Justice Minister Pavlo Petrenko (left) and Deputy Justice Minister Denys Chernyshov (right) during an inspection of the Lukyanivska Prison in Kyiv on April 18.

Banker embarks on overhauling Ukraine’s Soviet-era prison system

KYIV – The dimly lit cavernous hallways of the tsarist-era Lukyanivska Prison emit a dank and musky smell. Unmitigated mold growth and years of neglect have rendered a whole cell wing and the basement uninhabitable, even by Ukraine’s Soviet-era prison standards. Called “Katka” by its inmates – after Catherine II of Russia who ruled the tsarist empire when the facility was built in 1863 – the prison has had several units added since, the latest being the women’s ward built with Swiss-funded money in 2007. Notoriety always accompanied the Lukyanivska Prison. Used mostly to hold prisoners in between court appearances for alleged crimes, it has a history of prisoner mistreatment and inhumane conditions associated with sanitation, overcrowding, and poor health care and food.

The chief of the National Bank of Ukraine, Valeria Gontareva, on April 10, when she announced her resignation.

Gontareva, fearless head of NBU, resigns after tackling ‘zombie’ banks, oligarchs

KYIV – As the outgoing central bank governor, Valeria Gontareva will be a hard act to follow. Her resignation on April 10 expectedly came after the International Monetary Fund released an additional $1 billion as part of its $17.5 billion country support program, and after three years as head of the National Bank of Ukraine (NBU). Under her watch, 87 out of some 180 banks lost their licenses because they couldn’t meet the stricter regulations she put in place in one of Europe’s most corrupt and shaky banking systems. As a result, total banking sector assets shrank to $53.8 billion by year-end 2016 from more than $120 billion three years earlier. Put another way, if the ratio of corporate loans to gross domestic product was around 50 percent before Ms. Gontareva’s tenure, and the household loans to GDP ratio was 13 percent, then today they are 35 and 7 percent, respectively. “I came here to implement reforms.  My mission is fulfilled – the reforms are implemented,”  Ms. Gontareva told journalists on the day of her resignation.

Tillerson at NATO-Ukraine Commission: Our ‘support for Ukraine remains steadfast’

BRUSSELS – Addressing the NATO-Ukraine Commission on March 31, U.S. Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson made it clear that the United States and NATO “stand firm in our support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” and underscored, “We do not, and will not, accept Russian efforts to change the borders of territory of Ukraine.”

Speaking of U.S. sanctions on Russia related to the war in Ukraine’s east, Mr. Tillerson stated: “We will continue to hold Russia accountable to its Minsk commitments. The United States sanctions will remain until Moscow reverses the actions that triggered our sanctions.” He added, “And Russia must understand there is no basis to move forward on the political aspects of the Minsk agreements until there is visible, verifiable and irreversible improvement in the security situation.”

IMF approves $1B loan to Ukraine

WASHINGTON – The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has approved a $1 billion loan payment to Ukraine. The IMF is supporting Ukraine with a $17.5 billion bailout program in exchange for Kyiv implementing reforms and tackling corruption. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko wrote on his Facebook page on April 3 that the approval was “further recognition of Ukrainian reforms.”

David Lipton, acting chair of the IMF’s board, said Ukraine’s economy was showing signs of improvement, with lower inflation and a doubling of international reserves. But he said Kyiv still needed to tackle corruption “decisively.”

The IMF had postponed the disbursement of the new loan following Kyiv’s imposition of a trade embargo on areas controlled by Russia-backed separatists in the east of the country. Ukraine received $1 billion from the IMF in October, its third tranche of money under the bailout program launched in March 2015.

Russia accuses NATO of ‘slander’ as U.S. denounces ‘Russian aggression’

Russia has accused the United States and its allies of “slander” as the U.S. top diplomat and Pentagon chief denounced Russia’s actions in Ukraine and elsewhere. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told his counterparts at NATO on March 31 that the United States was committed to Ukraine’s territorial integrity and that U.S. sanctions against Russia will remain in place “until Moscow reverses the actions that triggered our sanctions.”

“We do not and will not accept Russian efforts to change the borders of the territory of Ukraine,” said Mr. Tillerson. The secretary of state added that Washington “will continue to hold Russia accountable to its Minsk commitments,” referring to the Minsk process to resolve the Ukraine crisis. Tillerson was attending his first meeting of NATO foreign affairs ministers amid worries about U.S. President Donald Trump’s stated desire for closer relations with Moscow. He told Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Pavlo Klimkin, who was also at the meeting, that American and NATO support for Ukraine remained “steadfast” after “Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.”

Russia responded by accusing NATO of spreading “the myth of a ‘Russian threat’ ” and “the slander of ‘Russian aggression’ ” as a way to unify its members.

