Sunday 5 January 2014

Ukraine protest leaders assaulted outside Kiev police station

(As published in The Independent on Sunday)

A parliamentarian who organised Ukraine's pro-EU protests, in which thousands demanded the removal of President Viktor Yanukovych, was assaulted on Friday night in the latest in a series of violent attacks on the demonstrations' organisers. 

Andriy Illienko, a Svoboda Party MP, and party activist and lawyer Sydir Kizin were leaving a police station in central Kiev when they were set upon by a gang of youths.

Around a dozen men reportedly kicked and punched the two men but fled when the attack was interrupted by two passers-by, who Svoboda said had rescued their members from "probable death".

An ambulance crew at the scene told The Independent on Sunday that the MP had suffered a fractured jaw and concussion.

Shortly before the attack, Mr Illienko had been speaking to officers at Shevchenko District police station about an incident in which the Svoboda Party accused police of conspiring with nationalist marchers who threw flaming torches at a Kiev hotel on New Year's Day.

In a statement responding to the assault on Mr Illienko, the party said: "The Svoboda Party considers this attack as a particularly cynical attempt on the life of a statesman. This attack was planned in advance, with thugs and police acting as a coalition."

A recent string of attacks has targeted the opposition and pro-EU activists who have led five weeks of protests against the government's rejection of a free trade and political integration agreement with the EU in favour of closer ties with Russia.

On Christmas Eve, a pro-EU activist, Dmitry Pylypets, was stabbed outside his apartment in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine.Opposition journalist Tetyana Chornovol was beaten unconscious after assailants drove her car off the road on Christmas Day.

In the past month, police have raided an opposition headquarters and three critical news outlets, seizing hard drives and computer servers. Authorities have twice used force to try to clear protesters from Kiev's Independence Square.

Police announced yesterday that they had opened an investigation into the latest attack but had no suspects.

Wednesday 25 December 2013

Activist and journalist who organised pro-EU protests in Ukraine assaulted and hospitalised in separate incidents

(As published in The Independent)

A journalist and an activist who organised mass pro-EU protests in Ukraine were assaulted and hospitalised in separate incidents on Tuesday night.

Activist Dmitry Pylypets told The Independent he  was approached by two men outside his apartment in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine. They stabbed him at least four times, told him to stop organising protests, and left him bleeding on the street. Mr Pylyets believes the attack could have been much worse if his assailants had not been interrupted by a passing driver.

Journalist Tetyana Chornovil was driving home from Kiev when she noticed she was being followed by an SUV. The pursuers rammed her car, forcing her to flee on foot. She told reporters that two men leapt out of the SUV, chased her down, and beat her unconscious. Doctors say she needs surgery to reconstruct her face.

Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have taken to the streets over the past month to protest their government’s decision to abandon a historic Association Agreement with the EU, which would have given Ukraine free access to European markets in exchange for democracy and human rights reform.

Russian President Vladimir Putin looks to have killed the deal, years in the making, by agreeing a 15 billion dollar bail-out for Ukraine's floundering economy and slashing the price of gas exports to Ukraine by a third. 

Embattled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych insists he still intends to sign the Agreement next year, but Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov made it clear on Monday that Moscow would block the move.

Responding to a question about whether Kiev could still sign a pact with the EU having secured multi-billion dollar financial assistance from Russia, he said:

"The financial assistance agreement gives us the right to demand that the Ukrainian government repay this loan at any time, backed by the most severe legal consequences." Russia has previously threatened to block Ukrainian imports and increase gas prices if Ukraine signed the agreement with the EU. 

The attacks are the latest in a series of actions targeting pro-Europe demonstrators. A third activist died in hospital earlier this week after being assaulted by three men he said were police officers on 18 December.

36 internationals, including former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, have been banned from Ukraine by the country’s state security services for affiliating with demonstration organisers.

International rights organisation Human Rights Watch have also accused President Yanukovych’s government of intimidating those who complained about police violence during the protests.

Friday 13 December 2013

Ukraine protesters: ‘We want our country to have EU values, not a dictatorship’

(Edit published in The Independent)

Yuri, 34, is a tax lawyer working for an international law firm in Kiev

I’ve been going to Independence Square almost every day since the President refused to sign the Association Agreement, after the famous journalist Mustafa Nayem posted on Facebook saying he was going to demonstrate and why. I went because the President has told people for three or four years that he would sign the agreement, and then refused to do it without consulting anyone or preparing anyone for that. I went to say that I disagreed with one man deciding a strange course for our country. 

