Thursday, December 31, 2015

For Ukraine's Rebel East, 2016 Promises More Tension

DONETSK, Ukraine -- The holiday market in the central square of Donetsk, the principal city of rebel-held eastern Ukraine, has all the trappings of a celebratory time — shiny ornaments, colorful toys and a cartoon-faced kiddie train on a meandering track.

In this image taken from video taken on Sunday, Dec. 27, 2015, shows the central square is illuminated to mark the upcoming New Year and Orthodox Christmas celebrations in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine. The holiday market in the central square of Donetsk, the principal city of rebel-held eastern Ukraine, has all the trappings of a celebratory time -- shiny ornaments, colorful toys and a cartoon-faced kiddie train on a meandering track.

But the aura is more forced than festive, as the region's people face a new year that gives little promise. 

While full-scale fighting in the war between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists died down in 2015, true peace appears a distant prospect.

Shooting and shelling erupts sporadically despite repeated cease-fires called under an internationally mediated peace agreement.

The latest truce was declared last week by the Contact Group negotiators from Ukraine, Russia and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, but the antagonists each have claimed violations by the other side since then.

It's an emotional whipsaw for Donetsk's residents.

"A feeling of peace? Sometimes there is. But when they start to shoot, you don't feel any kind of peace," said Alexandra Kirichenko, an 18-year-old student, walking down a street where apartment windows shattered by fighting were blocked off with plywood sheets. 

In the central square, a middle-aged woman named Galina was trying to sell toys for parents to give their children on New Year's Eve, the main day for presents in much of the former Soviet Union.

Her mood was as grim as the toys were merry, her words as terse and direct as a telegram from the front lines.

"Uncertainty; you live from day to day; constant tension, fear," said Galina, who declined to give her last name.

Even if the fear abates for a few hours or days, the region's economic difficulties make life a constant grind.

The Ukrainian government has halted payment of pensions and social stipends to the rebel-held areas and cut off business contacts.

The isolation brings both high prices for scarce goods and high unemployment.

"It's harder and harder to sell anything," said Galina, whose stock of toys was compiled before the war, which has killed more than 9,100 people, started in April 2014.

If the fighting is less intense than it was a year ago, the issues behind it remain just as passionate and resistant to resolution as ever.

The fighting began after separatists in the primarily Russian-speaking Donetsk and Luhansk regions seized government buildings, saying they wanted no part of the new government formed after Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych fled in the face of mass protests in the capital Kiev.

The separatists alleged the new government was so Ukrainian nationalist that it was effectively fascist and would run roughshod over the east.

The Minsk peace agreement signed in February — a second try after the first agreement of five months earlier failed to get traction — calls for the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to remain part of Ukraine, but with ill-defined "special status."

That lack of clarity obstructs real resolution, and the continuing fighting and economic suffering only reinforce the stalemate.

"To return to what existed before — to a unified Ukraine, etc. — is already impossible. You can't wash away our citizens' memories of what Ukraine did in this period," said Denis Pushilin, the head of the rebel parliament in Donetsk.

For Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, the situation is equally difficult.

Granting amnesty to the separatists and giving them special status, as envisioned by Minsk, could be politically ruinous, angering nationalists who reject any concessions to the rebels.

"The Minsk agreement exists only on paper. And so, especially on the border, it doesn't make any difference — shooting with them continues," a rebel who declined to provide his name told The Associated Press.

Russia, which Kiev and the West allege is supplying troops and weapons to the rebels, has brushed off the separatists' drive to be annexed by Moscow and says it is committed to fulfilling the Minsk agreement.

Russia last week announced that a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, former parliament speaker Boris Gryzlov, had been named the new Russian representative to the Contact Group.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the appointment of such a prominent figure indicates Russia is intensifying its commitment to the Minsk agreement "despite the fact that efforts to implement this document now unfortunately are in a pretty deplorable state."

Ukrainian political analyst Vadim Karasev said Russia's interest in resolving the conflict may be more a matter of pragmatism than principle and that Ukrainian authorities see it similarly.

"The alternative to the Minsk agreement is war, and that's too expensive for Kiev and for the Kremlin," he said.

Source: AP

Ukraine Blames Russia-Backed Hackers For Blackouts After Malware Discovered On Utility Networks

KIEV, Ukraine -- The Ukrainian government is suggesting that power outages that have intermittently plagued the country over the past year can be blamed on hackers supported by the Russian government.

Workers repair high-voltage electricity lines in Vuhlehirsk, Ukraine. Ukraine suspects that Russian-backed hackers are attacking its power grid.

It's a serious allegation that, if true, would include the power outages in a small handful of infrastructure failures known to be caused by nation-state attackers.

The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) has detected malicious software on computer networks used by utility companies, the Register, a British tech site, reported Tuesday.

Ukrainian officials blamed the rolling blackouts on an “intervention by unauthorized persons in supervisory control package,” according to a translation provided by U.S. security researchers.

Perhaps not coincidentally, all this occurred around the same time that attackers flooded technical support departments at a number of utility plants with phone calls, clogging their lines and distracting service technicians.

A hack has never been blamed for a confirmed power failure, in part because electricity grids are among the best-defended computer systems in the world.

But Stuxnet, a U.S.-Israeli cyberwar operation, caused physical damage in an Iranian nuclear facility, a German steel mill's furnace was targeted by unknown attackers in 2014 and Iranian hackers breached the computers used to control a small New York State dam.

But Ukraine's accusation is only the latest in an ugly, and complicated, cyberwar between the two countries since Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in early 2014.

A massive outage in November 2015 plunged 2 million Crimeans into the dark, creating a state of emergency.

The attack was later blamed on Ukrainian nationalist groups who vandalized electricity pylons. 

Source: IBT

Russia And Ukraine Finally Break Up

BERLIN, Germany -- Russia and Ukraine have spent most of their post-Soviet history as Siamese twins, but for the last two years they've been undergoing political and economic separation surgery.

It will probably be more or less complete in 2016, and though both twins are in for a grim period, the weaker one, Ukraine, has the better prospects in some ways.

Ever since Ukraine declared independence in August 1991, it sought to establish an identity that would set it apart from Russia.

Its second president, Leonid Kuchma, even published a book called "Ukraine Is Not Russia" in 2003.

In practice, however, Ukraine kept following its bigger neighbor even through its failed Westernization period of 2005 to 2010.

It inherited the same basis for its legal system and government -- the Soviet bureaucracy -- and even attempted reforms often imitated Moscow's moves.

When I moved from Moscow to Kiev in 2011, I felt no discomfort: Everything, from bureaucratic procedures to the pervasive corruption that made a mockery of them, was largely the same in the two countries.

Economically, Ukraine remained Russia's colony.

In 2013, its trade turnover with Russia, at $31.8 billion according to the official Ukrainian statistics agency, reached 28 percent of its total trade.

For Moscow, Ukraine wasn't as important, but it was still its fifth biggest trading partner with a 5 percent share of turnover.

That last peaceful year, 6.1 million Ukrainians, out of a total population of 45.5 million, visited Russia, about two-thirds of them to work.

Only Poland, Ukraine's entry point to the EU, received slightly more visitors.

Russian rulers got used to this.

Even this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin contended that "Russians and Ukrainians are one nation."

It's no longer true:

The last two years, since Ukraine's "Revolution of Dignity," the Russian annexation of Crimea and the Russian-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine, have seen perhaps the biggest breakup between neighboring, closely interconnected countries in post-World War II history.

In 2014, only 4.6 million Ukrainians traveled to Russia -- less than two-thirds as many as to Poland.

This year's statistics are not in yet, but another drop in travel to Russia is highly likely, because Moscow has been tightening regulations to make it harder for Ukrainian migrant workers to stay indefinitely and because, as of last summer, there are no more direct flights between the two countries.

Besides, starting in mid-2016, Ukrainians will be able to travel visa-free to the European Union, which will likely make travel to Europe vastly more popular.

As for bilateral trade, it has plummeted:

Though both Russia and Ukraine have suffered declines in international trade because of sharply devalued currencies (the ruble has lost 20 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar this year, and the hryvnia lost 34 percent), the decline in exports and imports between the two countries has been more pronounced than with the rest of the world.

For example, Ukraine's exports to Russia stood at 44 percent of the 2014 level in the first 10 months of this year, while total exports were at 67 percent.

Ukrainian businesses have fought to maintain sales to Russia, using a free economic zone in Crimea that the two countries quietly maintained as a window for cheap Ukrainian food.

In the fall of 2015, though, Crimean Tatar and right-wing Ukrainian activists cut off the traffic, and Kiev decided against interfering.

On the import side, Russian natural gas supplies have shrunk because much of Ukraine's energy-intensive industry is in the war-torn east, the winter has been mild and the government has managed to secure alternative supplies from Europe.