New bill forces graft watchdogs to file declarations of assets

KYIV – Controversial amendments to the nation’s “e-declaration” law that require corruption watchdogs registered in Ukraine to file asset declarations went into effect on March 30. President Petro Poroshenko signed the bill this week after the Verkhovna Rada approved changes to Ukraine’s anti-corruption legislation on March 23. The measure obliges employees of civil society groups that monitor graft and the vendors with whom they conduct business to disclose their incomes and purchasing activity. Their first asset declarations are due in 2018. Non-governmental organizations that fight corruption will now join the 50,000 high-level public officials, including the president, the prime minister, Cabinet members, lawmakers, judges, prosecutors, local government officials and managers of state-owned companies who must file electronic declarations.

Ukraine asks U.S. for status as major non-NATO ally

KYIV – Ukrainian national deputies on March 22 adopted draft resolution No. 6111 – the appeal of the Verkhovna Rada to the U.S. Congress regarding security guarantees. The resolution was supported by 232 members of the Ukrainian Parliament. “Ukraine seeks to significantly deepen the bilateral security partnership between Ukraine and the United States… In accordance with the spirit and letter of the Budapest Memorandum, as well as for sake of the development of the strategic partnership between our states, we ask the United States to consider the issue of concluding a defensive agreement with Ukraine and granting Ukraine the status of a major non-NATO ally,” the resolution says.

Poet and publisher Ivan Malkovych receives the Taras Shevchenko National Prize for his contribution to promoting Ukrainian literature from President Petro Poroshenko on March 9. 

Shevchenko Prize laureate Malkovych offers eloquent defense of the Ukrainian language

KYIV – When Ivan Malkovych, the renowned poet and book publisher, took the podium to accept this year’s Taras Shevchenko National Prize for literature, he passionately exalted the Ukrainian language and voiced disapproval for how the award’s namesake is portrayed in society. The selection committee for the nation’s most prestigious state award in the arts had asked him to give a five-minute speech for his prize-winning poetry collection “A Plantain with New Poems” (Podorozhnyk z Novymy Virshamy). Mr. Malkovych, 55, instead spoke twice as long, and very quickly at that, on March 9. He first lamented that school curriculums still portray Mr. Shevchenko as a “serf and peasant poet-martyr.”

Instead, the founder of the A-BA-BA-HA-LA-MA-HA publishing house called the bard “modern and contemporary… because the real meanings of Shevchenko in many of his works sound like heavy, hard rock, and not syrupy pop music.”

The Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast native then called for a law that will predominantly replace Russian with the Ukrainian language in media, including television and radio, and on advertisements by introducing quotas. Noting that “language is the most significant marker of national self-identity,” Mr. Malkovych invoked the 19th century Irish nationalist Thomas Davis by saying that “a nation should defend its language more than its territory…”

He added, “if there’ll be Ukrainian language here, then we’ll have order; and if not, then we’ll have an eternal Putin [a reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin], no matter what he may be called.”

Another historical reference was to Winston Churchill.

Ukraine lawmaker calls on U.S. to investigate new ‘evidence’ of secret payments to Manafort

KYIV – Paul Manafort is under scrutiny again after a Ukrainian lawmaker released documents he says show that U.S. President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman went to great lengths to hide $750,000 tied to his work for former President Viktor Yanukovych. The documents, made public by National Deputy Serhiy Leshchenko at a press conference in Kyiv on March 21, include an invoice that bears the name of Mr. Manafort’s Virginia-based consulting company, a blue seal and what appears to be his signature. Initially described in a report published by The New York Times on March 20, the document seems to show that $750,000 was laundered through an offshore account and disguised as payment for computers. Mr. Leshchenko called on Ukrainian and U.S. law-enforcement agencies to investigate the payment. “This is money stolen from Ukrainian citizens and has been paid to Manafort for [his work] with our former corrupt president,” Mr. Leshchenko charged in a brief interview with RFE/RL on March 21, speaking in English.

Journalist Mykola Semena talks to journalists before his court appearance in Symferopol on March 20.

RFE/RL contributor Mykola Semena goes on trial in Crimea

Crimean journalist Mykola Semena has gone on trial on separatism-related charges in the Russian-controlled territory, telling reporters minutes before the hearing that he is innocent. The judge adjourned the trial on March 20 for two weeks shortly after it got under way, following a motion by the defense to provide for a more open and accessible process by holding it in a larger courtroom. The trial is scheduled to resume on April 3. Mr. Semena, an RFE/RL contributor, is being prosecuted for an article he wrote criticizing Moscow’s seizure of the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 and expressing support for a blockade of the territory initiated by Ukrainian activists. The trial at a Russian court in the Crimean capital, Symferopol, began amid mounting international pressure on Moscow to drop the case against Mr. Semena, 66.