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Archive for the ‘Defiant Land of Ukraine’ Category

Ukrainian nationalists honor WWII-era paramilitary group

October 15, 2018

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — About 10,000 people have marched through the capital of Ukraine in an annual nationalist commemoration of the formation of the World War II-era Ukrainian Insurgent Army. About 1,000 police officers were deployed for the Defender of Ukraine Day march. Demonstrators lit colorful flares and shouted slogans such as “We are returning Ukraine to Ukrainians.”

There was a scuffle when riot police intervened to stop some protesters attempting to destroy a Soviet-era monument near the parliament building. The march in Kiev took place amid growing concern about radical far-right nationalists attacking Roma encampments and LGBT and women’s rights activists.

Sunday was the 76th anniversary of the formation of the paramilitary group, known by the acronym UPA, that fought against the Soviet army, sometimes in collaboration with Nazi forces.

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Ukraine demands access to filmmaker imprisoned in Russia

September 29, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry is demanding that Russia allow consular access to an imprisoned Ukrainian filmmaker who has been on a hunger strike since mid-May. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mariana Betsa made the demand Saturday on Twitter. Russia’s penitentiary service said Friday that an unspecified “correction” in Oleg Sentsov’s treatment had been ordered; it published a photo of him being examined with a stethoscope.

Betsa also called for allowing Ukrainian doctors to visit Sentsov. The filmmaker is an opponent of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2015 for conspiracy to conduct terror attacks.

Sentsov denies guilt and has refused to seek a pardon from President Vladimir Putin. His lawyer said this month that Sentsov’s health was irreversibly damaged. Prison officials say he is receiving a nutritional formula.

Ukraine rebels say bodyguard died with leader in bombing

September 01, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — The health minister of Ukraine’s separatist Donetsk region says a cafe bombing that killed the separatists’ leader also killed a bodyguard and wounded 12 others. Alexander Zakharchenko’s death on Friday is re-escalating tensions in the conflict between Russia-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine. Separatists claimed that Ukraine was preparing new offensives.

Zakharchenko was prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic. His death was reported soon after the cafe explosion, but the extent of the casualties was not revealed until DPT health minister Alexander Oprishchenko reported them on Saturday.

The fighting in eastern Ukraine has killed more than 10,000 people since 2014, but mostly has waned in recent years.

Ukraine separatists say leader killed in cafe bombing

August 31, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — A blast in a war-themed cafe in eastern Ukraine on Friday killed the most prominent leader of the Russia-backed separatists who have fought Ukrainian forces since 2014, rebel officials said.

The death of Alexander Zakharchenko, prime minister of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, underlined the dismal prospects for resolving the conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people. Rebel and Russian authorities blamed the Ukrainian government, with some suggesting that the United States had a role, while a top Ukrainian security official said the blast was likely the result of the separatists’ factional infighting or an operation by Russian special forces.

Deputy rebel military commander Eduard Basurin said the explosion in the region’s capital of Donetsk was caused by a bomb planted in the restaurant, which was named “Separ” in honor of the separatists and decorated with camouflage netting hanging from the eaves.

Seriously injured in the blast was Alexander Timofeev, the revenues and taxes minister for the separatists, according to the rebels’ DAN news agency. In September 2017, Timofeev was injured in another bombing in Donetsk, the region’s capital.

The Donetsk People’s Republic, along with a separatist republic in neighboring Luhansk, has fought Ukrainian forces since 2014, the same year Zakharchenko became the DPR’s prime minister. More than 10,000 people have died in the conflict.

Fighting fell off significantly after the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France in 2015 signed an accord in Minsk, Belarus, on ending the violence. But most of the agreement’s provisions remain unfulfilled and clashes break out sporadically.

“The assassination of the DPR head makes the Minsk accords devoid of sense,” Russian parliament speaker Alexander Volodin said. Russian President Vladimir Putin lauded Zakharchenko, who was 42, as “a true people’s leader” and promised Donetsk residents that “Russia always will be with you.”

