March 25, 2016



OSCE official on Savchenko verdict

WARSAW – Michael Georg Link, director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), expressed concerns on March 22 over the conviction by a Russian court of Nadiya Savchenko, a Ukrainian military pilot, for complicity in the killing of two Russian journalists in June 2014. “Amidst serious disputes over the facts in Savchenko’s trial and the need to respect fair-trial rights in her high-profile case, I echo the OSCE Chairmanship’s call for her immediate release,” the ODIHR director said. “Savchenko’s release would send a strong humanitarian message given her health problems and would build confidence in the peace process aimed at resolving the two-year-old crisis in and around Ukraine.” Mr. Link added, “OSCE participating states have committed themselves to uphold internationally recognized standards for the administration of justice. It is regrettable that ODIHR has not had the opportunity to visit her in detention or to officially monitor her trial – despite our request. This verdict raises real concerns as to whether these standards have been met.” (OSCE)

Ukraine considers sanctions 

KYIV – Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said he has called on the National Security and Defense Council to consider sanctions against Russian officials involved in the prosecution of Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko. A Russian court has sentenced Savchenko to 22 years in prison for her alleged involvement in the death of two Russian journalists in eastern Ukraine. After the sentence was pronounced on March 22, Mr. Poroshenko said he was ready to exchange the pilot for two Russians who were captured during fighting in eastern Ukraine and who Kyiv believes are Russian servicemen. Addressing journalists in the eastern city of Kharkiv on March 23, Poroshenko said the exchange would be possible only after Ms. Savchenko’s sentence comes fully into force, meaning when the 10-day appeal period expires. Ms. Savchenko said she won’t appeal the ruling, and that she did not recognize the Russian court or its right to try her. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by UNIAN and Interfax)

AI notes ‘deeply politicized’ verdict

LONDON – The international human rights monitoring organization Amnesty International reacted on March 22 to the conviction of Nadiya Savchenko. “It is abhorrent to send Nadiya Savchenko to prison after such a flawed, deeply politicized trial,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s director for Europe and Central Asia. “The litany of dubious procedures and decisions by the presiding judge over the course of this trial shows a clear contempt for due process and suggests Nadiya never had a hope of proving her innocence. The only way justice can be delivered both for Nadiya, and the journalists who were killed, is for there to be a full and impartial investigation into her allegations and a retrial that remains free of political interference and complies with international fair trial standards.” (Amnesty International)

Kerry in Moscow for talks 

WASHINGTON – U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has arrived in Russia for talks expected to touch upon the fragile truces in Syria and Ukraine. Mr. Kerry was to meet with German Foreign Affairs Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Moscow on March 23 and to hold talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov on March 24. During the visit, Secretary Kerry is expected to gauge whether the Russian leadership is ready to discuss ways to ease Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from power. On Ukraine, he is expected to call on Moscow to do more to press Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east to comply with a ceasefire. He is also due to raise the case of Ukrainian military pilot Nadiya Savchenko, who was sentenced to 22 years in prison in Russia for her alleged involvement in the death of two Russian journalists in eastern Ukraine. Washington has repeatedly called for Ms. Savchenko to be released. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by AP and AFP)

Moscow: Kyiv ignores peace deal 

MOSCOW – Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov has accused Ukraine’s government of failing to implement the Minsk ceasefire agreement. Lavrov, who was hosting German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Moscow on March 23, told journalists that Kyiv’s inaction was the main stumbling block to a peace settlement in Ukraine’s east. The Minsk deal signed in February 2015 has helped reduce the fighting between Ukrainian government forces and combined Russian-separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, but skirmishes have continued. Mr. Steinmeier urged both sides to comply with the terms of the agreement, warning of a possible escalation. He also expressed hope a humanitarian solution could be found for Nadiya Savchenko. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by AP, Reuters and TASS)