Next year, the last vestiges of mutual dependence between Ukraine and Russia will probably be destroyed by Moscow's decision to scrap the free trade area with Kiev in response to the removal of trade barriers between Ukraine and the EU.

The two countries will keep fighting about the annexed territory, the status of the rebel-held regions, and the $3 billion debt to Russia that Ukraine recently refused to honor, but these festering disputes are just the anticlimactic aftermath of a process that has been more drastic than any divorce.

Both have been painfully depleted by the surgery.

Economically, Russia suffered much more from a low oil price than from the economic sanctions imposed for its treatment of Ukraine -- those have mainly forced its mammoth state firms to deleverage and cut useless projects.

Yet in response to the sanctions, the Putin government shot itself in the foot, imposing a food embargo on Western countries.

The decision has been a disaster:

Import substitution has failed to materialize because of an oppressive business climate, and the restrictions on imports have crushed the retail sector.

Retail sales were down 13 percent year-on-year in November.

Russia's GDP will go down by 3.8 percent this year, according to the Bloomberg consensus forecast, and the Kremlin's ham-handed response to Ukraine-related ostracism is probably as much to blame for this as cheap oil.

It has hastened the end of the consumption-driven growth model that sustained Russia through the last decade.

Ukraine, for its part, has lost about 3 million residents compared with 2013, despite one of the worst natural population growth rates in the world.

The Crimea annexation is mainly to blame.

Ukraine also saw a 20 percent decline in industrial production, largely because the factories in the east stopped working.

This, of course, is a disaster for a country that was poor to start with and that is now the poorest in Europe.

Yet there is one good reason to believe the steep fall has bottomed out:

Russia has no appetite for further military adventures in Ukraine.

Recent month-on-month indicators show a cautious rebound is already under way.

Though this year, the Bloomberg consensus forecast is for a 10.7 percent economic decline, economists believe Ukraine will grow 1.4 percent next year.

For Russia, a 0.2 percent decline is forecast.

For Russia, the economic bottom is still nowhere in sight, and the government has no good ideas on how to fix the economy during a commodities downturn.

Isolation and repression will remain the key words of 2016, as Russians' patience is further tested with the decline of the consumer economy they've grown used to.

While Russia will remain a much wealthier, stronger country than Ukraine in 2016, Ukraine will be on a relative upswing even if it fails to do anything about its stifling corruption and incompetent governance.

It still has support from the International Monetary Fund, despite recent squabbles over the 2016 budget and new tax laws, and it has agreed debt reductions and delays with most of its creditors.

The abolition of European visas will also provide a much-needed morale boost.

Russia, of course, is far from a lost cause:

It has rebuilt itself after worse crises.

Neither is Ukraine a likely big winner:

Its political and economic fabric may be too rotten for redemption.

In 2016, however, Ukrainians have more to look forward to than Russians.

Source: Bloomberg

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Putin Plots To Make Ukraine A Failed State

KIEV, Ukraine -- Fighting continues to gradually intensify in eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin-backed militants are now using heavy weapons, including tanks, artillery and ferocious Grad rocket systems, sporadically.

Russia's President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, December 24.

Moscow's rationale behind this latest escalation is to achieve a frozen conflict by gradually sabotaging the execution of the Minsk II ceasefire agreement.

Russian President Vladimir Putin likely realizes that his offensive in the Donbass has essentially stalled and that for now he cannot take more Ukrainian territory, not without sustaining heavy casualties among his regular military forces and triggering additional Western sanctions.

And so it seems that, in order to achieve its long-term strategic goals, the Kremlin's leadership is emphasizing alternative aspects of hybrid warfare.

According to retired U.S. Army General Wesley Clark, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, who visited Ukraine seven times in 2015, "Ukraine is a work in progress by Putin. He has multiple channels to attack Ukraine, economically, politically, diplomatically, militarily."

Recent developments on the security front within Ukraine's borders are disturbing.

The Ukrainian security service (SBU) and other law enforcement agencies report a significant increase in acts of sabotage and terrorism.

According to SBU official Oleksandr Tkachuk, "Russian special services are intensifying their activities in peaceful cities, trying to destabilize the situation and trying to show that Ukrainian law enforcement bodies and Ukrainian authorities are not able to protect their citizens."

The Ukrainian authorities, to their credit, have been discovering these plots, arresting Russian agents and confiscating caches of weapons and explosives throughout Ukraine (as opposed to mainly in the front-line areas as used to be the case).

On December 10, the SBU neutralized a terrorist group in Kiev and Kharkiv consisting of eight members with clear links to the Russian security services, three of whom were Russian citizens.

They possessed automatic weapons, state-of-the-art equipment and large quantities of ammunition and explosives.

The SBU believes they were planning to carry out acts of sabotage and terrorism in Kiev and other urban centers of Ukraine.

During this operation, the terrorists put up fierce resistance, which resulted in the death of an SBU officer and a militant, while two other were wounded.

This, unfortunately, is only one of many similar recent occurrences.

The rise of plots like these is a serious and dangerous development.

Combatting these type of threats is more difficult than repelling the attacks on the eastern front lines.

If this issue is not dealt with in short order, it could bring about a major setback to the significant progress made to date toward the stabilization of Ukraine and Europe.

Furthermore, if combined with the military escalation on the front lines, the Kremlin's continued political and economic coercion, painfully slow reforms by the government of Ukraine and declining living standards for a majority of the population, Ukraine could, potentially, become a failed state in time—which is exactly what Moscow wants.

To a significant extent, Ukraine's survival depends on successfully confronting the terrorist tactics of the Kremlin.

The free world, in turn, cannot afford a failed state in the heart of Europe.

It is paramount that Ukraine and the West acknowledge this new and increasing asymmetric threat and deal with it rapidly and decisively.

Ukraine needs to utilize every tool it has to detect, contain and remove the threat.

The West should place more substantial pressure on Moscow to force Putin to stop sponsoring terrorism in Ukraine.

Source: Newsweek

Alexey Oleinik Deemed ‘Threat To National Security’ In Homeland Of Ukraine, Banned From Entry

MOSCOW, Russia -- Alexey Oleinik, a native of Ukraine for over 30 years, has been banned from entering his homeland.

UFC heavyweight Alexey Oleinik was recently banned from entering his homeland of Ukraine.

The UFC fighter, who received Russian citizenship shortly following his promotional debut, informed Russian sports outlet MK that he was no longer allowed into his country.

"Actually, I only have one sentence about what happened: it is absurd. Power in the Ukraine has been illegally invaded by criminals, and now they're doing what they want. And if I can be there or not be, because I'm so there is rarely visited. It would be better if they took care of the welfare of the citizens, and brought him back at least to the level that was before. Now they are engaged in populist things, trying to make people respect evil characters."

In a letter he received from the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture, Oleinik was proclaimed a "threat to national security," which he considered typical of the party in power.

"When it becomes necessary, I will still go there, because it is my duty. I have buried my father, grandmother, and grandfather there. I'm flattered that [the government] noticed me."

Following a submission victory against Mirko Cro-Cop at Legend Fight Show, the Russian heavyweight was signed to the UFC, where he defeated Anthony Hamilton by submission and Jared Rosholt by knockout.

That second victory was nearly a year ago.

Oleinik has since disappeared from the professional sphere to undergo surgery on his knee.

However, during the rehabilitation stage, it became clear that the surgery was unsuccessful and he will be forced to go under the knife for second time.

Source: SB Nation

Ukraine Approves IMF-Backed Austerity Budget

KIEV, Ukraine -- The Ukrainian parliament Friday adopted a budget for 2016 with a deficit of 3 percent of GDP, crucial for unlocking much needed aid from the IMF and Western countries.

Ukraine's Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk (R) reacts as Finance Minister Natalia Yaresko sits nearby during a session of parliament in Kiev, Ukraine, December 24, 2015.

The budget was passed after an acrimonious all-night debate and was finally approved by 263 lawmakers, about 40 more than the minimum required number.

The cash-strapped and war-scarred country badly needs aid and this move is crucial in unlocking the release of a delayed $1.7 billion (1.6 billion euro) loan from the International Monetary Fund and other Western aid.

"The process was long and painful," Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko said on Facebook.

Lawmakers were opposed to the government's plan of raising taxes to boost budget revenues and planned austerity measures.

The IMF and the world's richest nations that form the G7 group and firmly back Kiev in its 20-month conflict with pro-Russian insurgents have said Ukraine would never achieve sustainable growth without a wider tax base that removes privileges for both individuals and firms.

Ukraine crept out of recession in the third quarter but is still on track to see a fall of about 10 percent gross domestic product for 2015.

Source: Agence France Presse

Friday, December 25, 2015

Why No One Is Resolving The Stalemate In Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- The Ukrainian crisis is at a stalemate, trapped somewhere between sporadic fighting and diplomatic cheap shots, despite a reduction of the military operations along the contact line.

