Archive for February, 2014
The United States told Russia to demonstrate in coming days that it was sincere about its promise not to intervene in Ukraine, after armed men seized the regional parliament in a mainly ethnic Russian region and raised the Russian flag.
Crimea, the only Ukrainian region with an ethnic Russian majority, is the last big bastion of opposition to the new leadership in Kiev since pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich was ousted at the weekend.
The region also provides a base for the Russian navy’s Black Sea Fleet. Kiev’s new rulers said any movement by Russian forces beyond the base’s territory would be tantamount to aggression.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had assured him by telephone that Moscow would not intervene militarily in its neighbour.
“We believe that everybody now needs to take a step back and avoid any kind of provocations,” Kerry said at a joint news conference with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
“We want to see in the next days ahead that the choices Russia makes conform to this affirmation we received today.”
Yanukovich, who fled Kiev after scores of demonstrators were killed last week, was expected to hold a news conference in Russia on Friday. He has declared he is still Ukraine’s president, but has lost support even in regions where the ethnic Ukrainian population mainly speaks Russian as he does.
Crimea, which was administered as part of Russia within the Soviet Union until it was transferred to Ukraine in 1954, is a more tendentious question. Separatism there has often flared up at times of tension between Moscow and Kiev.
The apparent armed siege of the Crimean parliament by unidentified gunmen created a bizarre scene: there was no official explanation of who the gunmen were, and they issued no demands. Police hardly seemed to treat the event as a major security incident.
Instead, they casually guarded the building below its Russian flag while hundreds of pro-Russian demonstrators assembled, including elderly people who danced cheerfully to recordings of Soviet martial music.
The regional parliament even managed to hold a session inside the building on Thursday despite the siege, where it voted to stage a referendum on “sovereignty” for Crimea.
By the early hours of Friday, police guarding the building would not say what had happened to the gunmen or whether they were even still there. Russia’s flag still flew from its roof and lights were on in the windows of its top floor.
Oleksander Turchinov, Ukraine’s acting president, warned Russia not to move personnel beyond areas permitted by treaty for those using its naval base: “Any military movements, the more so if they are with weapons, beyond the boundaries of this territory will be seen by us as military aggression,” he said.
Russia has repeatedly declared it will defend the interests of its citizens in Ukraine, and on Wednesday announced war games near the border involving 150,000 troops on high alert. Kerry said Lavrov told him the war games were pre-planned.
Although Moscow says it will not intervene by force, its rhetoric since the removal of its ally Yanukovich has echoed the runup to its invasion of Georgia in 2008, when it sent its troops to protect two self-declared independent regions and then recognised them as independent states.
Witness accounts suggest those who captured the Crimean parliament building in the early hours of Thursday were pro-Russian gunmen of some kind.
“We were building barricades in the night to protect parliament. Then this young Russian guy came up with a pistol … we all lay down, some more ran up, there was some shooting and around 50 went in through the window,” Leonid Khazanov, an ethnic Russian, told Reuters.
“I asked them what they wanted, and they said ‘To make our own decisions, not to have Kiev telling us what to do’.”
Ukraine’s new interior minister, Arsen Avakov, said the attackers had automatic weapons and machine guns.
The regional prime minister said on Thursday he had spoken to the people by telephone, but they had not made any demands or said why they were there. They had promised to call him back but had not done so, he said.
With the siege apparently still under way, the regional parliament met in another part of the building and voted to hold its referendum on May 25, the day Ukraine plans to elect a new president to replace Yanukovich. The measure, if passed, would declare Crimea sovereign, with its relationship to the rest of Ukraine governed by treaty.
The pro-Russian crowd outside cheered the news.
However, elsewhere there was some anger at the invasion of the regional parliament and the flying of the Russian flag.
Russia ordered surprise military exercises on Ukraine’s doorstep Wednesday as tensions in that country’s southern Crimea region simmered, with pro-Russian demonstrators facing off against rival protesters in the city of Simferopol.
As the mood soured among the thousands rallying in front of the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol, some scuffles broke out.