Bill to counter foreign propaganda

WASHINGTON – U.S. Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) on March 16 introduced legislation to help American allies counter foreign government propaganda from Russia, China and other countries. Specifically, the bill will improve the ability of the United States to counter foreign propaganda and disinformation by leveraging existing expertise and empowering local communities to defend themselves from foreign manipulation. “In order to improve our response to foreign propaganda and disinformation, we need a comprehensive strategy. We have to delegitimize false narratives coming out of Russia, China and other nations and increase access to factual information,” said Sen. Portman. “By directly countering false narratives and empowering local media and civil societies to defend themselves from foreign manipulation, this legislation will help support our allies and interests in this increasingly unstable world. This bill underscores the United States’ commitment to protecting the freedom of the marketplace of ideas on the international stage. I’m proud to join my colleague, Sen. Murphy, on this bipartisan effort.” Sen. Murphy noted: “A hallmark of democracy is the free flow of accurate, uncensored information, but many nations today are bombarded by foreign propaganda and manipulated information. This disinformation is often intended specifically to undermine the United States, our allies, and interests. Keeping America safe requires us to adapt alongside the threats we face, and right now we’re too slow to adapt to the disinformation campaigns of our adversaries and competitors. The Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act would ensure America’s national security infrastructure helps counter the false narratives that harm our security – delivering truthful information and making the world a safer place for the United States and our allies.” (Office of Sen. Rob Portman)

Canada expands sanctions list 

OTTAWA – Canada on March 18 amended the Special Economic Measures (Russia) Regulations to list 10 additional entities and two additional individuals subject to asset freezes and dealings prohibitions, and added four additional entities and three individuals to the Special Economic Measures (Ukraine) Regulations. Canada’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Stephane Dion stated, “Today’s steps support wider international efforts to seek a diplomatic resolution to the crisis in Ukraine. By engaging with Russia on the one hand and demonstrating our firm resolve on sanctions on the other, we strengthen our collective ability to hold them to account. I have instructed Global Affairs Canada to update engagement policies accordingly. As agreed by G-7 leaders, Canada believes sanctions should not be lifted until Russia fully implements its commitments under the Minsk agreements.” (Ukrainian Canadian Congress)

Swiss provide housing for monitors 

KYIV – The Swiss ambassador to Ukraine on March 15 in Kyiv presented the chief monitor of the Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) with two accommodation modules to house monitors working in Ukraine’s east. These modules will enhance the ability of the SMM to operate in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions by providing additional housing space for monitors. Each module sleeps two people and is furnished with beds, wardrobes and lighting, as well as heating and air conditioning units. They can be connected to the local power grid or to generators, depending on what is available. In the coming days, the accommodation modules will be deployed to the team based at the SMM Forward Patrol Base in Stanytsia Luhanska. “We are grateful to the government of Switzerland for this generous contribution that will enhance our operations,” said the OSCE’s chief monitor in Ukraine, Ertugrul Apakan. “The modules are based on solutions commonly found in deployed missions around the world. They are extremely useful in areas where local accommodation or office space is limited due to destruction during a conflict, or where there are no buildings, such as in open fields or along roads.” Swiss Ambassador to Ukraine Guillaume Scheurer said: “Switzerland is fully committed to SMM’s efforts in contributing to security and peace-building in Ukraine. The accommodation modules, financed by the Swiss Federal Department of Defense and built by a local Ukrainian firm, are a supplementary Swiss contribution to the SMM that was created under the Swiss OSCE Chairmanship in 2014. I am glad to announce that Switzerland is ready to provide more accommodation modules in the near future.” (OSCE)