Pro-Russian soldier in Eastern Ukraine.
  • Heavy armaments have not been withdrawn but are rarely used 
  • Troops are redeploying but not attempting to move the frontline 
  • Cooperation around civilian utility networks is taking place 
  • Little progress on the original Ukraine-EU issues and the future status of the breakaway regions 
Low-level fighting 

“The number of ceasefire violations have been clearly reduced since the middle of August […] when the peak of violations was the most kinetic activity in the summer,” Alexander Hug, Deputy Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, told euronews in an exclusive interview.  

The exchanges of fire are mainly conducted with small calibre weapons, such as automatic machine guns and grenade launchers or small type of infantry hardware, even if “only in few occasions we see heavy weapons still being used.” 

In general, observers from the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) report that fighting is limited to certain areas that include the area around the airport of Donetsk, Pesky, Spartak, the western outskirts of the town itself and the area near Horlivka. 

Military side of the deal 

According to February’s Minsk II protocol, Ukraine and the pro-Russia separatists should have pulled their heavy weapons (above 100 mm calibre) back 25 kilometers (16 miles) in order to create a 50-kilometre (32 miles) buffer zone. 

As far as the agreements are concerned, the pull-out should have been completed within 14 days of the start of the cease-fire. 

That never really and fully happened, since there are still some heavy weapons on both sides very close to the fire line the OSCE reports, even if these are hardly being used. 

The agreement also stipulated that forces should not be redeployed and this is another area where the rules are being broken. 

The Ukrainian army and fighters from the self-proclaimed separatist territories DPR (Donetsk People Republic) and LPR (Luhansk People Republic) tend to move into areas that have been free of military presence since the Minsk protocol entered into effect. 

That is not a violation of the line; they do not cross it. 

It is not a land grab at the detriment of the adversary. 

The parts extend the military presence to areas within their own territory, so the violation of Minsk’s provisions derives from the mere relocation of the units, because the document establishes that the troops should freeze. 

“By moving, the sides get so close that they can see each other and they don’t even use weapons that are forbidden, they usually carry small stuffs,” comments the OSCE official in Kiev, “and most of the skirmishes break out as a consequence of these troop shifts that are prohibited by the agreements signed in the Belarussian capital.” 

‘No other platform’ 

Nevertheless despite these breaches, there is hope that the agreement is providing scope for improvements because it offers a framework for the three sides to continue talking on specific issues. 

“There is no other platform, there is no other choice and it’s the only way forward, if participants don’t talk there is only the military alternative to it,” says the OSCE’s deputy chief monitor, “the parts have just agreed on 12 areas concerning the de-mining actions. That could be a crucial preliminary step forward, since mine fields are a real obstacle to the fulfilment of other important tasks from a humanitarian point of view.” 

Technicians without borders 

Vadym Chernysh, head of the Ukrainian State Agency for Donbass Recovery, represents Ukraine in three subgroups: humanitarian, socio-economic and de-mining. 

Both sides in the conflict are being supplied through the same grids and pipelines which do not respect the Minsk frontline. 

Technicians often have to cross through or work inside conflict zones to ensure vital services like electricity and water. 

“The cooperation seems to work in this sector, it’s a positive example for Minsk,” Mr Chernysh says. 

“But the technicians must work in a safe environment, that’s the reason why it’s very important to de-mine and to stop the fighting in the areas where they are supposed to work and just Minsk sub-groups can deal with this kind of problems.” 

So far the Minsk process seems to be surviving thanks to dozens of such small and medium achievements, whereas bigger issues are still far from being resolved. 

The border 

“Illegal armed groups and military equipment, fighters and mercenaries,” as the protocol determines, have not been fully withdrawn from Ukraine, while “the permanent monitoring of the Ukrainian-Russian border and verification by the OSCE with the creation of security zones in the border regions of Ukraine and the Russian Federation” have not been set up yet. 

According to the pro-Russian Kiev-based political analyst Mikhail Pogrebinsky, “the control of the border will be given back to Ukraine as soon as Kiev authorizes the autonomous local elections, and the Rada adopts a law on amnesty for insurgent fighters and the self-governance for Donetsk and Luhansk.” 

That is to say that the Ukrainians should, for instance, organise free elections in those territories without controlling the border with Russia in the areas of Donetsk and Luhansk. 

Holding local elections in accordance with Ukrainian law in the rebel territories of the DPR and LNR seems an impossible task, since it mainly depends on the core of the Minsk agreement, article number three, which is about the decentralisation of power. 

According to Minsk II, Ukraine should undertake a constitutional reform in order to grant those territories a self-governance based on a “special-status.” 

That constitutional modification went through a particularly devious political trial since most of the Ukrainian political forces consider the “special status” as a kind of Trojan horse for Russia to hold Ukraine in permanent check. 

Special Status or Special State? 

“It is clear to us that the policy of our aggressors is to split the country in two parts by forcing us to implement the special status. 

That’s not our idea. 

We think that Ukraine is a unitary state. 

Since we want to reintegrate those territories into Ukraine, we are contemplating a peculiar type of self-governance in view of their reintegration. 

That’s what we call peculiarity of local self-governance,” the speaker of the Ukrainian parliament, Volodymyr Groysman, told euronews in an exclusive interview. 

Controversy still reigns over President Poroshenko’s decision to agree to the “special status” part of the deal. 

Some argue that he was coerced by the threat of a full-scale military offensive and pressure from the Minsk deal brokers France and Germany. 

Others claim that Poroshenko overreached his powers by failing to secure parliamentary approval. 

Hence, when it comes to the bigger principle the Minsk agreements are far from being implemented. 

The EU Strategic Jigsaw 

The current stalemate could turn into a long term situation, leaving a de facto but unrecognised split in Ukraine. 

Only a comprehensive agreement in Eastern Europe between Ukraine, Russia, the USA and the EU could solve this geopolitical jigsaw. 

Western diplomatic sources in Kiev say they want Moscow to drop its opposition of the association agreement between Ukraine and the EU due to be implemented on January 1, 2016 as a first step towards progress. 

But current circumstances do not seem to suggest any Russian willingness to absorb the political impact of the formalisation of a closer relationship between Kiev and Brussels. 

And the EU Council on December 17 adopted the rollover of sanctions against Russia. 

One of the causes of the Ukrainian conflict was the question of the Association Agreement that is currently the object of Moscow’s dislike. 

Very few observers, diplomats and policy makers in and outside Ukraine seem to believe that the current status quo in the Ukraine and Eastern Europe was (and still is) the goal of the Kremlin when it annexed Crimea and backed up armed insurgency in Donbass. 

Source: euronews

Ukrainian Holiday Tradition Under Threat As Popular Soviet Film Faces Ban

KIEV, Ukraine -- The Irony of Fate is watched on TV by millions of families each year but could be banned because one of its actors backed Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

A Christmas tree in Kiev.

The probable ban of a popular Soviet film in Ukraine has caused alarm among those who like to watch it annually during the festive period.

The Irony of Fate, released in 1976 and set on New Year’s Eve, has become a holiday tradition in Russia and other post-Soviet countries, where it is shown on television and watched by millions of families each year.

The film is in danger of being banned in Ukraine because one of the actors who provided a voiceover for the film was put on a list of cultural figures who pose a threat to national security because of her support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

However, the film’s director, Eldar Ryazov, who died this year, was an outspoken critic of the Russian government’s recent actions.

The Ukrainian government, which came to power after the Maidan revolution last year, has moved to limit Russian influence in the country, especially after the annexation of Crimea and Russian military intervention in the east.

But critics say the moves have gone too far when it comes to banning films.

The Irony of Fate follows a group of friends who get drunk at a sauna on New Year’s Eve, toasting Zhenya, who is soon to marry his fiancee.

The group travel to the airport and, in a stupor, they put the passed-out Zhenya on a plane to Leningrad instead of his friend.

When Zhenya awakes he thinks he is still in Moscow, and takes a taxi to his home address.

In a commentary on the uniformity of Soviet urban planning, there is a street with the same name and an identikit block of flats, and when he arrives even the furniture looks the same.

When the flat’s real resident, Nadya, returns, she is horrified to find a drunk man in her apartment, but after many false starts love eventually blossoms between the pair.

Alexei Pushkov, head of the Russian parliament’s international affairs committee, tweeted: “They want to ban The Irony of Fate in Ukraine. What about Ukraine’s own fate? Is this really what Maidan was about? It’s not even the irony of fate but the sarcasm of fate.”

Ukraine’s ministry of culture has drawn up a long list of actors who apparently threaten the national security of the country because of their political positions, including Gerard Depardieu, the French actor who has taken Russian citizenship.

In 2014, Depardieu reportedly said: “I love Russia and Ukraine, which is part of Russia.”