One group waved Ukrainian flags and shouted “Crimea is not Russia,” while the other held Russian flags aloft and shouted “Crimea is Russia,” images broadcast by Crimean TV channel ATR showed. As the crowd became more agitated, a line of police moved in to divide the groups.
Local leaders sought to calm the mood, urging the protesters to go home and resist provocations.
One man died around the time of the protests in front of parliament, the Crimean Ministry of Health said on its website. The man had no visible signs of injury, and early indications point to a heart attack, it said. Seven people sought medical help.
The demonstrations signal the broad divide between those who support what is going on in Kiev, where the new government is leaning toward the West, and those who back Russia’s continued influence in Crimea and across Ukraine.
In the capital Wednesday, the names of nominees for the country’s new unity government were read to the crowd in Independence Square. Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk was named as a nominee for interim prime minister. Candidates are expected to be voted on in parliament Thursday.
Russia’s foreign minister has vowed not to intervene militarily in Ukraine.
But with tensions in the region high, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered surprise military exercises.
The exercises are “to check combat readiness of armed forces in western and central military districts as well as several branches of the armed forces,” Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu was quoted as saying by state media.
Shoigu did not mention Ukraine, which lies to Russia’s west, but the timing of the move has prompted speculation about the motivation.
Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense declined to comment on the exercises since they are on Russian territory.
U.S. military intelligence has seen some Russian naval ship movement near Ukraine since the weekend, but it sees no immediate indication the Russians are preparing for any offensive military action in Ukraine, two U.S. officials said.
The White House urged “outside actors” to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty.
“We urge outside actors in the region to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and end provocative rhetoric and (take) actions to support democratically established transitional government structures and use their influence in support of unity, peace and an inclusive path forward,” Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters.
Russia held at least six snap combat readiness checks of its armed forces last year, the state-run RIA Novosti news agency said.
Concerns were heightened in the Crimea region when the Crimean parliament convened a previously unscheduled session Wednesday, amid local media reports that secession might be on the agenda.
But the parliament speaker, Volodimir Konstantinov, denied there were plans to discuss “radical issues” such as the separation of Russia-oriented Crimea from Ukraine.
In a statement on the parliament website, he dismissed the local media reports as “rumors,” saying they were “a provocation aimed at discrediting and de-legitimizing the Crimean parliament.”
He also urged the Crimean people to remain calm and not be provoked, the statement said.
In the nearby port city of Sevastopol, where about 60% of the population is Russian and Moscow has a key naval base, residents told reporters they were angry that President Viktor Yanukovych has been forced out and fear that they will be oppressed by the country’s new leaders.
Small pro-Russian protests were taking place in the Black Sea city Wednesday.
Yanukovych’s base of support is in eastern and southern Ukraine, where Russian culture and language predominate. In that region, most people are suspicious of the Europe-leaning views of their counterparts in western Ukraine, who were at the heart of the anti-government protests that filled central Kiev.
Many are struggling to come to grips with the rapid political upheaval that has unfolded in Ukraine in recent days, after months of protests and last week’s bloody clashes between protesters and security forces.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry has accused Ukraine’s lawmakers of discriminating against ethnic Russians by excluding them from the reform process.
The tensions come as Ukraine’s lawmakers scramble to put together a new unity government amid continued instability after Yanukovych’s ouster.
Vasil Gatsko, of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms (UDAR) party, said the newly formed government will be officially voted in in Ukraine’s parliament Thursday morning. The interim authorities had initially hoped to announce a new government Tuesday.
The names of the nominees for the new administration were read in Kiev’s Independence Square, or Maidan, which has been at the heart of the protest movement, for approval from the crowds gathered there. The nominees were selected in a meeting Wednesday of the three main opposition parties and smaller parties.
The lawmakers face the challenge of forming a body that genuinely represents of all the main political parties, despite their widely divergent views, and includes technical experts and some of the people’s heroes from the protests in Independence Square.
Presidential and local elections are due to be held on May 25.
One candidate has already been announced. Opposition leader and former heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, of the UDAR party, will run for the presidency, his press secretary Oksana Zinovyeva said.
