties registered and reports of old dirty tactics including the handout of free food and candidates registering with similar names to confuse voters.

Oligarchs are trying to hold on to their positions with Gennady Kernes running to maintain his position as mayor of the eastern city of Kharkiv and Ihor Kolomoyskyi backing candidates in the eastern city of Dnipropetrovsk.

Infighting between oligarchs, including between Poroshenko and Kolomoyskyi, has increased calls for the affluent class that has long held political power in Ukraine, often using it for their own financial interests, to be replaced.

“De-oligarichization is ongoing. I hope for positive results but I don’t see it happening with local elections,” Yakovlyev said.

With only a third of Ukrainians already decided on who they will vote for, experts said it was hard to make accurate predictions ahead of local elections, highlighting a stark difference between Ukraine and its eastern neighbor Russia.

“In Russia by and large, you know who is going to win and you can guess the percentage spread. While in Ukraine it’s a weak, crummy, confusing democracy, but it is democratic and everyone is pulling, pushing and tugging and bending the rules,” Motyl said.

“In Russia one side bends the rules, while in Ukraine all sides bend the rules.”

Source: IBT

Friday, October 23, 2015

Ukraine's New Era Falls Short, Feeding Chorus Of Discontent

KIEV, Ukraine -- It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Nearly two years after Ukrainian protesters drove out their pro-Russian leader, progress toward building a European-style state has disappointed and the post-Soviet scourge of corruption endures.


Protesters advance towards new positions in Kiev in 2014. Nearly two years after Ukrainian protesters drove out their pro-Russian leader, progress toward building a European-style state has disappointed and the post-Soviet scourge of corruption endures.

Allies of the deposed Viktor Yanukovych are bidding to make a comeback.

For French businessman Jean-Noel Reynaud, the situation has led to what he calls an illegal takeover at one of his vodka plants.

“Ukraine isn’t fulfilling its commitments to clean up the country," Reynaud, chief executive officer of Paris-listed Marie Brizard Wine & Spirits, said in a phone interview.

“This isn’t acceptable in a nation that’s aspiring to adopt European Union values. This is a black spot on its reputation.”

With the attention of world powers trained to the Middle East, the struggle over Ukraine’s future is shifting away from the battlefield near its border with Russia, as optimism builds that a truce there will hold.

Failure to make a dent in graft risks eroding support for the leaders that took charge after the revolution and further damaging confidence in an economy crying out for investment.

Local elections on Oct. 25 will be a chance for the nation to deliver a message to the government, with two thirds of Ukrainians saying the country’s heading in the wrong direction.

Unpopular Government 

The lack of momentum in revamping Ukraine has shattered support for the ruling coalition, led by President Petro Poroshenko’s party, according to a September poll by the International Republican Institute.

Controlling a third of seats in parliament at present, the Solidarity Party would get 13 percent in elections for the legislature, the survey showed.

The party of his prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, ranked in April by one newspaper as Ukraine’s least reform-minded politician, isn’t even contesting the local ballot.

Luckily for Poroshenko, the opposition is divided between populists, nationalists and backers of the former regime, while presidential and parliamentary elections aren’t due until 2019.

That distance helps to insulate him from a growing chorus of discontent, which includes businesses that complain officials are resisting change to protect vested interests of corporate allies and oligarchs.

Andrey Pavlichenkov, who manages a $100 million bond fund with investments in Ukraine, has seen no streamlining of the country’s bureaucracy.

He said difficulties including raider attacks and overbearing checks by prosecutors and the security service haven’t gone away, and he fears the government isn’t doing enough to make foreign investors return.

Bribe Seeking 

“Ukraine isn’t attractive enough as an investment destination that such problems can exist," he said.

"Bureaucrats have no idea how to regulate and just look for ways to get a bribe -- the system doesn’t want to change."

Ukraine is relying on an $18 billion restructuring of its foreign debt and $17.5 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund to revive an economy that hasn’t grown since 2013 and help restore confidence in the past year’s second-worst-performing currency, the hryvnia, which has plunged 42 percent against the dollar.

Lenders have made the flow of bailout cash contingent on continued reform and inroads into corruption.

The U.S., which has provided $2 billion of loan guarantees on top of the IMF rescue, has been critical of some elements within Ukraine.

"Corrupt actors within the Prosecutor General’s office are making things worse by openly and aggressively undermining reform," Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S.’s ambassador in Kiev, told a business conference in the the Black Sea port of Odessa last month.

