By Iryna Terlecky

Working for a new Ukraine

For many years, there was scepticism that the annual Yalta European Strategy meeting was organised by Viktor Pinchuk – one of Ukraine’s richest men – as a way of rehabilitating his reputation and that of his father-in-law, former President Leonid Kuchma. Scepticism has, however, given way to an acknowledgement that the meeting brings together more national and international leaders, businessmen, military and media experts than any other event and that, over the years, it has become a forum where sensitive and often painful issues can be openly discussed and the status quo challenged.

The last meeting actually held in Yalta was in 2013 and for the last two years, the venue has changed to Kyiv, this year attracting over 350 leaders and opinion formers for the three-day event. A series of panel discussions covered subjects as diverse as energy policy, progress on economic reforms, the fight against corruption, social activism and the potential range of future relationships with Russia.

There was clear consensus that sanctions against Russia could not be lifted until Ukraine’s territorial integrity was restored. Regat Chubarov, member of the Ukrainian parliament and chairman of the Mejlis of the Crimean Tatar People called for both tougher sanctions and for greater international efforts to improve Ukraine’s defensive capability. And while participants agreed that Russia’s annexation of Crimea could never be recognised, there was also an acknowledgement that the return of Crimea to Ukraine would not be achieved in the short term. 

During the panel «Ukraine’s East and Crimea: Solving the Unsolvable,” Jose Manuel Barroso, who served as president of the EU from 2004-2014, said, “I believe it will take a lot of time to return the peninsula, therefore Ukraine must now concentrate on solving problems in the war torn East, as Europe wants to see Ukraine a democratic and peaceful country.” 

Perhaps most interesting were the results of a survey taken during the conference, which showed that 60% of Ukrainians believed that the conflict in Eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea should be solved through negotiation, with only 23% supporting the use of ‘weapons of war’ and an insignificant number supporting abandonment of both Crimea and Donbas.

Fighting corruption is key

While participants universally praised Ukraine for the progress made with the reform programme, there was a general acknowledgement that much more needed to be done to root out corruption. Odesa Oblast Governor Mikheil Saakashvili, former president of Georgia, said that Ukraine remained an oligarchy with weak rule of law. Anders Aslund, the Swedish author and expert on Ukrainian politics, told the YES conference that the entire top leadership of all law enforcement bodies should be removed and replaced by people who will make the institutions truly independent.

In a lively debate, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk was challenged on the lack of progress on corruption, with no discernable major results from the police, prosecutors or judiciary. He replied by saying that these areas were not his responsibility, and that he was doing everything that is within the powers of the Prime Minister.

Changing the mentality

A surprise guest at the conference was Sir Elton John, who made an impassioned speech for human rights and inclusion of the LGBT community. He said that there were critical choices for Ukraine to make in choosing freedom and democracy over repression, 

‘I suggest to you that your stance on human rights will also be a defining characteristic of the new Ukraine, and that there is no clearer touchstone on the issue of human rights than the respect and dignity afforded your LGBT citizens.’ 

He ended with a reminder of the concert he played on Maidan to promote awareness and tolerance of HIV. ‘That night it felt like everyone there on Maidan was on the right side of history. It’s the Maidan I long to see in the new Ukraine – proud and beautiful, where everyone is welcome’. He urged Ukraine to seize the opportunity to guarantee human rights for all and reach for a new level of compassion, which he said would change lives and change the course of history.

These sentiments were echoed by Aleksander Kwasniewski, former President of Poland (1995 - 2005), who highlighted the need for Ukrainian society to transform its collective mentality. People have to become more tolerant, more understanding of difference, more patient. «For us in the West this is our understanding of what a modern society is. Changing the way your society thinks, being more open and tolerant, is how you will change the country to a point where it can never go back to where you have been. It is the best guarantee that Ukraine will never return to an authoritarian system and politics, to a dependent judicial system. It will not be easy to achieve that, it will take time and patience. On this journey, we Europeans must continue to show our unity and solidarity in supporting Ukraine,» he concluded.

Meanwhile in Crimea…

While the Russian media largely ignored the Kyiv conference, they paid considerable attention to a meeting in Crimea between Russian president Vladimir Putin his ‘friend and ally’ former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Russia Today reminded readers that in mid-June, Putin and Berlusconi met in Rome and the Italian politician promised that his party, Forza Italia, would urge the government to lift anti-Russian sanctions, which – in his words – were harming both ties with Russia and Italy’s own national interests.

While Putin’s press spokesman stressed the importance that the President placed on his continuing friendship with Berlusconi and the value of discussion with him on matters of mutual concern, Western media were rather more scathing about the continuation of their long-standing ‘bromance’. 

In a statement, Ukraine’s foreign ministry said: «This visit to occupied Crimea is a fresh attempt by the Russian federation to legtimise at all costs the illegal occupation and a demonstration of lack of respect for the state sovereignty of Ukraine».

Removing Russia’s UN veto

President Putin is due to make a rare appearance and speech at the UN at the end of September, a day before President Poroshenko is due to speak. Ahead of those events, Ukraine has stepped up its effort to restrict Russia’s use of its veto in the UN Security Council, which the Ukrainian government says has enabled the Kremlin to block international action to punish Moscow for «aggression.»

In a resolution unanimously adopted on 16 September, Ukraine’s parliament called for urgent reform of the Security Council, in which Russia holds veto powers as one of the five permanent members.

«There is convincing evidence of the urgency to reform the veto [system] to prevent its abuse,» the Verkhovna Rada resolution said. It said the veto has too often been used to «cover up the crime of aggression by a permanent member of the UN Security Council.» The resolution urged UN member states to take «all possible measures to stop the Russian aggression against Ukraine.»

Russia’s use of its rights has included vetoing a resolution that would have established a tribunal to try those suspected of responsibility for the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, which killed all 298 people aboard, a resolution criticizing the secession referendum in Crimea, and a resolution that would have declared the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995, in which some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed, to be genocide.

And finally…

The Russian Embassy in the UK sent warm congratulations to Jeremy Corbyn on his election as Labour leader, but its attempt to troll David Cameron went somewhat awry. David Cameron tweeted that the Labour party was now a threat to national and economic security, and the Russian Embassy tweeted, ‘Just imagine UK media headlines if Russian President called a leading opposition party threat to national security.’ Reaction from the twittersphere was swift and sardonic, pointing out that the media would first have to find an opposition party and that it was 200 days since Boris Nemtsov was shot dead.

And following Mikhail Saakashvili’s outspoken attacks on lack of progress in fighting corruption, with 25,000 signatures on an online petition calling for him to replace Arseniy Yatseniuk as Prime Minister, President Poroshenko was asked by the Independent if he saw Saakashvili as a future Prime Minister. “Absolutely, he’ll make a great Prime Minister,” answers the President. “Of Georgia”.

This article appeared in UD, 17/2015.

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