NEWS FROM UKRAINE - ANOTHER WEEK OF ESCALATION, WAR ON SOCIAL MEDIA AND AGAINST RUSSIAN RIBBON, VISA LIBERALISATION AT LAST...

20.05.17


UD. 20 May 2017.  

By Iryna Terlecky.

War on all fronts, with peace receding further…

Another week of escalation

As Kyiv welcomed visitors from around Europe and beyond for Eurovision 2017, there was an unwelcome reminder of the Kremlin’s continuing war in the East as attacks escalated along the whole of the front line.

On the day of the Eurovision final on 13 May, militants violated the ceasefire 18 times in the Donetsk sector, using heavy weapons in 12 incidents. 

Cannons and mortars were deployed in Avdiivka with one of the missiles hitting a private house, killing four family members and wounding one. 

“Russian proxies were shooting from the south from the direction of Spartak. Their cynical war crime orphaned two children,” said Ukrainian Ministry of Defense spokesman Colonel Oleksandr Motuzyanyk at a press briefing at the Ukraine Crisis Media Centre. 

President Poroshenko had been due to attend the Eurovision final with his wife and a group of ATO veterans with permanent disabilities as a result of the war. 

But following the announcement of the death of four civilians, he said that he and his wife would not attend as a mark of respect. 

In a separate statement, President Poroshenko said that he would be taking a personal interest in the orphaned children and called on Russians everywhere to look into the eyes of those children to see the results of their collective failure to end the war.

While there have been no Ukrainian casualties in the last few days, the ceasefire continues to be violated, with the heaviest violations around Avdiivka and Horlivka. 

Residential and industrial areas appear to have been targeted, with continual use of mortars and tanks, as well as sniper and small-arms fire.

War on social media

In an escalation of Ukrainian sanctions against Russia, access will be blocked to the most popular social networking sites and other Russian-based web businesses. 

From 15 May, Ukrainian web hosts are banned from linking to a number of Russian social media and other websites. 

The banned sites include Yandex, a Russian equivalent of google that provides search engines, maps, and other popular tools, and  social media sites Vkontakte and Odnoklassnik. 

Other websites blocked under the order include those of the cyber security firms Kaspersky Lab and DrWeb.

The decrees also impose asset freezes and broadcast bans on Russian television channels TV Tsentr, RBK, VGTRK, NTV-Plus, Zvezda, TNT, REN and ORT – though it is not clear how Ukraine will enforce the bans.

About 60 percent of Ukrainian internet users are active on Vkontakte, a survey by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology found last year, with around 50 percent using Odnoklassniki and 40 percent Facebook.

Some Ukrainian officials have described the bans as a national security measure. 

“The servers of these Russian social networks ... store the personal data of Ukrainian users and information on their movements, contacts, communications,” Volodymyr Ariev, an MP from President Poroshenko’s political faction, said on Facebook.

Others, however, have protested that the move could restrict freedom of expression. 

In a comment to Hromadske TV, Freedom House Ukraine’s Project Director, Matthew Schaaf, said:

“Freedom House and other organizations are concerned about the tendency of the Ukrainian government to block information and block access to resources, to websites and so on, because we think that it will make it more difficult for people to access information, news, to express themselves.”

The sentiment was echoed by Human Rights Watch (HRW), “This is yet another example of the ease with which President Poroshenko unjustifiably tries to control public discourse in Ukraine,” said Tanya Cooper, Ukraine researcher at HRW. 

“Poroshenko may try to justify this latest step, but it is a cynical, politically expedient attack on the right to information affecting millions of Ukrainians, and their personal and professional lives.”

Some critics drew comparisons to Internet restrictions imposed by China, Iran, and Turkey.

Russian journalist Irina Borogan, in an interview with Hromadske, dismissed fears that Russian social media networks could be used as a propaganda tools and said that the Kremlin had tried and failed many times to control social media. 