Denis Pushilin, the speaker of the separatists’ parliament, blamed Ukraine’s forces for the explosion, calling it “the latest aggression from the Ukrainian side,” according to DAN. A statement from the rebel command said “it was conducted by special operations forces of Ukraine under control of U.S. special services.”

“Instead of fulfilling the Minsk accords and finding ways to resolve the internal conflict, the Kiev war party is implementing a terrorist scenario,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said of Zakharchenko’s death. “Having failed to fulfill the promise of peace, apparently they decided to turn to a bloodbath.”

Igor Guskov, chief of staff of the Ukrainian Security Service, rejected allegations of any involvement, saying: “We have reason to believe that the death of Zakharchenko may be the result of an internal criminal conflict among the rebels … but we do not exclude that it was an attempt by Russian special services to remove this odious figure.”

There have been several assassinations or attempted slayings of prominent rebels in recent years. It never was established if pro-Kiev attackers were responsible or if the violence resulted from disputes within the rebel ranks or Moscow’s possible desire to eliminate individuals it found inconvenient.

Among the prominent separatists who have been targeted are former Luhansk leader Igor Plotnitsky, who was severely injured in 2016 when a bomb exploded near his car; Arsen Pavlov, a feared squadron leader known as “Motorola,” who died when the elevator of his apartment building was bombed; and fighter Mikhail Tolstykh, whose office is believed to have been hit by a shoulder-fired rocket.

Russia denies providing troops or equipment to the separatists despite widespread allegations it has done so. Russia is believed to have supplied a mobile Buk missile launcher that a team of international investigators alleges shot down a Malaysian passenger jet while flying over rebel territory in 2014, killing all 209 people aboard.

The rebellion in Donetsk and Luhansk arose soon after pro-Russia Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was driven from power amid mass protests in February 2014. Russian-speakers predominate in the two regions, and separatist sentiment skyrocketed.

Encouraged by Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which also came after Yanukovych’s ouster, rebel leaders initially hoped their regions would be absorbed by Russia as well.

Yuras Karmanau in Minsk, Belarus, contributed.

Moscow, Kiev in tug-of-war over religious future of Ukraine

August 27, 2018

LONDON (AP) — As Kiev and Moscow clash on the battlefields of eastern Ukraine, a new front has opened up in the religious sphere. Earlier this year Ukrainian’s president launched a campaign to persuade Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, seen by many as the first among equals of Eastern Orthodox leaders, to grant Ukrainian clerics full ecclesiastical independence from the Russian Orthodox Church to which they have been tied for hundreds of years.

Ukrainian politicians see such a declaration, known as a “Tomos of Autocephaly,” as a key step in consolidating their country’s national identity. Russian religious leaders see it as an attack on Christian Orthodox unity and are fighting to stop it.

It’s in the midst of this religious tussle that The Associated Press has discovered a Russian digital espionage campaign targeting Bartholomew’s top aides. Here’s a look at what autocephaly means, why it’s so important and whether it’s likely to happen.

WHAT’S AT STAKE?

To hear the religious leaders in Moscow tell it, separating the Ukrainian Orthodox Church from Russia would spark the worst schism since Orthodox and Catholic Christianity parted ways nearly 1,000 years ago.

“This wrong step can only be compared to the division between East and West in 1054,” senior Moscow Patriarchate official Hilarion Alfeyev said earlier this year. “If such a thing happens, Orthodox unity will be buried.”

More immediately, the move would dramatically shrink the size and influence of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Even though Ukraine’s population is several times smaller than that of its large Slavic neighbor, it is widely considered the more observant of the two and accounts for something like a third of the Russian Orthodox Church’s approximately 35,000 parishes.

Perhaps just as important, the Russian Orthodox Church would lose its link to centuries’ worth of tradition tied up in Ukraine’s shrines and monasteries — a heavy symbolic blow.

Losing Ukraine “would be humiliating,” said Katja Richters, an independent researcher who writes about the Russian Orthodox Church. “The Moscow Patriarchate would lose about 600 years of history.”

