May 20, 2021



Kyiv would ‘gladly’ swap Medvedchuk
A top Ukrainian official did not exclude the possibility of a prisoner swap with Russia if a Kyiv court convicts a Kremlin-leaning politician of treason. Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of the National Security and Defense Council, said in a TV interview that Kyiv would “gladly” hand over lawmaker Viktor Medvedchuk to Moscow in exchange for Ukrainians held in Russian prisons if the opportunity arises. However, he said such a decision can only be made by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Ukrainian Prosecutor-General Iryna Venediktova on May 11 charged Mr. Medvedchuk, the leading figure in the Opposition Platform – For Life party, with three counts of treason. A Kyiv court placed Mr. Medvedchuk under house arrest on May 13 and set the start of his trial for July in what could be the highest-profile political case in Ukraine in years. Mr. Medvedchuk has denied the charges and called them politically motivated. He has promoted closer ties with Russia, which annexed Crimea and backed fighters in eastern Ukraine following the overthrow of Kremlin-leaning President Viktor Yanu­kovych in 2014. The war in eastern Ukraine, which continues to this day, has killed more than 13,000 people. Mr. Medvedchuk is accused among other things of concealing his ownership of natural gas assets in Russia-occupied Crimea with the help of the Kremlin. Ukraine in February sanctioned Mr. Medvedchuk and three television stations believed to be owned by him. Ukraine has accused the stations of promoting Russian disinformation. The 66-year-old Mr. Medvedchuk has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is the godfather of his daughter. Mr. Medvedchuk has frequently traveled to Moscow to discuss with Russian officials, including Mr. Putin, peace in eastern Ukraine, prisoner swaps, as well as natural gas deals. Mr. Putin on May 14 accused Ukraine of carrying out “anti-Russian” policies in a possible reference to the charges against his friend Mr. Medvedchuk. Analysts say that Mr. Zelenskyy has grown frustrated with the lack of progress in the peace talks with Russia and sees Mr. Medvedchuk as a hindrance. Mr. Zelenskyy, a political novice, came to power in May 2019 in part on a promise to end the war in eastern Ukraine and free political prisoners. He carried out three prisoner swaps with Russia and the Kremlin-backed fighters in eastern Ukraine within his first year but has made no progress since April 2020. Russia stills holds about 100 Ukrainians – including many Crimean Tatars – that Kyiv deems to be political prisoners. Mr. Zelenskyy’s ratings have tumbled from above 70 percent in 2019 to below 30 percent this year amid disillusionment with his leadership. (RFE/RL)

Lawmakers sack health minister
Ukraine’s parliament has voted to dismiss Health Minister Maksym Stepanov over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and approved the resignations of the economy and infrastructure ministers. Lawmakers ousted Mr. Stepanov in a 292-1 vote on May 18, making him Ukraine’s third health minister to be dismissed since COVID-19 hit the country last year. Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, who initiated Mr. Stepanov’s firing, told parliament that the minister was responsible for the “unsatisfactory pace of vaccination” against COVID-19 and failures in vaccine procurement. Economy Minister Ihor Petrashko and Infrastructure Minister Vladyslav Krykliy did not disclose reasons for their decision to leave their jobs in their resignation letters filed to the Verkhovna Rada last week. With more than 2 million registered coronavirus infections and over 48,000 related deaths, Ukraine is among the European countries most affected by the epidemic. The country is also lagging in its vaccination efforts, with about 950,000 Ukrainians having received their first vaccine dose as of May 18. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s economy shrank 2 percent in the first quarter of 2021 year-on-year after contracting 4 percent last year. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Cabinet of Ministers has experienced significant turnover since the former comic took power in 2019. (RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service, with reporting by Reuters, Bloomberg and AFP)