Earlier Wednesday, acting Interior Minister Arsen Avakov announced that a riot police force used against anti-government protesters in Ukraine had been disbanded.
Demonstrators accused the elite Berkut force, deployed by the government of Yanukovych to quell recent protests, of using excessive force.
Avakov said on his Facebook page that he’d signed the order disbanding the force Tuesday.
But the new, pro-Russian mayor of Sevastopol said Tuesday night at a rally in the city that he had secured funding to keep paying Berkut riot police there even after the force was disbanded.
The mayor, Alexej Chaliy, was elected in an unofficial local vote, but the interim authorities in Kiev have said he is not a legitimate leader.
Last week, the bloody street clashes between demonstrators and security forces left more than 80 dead, the deadliest violence in the country since it gained independence when the Soviet Union collapsed 22 years ago.
Russia, which backed Yanukovych, contends that the President was driven out by an “armed mutiny” of extremists and terrorists. A warrant has been issued for his arrest, but his whereabouts remain unknown.
While Yanukovych is on the run, the diplomatic wheels have been set in motion within the international community.
One key concern is Ukraine’s perilous financial position.
Interim Finance Minister Yury Kolobov proposed Monday that an international donor conference be held within two weeks. Ukraine, he said, will need $35 billion in foreign assistance by the end of 2015.
Russia had offered Ukraine a $15 billion loan and cut in natural gas prices in November, but that deal seems unlikely to remain on the table if Ukraine turns toward Europe.
UK Foreign Secretary William Hague tweeted Wednesday: “Will discuss international financial support for #Ukraine at the IMF in Washington DC today.”
Ukrainian state news agency Ukrinform said the country has slashed its imports of natural gas from Russia in recent days.
A U.S. State Department spokeswoman on Wednesday stressed that no decision has been made about financial assistance.
“The United States is continuing to consider a range of options, including loan guarantees, to support Ukraine economically. But no decision has been made, and the next step is the formation of a multiparty, technical government.
“Once that government is formed, we will begin to take immediate steps, in coordination with multilateral and bilateral partners, that could compliment an IMF package, to support Ukraine,” said spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
Speaking in Washington on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said officials were “deeply engaged in trying to help this extraordinary transition that is taking place in Ukraine.”
In a joint news conference with Hague, Kerry said that Ukraine’s alliances should not necessarily determine what happens to its people, and that it was not a “zero sum” game.
“It is not a Russia or the United States or other choices,” he said. “This is about people of Ukraine and Ukrainians making their choice about their future. And we want to work with Russia, with other countries, with everybody available to make sure this is peaceful from this day forward.”
Yanukovych’s decision to scrap a European Union trade deal in favor of one with Russia prompted the protests, which began in November.
In a swift move, the Ukraine’s new pro-Western leaders on Wednesday disbanded the country’s feared riot police, as they sought to win confidence from the splintered and economically ravaged nation in their efforts to forge a unity government.
The interim authorities are grappling the with the dual threats of separatism and a looming debt default as they try to piece the ex-Soviet nation back together following the weekend ouster of pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych.
Protests that started in November over Yanukovych’s decision to ditch an historic EU trade deal in favour of closer ties with old master Russia culminated in a week of Kiev carnage that claimed nearly 100 lives.
Yanukovych and his tight clique of security chiefs and administration insiders are widely believed to have since gone into hiding in the Russian-speaking southern peninsula of Crimea that is now threatening to secede from Ukraine.
The interim leaders’ headaches are compounded by Moscow’s decision to freeze payments on a massive bailout package that Russian President Vladimir Putin promised to Yanukovych as his reward for rejecting closer EU ties.
The Ukrainian government faces foreign debt payments of $13 billion this year and has less than $18 billion in its fast depleting coffers, a grim equation that has forced it to seek as much as $35 billion from Western states.
Both the United States and Britain have publically backed the idea of putting together an economic rescue for Ukraine that would be overseen by the International Monetary Fund.
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Secretary William Hague also rejected Russia’s claim on Tuesday that Ukraine was being forced to make a historic choice between the East and West.
