Sunday, May 29, 2016

Russia Derides Ukraine's Hiring Of Ex-Nato Chief

KIEV, Ukraine -- Russian MPs say appointment of Anders Fogh Rasmussen as special adviser is a ‘hostile gesture'.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s appointment was described as an ‘ostentatious show’ with no ‘military or even practical purpose’.

Ukraine’s president has appointed a former NATO secretary general as a special adviser, drawing a derisive reaction from Russia.

Petro Poroshenko announced the appointment of Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former prime minister of Denmark who was NATO secretary general from 2009 to 2014, on Friday.

MPs in Russia, which has viewed NATO’s eastward expansion as a security threat, were quick to speak out against the appointment.

“This is of course in large part a gesture, but it’s a gesture that will be backed up by actions. And it’s a hostile gesture,” Leonid Kalashnikov, deputy head of the foreign affairs committee in Russia’s lower house of parliament, told Interfax.

Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of parliament, called Rasmussen’s appointment a “ostentatious show” with no “military or even practical purpose”.

He likened it to Ukraine’s appointment of the former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, who is now governor of Odessa, and other foreigners.

“All this buffoonery serves one goal: to keep Ukraine in the centre of attention with its western partners at any cost,” Kosachyov said.

“Because if this attention weakens, and they suggest that Ukraine engage in solving its own problems and no longer blame Russia or the ‘difficult legacy of the past’, it will be like death for the Kiev regime.”

Kosachyov added that it “isn’t pleasing” that Kiev would consult such an anti-Russian figure as Rasmussen.

On Saturday Poroshenko shared on Facebook an article quoting Kosachyov that was headlined “Russia isn’t pleased with the appointment of Rasmussen as Poroshenko’s adviser”.

On Thursday G7 leaders at a summit in Japan said sanctions against Russia would not be lifted until it fully implemented the Minsk peace plan for eastern Ukraine.

On Friday Vladimir Putin said Russia could target Romania and Poland for hosting US-led NATO missile defence bases.

“If yesterday in those areas of Romania people simply did not know what it means to be in the crosshairs, then today we will be forced to carry out certain measures to ensure our security,” Putin said at a news conference in Athens with the Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras.

It is not clear what Rasmussen will focus on in his new position.

He said in a Facebook post that he would do his “utmost to promote security and reforms in Ukraine”, including in the fight against corruption.

He also called the security situation in eastern Ukraine, where a ceasefire with Russia-backed separatists has been frequently violated, “alarming”.

More than 9,400 people have been killed since the conflict began in 2014.

Rasmussen’s appointment in Ukraine and the Russian reaction comes days after the two countries cooperated on a high-profile prisoner exchange.

Putin pardoned a Ukrainian pilot, Nadiya Savchenko, while Poroshenko pardoned two Russian soldiers captured in eastern Ukraine.

Source: The Guardian

No Justice For Eastern Ukraine's Victims Of Torture

KIEV, Ukraine -- Alexandra showed me her fingernails and sighed in despair, “See, they don’t grow. I used to have long nails, but they broke them to the roots.”

A soldier from a Ukrainian self-defense battalion carries his weapon as he stands guard at a checkpoint in the southern coastal town of Mariupol.

Her damaged fingers are among the many injuries reminding her of the time she spent in detention.

As the war raged in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian separatist forces and Ukrainian army, 55-year-old Alexandra stayed in her home village of Pervomayskoe, just 20 kilometres from Donetsk, the capital of the so-called DNR (the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic).

When Ukrainian forces took the village back from the separatists, she organized the residents to protest the placement of heavy artillery there, fearing that it would attract retaliatory fire from Donetsk.

Despite the chaos of the war, she tried to keep up with her professional duties, she said.

As an employee of the state gas company, she continued to maintain records of gas usage by having residents send their account numbers and usage data to her mobile phone.

Alexandra explained that it was because of these numbers found on her phone that the members of the Ukrainian volunteer battalions operating in the area stormed her house and dragged her away, accusing her of being a radio operator and a spotter for separatist forces.

They held her blindfolded and handcuffed in one of their unofficial detention facilities, where they tried to beat a confession out of her: they beat her on the head with a rubber hammer, threw her against the walls, and broke her nose, jaw, and cheek bone.

They gave her almost no food, didn’t let her go to the toilet, and held her for two weeks on a bare concrete floor.

A record of Alexandra’s medical examination, done after she was released, reads like an endless encyclopaedia of injuries and ailments: it is difficult to believe that someone’s body could suffer all of these and still function.

As horrible as it sounds, Alexandra’s story of captivity and torture is far from unique.

After the Ukrainian authorities and the separatists began exchanging detainees as part of the Minsk peace process agreements, the true scale of abuses committed by both sides during the conflict has started to come to light.

During a trip to Donetsk region last week, together with colleagues from Human Rights Watch, and during our previous field research in eastern Ukraine, we interviewed many former detainees, most of them civilians.

Now, some of them are trying to seek justice for the abuses they suffered, but the process is not easy.

On the territories controlled by the Ukrainian forces the same volunteer battalions that committed the abuses are now running the show, having been formally incorporated into various military and law enforcement structures.

Few lawyers dare to take the cases of these victims, fearing retaliation from the authorities who are quick to label anyone challenging them a traitor.

And the victims themselves are scared to pursue the cases: despite the formal exchanges, many of them are still on the official wanted list, and almost all have relatives who stayed behind and would be in danger if they speak out or file complaints.

Alexandra told me that after a Russian media outlet published her story, local authorities in her home village visited her elderly parents trying to find her whereabouts, and the commandant’s office summoned her sister, and forced her to write a statement that Alexandra has no complaints about her treatment.

Some of the people we spoke to, including Alexandra, are preparing applications to the European Court of Human Rights.

However, under the Court’s rules, before an application is admitted the applicant must attempt to seek justice at home.

This is hardly an option for those who cannot cross into government controlled Ukraine for fear of reprisals and further abuse.

Since the beginning of conflict in eastern Ukraine in spring 2014, the Ukrainian Office of the Military Prosecutor has received scores of complaints and reports alleging abuses by members of these volunteer battalions, but prosecutions in such cases, particularly for such grave crimes as illegal detentions and torture, are hardly ever in the news.

The prospect of bringing to account perpetrators of grave human rights abuses from among the separatists are even weaker.

While the DNR and the other self-proclaimed entity, LNR (Luhansk People’s Republic), have established law enforcement structures and courts, we are not aware of any cases pursued against members of the pro-Russian separatist forces.

Even if cases were brought in these courts, given the unrecognised status of both entities and the environment in which these courts operate, the value of such cases in terms of their legality would be, at best, questionable.

Ukrainian prosecutors routinely open cases against perpetrators of abuses from among the separatists—but have no practical way of pursuing them, unless the members of the separatist forces would choose to come to the other side and hand themselves in.

Yet the legal and security challenges that prevent people on both sides from getting redress for the harm they have suffered and pursuing accountability are not the only sign that a resolution to the conflict, which left thousands killed and injured and hundreds of thousands displaced, is far from in sight.

According to different estimates, dozens, if not hundreds, of people remain in unacknowledged and unlawful detention on both sides.

The numbers cited by the Ukrainian authorities and self-proclaimed authorities in Donetsk are difficult to verify, and both sides might have a vested interest in inflating them, given the possibility of further exchanges.

However, Amnesty International has received reliable information—including from those recently released from detention—which suggests that the problem is real and requires immediate resolution.

For example, witnesses gave us the names of dozens of people on both sides held without any due process, access to lawyers, and sometimes even without contact with the outside world.

We are requesting clarifications from the authorities on both sides, and demanding the release of all those unlawfully detained.

In the DNR, such unlawful detention is formalized: the “Ministry of State Security” (MGB) claims to be operating under a decree issued by the separatist authorities which allows it to keep detainees for up to 30 days in “administrative” detention with no procedural guarantees.

We met relatives of those who spent much longer than a month in MGB cellars.

Some of them have been simply handed a notice that their “detention” was extended by a “court”, when in reality they never left their cells.

Commentators worried about the fragility of the ceasefire in Ukraine usually refer to the sounds of shelling and shooting which can be heard almost every night in the east.

But what makes reconciliation even harder to achieve is the ongoing lawlessness combined with impunity for past atrocities, and denial of justice to the ordinary citizens who bore the brunt of the war.

Source: Newsweek

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Ukraine Violence Ramps Up As Efforts To End Separatist Rebellion Stall

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine is showing signs of backsliding on reforms and a cease-fire agreement with Russian-backed separatist forces in the east as Europe weighs in June whether to continue sanctions against Russia for its role in the conflict.

Ukrainian soldiers carry coffins with the bodies of servicemen Sergey Baula,46, and Nikolay Kulyba, 56, who were killed in eastern Ukraine on May 26, 2016, in Kiev.

Martin Jaeger, a spokesman for the German Foreign Ministry told Reuters on Friday that his government would back the gradual lifting of sanctions against Russia if it makes progress on implementing the cease-fire agreement.

“Sanctions are no end in themselves," Jaeger said.

Germany, which has provided support to Ukraine since its conflict with Russia began in 2014, wants Ukraine's government to implement a law governing elections in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, which were seized in April 2014 by militants allegedly supplied and backed by Russian forces.

Russia, as always continues to lie, and has denied involvement.

Ukraine wants cease-fire violations by the militants to end before it passes the election law, Peter Wittig, Germany's ambassador to Washington, told USA TODAY.

For the government in Kiev to lag behind on its obligations under the cease-fire “would give additional weight to those voices who want the lifting of sanctions,” Wittig said.

Both Italy and Hungary, which seek to resume trade with Russia, have said the renewal of sanctions would not be automatic when the European Commission considers them at the end of June.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said this week that Ukraine has failed to implement its obligations under the agreement signed by the two countries and separatist leaders in Sept. 5 in the Belarus capital Minsk.

This week, separatist forces launched an artillery attack that caused the most Ukrainian national casualties in a year.

Seven soldiers were killed and nine were wounded in a 24-hour period that ended Tuesday, according to Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council.

Separatists on Friday launched 28 attacks on Ukrainian forces, Ukraine’s defense ministry reported. 

On May 9, which Russia celebrates as Victory day against the Nazis in World War II, a military parade in Donetsk included tanks and rocket launchers that shouldn’t have been there under the Minsk agreement because of the city’s proximity to the front line, according to media reports and photographs.