"In defiance of Ukraine’s leaders, these bad actors regularly hinder efforts to investigate and prosecute corrupt officials."

‘Oligarchic Clans’ 

Davit Sakvarelidze, a deputy prosecutor general, says it’s harder to stamp out corruption in Ukraine than his native Georgia, which shot up Transparency International’s rankings under then-President Mikheil Saakachvili.

Saakashvili, named this year by Poroshenko as Odessa’s regional governor, has sought to curb corruption in the local customs service, falling out with Yatsenyuk in the process.

Ukraine is 142nd-lowest of 175 nations in Berlin-based Transparency’s latest corruption survey, six places below Russia.

"You have a lot of interests, a lot of oligarchic clans that control politicians, members of the government," Sakvarelidze said in an interview.

"You have more problems here because everybody tries to lobby his part of the cake.”

While Poroshenko has pledged to reign in tycoons such as Ihor Kolomoyskyy, the president was himself a billionaire when he was elected and hasn’t fulfilled promises to sell off assets that include Ukraine’s largest candy business.

IMF Warning 

Ukraine is moving ahead with reforms to eliminate corruption, outsource customs functions to an international company, overhaul courts and sell off state-run companies, according to Boris Lozhkin, Poroshenko’s chief of staff, who said the nation may be enjoying a period of relative peace as President Vladimir Putin seeks to have EU and U.S. sanctions against Russia lifted.

“We’re working on all of these kinds reforms at the same time,” he said Oct. 13 in an interview in his office in Kiev.

He said results were more likely next year, when more funds arrive from the EU and the U.S.

While the IMF has praised progress on economic measures, such as creating an anti-corruption agency, it says "significant" challenges remain.

"It is essential to stay the course of reform and, indeed, deepen the effort," IMF managing director Christine Lagarde said last month in a statement.

Reynaud, the French CEO, vows to continue fighting for the factory his company has lost.

He’s banking on a positive outcome in local courts having sought help from Poroshenko’s administration and the French embassy in Kiev, which is tracking the case along with the European Commission.

But Reynaud has a warning for the nation’s current leaders.

“I hope Ukraine will be able to join the EU one day," he said.

"But with these kinds of maneuvers, it can’t.”

Source: Bloomberg

Ukraine Conflict: Guns Fall Silent But Crisis Remains

KIEV, Ukraine -- Since Russia embarked on its foreign policy venture in Syria, you could be forgiven for thinking that the crisis in eastern Ukraine was over.


Ukrainian forces (above) and pro-Russian rebels have begun pulling their tanks back from the frontline.

The guns have largely fallen silent, more than 18 months after Russia annexed Crimea and pro-Russian rebels took control of large areas of Donetsk and Luhansk.

The diplomatic language has become more positive.

Russia's Vladimir Putin and President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine met in Paris earlier this month and, shortly afterwards, local elections planned in the rebel-held east were postponed.

The planned vote in rebel-held territory had threatened to derail negotiations involving the rebels.

But now there are regular reports of both sides withdrawing weapons from the frontline.

For the region's civilians, it marks a dramatic change in their lives.

But behind the ceasefire agreement reached in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, between the so-called Normandy Four (Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France) intractable and seemingly insoluble issues remain.

Even before you get into the detail, things do not look good.

'Fascists' 

The language from the rebel leadership in eastern Ukraine is uncompromising.

"There's more chance of Ukraine becoming part of us than of us returning to Ukraine," the leader of the pro-Russian self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, Alexander Zarkharchenko, told the BBC recently at a propaganda-fuelled event to honour the rebels' war dead.

He and the pro-rebel media machine have spent the past few months telling the local population who didn't flee that they are fighting "fascists", in the form of Ukraine's army.

A sudden change of tone would risk a loss of credibility.

However the rebels are not a homogeneous bunch.

Denis Pushilin, who has represented the rebels in the Minsk talks, is seen as more moderate and possibly more willing to do business with Ukraine than Zakharchenko.

Buying time 

The most fundamental part of the Minsk agreement is that rebel-held land has to be re-integrated back into Ukraine, albeit with more autonomy from Kiev.

The detail of this is yet to be worked out.

Even though it is positive that the rebels' have postponed their elections, probably with some prompting from Moscow, a later date only buys time.

The detail still needs to be worked out.

Who will police the elections?

Kiev says the rebels, who it deems to be "terrorists", would have to disband and submit to Ukrainian law.

Which parties will stand in a poll?

A senior member of Ukraine's government recently told me there was no chance of an amnesty for the pro-Russian rebels whom he termed "criminals".

