NEWS FROM UKRAINE - ACCUSATIONS DOMINATE THE NEWS

14.05.16


UD. 14 May 2016.  By Iryna Terlecky.

A period of little progress on all fronts, but with internal affairs and accusations dominating the news.

Where is Poroshenko?

On Thursday 12 May, President Poroshenko was due to be in the UK, attending the Anti-Corruption Summit, speaking at Chatham House and conducting a series of meetings with the Prime Minister and others. 

Two days before, there was the surprise announcement that the trip was cancelled.

The official announcement on the Presidential website was that the cancellation was due to the difficulties in Ukraine’s parliament in electing a new Prosecutor-General (more on this later) and passing legislation to secure further tranches of funding from the International Monetary Fund.

However, an alternative suggestion doing the rounds of social media was that the President had been embarrassed by the news that one of his business associates, a deputy Director of the President’s Roshen empire, was named as a beneficiary of an offshore company registered in the British Virgin Islands (BVI). 

Sergei Zaitsev, whose details appeared in the leaked ‘Panama Papers’, apparently has an address which is identical to that of at least three other companies owned by Poroshenko.

The President’s press service told reporters that he had no connection with the company in question and received no financial benefit from it. 

But this is not the first time that the President has suffered questions about offshore dealings. Last year, one of his close allies, Ihor Kononenko was accused of using the Zaitsev’s BVI company to launder money – a charge that was strenuously denied, with doubt cast on the authenticity of the documents. 

The allegations have done Kononenko no political harm: the Poroshenko bloc has reappointed him as one of its deputy heads.

In April 2016, it was alleged that Poroshenko had set up an offshore firm in August 2014 – at the height of fighting between government and Russian-backed separatist forces in Eastern Ukraine – to avoid paying tax. 

He denied any wrongdoing, saying that the offshore company was a vehicle for transferring his business assets to a blind trust for the duration of the Presidency. 

During his presidential campaign, he had promised to sell his business assets.

Investigative journalist and Member of Parliament Serhiy Leshchenko – himself a member of the Poroshenko bloc – has called for a special investigative commission to be established to probe the President’s business dealings in the light of the latest allegations. 

Whatever the truth of allegation and counter-allegation, what appears clear is that while there continue to be no effective measures taken to live up to the anti-corruption rhetoric, suspicion about corruption amongst Ukraine’s top officials and their business backers will continue to poison Ukraine’s reputation in the West.

How to become a Prosecutor General

Ever since the unpopular Prosecutor General, Viktor Shokin, was ‘persuaded’ to resign, backroom moves have been taking place to appoint his successor. 

President Poroshenko’s favoured candidate, Yuriy Lutsenko, was regarded not only with suspicion – as more and more top appointments go to Poroshenko allies – but with surprise, as Lutsenko has no legal training, qualification or background.

Legal requirements for the appointment include higher legal education and at least ten years’ experience in the field of law. 

But in a move which was fiercely resisted by an alliance of Batkivshchyna, Samopomich, the Radical Party and the Opposition Bloc, new draft legislation was introduced to amend the law. 

The new requirements for the post would be higher education (not necessarily in law) and at least 5 years’ experience in the field of law, or in legislative and/or law enforcement bodies.

Suddenly, Lutsenko was now qualified to be Prosecutor General, only needing Parliament to pass the draft legislation into law. 

This proved to be a tricky process. 

On 10 May, two successive attempts to pass the law received only 224 votes, two short of the majority needed. It was at this juncture that the President then cancelled his UK trip. 

However, there was good news for Lutsenko on 12 May when the new law received a parliamentary majority, and was then signed into law by the President at what has been  described as ‘lightning speed’.

It is not yet clear how Ukraine’s western partners will react, particularly since the EU made a point of saying that a strong Prosecutor General was needed with a legal qualification. 

Ukrainians on social media seem to be resigned to accept Lutsenko’s appointment, with some commenting that even without a legal education, he could not be worse than his legally educated predecessor.