Other recent developments in Ukraine cast a shadow on the government's commitment to fight corruption and honor a free press, changes that its citizens clamored for when a popular uprising ousted the Russian-backed government of President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, a chocolate tycoon who rules a country ranked by Transparency International as the most corrupt in Europe, this month oversaw the appointment of a political crony as prosecutor general in charge of fighting corruption.

Ukraine’s parliament approved the appointment Yuriy Lutsenko, head of Poroshenko’s party in parliament.

Also, the Security Service of Ukraine announced it has opened an espionage investigation of journalists whose names appeared on a separatist database made public by activists linked to Ukraine’s interior ministry.

Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who is now at the Brookings Institution, said, “Anything that suggests the Ukrainians are moving in a way that would infringe on the freedom of media would be a bad sign.”

The Organization for Cooperation and Security in Europe, which has been monitoring the cease-fire in Ukraine, called for an investigation of attacks on at least five journalists or media offices in Ukraine since the list was published.

France , together with Germany, agrees that the accord should be implemented in full, said French Ambassador to Washington Gérard Araud.

Yet, "there is a growing pressure in Europe for the lifting of sanctions, because as you know it's costly also for us," Araud said.

The pending election law for the militant-controlled east would determine who is eligible to vote and ensure the elections are fair.

If the elections produce a legitimate representative for the breakaway regions, “then some things would be a lot easier,” German Ambassador Wittig said.

After elections, Ukraine’s government is expected to proceed on constitutional changes to provide self-rule in the separatist region and amnesty to pro-Russian militant leaders.

Pifer said Russia argues that neither side has fully complied with the cease-fire terms.

But the European Union is united in the belief that Russia bears primary blame for the conflict, and Russian support for the rebels might have been greater without the sanctions, Pifer said.

But Europe is fairly united in the opinion that "Russian behavior might have been even worse without the sanctions,” he said.

Source: USA Today

On Ukraine, The E.U. Should Not Follow Russia’s Script

WASHINGTON, DC -- European Union sanctions on Russia for the war it has waged in eastern Ukraine will be up for renewal in a few weeks, and some governments have been looking for a way to loosen them even though Russia has never observed the terms of a 15-month-old peace deal it signed.

Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko attends a news conference in Kiev, Ukraine, on Friday, May 27.

So it should not have been a surprise when Vladi­mir Putin’s government on Wednesday released the Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko, a national hero Moscow had been holding as a de facto hostage, in exchange for two Russian military officers captured inside Ukraine last year.

Putin not only got his soldiers back but also bought a chance that E.U. leaders will seize on his “concession” as a pretext to betray Ukraine.

For the moment, Ukrainians are rightly celebrating the return of Ms. Savchenko, a military pilot who was abducted from the front in eastern Ukraine while fighting with a volunteer battalion in 2014.

After illegally transporting her to Russia, the Putin regime blamed her for the deaths of two journalists who were killed by mortar fire inside Ukraine.

Though the evidence showed she had nothing to do with what was, in any case, a legitimate military attack, she was sentenced to 22 years in prison in March.

Ms. Savchenko gained renown by defying the Putin regime.

She went on a hunger strike, refused to cooperate in her trial and offered the judge a raised middle finger.

While in Moscow’s detention, she was elected to the Ukrainian parliament, making it virtually impossible for President Petro Poroshenko to implement Ukraine’s side of the peace deal before her release.

The prisoner swap consequently raises hopes among the sponsors of that deal, Britain and France, as well as in the Obama administration, that it will finally move forward.

That looks like a long shot.

The deal calls for elections in Russian-occupied territories and a modification of the Ukrainian constitution to give local authorities more power.

But Moscow has never complied with what should have been the first step of the process: a cease-fire and withdrawal of heavy weapons.

On Tuesday, even as the prisoner swap was being arranged, Ukrainian authorities said seven of their soldiers had been killed and nine wounded by shelling and other attacks in the previous 24 hours.

E.U. leaders have repeatedly resolved not to lift economic sanctions on Russia until the peace deal, known as Minsk 2, is fully implemented and Ukraine regains control of the border with Russia.

The E.U.’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, told us this month that she expected a renewal of the sanctions before they expire in July because Russia had not met its Minsk obligations.

Putin evidently has no intention of complying with the deal.

Instead, he is hoping to use continued conflict in Ukraine to destabilize the shaky democratic government in Kiev while inducing the Europeans to lift or loosen sanctions anyway.

Some in Europe will be tempted to follow Moscow’s script, which would lead to the destruction of a free and independent Ukraine.

The Obama administration should work to ensure that they do not.

Source: The Washington Post

Last Soviet Leader Gorbachev Banned From Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine has banned Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, after he came out in support of Russia's annexation of Crimea.

Ex-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev told The Sunday Times magazine he supported Russia's annexation of Crimea.

Gorbachev's comments on Crimea are the latest wedge between Ukraine and Russia.

The two neighboring nations have been in conflict since 2014 when pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine and Russian forces annexed the Crimean Peninsula following a political crisis in Ukraine.

Ukraine's Security Service told CNN the ban was because of Gorbachev's "public support of military annexation of Crimea."

Gorbachev's spokesman, Vladimir Polyakovm, said the former leader knew Ukraine was mulling the ban and had earlier brushed it off, saying he did not travel to the country anyway.

The ban comes after Gorbachev gave an interview this week to The Sunday Times magazine, saying he would have acted the same way as Russian President Vladimir Putin on Crimea if he were Russia's leader today.

"I'm always with the free will of the people and most in Crimea wanted to be reunited with Russia," Gorbachev said in the interview.

He also accused the United States of "rubbing its hands with glee" over the demise of the Soviet Union.

Gorbachev led the Soviet Union from 1985 until his resignation in 1991.

During that time, he embarked on change and increased openness to the West in a policy that was known as perestroika.

He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990 for helping end the Cold War.

When asked by Russian government news agency Tass to comment on the Ukraine ban, Gorbachev said:

"No. Commenting is your cup of tea," and that "those in the journalistic profession have a great deal to talk about and to discuss."

The Crimean Peninsula was annexed through a controversial referendum, which returned a large majority in support of joining Russia.

The United States and Europe introduced a wide range of sanctions against Russia in an effort to pressure Moscow to back down from aggressive moves against Ukraine.

Most recently, the two countries bickered over Nadiya Savchenko, a Ukrainian military pilot who was detained by Russia for two years, and two Russian soldiers held in Ukraine.

The pilot was released this week in a prisoner exchange.

The two Russians arrested by Ukraine were sent home as part of the exchange, Tass said.

Source: CNN

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Savchenko's Return Heralds New Turmoil In Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- After being freed from a Russian jail, Ukrainian pilot Nadezhda Savchenko stands to emerge as a wild new force in Ukraine's already volatile politics.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, right, looks at Ukrainian jailed pilot Nadezhda Savchenko during their meting in the Presidential Office in Kiev, Ukraine, Wednesday, May 25, 2016. Russia has released jailed pilot Nadezhda Savchenko, as part of a swap for two Russian servicemen imprisoned in Ukraine.

Savchenko's adamant defiance of Russian authorities and the Russian justice system has made her a national icon, a widely revered symbol of courage and perseverance for a nation reeling from an economic meltdown and a devastating war in the east against Russian-back separatists.

The 35-year-old's blunt candor and passionate ways pose a tough challenge to Ukraine's political clans, who have been locked in fierce power battles that go back decades.

The prospects of more political infighting raises new threats to the stability of Ukraine — and would be welcome news for the Kremlin, which is eager to see its neighbor plunge deeper into turmoil. 

Savchenko's return home was a personal triumph for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who rallied international leaders to press Russia for her release.

But even though he may have hoped her return boosts his sagging popularity, Savchenko's entry into politics is likely to challenge him greatly.

Many Ukrainians hold Poroshenko responsible for a moribund economy, a dramatic fall in living standards and his failure to stem rampant official corruption.

Some hard-line nationalists, including members of volunteer battalions who fought in the east, see the president as too weak in defending Ukraine's national interests.

They have vowed to block any legislation that would give broader powers to the separatist eastern regions in line with the February 2015 Minsk peace agreement brokered by France and Germany.

Some nationalist forces have seen that deal as betrayal of Ukraine's interests.

Poroshenko has defended the Minsk agreement and accused Russia of failing to honor it as sporadic clashes in the east continued despite the truce.

Savchenko, an ardent nationalist captured by separatists in June 2014 while she acted as an artillery spotter for a volunteer battalion in eastern Ukraine, will likely take an unflinching stance on the war in the east and oppose any compromise with Russia-backed rebels.

She also is likely to become a voice for masses angry with endemic corruption, which has run amok despite official promises to eradicate it, eroding trust in the government and sapping the hopes raised by the 2014 ouster of Ukraine's former, Moscow-friendly leader.

Even before Savchenko's return, Ukraine's ruling coalition was embroiled in bitter political infighting.

Following months of jockeying, Poroshenko managed to replace Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk with his loyalist, Volodymyr Groysman.

Still the battle left the parties led by Poroshenko and Yatsenyuk in a fragile coalition, united mostly in their desire to avoid an early election.

Savchenko is already a member of parliament, voted in while she was languishing in a Russian jail.

She has not yet talked about her political plans — but her return could consolidate those unhappy with the status quo and increase pressures for an early election.

Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Ukrainian prime minister whose party got Savchenko into parliament in 2014 when her Russian ordeal just began, hopes now to emerge as the main winner.

Tymoshenko, who spent 2 ½ years in a Ukrainian prison in 2011-2014 as the former pro-Moscow president sought to eliminate her as a political rival, expected a triumphant return to the political scene after his downfall.

Instead, she saw her popularity dwindle as many saw her as a relic of the old political system.

Since then, Tymoshenko managed to rebuild her popularity, riding the growing wave of anger with the anemic economy and official corruption.

"Tymoshenko is pushing for new elections, and Savchenko's voice may help a lot," said Vadim Karasyov, an independent Kiev-based political analyst.

Still, Tymoshenko will likely find it hard to control the unruly military pilot.

Savchenko, who is fully aware of her nationwide popularity, is unlikely to take a back seat.

The tensions between the two were immediately visible Wednesday during a greeting ceremony at Kiev's airport, when Savchenko dodged Tymoshenko's attempts to kiss her and refused to take flowers from her.