Then there is the issue of who is able to vote in the elections.

The Ukrainians want all those people who have fled rebel territory to have the right to return or at least to vote.

We are talking about hundreds of thousands of people.

Many are in Russia and the Moscow government would like them to be able to vote, remotely, from there.

Ukraine says no.

In theory, after elections, Ukraine should retake full control of its side of the border with Russia.

However, again, this would be tantamount to the rebels switching off their own life-support machine.

So is the Minsk ceasefire deal simply an act of political pantomime and is President Putin writing the script?

Maybe.

Talk of Moscow withdrawing financial, political and alleged military backing for the rebels is unfounded and, for now, based mainly on rumor.

Russia would like the EU to lift sanctions to help its stuttering energy-dependent economy.

Many Ukrainians believe Putin is keen to show willing to get sanctions dropped.

They fear France and Germany, with more pressing problems such as the influx of migrants and refugees, might accept gestures from Moscow without a binding deal that returns full sovereignty over the east back to Kiev.

But the accusation of political pantomime might be levelled at Kiev too.

The economy and infrastructure in the rebel-held east have been ruined by the conflict.

President Poroshenko has to appear committed to retaking the east, facing a threat from opposition parties and local elections due in Ukraine on Sunday.

Any sign that Kiev has given up on the region might risk provoking nationalist groups who might feel that their fallen comrades died for nothing, if the east is simply surrendered.

But there seems little chance that the east might be re-integrated into the rest of Ukraine without a change of government in Moscow.

So the chances are that a so-called "frozen conflict" may persist, where the fighting is at a low level, but the threat of escalation remains.

For now the firing has stopped in the east, but the conflict is nowhere near over.

Source: BBC News

Tymoshenko Resurgent In Ukraine’s Local Elections

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainians vote in local elections on Sunday as disillusionment grows with the country’s post-revolutionary leaders, and a remarkable political survivor rises again to challenge them – former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.


Former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. She and her party were trounced in presidential and parliamentary elections last year.

For years the face and the clearest voice of opposition to Russian-backed president Viktor Yanukovich, Tymoshenko may have expected to return to power in Ukraine when he fled to Russia amid deadly protests in February 2014.

But on her return from a prison term to a Kiev bloodied but unbowed by the death of protesters on Independence Square, she was jeered by crowds who saw her and Yanukovich as belonging to the same corrupt political elite.

She and her party were trounced in presidential and parliamentary elections last year, but the failure of head of state Petro Poroshenko and prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk to fulfil their promises has given her yet another political chance.

Most analysts support the general public’s view that desperately little has been done to fulfil the main ambition of Ukraine’s revolution – to radically overhaul politics and business to make them cleaner, fairer and more transparent.

Yatsenyuk’s exit 

Most of the blame for this has fallen on Yatsenyuk, whose alleged protection of wealthy cronies has appalled Ukrainians at a time when his government is imposing painful cutbacks demanded by international lenders.

With surveys putting support for Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front party at about 1 per cent – after taking 22 per cent in a parliamentary election last October – it has humiliatingly pulled out of the local elections completely.

Voters look set to pass a less harsh verdict on Poroshenko, with his eponymous party predicted to come first on Sunday but with a much smaller share of votes than a year ago, ahead of several challengers capitalising on the travails of People’s Front.

The Self-Reliance party of Lviv mayor Andriy Sadovyi promotes itself as a dynamic and innovative new force committed to crushing corruption and helping small- and medium-sized businesses.

The Opposition Bloc is dominated by figures associated with the old Yanukovich regime who, particularly in eastern and southern Ukraine, still wield great influence through their ties to local business and to Russia.

The other party eyeing second place in the local election is Fatherland, by far the oldest and best-established, which held together after last year’s election rout and is resurgent, along with its famous leader.

Tymoshenko was uncharacteristically low-key over the last year, having played major roles in Ukraine for 20 years, from being nicknamed the “Gas Princess” when she ran an energy firm in the 1990s, to co-leading the 2004 Orange Revolution, and being jailed in 2011 for abuse of power by a court loyal to Yankovich.

Patriotic rhetoric 

Many commentators believed her top-level career to be over, but as faith wanes in confectionery tycoon Poroshenko and her own protege Yatsenyuk, so her fiery, populist and patriotic rhetoric is again striking a chord with her compatriots.

Voting will not take place in rebel-held eastern regions or Crimea, and watchdogs warn major irregularities are likely.

