January 29, 2021



Mourning after deadly nursing home fire

Authorities in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv have declared January 22 a day of mourning for 15 people killed in a fire at a nursing home. Nine people were rescued and were receiving treatment in the hospital after the blaze tore through the facility located on the western outskirts of Ukraine’s second-largest city, the State Emergency Service said on January 21, while Prosecutor-General Iryna Venedyk­tova said 11 people were injured. Ms. Venedyktova said a criminal investigation had been launched and the preliminary cause of the tragedy was the “careless handling of electric heating devices.” Ukraine’s Internal Affairs Minister Arsen Avakov said investigators were questioning the manager of the facility, called Zolotoye Vremya (Golden Time), and three service personnel. The emergency service said the fire broke out at around 3 p.m. on the second floor of the two-story building while there were 33 people inside. The fire was extinguished less than two hours after it broke out, and around 50 firefighters took part in the operation, it said. The service published a photo of the building with bars on the windows of the first floor, while smoke was billowing out of broken windows of the second floor. The facility was home to people aged 25-90, according to Ukraine’s Ombudswoman Lyudmyla Denisova. Deadly fires are not uncommon in Ukraine, one of the poorest countries in Europe, where safety regulations are poorly enforced and ageing infrastructure is badly maintained. In December 2019, a fire killed 16 people at a technical college in the Black Sea port city of Odesa. (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, with reporting by Reuters and AFP)


Europe rights court finds numerous abuses

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has concluded that Ukrainian authorities committed a series of human rights violations during the pro-European Maidan protests in late 2013 and early 2014 that ousted Russia-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych. In a ruling on January 21 on five lawsuits filed by 33 Ukrainian nationals, the ECHR said that during the protests, there were multiple violations of the articles of the European Convention on Human Rights. The violations deal with the prohibition of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment, the right to liberty and security, freedom of assembly and association, the right to life, and the right to respect private and family life. “The Court observed that it had found multiple violations of several Articles as a result of how the authorities had conducted themselves during the Maidan protests and the absence to date of an independent and effective mechanism within Ukraine for the investigation of crimes committed by law-enforcement officers and non-State agents,” the court said in its ruling, adding that “Ukraine was to pay some of the applicants the awards in respect of pecuniary and nonpecuniary damage and costs and expenses set out in the relevant judgments.” The Maidan protests, known as the Euromaidan movement, began in November 2013 when protesters gathered on the Maidan, the central square in the capital, Kyiv, after Mr. Yanukovych announced he was postponing plans to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union and would seek closer economic ties with Russia. Security forces opened fire at unarmed protesters. Ukrainian prosecutors say 104 people were killed and 2,500 injured in the protests. Shunning a deal backed by the West and Russia to end the standoff, Mr. Yanukovych abandoned power and fled Kyiv on February 21, 2014. The former president, who was flown to Russia in secret and remains there, denies ordering police to use their weapons on protesters and claims the violence was a “planned operation” to overthrow his government. Moscow responded to his downfall by seizing control of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and fomenting separatism in Ukraine – one of the causes of a war that has killed more than 13,200 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014. (RFE/RL)


Protests over “Russian cities” in Crimea

Ukraine has protested against the BBC’s inclusion of Moscow-annexed Crimean cities on a list of Russian cities where demonstrators rallied to support jailed Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny. The British broadcaster’s Russian service published the map on January 23 as tens of thousands of people rallied across Russia, saying the demonstrations were held in 122 “Russian cities” including two major Crimean cities, Simferopol and Sevastopol. The BBC marked the map with an explanation saying that “Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.” Despite the explanation, Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Oleh Nikolenko called on the BBC’s Russian service not to “promote Russian narratives.” Mr. Nikolenko said on Twitter on January 24 that “Sevastopol and Simferopol have never been Russian cities…International law matters.” Moscow illegally annexed Crimea in early 2014 and weeks later threw its support behind pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s east, where some 13,200 people have been killed in an ongoing conflict. Others also criticized the BBC for adding the two Crimean cities to the list of “Russian cities.” Refat Chubarov, the leader of the Crimean Tatars’ self-governing body, the Mejlis, challenged the BBC on Facebook, asking whether its Russian service “wants to help Russia to annex Crimea.” A BBC representative did not comment on the map controversy. Tens of thousands of protesters across Russia on January 23 demanded the release of Mr. Navalny, who was arrested six days earlier and sent to pretrial detention after returning to Russia following his recovery in Germany from poisoning by a military-grade nerve agent. Police dispersed the protests, sometimes violently, detaining more than 3,700 people. (RFE/RL)


Hackers exposed after causing billions in losses

Ukrainian authorities say they have exposed a group of hackers who interfered with the computer network servers of several European and U.S. banks, causing losses of $2.5 billion. The Prosecutor General’s Office said in a statement on January 27 that since 2014 “hackers from Ukraine” have used malicious software designed to steal personal data such as passwords and logins from servers from private and state banking institutions in Austria, Britain, Germany, Lithuania the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United States. The prosecutors said computer and server equipment were seized in police raids in the Kharkiv region. The investigation was carried out in coordination with the EU’s judicial cooperation unit Eurojust, the European policing agency Europol, as well as U.S. and German law enforcement agencies, the statement said. It did not give further details. (RFE/RL)