"Savchenko's uncompromising stance and her unpredictability would be a problem for both herself and for those who would try to use her," said Volodymyr Fesenko, head of Penta think-tank in Kiev. 

"Savchenko's charisma can unite the right and the ultra-right forces, which believe that the ideals of revolution must be defended," he said.

"That scenario may trigger street protests and new parliamentary elections."

As Ukraine seems ready to sink deeper into turmoil, one man is watching with glee: Russia's President Vladimir Putin, whose relentless pressure on Ukraine has been one factor crippling his southern neighbor.

As parts of the Minsk peace agreement remain deeply divisive in Ukraine, the Russian leader could highlight Ukraine's failure to meet its end of the deal and push for lifting Western sanctions against Russia.

The Kremlin could also point to Ukraine's political infighting to support its contention that the nation is dominated by nationalists who are eager to resort to violence and shun compromise.

Source: AP

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Savchenko Returns To Ukraine In Russian Prisoner Swap

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukrainian pilot Nadia Savchenko has been freed after nearly two years in Russian captivity.

Nadia Savchenko talks to the media at Boryspil International airport outside Kiev on May 25 after being released from imprisonment in Russia.

Savchenko, whose defiance in Russian detention made her a national hero, arrived in Kiev on May 25 aboard Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's plane.

She was reportedly exchanged for two Russians convicted of fighting alongside pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine, in a swap whose details were shrouded in secrecy and confusion. 

Savchenko's custody and trial have been condemned by Kiev and Western governments critical of Russia's role in the two-year-old conflict in eastern Ukraine, where Russia occupied and seized Crimea and Moscow has been accused of supplying troops, heavy weapons, and other support in fighting that has killed more than 9,400 people.

"I'm once again ready to offer my life for Ukraine on the battlefield," the 35-year-old Savchenko told a crowd that included her mother and sister as well as journalists gathered for her arrival at Kiev’s Boryspil International Airport.

At a later ceremony to honor Savchenko, Poroshenko said Ukraine would regain control of territory in eastern Ukraine that is controlled by Russia-backed separatists along with the Russia-occupied Crimea "just as we have got back Savchenko."

Savchenko claims she was abducted by Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine in June 2014 and smuggled across the border into Russia.

She was sentenced by a Russian court in March to 22 years in prison for her alleged role in the deaths of two Russian journalists in the conflict zone. 

Savchenko has denied any involvement in their deaths.

The Kremlin said on May 25 that Savchenko had been pardoned before confirming that the two Russians held by Kiev -- Aleksandr Aleksandrov and Yevgeny Yerofeyev -- had arrived in Moscow. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in televised remarks on May 25 that he had decided to release Savchenko after the relatives of the killed journalists petitioned him to show her mercy.

In some of the first reaction to the news, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said Savchenko's release was "long-awaited good news."

While in prison, Savchenko launched a number of hunger strikes to protest her detention, for stretches refusing both food and water.

Western leaders called the charges trumped up, with the United States and the European Union repeatedly calling for her release.

The Belarusian Nobel Prize winning writer Svetlana Alexievich described her as the "Ukrainian Joan of Arc" after the 15th-century French heroine.

Aleksandrov and Yerofeyev were captured last year.

They acknowledged being Russian officers, but the Russian Defense Ministry claimed they had resigned from active duty.

They were tried in a Keiv court, which sentenced them each to 14 years in prison after finding them guilty of terrorism and waging war in eastern Ukraine.

One day after the two Russians were sentenced, Poroshenko announced on April 19 that Kiev and Moscow had agreed on a possible framework to free Savchenko, who was elected in absentia to Ukraine's parliament in October 2014.

Savchenko's release came a day after Putin, Poroshenko, and the leaders of France and Germany spoke by telephone about ways to settle the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Western officials welcomed the news of Savchenko's release.

"Finally!" Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite said on Twitter.

"Glory to Ukraine!"

EU foreign-affairs chief Federica Mogherini hailed the release as "long-awaited good news."

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he was "happy and relieved" at her release. 

Details of the swap emerged through sources and lawyers for Savchenko and the two Russians with little official confirmation, making the story far from clear.

Early on May 25, Aleksandrov’s lawyer Valetin Rybin was quoted by the TASS news agency as saying both the Russians submitted petitions to Poroshenko for pardons.

There was confusion as well.

Early reports said Poroshenko's plane was on its way to Rostov-on-Don to pick up Savchenko, only to be contradicted a bit later by a report by the Ukrainian news agency UNIAN, which said the plane was already in Rostov, arriving overnight.

Hours later, however, all was clear.

Savchenko was back in Ukraine and the two Russians were on home soil as well.

Russia's relations with neighboring Ukraine have been hostile since so-called EuroMaidan unrest in 2014 forced out Moscow-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and installed a pro-Western administration.

Russia occupied then annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in March 2014.

Moscow said it was protecting the local Russian-speaking population from persecution by the new authorities in Kiev, but Western governments called it an illegal land-grab and imposed sanctions on Moscow.

Soon after, Moscow-backed separatists began an armed rebellion in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, an area with a large Russian-speaking community.

Fighting between the rebels and Ukraine's forces has killed more than 9,400 people.

A fragile cease-fire has been in place since last year, but there is no permanent settlement to the conflict.

Analysts predict that Savchenko's return will be seen in Ukraine as a rare political victory for Poroshenko, who has been struggling with economic troubles and corruption, squabbles among his allies, and simmering violence in the east of the country.

Source: Radio Free Europe

Monday, May 23, 2016

How Can Ukraine Recover Its Plundered Assets

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine has suffered from a negligent and criminal administration, then revolution, war, invasion, annexation and a situation close to economic collapse.

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich gives a wink to Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin in Moscow on December 17, 2013. The author writes that it is unclear how much senior officials stole during Yanukovych’s four years in office. However, the numbers are substantial. Because officials of the former Ukraine regime have little trust in the Russian legal system, most of their assets are located in Western or offshore jurisdictions.

One can argue that turning to legal solutions for recovery of some of the losses that Ukraine has suffered is not realistic or practical.

While it is true that Ukraine cannot frogmarch members of the previous regime or Russian officials immediately into court and make them pay for Ukraine’s losses, there are legal processes with real-world consequences that are worthwhile to initiate.

At a minimum, pressure can be brought through legal mechanisms to recover assets and encourage payment.

In a recent paper for the Atlantic Council, I look at how Ukraine can potentially recover from the losses it has suffered from kleptocrats and Russia over the last few years.

It is unclear how much senior officials stole during former President Viktor Yanukovych’s four years in office.

However, the numbers are substantial.

(I focus on VAT and public procurement fraud, as these tend to be more traceable in terms of how the fraud was committed and we can more easily put a number on the amount of much of potential plunder; for example, the annual procurement budget was approximately $12 billion.)

Even taking a conservative estimate of the scale of fraud for just VAT and public procurement, one ends up with a figure of $30 billion.

Of course, there were many other forms of state-sponsored fraud.

At first sight, it looks difficult to do much about the stolen state assets and resources.

The former officials are all beyond the reach of the Ukrainian courts, largely on Russian Federation territory, and few of the assets are in Ukraine.

However, the situation is not as bleak as it first appears.

Because the officials of the former regime have little trust in the Russian legal system, most of their assets are located in Western or offshore-related Western jurisdictions.

The location of those assets potentially provides significant leverage with which to bring about asset recovery.

One approach worth considering is deploying a plea bargaining procedure, and Georgia offers a precedent.

In Georgia after the Rose Revolution, former officials were given a choice between criminal prosecution and returning stolen assets.

Approximately $1 billion was recovered.

Ukraine’s legal system is much more heavily compromised than in Georgia after the Rose Revolution.

It would be difficult to create an effective Ukrainian procedure that would permit such recoveries quickly.

However, it may be possible to start with U.S. (and possibly U.K.) procedures being deployed to assist Ukraine since many of the assets of former regime officials are held in Western jurisdictions.

Western states, most notably the United States, may have jurisdiction where assets have been stolen or otherwise illegally obtained.

In plea bargaining procedures, the aim is to first create a credible threat.

This would involve opening up criminal investigations against former officials; seeking red notices making it impossible for them to leave Russia and running in parallel a civil asset recovery operation. 

Having established a credible threat, then a credible offer would be made.

That would involve dropping charges and giving former officials visa rights in the EU and the United States.

In return, the former official would have to surrender at least 80 percent of the illegally obtained assets in his or her possession.

For a former official living in Moscow wondering how long the Putin regime will survive, such a plea bargain may make good sense.

While it is unpalatable that former officials are not held accountable, it may be better for Ukraine if the assets are substantially returned and can be used for the good of the Ukrainian people.

While plea bargaining procedures can work, relying on U.S. procedures is not enough.

At the very least, U.S. officials will need Ukrainian cooperation in providing evidence of stolen assets.

Another concern is whether Western states would be willing to help given the danger that returned assets will only be stolen again.

The underlying problem is a Ukrainian one: the extent to which the Ukrainian political and bureaucratic class is still substantially controlled by individuals who continue to steal.

This Ukrainian reality has to be faced if Western cooperation is going to be extended and be effective. 

Turning to the losses from occupation by the Russian Federation, Ukraine should do two things.

First, Ukraine should properly account for its losses.

While Ukraine is unlikely to obtain recovery immediately, it is worth fully accounting for the losses of invasion and occupation, loss of life, property, destruction of businesses and infrastructure and losses of internally displaced people.

At some point, there will be a settlement.

By establishing the losses that that Ukraine has suffered, Kiev will have a number to negotiate with in future settlement negotiations.

To underpin the credibility of the process, Ukraine should establish an international accounting board which will verify and certify the losses.

Second, Ukraine should focus on proceedings before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, France.

The European Convention on Human Rights gives Ukraine the means to account for its losses before an international tribunal.

Furthermore, there is relevant and helpful case law as a result of a series of cases over the occupation of northern Cyprus.

Ukraine has already launched two cases before the ECHR, but the country should take a more strategic approach.

As the international accounting process gets under way, it should launch a series of cases, including ones for internally displaced persons in the Donbas and small business owners in Crimea, and have a rolling series of cases.

This approach allows cases to move speedily toward the ECHR, generates case law, and builds pressure for a settlement.

None of these solutions is immediate, but it does build pressure on former officials and the Russian Federation and it moves Ukraine forward to a point that recovery becomes possible.