Source: The Irish Times

Thursday, October 22, 2015

U.S. To Ship Modified Radar Systems To Ukraine

WASHINGTON, DC -- Advanced radar systems being shipped to Ukraine to counter artillery strikes by pro-Russia separatists have been modified to prevent them from peering into Russia, according to U.S. officials.


Rebels pull heavy Russia-supplied weaponry back Wednesday in Donetsk, Ukraine.

The modifications drew fire from a leading Republican critic of the Obama administration, who called it a misguided attempt to mollify Russian President Vladimir Putin.

President Barack Obama signed an order on Sept. 29 to give Ukraine two radar systems worth $10 million each.

U.S. officials said this week that the systems would arrive at Ukraine’s Yavoriv training ground by mid-November.

U.S. Army officials said they hope the radar would provide Ukraine with a new capability for stopping artillery and rocket attacks launched by separatists.

Other officials said the transfer also would send a message to Kiev that Washington’s support for its security forces remains strong.

But with a cease-fire holding in eastern Ukraine and artillery attacks significantly reduced, the U.S. doesn’t want the equipment to antagonize Russia.

The modifications are supposed to ensure that Ukrainian forces don’t escalate the current conflict by using the new systems to counter fire originating from Russian territory, officials said. Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the modifications to weaken the radar were symptomatic of a “delusional view” by the Obama administration that Putin will modify his behavior in Ukraine.

“This is part of their continuing effort to appease Vladimir Putin,” he said.

“It sends a signal to Russia and Ukraine that we are not willing to seriously confront Vladimir Putin’s aggression.”

Republicans, and some Democrats, have been urging the Obama administration to provide more systems to Ukraine, including Javelin antitank missiles.

The Obama administration has been unwilling to provide any equipment that could be construed as offensive weaponry.

Restrictions on the intelligence the U.S. has provided Ukraine have led to criticism in Congress and in Kiev.

Satellite imagery provided by the U.S. typically only includes Ukrainian territory, obscuring activity and troop buildups on Russia’s side of the border.

Russian officials didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment.

Moscow typically has been critical of American and allied support for Kiev.

The deliveries come as the U.S. steps up training for Ukrainian forces.

The U.S. has been training Ukrainian National Guard units for some time, but those troops generally don’t serve on the front lines.

Beginning next month, the Pentagon will begin training regular Army units, defense officials said.

The training will include six battalions, including five conventional and one special operations force battalion.

The systems, known as AN/TPQ-36 counter-artillery radar, will be given to front-line Ukrainian army troops to use.

U.S. forces plan to begin training on how to use them as soon as they arrive.

U.S. Army officials said the systems will protect against both rocket and artillery attacks.

Army officials identified surplus radar that could be sent to Ukraine last summer.

But the transfer had to be approved by the White House.

Officials said giving Ukraine the systems was consistent with the current policy of providing nonlethal defensive material.

The U.S. has spent months vetting Ukrainian units that would use the new systems.

Officials said the vetting took longer than expected but would be complete by the time the radar systems arrive next month.

The radar systems have a range of at least 15 miles, and represent a significant advance from the U.S.-provided Lightweight Counter Mortar Radar systems that Ukrainian forces have been using to pinpoint artillery fire.

U.S. officials said Ukrainians have developed innovative tactics for the use of the lightweight systems, and hope they will do the same with the larger, longer range systems.

But U.S. officials said the new radar are likely to provide a tempting target for any Russian troops active in eastern Ukraine.

U.S. officials said they are worried that Russian forces will target the radar, either seeking to jam or destroy the equipment, and will train vetted Ukrainian forces on how to minimize chances it can be detected by Russian forces.

U.S. Army officials have identified six surplus Q-36 systems currently stored in a Pennsylvania depot. 

If Congress approves additional money and the Ukrainians show that they can use the systems effectively, officials said, the transfer of the other four would be considered.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Ukraine Ceasefire Helps Volunteers Bring Dead Soldiers Home

KIEV, Ukraine -- A ceasefire in eastern Ukraine means more work for the volunteer group Black Tulip, which can now collect remains of Ukrainian soldiers killed in action without the risk of being caught in crossfire between rebels and government troops.

A man wearing a camouflage uniform walks with a child as they enter a school on the start of the new school year in Donetsk, Ukraine, September 1, 2015.

The group used to locate and rebury soldiers killed in World War Two, but when hundreds of Ukrainian troops were killed in the battle of Ilovaisk last year, the volunteers decided their skills could help more recent victims of conflict.