According to Borogan, social media revealing the presence of Russian soldiers in Eastern Ukraine in 2014 was the perfect example of the Kremlin’s inability to control social networks:

“In 2014 when the war in Ukraine started and the Russian authorities strongly denied the military presence of the Russian army on the ground, the social network ‘Vkontakte’ became the first proof that the Kremlin lied,” she said. 

“Russian soldiers started posting a lot of information about their units, their photographs, and even what they were doing there on the social network ‘Vkontakte’. They even posted this information under their own names. This was the first real proof that the Russian army was on the ground. The social network helped.”

The decree’s supporters were equally enthusiastic, with many, like Ukrainian political consultant Taras Kuzio, saying the move was “long overdue.”

“On the territory of Crimea and in the Russian Federation, Roskomnadzor blocked all our information resources, in particular, Free Crimea,” Ukrainian political analyst Taras Berezovets wrote on Facebook, referring to a nonprofit project that monitors activities of Russian authorities on the annexed Crimean Peninsula. 

“Russians constantly write letters demanding to ban materials from our sites to our German [service] providers. So don’t be surprised that for me this is a day of personal victory. Vendetta is such a sweet word, I’ll tell you.”

Answering questions from journalists, President Poroshenko highlighted the impacts of Russia’s propaganda war, “…one cannot differentiate cybersecurity and Russian interference with democratic processes all over the world, as well as its propagandistic efforts made using, inter alia, social networks.” 

He emphasised that the decree was to combat Russia’s hybrid war against Ukraine and that it would not be forever. 

“I can emphasize that immediately after the termination of Russian aggression against Ukraine, immediately after the last Russian soldier leaves sovereign and independent territory of Ukraine, we will be ready to revise this decision.”

And war against Russian ribbon

On the same day as the social media decree, Ukraine’s parliament approved legislation introducing fines and potential jail sentences for people who appear in public wearing the black-and-orange St George’s ribbon - widely viewed a patriotic emblem in Russia, but which many Ukrainians see as a symbol of Russian aggression.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova denounced parliament’s backing of the bill as “antidemocratic and antihistorical.” 

But for many Ukrainians, the ribbon has come to symbolise the war waged by Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine that has killed at least 9,940 people since April 2014.

Visa liberalisation at last

On 17 May, President Poroshenko visited Strasbourg to take part in the signing ceremony of the EU legislation which grants visa-free travel for Ukrainians throughout the Schengen area. 

The legislative act was signed by the President of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani and Minister for Home Affairs and National Security Carmelo Abela. 

It will now be published in the European Journal and will come into effect after 20 days of publication.

Upon completion of the ceremony, the President could not hide his jubilation,  “Today is a historical day for Ukraine, for my 45 million nation. And I am absolutely confident that this is a historical day for the EU. Ukraine returns to the European family. Ukraine says [a] final farewell to the Soviet and Russian empire.” 

While EU politicians have made encouraging noises about the progress made on reforms in Ukraine which have allowed this further strengthening of Ukraine-EU ties, others – within Ukraine and elsewhere - are less sanguine about both the scope and the speed of the reform process.

The IMF, in particular, has said that while much has been achieved, there needs to be much faster and consistent progress on key economic reforms, including privatisation of inefficient state monopolies, development of the agricultural land market, and pensions reform – where the IMF says that too few workers are financing too many pensioners, and that generous early retirement options must be looked at again.

Critically, the IMF highlights a weak judicial system, still rampant corruption, strong influences from oligarchs, and excessive regulation, as key factors which deter foreign investment and are holding back progress. 

The World Bank Governance Index measures an average of six indices: rule of law; political stability and absence of violence; control of corruption; government effectiveness; regulatory quality; and voice and accountability. 

According to the index, Ukraine scores 0.35, behind the Central European 5 (which includes Poland) on 0.5, the Baltics and the whole of the EU – both on 0.75. 

Although there is improvement on almost all economic indices – continuing reductions in inflation and modest growth in GDP – both the IMF and the World Bank are clear that more concerted action should be a priority for Ukraine’s government.


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