Source: Newsweek

Sunday, May 22, 2016

European Security Group Mulls Police Mission To Ukraine

WASHINGTON, DC -- The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe is considering sending an armed police mission to help conduct elections in conflict-torn eastern Ukraine, if there is agreement on all sides.

Lamberto Zannier

OSCE Secretary General Lamberto Zannier told the Associated Press in an interview Thursday that his group was ready to send hundreds of policemen, potentially armed, to ensure the vote takes place in a secure and safe atmosphere.

"It would be a police operation to help maintain law and order in this area and ... to help provide a safe environment for the elections to take place," Zannier told the AP.

As part of an internationally brokered peace agreement, Ukraine must hold local elections in two eastern regions controlled by Russian-backed rebels, but progress on ending the two-year conflict that has already killed more than 9,300 people has been slow.

Moscow says Ukraine must pass the necessary legislation to conduct the vote.

Kiev insists the separatists must first cease all hostilities and pull back weapons and Ukraine must restore control over its border with Russia.

The sides are also at odds over the degree of autonomy that will be granted to the separatist regions and the details of a prisoner exchange and amnesty for the rebels.

Zannier said the mission, which has been requested by Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, could work alongside the local police force in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to prevent criminal activity and help international observers monitor the vote.

The mission would only be able to deploy after both sides fully commit to a ceasefire.

"It is a complicated scenario, but it's certainly something that we can do if, as I say, everybody agrees," Zannier said.

Russia, however, has spoken against such a mission, with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov calling the issue "an artificial problem" and saying unarmed monitors of OSCE would be enough for the vote. 

Ukranian Ambassador Valeriy Chaly told the AP, "As of today, it is impossible to conduct normal elections."

Chaly added: "Russia will continue playing its game and try to do what it wants to do — for Ukraine to have this cancerous tumor. ... This position is unacceptable."

Source: AP

Australian Law Firm Sues Russia For Downing Of Flight MH17 Over Ukraine In 2014

SYDNEY, Australia -- An Australian law firm has filed a claim against Russia and President Putin seeking millions for each passenger killed in the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014.

All 298 people on board died.

Relatives of MH17 victims intend to seek compensation before the European Court of Human Rights, according to Saturday's edition of the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.

The Malaysian Airlines plane was shot down while en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur in 2014, with 298 people on board.

The aircraft was flying above eastern Ukraine at a time of heavy fighting between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian forces.

A Dutch-led team of international investigators concluded that it was shot down by a surface-to-air missile.

The Dutch Safety Board, however, was not able to say who fired the missile.

Many Western officials and experts have blamed pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine for shooting down the civilian plane.

Damages as deterrent 

According to the report, the Sydney-based law firm LHD named Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Federation as respondents for their damages claim.

The firm represents 33 relatives of victims, including eight from Australia and one from New Zealand.

The lawyers intend to seek 10 million Australian dollars ($7.2 million) per victim.

"My clients want accountability for the deed," said LHD co-associate Jerry Skinner.

"They want enough money to reflect that the Russians take this seriously and it serves as a deterrent," he told the Herald.

No contact from Moscow 

The lawsuit claims that Russia attempted to hide its involvement in the tragedy.

The Kremlin failed to conduct an internal investigation, refused to help in cockpit reconstruction and allegedly had a hacker group attack the website of Western investigators, according to papers filed by LHD.

Skinner added that he had urged Russia to discuss the terms.

However, he has heard "nothing from Russia, from their embassy or from the contact points ... to indicate they are willing to talk about negotiating."

'Pointless to comment' 

Responding to Saturday reports, Kremlin said that it had no information about the claim targeting the country and the president.

Deputy Justice Minister Georgy Matiushkin said during an interview with radio station Echo of Moscow that it was "pointless to comment" on the issue at this point.

Any lawsuit addressed to the European Court of Human Rights would only exist "when communicated officially, and that hasn't happened so far," said Matiushkin, who also serves as Moscow's envoy at the Strasbourg court.

Source: Deutsche Welle

Russian Performance Artist Convicted Of Vandalism For Pro-Ukraine Protest

MOSCOW, Russia -- Russian performance artist Pyotr Pavlensky was convicted in a Moscow court of vandalism for a 2014 pro-Ukraine protest in St. Petersburg.

Russian performance artist was convicted thursday of vandalism during a 2014 pro-Ukraine protest in St. Petersburg, and awaits a trial for allegedly setting the doors of Moscow's Federal Security Service on fire.

Pavlensky, 32, and several other artists, built a barricade using found material, then set it afire, on St. Petersburg's Tripartite Bridge while hoisting Ukrainian flags.

Their performance was in emulation and support of pro-Western demonstrators in Kiev who burned tires to create smokescreens against snipers while protesting the government of eventually deposed president Viktor Yankovich.

 Pavlensky was sentenced to a 16-month prison term Thursday but the case's statute of limitations had expired.

He remains in custody, awaiting another trial in which he is accused of setting fire to the main doors of Russia's Federal Security Service, or FSB, in 2015.

He was arrested and charged with damaging an object of cultural heritage; the maximum penalty for the crime is three years' imprisonment.

The artist is regarded as a provocateur in a country where politicized art is often met with government censorship.

Pavlensky sewed his lips shut in 2013 after members of the band Pussy Riot were imprisoned, nailed his testicles to the pavement in front of Moscow's Lenin Mausoleum in 2013 and wrapped himself in barbed wire at St. Petersburg's Legislative Assembly.

Each act was a protest against the government's limitations on citizen's rights.

After the attempted burning of the FSB doors, Pavlensky said in a statement, "The FSB acts using a method of uninterrupted terror, and maintains power over 146 million people. Fear turns free people into a sticky mass of uncoordinated bodies."

Source: UPI

Orbita, A Ghost Of Chernobyl In The Heart Of Ukraine

ORBITA, Ukraine -- Missing from maps, a ghost town hides in the pine forests of central Ukraine, abandoned after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster but now filling with families fleeing the pro-Russian eastern separatist war.

Orbita, a town whose existence was never registered by the Soviet authorities, was meant to house 20,000 workers at a nuclear power plant whose construction was abandoned after the Chernobyl disaster of April 1986.

The road through the woods that leads to the site is dilapidated, the sign marking the town’s entrance covered with rust, but two small playgrounds next to the abandoned buildings are clean and tidy.

Alina, a blonde 10-year-old with a grin and few worries on her mind, is playing next to her grandfather Vladimir Limarchenko, a man who has lived through many hard times.

Her family left their home in the former Soviet republic’s industrial heartland almost as soon as the fighting erupted two years ago, in a conflict which has since killed more than 9,300 people and forced 1.7 million from their homes.

“We did not know where to go. We just took a train to central Ukraine, where our relatives live. And by chance our fellow traveller at the station told us about Orbita,” said Limarchenko, who worked as a mechanic before retiring.

His new neighbour Vasiliy came to Orbita from the pro-Russian separatist city of Luhansk a few months ago and is now renovating a damp apartment in a five-storey building that stood empty for many years.

“My home was seized by the rebels so I have nowhere to return to.

Life is very expensive everywhere, but here I took an apartment on credit for a very low price,” said the 36-year-old, who lives on a disability pension.

“It is better to live in the forest than under fire,” he added.

Eight families from various parts of the war-scarred east have relocated to Orbita, attracted by its cheap prices and calm.

It costs less than $1,500 (1,300 euros) to buy one of the Soviet-era apartments, a pittance compared to the average $40,000 that people pay in the capital Kiev.

Orbita’s tale is tightly intertwined with that of Chernobyl, whose explosion spewed radiation across nearly three-quarters of Europe and left several thousand people dead or dying.

Plans for the town were initially drafted in 1970, the year ground was broken for the Chyhyryn nuclear power plant, whose construction was never completed.

Authorities of then-Soviet Ukraine planned to make Orbita the home of engineers from the plant – in what was intended to be the equivalent of Pripyat, a city of 48,000 built three kilometres (two miles) from Chernobyl.

In the 1980s, two nine-storey and two five-storey apartment buildings, a department store and all the necessary infrastructure were built.

But the disaster at Chernobyl, the world’s worst nuclear accident, meant plans to complete the Chyhyryn plant were quickly abandoned and because the Communist party had not yet opened an outpost in the town, it was not considered to exist officially and was not included on maps of the region.

Residents of Orbita employed to make preparations for the opening of the power plant lost their jobs and the town was quickly deserted, becoming a silent monument to the shock and terror caused by Chernobyl that reverberated through corridors of power in the Kremlin and around the world.

“There has been no heating or drinkable water here for a very long time,” Alina’s grandfather said. “We are similar to Chernobyl, except that there is no radiation. On the contrary – we have clean forest air,” he added.

The town, which is proving a draw for the poor from other parts of Ukraine, is currently home to about 50 families who are living in the two five-storey apartment blocks.

Most are elderly, live without heating and gas and have to trek to a nearby village for water.

They survive, for the most part, on meagre pensions and vegetables grown in their gardens.

But their hardscrabble existence is not made any easier by another nuisance – curious tourists who come to snap pictures of the peculiar town and who have decided to make it their home.

Kristina, a 19-year-old student from Uzhgorod, a city near Ukraine’s western border with Slovakia, came with a group of friends looking for a thrill.

“We wanted to visit Chernobyl, but it is very expensive. You can get here for free and there is no radiation,” she said.

“I was intrigued by the atmosphere of this ghost town,” she admits.

“It is like being in a post-apocalyptic movie.”

But Limarchenko is hardly impressed.

“Do we look like ghosts?” he asks glumly.

“The real ghost towns are now in the separatist east, in the places we came from.”

Source: AFP

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Ukraine Conflict: More Cases Of Trafficking And Torture Than Previously Thought

KIEV, Ukraine -- Human rights groups have received thousands of reports of ill treatment from both the pro-Russian and Ukrainian sides in the ongoing conflict.

Representatives are due to meet in Minsk for the first time in weeks.

German broadcaster "Deutschlandfunk" reported on Wednesday that more than 4,000 cases of ill treatment and trafficking have been documented by human rights organizations during the ongoing Ukrainian conflict.

The figure is likely to be even higher, however, with civilians as well as members of military associations among the victims.

"We can show that 4,000 people have been held hostage last summer," said Oleksandra Matwitschuk of the Centre for Civil Liberty.

According to the report, the vast majority of disappearances and ill treatment took place at the hands of pro-Russian separatists.

