February 12, 2021



Yanukovych’s son likely off sanctions list
European Union diplomats are considering removing several of the 10 remaining Ukrainians – including Oleksandr Yanukovych, the son of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych – from a list of sanctioned people the bloc believes are responsible for the misappropriation of Ukrainian state funds. The EU imposed asset freezes on Viktor Yanukovych, part of his family, and his inner political circle shortly after the collapse of his government in late February 2014, but the list has slowly been whittled down over the years after some of them challenged, and sometimes won, court cases against the EU sanctions. The bloc’s losses in court have led to growing demands that the list should be pared down further or even annulled. Several EU diplomats who are familiar with the talks but not authorized to speak on the record told RFE/RL that there were “a number of ‘weak cases’ on the list that are bound to be challenged in the EU court” and that a lack of compelling evidence from Ukraine has forced the EU to consider the de-listings. Apart from Oleksandr Yanukovych, a businessman who became one of Ukraine’s richest men during his father’s reign, former Prime Minister Serhiy Arbuzov, ex-Minister for Duties and Revenues Oleksandr Klymenko, and Dmytro Tabachnyk, who worked as minister of education from 2010 to 2014, are the most likely candidates to be removed from the list. There have been some discussions about the presence of Viktor Yanukovych and former Prosecutor-General Viktor Pshonka on the list as well. However, there is general agreement among the 27 EU member states that the sanctions regime should continue with some adjustments. Last year, former Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and ex-Energy Minister Eduard Stavytsky were removed from the list, while in 2019 Andriy Klyuyev, the former head of Mr. Yanukovych’s presidential administration, was taken off the list. EU diplomats will have another round of discussions later this week on the issue, while a final decision by EU ambassadors will be taken at the end of February, just before the official deadline to decide on the one-year rollover of the measures from the beginning of March. (RFE/RL)

Twitter must remove “official” Russian account
Ukraine is calling on Twitter to remove a “blue check” verified account of the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry’s office in Crimea, accusing the social-media giant of promoting Kremlin propaganda. Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Volodymyr Yelchenko, sent a letter to Twitter asking the company to deactivate the Russian account, the embassy in Washington said on February 8. The account of “Russian occupation authorities in Crimea cannot be described as official and legitimate,” the diplomatic mission said on Facebook. Moscow illegally annexed Crimea in early 2014 and later threw its support behind pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine’s east, where some 13,200 people have been killed in an ongoing conflict. The account in question describes itself as the “official twitter account” of the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry’s representative office in the city of Simferopol, Crimea’s second-largest city. The account has nearly 12,000 followers and a “blue check” verification. Twitter gives blue checks to accounts of public interest deemed “authentic” and pledged last year to improve the process of identifying verified profiles. First Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Emine Dzheppar wrote on Facebook that Ukraine’s diplomats have been “working out the necessary steps” to counter Russian attempts to legitimize aggression against Ukraine online. She accused Twitter of promoting Russian “propaganda and disinformation aimed at undermining the sovereignty of Ukraine as well as the legitimization of the ‘Russian’ status” over Crimea. (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service)

Zelenskyy defends decision to block TV channels
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelens­kyy has met with a group of ambassadors from the Group of Seven (G-7) and the European Union to defend his government’s decision to shut several television channels controlled by a Russia-linked magnate, a move supported by Washington but questioned by Brussels and slammed by Moscow. Mr. Zelenskyy told the group in Kyiv on February 3 that the decision to block the 112, NewsOne, and ZIK channels was justified by the need to “fight against the danger of Russian aggression in the information arena.” Relations between Ukraine and Russia deteriorated in 2014 after Moscow annexed the Crimean Peninsula and began supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine. The conflict, now in its seventh year, has killed more than 13,200 people. The now-blocked channels are believed to belong to Viktor Medved­chuk, who has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is the godfather of Mr. Medvedchuk’s daughter. Mr. Medvedchuk supports the Opposition Platform – For Life, a political party that is popular in Ukraine’s southeast and holds a minority in the Ukrainian Parliament. “Sanctions against the media are always a difficult decision for any government except an authoritarian one. This decision was not a spur-of-the-moment decision, but one that had been in the works, based on information over a long time from many Ukrainian government agencies. This is by no means an attack on freedom of speech, this is a well-founded decision to protect national security,” Mr. Zelenskyy said. According to Mr. Zelenskyy, the sanctioned TV channels have long been actively used for disinformation campaigns in Ukraine aimed at undermining reforms and Ukraine’s course toward European and Euro-Atlantic integration. “Ukraine has perhaps the largest concentration of free broadcasters and media in the region,” Mr. Zelenskyy said, adding that the Ukrainian authorities were acting in strict accordance with the law. The three blocked TV channels, which broadcast mainly in Ukrainian, issued a statement denouncing the ban as “political repression.” Mr. Medvedchuk called the presidential order illegal and said he would appeal. “With one stroke of a pen, Mr. Zelenskyy threw out 1,500 journalists and other employees of the three stations into the street and deprived millions of people of the right to receive objective information,” he said in a statement. The U.S. Embassy voiced support for Ukraine’s efforts “to counter Russia’s malign influence, in line with Ukrainian law, in defense of its sovereignty and territorial integrity.” The U.S. statement, made on Facebook, added, “We must all work together to prevent disinformation from being deployed as a weapon in an information war against sovereign states.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denounced the blocking of the three stations as a violation of media freedom and of international standards. “The authorities’ decision to impose such restrictions on the media should be in the focus of attention of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and other international organizations,” Mr. Peskov said during a conference call with reporters on February 3. The EU questioned the move, suggesting it could sacrifice media freedom in Ukraine. In a written statement on February 3, a spokesperson for EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that “while Ukraine’s efforts to protect its territorial integrity and national security, as well as to defend itself from information manipulation are legitimate, in particular given the scale of disinformation campaigns affecting Ukraine including from abroad, this should not come at the expense of freedom of media and must be done in full respect of fundamental rights and freedoms and following international standards.” The statement added that “any measures taken should be proportional to the aim” and that Brussels would be in touch with Ukrainian authorities to receive more information on the issue. (RFE/RL)