Militants attempt advance near Avdiivka 

KYIV – One Ukrainian serviceman was killed in action, while 10 servicemen were wounded in action in the last 24 hours, Col. Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for the anti-terrorist operation, said on March 23. The most tense situation is in the Donetsk sector, where militants attacked ATO forces 37 times over the last day, he noted. “Intense combat actions continue near Avdiivka. Yesterday massive attacks upon Ukrainian positions in this part of the frontline started at about 7 p.m. The enemy was actively using heavy weapons including mortars, tanks and 122-mm howitzers. Following massive artillery fire the enemy started an attack that lasted about three hours,” Col. Lysenko said at a press briefing at Ukraine Crisis Media Center. He noted that Ukrainian troops returned fire, stopping the militants’ advance. “The adversary was firing from two sectors at the same time: from the south – Spartak and from the east – Yasynuvata,” he added. Other hotspots in the Donetsk sector were Zaitseve, where militants were firing from small arms and grenade launchers, and Donetsk airport, where militant groups were using mortars. (Ukraine Crisis Media Center)

Poroshenko vows swift end to crisis 

KYIV – Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has tried to reassure the European Union that Kyiv will soon overcome its worst political crisis in two years. “I hope that by the end of the month, we will find a solution,” Mr. Poroshenko told reporters in Brussels on March 17 alongside European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. “There will be no early parliamentary elections and the political coalition will remain, will be responsible, oriented on reforms,” he added. Ukraine’s ruling coalition has collapsed over efforts to stamp out corruption, but Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk refuses to step down after he survived a no-confidence vote last month, triggered by Mr. Poroshenko’s party. Western donors, including the European Union and the United States, are urging Kyiv’s leaders to remain unified to pass reforms needed to secure a further $1.7 billion in aid from the International Monetary Fund. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by Reuters and Interfax)
Pianist’s wife accused in kids’ deaths 

DALLAS – The estranged wife of renowned Ukrainian pianist Vadym Kholodenko, who won the 2013 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, sought mental treatment the day before she allegedly killed their two daughters in their Texas home, police said on March 22. Sofya Tsygankova is accused of capital murder in the deaths of 5-year-old Nika Kholodenko and 1-year-old Michela Kholodenko. Vadym Kholodenko found the two girls dead on March 17, with Ms. Tsygankova wearing a blood-stained nightgown and kneeling on the floor “rocking back and forth,” according to the arrest warrant. She had wounds on her wrist and chest, and a butcher knife was found nearby. An empty bottle labeled with the antipsychotic drug Quetiapine was found on the kitchen counter, police said. Authorities said Ms. Tsygankova, who is divorcing Mr. Kholodenko, visited a mental health facility the day before the murders. Ms. Tsygankova told police she remembered putting her children to sleep and taking pills, and believed she hurt herself with a knife. But she asked the officers if she had done “anything bad” to the girls. Ms. Tsygankova was booked on March 22 into the Tarrant County jail. Mr. Kholodenko and Ms. Tsygankova married in 2010, but filed for divorce in November 2015. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by AP and Reuters)

Giant Lenin statue comes down 

KYIV – Ukraine has torn down its largest remaining statue of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin. A crane lifted the 40-ton statue off its pedestal in the southeastern city of Zaporizhia on March 17 and placed it beside the plinth. The 60-year-old monument fell victim to so-called “decommunization” laws. Nearly 1,000 statues of Lenin have been toppled in Ukraine and thousands of streets, squares, towns, villages, companies and other social entities and geographical locations must be renamed under controversial laws, passed last year, that condemn the communist Soviet and Nazi German regimes and ban any propaganda, symbols, or names associated with them. Russia’s military-backed takeover of Crimea in March 2014 and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine since April 2014 has given much impetus to Ukraine’s efforts to break with its Soviet past. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by AFP and Reuters)

Two hospitalized after explosion 

KYIV – Two people have been hospitalized following an explosion in the central Ukrainian city of Kirovohrad. The blast occurred on March 22 in the city’s central Bohdan Khmelnytsky Square. Two cars were damaged by the explosion. Law enforcement officials in the region of Kirovohrad said that an unknown explosive device has detonated in a metallic garbage bin. Investigations have been launched into the incident. Last year, a series of bomb blasts hit Ukraine’s eastern city of Kharkiv and southern port city of Odesa. Authorities blamed the explosions on Russia and groups linked to pro-Russian separatists in the country’s east. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by UNIAN and Interfax)