SHOULDN’T EVERY COUNTRY HAVE ITS OWN CHURCH?

That’s what many Ukrainians argue.

“When a new state appears, when it becomes stable, it’s a normal procedure for the Orthodox church believers to separate their church from the others,” said Ukrainian historian Kyrylo Halushko. “This happened a few times in the 20th century: in Bulgaria, Serbia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, etc. So it’s a very logical step for independence to be given to Ukrainian Orthodox Church.”

It may be logical, but it’s not simple.

Leaving aside the theological wrangling over who has the authority to declare a church independent, there are important philosophical reasons for keeping the Ukrainian church in communion with its Russian counterpart.

Christians are enjoined to unity (Galatians 3:28 says , in part, “Ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”) The global Orthodox community is already fragmented and few leaders relish the prospect of cutting the world’s largest Orthodox denomination in two. Even within Ukraine, some Orthodox clergy are leery of a process driven in part by secular politicians and the pressure of armed conflict between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

“Some of them say that it is difficult to have it done in a time of war and military confrontation with Russia,” said Thomas Bremer, a professor of Eastern Churches Studies at the Faculty for Catholic Theology of the University of Muenster in Germany. “There is also a group of priests and bishops who would prefer to stay as a self-administering part of the Russian Orthodox Church.'”

The Ecumenical Orthodox Church also faces countervailing pressures. Bartholomew is 78 and some doubt he wants to cloud his legacy with a schism.

“I do not believe that Bartholomew wants to enter church history as the patriarch who has split his Church,” said Bremer.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN?

Anticipation is building on the Ukrainian side that Bartholomew will take the bold step of issuing a Tomos. Writing earlier this month for the Atlantic Council, an American think tank, Ukrainian commentator Kateryna Kruk said the ecclesiastic divorce “is almost a done deal.”

Richters, the independent researcher, urged caution.

“The Ukrainians seem very excited and they seem to think there will be a Tomos on Autocephaly in early September,” she said. “They were fairly convinced 10 years ago and it didn’t happen then.”

Many read a trip by the Moscow patriarch to Istanbul planned for this week as a sign that the Russians are worried.

“This visit is not accidental,” said Vasilios Makrides, a professor of religious studies at the University of Erfurt in Germany. “They must be nervous.”

It’s not clear whether the AP’s spying revelations will have any impact on the debate over autocephaly, but Richters said it could heighten emotions that are already running high on both sides.

“(The hacking) would definitely be seen as hostile and tasteless and immoral,” she said.

Poland bans Ukraine activist from Europe, raising questions

August 20, 2018

WARSAW, Poland (AP) — Poland has used its powers as a European Union member to ban a human rights Ukrainian activist from all 26 countries in Europe’s Schengen area, saying she poses a security threat following allegations that she works for Russian interests. Some government critics, however, have questioned whether the government is misusing the system to intimidate its opponents.

The activist, Lyudmyla Kozlovska, and her Polish husband Bartosz Kramek told The Associated Press they consider the move punishment for their open opposition to Poland’s conservative, nationalist government.

Kozlovska, who runs an organization with offices in Warsaw, Brussels and Kiev, the Open Dialog Foundation, said her group’s work has largely focused on promoting democracy in Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Moldova. One effort, she said, involved lobbying the EU to place sanctions on people close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But after the conservative Law and Justice party won power in Poland in 2015 and began reshaping the country’s judiciary, the pair also started to accuse that government of violating the rule of law. Kozlovska said they began to face political pressure and that some ruling-party members and online trolls accused her of ties to Russia.

“There is a smear campaign against us,” she said. “If I am a Russian agent why would I put people around Putin on a sanctions list? It’s nonsense that I am some kind of agent.” On Monday, the Internal Security Agency said its counterintelligence department had “serious doubts” about the financing of her foundation and that the ban resulted from the agency denying an application by her for a long-term residency permit.

Kozlovska was stopped Aug. 13 at the Brussels Zaventem airport after arriving from Kiev, held overnight and put on an early flight back to Kiev the next morning. Belgian authorities acted after Poland entered her in the Schengen Information System, a database aimed at ensuring security in Europe’s passport-free Schengen Area.