Depardieu and other actors on the list were banned from entering Ukraine, and new films involving them will not receive licences to be shown in the country.

However, the law is ambiguous on whether old films that already have licences can be shown.

In the run-up to the new year period, it has been pointed out that The Irony of Fate is likely to fall victim to the ban, although there has been no official announcement.

The Opposition Bloc, a political group based on the remnants of the former president Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, which has strong support in the Russian-speaking east of the country, said it planned to contest the ban in court.

“[The ban] flies in the face of basic common sense, and we will do everything to make sure the plans of the new cultural authorities do not become reality. If we don’t stop them now then before long they’ll decide to ban Santa Claus because he’s sided with the aggressor. After all, he has been spotted under the Christmas tree in the Kremlin.”

On Thursday the Ukrainian parliament announced that sanctions against Russia would come into force on 1 January, in response to Russia’s cancelling of a free trade agreement.

Russia says it can no longer allow free trade with Kiev after a trade agreement between Ukraine and the EU takes effect.

Source: The Guardian

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Survival A Struggle In Eastern Ukraine As Winter Looms

ZAITSEVE, Ukraine -- When artillery shattered the roof of her cottage in this eastern Ukraine village, single mother Nina sought a home that offered more protection from the fighting for herself and her five young children.

Displaced Ukrainian single mother Nina poses with her five children after their return from school.

"It's probably still not a match for the mortars," she said of the house that the village council helped her to find in this war zone.

"But when there is shelling my sister joins us with her kids. We all sit here together, fighting off fear." 

More than two million eastern Ukrainian civilians have been driven from their homes since the beginning of the conflict in 2014.

Many like Nina live in limbo, displaced in their own country, where continuing hostilities and the breakdown of services mean that every day life is a struggle.

Now, as temperatures drop below zero, an estimated 800,000 people are living in difficult and dangerous conditions on both sides of the frontline, amid continuing hostilities.

With the first snow and freezing temperatures, the delivery of winter aid to these remote communities becomes crucial.

Three little villages share one school in Zaytseve.

Students from the other two villages are transported there by a school bus.

During intensive fighting, there was no school, only home study, with all homework assigned by phone.

Lyudmyla, the school principal, points to the brand new window panes in the corridor as she talks.

"I cannot stomach the memories of the shelling," she says.

"Searching for shelter, taking pupils to some place safe. When fighting returned we would immediately dial the school bus driver urging him to take children back to their home villages."

This winter, with daylight in short supply, the school bus from Zaytseve will deliver some students to their home village after sunset, around the time when the gun battle resumes.

There is no armed convoy for the bus.

As the situation continues to deteriorate in eastern Ukraine, many of the people in the areas affected by conflict will remain trapped and isolated this winter.

Fighting makes humanitarian access particularly difficult in the so-called 'grey areas' near the frontline where needs are greatest.

Since November UNHCR has sent nearly 1,000 metric tons of humanitarian materials and emergency aid for the affected population, with more resources now mobilized for future dispatches in the non-government-controlled territories.

Despite the worsening conditions, single mother Nina is grateful for the support she has been receiving so far, as she tries to patch together a life for herself and her children in adverse conditions.

"For the kids, I get some state allowance," she says.

"But I have to give back the money I owe. If we need to see the doctor, we take a cab to Zaytseve. Once or twice a month we go north to Artemivsk to stock up on groceries, etcetera, also by taxi, for lack of alternative. There is someone here in the village to supply us with milk from their cow. Humanitarian aid is here in supply as well."

Source: UNHCR

Russia Issues Crimea Banknote In Move Likely To Irk Ukraine

MOSCOW, Russia -- Russia on Wednesday issued a new banknote dedicated to Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula it annexed last year, in a move likely to anger Kiev which says it wants the territory back.

The two sides of a new 100-rouble ($1.41) banknote, depicting a memorial to sunken ships in the port of Sevastopol and the Swallow's Nest, a cliff top castle near Yalta, are seen in this handout image provided by the Russian central bank December 23, 2015.

Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in March last year in a military operation denounced by the West which imposed retaliatory sanctions on Moscow that remain in place.

The new banknote, worth 100 rubles ($1.41), depicts a memorial to sunken ships in the port of Sevastopol, where Russia keeps its Black Sea Fleet, and the Swallow's Nest, a cliff top castle near Yalta.

The yellow-colored note also features a watermark of Empress Catherine the Great, who extended the borders of the Russian Empire in the eighteenth century to absorb Crimea.

Russia's central bank said in a statement it would issue 20 million of the new notes.

It has previously minted a 10 rouble coin to celebrate Russia's control of Crimea.

Source: Google News

Inside Ukraine’s Violent, Messy Battle For Power

KIEV, Ukraine -- Conflict at the highest levels of the Ukrainian government has become so sharp in recent weeks that the battles have turned public and the fights have gone viral, as the jostling for power undermines efforts to deal with war, corruption and a nose-diving economy.

The former president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, is today's governor of Odessa.

The tensions tearing apart Ukraine’s ruling classes was full display at a meeting of Ukraine’s reform council, which turned into a shouted exchange among top officials.

“You’re a thief and will go to jail,” an emotional Mikheil Saakashvili yelled at Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov last week.

“You are an asshole and clear out of my country,” responded Avakov, throwing a full glass of water in his direction.

Reduced to the role of spectator, Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s president and the man who appointed Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia, as governor of Odessa, had reason to hold his head in his hands.

The spat showed Poroshenko was unable to command authority among his colleagues, who are engaged in an often literal fight to the political death.

They’re warring over the whether Prime Minister Arseniy Yatstenyuk, whose popularity has dropped to the low single digits, should stay, and what role, if any, Saakashvili should play at the top of Ukrainian politics.

Political brinksmanship 

“It seems like there are on-going battles behind the scene for key leadership roles/positions,” wrote Timothy Ash, an emerging markets analyst with Nomura, the investment bank.

Two days after the water-throwing incident, the president, prime minister and parliamentary speaker issued a joint statement urging unity, and insisting Yatsenyuk’s resignation was not up for discussion. 

But despite the unusual statement, pressure continues to grow on Yatsenyuk.

A vote of non-confidence in the prime minister is likely in the New Year.

Oleg Barna, an MP who tried to lift Yatsenyuk off his feet and bodily carry him out of parliament a couple of weeks ago — providing another viral sensation — is said to have gathered 90 of the necessary 150 signatures required to call such a vote, according to parliamentary sources.

Focused on political battles, the legislature is stalled on a key vote on decentralization, a crucial part of the Minsk peace agreement meant to end fighting with Russian-backed rebels in the east of the country.

And added to those problems, parliament is having trouble agreeing on a budget acceptable to the International Monetary Fund, jeopardizing Ukraine’s crucial financial lifeline.

“It is clear that 24 years of warped development, with oligarchic capture of the political, judicial and governmental process in Ukraine, has left corruption endemic and ingrained,” wrote Ash.

According to Taras Berezovets, a Kiev-based political analyst, parliament is headed for paralysis.

Early parliamentary elections in 2016 now look likely, he said, the question is when: spring or autumn.

Based on current polling, elections would result in a far less pro-European coalition, with eastern-leaning opposition parties such Opposition Bloc and Renaissance doing well.

A poll conducted by the Rating organization in October suggested they would get nearly a fifth of the vote.

Saakashvili’s role 

The likeliest to benefit from early elections is Saakashvili, Ukraine’s most popular politician.

Publicly, the Georgian has said he isn’t interested in becoming prime minister.

Privately, however, his backers say that’s what he’s aiming for — “Or, at the least, vice premiership in a government without Yatsenyuk,” said one ally who asked to remain anonymous.

Such an appointment would be opposed by many Ukrainian politicians, weary of Saakashvili’s ability to disrupt the status quo.

It would also worsen the already terrible relationship between Moscow and Kiev.

Speaking at his annual press conference last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Saakashvili’s appointment as governor of Odessa was to “spit in the face of every Ukrainian.”

On December 13, Saakashvili launched a new anti-corruption initiative in Odessa, the port region he has governed since May.

Flanked by reformist MPs, Saakashvili said he would name Ukraine’s “leading corruptioneers.”

He renewed his attacks on Yatsenyuk’s government, accusing it of “covering up for $5 billion of corruption in government companies” every year.

The intensity of criticism leveled at Yatsenyuk by Saakashvili’s team have led some to speculate that Poroshenko is using the Georgian as an attack dog.

Mustafa Nayem, a reformist MP also associated with the Saakashvili ticket, addressed the speculation in a Facebook post.

He said “hell” would continue until Poroshenko offered a “strong position” either way:

“A governor can’t accuse the prime minister of corruption and stay in his post. If the governor stays in his post, that means they’re either scared of him or they are using him.”

If anything, however, the tempestuous Georgian’s ties with Poroshenko also appear to be fraying. 

