Eastern Europe

  • They Speak Russian in Crimea, but That Doesn’t Make It Part of Russia

    US President Donald Trump made headlines ahead of the recent G7 summit in Canada by calling on his colleagues in the group of leading industrial nations to welcome Russia back into the fold. However, it seems that this was not the full extent of his advocacy for the Kremlin. According to a report published by BuzzFeed quoting two unnamed diplomatic sources, the US president also took advantage of the opportunity presented by the traditional G7 dinner to justify Vladimir Putin’s takeover of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula. The BuzzFeed report quotes him telling his G7 colleagues that Crimea was Russian “because everyone who lives there speaks Russian.”

    If this account is accurate, it is difficult to exaggerate how troubling the American leader’s comments are.

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  • Will Ukraine's New Anticorruption Court Make a Difference?

    On June 7, Ukraine’s parliament finally adopted a long-awaited law that paves the way for the establishment of an anticorruption court. Members of parliament had only one hour to evaluate the draft before voting, and the final text was released on June 13.

    Ukrainians have been waiting for four long years for justice. None of our high-profile crooks are behind bars. Plus, Ukraine needs the next IMF tranche of $2 billion to avoid default, and everything depends on the new law.

    So what’s in it?

    Good and bad. High-profile corruption cases will finally be heard by an impartial court, but the authorities did manage to water down the law.

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  • Will Ukraine Be the Ultimate Loser of Putin’s World Cup?

    Back in 2010 when world football governing body FIFA awarded Russia the right to host this year’s World Cup finals, few viewed Moscow as a threat. At the time, President Dmitry Medvedev seemed eager to portray himself as a Western-friendly reformer. In the diplomatic arena, the reset with the Obama White House had yet to unravel and it would be a further two years before US presidential candidate Mitt Romney would face ridicule for daring to call Russia America’s number one geopolitical foe. The 2007 cyber-attack on Estonia and the 2008 war in Georgia had certainly set some alarm bells ringing, but most still regarded talk of a new Cold War as absurd.

    That is emphatically no longer the case. Few would doubt that Russia and the Western world are engaged in the most intense geopolitical struggle since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Perhaps even more remarkably, Russia appears to be winning.

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  • Why Ukrainians Are Betting On a Rock Star or Comedian to Turn Things Around

    No one knows how the Ukrainian presidential election next March will play out, but it’s fair to say that election season has already begun. Polls paint a worrying picture for candidates. 

    Despite perfect name recognition, the frontrunner Yulia Tymoshenko has only 9 to 13 percent support, according to recent polls (Rating, SOCIS, and Democratic Initiatives). Other candidates, including the incumbent president, are in a tight cluster, suggesting they all have a fair chance of making the second round since no one is expected to win outright.  

    Past elections showed that sitting presidents, other than Leonid Kuchma, haven’t benefited from the power of incumbency. Poroshenko may be nervous and trying to undermine his main challenger former Defense Minister Anatoliy Gritsenko through a new special investigative commission charged with looking into embezzlement in the armed forces from 2004 to 2017 (Gritsenko was minister from 2005 to 2007).

    The current polls are an anomaly given that voters typically favor two strong candidates whose support is based on geography: the east votes for a pro-Russian candidate, and the west backs a pro-Western one. But this dynamic seems to be changing. Public trust in the old guard is currently so low that more than a third of voters are undecided, 11 percent would vote for another candidate, and almost 14 percent are leaning toward unconventional choices: 7 percent favor rock star Svyatoslav Vakarchuk and and 6.6 percent back comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

    The public clearly wants new leaders who are honest and patriotic, so Ukrainians are considering outsiders like Vakarchuk and Zelenskiy.

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  • No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: The Saga of Hanna Solomatina

    Hanna Solomatina never set out to be a whistleblower. The former head of Ukraine's National Agency for Corruption Prevention's (NACP) Financial Control and Lifestyle Monitoring Department just wanted to use her background in finance and auditing to help the country fight endemic graft. The NACP manages Ukraine's e-declaration system, which mandates that officials reveal their assets annually to ensure they weren't acquired unjustly. Solomatina's department at NACP was responsible for verifying the declarations.