Russian citizens - 58 of whom were identified by name - were also arrested and suffered ill treatment, the Center said.

Enforced disappearances and torture by the Ukrainian side were also reported, although there is no systematic recording process in place.

Converted torture prisons 

Interviews with victims and witnesses, which were recorded by a composite of 17 Ukrainian human rights organizations, will be forwarded to the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague.

At least 79 torture prisons have been identified by human rights organizations in the so-called people's republics of Luhansk and Donetsk, with the engineering institute of the University of Luhansk also being converted into an illegal prison.

Social Democrat (SPD) and Russia representative for the German government, Gernot Erler, responded to the figures, saying he hoped for a legal line of action.

"Exemption from punishment must be avoided," Erler told "Deutschlandfunk."

Contact Group meets in Minsk 

The report on Wednesday came as Minsk prepared to hold another round of meetings on settling the Ukraine crisis.

The Contact Group, which consists of representatives from Ukraine, Russia, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the self-proclaimed republics, last met in the Belarusian capital on April 29.

More than a year has passed since Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists from Donetsk and Luhansk agreed to a settlement in Minsk which contained 13 provisions.

The settlement is actually known as Minsk II, because the first ceasefire lasted only a few months.

Although there are currently no large-scale battles being fought, there is also no total ceasefire.

Two-year conflict 

The crisis first erupted following a deadly popular uprising that started in the winter of 2013.

The revolt ultimately ousted former pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, sparking a pro-Russian separatist insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

Russia followed up by annexing the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014.

Western allies have repeatedly accused Moscow of supporting pro-Russian separatists in the region with troops and weapons - claims which Russia continues to deny.

According to UN figures, almost one million people have been internally displaced by the conflict and more than 500,000 children directly affected.

Source: Deutsche Welle

Memo To Ukraine And The West: Beware Of Unrealistic Peace Plans. The Kremlin Will Outplay You Every Time

WASHINGTON, DC -- The latest Normandy Four meeting on May 11 in Berlin did not result in any major breakthroughs to end the stalemate in Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin takes live questions on April 14.

Russia and Ukraine agreed to create demilitarized zones in separatist-held areas of eastern Ukraine, enhance information-sharing, and halt military exercises along the contact line, but these steps will not break the current deadlock in implementing the Minsk ceasefire agreement.

No progress was made on the most controversial issues, namely holding local elections and inserting armed police to accompany OSCE observers in the Donbass.

In recent months, the idea of sending an OSCE armed police mission to the Donbass has become Kiev’s idée fixe in the same way that holding local elections in the Donbass has become the West’s.

Both believe that their proposals can give the stalled Minsk agreement a boost, or at least provide strong arguments to extend sanctions against Russia, which are set to expire in July.

Minsk stipulates that Kiev must hold local elections in the separatist-controlled areas of Ukraine, which Ukraine has resisted for a number of legitimate reasons.

France and Germany, both eager to ease EU sanctions on Russia and get back to business as usual, have pressed Kiev to hold the elections this summer.

The idea that Kiev should adopt a law on local elections to undercut the arguments of those who would like to lift Russian sanctions finds support not only in the EU, but also from former US Ambassador to Ukraine John E. Herbst.

He argues that Kiev can prescribe all the necessary safeguards into law, including those that require the withdrawal of Russian troops and that ensure robust OSCE and Ukrainian election monitoring.

“If these conditions are not met, Ukraine is under no Minsk-related obligation to hold elections,” he writes.

In this scenario, Russia would either hold elections in accordance with Ukrainian legislation and OSCE standards, or take full responsibility for the failure of Minsk and extension of the sanctions.

In the world of common sense, such a plan should work, but Ukraine’s experience proves that common sense often doesn’t work when Russia is involved.

And no safeguards will work if the guarantors lack political will.

Ukraine has been down this road before.

In 1994, Ukraine included a safeguard in the law on accession to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The sixth paragraph states that the treaty comes into force after the nuclear powers signed corresponding international legal documents providing security guarantees to Ukraine.

Only then Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom signed the Budapest Memorandum, and it is well known how ineffective this safeguard turned out to be.

Any safeguards in the local elections law will likely suffer the same fate.

Moscow needs the electoral law as an excuse to schedule sham elections to be held by its proxies.

As for the West, the United States and the EU may criticize the fraudulent elections, but Ukraine cannot be sure that its Western counterparts will be resolute enough to admit that Russia disrupted the peace process.

Plus, there is no guarantee that Ukraine’s adoption of a local elections law will help extend sanctions against Russia.

On the contrary, if pseudo-elections are held, Putin verstehers in the EU may more insistently call for sanctions relief, pointing to the alleged “significant progress” in the Minsk implementation.

In fairness, Kiev’s idée fixe won’t facilitate the Minsk process any better than the West’s.

For several months, Ukraine’s authorities have been actively promoting the idea of deploying a new OSCE armed police mission "aimed at ensuring control over the ceasefire, withdrawal of Russian troops and Ukraine-Russia border.”

Such a mission is also expected to “guarantee preparation and holding of elections," as well as transfer "power to officials chosen by democratic, fair and transparent elections under the Ukrainian legislation.”

This is nonsense.

First, the functions that Kiev expects from the OSCE police mission match those of a UN peacekeeping mission.

The OSCE doesn’t have the relevant mandate, experience, or resources in this case.

Second, the Kremlin has agreed to consider only the option of providing light arms to OSCE monitors at the contact line.

Third, even if Moscow agrees, it may backfire.

It is possible that Russia and its satellites from the Collective Security Treaty Organization will want armed representatives in the Donbass.

France, Germany, and other EU member states will hesitate to send thousands of their own armed men to the Donbass, so they may readily accept the CSTO’s proposal.

If Kiev disagrees, it may be accused of sabotaging the initiative and disrupting Minsk.

If it agrees, it may get CSTO peacekeepers under the guise of an OSCE police mission.

Kiev’s initiative will most likely result in a "hybrid" compromise—some reinforcement of the current OSCE mission with light arms.

Insufficient to provide actual security, but sufficient for Berlin, Moscow, and Paris to say that Ukraine’s demand has been satisfied, and it’s now safe enough to hold local elections.

The West and Ukraine should be cautious not to fall into the traps created by their own efforts by insisting on their current idées fixes.

Rather than promoting unrealistic plans aimed at outplaying such an experienced trickster as the Kremlin, the West and Ukraine would be better served by insisting on step-by-step implementation of the Minsk agreements, starting with the comprehensive ceasefire.

And if it fails, then together they must develop a realistic alternative.

Source: Atlantic Council

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

New Police Force Finds Old Habits Die Hard In Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- The launch of Ukraine's new police patrol force last year sparked an internet craze of citizens posting selfies with newly recruited officers.

Members of the newly created special police team KORD take part in a demonstration as part of a ceremony to commemorate finishing their training course at a base outside Kiev, Ukraine, May 6, 2016.

Their popularity stemmed not from their uniforms, body cameras and tablets, but the fact they did not demand bribes.

The most visibly successful reform to have emerged from the pro-European Maidan protests in 2014 is now under threat, serving and former law enforcement officials say, accusing vested interests of seeking to obstruct and discredit the force.

Vladyslav Vlasiuk, a lawyer by training who rose through patrol police ranks to become Chief of Staff of the National Police, quit in March, "exhausted" by the pushback against change, he told Reuters in his first media interview since.

The experience he described shows how fragile Ukraine's progress in transforming itself into a Western-facing free market democracy could prove to be.

The police reform, possibly for the first time in the former Soviet republic's history, "showed international partners that we in Ukraine are actually able to carry out some reforms," Vlasiuk said. 

Before Maidan, police "would always do what the prosecutors say. Then it changed," he said.

"The National Police positioned itself as a separate and equal law enforcement power. Prosecutors did not like it."

"We are seeing the prosecution service chasing patrol officers for wrongdoings.

There is now a tension which is blocking the reform of the national police."


In Ukraine, prosecutors have the power to launch investigations into public servants suspected of wrongdoing -- a power which police officers say is being abused.

"When you are working within any public service in Ukraine you have to be ready to deal with a lot of inspections, a lot of bullshit, a lot of irrelevant regulations," Vlasiuk said.

"And the prosecution is a controlling organ which can punish you for, in their opinion, improper actions," he said.

The General Prosecutor's office did not provide immediate comment when asked about the allegations.

The United States and European Union, which are helping to fund a $40 billion aid-for-reform program for Ukraine, have repeatedly called for a clean-up of the General Prosecutor's office, which they see as a key obstacle to fighting corruption.

Several high-profile reformers have been sacked from the government and prosecution service or resigned in frustration.

First Deputy Interior Minister Eka Zguladze has also quit, to take on an advisory role in the ministry.

Her resignation statement on Wednesday gave no reason but contained a warning over the fate of reforms.

"I want to emphasize that these islands of success will drown in the ocean of corruption, nihilism, the bureaucracy, if we do not build bridges between them, creating a continent," she said.

"And if in Ukraine we do not have the strength to go forward, the door, that we just opened, may close forever."


With the help of U.S. money and training, and headed by a former Georgian minister, the new police force was set up as part of a root-and-branch reform to weed out endemic corruption.

The new patrol section was launched in July and incorporated into a revamped National Police force.

The patrol officers seemed to be everything those dreaming of a new Ukraine after Maidan hoped: committed, trustworthy, less susceptible to bribes and not afraid to go after the rich and the powerful. 

Drawn from all walks of life, they carried smart tablets as well as body cameras to make police work transparent.

In a sign of changing times, Energy Minister Ihor Nasalik announced on Friday he'd been given a parking fine -- and willingly paid.

Vlasiuk, 27, was part of a new generation of Young Turks entering public service after Maidan.

He is in the process of setting up an NGO to provide legal assistance to officers and burnish the police's image nationally.

His former boss, a Georgian technocrat called Khatia Dekanoidze in charge of the National Police, described in a separate interview cases of vested interests undermining change.

An initiative to fire corrupt or incompetent officers by vetting them in a "reattestation" process has led to hundreds of lawsuits by sacked officers, some of whom got their jobs back.

Dekanoidze said judges were deliberately reinstating discredited officers for fear the judiciary could be next.

"This is a revenge of the old system, because the judiciary system, especially courts, they are part of the old system," Dekanoidze said.

There are other obstacles to reforms.

The police budget is tight in a country at war with Russian-backed separatists and an economy that shrank by a tenth last year.