When asked if the Saakashvili team had agreed its anti-corruption conference with the president, Zurab Adeishvili, the softly spoken former Georgian justice minister now serving as Saakashvili’s chief of staff, did not confirm, but said, “We are a force that supports the president, but everyone needs to speed up reforms and we believe the president understands this.”

Saakashvili’s deputy Sasha Borovik, however, acknowledged relations with the president are “not always easy.”

The Georgian is a problem for Poroshenko.

On one side the independent and popular Saakashvili upstages him, but on the other the president continues to need to be associated with Saakashvili’s popularity.

In the same way, Saakashvili continues to need Poroshenko’s power.

“The two men are still useful to each other, but that might change,” said Sergii Leschenko, a reformist MP and Saakashvili ally.

Source: Politico

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Ukraine Revolution Ousted Pro-Russia Government, But ‘Cancer Of Corruption’ Remains

KIEV, Ukraine -- As the country prepares to mark — “celebrate” seems much too strong a word — the second anniversary of its democratic revolution, many Ukrainians say they feel the country took a wrong turn after the dramatic, bloody uprising that ousted their pro-Russian government.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden paid his respects in honor of the "Heavenly Hundred" during a ceremony at the monument dedicated to them in Kiev, Ukraine, on Dec. 7. The "Heavenly Hundred" is what Ukrainians call those who died during months of anti-government protests two years ago that ended in new leadership but not much change.

It was two years ago that the first protests in the heart of Kiev set into motion the events that would drive Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovych from power and into exile in February 2014.

But the activists who watched the government’s security forces kill more than 100 pro-Western protesters who camped out in the Ukrainian capital’s central Maidan Nezalezhnosti, or Independence Square, now accuse their ostensibly democratic leaders of corruption and failing to honor the sacrifices of the slain.

“The people have paid a high price to change the system,” said Yaroslav Hrynyshyn, a protester wounded in the revolution.

“But the system didn’t change, and it’s a crime of today’s rulers.”

The dissatisfaction reveals the deep political divides that still plague Ukraine, a country dealing with the aftershocks from an abrupt regime change, the struggle to find a capable generation of leaders, and economic stagnation.

That’s not even taking into account the upheavals brought on by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the stalemated civil war with Russian-backed separatists in the country’s eastern half.

Mr. Hrynyshyn, a 50-year-old music teacher, nearly lost his hearing after a stun grenade exploded near him as riot police dispersed the protesters’ camp in February 2014.

He required six months of medication.

Today, he doesn’t see the positive changes that he and other protesters hoped would transpire after Yanukovych fled the capital and eventually crossed the border into Russia.

“Corruption goes on everywhere,” Mr. Hrynyshyn said.

“There isn’t a single anti-corruption initiative that was finalized.”

Ukraine’s Western partners seem to agree.

When Vice President Joseph R. Biden visited Ukraine this month, he warned Ukraine’s parliament to fight “the cancer of corruption.”

“Ukraine cannot afford for the people to lose hope again,” Mr. Biden said on Dec. 7.

“The only thing worse than having no hope at all is having hopes rise and see them dashed repeatedly on the shoals of corruption.”

Few signs of progress 

Signs of real progress since 2013 are hard to see.

Public integrity watchdog Transparency International listed Ukraine as 142nd out of 177 countries in its world ranking last year.

In 2012, under the old regime widely suspected of embezzling public funds and lavishly dispensing cash to its cronies, the country scored 144th out of 177, only marginally worse.

In both years, Ukraine ranked as the most corrupt country in Europe.

“The government fell short of its commitments when it installed a hand-picked ‘puppet’ selection committee for the leadership of a new anti-corruption agency,” Transparency International said in a report this summer, claiming officials installed representatives of bogus civic organizations on the committee in a process that was “a fraud from beginning to end.”

Democracy watchdog group Freedom House, meanwhile, lowered Ukraine’s scores this year for governance and anti-corruption actions to their lowest in the past three years.

Ukrainian domestic critics complain of corruption scandals in state agencies that are never resolved and the lack of prosecutions of former regime leaders who remain in Ukraine.

Several of the Yanukovych government’s top officials were interrogated for abusing their authority, but without results.

“All the corrupt officials took it as a signal that they can proceed with the old ways,” Mr. Hrynyshyn said.

Others cited the persistence of petty venality among civil servants under President Petro Poroshenko bribes, embezzling and other dishonesty.

Video of brawls among lawmakers in the Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, have gone viral on the Internet and done nothing to boost backing for the government at home.

“Back then, I was ready to give my life for the ideals we fought for,” said Serhiy Klimov, a 26-year-old Kievan, referring to his participation two years ago in what has become known as the Euromaidan movement.

“The people who were killed would be disappointed if they saw the result.”

Popular reforms, such as a much-anticipated visa-free regime with the European Union, have languished in parliament, although a tentative deal with the EU was announced late last week.

A recent poll found Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s approval rating at less than 2 percent.

Mr. Poroshenko and Mr. Yatsenyuk have been understandably focused on the clash with pro-Russian separatists who have formed breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine with military aid from Moscow.

President Vladimir Putin acknowledged just last week for the first time that Russian intelligence forces were operating in eastern Ukraine, although he still insists regular Russian soldiers have not crossed the border.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg seized on Putin’s acknowledgment in a meeting with Mr. Poroshenko in Brussels on Thursday by warning that there is a “real risk of a resumption of violence.”

But even Mr. Stoltenberg pressed Mr. Poroshenko and the government in Kiev to address the issue of corruption.

The conflict killed more than 9,100 people since it began in March 2014, cost Kiev the Crimean Peninsula and cut off Ukraine from some of its biggest industrial centers.

Fighting in the undeclared war has undermined Ukraine’s already weak economy and sent its currency, the hryvnia, into free fall.

Inflation has run at 79 percent compared with two years ago, while gross domestic product fell by 13 percent in first nine months of the year, partly because of the loss of 7.3 percent of its territory. 

Economic Development Minister Aivaras Abromavicius this month predicted that GDP would post a small gain in the final quarter and growth would pick up next year, but the government also said last week it wouldn’t repay a $3 billion debt owed to Russia by this weekend after Moscow’s refusal to accept repayment terms already offered to other international creditors.

The “moratorium” on outstanding debt repayments to Russia effectively means that Ukraine is defaulting on a $3 billion debt due Sunday and could jeopardize crucial loans that Ukraine has been receiving from a $17.5 billion bailout deal with the International Monetary Fund, The Associated Press reported.

Kiev-based political scientist Andreas Umland argues that the Ukrainian government’s ability to simply survive the crisis-packed period was success enough for the Euromaidan revolution.

“The main achievement is obviously the prevention of the collapse of the country,” he said.

The threat from corruption 

Even so, corruption presents a mortal threat to the legitimacy of Ukrainian leaders.

Mr. Poroshenko took responsibility recently for a series of corruption scandals in the government prosecutor’s office and Defense Ministry — both of which he controls.

He also disappointed voters when he refused to sell his business after he was elected, something he promised to do prior to the election.

Mr. Poroshenko became a billionaire in part by parlaying his commercial and political contacts to acquire much of the Ukrainian chocolate industry in the 1990s.

Activists said the problem is clear: Oligarchs like Mr. Poroshenko who ran Ukraine before the revolution remain in control despite the change of regime.

“The people who came to power are the people from the old system, who worked with Yanukovych,” Mr. Hrynyshyn said.

Critics note that roughly half of the members of parliament elected after the revolution are newcomers, while the other half held seats under the old government.

Both Mr. Poroshenko and Mr. Yatsenyuk are political veterans.

Mr. Poroshenko even briefly served as a minister in Yanukovych’s government.

Still, Mr. Hrynyshyn said he would join the revolution once again despite knowing how little has changed.

He is hopeful.

“The revolution didn’t fulfill its mission just yet,” he said.

“But it takes longer than one year to build a good house. In a few years, we’ll see if we built a democracy or failed.”

Mr. Klimov is a less optimistic.

He recalls Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004, when the people revolted against Yanukovych for the first time.

Yanukovych lost his bid for the presidency at that time after massive protests erupted over accusations of voter fraud and other electoral improprieties.

But he went on to serve as prime minister a few years later and won election to the presidency in 2010.

The 2014 revolution erupted because of dissatisfaction with the shortcomings of the Orange Revolution a decade earlier, said Mr. Klimov.

The failure of the Euromaidan uprising could mean grave danger for a disillusioned country.

“I’ve taken part in two revolutions,” Mr. Klimov said.

“And I’m sure there will be a third one. But this time, it will be much more bloody, because people will have nothing to lose and will trust no one.”

Source: The Washington Times

Putin Says Will Not Abandon Russians In Ukraine To Nationalists

MOSCOW, Russia -- Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow would not abandon Russians living in southeast Ukraine to Ukrainian nationalists, RIA news agency quoted him as saying in a documentary due to be broadcast later on Sunday.