“This is not a zero-sum game, it is not a West versus East,” said Kerry after hosting Hague in Washington.
But EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton wrapped up a two-day visit to Kiev on Tuesday by mentioning only a “short term” economic solution for Ukraine while saying nothing about extending the billions of dollars in credit requested by interim leader Oleksandr Turchynov.
Little appears to unite the vast nation of 46 million, splintered between the Ukranian-speaking west where pro-European sentiment runs high and a heavily Russified southeast, more than a shared adversion for the Berkut riot police.
The elite units carried shields and Kalashnikov rifles as they cracked down on protesters in Kiev and brutally beat those detained, forcing one man to strip naked in the freezing cold and parade in front of a police camera in one incident that became infamous through the Internet.
But acting interior minister Arsen Avakov announced on his Facebook account that he was dissolving the feared unit effective immediately.
“The Berkut is no more,” the 50-year-old wrote.
Avakov promised to disclose further details on Wednesday and said nothing about how he would deal with a possible insurrection from one of the country’s best-armed and trained forces, a 5,000-strong contingent with deployments in every corner of Ukraine.
Turchynov and his interim team have been branded by Russia as the leaders of an “armed mutiny” who deserve no recognition as they try to forge a new unity government by a deadline that has now been pushed back to Thursday.
But the interim authorities are winning backing from Western powers even as questions linger about the constitutional legitimacy of parliament’s decision to oust Yanukovych and free opposition icon Yulia Tymoshenko from her seven-year prison sentence.
Hague stressed after the talks with Kerry that “this is a country that needs financial assistance from many sources, including from Russia.”
Kerry said Washington wanted to work with Moscow “and with everybody available, to make sure that this is peaceful from this day forward.”
Hague is expected in Ukraine shortly while US Deputy Secretary of State William Burns arrived on Tuesday for a meeting with Turchynov expected to be held later on Wednesday.
The line of Western dignitaries now treading their way to Ukraine contrasts sharply with Russia’s decision to withdraw its Kiev ambassador in a sign of displeasure with the meteoric pace of change in the neighbouring nation that Putin still views as a part of Russia’s domain.
Fears of pro-Russian regions breaking off from Kiev rule forced Turchynov on Tuesday to abruptly walk out of an emergency session of parliament in order to consult his security chiefs.
Top among the concerns are fears of mob violence in Crimea. Crowds have already ousted the mayor of the port city of Sevastopol, home to the Kremlin’s navies for the past 250 years, and appointed a Russian citizen in his place.
More pro-Russian protests are scheduled in the region on Wednesday.
The government’s formation in Kiev is expected to wrap up on Thursday with the announcement of a new prime minister.
Both Tymoshenko and Vitali Klitschko, the former boxing champion turned opposition leader, have declared themselves out of the running.
Klitschko announced on Tuesday that he would contest Ukraine’s May 25 snap presidential election, a poll that may also feature Tymoshenko.
According to the White House, the two leaders noted the important role that independent Afghan electoral bodies would play in overseeing a historic transfer of power, and the President reiterated that the United States would not support any candidate in the elections—the choice of who leads Afghanistan is for Afghans to make. President Karzai updated the President regarding Afghan-led peace and reconciliation efforts, and the leaders noted that it was critical for regional countries to support a political solution to the conflict.
We remain fully supportive of our partners in the Afghan security forces, and we continue to proudly work side by side with the many Afghans who continue to work to ensure the stability and prosperity of their fellow citizens.
Ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich is wanted by police for the “mass murder of peaceful civilians”, according to a statement posted on the Facebook page of the country’s acting interior minister.
Arsen Avakov said on Monday that an arrest warrant had been issued for Yanukovich, who fled the capital Kiev on Saturday following months of bloodshed and political upheaval.
“A criminal case has been launched over the mass murder of peaceful civilians. Yanukovich and a number of other officials have been put on a wanted list,” Avakov said in a statement posted on his Facebook account. Later on Monday, the interior minister’s personal assistant confirmed that the statement had come from Avakov, but that the warrant had yet to be finalised by the attorney general. The personal assistant also said that legal proceedings were underway.
