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.

Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan and Ukrainian Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak sign the Canada-Ukraine Defense Cooperation Agreement on April 3.

Canada and Ukraine sign defense cooperation agreement

OTTAWA – One month after the Canadian government announced a two-year extension of its military training mission in Ukraine, Canada formalized its support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and security through a bilateral defense cooperation agreement both countries’ defense ministers signed here on April 3.

“The arrangement will enable us to collaborate closely on issues of mutual security and defense concerns,” Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan told reporters at the signing ceremony at National Defense headquarters in Ottawa. “This defense cooperation agreement demonstrates just how strongly Canada is committed to Euro-Atlantic security and our unwavering support for Ukraine.”

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.

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.

President Petro Poroshenko (right) and National Security and Defense Council Secretary Oleksandr Turchynov (second from right) at the council’s meeting on March 15, when a decision was made to halt all cargo traffic with the occupied Donbas.

Ukraine halts cargo traffic with the occupied Donbas

KYIV – Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council halted the flow of road and rail cargo traffic in the occupied Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, following a decision during an ad hoc meeting on March 15. The measure also ordered the Security Service of Ukraine (known as the SBU) to probe the banks that have capital from state-owned Russian financial institutions and to, “within a day, provide relevant proposals, in particular, the introduction of sanctions against them.”

President Petro Poroshenko said he convened the extraordinary meeting due to a trade blockade that Donbas war veterans, helped by a group of lawmakers mostly from the Samopomich party, had started six weeks ago. The blockade had led to clashes between the pro-blockade activists and police in Donetsk Oblast and in Kyiv on March 14, as well as reciprocal measures enacted by the Kremlin-installed proxies in the occupied parts of easternmost Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Nationwide protests in support of the blockaders in at least 13 cities in 12 regions also were held this week. Pro-blockade lawmakers from the Samopomich and Batkivshchyna parties assert that the trade helps prop up the Kremlin-installed proxies in the Donbas and say the business ties are “tainted with blood.”

In turn, Mr. Poroshenko called the blockade, which started on January 25, counterproductive to restoring sovereignty over the territory Kyiv doesn’t control.

A map prepared by Euromaidan Press shows Ukrainian assets in the Donbas “nationalized” by the Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” on March 1.

Kyiv faces dilemma over occupied Donbas business ties

KYIV – Ukraine’s precarious dilemma on conducting trade with businesses in occupied Donbas made it to the International Court of Justice at The Hague where Kyiv is accusing Russia of financing terrorism and discrimination in the Crimea. The Russian side, while addressing Ukraine’s accusations on March 7, asserted that Kyiv authorities negotiate with the Kremlin-backed proxies via the “Minsk peace process” and even do business with enterprises located in the occupied Donbas, “thus providing a large share of the budget to the unrecognized entities,” BBC’s Russian service reported. It’s the same point that a group of Ukrainian lawmakers, mostly from the Samopomich Party (Self-Reliance), and dozens of war veterans whom they’re helping, have made. “Trade with the occupiers is amoral, it finances terrorism and promotes corruption,” Samopomich lawmaker Semen Semenchenko told The Ukrainian Weekly over the phone at a rail blockade in Donetsk Oblast. The founder and former commander of the Donbas Battalion said that among the goals of cutting off all trade except humanitarian aid, including vital links between industrial plants on both sides of the frontline, is to force the Ukrainian government to recognize the area it doesn’t control as occupied, name Russia as the aggressor and call the armed conflict a war.

Serhiy Vovchuk of the Kyivska Rus’ 11th Battalion smiles after his left hand was operated on February 27 to repair tendons so that functionality could be returned to his thumb. He was wounded by gunfire while fighting near the Luhansk Oblast town of Popasna in the summer of 2016.

Canadian physicians return to Ukraine on fifth medical mission

KYIV – In the summer of 2016, Serhiy Vovchuk suffered two bullet wounds to his left arm in the frontline town of Popasna in Luhansk Oblast from combined Russian-separatist forces. After undergoing four operations to restore functionality of his hand and fingers, Mr. Vovchuk, of the Kyivska Rus’ 11th Motorized Infantry Battalion, had his tendons repaired by a group of Canadian surgeons on February 27 at the Defense Ministry’s Main Military Hospital. “They treated me like their own children, this was very apparent throughout the process,” he told The Ukrainian Weekly of the Canadian physicians who helped restore functionality to his left thumb. “After about eight weeks of exercising my left thumb, I should be able to restore at least 70 percent of my thumb’s movement,” Mr. Vovchuk said. Use of the thumb and index finger in tandem account for approximately 80 percent of hand motor movement.

Dr. Phillip Karber (right) with Lt. Gen. Mykhailo Zablodsky of Ukraine’s armed forces in Ukraine in August 2016.

Phillip Karber: Ukraine faces Russia’s ‘new-generation warfare’

KYIV – Dr. Phillip Karber never projected that Ukraine would be able to withstand Russian military aggression for as long as it has – three years already. The president of the Potomac Foundation, an independent policy center in Virginia, said Ukraine’s army has “substantially improved” since Moscow engineered an armed uprising in the easternmost regions of Luhansk and Donetsk in April 2014. “It was a miracle,” the expert in defense and national security told The Ukrainian Weekly in a telephone interview, noting that Kyiv was “struggling to get 10 battalions ready to fight.”

Today, three years into the Donbas war, and after 10,000 people killed, Ukraine has 22 brigades and close to 70 battalions, and has the structure to have up to 30 brigades. Although Ukraine in spring 2014 managed to prevent Russia from carrying out the “Novorossiya construct” whereby the Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Kherson, Zaporizhia and Odesa oblasts would slip from Kyiv’s grasp, according to Dr. Karber, it could’ve settled the conflict had it “moved faster and more decisively.”

He credited the “spirit of the Maidan” – the revolution that toppled Viktor Yanukovych’s oppressive and corrupt presidency in February 2014 – in whose aftermath volunteer units were immediately formed and initially resisted the combined Russian-separatist elements in Ukraine’s east. But he was quick to say that, by the end of the summer of 2014, Ukraine’s military had made progress to improve its fighting capability and today is five times stronger.

White House says Trump made it clear Russia must ‘return Crimea’ to Ukraine

WASHINGTON – The White House has said that President Donald Trump fully expects Russia to return control of Crimea to Ukraine. Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, made the remarks at a contentious February 14 news conference that focused largely on the abrupt departure of Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Mr. Spicer said that Mr. Trump had “made it very clear” that he expects Russia to “return Crimea” and reduce violence in eastern Ukraine, where a war between government forces and Russia-backed separatists has killed more than 9,750 people since April 2014. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman responded to that remark in a conference call with reporters on February 15, saying that Moscow will not discuss the return of Crimea to Ukraine with the United States or any other country. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov referred to Crimea as Russian territory, saying that “Russia never discusses issues related to its territories with foreign partners, including the United States.”

Mr. Peskov said Mr. Trump did not raise the issue of Crimea in his January 28 telephone conversation with Mr. Putin.