The master of the "Evil Empire".

More than 9,100 people have been killed in fighting in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian troops since April 2014.

Moscow says Ukrainian nationalists pose a threat to ethnic Russians and Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the region.

According to RIA, Putin also said Russia would continue to improve its nuclear arsenal, but added that it would not wield the "nuclear big stick."

Source: Newsmax

Russia Confirms Food Embargo On Ukraine: PM

MOSCOW, Russia -- Russia will introduce a food embargo against Ukraine next month over Kiev's trade deal with the EU, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said Monday, extending punitive measures already in place against Western countries.

Russian officials steamrollered tonnes of Western food outside the city of Novozybkov in August 2015. The "Evil Empire" destroys food, while many Russians don't have enough to eat.

"These measures will be extended to Ukraine too," Medvedev said at a government meeting.

"I have just signed the relevant decree."

A free trade deal between Ukraine and the European Union is set to enter into force from January 1 as part of a broader agreement that helped sparked the current crisis between Kiev and the West on one side and Moscow on the other.

Russia has repeatedly expressed concern that Ukraine's free trade agreement with Brussels may flood its market with European goods, and months of three-way talks with the EU to smooth the transition have yielded no results.

President Vladimir Putin last week ordered a suspension of Russia's 2011 free trade agreement with Ukraine.

The move will effectively raise customs tariffs for Ukrainian exporters to Russia by seven percent. 

"We must protect our market and our producers and to prevent import of products masked as Ukrainian that are from other countries," Medvedev said.

"There have been several rounds of talks. They did not bring any result," he added.

"Neither Ukraine nor the European Union are ready to sign a legally binding agreement which would take into account Russia's interests."

Moscow's slapped a ban on a large array of agricultural produce from the EU and other nations inluding the United States in 2014 in retaliation for Western sanction against Russia over its meddling in Ukraine.

Medvedev's announcement came as European Commissioner for Trade Cecilia Malmstrom was engaged in the latest attempt to reach common ground on the issue with Russia's Economy Minister Alexei Ulyukayev and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin in Brussels.

Source: AFP

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Putin Just Admitted To Russian Military Presence In Ukraine For The First Time

MOSCOW, Russia -- After months of denials, Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted for the first time, Thursday, that his country’s military is operating in separatist-held eastern Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends his annual end-of-year news conference in Moscow, Russia, December 17, 2015.

"We never said there were no people there who were carrying out certain tasks," Putin said during his annual end-of-year news conference in Moscow.

Putin said Russia had no regular troop presence in eastern Ukraine but, in response to a question about Russian servicemen detained and injured in the fighting, he admitted that "certain matters, including in the military area" were being performed.

He did not elaborate. 

"We are interested in resolving this conflict as soon as possible," Putin said.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, meeting in Brussels on Thursday with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, said Putin’s admission “is basically the same as we have been stating all along.” 

“He said that Russia has personnel in eastern Ukraine and this personnel, they have conducted military activities. That is what we normally call ‘soldiers,’” Stoltenberg said.

Putin’s admission “underlines the special responsibility of Russia when it comes to the full implementation of the Minsk agreement,” he said.

That cease-fire agreement, reached in the Belarus capital, calls for the withdrawal of heavy weapons, the withdrawal of foreign troops (in this case Russia’s), ending hostilities, changes to Ukrainian law and local elections in separatist-held eastern Ukraine.

Putin called for implementation of the Minsk agreement, adding that “we are not interested in exacerbating the conflict.”

"If we really want to resolve the problem, let’s stop this, let’s work together," he said.

"And we are willing to influence people in the southeast of the country and persuade them to accept a compromise. We are willing and we want it to happen, but we need our partners in Kiev to be willing as well.”

The fighting in eastern Ukraine began in April 2014 after popular protests in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, ousted a pro-Russian president and installed a new government that has sought to improve ties with the West.

Pro-Russian separatists, armed with tanks, multiple missile launchers and artillery, seized two regions in the east close to Russia.

The U.S. government, NATO and non-governmental observer organizations have cited evidence that the weapons were supplied by Russia and that Moscow also sent troops to help the rebels.

An estimated 9,100 people have been killed and more than 1.3 million displaced as a result of the conflict, according to the State Department and United Nations.

Russia’s economy is expected to contract by 3.8% in 2015 due to low oil prices and European Union sanctions over its intervention in Ukraine.

Putin wants those sanctions lifted.

Poroshenko accused Russia of implementing a "growing military presence” in eastern Ukraine.

Putin’s comment Thursday is reminiscent of his admission in March 2014 that he ordered the military operation to seize Ukraine's Crimea province, weeks after denying that soldiers who occupied buildings and set up checkpoints around the region were acting under Russian military orders. 

Whether Putin's acknowledgement of Russia's role in eastern Ukraine will lead to greater determination to implement all terms of the Minsk agreement is unclear, but he apparently hoped to signal that he will cooperate, said John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who’s now at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington.

“My guess is the pain Russia has experienced between oil prices and sanctions and the fact that they’re not doing that well in Ukraine has persuaded them to be more reasonable,” he said.

Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO who is now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, said there's a more ominous message in Putin's words.

It's "an admission of the violation of international law," Daalder said.

"It sends a message to Kiev that he doesn't care anymore that the international community knows." 

Source: USA Today

EU Backs Visa-Free Access For Ukraine, Georgia

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- The European Union’s executive backed Ukraine and Georgia’s bid for visa-free access to the bloc on Friday, opening the way to more than 40 million people to potentially travel visa-free to the bloc.

A foot bridge over the Mtkvari river is illuminated in the colors of the European flag in front of the ancient Narikala Fortress in Tbilisi, Georgia. The European Commission said on Friday it backed visa-free travel for Georgia and Ukraine and would propose a visa waiver next year for citizens of the two ex-Soviet countries to travel to European Union member states.

The European Commission said both countries had carried out the reforms they promised to enact to win Brussels’ backing and they planned to make the formal legal recommendation in early 2016.

It will then be for EU governments and the European Parliament to sign off.

At a news conference on Friday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he pushed EU leaders at Friday’s summit to make “rapid decisions” on the visa-free requests.

In the past, he has expressed confidence that the bloc’s 28 governments will approve Brussels’ decision, but with the EU facing its biggest migration crisis in decades, some diplomats have warned there could be a protracted debate among capitals next year.

The concerns about migration deepened after the Paris terror attacks in November, which further weakened confidence in the bloc’s oversight of its external borders.

With some EU leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, warning that the EU document-free Schengen travel zone is under threat, diplomats warn there may be far greater caution about expanding visa-free travel despite Brussels’ backing.

Ukraine’s visa-free bid has been one of the top goals of President Petro Poroshenko’s government, which has had to tackle a major economic and financial crisis and a bloody conflict in the east with pro-Russian separatists.

Talks in Brussels on Wednesday opened up a deal on Kiev’s visa-free bid.

The EU was pressing Mr. Poroshenko and his government to complete two crucial anticorruption reforms, including setting up a properly staffed and resourced asset-recovery agency to fight past and future cases of corruption.

Brussels also wanted more done to strengthen the independence of Ukraine’s new anticorruption prosecutors office.

In the end, the commission agreed to back Ukraine’s bid, which will allow its 40 million citizens to enter the bloc without a visa, but made it clear it will only start the legal work on its positive recommendation when these final issues are resolved.

“The hard work towards achieving this significant goal has paid off,” Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos said Friday.

“Now it is important to keep upholding all the standards. Despite the progress, EU officials have grown increasingly concerned about the political conditions in Kiev in recent weeks. In addition to facing an increasingly hostile parliament, there have been growing tensions between Mr. Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and public clashes between top officials. On Georgia, the commission gave a clear bill of health, saying the country had “undertaken all the required reforms” needed for the EU.

The move will go some way to assuage disappointment over Georgia’s failure to move its North Atlantic Treaty Organization bid forward.

It also comes after Russia, which backs Georgia’s separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, has suggested it may reopen visa free access for Georgia’s citizens, one of the first signs of a thaw in relations since the two countries clashed in a 2008 war.

The commission also published on Friday its overview of Kosovo’s progress toward meeting its visa-free bid commitments.

The EU said Kosovo must still complete action in several areas—including ensuring its judicial system is well enough staffed and effective in prosecuting organized crime and corruption, as well as ensuring independent oversight in the awards of public contracts.

Mr. Avramopolous said he is hopeful the commission can propose lifting visa requirements on Kosovo citizens early next year and that he will go to the country then “to personally take stock of Kosovo’s progress.”

Source: The Wall Street Journal

Food Aid Provides Lifeline For Most Vulnerable In Ukraine Conflict

SVITLODARSK, Ukraine -- The conflict in Ukraine has left millions displaced and in need of help. Aid groups are busy trying to distribute food to those - on both sides - who have no other means.