Reuters news agency said that the former leader was last seen in a private residence in Balaclava, Crimea. On Monday afternoon acting president Oleksander Turchinov said the presidential election campaign would begin February 25, when the election commission would start registering candidates.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev questioned the legitimacy of the new Ukrainian authorities in a statement on Monday.
Russian news agencies quoted Medvedev as saying the new authorities in Ukraine have come to power as a result of “armed mutiny”.
On Sunday Turchinov said the country was ready for talks with Russia to try to improve relations, but made clear that Kiev’s European integration would be a priority. He said that Ukraine’s new leadership was ready to put Kiev-Moscow relations on a “new, equal and good-neighbourly footing that recognises and takes into account Ukraine’s European choice”.
“Another priority … is the return to the path of European integration,” he said, in an address to the nation.
Hours later, Russia recalled its ambassador in Ukraine to Moscow. “Due to the deteriorating situation in Ukraine and the need for a comprehensive analysis of the situation, the decision was made to recall the Russian ambassador to Ukraine for consultations in Moscow,” the Russian foreign ministry said in a statement.
In a phone call on Sunday with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, US Secretary of State John Kerry “underscored the United States’ expectation that Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and democratic freedom of choice will be respected by all states”.
Meanwhile, the Interfax news agency reported that Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s senior army general and Philip Breedlove, the top NATO military commander have spoken over the telephone on Monday and expressed concern over the situation in Ukraine.
Ukraine’s parliament voted to temporarily hand over the duties of president to Turchinov, the speaker of the assembly, who told deputies to agree on the formation of a national unity government by Tuesday.
The development came one day after parliament voted to oust Yanukovich from the presidency, setting May 25 as the date for new presidential elections, and two days after an agreement was reached with Yanukovich on the need to form a national unity government.
Turchinov is a close ally of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, the president’s main rival.
Parliament also voted to oust the foreign minister and was told by the country’s acting prosecutor that an order had been given to detain the former incomes minister and the former prosecutor-general.
The whereabouts of Yanukovich remained unclear on Sunday, a day after he left the capital and rival Tymoshenko was freed from prison, returning to Kiev to address a massive, adoring crowd.
The centre of Kiev, meanwhile, was calm on Sunday. Protesters on Saturday took control of the presidential administration building, and thousands of Ukrainians roamed the suddenly open grounds of the lavish compound outside Kiev, where Yanukovich was believed to live.
A new era dawned in Ukraine when parliament appointed a pro-Western interim leader after impeaching a defiant president Viktor Yanukovych, whose whereabouts remain a mystery following a week of carnage after months of mostly peaceful protests.
“It’s not in the interests of Ukraine or of Russia or of Europe or of the United States to see the country split,” Rice told NBC’s “Meet the Press” program. “It’s in nobody’s interest to see violence return and the situation escalate.”
Asked about whether Ukraine’s old master Russia could send in forces to restore the kind of government it would like to see in Kiev, Rice warned: “That would be a grave mistake.”
“There is not an inherent contradiction… between a Ukraine that has long-standing historic and cultural ties to Russia and a modern Ukraine that wants to integrate more closely with Europe,” she said. “It need not be mutually exclusive.”
Rice said US President Barack Obama, in his recent phone call on Ukraine with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, addressed the issue of Ukrainian unity.
“The president’s message was, look, we have a shared interest in a Ukraine that remains unified, whole, independent and is able to exercise the will of its people freely,” she said.
“At that point, Putin was in agreement.”
Rice reiterated Washington’s stance that it wanted to see a de-escalation of violence, constitutional change and democratic elections “in very short order.”
“This is not about the US and Russia,” she said in the exclusive interview.
“This is about whether the people of Ukraine have the opportunity to fulfill their aspirations and be democratic and be part of Europe, which they choose to be.”
Sporting her trademark blonde braid, the 53-year-old was seen being driven out of the hospital in the city of Kharkiv where she had spent much of her 30-month confinement. She was reportedly on her way to address supporters on Independence Square in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.
“Our homeland will from today on be able to see the sun and sky as a dictatorship has ended,” she told reporters outside the prison, as supporters chanted her name.
