December 24, 2015



EU extends Russia sanctions 

BRUSSELS – European Union ambassadors have agreed to extend economic sanctions against Russia for another six months over its role in the Ukraine conflict. The agreement on December 18 means sanctions will stay in place until July 31, 2016, against Russia’s financial, oil and military sectors – as well as against specific individuals linked to the Ukraine conflict. The recommendation by EU ambassadors was formally ratified on December 21. The sanctions were first imposed in July and September 2014 in response to the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula by the Kremlin and Moscow’s support for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. Without an extension, the existing sanctions would expire on January 31. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels, with additional reporting by AP and AFP)

U.S. expands sanctions list 

WASHINGTON – The United States is adding nearly three dozen people and companies to its sanctions list for activity directly or indirectly connected to the conflict in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of the Crimean peninsula. The list, released on December 22 by the U.S. Treasury Department, includes several top officials in the self-declared “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, regions of eastern Ukraine now largely under separatist control. It also includes several companies connected to Russian businessmen with close ties to President Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin. The men include oil trader Gennady Timchenko and billionaire industrialists Arkady and Boris Rotenberg. All were previously sanctioned under the first round announced by President Barack Obama in 2014, after Russia annexed the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in March. Several top former Ukrainian officials were also included, such as Vitaliy Zakharchenko. The Treasury Department said that as internal affairs minister he gave the order for police to fire on protesters during the Euro-Maidan protests in 2014. (RFE/RL)

Brussels recommends visa-free travel 

BRUSSELS – European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker said on December 18 that the European Union should offer visa-free short-stay travel within the Schengen zone for citizens of Ukraine, Georgia and Kosovo – all three locked in bitter disputes with Russia. Speaking after an EU summit in Brussels, Mr. Juncker said the commission “took a positive position on the liberalization of visas” and proposed to “EU leaders that they take rapid decisions on visa liberalization for the three countries,” he said. If approved by EU member states and the European Parliament, citizens could travel to the EU without visas as soon as 2016. The commission said Georgia and Ukraine met all the conditions for visa-free travel, but it made visa liberalization for Kosovo conditional on Pristina satisfying eight specific points aimed at reigning in corruption and crime. Sources in Brussels say that while the European Parliament will vote in favor of visa-free travel for the countries, it might prove difficult to gain approval from some member states – especially regarding Ukraine. In Germany, there are concerns that visa liberalization could increase migratory flows into the EU. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel said at the EU summit in Brussels on December 18 that the EU’s migration crisis “is not going to affect the decision regarding Ukraine in terms of its bid” for a visa-free regime. Ms. Merkel said “Germany takes the recommendation and the European Commission’s reports very seriously and we will proceed on the issue.” The commission’s reports regarding Ukraine and Georgia were released on December 16 after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, EU Council President Donald Tusk and EU Commission President Juncker met in Brussels to iron out remaining differences. (RFE/RL, with additional reporting by Reuters, AP and AFP)

Russia: Ukraine failed to repay debt 

MOSCOW – Russia’s Finance Ministry says Ukraine has failed to repay a $3 billion Eurobond debt owed to Russia by December 21. “It means Ukraine has preferred a default on its debt liabilities to talks on an offer made by the Russian president… in November 2015,” the ministry said on December 21. Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk announced on December 18 a “moratorium” on any debt repayments to Russia. He did not indicate when Ukraine would be ready to repay the debt. That effectively means that Ukraine is defaulting on the debt. Moscow has previously said it will take Ukraine to court if it failed to pay on time. The Eurobond matured on December 20, but Ukraine has a 10-day grace period before it will be considered officially to be in default. Mr. Yatsenyuk also said Ukraine would cancel payments on $507 million of Ukrainian commercial debt held by Russian banks. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by TASS, Reuters and AP)