On November 30th, police beat up students, kids, who were staying the night on the square.  Now I’m standing there for my rights, and the rights of my children. If we will not go there now, we should forget about democracy, about peaceful demonstrations, about any rights not in line with the desires of our President.

I’m going to the square when I’m needed there, when there are police movements. If that is during the day, I work during the evening. I’m usually there between 4am and 7am, because it is the most difficult time for people and police try to clear the square when there are less of us. 
It’s hard for me to work right now, my thoughts are always on the square, and all the time I’m checking the news. It’s difficult to sleep when you can get a call at 2am, saying come now because they are demolishing the camp, and you are getting up, taking your ski helmet and standing there all night.

Sophia, 23, is from Kiev and works in the events industry

I first went to Independence Square on 22 November, the day after the government announced they wouldn’t sign the agreement. It was pretty clear for me that meant they would sign an agreement with Russia, which would be like going back to the Soviet Union. It would mean an end to human rights and freedom of expression. But at least in the Soviet Union there were still some morals and ethics, and people were educated in science and culture. These guys who are the government of Ukraine are not educated, ignorant criminals. They don’t care about people’s education.

I’m going to Independence Square after work, sometimes during the day on my way to work. I’m at every major rally. All my thoughts are in the revolution right now, it’s pretty hard to focus. I always have my Facebook open at work, I constantly check it and opposition media for news. During the past few weeks, you can expect something new to happen every twenty minutes.
After November 30th, my reasons changed a bit. The government tries to disperse the protest when there are less of us. If they achieve this, they will feel their power and introduce a new wave of repression. Now I’m not going to the square just because I want Ukraine to sign an agreement with the EU. I want the government and this President to leave.

Lubomyra, 63, is a doctor. She returned to Kiev from her home in Germany to support the protesters

For the last three years I have been living in Weimar, Germany, with my husband. I’m originally from Kiev and spent several years working in Moscow, but we met in Ukraine. When I heard about the government decision not to sign the EU agreement, I knew I had to return to do something for my country. I was afraid for the students protesting all night on Independence Square, and wanted to help them. I worked in the medical tent, but also preparing hot tea and food for the protesters.

On 30th November the students were singing the national anthem and I was in the medical tent. We were surrounded by riot police in helmets and balaclavas. At first students were chanting ‘police are with the people’, but then police attacked. They hit everyone with truncheons, even those in sleeping bags on the floor. I ran to some of the students on the floor, and stood in front of them with my arms spread out. One of the officers ran towards me and hit me, striking my arm. I later found out it was broken. It was terrifying, I couldn’t see his eyes and I didn’t know how we could protect these kids. There was blood all over the square.

Police chased demonstrators down the streets, beating them. We took refuge in St. Michael’s monastery. After the attack, police came to my home and questioned me. My lawyer advised me not to go to the protests any more, but I have continued to go everyday. I want Ukraine to have European values, freedom of speech and other human rights. Not this dictatorship.

Thursday 12 December 2013

Ukraine ‘still intends to sign pact with EU,’ says Viktor Yanukovych

(As published in The Independent)


Faced with tens of thousands of protesters in the streets and growing economic woes, Ukraine’s President appeared to be nearing a U-turn over his country’s future, telling the European Union’s most-senior diplomat that he would sign a pact on closer integration with the bloc.

Viktor Yanukovych did not, however, give any timescale for putting pen to paper on the association agreement, leading to concerns that he might once again be trying to play the EU and Russia against one another in the hopes of securing a better financial deal.

Baroness Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, had travelled to Kiev to try to forge a diplomatic solution to the three-week long crisis, which erupted when Mr Yanukovych abruptly pulled out of a deal promising closer trade and political ties with the EU. Instead, he said he would pursue links with Moscow, angering many Ukrainians who envisage a more prosperous future with the EU.

“Yanukovych made it clear to me that he intends to sign the association agreement,” the baroness told reporters as she arrived back in Brussels. She also stressed the long-term economic benefits of the agreement, which was meant to be signed at an EU summit in Lithuania at the end of last month. The deal “will help to bring in the kind of investment that [Yanukovych] needs”, she said.