Fire kills four people at COVID-19 hospital
A fire at a hospital treating COVID-19 patients in Ukraine’s southeastern city of Zaporizhia has killed four people. The regional police directorate told RFE/RL on February 4 that a probe has been launched into the deadly blaze overnight that took the lives of three patients and a nurse. According to police, two other patients were hospitalized with burns. The Zaporizhia regional administration said that a special commission will be formed to look into the tragedy, adding that all hospitals treating COVID-19 patients will be inspected for fire safety in the immediate future. Deadly fires caused by violations of safety regulations or faulty wiring are common in former Soviet republics. On January 21, a fire at an unregistered nursing home in Ukraine’s eastern city of Kharkiv killed 15 people. (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service)

Ukraine bans registration of Russian vaccines
Ukraine has formally banned registration of Russian-designed vaccines against coronavirus, the government said in a decree published on February 10. One of Europe’s poorest countries, Ukraine has lagged behind others in starting its vaccination program against COVID-19, which has infected more than 1.25 million Ukrainians and killed 23,934 as of February 10. But Ukrainian authorities have repeatedly said the country will not use Russian vaccines, like Sputnik V, calling them “a hybrid weapon of Russia against Ukraine.” Kyiv and Moscow have been at loggerheads since Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and its involvement in a conflict in eastern Ukraine. “Registration of vaccines… production of which was carried out in a state recognized by Ukrainian Parliament as the state-aggressor, is prohibited,” the decree said. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said last week Kyiv had secured 20 million vaccine doses from India’s Serum Institute and the global COVAX scheme and the government hopes to start vaccination of its population of 41 million in mid-February. It agreed in December to buy 1.9 million doses from China’s Sinovac Biotech at $18 per shot via a Ukrainian intermediary. Ukraine also expects to receive 1.2 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine from Poland. Ukrainian investigators have begun probing whether the government has bought vaccines at inflated prices. Health Minister Maksym Stepanov said on February 10 the government had been open and transparent about procurement. (Reuters)

Ukraine investigating COVID-19 vaccine deal
Ukraine has launched an investigation into whether the government bought a COVID-19 vaccine at inflated prices, an anti-corruption prosecutor said on February 10. The Ministry of Health of Ukraine agreed in December to buy 1.9 million doses of the vaccine from China’s Sinovac Biotech at $18 per dose via a Ukrainian intermediary, the pharmaceutical firm Lekhim. Anti-corruption campaigners said the deal was expensive and that the government could have obtained vaccines more cheaply from other sources. Ukraine’s national anti-corruption bureau (NABU) has opened an investigation into vaccine purchases, Maksym Gryshchyuk, the acting head of Ukraine’s special anti-corruption prosecutor’s office, told a briefing. “This investigation began in February. It concerns the purchase of vaccines,” Mr. Gryshchyuk said. The Health Ministry of Ukraine did not immediately comment on the investigation. It has previously said it used Lekhim at Sinovac’s request. Lekhim declined comment. Sinovac did not immediately reply to a request for comment. Mr. Gryshchyuk said he could not mention names or details for legal reasons. NABU chief Artem Sytnyk, speaking alongside Mr. Gryshchyuk, promised to “carry out all investigations as quickly as possible.” Ukraine has yet to start vaccinating its 41 million people against COVID-19. Reuters reported this week that Lekhim’s shipment of vaccines could face delays. NABU opened the investigation in response to a request from the Public Control Council at NABU, a non-government watchdog. Last month, when Ukrainian lawmaker Oleksandra Ustynova suggested Ukraine could have paid less for the vaccine, Health Minister Maksym Stepanov said it was “a shame” when people commented on matters they have “superficial knowledge of.” (Reuters)