An incident that has grown into a cause celebre for the police occurred on the night of Feb 7.

A police car chased a speeding BMW through the streets of Kiev, recorded on a black and white police camera in footage later broadcast on TV.

Starting with warning shots, three police officers fired a total of 34 bullets at the car during the course of a 40 minute chase, according to an interior ministry spokesman.

Eventually, one of the bullets killed a 17-year-old passenger inside.

Prosecutors accused the officer of wilful murder and abuse of authority; he is under house arrest while they investigate.

Police said the officer was trying to protect the public from a driver who was drunk.

Their supporters protested in Kiev holding banners saying "Keep Calm and Support Patrol Police" and the hashtag #savepolice appeared on Twitter.

Anton Herashchenko, a lawmaker and member of the interior ministry council, said the case was an example of prosecutors seeking to show they remained in control by discrediting police.

Dekanoidze echoed that view.

"Police reform is the only reform that is visible, that is a real reform for Ukrainians," she said.

So when prosecutors went after those defending the lives of ordinary Ukrainians, "it looked like The Inquisition."

She added there were other cases when police had gone after illegal gambling rackets -- only for prosecutors to open criminal cases against the officers.

A Western diplomat, who did not want to be identified by name, said the fight back by prosecutors showed reforms were starting to have a real impact.

"Prosecutors here are millionaires," the diplomat said.

"They are powerful people who will fight to the very end to protect the resources vertical they created."

Much will hinge on the performance of the new General Prosecutor, Yuriy Lutsenko, a former interior minister whose appointment on Thursday raised eyebrows because he had no legal background. 

Dekanoidze said she hopes prosecutors under Lutsenko will cooperate with the police.

"Because ... without a good and fair prosecution, police can't do anything."

Source: Google News

The U.S. Is ‘Missing’ Millions In Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- On March 17, Ukraine’s oligarch-owned propaganda TV channel Ukraine Today announced to the world a milestone in the fight against corruption.

The Revolutionary Mastercard: Whoever said the revolution will not be televised was right. It will be CHARGED.

In response to the solicitation of two Verkhovna Rada parliamentarians (members of president Petro Poroshenko’s cabinet), the Ukrainian General Prosecutor’s Office (GPO) initiated an investigation of the missing two million dollars of U.S. and EU aid that was originally allotted to reform the country’s judiciary.

While two million dollars is chump change in comparison to size and history of Ukrainian corruption, such quick action by the (until now) very shy Ukrainian prosecutors has raised eyebrows in political circles around the world.

This is in sharp contrast to 2014, when in one of the biggest heists of aid money anywhere—an estimated two billion dollars in IMF aid for Ukraine—speedily exited the country via PrivatBank, owned by the politically-connected oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky.

As sad as it sounds, the two million dollars of U.S. and EU aid allegedly went missing while in hands of a corruption-fighting NGO: the Anti-Corruption Action Center (the ACAC).

In 2015, the ACAC was the only institution to pursue the missing billions, suing the GPO into kickstarting an investigation into PrivatBank.

Back then, Mr. Kolomoisky had a hand in the country’s politically strategic plans to move Ukraine toward the West.

At one point, he even funded his own private army of 20,000 men to fight the so-called separatists.

(As Kiev’s “revolutionary” government grew disheartened watching its conscript army refuse to fight its own people in the East, the country had to rely on quickly-assembled units of right wingers to do the job with oligarch-sponsored militias.)

While the Obama administration publicly hopped the bandwagon of “change” in Ukraine—sending the FBI and U.S. Treasury to investigate the crimes—as it turned out, nobody really missed the missing IMF billions and Mr. Kolomoisky was left alone.

The issue died in a face-saving exit, played out in the local courts of Odessa Oblast where everyone involved seemed to get lost in complicated world of tax havens, offshore banking and legal jurisdictions compounded with a strong case of Ukrainian amnesia.

Even the IMF—so strict and unforgiving in its dealings with Greece—exhibited a Christmas-like generosity in its Ukrainian portfolio, indicating that a good-cop bad-cop scenario depends on your neighbors (Russia).

But what wasn’t forgotten was the fuss started by the ACAC, which came biting as soon as the situation in the East settled in an uneasy truce.

The Kolomoisky-owned Ukraine Today opened fire on the NGO as soon as the Verkhovna Rada deputies announced their two million dollar problem to the world.

Until then, the Rada was preoccupied with insider wheeling and dealing, which led it to be regularly besieged by right wing nationalists, opposition party members and citizens disgusted with inflation and corruption.

Now, the Rada is focused on keeping foreign media accountable for alleged “lies”—The New York Times called the country what it is: a corrupt swamp.

The attack on the ACAC is a classic example of political retribution made possible by Mr. Poroshenko.

His administration’s rollback of democracy has increased lawlessness, both on and off the political scene—replacing one head of the GPO with another as a means to convince the U.S. and international donors that reforms are on track.

Georgian-born reformer Davit Sakvarelidze, a deputy prosecutor general, was fired just hours before the Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin (a Poroshenko appointee) was fired by the Rada for blocking investigations of corruption cases.

Mr. Shokin was replaced by Yuriy Sevruk—a relic of previous administration overseeing the Interior Ministry’s actions against the EuroMaidan—and Mr. Sakvarelidze was replaced by Mykola Stoyanov, a close friend of Mr. Kolomoisky.

Before his firing, Mr. Sakvarelidze accused Mr. Sevruk of halting the investigation into corrupt prosecutors and instigating a campaign to destroy his legacy.

In a politically-motivated vendetta against both Mr. Sakvarelidze and the ACAC, Yuriy Stolyarchuk, head the anti-corruption department, opened an investigation into alleged embezzlement of U.S. funds dedicated for prosecutorial reform.

Ukrainians journalists understand that going against the political interests of the state is not only hazardous to one’s career, but to one’s life and health as well.

At this point, U.S. ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt denied any theft took place, taking sides against Mr. Stolyarchuk and indirectly against President Poroshenko—who happened to be the ultimate decider left on the scene.

Mr. Stolyarchuk fired back in an interview with the Ukrainska Pravda newspaper stating Mr. Pyatt himself could be questioned about the missing funds, implying personal involvement.

Meanwhile, after being raided by the GPO’s men, the ACAC issued a plea for help and, as such, the U.S. Embassy issued a statement that the money wasn’t actually missing as it was never even given to the ACAC.

By now, the majority of oligarch-owned media have decided to sit and wait.

Ukrainians journalists understand that going against the political interests of the state is not only hazardous to one’s career, but to one’s life and one’s health as well.

Ironically, the Poroshenko administration is following the lead of the American-installed Al-Abadi administration in Iraq.

Corrupt and ruled by internal interests, both parliaments create their own reality in the tug-of-war for power and money, which includes increased spending on military.

Both setups are also threatened by outside developments (the civil war in the East, and Daesh respectively) as the name of the game is a monopoly-like of accumulation of wealth with get-out-of-jail-free cards given away by the top of the official administrations.

Increasingly, the cookies distributed by the Deputy Secretary of State Nuland at the EuroMaidan are the most expensive pastries ever sold: they are paid for both in U.S. Treasury (five billion and counting) and at least 10,000 lives.

Marie Antoinette would be proud.

The revolution which ultimately cost her head is back, and inflicted on ordinary people.

Source: The Observer

Monday, May 16, 2016

Why Putin Needs A Corrupt And Divided Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine -- Russia under President Vladimir Putin has become a kleptocracy. The Russian president governs an economy controlled by insiders who pay him homage and royalties in return for favors.

Ukrainian parliamentary deputies tussle during a session in the parliament in Kiev, Ukraine, on May 12. George Soros said political reform in Ukraine “would also appeal to many people in Russia, who would demand similar reforms. This is what Putin is afraid of. That is why he has tried so hard to destabilize the new Ukraine.”

The takeover has been rapid and, in less than one generation, Russia’s oligarchs have amassed some of the biggest fortunes in the world.

When Putin took power in 2000, Russia was in economic turmoil following the banking crisis of 1998.

Russia’s class of oligarchs—political operators who became billionaires practically overnight in the 1990s—exerted immense control over politics.

But in 2003, Putin began to take steps to consolidate and centralize political control by reining in the oligarchs, particularly those involved in the energy sector.

Through the strategic ousting of the oligarchs from politics, Putin struck an unspoken deal with Russia’s rich:

Enriching yourself on state resources is condoned, but get involved in politics and there will be a price to pay.

Since then, Putin has become the undisputed “new tsar” of Russia.

In Ukraine, much like in Russia, homegrown oligarchs have profited from the exploitation of state resources.

Corruption was rampant through the 1990s and 2000s, and it remains the greatest challenge to the current government.

This essay, “Stolen Future,” examines in detail the symbiosis between criminals and the expropriation of governance in both countries.

For Ukraine in particular, the battle with corruption will make or break the country’s future as a liberal democracy.

President Petro Poroshenko’s democratically elected government is reform-oriented, but reining in the oligarchs is no easy task.

The government must push through the painful reforms needed to weed out corruption, or the country will continue to be beholden to economic interests and kleptocratic networks.

As Swedish economist and expert on Russia and Ukraine Anders Aslund wrote in 2015, “Ukraine must reform hard and fast to survive or cease to exist as a nation. The question today is whether Ukraine can save itself.”

A Tale of Two Kleptocracies 

Ever since Catherine the Great’s favorite minister Grigory Potemkin lined her travel route with sham villages and happy, prosperous peasants to please her, Russian leaders have developed an aptitude for window dressing.

Putin is very skillful in this regard and would have the world believe that Russia is a respectable democracy governed by the rule of law.

This is fiction.

Under Putin’s administration, Russia is run for the profit of Kremlin insiders and a small business elite, whose methods would be prosecuted in G7 countries.

Ukraine similarly suffers from the centralization of resources and political power in the hands of a few individuals.

However, where Russia’s oligarchs were eventually brought under the control of the Kremlin, Ukraine’s elite has largely retained its freedom.

Thanks to their wealth and connections, the most powerful oligarchs such as Rinat Akhmetov, Victor Pinchuk, Ihor Kolomoyskyi or Dmytro Firtash continue to control the political agenda, often to their own financial benefit.

What began in each country as mass market reforms and privatization created unprecedented opportunities for politicians, as well as for unscrupulous and unsavory groups.

They accumulated awesome wealth, and then proceeded to destroy governments, individuals or laws in their way.