The move effectively forces Kozlovska, 33, and Kramek, 32, to either live apart or for him to leave Poland. They spoke by phone to the AP from Kiev, where he joined her last week, though he said he plans to be in Warsaw for a street demonstration Thursday in her support.

They said they believe the Polish-requested ban is related to an open manifesto that Kramek published last year calling for civil disobedience against the government. In his appeal, he wrote: “Mere protests and appeals are not enough; extraordinary and resolute actions based on the idea of civil disobedience must be taken immediately. Nobody wants Maidan or bloodshed in Poland, but the escalating tension makes us take almost any unimaginable scenario into account — and be prepared for it.”

Kramek said that was a reference to his support for the Euromaidan, a wave of pro-Western demonstrations and civil unrest in Ukraine that began in 2013. “I didn’t call for any violence,” Kramek said. “I was trying to explain that the Maidan was a peaceful revolution and that nobody was violent until the government tried to suppress the protesters using extreme violence.”

Artur Lompart, director of the Foreign Ministry’s press office, told the AP in a written statement that names are put on the Schengen system “for reasons of defense, national security or public order.”

“The claims made by Mr. Kramek and his spouse that the refusal of entry into Schengen area for Ms. Kozlovska was a result of their anti-government activities are hugely exaggerated,” he said. “Mr. Kramek openly publishes anti-government texts and he often actively participates in anti-government manifestations or protests. Poland is a democratic country where there is a full freedom of opinion and expression of political views.”

Some political activists and members of the Ukrainian community expressed doubts to the AP about the legitimacy of Kozlovska and her foundation. Some nonetheless criticize the government for a lack of transparency and say they fear the move could be an effort to discredit the opposition to the government after three years of frequent street protests.

Michal Szczerba, an opposition lawmaker, said Poland’s authorities “are behaving like Russia, Kazakhstan and Turkey.” Earlier this year, three members of the European Parliament from the Polish ruling party failed in their bid to have Kozlovska denied access to the EU legislature.

One of them, Kosma Zlotowski, said in his request that Kozlovska was granted a Russian passport after the annexation of Crimea. “Moreover, the Foundation and its sponsors are suspected of having connections with Russia, including with entities connected with the Russian Navy. … Such connections should raise certain concern,” Zlotowski continued.

The couple denied those allegations. Poland has absorbed nearly 2 million Ukrainians in recent years. Tom Junes, a historian with the Human and Social Studies Foundation Sofia who researches protest movements and disinformation in Eastern Europe, believes that context is essential to understanding Kozvlovska’s case.

The deportation makes the point that anybody who becomes engaged in activism against the current government in Poland could be banned not only from Poland but also from the EU, Junes said. Olena Babakova, a Ukrainian freelance journalist based in Warsaw, agreed. “This is a warning for all foreigners who think that Poland is their home and that they can take an active part in public life,” she said.

Ukraine’s Roma live in fear amid wave of nationalist attacks

August 06, 2018

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — After attackers charged into a Roma encampment on the outskirts of Kiev, beating the residents and chasing them away, a leader of an ultranationalist group posted photos of his colleagues clearing the site and burning tents left behind.

The camp’s former dwellers took off “after persuasive legal arguments,” Serhiy Mazur, an activist with the C14 organization, wrote on Facebook. Mazur added: “Further raids are planned.” The April attack was the first of 11 forced removals that ultranationalists in Ukraine have carried out this year at settlements of Roma. Radical nationalist groups claimed responsibility for all of the raids and asserted they acted in concert with police. Police deny involvement.

“We were called garbage and dirt, kicked and driven off,” Aza Rustik, who fled during the first raid, said. “I just managed to grab the children and a bag with documents.” During an especially vicious assault in a wooded area in western Ukraine, a gang armed with chains and pieces of metal pipe killed a 23-year-old man and injured four others outside the city of Lviv.

