February 18, 2021



Crimean Tatar activists detained
Russian authorities have detained several Crimean Tatar activists after their homes were searched in Ukraine’s Russian-controlled Crimea region. The Crimean Solidarity group told RFE/RL on February 17 that the searches were conducted at the homes of Abdulbori Makhamadaminov, Azamat Eyupov, Timur Yalkabov, Ernest Ibragimov, Oleh Fyodorov, Lenur Seydametov and Yashar Shikhametov in different towns and cities across Crimea. The official reason for the searches remains unclear. Ukrainian Ombudswoman Lyudmyla Denisova said in a statement that all of the men were taken to the FSB’s directorate in Crimea after the searches. “Such actions by so-called law enforcement violated the presumption of innocence and rights of freedom, personal security, legal assistance, as the searches were conducted without court decisions, with no lawyers present, and without handing out of any procedural documents,” Ms. Denisova said, adding that the detained Crimean Tatars may face long-term arrests. Since Russia seized Crimea in 2014, the Russian authorities have prosecuted dozens of Crimean Tatars for allegedly belonging to Hizb ut-Tahrir, an Islamic group that is banned in Russia but not in Ukraine. Moscow’s takeover of the peninsula was vocally opposed by many Crimean Tatars, who are a sizable minority in the region. Exiled from their homeland to Central Asia by the Soviet authorities under dictator Josef Stalin during World War II, many Crimean Tatars are very wary of Russia and Moscow’s rule. Rights groups and Western governments have denounced what they describe as a campaign of repression by the Russian-imposed authorities in Crimea, who target members of the Turkic-speaking Crimean Tatar community and others who have spoken out against Moscow’s takeover of the peninsula. In its annual report on religious freedom worldwide, released in April 2020, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said that “[in] Russian-occupied Crimea, the Russian authorities continued to kidnap, torture, and imprison Crimean Tatar Muslims at will.” Russia took control of Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 after sending in troops, seizing key facilities, and staging a referendum dismissed as illegal by at least 100 countries. Moscow also backs separatists in a war against government forces that has killed more than 13,200 people in eastern Ukraine since April 2014. (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service)

NATO delivers disinfectant to battle COVID-19
NATO says it is delivering over 9,000 liters of surface disinfectant to Ukraine in response to Kyiv’s request for international assistance to combat COVID-19. Ukraine started receiving the first delivery on February 17, the alliance said in a statement, adding that the donation was coordinated by NATO’s Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Center and Latvia. The statement said the surface disinfectant, produced by a Latvian company, is to be distributed to “the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine and its border guard detachments at border crossing points” across the Eastern European country. NATO said it will also send mobile X-ray units, negative pressure chambers, bio protection coveralls, and portable oxygen generators to Ukraine in the “coming weeks.” Ukraine has recorded more than 1.3 million coronavirus cases and over 26,000 deaths. The country of 40 million has yet to launch its vaccination campaign. It is waiting for the delivery of 20 million vaccine doses from India’s Serum Institute and the global COVAX scheme, as well as vaccines from Pfizer, AstraZeneca, and Novavах. Last week, the World Health Organization and the European Union said they were launching a 40 million euro ($48.5 million) regional program to help six Eastern European countries, including Ukraine, with COVID-19 vaccinations. Ukraine’s government has banned the use of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, which has been rolled out in the eastern Ukrainian areas that are controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists. (RFE/RL)

Hate speech on the rise in Europe
An advocacy group says that homophobic language and hate speech against transgender people is on the rise among European politicians and has warned about a backlash against the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people across the continent. The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association said in its annual report published on February 16 that politicians in 17 countries in Europe and Central Asia have verbally attacked LGBT people over the past year. The report highlighted Poland, where nationalist politicians from the ruling right-wing PiS party have criticized “LGBT ideology” during election campaigns. It also singled out Hungary, where transgender people last year were banned from legally changing gender. The situation for LGBT people in Bulgaria and Romania could worsen this year, while in Turkey, ruling-party politicians have repeatedly attacked LGBT people, Evelyne Paradis, the association’s executive director, warned. The trend of politicians verbally attacking LGBT people has also been on the rise in countries such as Albania, Azerbaijan, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Moldova, North Macedonia and Russia, the report said. In Belarus and Ukraine, some religious leaders have blamed LGBT people for the coronavirus pandemic. Hate speech on social media has grown in Montenegro, Russia, and Turkey, in traditional media in Ukraine, and is an ongoing issue in Georgia, North Macedonia and Romania, the group said. “There’s growing hate speech specifically targeting trans people and that is being reported more and more across the region. … We have grave concerns that it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” Ms. Paradis said. The group said the pandemic has caused difficulties for some young LGBT people at home with homophobic families during lockdowns and given openings to politicians who attack gay and trans people as a way to shift attention from economic problems. “LGBT communities are amongst the groups that get scapegoated in particular,” said Ms. Paradis. (RFE/RL, with reporting by Reuters)