They renamed themselves after the planes that carried the bodies of Soviet soldiers home from the Afghan war and since last August have brought back over 600 bodies from the frontline, often straying into separatist-held territory that the Ukrainian military cannot reach to retrieve the dead.

The guns have been mostly silent since early September, raising hopes for the fragile peace process and granting Black Tulip safer access to the no-man's land between Ukrainian and separatist positions.

Volunteers have been able to search painstakingly through the rubble and twisted metal remains of Donetsk airport, the scene of some of the fiercest battles in the sixteen months of fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists seeking independence from Kiev.

Sometimes all they'll find is a fragment of bone, but everything gets bagged up and sent back to the city of Dnipropetrovsk for DNA testing.

Identifying remains can bring closure for families waiting for news on soldiers missing in action, but it also means the dreaded confirmation of their death.

"When a man is unidentified, it's one thing. When he has his name, relatives and everything else, then you feel the pain of this family. When you find this man, they lose any hope," said the head of Black Tulip, Alexander Guz.

With the passing of time, the work of Black Tulip has become more complicated.

Graves hastily dug by soldiers under fire and marked with crosses made of sticks have become overgrown and disappear.

The group often relies on locals on the Ukrainian or rebel sides to point them to places where bodies of soldiers were left behind.

Around 2,100 Ukrainian servicemen have been killed since fighting broke out in April 2014, according to Ukrainian estimates, although many believe the number to be much higher.

A further 300 are missing in action, a military spokesman said in August.

Source: Google News

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

President Poroshenko On MH17 And Whether Ukraine Is Ready To Join NATO

KIEV, Ukraine -- On Sunday’s FAREED ZAKARIA GPS on CNN/U.S. features an exclusive interview with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko who spoke about the Dutch investigation this week that concluded last year’s Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot from the sky by a Russian-made missile and whether Ukraine is ready to join NATO.


ZAKARIA: When Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine 15 months ago, 193 Dutch citizens perished.

This week, their nation, the Netherlands, released a damning investigative report on how and why its citizens and 105 others died.

The report pointed fingers in two different directions.

It said that a Russian-made Bukh missile fired from territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists is what downed the airliner.

But the report also put some lesser blame on Ukraine, saying the nation had sufficient reason to close its air space before the shoot down occurred.

Joining me now for an exclusive interview is Ukraine's president, Petro Poroshenko.

Thank you for joining me, Mr. President.

POROSHENKO: Thank you for the invitation.

ZAKARIA: Do you believe that Ukraine should have shut down its air space, given the knowledge you had, the violence that was already afoot?

POROSHENKO: Yes, of course, Ukraine strictly followed all the recommendations of the ICAO and at that time we closed the air space at the height, it seems to me, 9,725 meters (30,000 feet).

We didn't have any information which give us the necessity to close the air spot above this echelon and we strictly followed the recommendation of the ICAO.

We cannot imagine that Russia would transfer these highly sophisticated and very technological weapons to the hands of the terrorists and that they didn't have any background, any–basis for making this decision.

ZAKARIA: One of the things people are trying to figure out in the West is, is Vladimir Putin searching for a negotiated settlement in Ukraine?

Is he searching for a way to deescalate the situation, to stabilize the situation because he faces a shrinking economy, sanctions, a collapse of oil prices, and now, of course, he has this intervention in Syria?

Do you believe that Putin is looking for some kind of settlement?

Do you see any signs of that?

POROSHENKO: I wish, but unfortunately, no.

Unfortunately, until the September, we had an active committed operation and only now, we have a cease-fire.

But unfortunately we don't have any continuation of the implementation of the Minsk process.

The same as I told you, the first decision which Putin should should make is withdraw his troops from Ukrainian territory.

And I think that the absolutely irresponsible behavior of Russia in Syria, when he launched this operation, this is simply a continuation of the logic, logic which we said even last year, at first, it was the Crimea, second, it was Donbass, third, it is Syria, fourth maybe, I don't know, Afghanistan.

And nobody knows where the Russian green soldiers will appear in the very next moment.

ZAKARIA: Mr. President, you were seen recently in a Ukrainian plane that has been outfitted to NATO standards.

And so I wonder do you want Ukraine to become a member of NATO?

POROSHENKO: This is a very important question.

Of course, I want peace, security as a president for my country and for my people, especially in this situation, where we are under attack of Russia, when we are the object of aggression.