Short memories favour Brexit

As the UK’s politicians and media continue to focus on the increasingly polarised debate about whether the UK should remain in or leave the EU, there seems to be a growing tendency to blame the EU for the crisis in Ukraine – as part of a position arguing that the EU does not protect or increase UK or European security.

Boris Johnson – now concentrating on Brexit having handed over the mayoral reins – said in a speech that the EU was partly to blame for the crisis in Ukraine, and this has recently been echoed by former Foreign Secretary Sir David Owen, who said that the EU’s expansion eastwards has provoked Russia into adopting a more aggressive military stance in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. 

Downing Street has been quick to react, with Johnson being rebuked by David Cameron, who said that Russia alone bears responsibility for the conflict in Ukraine. 

The former Labour Foreign Secretary, Sir Jack Straw, said that Johnson had ‘plumbed new depths’ as he accused him of being a ‘Putin apologist’. 

Mr Johnson in turn condemned the attacks on him as a contemptible smear, and said that he has repeatedly condemned Putin’s actions in Ukraine, while it was indisputible that the EU’s handling of the Ukrainian crisis was ‘far from ideal’.

While many Ukrainians might well agree with the overall assessment of the EU’s actions, particularly at the height of tensions on Maidan and following the invasion and annexation of Crimea, many have also pointed out that Ukraine’s move away from its Soviet past and towards the EU is a democratic choice that only the Ukrainian people have the right to make.

No hope of early peace

German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier hosted the 12th meeting of the Normandy group (the Foreign Ministers of Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France), charged with making progress on the Minsk agreement towards peace in Eastern Ukraine. 

Speaking at the end of the meeting, he said that there was a mixed picture, with no breakthrough on the critical issue of local elections, but some proposals to help avoid fresh breakouts of fighting.

On the positive side, Ukraine and Russia agreed to pull back combat forces from the front lines and for new communication channels be set up to prevent the kind of flare-ups of fighting that have been seen recently across virtually the whole of the front line. 

But the sides are still far apart on the question of elections. Ukraine’s position remains that no elections can be held without a complete ceasefire and the return of full border control to the Ukrainian government. Russia is insisting that there must be a complete package, including reform of Ukraine’s constitution and an amnesty for all those involved in separatist combat.

President Poroshenko continues to be between a rock and a hard place. 

Although legislation on regional autonomy and decentralisation has been drafted, it is far from certain that this would receive a parliamentary majority, with many arguing that it would represent a betrayal of all those who lost their lives on Maidan and in fighting on the eastern front.

Love, loss and Eurovision

The media has been paying significant attention to Ukraine’s entry in this year’s Eurovision song contest. 

Ethnic Crimean Tatar Jamala’s song ‘1944’ laments Stalin’s deportation in 1944 of more than 240,000 Tatars, in an ethnic cleansing operation on charges of collaboration with Nazi forces. 

In an interview, Jamala told reporters that she wanted people to hear a song written ‘in a state of helplessness’ after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. 

She said, “It was hard for me to recall these memories again and again, but I understand that it is necessary now. Because now the Crimean Tatars are desperate and they need support.”

Russian officials complained about the entry, saying that it violated the rules against politicising entries. However, Eurovision organisers said that the song did not breach the rules.

The Russian entry is currently favourite, with Jamala as second favourite - both successfully reaching the final after their respective semi final performances on Tuesday and Thursday. 

Afficionados will recall that the Russian entry was booed in 2014, in protest at Russian anti-gay policies and the annexation of Crimea, and organisers, as in 2015, will be doing everything they can to avoid a repeat. One thing seems clear already - Russian voters are unlikely to be giving Jamala ‘douze points’.

Remember Nadiya

Nadiya Savchenko celebrated her birthday on 11 May in a Russian jail, but was not allowed to receive a visit from her mother. 

 

We send her all our good wishes for continued strength against the injustice of her imprisonment and for a speedy return to Ukraine.

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