Man accused of leading sabotage group detained
Ukraine’s Security Service said its agents have detained a man alleged to be the leader of an intelligence group of Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. In a February 16 statement, the security service, known as the SBU, did not identify the man, saying he was from Luhansk, which is part of the territories in eastern Ukraine controlled by Russia. The service also said he had taken part in the seizure of the SBU headquarters in Luhansk in 2014 as conflict erupted in eastern Ukraine, and that he was a commander of the intelligence and sabotage unit who participated in operations against the Ukrainian armed forces. The man was detained in Odesa, about 900 kilometers southwest of Luhansk, and he traveled to the Black Sea port “with an intention to carry out intelligence activities related to Ukraine’s military objects,” the statement said. No further details were given and there was no independent confirmation of the arrest. Since erupting in April 2014, fighting between Ukrainian government forces and the Moscow-backed separatists holding parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions has killed more than 13,200 people. Weeks before fighting broke out, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula after staging a referendum that was deemed illegitimate by more than 100 countries. (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service)

Three soldiers killed in blast in east
Ukraine’s army says three of its soldiers have been killed by an explosive device in eastern Ukraine, bringing to five the number of troops killed in the region during the past week, the latest casualties of a six-year conflict with Russia-backed separatists. The three service personnel died on February 14 when an unknown device exploded while they were on their way to take positions near the town of Novoluhanske in the region of Donetsk, according to the army. The office of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is on an official visit to the United Arab Emirates, said he had sent the country’s defense minister and its chief of staff to eastern Ukraine to investigate the incident. “An immediate investigation is needed so that similar tragedies do not repeat in the future. I am waiting for their report on the circumstances immediately after my return” to Ukraine on February 15, a statement quoted Mr. Zelenskyy as saying. The deaths come three days after two government soldiers were killed in combat in the Donetsk region, despite a cease-fire that has been in place since last summer. Fighting between Ukrainian government forces and the separatists holding parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions has killed more than 13,200 people since April 2014. (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service)

Russia sanctions nine Ukrainian companies
Russia has slapped economic sanctions on nine Ukrainian firms, the latest in a list of businesses that it has targeted with such penalties. The companies targeted by “special economic measures” under the new Russian decree, which was published late on February 12, include Ukrainian vessel builder Craneship, towage firm Donmar, cargo operator Transship, and metal producer Maxima Metal. The decree did not say why the companies had been targeted. The latest move brings the number of Ukrainian companies sanctioned by Russia to 84. 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. Russia denies Kyiv’s accusations that its military has been involved in the conflict. The West has slapped a range of sanctions since then on Russia, which has retaliated with its own measures. There was no immediate response from Ukraine to the move. In a sign of further strains in Moscow’s ties to the West, Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov said on February 12 that it was ready to sever ties with the European Union if the bloc hit it with painful economic sanctions. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by Reuters and dpa)

More progress needed for new tranche
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) says Ukraine must show more progress on reforms to reach an agreement for a new tranche under a $5 billion program with the international lender. The statement by the IMF representative in Kyiv on February 13 came after the fund’s mission held talks with Ukraine. “Discussions will continue,” Goesta Ljungman said in a statement, adding that the talks were productive. The talks centered on strengthening governance of the National Bank, improvements to the legislative and regulatory framework for bank supervision and resolution, policies to reduce the medium-term fiscal deficit, legislation restoring and strengthening the anti-corruption framework and the judiciary, as well as on energy policy, Mr. Ljungman said. Ukraine expects to receive $2.2 billion in three equal tranches from the IMF in 2021, National Bank Governor Kyrylo Shevchenko told Reuters. The IMF in June approved the $5 billion loan program and disbursed the first tranche of $2.1 billion to help the pandemic-hit Ukrainian economy. However, further loans have been put on hold due to the slow pace of reforms in Ukraine. The IMF also voiced concern over the government’s decision last month to regulate household gas prices. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by Reuters)

EU, WHO announce vaccine program
The World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Union are launching a 40 million euro ($48.5 million) regional program to help six Eastern European countries with COVID-19 vaccinations. The program will involve Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, the EU and UN health agency said on February 11. “By strengthening preparedness and readiness of the countries for vaccinations, this program will prepare the countries for the effective receipt and administering of vaccines, including those from COVAX and through vaccine-sharing mechanisms with EU member states,” the European Commission said. COVAX is a global initiative aimed at providing shots to poorer countries. The six countries are part of the Eastern Partnership that seeks to strengthen ties between the EU and several Eastern European states. The EU will pay for the vaccine program over a three-year period while the WHO will help implement it. (RFE/RL)

Supreme Court to hear appeal on TV sanctions
The Cassation Administrative Court of the Ukrainian Supreme Court next month will hear an appeal against President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s decree to block three TV channels linked to Russia. The court scheduled the hearing to start on March 15, the Supreme Court said on February 11. Mr. Zelenskyy’s government decided on February 2 to shut several television channels controlled by a Russia-linked magnate, a move supported by Washington but questioned by Brussels and slammed by Moscow. The Supreme Court has already heard two other appeals against the decision, rejecting one and returning a second one to the plaintiff to eliminate some technical flaws from the motion. Mr. Zelenskyy last week defended the decision in a meeting with a group of ambassadors from the G-7 and European Union, telling them on February 3 in Kyiv that the decision to block 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. 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 towards European and Euro-Atlantic integration. 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. 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.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denounced the blocking of the three stations as a violation of media freedom and of international standards. The EU questioned the move, suggesting it could sacrifice media freedom in Ukraine. (RFE/RL, with reporting by Interfax)