And NATO today is maybe the only most effective mechanism to provide security, because after Russian aggression in my country, Russia completely destroyed all the post-war security systems based on the statute and charter and principles of the United Nations, because when we have a situation where one of the permanent members of the Security Council is an aggressor, that - and he's using his veto right, that means that the old mechanism which was created is not working.

And now it is my responsibility to provide and implement reform in my country, to transform the country to NATO.

And then we will have this discussion.

I think I need least five, six years.

ZAKARIA: Mr. President, a pleasure to have you on.

POROSHENKO: Thank you very much indeed.

Source: CNN

Ousted Pro-Russia President Sues Ukraine In European Court

MOSCOW, Russia -- Ukraine's fugitive former president Viktor Yanukovych lodged a claim with the European Court of Human Rights on Monday for unfair treatment by Kiev's Western-backed government.


Yanukovych's ouster and flight for safety to Russia in February 2014 set of a tragic chain of events that included Moscow's annexation of Crimea and the pro-Kremlin revolt in the separatist east in which at least 8,000 have died.

The Strasbourg-based court confirmed receiving the claim but gave no indication of when -- or if -- his appeal will be examined in closer detail.

Yanukovych sparked three months protests over winter 2013-2014 with his shock decision to reject a landmark EU cooperation agreement and boost Ukraine's dependence on Russia.

In August, a Kiev court began trying the 65-year-old in absentia for his alleged role in the final three days of rallies in which more than 100 people died -- most of them slain by government snipers and police.

Yanukovych insists he never ordered his security forces to open fire on civilians.

But he also refuses to attend the trial and lives under heavy Russian government protection in a remote part of the vast country's southwest.

His law firm said Yanukovych's "rights to an independent and impartial tribunal, to a fair hearing and to reasoned judgements have been breached."

"Yanukovych has suffered discriminatory treatment due to his political status and opinions," litigation firm Joseph Hage Aaronson said.

His case was filed just days before local elections in Kiev-controlled parts of the former Soviet state.

He is viewed as a traitorous villan by many nationalist and pro-European voters who live in western and central agrarian parts of Ukraine.

But candidates representing President Petro Poroshenko are likely to perform less strongly in Russian-speaking regions that straddle Ukraine's decimated war zone.

- Widely hated - 

Poroshenko holds a slim majority in parliament thanks to a coalition government built with the party of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk -- seen as the head of Kiev's "war camp" by Moscow -- and smaller groups.

But Yatsenyuk's approval ratings have dropped so dramatically since last October's election that his party has decided not to field any candidates in the regional polls.

Yanukovych's corrupt and lavish lifestyle turned him into a widely hated figure in the final months of his four-year rule.

His party ousted him from its ranks following his ouster and then re-branded itself under a different name.

But he still carries some favour in the industrial parts of the southeast that are not under rebel control and will take part in Sunday's polls.

His European claim received top billing on Russian state news channels that are still widely availabile across parts of eastern Ukraine.

Source: AFP

Monday, October 19, 2015

Stalin Portraits Emerge In Heart Of Ukraine's Rebel-Held Territory

DONETSK, Ukraine -- Soviet Communist nostalgia rules as images of the former dictator go on display in the centre of Donetsk, the rebel capital of eastern Ukraine once called Stalino.


One of three Stalin portraits in the centre of Donetsk.

Three portraits of the former Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin are on display in the centre of Donetsk, the rebel capital of eastern Ukraine, as the separatist authorities fuel a mood of Soviet Communist nostalgia.

The Stalin portraits have been placed in the main square and feature a quote from the wartime leader: “Our cause is just. The enemy will be routed. We will claim victory.”

The previously taboo display comes as the rebels revive Soviet customs to cement their Moscow-backed rule – while glossing over Stalin’s atrocities.

The portraits went down well with one young woman walking past.

“I think the portraits of Stalin are a good thing. It’s our history and a lot of people have forgotten he even existed,” said Yekaterina, a 22-year-old student.

The horrors of Stalin’s repressions and the deaths of up to ten million Ukrainians in the 1930s due to famine caused by forced collectivisation go unmentioned.

The Donetsk rebel leader, Alexander Zakharchenko, said how he regretted the break-up of the Soviet Union.

“The Soviet Union was a great country and it was a huge mistake that it was destroyed by the CIA and other secret services,” said the 39-year-old former field commander who prefers to dress in camouflage gear.

“Europe and other countries were scared stiff of us.”

Stalin portraits have become de rigueur in the offices of rebel officials in eastern Ukraine, where the separatist conflict has killed more than 8,000 people.