A delegation from Ukraine was in the Belgian capital for further talks. But in a sign that the tug-of-war between the EU and Russia over the strategically-placed nation of 46 million people was as fierce as ever, the Russian President Vladimir Putin countered by praising the benefits of the Moscow-led free trade area.

“Our integration project is based on equal rights and real economic interests,” Mr Putin said in his state-of-the-union address. “I’m sure achieving Eurasian integration will only increase interest from our other neighbours, including from our Ukrainian partners.”

While the thousands of people packing the squares of Kiev wave EU flags, in the east of the former Soviet nation there is significant support for maintaining close ties with Russia. Negotiations now will focus on whether the EU can come up with a more attractive proposal to help Ukraine’s floundering economy, amid concerns that it will be unable to pay upcoming debts without assistance from the International Monetary Fund.

“The financial pressures on Yanukovych are increasing by the day,” an EU official told The Independent. While the fundamental pre-conditions of the association agreement could not be re-negotiated, the official noted that “where we can be helpful is trying to help with the IMF.”

One issue which remains a sticking point is the fate of Yulia Tymoshenko, the jailed former Prime Minister and bitter rival of Mr Yanukovych. The EU had said Ukraine must address “selective justice” as a condition to signing the agreement. This was read by many to refer to Ms Tymoshenko’s incarceration.

In central Kiev, protesters began rebuilding their camps, after they were dismantled during clashes. At Independence Square there was scepticism that Mr Yanukovych would keep his word, and a determination to continue with the nation’s biggest protests since the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution.

Zoryan, a 31-year-old charity worker, said: “For me it looks again as if he is saying one thing to the West, one thing to his own people, and another thing to Russia.”

Edited appearance on Voice of Russia - Debating Russia: "There is no master plan, Ukraine is in limbo"

Wednesday 11 December 2013

Ukraine asks EU for €20bn in return for signing Association Agreement

(As published in The Independent)

The Ukrainian government has asked the EU for €20 billion to sign an Association Agreement with the bloc, just hours after sending in thousands of special forces to destroy a pro-EU protest camp in the centre of the capital, Kiev.

This afternoon Prime Minister Azarov announced the government would be sending a delegation to Brussels to discuss new terms for signing the agreement, having failed to end a non-stop pro-EU rally that opposition leaders describe as a "revolution".

For the fourth week running Ukrainians had turned out in the tens and hundreds of thousands against a government decision to abandon the historic free trade and political co-operation agreement with the EU.
In an apparent display of contempt for European leaders, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych ordered police to clear demonstrators from Kiev's main square early this morning. The order was given during the visit of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton, and shortly after she left the camp.

But President Yanukovych now appears to be losing his grip on power as he veers between Russia and the EU in a desperate bid for funds to stave off a deepening financial crisis in the country. According to Reuters, Ukraine needs around $60 billion dollars to make debt repayments due next year.
Thousands of demonstrators resisted and eventually prevailed in an enormous shoving match with special forces tasked with clearing the square.

Yanukovych returned to negotiations with the EU High Representative during the afternoon in the face of strong international criticism.

US Secretary of State John Kerry expressed "disgust" at the decision to “meet peaceful protesters with riot police, bulldozers, and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity.”
During the struggle government forces destroyed tents and barricades around the square before retreating at daybreak as tens of thousands of citizens rushed to the defence of demonstrators.

Police were also forced to abandon an attempt to reclaim the occupied City Hall as opposition activists used water hoses and fireworks against officers pinned between the building and an increasingly large and angry crowd.

By this afternoon, protesters had already rebuilt barricades and pitched new tents. Kiev taxi drivers announced a general strike in order to ferry more demonstrators to the city centre, and thousands of Ukrainians from the Western part of the country, which shares borders and ethnic ties with four EU countries, boarded opposition buses heading for the capital. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Internal Affairs told Interfax News Agency that they would not rule out the possibility of using force against protesters again.

The EU had initially planned to sign the Agreement with Ukraine last month, and was shocked when President Yanukovych walked away from the negotiating table a week beforehand, citing overwhelming pressure from Moscow.

Alarmed at the prospect of ceding influence over its former Soviet satellite to the West, Russia introduced trade restrictions on Ukrainian imports and threatened to hike gas prices if Ukraine signed the Agreement.