Biden warns Putin on Ukraine, Navalny

U.S. President Joe Biden has spoken with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin for the first time since his inauguration January 20, raising concerns about some of the Kremlin’s activities, including the treatment of jailed Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny and the seizure of the Crimean Peninsula. The two men did, however, find common ground on the subject of arms control, agreeing in a January 26 phone call to extend the New START treaty ahead of its expiration early next month. Messrs. Biden, who took office on January 20, and Putin “discussed both countries’ willingness to extend New START for five years,” the White House said in a readout of the January 26 call. “They also agreed to explore strategic stability discussions on a range of arms control and emerging security issues,” the statement said. Despite making progress on New START, Mr. Biden “raised other matters of concern” that are likely to define the U.S. relationship with Russia in the coming months and years. The White House said Biden reaffirmed U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty in the face of Moscow’s support for separatists in the east of the country and its continued occupation of Crimea. They also discussed the poisoning of Kremlin critic Aleksei Navalny amid mounting international concern over his recent arrest and the Russian government’s violent crackdown on protesters seeking his release at nationwide demonstrations on January 23. “President Biden made clear that the United States will act firmly in defense of its national interests in response to actions by Russia that harm us or our allies,” the White House said. “The two presidents agreed to maintain transparent and consistent communication going forward,” it added. (RFE/RL)


Ukraine to ban flights that serve Crimea

Ukraine will ban flights over its territory by 13 Russian regional air carriers and Syrian Cham Wings Airlines for three years, the government said on January 27, citing flights by them into and out of Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014. A draft resolution approved by the Cabinet prohibits “the transit of resources, flights and transportation” by the 14 airlines. It must be approved by National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, led by Presi­dent Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to become effective. “Air carriers of the Russian Federation systematically violate the procedure for using the airspace of Ukraine,” the government said in a statement. “Violations consist of flights within the prohibited zone over the temporarily occupied territory of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.” Hundreds of Russian entities, businessmen and politicians have been sanctioned by Kyiv since Ukraine’s giant neighbor annexed the Crimean Peninsula. Bigger Russian airlines, including national flag carrier Aeroflot and Transaero, have been forbidden to enter Ukrainian airspace since 2015. Ukraine has also accused Russia of sending arms and troops to help pro-Moscow separatists fighting its soldiers in the east of the country, in a conflict which has killed nearly 14,000 people since April 2014. Russia denies involvement. (Reuters, with reporting by Natalia Zinets)


Top diplomats aim to defuse dispute

The foreign affairs ministers of Hungary and Ukraine were expected to meet in Kyiv on January 27 for talks on repairing badly strained relations, but Budapest said its diplomatic missions in the ex-Soviet republic had received threats of “bloodletting” violence. The two countries are at loggerheads over the right of some 150,000 ethnic Hungarians living in Transcarpathia in western Ukraine to use their native tongue, especially in education. The region borders Hungary. Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s nationalist government in Budapest has responded by blocking Kyiv’s efforts to build closer ties with NATO and the European Union, of which Hungary is a member. Hungarian Foreign Affairs Minister Péter Szijjártó said in a video posted on Facebook that he would meet his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba to “discuss ways to stop these negative trends… or at least sketch a way out.” He added that, “unfortunately, the Hungary-Ukraine relationship has gone in a very bad direction after a temporary thaw.” Overnight, Mr. Szijjártó added, Hungarian diplomatic missions in Ukraine received threats “from people claiming to be Ukrainian patriots promising all sorts of bloodletting in the event of our talks taking place.” He gave no further details. Mr. Kuleba said the Ukrainian police were investigating the threats, which he said appeared to originate from outside Ukraine. Mr. Kuleba also struck a firm tone toward Hungary. “Nobody should think it is possible to come to Kyiv and dictate any conditions,” he said on Facebook, adding that he expected Hungary to make concrete proposals to end their row. Ukraine angered Hungary in 2017 with a law restricting the use of minority languages in schools. Ukraine has large Russian, Belarusian, Bulgarian, Romanian and Polish minorities as well as Hungarian. The enmity has wider dimensions. Mr. Orbán has forged good ties with President Vladimir Putin’s Russia and has called for the lifting of EU sanctions imposed on Moscow over its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and its support for pro-Russian separatists battling Kyiv’s forces in eastern Ukraine. (Reuters, with reporting by Pavel Polityuk and Márton Dunai)


Ukraine expects 100,000-200,000 vaccines

Ukraine expects to receive 100,000 to 200,000 doses of vaccines from Pfizer under the COVAX scheme in February and vaccinate the first 367,000 people against the coronavirus in the first phase, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said on January 26. Mr. Shmyhal told parliament the country also expected to receive 700,000 doses of Sinovac’s COVID vaccine in three-four weeks. He said the government had worked out a detailed vaccination plan within which 2.54 million people would get the vaccine at the second stage of the vaccination and 7.2 million people at the third stage. Mr. Shmyhal said that Ukraine is expected to receive up to 16 million doses of vaccine from COVAX this year. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on January 25 that Ukraine would start coronavirus vaccinations in February. Ukraine registered around 1.2 million coronavirus cases so far, with 22,057 deaths. (Reuters, with reporting by Natalia Zinets)