UkraineAlert

When it comes to the history of the Holocaust, an accurate memory can be a dangerous thing. That's doubly true in Ukraine. While many associate the Holocaust with German concentration camps like Auschwitz, in Ukraine the killing was more personalized, with 1.5 million Jews being shot en masse and dumped in graves across the country. No site better epitomizes this "Holocaust of bullets" than Babi Yar in Kyiv, where on September 29-30, 1941, over 33,000 Jews were executed and dumped into a ravine. 

Today nothing but a hodgepodge of small memorials stands there, but with the 77th anniversary of the Babi Yar killings coming Saturday, that could change. In December 2015, Kyiv Mayor Vitaliy Klitschko formed an exploratory team that spent six months researching options for Babi Yar. The result was the establishment of a private foundation to develop the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center (BYHMC)

To bring Klitschko's original vision to fruition, BYHMC will meet the highest international standards for historical accuracy.

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This month, the European Court of Human Rights prevented Ukraine from backsliding in a major way. On September 18, it ordered the Ukrainian government to halt its efforts to access data from the cell phone of investigative journalist Natalia Sedletska for a month to give her an opportunity to file a full complaint to the ECHR.

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Ukraine’s European aspirations are irreversible. A majority of the public supports NATO membership, and EU membership has long enjoyed popular support. However, wishing for integration does not make it happen. In both instances, Ukraine’s passage toward eligibility will be long and arduous. Nevertheless, opportunities are currently opening up for Ukraine to integrate with its European neighbors at the sub-regional level, in which selected countries from a larger region band together for a common purpose and share mutually beneficial investments. These opportunities are important and should not be overlooked.

One such example of sub-regional cooperation among neighbors recently took place.

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At the end of 2016, Victor Pinchuk—one of Ukraine’s wealthiest oligarchs and sponsor of the recent YES 2018 conference—published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal calling for “painful compromises” to establish peace with Russia. In particular, he urged Ukraine to table its NATO and EU hopes and put the Crimean issue on hold for decades. Pinchuk did not voice these ideas in vain; they have been adopted by Serhiy Taruta in his election campaign.

Taruta, a Ukrainian oligarch from the Donbas, is trying to perform an uncanny yet common feint in Ukrainian politics. He is positioning himself as a “fresh face” in the upcoming 2019 parliamentary and presidential elections, even though he has been active in politics for twenty years.

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Despite a comprehensive sanctions regime established by Western governments barring foreign investment in Crimea, many foreign companies nonetheless maintain operations there. Recent reports reveal that a number of companies such as Visa, MasterCard, Volkswagen, Auchan, Metro Cash & Carry, DHL, and Adidas are still willing to continue business as usual despite the reputational risk.

The companies’ sanctions-busting behavior is driven by their commercial interests: they are reluctant to lose a significant share of the Russian market. According to Sergey Aksyonov, Crimea’s self-proclaimed prime minister, nearly 3,000 foreign firms are currently operating in Crimea. Aksenov has encouraged foreign companies to invest in Crimea, as there are ways companies can circumvent sanctions and conceal their identities.

In fact, there are several recurring techniques that Western companies use to avoid sanctions.

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On September 12, the leaders of two key pro-Russian parties made important public statements that should not be overlooked. Sergei Lyovochkin, deputy head of the Opposition Bloc and a former leader in President Viktor Yanukovych’s administration, and Vadym Rabinovich of the For Life political party, both spoke about the “active consolidation” of the two political parties prior to the upcoming presidential election. Both parties are pushing for a normal relationship with the Kremlin.

According to recent polls, Yulia Tymoshenko could expect almost 13 percent among decided voters if the election was held now, while her closest opponent, President Petro Poroshenko, is polling at 8.4 percent. In the meantime, Rabinovich and Yuriy Boyko of the Opposition Bloc are polling at 4.3 percent and 7.1 percent, respectively. Their possible agreement on a single candidate could put their politician in the second round. (No candidate is expected to win outright in the first round in March 2019.)

There are three wings in the negotiation process currently occurring in the pro-Russian camp.

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This year’s Yalta European Strategy (YES) conference, known as the Ukrainian Davos, did not disappoint. Held in Kyiv on September 13-15, the meeting featured the obligatory celebrities and A-list dazzle. Bono turned up in purple-tinted glasses. Host Victor Pinchuk unveiled a silver spaceship-like creation by Japanese artist Marico Mori urging everyone to focus on the future. The American punk band Gogol Bordello was electric.

But the real drama took place on the second day, when BBC HARDtalk presenter Stephen Sackur took to the stage to interview three leading presidential candidates, one at a time. He interviewed frontrunner and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, former defense minister and leading reform candidate Anatoily Gritsenko, and rock star Slava Vakarchuk, who may or may not be running.

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Two Saturdays ago was a gloomy day in Kyiv, but the weather didn’t manage to dampen the mood at the opening ceremony of the Ukrainian Leadership Academy, as its new students marked the beginning of its fourth year. ULA is a private, year-long residential-based initiative that prepares students who are between the ages of 16 to 20 for leadership positions by focusing on their intellectual, physical, and emotional growth. On September 8, 250 new students from every oblast in Ukraine and a few from overseas joined the ULA community. 

ULA seeks to raise up a generation of talented young people who are already taking responsibility for their country in order to influence Ukraine’s reform process and politics. Its strategy is long-term.  

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Next month, Europe’s leading budget airline will begin regular flights from Ukraine to a host of EU destinations. This is the latest milestone in a Ukrainian aviation boom that is seeing additional routes announced on a weekly basis and record passenger numbers at airports across the country. Each new flight serves to broaden Ukrainian horizons and anchor the country more firmly within the wider international community. Meanwhile, there has not been a single direct flight between Ukraine and Russia since October 2015.

The changes in Ukraine’s air travel industry are just one of the many ways in which the country has turned away from Russia and gone global since the climax of the Euromaidan Revolution in early 2014 and the start of Vladimir Putin’s hybrid war. Since then, Russia’s share of Ukrainian exports has tumbled from 24 percent to around 9 percent, while Russian imports to Ukraine have halved. As economic ties between Kyiv and Moscow loosen, Ukrainian businesses have begun to discover life after Russia.

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Ukraine has less than four months before the presidential campaign season begins in earnest on December 31. The media is already full of populist promises and ads defaming political competitors. Outdoor advertising is dominated by catchy slogans and the old faces of party leaders. TV channels are being redistributed between their oligarch owners.

What can parliament and the government accomplish before the start of the election season? Not much. We must be realistic and prioritize. Among the many vital reforms Ukraine needs, the focus should be on those that enable an environment for further transformations and ensure the country’s resilience in the face of a possible worsening of the political climate following the elections. That list includes at least six specific reforms.  

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