Eyewitness account: Thousands of Ukrainian riot police officers in brutal overnight crackdown on Kiev protest

(As published in The Independent)

Thousands of riot police officers stormed a three-week old pro-Europe demonstration in the centre of Kiev on Wednesday morning, hacking their way through barricades and forcing back protesters who stood in their way.

For weeks Ukrainian protesters have turned out in the tens of thousands against a government decision to abandon a historic free trade and political cooperation agreement with the EU. Their ranks grew to the hundreds of thousands when riot police savagely dispersed students at a pro-Europe protest in the early hours of 30 November.

In a tremendous display of contempt for the European leaders he once courted, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych ordered police to destroy the protest camp during the visit of EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton, and shortly after she had left the camp.

A nearby church sounded alarm bells as battalions of riot police sealed off Maidan, Kiev’s main square, and priests led a prayer service as protesters linked arms to resist the assault. Women were asked to leave the square as men donned orange hard hats and surgical masks to protect against tear gas.

Demonstrators chanted “we will not leave” and “Kiev, wake up” as they squared off against police and special forces in helmets, gas masks and body armour. The stand-off lasted almost an hour in temperatures well below freezing before the two sides clashed.

Government forces assaulted through heavy smoke from flaming braziers, and to the sound of the national anthem being played from the opposition stage in the centre of the square. They formed huge columns to force back thousands of demonstrators, who attempted to stand their ground despite heavy snow and ice. For several hours an enormous scrummage ensued, with troops exerting a huge amount of effort to gain several yards, only to be pushed back. Dozens were injured as they slipped in the crush.

Reinforcements arrived and police punched through opposition lines, allowing them to clear large parts of the square. Tents in the cleared areas were instantly torn apart, and personal belongings left behind were trashed. Workers from the city municipality destroyed barricades with electric saws.

Officers refrained from using batons, and resistance was, for the most part, peaceful. Periodic scuffles broke out, and while reporters observed a number of arrests being made, there were also unconfirmed reports that some of those arrested were later beaten in custody.

A more aggressive core of opposition supporters formed lines outside the two government buildings they had occupied, brandishing metal poles and wooden sticks.

The US was quick to condemn the police action, with Secretary of State John Kerry expressing ‘disgust’ at the decision to “meet peaceful protesters with riot police, bulldozers, and batons, rather than with respect for democratic rights and human dignity.”

He described the government response as “neither acceptable nor befitting a democracy”.
The EU had planned to sign an Association Agreement with Ukraine last month, and was shocked when President Yanukovych walked away from the negotiating table a week beforehand, citing overwhelming pressure from Moscow.

Alarmed at the prospect of ceding influence over its former Soviet satellite to the West, Russia introduced trade restrictions on Ukrainian imports and threatened to hike gas prices if Ukraine signed the Agreement.

Having already turned their back on the prospect of European integration, President Yanukovych and his government now look set to reverse democratic progress made in Ukraine over the last decade.
On Monday President Yanukovych had said he wanted to defuse tensions, agreeing to separate talks with Baroness Ashton and three former Ukrainian Presidents on Tuesday. Yanukovych said he would sign the Agreement in March, and release a number of detained demonstrators.

But on Monday night, several outlying protest camps in the capital were cleared from the government quarter, an opposition headquarters stormed by armed police, and at least three independent or opposition news outlets raided. All the organisations had their electronic equipment confiscated.
Demonstrators said they were concerned Ukraine could become like neighbouring Belarus, where any protest is quickly and often brutally repressed.

Having already survived a no-confidence vote, the government appears confident that it retains enough support among Ukraine’s powerful oligarchs and its eastern, pro-Russian regions, to snuff out the pro-Europe protests with force.

But Arseniy Yatseniuk, leading Yulia Tymoshenko’s opposition Batkivshchyna party while she is in prison, took a different view on the police assault. Retreating from Maidan to opposition headquarters, he said that “the President is an idiot”, and had only inflamed tensions.

As more and more Ukrainians flocked to the defence of the only partially cleared square on Wednesday morning, it looked as though Yanukovych had indeed miscalculated.

Responding to the continued closure of nearby metro stations, Kiev taxi drivers announced a general strike in order to ferry people, free of charge, to Maidan. By daybreak police on the square began to look heavily outnumbered by an increasingly angry crowd.