January 17, 2020



Kyiv wants compensation for PS752

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says Ukraine expects a full probe, a full admission of guilt and compensation from Iran after Tehran admitted, following days of denial, that it accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane, killing all 176 aboard. “We expect from Iran assurances of their readiness for a full and open investigation, bringing those responsible to justice, the return of the bodies of the dead, the payment of compensation, official apologies through diplomatic channels,” he added. Mr. Zelenskyy spoke later in the day by phone with Iranian President Hassan Rohani. Mr. Zelenskyy’s press office said Mr. Rohani admitted during the call that Iran’s military mistakenly shot down the plane, Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 (PS752). Mr. Rohani apologized for the tragedy and promised that those responsible would be held accountable, Mr. Zelens­kyy’s press service said. The two also discussed Iranian compensation to the victims. The Ukrainian president called Iran’s admission of guilt “a step in the right direction” and insisted Tehran complete the identification of the bodies and return them to Ukraine. Ukrainian Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk’s office said Ukraine would pay families of the victims 200,000 hrv ($8,400) each and help them collect compensation from Iran, the airline, and insurance companies. Iran state TV earlier on January 11 quoted the military as saying the plane was shot down after it was mistaken for a “hostile target” when it turned toward a “sensitive military center” of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). It added that the military was at its “highest level of readiness” amid raised tensions with the United States. The statement also said those responsible for the tragedy, which killed all aboard the plane, would “immediately” be brought to justice. IRGC commander Amirali Hajizadeh said later in an address broadcast by state TV that his IRGC aerospace unit accepted “full responsibility” for the downing. Mr. Hajizadeh said the anti-aircraft officer had little time to decide whether or not to fire. “He had 10 seconds to make a decision, and he could either strike or not strike. Under these conditions, unfortunately, he made a bad decision and the missile was fired,” Mr. Hajizadeh said. Yevheniy Dykhne, president of UIA, told a news conference in Kyiv on January 11 that the airline received no warnings before the plane took off. “At the time of the [flight’s] departure from [Kyiv’s] Borispol Airport our air company had no information about potential threats – just as exactly the same way at the time of its departure from the airport in Tehran our air company had no information, and no decisions by responsible administrations have been provided to us,” Mr. Dykhne said. (RFE/RL, with reporting by wire services)


Canada seeks key role in Iran downing probe

Canada says it intends to play a key role in investigating the crash of a Ukrainian airliner, a Boeing 737-800NG owned by Ukraine International Airlines, that killed dozens of its citizens despite not having direct diplomatic relations with Tehran. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a news conference in Ottawa that 138 of the 176 people on board the flight from Tehran to Kyiv had onward connections to Canada. Many were members of Canada’s large Iranian community, mainly from the Edmonton area. Ukrainian officials said 63 Canadians, 82 Iranians, 10 Swedes, four Afghans, three Germans and three Britons were on the plane, along with 11 Ukrainians, including nine crew. Mr. Trudeau said that “Canada is one of a handful of countries with a high degree of expertise when it comes to these sorts of accidents and, therefore, we have much to contribute.” He added, “I am confident that in our engagement both through our allies and directly, we are going to make sure that we are a substantive contributor to this investigation.” (RFE/RL, with reporting wire services)


Zelenskyy, Merkel discuss Donbas

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have discussed the situation in Ukraine’s east, where Russia-backed separatists continue to control some part of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. Ukraine’s presidential website said on January 15 that Mr. Zelenskyy thanked Ms. Merkel for Germany’s participation in the Normandy peace format summit in Paris on December 9. Mr. Zelenskyy expressed concern about the failure to implement an agreement on ensuring an actual “complete ceasefire” in Ukraine’s east, adding that the next round of consultations of the Trilateral Contact Group (Ukraine, Russia, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) will be held in Minsk on January 16. The Ukrainian president assured Germany’s chancellor that Kyiv will do its best to secure additional steps for a comprehensive ceasefire. (RFE/RL)