Kyiv: Russia loots Black Sea oil rigs

KYIV – Ukraine has accused Russia of looting two of its oil rigs after the Crimea-based oil and gas firm Chornomornaftogaz moved the Black Sea rigs into Russian territorial waters. Russia seized Chornomor-naftogaz, formerly a state-owned Ukrainian company, when it illegally annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. On December 14, Chornomornaftogaz said it moved the two oil rigs, worth about $357 million, from a location in international waters about 150 kilometers off the coast from Odesa. It said the move was due to “the complicated international situation and risk of losing vital assets.” Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Ministry on December 16 described the move as “large-scale looting” by Russia. It expressed “deep indignation in connection with the actions of Russia that violate international law, once again aimed at violating the sovereign rights of Ukraine.” Ukraine’s state-run energy firm Naftohaz Ukrainy, which owned 100 percent of Chornomor-naftogaz before it was seized, says it will seek compensation from Russia in international courts for its annexed Crimean oil and gas assets – worth a total of $15.7 billion. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by Russia, AP, TASS and Interfax)

Putin on normalizing relations 

MOSCOW – Russian President Vladimir Putin has said Moscow “will continue making efforts” to resolve trade disputes with the European Union and Ukraine. “I think we will return to these issues more than once. We want to normalize relations [in trade] with our partners – with Ukraine and with the European Union,” Interfax news agency quoted Mr. Putin as saying on December 22. The previous week, Mr. Putin ordered his government to suspend the country’s free trade zone with Ukraine from January 1, 2016. He cited “extraordinary circumstances affecting the interests and economic security” of Russia. The decree was signed as Ukraine and the EU agreed to begin the implementation of their bilateral trade agreement on January 1. In a related development, Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov said on December 22 that Russia was ready “to take part in talks and search for compromise” on the Ukraine-EU trade agreement. Last-ditch talks to address Russian concerns over the EU-Ukraine free trade agreement ended with no breakthrough in Brussels on December 21. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by Reuters and Interfax)

Blast hits Donetsk bus stop 

MOSCOW – Russian news agencies have reported that a powerful explosive device went off late on December 21 in the city of Donetsk, in conflict-torn eastern Ukraine. The agencies cited authorities in the self-declared separatist region as saying the blast occurred at a bus stop around 7:20 p.m. local time in a residential neighborhood of downtown Donetsk. There were no immediate reports of any casualties. Police officers were at the site of the explosion, TASS reported. Russian-backed separatists control most of Donetsk and the neighboring Luhansk regions, where fighting has taken place between Ukrainian government forces and separatists. Fighting intensified last month after weeks of relative calm. More than 9,000 people have been killed in fighting in eastern Ukraine since April 2014. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by TASS and Interfax)

Ukraine to try self-appointed ‘president’

KYIV – Ukrainian officials say that a man who has proclaimed himself to be “president of Southeastern Ukraine” will be tried in absentia in Ukraine’s eastern city of Kharkiv. The Kharkiv Regional Prosecutor’s office said on December 14 that charges of separatism and terrorism against Anatoliy Vizyr, the former chairman of Ukraine’s Luhansk Regional Appeals Court, have been sent to the court for trial. Mr. Vizyr, who is believed to be in a part of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists, proclaimed himself in April 2014 to be president of a hypothetical state made up of Luhansk and four other regions of Ukraine: Donetsk, Kharkiv, Mykolayiv and Kherson. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by UNIAN and Interfax)

Rights violations in Russian-held Crimea

WASHINGTON – Ukrainian activists say human rights violations are rampant in Crimea, the Russian-annexed peninsula of Ukraine. The violations include people being forced to acquire Russian citizenship and the intimidation of nationalists. Activists spoke December 11 at a meeting of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, a U.S. government agency that monitors international adherence to the 1975 Helsinki Accords on human rights. “The practice of human rights in occupied Crimea is dire and continues to deteriorate,” said Ivanna Bilych, a Ukrainian lawyer and one of several authors of a report documenting problems on the Black Sea peninsula. Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014, several weeks after long-running protests in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv turned violent and forced President Viktor Yanukovych to flee. Bohdan Yaremenko, a former diplomat, called on the international community to keep in place the economic sanctions imposed by the United States and Еurope on Russia after the annexation. Andriy Klymenko, a former economist and editor-in-chief of website Black Sea News, said authorities have been quick to tamp down any signs of Ukrainian nationalism. (RFE/RL)