    What follows is a saga that left Solomatina disillusioned about corruption within NACP itself. Ultimately, it led her to a crossroads: stay silent and keep her head down, or speak out and risk everything. She spoke out, bravely becoming one of Ukraine's most prominent whistleblowers, and her life hasn't been the same since. This is her story.

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  • The Epic Struggle of Crimean Tatars Captured in the Film Mustafa

    Crimean Tatars’ unending struggle for freedom has been nothing less than epic, and much of it is represented in the long life of Mustafa Dzhemilev. Finally, a film producer has recognized his story for what it is: a compelling tale of historic sweep featuring a legendary protagonist of distinguished bearing.
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  • Ukraine’s Next Reform Challenge May Be the Toughest One Yet

    Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) recently made headlines after masterminding a dramatic plot to spare the life of Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko. On May 29, newspapers announced that Babchenko had been assassinated in Kyiv, Ukraine, where he had been living as a dissident Russian journalist. The next day at what many thought was an ordinary SBU press conference, Babchenko surprised the crowd, announcing that he was not only alive but that he had cooperated with the SBU which had uncovered a plot against him. The reaction to Babchenko’s quick death and resurrection differed according to the audience; Ukrainians mostly celebrated the news, while the international community demanded evidence and an explanation for such extraordinary measures.

    Ukrainians were thrilled that the SBU, which doesn’t have a good reputation, managed to carry out such a complicated operation. For once, they bested Russia.

    While we wait for more information on the Babchenko case, now is time to examine the SBU, which remains the country’s only unreformed law enforcement institution.

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  • Ukraine Takes One Step Forward and Two Steps Back

    It’s only been six weeks since I was last in Kyiv, and yet the mood now feels completely different.

    When I was last in Kyiv, posters advertising rock star Slava Vakarchuk’s Independence Day concert were everywhere and he was the talk of the town. No longer. Now former prime minister and campaigner extraordinaire Yulia Tymoshenko’s “New Course for Ukraine” billboards dot major roads as she tops the polls.

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  • How to Keep the Kremlin and the Oligarchs Out of the Ukrainian White House

    The other night in Kyiv, one of Ukraine’s best political analysts came to see me. He asked me what the United States wants in the next Ukrainian presidential election slated for March 2019. I told him that the United States doesn’t have a favorite. Nor will it.

    My interlocutor was highly dissatisfied with the answer. But why doesn’t the West pick their choice and invest $150-250 million in its candidate as is required to win an election? Both the Russians and the oligarchs do so. Why aren’t the Americans rational? Another expert claimed that a popular candidate can win the presidency with only $40-50 million, but that is also big money. By comparison, a Swedish parliamentary election campaign costs $12 million and a German one $90 million. Those amounts include all the parties.

    We went on to discuss Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian oligarch who is considered Putin’s foremost agent in Ukraine. He was one of the first people the United States sanctioned over Russia’s occupation of Crimea on March 17, 2014, but he thrives in Ukraine in full freedom. He has allegedly just bought three television channels in Ukraine—112, NewsOne, and Zik—in apparent preparation for the presidential election. These channels match a populist electorate. Needless to say, nobody thinks that Medvedchuk has bought these television channels with his own money but has been financed by the Kremlin. Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash still owns the television channel Inter, and we know that he has received his money from Gazprom and Gazprombank.

    Next we discussed who stands behind which candidate. A clear pattern can be seen: half a dozen Ukrainian oligarchs are allegedly financing up to eighteen potential presidential candidates. Serious oligarchs have three candidates in the game—one is their favorite, one might win, and one is a spoiler. The picture of a tense game of poker in a smoke-filled room late in the night captures the scene well.

    This conversation reflects Ukrainian reality and what is wrong with it.

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  • Improving the Western Strategy to Combat Kremlin Propaganda and Disinformation

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    Since Putin’s annexation of Crimea and military aggression in Donbas—and especially since the 2016 US presidential election—the spread of Kremlin propaganda and disinformation has become a dominant subject of discussion and debate in the West. Academic research, investigative journalism, government inquiries, and NGO activities have drawn back the curtain on the Kremlin’s efforts to meddle in and distort the Western information space.

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