Economy plummets by nearly 10%

KYIV – Ukraine’s battered economy shrank by 9.9 percent in 2015 due to implosions in the financial sector and consumer demand, the state statistics service reported on March 21. The stunning fall last year followed a drop of nearly 7 percent in 2014, the year Russia annexed Crimea and Ukraine’s war with Russia-backed separatists broke out in the east. Last year’s downturn was led by a 27.7 percent plunge in financial and insurance activity and a 16.8 percent fall in retail trade, the statistics agency said. The general services sector plummeted by 24.4 percent. The only sector to grow was health services, which inched ahead by 2.3 percent. Ukrainian consumers have been depressed by the loss of one-third of the value of Ukraine’s currency, the hryvnia, against the U.S. dollar since 2014. Ukraine’s economy has also been hurt by a trade war with Russia, formerly its largest market for exports, and a drop in the global price of its wheat and steel exports. Despite the economic tailspin, a political crisis has prevented the disbursement of critically needed aid from the International Monetary Fund. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by AFP and TASS)

Crimean Tatars march in Prague 

PRAGUE – Members of the Crimean Tatar community marched in the Czech capital, Prague, on March 19 to mark the second anniversary of Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine. The Crimean Tatar minority has been strongly critical of the annexation, and their self-governing body, the Mejlis, has refused to recognize the change of government. Marchers including Mejlis head Refat Chubarov walked up Prague’s Krymska (Crimea) Street. They carried signs calling for Russia to release high-profile Ukrainian prisoners: pilot Nadiya Savchenko, film director Oleh Sentsov and activist Oleksandr Kolchenko. (RFE/RL’s Current Time TV)

HRW: Climate of fear in Crimea 

NEW YORK – Human Rights Watch (HRW) says Russian authorities have created a pervasive climate of fear and repression in Crimea in the two years since it annexed the peninsula from Ukraine. In a report released on March 18, the New York-based rights group said that since Russia’s annexation in March 2014 the “space for free speech, freedom of association, and media in Crimea has shrunk dramatically.” HRW also said Russian-backed authorities have “harassed, intimidated and taken arbitrary legal action against Crimean Tatars, an ethnic minority who openly opposed Russia’s occupation.” In a statement on March 18, the European Union’s foreign-policy chief, Federica Mogherini, reiterated that the 28-member bloc did not recognize Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. Ms. Mogherini also reaffirmed the EU’s “deep concern at the military build-up and the deterioration of the human rights situation in the Crimean Peninsula, including the denial of freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of religion and belief, and the persecution of persons belonging to minorities, in particular the Crimean Tatars.” The EU statement called for the release of Ukrainian film director Oleh Sentsov, who was arrested in Crimea in May 2014 and was jailed in August last year for 20 years on terrorism charges that he and international rights groups call politically motivated. The bloc also urged the release of Oleksandr Kolchenko, an activist sentenced to 10 years in prison by Russian-backed authorities in Crimea. (RFE/RL)

German Minister wants sanctions lifted 

BERLIN – German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel has called on the European Union to create conditions by this summer to lift sanctions imposed against Russia over the conflict in Ukraine. “That must be our common goal,” said Mr. Gabriel, whose Social Democrats (SDP) share power with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democratic Union. “[We should] aim for such a deal with the Russian Federation with all our strength,” he said, during a meeting of the German-Russian forum in Berlin on March 17. The West has imposed sanctions on Russia over its annexation of Crimea in March 2014 and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. Germany and France have said lifting sanctions depends on Russia complying with the terms of the Minsk peace process, which has stalled. The EU has extended asset freezes and travel bans on Russians and Russian companies, but there is less agreement on whether to extend more far-reaching sanctions on Russia’s banking, defense and energy sectors from July. (RFE/RL, based on reporting by Reuters and RT)