Russia hacks Ukraine’s Burisma company

Hackers from Russia’s military intelligence unit, the GRU, have allegedly targeted a Ukrainian energy firm tied to the impeachment proceedings against U.S. President Donald Trump. Cybersecurity experts at California-based Area 1 Security released a report on January 13 that found Burisma Holdings, where the son of presidential front-runner Joe Biden sat on the board, was successfully penetrated in a wide-ranging phishing campaign that stole e-mail credentials of employees. It isn’t clear if anything was stolen from the company or its subsidiaries, which were initially targeted, if any information was gleaned, and what the ultimate goal of the hackers was. Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice-President Joe Biden, was a board member of Burisma from 2014 until last year. Mr. Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to “look into” allegations of wrongdoing by the Bidens and the energy firm in a July 25, 2019, phone call. Their conversation was the subject of an ensuing whistle-blower’s complaint that triggered the impeachment investigation, which began in September. No evidence of corruption by either of the Bidens has surfaced in light of allegations by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, that the former vice-president sought to protect his son by pressuring Ukrainian officials. The alleged hacker group used a similar phishing pattern and is directly connected to Fancy Bear, the same Russian cyber-infiltrators of the Democratic National Committee in the months leading up the 2016 presidential election. Area 1’s eight-page report said the cyberattacks on Burisma began in November 2019, when Ukraine and impeachment, as well as talk of the Bidens, were dominating news headlines in the United States. “Area 1 Security has also further connected this GRU phishing campaign to another phishing campaign targeting a media organization founded” by Mr. Zelenskyy, the report said. The New York Times, which first wrote about the anti-phishing company’s report, said the attack “appears to have been aimed at digging up e-mail correspondence” of Studio Kvartal 95, which then was headed by Ivan Bakanov, whom Mr. Zelenskyy appointed as head of Ukraine’s Security Service in June 2019. (RFE/RL, with reporting by Cyber­scoop, The New York Times, Bloom­berg, Reuters and AP)


Court remands suspect in Sheremet murder

A court in Kyiv has remanded a suspect for one month in custody in connection with the 2016 killing of prominent journalist Pavel Sheremet, following what Reporters Without Borders called a “flawed three-and-a-half-year investigation.” The court of appeals in Kyiv ruled on January 10 that Andriy Antonenko must stay in pretrial detention until February 8. Mr. Antonenko’s supporters, who came to the hearing, chanted “Shame!” and “Corrupt Judges!” after the court handed down its ruling. Mr. Antonenko and two women, Yulia Kuzmenko and Yana Duhar, were arrested in December 2019 as suspects in the high-profile case. Two other suspects, Vladyslav and Inna Hryshchenko, were arrested and placed in pretrial detention last year in September and November, respectively, as suspects in another case. All five took part in military operations in different capacities in Ukraine’s east, where government forces are fighting against Russia-backed separatists. The Internal Affairs Ministry and the National Police said in December that the group’s goal was “to destabilize the political and social situation in Ukraine” by killing Sheremet. Ms. Kuzmenko, a pediatrician and well-known volunteer, is suspected of placing the bomb under the car the night before the murder with the help of Mr. Antonenko, a musician. Sheremet, a Belarusian-born Russian citizen who had made Kyiv his permanent home, was leaving his apartment to head to the studio where he hosted a morning radio program when an improvised explosive device planted under the vehicle he was driving exploded on July 20, 2016, killing him instantly. In a statement on January 10, Reporters Without Borders raise concern about “inconsistencies in the evidence for the Ukrainian authorities’ claim to have solved [Sheremet’s] murder,” and urged them to “continue the investigation and to be more transparent as they do so.” This investigation “offers the opportunity to really begin combating impunity,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of the Paris-based media freedom watchdog’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “Not just the perpetrators but also the instigators should be identified and brought to trial,” Ms. Cavelier insisted. (RFE/RL, with reporting by UNIAN and Ukrayinska Pravda)


Court expunges Semena’s criminal record

A court in Ukraine’s Russia-controlled Crimea region has ruled to prematurely terminate the probation period and expunge the criminal record of Mykola Semena, an RFE/RL contributor who was convicted of separatism on the peninsula. The court in Symferopol, the region’s capital, on January 14 upheld the motion filed by the lawyer of Mr. Semena, who has contributed to the Crimea Desk of RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service. The ruling is supposed to take effect in 10 calendar days. In December, the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine asked President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to include the native Crimean journalist and five other colleagues on the list of people held captive in occupied territories for a prisoner exchange and be released to mainland Ukraine. Mr. Semena was arrested by the Russia-imposed authorities in April 2016 and charged with acting against the “territorial integrity of the Russian Federation.” He says the accusation was politically motivated and violated fundamental freedoms of expression and that Russian authorities based their case on an inaccurate translation of one of his stories from Ukrainian into Russian. In September 2017, a court convicted Mr. Semena and gave him a two-and-a-half-year suspended sentence and banned him from “public activity” for three years. Three months later, a court that Russia calls the Supreme Court of Crimea upheld his conviction. The United States, the European Union, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and international media watchdogs have all condemned the trial and verdict. (Crimea Desk, RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service)