After the April camp invasion, C14’s Mazur was charged with hooliganism. Two lawmakers spoke on his behalf, and he was released to await trial under house arrest. “I would like to hear from the police and the neighborhood administrative officials, who many times asked us for help,” he said when he appeared in court last month.

The attacks and the prospect of more violence are terrifying to Ukraine’s estimated 100,000 Roma. “They threw stones at us, and when we jumped out of the tent, they beat us indiscriminately,” recalled Klara Gaga, a survivor of the fatal attack outside Lviv.

Four suspects were detained in the Lviv attack. Twelve people also were detained after Roma had guns fired at them in Ternopil; the suspects subsequently were released. “Not a single person has been sentenced in attacks on the Roma in Ukraine. That illustrates better than any words the attitude of the authorities,” Zola Kondur, a leader of Roma organization Chiricli, said.

Representatives of extremist groups justify the actions by saying they liquidate illegal Roma settlements because authorities have not. Right-wing nationalist groups such as C14 have seen their popularity and power grow in recent years amid Ukraine’s confrontations with Russia and corruption-riddled domestic politics.

“State institutions are weak, the police are ineffective and the government is forced to resort more and more to the services of right-wing groups, giving them a carte blanche in return,” said Vadim Karasev, director of independent Kiev-based think tank Institute of Global Strategies.

Arthur Sokolov, who is the lead investigator in the Mazur case, rejected the C14 member’s claim that asked the group for help. He said he didn’t know anything about C14 ties with local authorities and police.

“There were no preliminary agreements between the police and other formations,” Sokolov he said in response to a question from The Associated Press about Mazur’s assertion. But Eugene Savvateev, who for several years was involved in the training and integration of Roma children, alleged that police and the nationalists work together.

Savvateev said he heard from Roma that police drove them away when they returned to the former camp site to retrieve remaining belongings. They also recalled that C14 members accompanied local officials who visited the camp before it was destroyed, Savvateev said.

“The authorities do not want to dirty their hands, so they use C14,” he said. “Police came to the settlement after the attack to drive Roma away, and after that Roma certainly don’t trust police and believe they work in sync with the attackers.”

Animosity toward Roma — an ethnic group, also known as Gypsies, that faces discrimination and disdain in much of Europe — is high in Ukraine. Many residents say they resent messy Roma encampments and unsightly fixed settlements such as the Radvanka district in Uzhhorod, where houses made of stones, plywood and polystyrene resemble sheds and children play in piles of garbage.

“Roma remain the most impoverished and unprotected part of Ukrainian society,” Roma activist Myroslav Horvat, of the World Roma Organization in Uzhhorod, said. “The state declares in words the programs of integration and training of the Roma, but there is no money for it, and everything remains only on paper.”

Hunger, poverty and unemployment drive hundreds of Roma to try to earn money in the richer center of the country. During the warm months of the year, the work might consist of searching for scrap metal, trading goods and telling fortunes on the street.

“Gypsies in the cities — this is theft, robbery, drug trafficking and dirty dens,” read leaflets bearing the symbols of nationalist groups Natskorpus and Natsdruzhiny that have appeared in Ukraine’s major cities.

Western governments and international human rights groups have called on Ukrainian authorities to prosecute the perpetrators and stop turning a blind eye to violence against Roma. “Most of the crimes committed by radical groups have not been properly investigated by law enforcement agencies that do not want or cannot conduct effective investigations, even if certain groups publicly take responsibility for crimes,” said Mariya Guryeva, an Amnesty International spokeswoman in Ukraine.

Government officials try to shift blame to Russia, alleging that it has sought to foment violence to destabilize Ukraine amid a tug-of-war between the two ex-Soviet neighbors. “We understand that the Russians always try to play with so-called interethnic problems,” Security Service of Ukraine head Vasily Hrytsak said.

“The murders of the Roma were inspired by Russia,” Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said after the fatal Lviv attack. Those who accuse Russia of organizing the raids have yet to present supporting evidence for their claims.

Yuras Karmanau reported from Minsk, Belarus.

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