Ukraine invites Dutch to aid search

KYIV – Ukraine’s police chief invited the Netherlands to help find a trove of 17th century paintings that was stolen from a Dutch museum. Khatia Denakoidze told reporters December 10 that her office is waiting for an official request from Dutch prosecutors and that Ukraine welcomes Dutch investigators to join the police hunt. The Westfries Museum in the northern town of Hoorn said that 24 Dutch Golden Age paintings snatched in a burglary in January 2005 had been found in a villa in a Ukrainian-controlled part of Donbas and are being offered for sale. The museum said men from a nationalist battalion fighting Russian-backed separatists showed the Dutch Embassy a picture of one of the stolen works and demanded 50 million euros ($55 million) for the painting’s return – a sum that they later reduced to 5 million euros. The group, identified as the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, denied holding the artworks and Ukraine’s chief prosecutor launched an investigation. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by AP and AFP)

Savchenko goes on hunger strike

MOSCOW – Ukrainian military pilot Nadiya Savchenko, who is in detention in Russia after being accused of involvement in the death of two Russian journalists, has gone on a hunger strike. One of her lawyers, Nikolai Polozov, said in a tweet that the detainee announced the hunger strike in a Donetsk city court in Russia’s Rostov region on December 17. “Nadiya Savchenko has gone on a hunger strike until the end of the trial,” Mr. Polozov said, adding that she will begin a “dry” hunger strike when she is sentenced, meaning that she will refuse both food and water. “She demands to be released,” he said. Mr. Polozov said the court also agreed with a prosecutor’s request to extend her detention until April 16. Russian officials say Ms. Savchenko helped relay information to artillery units that fired near a location in eastern Ukraine where two Russian journalists were killed by artillery fire. Ms. Savchenko – who is also being charged with illegally crossing the Russian border – says she was captured by pro-Russian separatists in July 2014 and forcibly taken to Russia. If found guilty, she faces up to 25 years in prison. The 34-year-old has spent over a year in custody in Russia, during which time she has already protested her detention by going on an extended hunger strike. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by TASS and Interfax)
Savchenko to receive ‘harsh sentence’

OTTAWA – Vladimir Markin, official representative of Russia’s Investigative Committee, stated that something tells him that the sentence of Nadiya Savchenko will be “harsh,” the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHRPG) reported. This “obviously allowed him to flagrantly ignore fundamental principles of a fair trial and pre-empt the court in declaring Savchenko guilty. […]Markin’s remarks are not the first time that Russian officials have demonstrated that the proceedings against Savchenko have nothing in common with a court of law. Russia’s Justice Ministry has twice stated that Savchenko’s ‘extradition’ can be discussed if Ukraine recognizes the verdict passed by a Russian court and guarantees that she would serve her sentence in Ukraine,” the KHRPG reported. Ukraine’s Justice Minister Pavlo Petrenko responded by pointing out that a statement like this before a verdict has been handed down “demonstrates one thing alone, that the verdict has already been written, and that it will definitely be a conviction.” Ms. Savchenko was serving with a volunteer battalion in eastern Ukraine when she was abducted by Kremlin-backed terrorists in June 2014 and taken to Russia, where she has been illegally detained and imprisoned since that time. Russia has ignored repeated calls from the international community for her immediate release. (Ukrainian Canadian Congress)

