WASHINGTON – During the past three months of a violent and contentious election season in Europe’s last autocratic stronghold, RFE/RL journalists in Belarus have faced the most intense harassment since they first began working inside the country 30 years ago.
“Our journalists have spent more than 125 days behind bars since June 25,” said Alexander Lukashuk, director of RFE/RL’s Belarus Service. “In the course of covering the presidential election and the more than 50 days of protests that have followed, they have been harassed, beaten, jailed and stripped of their accreditation.”
KYIV – While struggling to address the unprecedented challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic, the incessant war with Russia in the Donbas, and the looming economic crisis, Ukraine has been shaken by potentially the biggest political scandal since Volodymyr Zelenskyy was elected president almost exactly a year ago.
National Deputy Geo Leros, a member of Zelenskyy’s Servant of the People majority faction in Parliament and a former adviser to the president, on March 29 published video online implicating Denys Yermak, the bother of the head of the Presidential Office, Andriy Yermak, in corruption.
KYIV – The most recent meeting of the Trilateral Contact Group on Peaceful Settlement of the Situation in the Donbas was held in Minsk, Belarus, without being publicly announced beforehand. Only after the media of militant groups in the occupied Donbas published news about the March 11 meeting did a news release appear on the website of the Presidential Office of Ukraine.
The March 11 meeting was attended by the head of the Presidential Office of Ukraine, Andriy Yermak, and the deputy head of the Presidential Administration of the Russian Federation, Dmitry Kozak. The results of the meeting included an agreement on additional troop withdrawals, an exchange of prisoners and checkpoint openings. Public outcry was provoked by news about the establishment of an advisory council, a new body that could legitimize the occupational authorities of the uncontrolled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk regions (known by the Ukrainian-based acronym ORDLO).
KYIV – On March 3, Deputy Minister of Health Viktor Liashko reported that the first case of the new coronavirus had been confirmed in Ukraine. The patient was hospitalized on February 29 after returning from Italy, where he reportedly was infected. Testing by the Public Health Center showed a positive result. All exposed persons are under surveillance by epidemiologists, and samples were sent to the World Health Organization (WHO).
Ukraine became the 73rd country where COVID-19 was confirmed. Ministry of Health authorities reassured the public that the situation is under control.
NEW YORK – Ukrainian film director and writer Oleh Sentsov arrived recently in the United States for his first visit and a multi-city speaking tour that included a late afternoon presentation at the Ukrainian National Home in New York City’s East Village on Saturday, January 25. Since his release during a Ukraine-Russia prisoner exchange in September 2019, Mr. Sentsov has often stated publicly – most recently on January 22 during his appearance at the Davos Economic Forum in Switzerland – that he does not consider himself to be, foremost, a Russian political prisoner. He prefers to focus on his self-identity as a human rights activist and a fighter for Ukraine’s right to self-determination. This position that Ukraine, and all those who consider themselves Ukrainian, must assume serious responsibility to help assure the nation’s success was Mr. Sentsov’s primary message on January 25.
KYIV – During the final days of January, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy carried out two sensitive “working visits,” to Israel and Poland. They were connected with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp located in Poland and International Holocaust Remembrance Day observed on January 27. Given the broader context involving the role of Russian President Vladimir Putin, they were a veritable test for Mr. Zelenskyy’s diplomatic skills, both at home and abroad. And the commemorative events themselves revealed current attitudes towards the Holocaust in Ukraine where, according to the Ukrainian president, “one in four” of the total victims lived.
DAVOS, Switzerland – On January 21-24, this small Swiss town in the mountains hosted the 50th annual World Economic Forum. The world’s most influential people, politicians, businesspeople and philanthropists flew into Switzerland to join this elite gathering. Alongside the official invitation-only program, Davos’s main promenade hosts dozens of alternative events set up by corporations, global organizations and countries. Ukraine House Davos was one of these for the third consecutive year; its aim was to promote Ukraine as a young and vibrant democracy in the heart of Europe that is undergoing a massive transformation and is led by a resilient, highly educated and innovative new generation.
KYIV – The downing of a Ukrainian International Airlines airliner in Iran on January 8 with the loss of 176 lives has continued to dominate domestic and international headlines. On January 16, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne chaired a gathering in London of a newly formed international coordination and response group that includes four other countries that lost citizens in the downing of UIA Flight 752: Ukraine, Sweden, Afghanistan and Britain. The group of grieving nations has drafted a framework for working with Iran on the disaster. Apart from Iranian nationals, the largest group of foreigners on the doomed plane were Canadian citizens. Also killed were 11 Ukrainians, including nine crew members. Kyiv and Ottawa have been working very closely in the aftermath to develop the appropriate responses.
KYIV – The leaders of the Normandy Four countries – Ukraine, Russia, Germany and France – have finally agreed to hold a summit on December 9 in Paris in an attempt to resume the long-stalled negotiations over the future of eastern Ukraine. Moscow had delayed agreeing to a date, and even now continues its attempts to set the summit’s terms. Meanwhile, complex discussions are under way between Kyiv and Moscow on the transit of Russian gas through Ukraine after the present contract expires at the end of the year. With Gazprom making proposals that Naftogaz finds unacceptable, the current negotiations are stalled.
KYIV – U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker resigned on September 27 against the backdrop of the controversy in the United States around the July 25 telephone conversation between U.S. President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the U.S. leader’s initial decision to withhold military aid to Kyiv. U.S. media say Ambassador Volker might have been involved in discussing the Biden case with Ukrainian authorities. He is on the list of U.S. State Department personnel whose data was requested by the House of Representatives investigating the “Ukraine case.”