The registration process is cross-checked by the WFP's NGO partners

In the heart of the buffer zone and a few kilometers from the pro-Russian separatists' border lies the Ukrainian town of Svitlodarsk.

Coal shafts and slag heaps, the remains of the country's once vibrant mining industry, pepper the landscape where much of the fighting between government forces and separatists has taken place over the past 18 months.

Many of the mines have sustained damage, leaving thousands of coal miners out of work.

Pensioners in thick overcoats, headscarves and berets queue outside the town's Soviet-era Palace of Culture, now partly used as a registration center for humanitarian aid.

Vera Mihailova Kopeinika, 50, is among those waiting their turn.

Her husband and son are miners - and unemployed.

"I receive 37 euros ($40) [per month]," she said with a trembling voice.

"How can my family survive on 37 euros? Where can they find work if all the mines have been damaged by the shelling. Nobody needs us."

Five million people require humanitarian assistance in Ukraine, whether in government- or separatist controlled areas, with 1.3 million in need of food aid, according to the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid office.

The UN's World Food Program (WFP) and NGO partners have been coming to the aid of internally displaced persons (IDPs) as well as residents.

The WFP has provided assistance to 200,000 people over the past 12 months and aims to reach out to more than 500,000.

"In non-government controlled areas we distribute food, so it comes in the form of a food parcel," explained WFP communication officer Deborah Nguyen.

"And in the government-controlled areas we distribute through vouchers, usually shops where the financial system is working."

The situation is especially desperate in the separatist-controlled Donbas region.

Last winter Kiev cut off all access to financial institutions in areas that weren't under government control.

That meant pensioners couldn't draw their pensions, and neither banks nor ATMs could distribute hryvnia, the Ukrainian currency.

There the Russian rouble has become the de facto official currency, and prices are two to three times higher than in Ukraine.

Not all parcels are equal 

Alongside the WFP and NGOs, Ukrainian billionaire Rinat Akhmetov also distributes food through his own humanitarian organization, the Akhmetov Foundation for Development of Ukraine.

But not all food parcels are the same.

"We compared our food parcels with Akhmetov food parcels," said Larisa Kobzarenko of ADRA Ukraine, a local WFP partner, "and their food parcel costs something like five euros ($5.43). It's very cheap, it's just cereals, there's no buckwheat, no rice, no beans, no meat. Our parcel costs around 38 euros ($41.30)."

Still, many are fortunate to receive any aid at all.

Over 2.3 million people have been displaced by the conflict, and the distribution of parcels and vouchers has become a lifeline for the most vulnerable.

Left to their own devices 

But getting the aid to them has been a challenge.

In July separatists stopped humanitarian convoys and prevented them from reaching their destinations.

The humanitarian agencies were expelled from separatist-controlled areas and required to apply for new accreditation, Nguyen said.

Such problems are frequent stumbling blocks for the WFP.

"The issue is that the United Nations cannot recognize these authorities as a government, and we don't accept this as an accreditation, because for us they are not a government."

With winter slowly closing in on the region, the separatists' authorities gave WFP's partners People in Need, ADRA and Mercy Corps the green light to distribute aid, after a long and cumbersome registration process.

But not everyone is eligible.

Locals who continue to live in damaged or destroyed housing do not qualify for humanitarian assistance, which is reserved for internally displaced persons, according to Ukrainian law.

Those who have nowhere to go and no money to pay for alternative accommodation find themselves stuck - unable to move and unable to claim aid.

ADRA's Kobzarenko recently came across a family of five in government-controlled territory whose home had been destroyed.

They were living in a cow shed for lack of any other option.

"Since they are not IDPs, they were not provided this assistance."

But their situation was desolate, so ADRA turned to the WFP to make an exception.

Source: Deutsche Welle

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Secret Central Bank Furniture Factory Spotlights Ukraine Woe

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine's central bank may rank among the worst in achieving sound money this year, but at least it finally got out of the furniture business.

Valeriya Hontareva, governor of the National Bank of Ukraine, during an interview at the bank's headquarters in Kiev in March. Lost among the 12,000 workers she inherited when she became the country's fourth central bank governor in 18 months last year were dozens of artisans making products such as wheeled shelves and armored doors at a building the bank owns on the outskirts of Kiev.

Lost among the 12,000 workers Valeriya Hontareva inherited when she became the country's fourth central bank governor in 18 months last year were dozens of artisans making products such as wheeled shelves and armored doors at a building the bank owns on the outskirts of Kiev.

"We found a maintenance unit costing us $260,000 a year," Deputy Governor Vladyslav Rashkovan said by email.

"Actually, it was kind of a separate enterprise employing 65 people. They were all fired."

It's a story being repeated across the swollen bureaucracy of a country ranked Europe's most corrupt by Transparency International.

President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk are racing to cull payrolls by the tens of thousands to meet International Monetary Fund demands for spending curbs and keep a $17.5 billion bailout alive.

Vice President Joe Biden, one of Ukraine's most vocal supporters, flew to Kiev last week to urge the country's leadership to redouble their efforts against corruption.

Ukraine had about 335,000 civil servants at the beginning of last year, almost triple the number in neighboring Poland, where the economy is four times bigger and the pay is multiple times higher. 

Under former President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia during the Maidan uprising last February, state spending reached 47 percent of gross domestic product, more than oil-rich Norway.

Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko said last week she aims to cut that ratio to 41 percent in 2016, a task made even harder by the 7 percent contraction of the economy in the third quarter, the most among those tracked by Bloomberg.

"The most terrifying words in the English language are 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help,"' Economy Minister Aivaras Abromavicius said, channeling Ronald Reagan in assessing the scope of the problem.

Tackling the twin curses of bloat and graft are existential issues for the fraying, U.S.- and European Union-backed coalition, which is mired in corruption scandals and facing opposition calls for fresh elections.

Yatsenyuk, the prime minister, was physically attacked in parliament on Friday by a member of Poroshenko's faction, triggering a fistfight among lawmakers.

Support for his People's Front is virtually nonexistent, 1.3 percent, compared with 22 percent in last year's election, according to a September survey by the International Institute of Sociology in Kiev. 

Ukrainians are so disillusioned with their leaders that even after Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea and stoked a rebellion that's left 9,100 dead, the vast majority see the government in Kiev as a threat equal to or greater than the one in Moscow, a Razumkov Center poll found.

Thirty percent said graft and "inefficient authorities" are the biggest danger to the country, while 47 percent put those issues on par with Putin.

Just 18 percent named Russia their No. 1 worry.

The rest couldn't decide.

The problem isn't just that there are too many people in a position to extract bribes, it's that they aren't paid enough to stop them from seeking other income, according to Roman Nasirov, who runs the sprawling State Tax Service.

Nasirov said he's in the process of firing 17,000 people to cut his workforce by 30 percent so he can give everyone else a 40 percent raise.

The Interior Ministry, one of the largest employers in Ukraine, has already axed 23,000 jobs and that was just 14 percent of its staff, according to watchdog VoxUkraine.

The central bank said Wednesday its headcount was down to 6,300 on Dec. 1 and it plans to cut that by another 1,200 by year-end.

"It's very difficult to fight predatory behavior or petty corruption when our regional tax and customs officers are paid 2,500 to 3,000 hryvnia ($105 to $127) a month," Nasirov said.

By that logic, members of parliament would pay themselves enough to live within their official means, but the opposite is happening.

In a populist move to quell public outrage over corruption, lawmakers voted to slash and level salaries to about 6,000 hryvnia ($255) a month, less than it costs to rent a studio apartment near parliament.

The president only makes about 9,300 hryvnia ($395) a month, according to Radio Liberty.

Infrastructure Minister Andriy Pyvovarskyi, a former oil executive, was among the hundreds of patriotic Ukrainians who left private-sector jobs to join the government after Yanukovych's downfall.

Many have quit due to broken pledges of higher pay.

"It's ridiculous," Pyvovarskyi, 37, said in an interview before he submitted his resignation in protest of the wage issue on Friday.

This is a true tragedy."

Source: Bloomberg

Journalists Lead Fight Against Corruption In Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- A new investigative TV program airing in Ukraine called Schemes spotlights corruption, putting pressure on officials to act.

Natalie Sedletska presenting Schemes TV Program.

Sometimes it starts with a whistle-blower reaching out to a journalist.

Sometimes what looks like an unremarkable construction site in Kiev turns out to be a black hole of graft and corruption.

And sometimes it takes hours of tedious sifting through public records before the needle in the haystack is found that will lead to a far-reaching investigation and dramatic revelations.

This is how Natalie Sedletska and her colleagues report for the new, internationally recognized investigative journalism television program airing in Ukraine.

Launched in July 2015, Schemes: Corruption in Details is a joint weekly TV program of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service and Ukraine's First Public TV channel (UT-1).