At the same time, both countries have struggled to modernize their economies.

Russian incomes today are one third of those in energy-rich Saudi Arabia.

Compared to other Eastern European post-socialist countries, Ukraine has fallen far behind economically.

Between 1992 and 2015, Ukraine’s gross domestic product per capita rose from $428 to just $2,109, even as GDP in Latvia soared from $631 to $13,729.

Meanwhile, as the ruble halved in value to the dollar, many Russian oligarchs still managed to retain their wealth; in 2015, 1,815 individuals were worth $50 million or more, and 93 were billionaires.

In 2014, 80 percent of Ukrainians were impoverished while five were billionaires and 98 were worth over $50 million.

Ukraine has been so financially devastated by corruption and war with Russia that it requires life support from Western financial institutions, most notably the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

In Russia, the economic situation is also dire.

Energy prices, which had been falling since 2014, pushed one in every seven Russians below the poverty line in 2015.

Political instability in both countries incentivized businesses to stash vast quantities of cash abroad.

From 2004 to 2013, an average of $104.98 billion per year left Russia for a total of nearly $1 trillion ($981.57 billion).

Ukraine loses an average of $11.68 billion annually, and a 10-year total of $115.642 billion.

“There are $700 billion private Russian assets abroad,” Aslund said in September 2015, “$100 billion to $200 billion from government officials.

That’s a guess, but it’s very substantial.

These numbers are outside Forbes’s figures of the richest people in the world.”

Russia is unlikely to change much in the near term thanks to the tight control established under Putin.

Ukraine, however, is a more complex case.

The country’s civil society is active and has a strong core of reformers who cut their teeth on the Maidan Revolution of 2013–2014, which, at its core, was a democratic movement against the rampant political corruption of former President Yanukovych’s government.

But Ukraine’s economy has been further damaged by Russia’s intervention in the Donbass and Crimea.

Russian meddling in Ukrainian politics has stymied political development.

In an interview in the summer of 2015, former Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk blamed Russia for making the country a “hostage” state since its independence.

“They [the Russians] took away the best assets.”

Kleptocracy in Ukraine’s Energy Sector 

Before the Maidan Revolution of 2014, Ukrainian political elites worked hand in glove with the Kremlin—using state resources for political gains.

The oligarchic system of governance began to take root in Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but was firmly established under the watch of President Leonid Kuchma in the second half of the 1990s.

As Russian expert Karen Dawisha notes, “Putin leaned on Kuchma in 2000 for campaign contributions—according to conversations taped by Ukrainian KGB.

Kuchma says, ‘Putin telephoned…during the campaign—Leonid well, at least give us a bit of money. Kuchma asked [state gas monopoly] Naftohaz to withdraw $56 million from the Bank of Ukraine and Ukraine’s Import-Export Bank and transfer it to Putin.’”

Under Kuchma’s administration, corruption flourished, with Ukraine’s vast state enterprises used as personal and political piggybanks.

Along the way, Naftohaz was plundered and the Ukrainian treasury along with it.

Ukrainian oligarchs bought gas from the monopoly at far below market prices to fuel their industrial holdings, while the gas flows became an arbitrage dream, as company officials colluded to flip cheap gas offered by Russia for re-export at higher prices to Europe.

In 2005, after the Orange Revolution, then-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko (also considered an oligarch for her past gas trading profits) unraveled the scale of thievery under Kuchma for all the world to see when she called for the sale of privatized assets to be annulled.

The year before, Kuchma’s son-in-law Victor Pinchuk and oligarch Rinat Akhmetov acquired the Kryvorizhstal steel factory in 2004 for about $800 million.

A year later, the next government reversed the sale and held a televised, public auction that netted $4.8 billion from Mittal Steel.

Ukraine’s predation was franchised, but sometimes cheaters cheated.

In August 2006, Pavlo Lazarenko, one of Kuchma’s prime ministers who was also close to Tymoshenko, was singled out for misdeeds, fled the country and then was convicted and sentenced to prison in the United States for money laundering, wire fraud and extortion.

According to authorities, he transferred roughly $114 million in funds embezzled from the government of Ukraine to banks in San Francisco from 1996 to 1997.

The network of corruption hurt, most of all, the Ukrainian people, as the government shoveled in subsidies to keep Naftohaz afloat.

“The subsidies to Naftohaz contributed about 50 percent of the deficit in 2014 and amounted to about $7 billion. Of course these numbers do not include any direct subsidies that may have been given to industries or the actual lost opportunity costs to state companies from forced sale at low controlled prices,” said Ukrainian-Canadian academic Basil Kalymon.

For instance, Naftohaz bought 17 billion cubic meters of domestically produced gas at a set price of $53 per thousand cubic meters.

Deputy Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman disclosed later that 40 percent of this—worth $2.5 billion—was diverted through unknown intermediaries close to Yanukovych and sold at $410 per thousand cubic meters.

Those who dared report on political corruption, meanwhile, were intimidated by political and criminal forces.

Between 1995 and 2001, three journalists covering corruption issues were murdered—Igor Hrushetsky, Igor Aleksandrov and Ukrainska Pravda’s Georgiy Gongadze, who was abducted and beheaded in 2000, possibly with Kuchma’s knowledge.

In addition to intimidation, arbitration fraud and asset stripping were rampant. Naftohaz was restructured into regional power generation companies that were partially privatized for oligarchs’ gain.

One offshoot, Donbassenergo, was forced into near bankruptcy by Naftohaz subsidiaries, then forced to sell off power plants and privatize 60.8 percent for below market value in 2013.

The stake was purchased by an offshore Dutch holding company owned by Ihor Humenyuk, a man allegedly connected to Ukraine’s richest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, and Yanukovych.

In February 2015, a Ukrainian court agreed the sale was “illegitimate” because only a fraction of its value was realized.

It did not unwind the sale but referred the matter to a lower court.

Victims included the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which had loaned Donbassenergo $113 million years before.

Another blatant asset strip was caught in 2011–2012, involving Yanukovych’s minister of energy, Yuriy Boyko, who ordered Naftohaz to buy two offshore rigs for Black Sea drilling at a cost of $800 million.

A television documentary uncovered that the seller in the United Kingdom was a company that belonged to Boyko and had paid only $470 million recently for the rigs.

Despite the revelation, Boyko remained minister until Yanukovych fled Ukraine in 2014.

He then ran successfully for election that October as a member of parliament, thus providing himself with parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

Naftohaz’s former CEO Yevhen Bakulin, appointed in 2010 by Yanukovych, was arrested in March 2014 as part of an investigation into major gas industry corruption.

“According to investigators the monopoly [Naftohaz] supplied oil products and natural gas worth 1.9 billion Hryvnia [$72.2 million] to two companies…effectively free of charge [because invoices were never paid],” wrote the Kiev Post.

In September 2014, the investigation was scrapped after records of the transactions could not be found.

Bakulin was released and his accounts were unfrozen.

A public outcry ensued, forcing the Prosecutor General’s Office to announce resumption of its probe. 

In October 2014, however, the prosecutor general’s office reversed its statement and said it was not investigating Bakunin.

As the Kiev Post wrote, “The comments contradicted a statement released by the Prosecutor General’s Office in September that it had resumed the case against Bakulin.”

The case was dropped against Bakulin, who, like Boyko, had won a seat in Parliament in October 2014, giving him parliamentary immunity from future prosecution.

Corruption in the gas sector benefited Ukrainian oligarchs loyal to Putin.

In 2004, Kuchma and Putin gave exclusive rights to intermediary RosUkrEnergo to sell all gas to Ukraine.

The intermediary was the brainchild of Dmytro Firtash, a Ukrainian trader with reportedly close connections to the Kremlin.

Firtash allegedly owned 50 percent of the company with a junior partner and Gazprom the other 50 percent.

Evidence points to the fact that RosUkrEnergo was set up to funnel funds into the hands of Firtash and his allies.

A 2014 investigation by Reuters quantified its magnitude: During a four-year period, RosUkrEnergo bought 20 billion cubic meters of gas from Russia at below market prices and paid $230 per thousand cubic meters, or one-third of what Gazprom charged Naftohaz Ukrainy.

The price was so low that the gas was flipped at three times the initial price, making RosUkrEnergo a yearly profit of $3 billion, or $12 billion in four years.

Firtash negotiated the same arrangement in Cyprus and made another $3.7 billion in profit selling Russian gas there in just two years.

“The evolution of intermediaries was to siphon the profits of gas earned between Gazprom and Ukraine,” said Bill Browder, an American-British investor whose fund was once the largest operating in Russia.

“The crux of the matter was that Gazprom management abused their position for years in terms of the export of gas to Ukraine by selling the gas to intermediaries at a low price [and] then having those intermediaries resell at [a] higher price. Ukrainians, Gazprom managers, and Russian government officials were involved.”

Firtash told the highest-ranking US diplomat in Ukraine in 2008 that a shadowy character also lurked behind the arrangement.

In a secret memo, made public by WikiLeaks, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor wrote, “He [Firtash] acknowledged ties to Russian organized crime figure Semon Mogilevich, stating he had needed Mogilevich’s approval to get into business in the first place.”

Taylor said the “softly spoken” Firtash had come to see him on December 8, 2008 and “spoke at length about his business and politics in a visible effort to improve his image with the [United States government].”

The Ukrainian press had reported that RosUkrEnergo’s beneficiaries included Mogilevich, who is on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s most wanted list and lives openly in Moscow.

Firtash said it was impossible to interact with a government official “without also meeting an organized crime member,” wrote Taylor in his cable.

The memo also noted that the gas trade had made Firtash staggeringly rich:

“By 2006, Firtash’s estimated worth was over $5 billion, but most experts believed that Firtash had lowballed his true worth and estimated it was in the tens of billions. In his conversation with the Ambassador, Firtash gave no indication of the scope of his wealth.”

In addition to being a tool to enrich both Russian and Ukrainian elites, RosUkrEnergo was also used to extend Russian political influence.

Gazprombank, a bank not affiliated with Gazprom but tied to Putin ally Yuri Kovalchuk, financed Firtash’s business transactions, according to Reuters.

“Banks close to Putin granted Firtash credit lines of up to $11 billion. That credit helped Firtash, who backed Yanukovych’s 2010 bid to become Ukraine’s President, to buy a dominant position in the country’s [Ukraine’s] chemical and fertilizer industries and [to] expand his influence.”