Top Ukrainian judge’s home searched
Ukrainian investigators have searched the house of Oleksandr Tupytsky, the former chairman of the Constitutional Court, amid a battle with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy over control of the country’s highest court. The State Investigation Bureau carried out the search early on May 13 after Mr. Tupytsky failed to show up for a bail hearing for the fifth time, citing health reasons, Ukrainian media reported. Mr. Zelenskyy suspended Mr. Tupytsky in December and fired him in March after the Prosecutor-General’s Office charged him with trying to bribe a witness into giving false testimony. Mr. Tupytsky denied the charges. The pressure on Mr. Tupytsky followed on the heels of a decision by the Constitutional Court in October 2020 to dismantle most of the anti-corruption legislation passed since the overthrow of Kremlin-leaning President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. Mr. Tupytsky was appointed by Mr. Yanukovych to a lifetime tenure on the court. The Constitutional Court’s ruling angered Ukraine’s Western backers, who have provided tens of billions of dollars in critical funding to Kyiv on the condition it implement tough anti-corruption reforms. The case to dismantle the anti-graft infrastructure was brought before Mr. Tupytsky and the court by lawmakers from the Opposition Platform – For Life, an influential Russian-leaning party. The party’s most prominent official, Viktor Medvedchuk, made his first appearance in a Kyiv court later that day in a separate case on charges of treason. Mr. Tupytsky ignored his March dismissal by Mr. Zelenskyy, considering it unconstitutional, but security guards have refused to let him into the court building. Judges can be dismissed for bad behavior. The Constitutional Court is now effectively chaired by Mr. Tupytsky’s deputy, Serhiy Holovaty, who is seen as more loyal to Mr. Zelenskyy. Mr. Tupytsky told reporters his wife’s car and his mother-in-law’s summer home were also searched on May 13, but said that nothing had been taken. He called the search unlawful. (RFE/RL, with reporting by the Kyiv Post)

Former officials living in state property
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says former officials who served under his predecessors are still living in elite, state-owned properties on the cheap and promised to address the situation. During a May 14 meeting of the National Security and Defense Council, Mr. Zelenskyy said he will investigate who lives in over 100 state-owned recreation houses and cottages in an elite neighborhood outside Kyiv. The president said former judges, prosecutors, ministers and state officials continue to live in the homes and cottages on 400 hectares of land. He said they not only pay low rent but also get reimbursed for up to 50 percent of the cost of renovations. Under former President Petro Poroshenko, “the government legalized the stay on these lands and in these residences, for a very symbolic fee, for a number of obscure people,” Mr. Zelenskyy said. He also said officials who served under President Viktor Yanukovych, including former Education Minister Dmytro Tabachnyk and former Health Minister Raisa Bohatyryova, still use state residences. Mr. Yanukovych was toppled in 2014 following street protests, with many of his closest advisers and ministers fleeing the country. Officials from Mr. Poroshenko’s administration, including former Deputy Prime Minister Hennady Zubko, also live in state-owned homes, Mr. Zelenskyy said. Mr. Poroshenko is Mr. Zelenskyy’s closest political rival, according to recent polls. The two have a tense relationship and the Zelenskyy administration has launched criminal investigations into the former president and his associates. The announcement appears to be the latest in a series of populist moves in recent months by Mr. Zelenskyy to tackle low-hanging corruption in an attempt, analysts say, to boost his sagging popularity. Mr. Zelenskyy, who defeated Mr. Poroshenko in 2019 with more than 70 percent of the vote, has seen his support dip below 30 percent. However, Western governments have been pushing him to do more to improve the rule of law and corporate governance. (RFE/RL, with reporting by the Kyiv Post)