The Donetsk rebels’ deputy defence minister, Eduard Basurin, wears a badge with Stalin’s profile on his uniform.

This new cult of Stalin revives the memories in Donetsk, a coal-mining city that was formerly known as Stalino.

It was renamed in the early 1960s after Nikita Khrushchev, who emerged as Soviet leader in the power struggle that followed Stalin’s death, condemned his predecessor’s cult of personality.

Such reverence for Stalin contrasts with the attitude of Kiev’s pro-western government, which in May passed laws making it illegal to display Soviet symbols, as it does Nazi swastikas.

The law calls for the pulling down of monuments as well as renaming of streets, towns and enterprises that carry Soviet names.

Across Ukraine, the authorities have already pulled down numerous statues of Lenin, much to the rebel leaders’ disgust.

The Donetsk rebels’ culture minister, Alexander Paretsky, condemned “vandalism and barbarism” while the leader of the Luhansk rebel region, Igor Plotnitsky, warned of a “moral genocide”.

In the town of Novoazovsk on the Azov sea, the rebels ceremonially restored a Lenin statue to its pedestal after taking control from Ukrainian forces.

In forging a new identity for the separatist region, the rebels have largely turned to the Soviet past. 

Their territories are called “people’s republics”, echoing the Soviet-era names of Communist satellites such as Bulgaria, Mongolia and Romania.

Luhansk People’s Republic has a new emblem featuring sheafs of corn and a red star, like those of the USSR’s republics.

The rebels are even attempting to revive the Soviet-era Young Pioneer youth group, a kind of socialist Scouts.

In a more sinister move, the rebels named their security organ the Ministry of State Security or MGB, the same as Stalin’s secret police from 1946 to 1953.

Their justice system is also modelled on the Soviet system, where the defendant had little chance of acquittal.

“It’s the Soviet model of the prosecutor’s office that we adopted in Donetsk,” said Andrei Spivak, the official charged with overhauling the system.

Also in Donetsk, an exhibition of paintings pays tribute to Soviet hero “shock worker” Alexei Stakhanov, who achieved record coal production levels at a mine in the Luhansk region in the 1930s. 

Historians now see Stakhanov’s feats as carefully choreographed by the authorities as a propaganda tactic to push up norms.

Admiring the paintings of miners and factory workers, Galina, a 73-year-old, recalled a rose-tinted past.

“Things were better back then. It was a totally different life,” she said.

But such idealisation of the Soviet era by the authorities comes with a denial of anything that spoils the rosy image.

In August, the Donetsk rebel authorities decided to pull down a monument to victims of the 1930s famine in Ukraine.

And Donetsk State University removed a monument to Ukrainian dissident Vasyl Stus, a poet and campaigner for national culture, who spent decades in jail and died in a prison camp in 1985 at the age of 47. 

“That was a criminal act,” said Maria, a pensioner – but her view seemed to be shared by few.

Source: The Guardian

Sunday, October 18, 2015

For Ukraine, A Grand Bargain Is Still Elusive

KIEV, Ukraine -- Stratfor provides a status report on the Ukraine civil war, a festering boil in the heart of Europe and spark that hawks on both sides are using to restart the cold war.


Click on image for a larger view.

These conflicts usually end in diplomacy; that point seems far away.

Forecast 

Because of political considerations, Kiev will not fully submit to separatist and Russian demands for amnesty and “special status” powers in eastern Ukraine.

Europe will encourage the Ukrainian government to be accommodating, but the United States will push for a hard-line approach.

Russia will keep its options open and will not abandon the possibility of ramping up militant activity if Kiev and the West are uncooperative.

Analysis 

After a year of slow-burning conflict in eastern Ukraine, the relationship between Kiev and Moscow seems to finally be improving.

Fighting on the ground has dissipated, there have been positive developments in talks over the past few weeks and both sides began to pull heavy weaponry back from the line of contact in early October.

Moreover, Russia and Ukraine have agreed on a temporary natural gas deal and will begin direct negotiations on Kiev’s terms of repayment for a bond that matures in December.

And in a major concession to Kiev and its Western backers, the separatist territories of Donetsk and Luhansk announced Oct. 6 that they would postpone local elections.

These developments signal some progress toward ending the standoff between Russia and the West over Ukraine.

However, a broader settlement will still be difficult to achieve and is unlikely to be reached before the end of the year.

Glimmers of Compromise 

Tension between Russia and the West over Ukraine mounted during the first eight months of the year.