It airs nationally in Ukrainian on the UT-1 channel and online.

The show has been viewed by almost 12 million people and is one of UT-1’s top five most-watched programs.

Following the Euro Maidan revolution that saw the ouster of former President Viktor Yanukovich in 2014, Ukrainians have higher expectations for transparency in their society and are frustrated by the continued lack of political will to investigate corruption, says Sedletska.

“In many ways, journalists in Ukraine are filling an institutional gap and are performing the role of law enforcement,” she said.

“We trace ill-gotten wealth, find people on the Interpol wanted list and question them, examine the business practices of oligarchs, and compare the reported assets and salaries with the extravagant lifestyles of officials.”

Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau is now reviewing materials gathered by the Schemes investigative team on some 15 cases to determine whether it should take action.

Some of the most prominent Schemes investigations have dealt with the palatial residences of Yanukovich-era oligarchs, questionable land deals involving current President Petro Poroshenko, murky insurance contracts held by the state railway that drove up passenger ticket prices, and an investigation of the head of Ukraine’s traffic police that led to his resignation.

A 2013 Vaclav Havel Journalism Fellow at RFE/RL, Sedletska previously worked as a TV journalist based in Kiev, and was well-known for her investigative journalism.

Reporting from RFE/RL’s Kiev bureau during the Euro Maidan revolution, she met with, photographed, and filmed the demonstrators, giving voice to their aspirations for a transparent civil society with respect for the rule of law.

When Yanukovich fled his lavish residence in February 2014, Sedletska was among the journalists on the scene just hours later who recovered thousands of documents he and his entourage had attempted to destroy.

The documents were published online as the Yanukovich Leaks project, and led to many more investigative reports.

As Ukraine continues to suffer as a result of fighting in the east and an economy in a tailspin, Sedletska says combatting corruption has to remain a top priority for the long-term future of the country.

“Corruption directly robs the nation of its wealth, and therefore undermines the country’s ability to fight the war and economic uncertainty,” she said.

“There will be no investment in a country with such institutionalized corruption, and the youth will have no hope for a dignified life in a country where you have to pay your way for every service and right.”

Source: Radio Free Europe

Russia To Suspend Ukraine Trade Pact

KIEV, Ukraine -- Russia's president Vladimir Putin has signed a decree that will exclude Ukraine from a free trade zone that includes former Soviet countries from 1 January.

Ukraine plans to join an EU free trade zone from that date.

Putin cited "extraordinary circumstances affecting the interests and economic security" of Russia.

Tensions between the countries have been high since Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula last year.

Kiev and the West have also accused Russia of aiding pro-Moscow separatists in the east of the country.

The decree will annul a Russian deal with Ukraine dating back to 2011, according to the Russian Interfax news agency.

Russia says the Ukraine-EU deal could lead to European imports coming across its own borders.

'Ready to pay the price' 

Ukraine expects some economic damage as a result of the decree, said President Petro Poroshenko.

"Ukraine is aware of these restrictions and the expected damage the Ukrainian economy. But we are ready to pay this price for our freedom and our European choice?" he said.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government has said it will ban trade with Crimea in 30 days' time.

But Russian economy minister Alexey Ulyukaev told the BBC that Russia was still open to negotiation with both Ukraine and the European Union.

"Negotiations will take place, of course," Ulyukaev said, adding that Russia hadn't "closed the door" on a deal if there is "good will" among the participants.

He said Russia had proposed "a three-way system of information exchange" in Ukraine, allowing the origin of products to be tracked.

That proposal was still on the table, he said, but after 1 January there would be "a different economic reality".

Source: BBC News

Monday, December 14, 2015

Vladimir Putin’s Reign Of Torture And Kidnapping In Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian human rights activists believe that over 87 percent of Ukrainian soldiers and half the civilians who have been taken prisoner by Kremlin-backed, pro-Russian militants in the Donbass have been subjected to torture or ill treatment.

Dictator Vladimir Putin addresses employees of Crimea's state electricity company as Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov, second right, and Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak, right, listen in Simferopol, Crimea, December 2.

Additionally, in over 40 percent of the so-called "interrogations," key roles were played by mercenaries from the Russian Federation or by people who identified themselves as Russian military personnel.

The coalition Justice for Peace in Donbas has just released a report titled "Those Who Survived Hell."

The study is based mainly on a survey of 165 people, both soldiers and civilians, who were held captive by the militants.

In many cases, even those who were not themselves tortured report witnessing or hearing the torture of others.

One-third of the soldiers in the study, as well as 16 percent of the civilians, had personally witnessed a death as the result of torture.

Oleh Martynenko, one of the authors of the report, notes that the conditions in which prisoners and hostages are held do not meet any international standards.

In two-thirds of the imprisonment sites, no medical care is available.

Disturbingly, however, the presence of medical staff is no guarantee of greater protection.

The researchers found cases where medical workers had taken part in torture, by bringing the victim around in order for the torture to continue.

Martynenko says that the researchers had not anticipated the high ratio of mercenaries and Russian military personnel implicated in the torture of prisoners.

This is grounds, he adds, for charging Russia with involvement in war crimes and other offenses—offenses that cannot fall under any "amnesty" currently promoted by Western leaders as part of a peace deal for the region.

Anyone is at risk 

Groups organizing prisoner exchanges say that by July 1 of this year, around 2,500 hundred prisoners had been freed, and another 500 remained in captivity.

Ukraine's Interior Ministry says that over 6,000 people have been taken prisoner or have disappeared without a trace, with the fate of 1,500 still unknown.

According to the study, most of the people who have been taken prisoner by the militants are local residents of areas under militant control, although some were simply trying to reach relatives or friends and were detained at checkpoints without explanation.

Most chillingly, residents were taken from their homes or workplaces without warrants, and often the militants would then steal their property.

Anyone can be targeted, the coalition points out.

One person recounts how six men wearing camouflage gear decorated with St. George ribbons and brandishing Kalashnikov rifles burst into his home and knocked down his elderly mother.

He was dragged from the sofa and had his arms bound behind his back.

The soldiers removed his computer, telephone and wallet, and even took a bottle of vodka.

Oleksandra Matviychuk, one of the authors of the report, explains that people are usually accused of holding the wrong (pro-Ukrainian) views, of speaking Ukrainian, or of having Ukrainian flags and other symbols in their home.

Or the militants accuse them of having taken part in Euromaidan or pro-unity marches.

Sometimes they're accused of having photographed strategic places. 

Maria Varfolomeyeva, a 30-year-old journalist who had stayed in Luhansk to care for her elderly grandmother, has now been held hostage since January.

The militants claimed that, as an artillery spotter for the Ukrainian army, she had been photographing the militants' residences, and threatened her with a 15-year "sentence."

There had been no shelling in Luhansk for months before she was seized.

Negotiations are still under way to obtain her release, almost 11 months later.

Just under 12 percent of civilians detained were women.

Half of these, including women who were pregnant or elderly, faced ill treatment.

Over 18 percent of all of those surveyed had been kicked or punched, and almost 22 percent were beaten with the militants' rifles.

Almost 6 percent experienced other forms of torture, including electric shocks, squeezing of their toes or fingers with tweezers, multiple bullet wounds from shock pistols or similar weapons, and the use of sharp items to cause injury.

Almost 75 percent of the civilians in captivity had been threatened with firearms or other weapons.

A woman taken prisoner said of her experience, "I was beaten by a man who called himself Oleg Kubrak.

He threatened to rape me, and slashed my arms, legs and neck with a knife."

Another prisoner recounted, "The militants began to hit me with the butt of their machine guns around the head, back, to my arms. They pulled me arms behind my back. Each tried to hit me, each tried to grab me by the hair."

Russian captors 

Of the Ukrainian soldiers and volunteer battalion members who were captured, 83 percent reported that they had been seized as a result of military clashes and with the direct involvement of Russian Federation forces.

One Russian soldier, nicknamed "the Greek," even presented a document identifying himself as a special response Spetsnaz officer from Moscow; another was commander of the Pskov paratrooper unit.

The study showed that over 87 percent of the Ukrainian soldiers and volunteer fighters captured faced especially brutal treatment, including physical violence and deliberate maiming, as well as humiliation.

To intimidate others, and to show off their captives as "trophies," the militants have quite openly paraded the men they have taken captive.

The most notorious occasion occurred in 2014, on Ukraine's Independence Day, August 24: militants from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic staged a shameful march through Donetsk of Ukrainian prisoners.

A similar display took place in January this year.

Much of the above treatment, as well as documented cases of abductions and extrajudicial executions, fall within the scope of the International Criminal Court.

Ukrainian human rights activists are adamant that Ukraine must ratify the Rome Statute as a matter of priority, so that those guilty of grave war crimes can be brought to answer for their offenses.

Source: Newsweek