Court releases pro-Ukraine stunt performer

MOSCOW – A Moscow court on December 17 released a Russian man who was jailed after taking part in a stunt in the Russian capital as part of a pro-Ukraine demonstration. The Moscow City Court reduced Vladimir Podrezov’s 27-month jail sentence to 34 months of “freedom limitation,” which is similar to a suspended sentence with parole limitations. Mr. Podrezov and four other Russians, including two women, went on trial in August after taking part in a stunt in which a Soviet red star atop a Stalin-era skyscraper was painted blue and yellow – the colors of the Ukrainian flag. Four defendants were accused of drawing attention to the painted star and a Ukrainian flag hoisted from it by parachuting from the 176-meter-high building. They were acquitted in August. A sixth suspect sought in the case, Ukrainian stuntman Pavlo Ushyvets, escaped to Ukraine. (RFE/RL’s Russian Service)

Activist facing charges flees to Ukraine

MOSCOW – A Russian opposition activist who became the first person charged under a strict new protest law has reportedly fled to neighboring Ukraine, where he will seek political asylum. Vladimir Ionov, 76, was set to deliver his final statement to a Moscow court on charges of attending more than two unauthorized public events during a six-month period, which under legislation enacted last year can result in a potential 1 million-ruble fine ($14,000) or up to five years in prison.
Rights activists call the new law a menacing tool to crack down on dissent. Mr. Ionov’s protests have spanned a wide range of topics but have included strident criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin and support for opposition leader and anti-corruption crusader Aleksei Navalny. Prosecutors last month asked Moscow’s Preobrazhenksy Court to hand Mr. Ionov a three-year suspended sentence, but he reportedly did not want to take any chances. Instead, he has crossed the border into Ukraine, where he was staying in the eastern city of Kharkiv with his girlfriend, Russian media reported on December 21. The news portal quoted an unidentified source as saying that Mr. Ionov will seek political asylum in Ukraine. He told that he believes he will ultimately return to Russia. “Russia is my homeland, and I think that soon there will be serious changes [there],” he was quoted as saying. “God willing, these changes will happen without any blood whatsoever.” (RFE/RL, with reporting by RFE/RL’s Russian Service)

Russia on cancelling Nord Stream

MOSCOW – Russia warned December 21 that any move by the European Union to cancel the Nord Stream gas pipeline from Russia’s Baltic coast to Germany would only hurt Europe. “The sides have reached considerable progress in terms of legal, technical, economic, and financial aspects of this agreement,” Russian Economy Minister Aleksei Ulyukayev said December 21 in Brussels. “Failing to implement it now would be a shot in one’s foot from the side of whoever would want to do it.” he said. “This is about Europe’s energy balance, safeguarding security of supplies, these are most important questions.” The Nord Stream-2 project, which involves German and Dutch companies as well as Russia’s Gazprom, fell into question the previous week after Italy raised it as an issue during debate over extending Russian economic sanctions. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said Berlin’s plans to turn Germany into a hub for the distribution of Russian gas through the project, which was intended to bypass Ukraine, “left a dubious taste,” especially after a similar South Stream project that would have benefited Italy was blocked by sanctions last year. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by Reuters, Interfax and TASS)

Kyiv bans Limp Bizkit lead singer

KYIV – Ukrainian news media reported December 21 that the country’s national security service has banned the leader of the U.S. rock band Limp Bizkit from entering the country for five years. The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) told Interfax and the online publication Apostrof on December 21 that it had banned Fred Durst, the founder of the group and its lead singer, from entering Ukraine for five years starting in November, “in the interests of guaranteeing the security of our state.” Mr. Durst in October had told TASS and Interfax that he would be happy to have a Russian passport and a “pretty little house” in Crimea, the Black Sea region annexed by Russia in 2014. His wife, Kseniya Beryazina, was born in Crimea. He also expressed an interest in performing in Donetsk, a city held by Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Ukraine has previously banned French actor Gerard Depardieu and American actor Steven Seagal for expressing support for the Russian government and its policies in Ukraine. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by AP, TASS, Interfax and Apostof)