Ms. Tymoshenko’s release is just the latest in a string of setbacks for her political archenemy Viktor Yanukovych, who on Saturday was stripped of his presidency by the opposition-controlled parliament in a move of unclear constitutionality. Mr. Yanukovych fled the capital on Friday, and on Saturday his office and residences were occupied by antigovernment protesters he had tried earlier in the week to violently disperse.
In a televised address on Saturday, Mr. Yanukovych vowed to remain in office and said the new laws passed by parliament had no legality since he would refuse to sign them. He called the opposition’s takeover of Kiev an illegal “coup d’état,” and raised the spectre of rival governments taking shape by saying he would remain in the Russian-speaking east of the country.
Ms. Tymoshenko – freed after parliament passed a motion decriminalizing the “abuse of power” charge she was jailed under – immediately becomes the de facto new leader of the movement that has ousted Mr. Yanukovych.
She appears to be in no mood for compromise with Mr. Yanukovych, who many believe had her jailed to take her out of the running for the 2015 presidential election that has now been moved up to May 25.
In a Feb. 4 letter smuggled out of her penal colony near the eastern city of Kharkiv, Ms. Tymoshenko urged the opposition against any kind of deal with the regime. “The most sure and effective way is to help Ukraine lead the uprising to victory, until the unconditional capitulation of Yanukovych,” the letter reads. “I gave you a plan of action. Act! I believe that there is no way to end the dictatorship except by a peaceful all-encompassing popular uprising.”
Earlier, the 53-year-old Ms. Tymoshenko went on a 12-day prison hunger strike in solidarity with the antigovernment protesters.
Though tainted by allegations of corruption and her unsightly power struggle with then-president Viktor Yushchenko after the Orange Revolution Ms. Tymoshenko retains a large bloc of wildly loyal followers. Even while she was in jail, opinion polls put her neck-and-neck with heavyweight boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko as the most popular opposition leader.
Now that Ms. Tymoshenko is free and seen as a political martyr, even Mr. Klitschko will likely have to stand aside for the 53-year-old, who before turning to politics ran a gas transit company that controversially made her one of the richest women in Ukraine.
Throughout the protests in Kiev, an oversized portrait of Ms. Tymoshenko has been affixed to a giant undecorated metal Christmas tree in the middle of Independence Square. Demonstrators have frequently complained of a lack of decisiveness among their committee of leaders, with many wondering how Ms. Tymoshenko would have handled the crisis.
Ms. Tymoshenko helped shove Mr. Yanukovych from office in 2004, mobilizing hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians to support Mr. Yushchenko after Mr. Yanukovych was initially declared the winner of an election tainted by massive fraud. When he finally became president, Mr. Yushchenko made Ms. Tymoshenko Ukraine’s first female prime minister.
But Ms. Tymoshenko wanted to move Ukraine farther and faster towards the West than the more cautious Mr. Yushchenko would allow. In the eyes of Ms. Tymoshenko, one of Mr. Yushchenko’s biggest failing was his willingness to work with Mr. Yanukovych, a man she has repeatedly called a criminal.
She also seemed uncomfortable with playing second fiddle, and desirous of Mr. Yushchenko’s job. The Orange coalition fell apart, and Ms. Tymoshenko went back into opposition.
Bitterness between the two Orange Revolution leaders was such that both ran for the presidency in 2010, splitting the pro-Western ranks and helping Mr. Yanukovych take power.
Three months after Mr. Yanukovych’s victory, the prosecutor’s office began investigating an array of allegations against Ms. Tymoshenko, at one point opening 10 separate investigations into her conduct before and during her two terms as prime minister.
She was convicted in October 2011 of overstepping her power in signing a controversial deal to buy Russian natural gas, and she was sentenced to seven years in jail. In a rare moment of agreement over Ukraine, the trial was condemned by both Russia and the West.
Despite bouts of illness and claims of rough treatment while in prison, Ms. Tymoshenko wrote in a December letter that the experience had strengthened her. “Political prisoners, being in captivity, develop enough internal freedom to fill the world three times over.”