Ukraine denounces persecution of Crimean Tatars
Ukrainian officials have marked the 77th anniversary of the Crimean Tatars’ Stalin-era deportations from Crimea to Central Asia by denouncing what they called their ongoing persecution by Russia. Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and backed separatists in two of its eastern provinces, sparking a war that has killed more than 13,000 people. Crimean Tatars, rights activists, and Western governments say Russia has subjected Crimean Tatars and others who opposed annexation to abuse, discrimination and politically motivated prosecution on false charges. As Crimean Tatars marked the anniversary of the 1944 deportations, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a statement: “We will not forgive that 70 years [after the deportations] you were forced to leave your home again due to the Russian annexation.” The Ukrainian president added, “And those of you who remain [in Crimea] are being persecuted and imprisoned by the occupation authorities.” Ukrainian Foreign Affairs Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that Russia “continues to systemically suppress the Crimean Tatars.” Russia denies carrying out repressions in Crimea, but regularly announces arrests of alleged Islamist or pro-Ukrainian “terrorists” on the Black Sea peninsula. The Crimean Solidarity group said that prayers and commemorations of the victims of the 1944 deportations were held on May 18 in towns and villages across Crimea, despite warnings by Russia-imposed authorities not to hold unsanctioned public events. Commemoration events were also held in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. Members of the mostly Muslim, Turkic-speaking indigenous ethnic group of the Black Sea peninsula were deported en masse during World War II, after Stalin accused them of collaborating with Nazi Germany. Starting on May 18, 1944, some 250,000 people were put on trains – most of them in the space of two days – and sent to Central Asia. Tens of thousands died during the journey or after they were left on the barren steppe with few resources. Crimean Tatars were not allowed to return to Crimea until the late 1980s, when Mikhail Gorbachev conducted reforms in the years before the disintegration of the Soviet Union. In November 2015, the Ukrainian parliament passed a law declaring May 18 the Day of Comme­mo­ration of Victims of the Genocide of the Crimean Tatars. (RFE/RL, with reporting by AFP, RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service and Crimea.Realities)

Wooden synagogue unveiled at Babyn Yar
Ukraine has unveiled a synagogue on the site commemorating Babyn Yar, one of the biggest massacres of Jews during World War II. “The symbolic synagogue is a big step toward restoring the memory of all those who died in this place,” Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said during a ceremony on May 14. The wooden synagogue, which is constructed like a pop-up book, is decorated with patterns and texts of prayers that recreate the traditional interiors of ancient synagogues in western Ukraine. The unveiling coincided with commemorations of Ukraine’s inaugural Day of Remembrance for Ukrainians who helped save Jews during World War II. About 34,000 Jewish men, women and children were killed at the Babyn Yar ravine on the outskirts of Kyiv on September 29-30, 1941, soon after the Nazis occupied the city. In the following months more than 100,000 people, including Ukrainian nationalists, Roma, Jews and Soviet prisoners of war were killed at the site. After World War II, the site was used as a landfill and lagoon. The unveiling of the synagogue is part of the recent effort to shed more light on the massacre. A monument was built on the site in the 1970s, but it was dedicated only to Soviet victims. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, a sculpture in the shape of a menorah was erected nearby. The Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, which was behind the effort to install the temporary synagogue, has plans to build a major memorial at the site. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by Reuters and AFP)

Ukraine in Eurovision final
Ten of the 16 acts competing in the first semifinal in Rotterdam on May 18 advanced to the finals of the Eurovision Song Contest – including performers from Russia, Azerbaijan and Ukraine. A second semifinal took place on May 20, with 10 of those acts also advancing to the May 22 final, which will include automatic qualifiers Italy, France, Germany, Spain and Britain, along with the host nation, the Netherlands. Qualifiers from May 18 also included Norway, Israel, Malta, Lithuania, Cyprus, Sweden and Belgium. Countries not advancing were Romania, Croatia, North Macedonia, Slovenia, Ireland and Australia. The 2020 event was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Netherlands won the 2019 contest, giving it the right to host the succeeding event. The competition features contestants performing 39 songs from nations across Europe as well as Australia and Israel. The broadcast is watched live by tens of millions of people around the world, many of whom will vote remotely on their favorites. A crowd of 3,500 – tested for the coronavirus before the event – was allowed into the Rotterdam arena to watch the performances live. The second semifinal will include Serbia, Georgia, Moldova, Bulgaria and Poland. Also included are the Czech Republic, Albania, Estonia, Latvia, San Marino, Austria, Iceland, Portugal, Finland, Switzerland and Denmark. Belarus has been excluded from the contest after failing to submit an entry that complied with the nonpolitical nature of the competition. Minsk denounced the decision as “politically motivated.” The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) said in a March 26 statement that a second entry submitted by the Belarus state broadcasting authority “was in breach of the rules that ensure the contest is not instrumentalized or brought into disrepute.” (RFE/RL, based on reporting by AP, Reuters, and AFP)