Both government troops and separatists regularly violated the cease-fire signed in February as part of the Minsk agreement.

And casualties steadily increased, reaching over 8,000 since the start of the fighting in April 2014.

In the meantime, Russia and NATO built up security and increased the tempo of military exercises along the Russia-Ukraine border.

The United States and European Union also intensified sanctions against Russia, while Moscow responded with its own economic restrictions on the West.

However, things began to change in September.

The month began with what was supposed to be a one-week cease-fire to coincide with the beginning of the school year.

Instead, the cessation of fighting has held for over five weeks with relatively few violations and one death.

This calm on the battlefield has lent momentum to the efforts to implement the Minsk protocols at a tactical level, seen most tangibly with the pullout of heavy weaponry from the line of contact by Ukrainian forces beginning Oct. 4.

This withdrawal, in turn, prompted the rebels to start removing their heavy weaponry, and on Oct. 6 representatives from Donetsk and Luhansk announced that they would postpone their local elections until 2016, a move made with the tacit approval of Moscow.

Negotiations between Russia and Ukraine have progressed on other issues as well.

On Sept. 26, the two reached a natural gas agreement, which as of Oct. 12 ended a cutoff in place since June.

The deal is temporary, meant to last through winter — similar to last year’s agreement.

Nonetheless, the final accord was the result of a compromise on the price by both sides.

There has also been movement on another contentious issue: the maturation of a $3 billion bond Ukraine was set to pay off to Russia by December.

Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov announced Oct. 5 that he plans to meet with his Ukrainian counterpart this week to discuss the bond repayment.

This will be the first time such formal talks have been held.

Up to this point, Kiev has insisted that it will not make the repayment unless it is restructured in a way similar to an August debt relief deal with Western bondholders.

Russia has so far refused the request, but direct talks on the issue may open the way for yet another compromise between Kiev and Moscow, though talks could also strengthen Moscow’s hand against Kiev in areas such as Ukraine’s negotiations with the International Monetary Fund.

Obstacles to Resolution 

The recent compromises and engagement have given rise to speculation that a grand bargain may be taking shape among Russia, Ukraine and the West.

Moscow is newly cooperative because of its dramatic economic contraction and because of the political and military limits of extending its push into eastern Ukraine.

Several EU countries are also interested in de-escalating the conflict, especially those whose economies have been hurt by European sanctions and by Russian counter sanctions.

Despite the gains made in the past month, a broader settlement likely will not be reached before the end of the year for several reasons.

First and foremost, the path outlined by the Minsk protocols is open to interpretation.

There is no clear definition of what the “special status” given to the separatist territories actually is.

The rebels say the status gives them long-term autonomy over issues such as defense and foreign policy, while Kiev insists the status is only temporary and applies only to areas such as budgetary policy and cultural affairs.

Upholding the cease-fire will pave the way for further negotiation, but coming to final terms will be far more difficult.

Second, the issue of amnesty for separatist fighters has not been settled.

Militants are calling for a blanket amnesty while the Ukrainian government insists amnesty should only be granted on an individual and selective basis.

Third, even if the Ukrainian government and the separatists are able to agree on a way forward, Kiev’s domestic situation will cause problems.

While Russia and the separatists increase the pressure to grant greater political concessions in eastern Ukraine, ultranationalist groups, particularly Right Sector and Svoboda, have pushed in the opposite direction.

These groups oppose any compromise with separatists and, as a violent September rally in Kiev against constitutional amendments showed, they are able to destabilize the political system.

This leaves Kiev in a difficult position — favorable moves toward either side could lead to blowback by the other.

Finally, the United States could pose another obstacle to resolution.

Certain European countries, including Germany and France, are interested in de-escalating the conflict, but the United States has maintained an aggressive posture toward Russia.

Washington has increased financial assistance, held more frequent military trainings and mulled an increase in defensive weapon supplies to Ukraine.

The United States has less to lose by maintaining sanctions against Russia and has less of an interest in easing them than does the European Union.

A grand bargain would need to include the United States, but Washington is uninterested in a deal that does not include a complete pullout of Russian troops from eastern Ukraine.

Russia has attempted to use issues such as its growing role in the Syrian conflict to bring the United States to the negotiating table, but so far it has been unsuccessful.

These obstacles do not preclude progress in negotiations between Russia, Ukraine and the West, and all of them are subject to change.

But though talks may well lead to more room for compromise over certain military, political and economic issues, a comprehensive settlement will be elusive for the near future.

Source: Stratfor