Yanukovych, like Kuchma before him, proved to be immensely corrupt.

During his presidency, Yanukovych and his cronies grabbed tens of billions of dollars.

For instance, Yanukovych’s son, a dentist, became a billionaire in three years, winning 50 percent of all government tenders while his father was in office.

And Yanukovych enriched himself to such an extent that he built a lavish $200 million estate outside Kiev, hidden from the public with 400 servants and a 34-kilometer (21 miles) perimeter fence 20 feet high topped with barbed wire.

Yanukovych’s ministers were openly on the take.

Ecology Minister Mykola Zlochevsky became a major player in the production of oil and gas in Ukraine during his tenure.

He claimed to have cornered a quarter of the country’s private hydrocarbon market.

He put “trophy foreigners” on his board of directors, such as Hunter Biden, son of U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden, and the former president of Poland, Aleksander Kwaśniewski.

He abused his ministerial position to give a Cypriot company, which he controlled, extraction licenses without tendering for them.

He fled after Yanukovych’s fall and is on Ukraine’s wanted list for alleged financial corruption, but he has gone missing, along with an estimated $156 million.

Those who profited from corruption schemes under Yanukovych have not been prosecuted.

Yanukovych and Mogilevich live in Russia.

Firtash, although initially arrested in Austria under an extradition request from the United States concerning a U.S. grand jury corruption case in India, has since been released under an Austrian judge’s ruling that the request was politically motivated.

Even in Austria, Firtash has found support from Russia.

Consider that, for instance, Firtash’s bail was set at a staggering 125 million euros ($141 million), and that a Russian oligarch paid it immediately.

According to Browder, “Russian oligarch [Vasily] Anisimov put up his…bail money,” he said.

“There’s the linkage. This is about Putin controlling everything.”

What’s more, Firtash, at least according to his own admission, continues to influence Ukrainian politics.

Firtash told the Austrian court that before the 2014 fall election, candidates Petro Poroshenko and Vitali Klitschko flew to Vienna for a meeting with him.

“I can say we achieved what we wanted,” Firtash said at the hearing.

“Poroshenko became president and Klitschko became mayor of Kiev.” 

Perhaps Firtash’s self-aggrandizing was simply bravado, but perhaps not.

Some experts maintain that the meeting was about Poroshenko granting immunity to former Energy Minister Yuriy Boyko and Yanukovych’s Chief of Staff Serhiy Lyovochkin.

This involved “immunity from prosecution in exchange for the oligarchs’ support—in the form of money, media and connections—for their political ambitions,” wrote Ukraine expert Taras Kuhio.

“It would have been impossible for the Yanukovych regime to carry out its corrupt schemes without Lyovochkin’s involvement—but today he is untouchable because of the Vienna immunity deal that he helped to broker.”

Poroshenko and Klitschko acknowledged that they met Firtash in Vienna but denied Firtash’s insinuation that the meeting was about guaranteeing their elections.

Klitschko denied the allegations, stating that Firtash was “incorrect,” while a Poroshenko spokesman, Svyatoslav Tseholko, said that the president had a “very simple position on the issue and had commented on the meeting during last year’s election campaign.”

Poroshenko said later, “I do not think [Firtash] liked the outcome of the meeting.”

His spokesman later elaborated, saying that Poroshenko was a “president of de-oligarchization” and had reformed the energy sector, noting the firing of Ihor Kolomoyskyi, the oligarch governor of Dnipropetrovsk, in March.

The Clans 

In 2005, a rare glimpse into the nature of clan management in Ukraine surfaced when Kolomoyskyi showed up at parliamentary hearings into re-privatizing Ukraine’s government assets to help pay off its debts.

His appearance was “to confess that he was one of the beneficiaries of the dirty privatization of the late 1990s [to] early 2000s that made many of Ukraine’s oligarchs rich,” reported the Kiev Post.

“He admitted, for example, that he paid $5 million per month during an unspecified period of time to fellow billionaire Victor Pinchuk and his father-in-law, Kuchma, in order to keep them out of Ukrnafta, an oil and gas extractor in which Kolomoyskyi has a 43 percent stake.”

Kolomoyskyi explained that privatizations under Kuchma were reserved for a handful of his favorite oligarchs: himself, Pinchuk and Akhmetov.

Pinchuk denied the allegations and said Kolomoyskyi was trying to stir up trouble in order to get Pinchuk to drop a $2 billion lawsuit against Kolomoyskyi in London concerning an iron ore asset. 

Years later, in October 2015, the two supposedly settled their disagreement, and Kolomoyskyi was rumored to have paid Pinchuk $500 million.

Yanukovych, after coming back to power in 2010, ran a tight ship, according to journalist and member of the Ukrainian Parliament Serhiy Leshchenko:

“Yanukovych was the ‘super oligarch,’ the main beneficiary of the regime. Below him came the traditional oligarchs, who had to share their profits. Rinat Akhmetov, for instance, was granted control of metallurgy and energy, Kolomoyskyi had the oil industry and Firtash and Lyovochkin controlled the gas, chemical and titanium sectors.”

Perhaps the oligarchs helped bring about Yanukovych’s demise because he went too far.

“Despite the country’s Revolution of Dignity and continued Russian aggression against Ukraine, local oligarchs have become even more powerful and influential and pose a significant threat to Ukraine’s European development. Oligarchs control the state apparatus, mass media and whole sectors of industry. They can simply put the brakes on reform as soon as their financial interests are threatened,” Leshchenko added.

Looking Ahead 

Influence peddling, graft, collusion, injustice, bribery, extortion, fraud and asset stripping are systemic and have placed Ukraine in a catch-22.

As long as oligarchs control politics, reforms are impossible.

International pressure has helped somewhat, as has Poroshenko’s appointment of outsiders as ministers and governors.

The reform of Kiev’s police force and improvements at Naftohaz are also good signs:

Naftohaz has significantly reduced Russian gas imports with supplies from European countries and, more importantly, jacked up domestic gas prices to world levels as a means to prevent arbitrage profiteering.

The budget deficit has been brought under control and the most corrupt expenditures have been eliminated.

Outside the legal sector, the gains have been significant.

Ukraine’s former Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko restructured the country’s debts, got bailout help from the IMF, replenished reserves, verified social payments, put all treasury payments online and implemented electronic value-added tax and excise tax systems, saving $1 billion in fraud in 2015.

But full tax reform is needed to capture revenue from the country’s vast underground economy, estimated to be equivalent to half of Ukraine’s official GDP.

Likewise, while then-Economy and Trade Minister Aivaras Abromavicius implemented the Naftohaz reforms and launched fully transparent procurement systems, many potential investors are still wary of entering Ukraine, due to doubts about the government’s ability to uphold the rule of law.

In a blow to the reform effort, Abromavicius resigned in February 2016, citing his frustration with entrenched, corrupt officials blocking reforms.

He suggested that the only hope for Ukraine was if Jaresko led a new government of independent technocrats to push through needed reforms.

“It’s a crisis of trust, of values,” said Abromavicius.

“We need to use this opportunity to bring in a completely different set of people with a completely different mindset… believe we are either two steps away from a breakthrough or two steps away from a breakdown.… Reforms can only be as progressive as the people that do [them].”

As Abromavicius’s resignation signaled, attempts to fix the country will continue to be rebuffed, stalled or sabotaged because control of the state has not been fully seized back from vested interests.

The solution is removal of any politician from office who served the old regime before 2014; the end of immunity for politicians; reprivatization of state assets stolen in the past; antitrust laws to break up economic concentration; and replacement of all judges and prosecutors with independent jurists, investigators, and jury trials.

Without these radical steps, reforms will likely be slow and ineffective.

The Ukrainian public is restive and for good reason.

Two years after a bloody revolution and invasion by Russia, the same predators live inside and outside the country in Moscow, London, New York and Vienna enjoying the proceeds of crime.

In April 2016, the Panama Papers scandal erupted, portraying a $2 billion trail hidden offshore, and leading to Putin, through the deployment of shell companies, secrecy havens and proxies.

Poroshenko was also caught in the controversy for setting up an offshore account in the British Virgin Islands for his confectionery business.

Some demanded impeachment, but the special prosecutor said no tax evasion had occurred.

An adviser to Poroshenko said that the transfer was to third parties in a blind trust as a step to divest the business, as promised in 2014.

These events followed a two-month showdown over the lack of reforms with Prime Minister Yatsenyuk that resulted in his resignation on April 10, more threatened resignations, the resignation of Jaresko and delays in IMF funding due to concerns about the slow progress of reforms.

Reforming Ukraine’s economic and political systems is a geopolitical priority, because Putin’s economic and military war will continue to destabilize the region.

His tactics have also spread to the Middle East and the Syria crisis, where he is sabotaging allied efforts.

Likewise, if Ukraine implodes, millions of Ukrainian migrants seeking asylum could flood Europe in greater numbers than those from Syria caused by the war waged by Putin’s pal, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

George Soros repeated this possibility at Davos in January 2015.

“If Ukraine collapses, another migration of a few million people to the EU will occur,” said the financier during the panel discussion.

“The German finance minister proposed an EU-funded Marshall Plan to help with its migration issues. That should include funds to help pay for Ukraine’s important role in defending Europe against Putin.”

Soros pointed out another imperative:

“The political reforms center on establishing an honest, independent and competent judiciary and media, combating corruption and making the civil service serve the people instead of exploiting them. These reforms would also appeal to many people in Russia, who would demand similar reforms. This is what Putin is afraid of. That is why he has tried so hard to destabilize the new Ukraine.”

Fortunately, economic sanctions are damaging Russia.

Soros believes that the country could go bust by 2017, due to the combination of low oil prices and sanctions.

Similarly, Putin’s strategy of partial occupation—in Crimea and the Donbass—is turning sour.

Both are troublesome and expensive, as is Russia’s support of pro-Russian breakaway regions in Georgia and Moldova.

Perhaps the tide will slowly turn against Russia.

But the tide will only turn in favor of Ukraine if its oligarchy is brought to its knees, hopefully without further violence.

Reform activist and Member of Parliament Ihor Sobolev remains optimistic and said, “If people rise again, the next revolution will be much more bloody because so many people are upset about this war. This is, of course, a big risk for the whole situation. We have so many new active citizens who feel this can be a successful state without bribes and oppression from the government. They want dignity and I think this is the most powerful power in Ukraine now. That’s why we will succeed.”

Source: Newsweek