Big gains for Ukraine in visa-free travel

The travel freedom of Ukrainian passport holders has doubled since 2010, making Ukraine the world’s sixth-biggest climber in the category over the past decade. Ukrainians currently enjoy visa-free travel to 128 countries, placing their country 43rd among 199 countries featured in the latest edition of the yearly Henley Passport Index that was published on January 7. Driving the rise in improved international access was a far-reaching political and economic pact with the European Union following the pro-democracy Maidan uprising of 2014. Eight spots behind, in 51st place, is Russia, while Georgia occupies the 53rd spot. The index of so-called passport power is published in cooperation with the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and was first released in 2006. (RFE/RL)


Fewer Ukrainians traveled to Russia

Ukraine’s State Border Guard Service says passenger traffic at the Russian-Ukrainian border in 2019 decreased by 10 percent to 10 million people in comparison to the previous year. Approximately 7 million Ukrainians entered Russia last year, 800,000 fewer than in 2018, the government agency said on January 14. Nine percent fewer Ukrainians also traveled to neighboring Belarus and 6.1 percent fewer to Moldova. The travel documents of more than 102 million travelers were checked last year, a record, says the State Border Guard Service. International Ukrainian air travelers surged 30 percent last year to 15.1 million. Land crossings of Ukraine’s border with its four European Union neighbors remained flat for the same period, at 36.7 million people. Enjoying visa-free travel to most EU countries, more Ukrainians are driving to the 28-nation bloc. Inter­national driving insurance contracts taken out by Ukrainians jumped by 43 percent through November on a yearly basis. (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service)


ROC cuts ties with Alexandria Patriarchate

The Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) has cut ties with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria and all of Africa Patriarch Theodore II after he recognized the independence of Ukraine’s Church from Moscow. Russia’s Holy Synod also decided on December 27 2019, to abolish the Exarchate of the Patriarchate of Alexandria in Moscow and convert it into a Russian church. The Russian Church’s decision follows Patriarch Theodore’s recognition of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine during a service he held in Egypt in November. The Patriarchate of Constantinople – generally considered the spiritual headquarters for Orthodoxy – granted the Orthodox Church of Ukraine independence in January, ending more than 300 years of control by Moscow. The new Orthodox Church of Ukraine installed its first metropolitan, Epifaniy, at a ceremony in Kyiv on February 3, 2019, in a process that further established the new church body’s independence. However, the Ukrainian Church has struggled to win recognition from other Orthodox Churches, making Theodore’s act significant. The Russian Orthodox Church previously severed ties with the Constan­tinople Patriarchate for recognizing the Ukrainian Church’s independence. However, the Russian Orthodox Church maintains full relations with the Metropolitans of Alexandria, who did not recognize the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by AFP and Orthodox Times)


Underground economy is targeted

Ukraine is cracking down on illegal gambling and logging, and fraudulent gas stations in a bid to reduce the size of the country’s shadow economy. Speaking at a meeting with the heads of the country’s 24 regions over the weekend, Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk said the year 2020 “will be the year of the uncloaking of the Ukrainian economy.” He noted that in the last two weeks, police had shuttered 900 illicit gambling dens. He said about half of the gas stations police inspected – 707 – were not paying fuel taxes. A digital record of all cut timber is set to be placed in a centralized digital registry by February 1, Mr. Honcharuk said. The Economic Development and Trade Ministry estimates that 33 percent of Ukraine’s gross domestic product (GDP) is in the shadows. Some economists say the figure is higher and makes up about 40 percent of the economy. In monetary terms, Ukraine’s economic output last year equaled $155 billion, Kyiv-based investment bank Dragon Capital estimates. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by Ukraine Business News)