Behind The Scenes In Ukraine, Ties To Putin Help Power Broker Pull Strings

KYIV — More than a decade ago, Viktor Medvedchuk became known as the “Gray Cardinal” because his low profile masked unparalleled clout in the halls of power in Ukraine.

These days, detractors have another nickname for the millionaire tycoon and backroom politician with close personal ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin: they call him the Prince of Darkness.

A behind-the-scenes force in Ukrainian politics ever since Leonid Kuchma’s presidency, when he served as chief of staff from 2002 to 2005, Medvedchuk holds no prominent post today — and he says he doesn’t want one. In a recent interview, he told RFE/RL he feels more “free” and effective without the confines of political office.

But his outsize influence has been thrown into relief again by the upheaval that has hit Ukraine since protesters drove a Moscow-friendly president from power in February 2014. Russia responded by seizing Crimea and fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine, setting off a war between Kyiv and Russia-backed separatists that has killed more than 9,500 people.

With ties in tatters, Ukraine’s new, pro-Western leadership appointed Medvedchuk that June to act as a lead arbiter in dealings with Russia. The hope was that the Kremlin connections of a man who has Putin as the godfather of his daughter would be helpful — particularly in negotiating prisoner exchanges.

But Medvedchuk’s Kremlin connections meant that, while the appointment was celebrated in Moscow, it was met with widespread concern and suspicion by the Ukrainian public.

More than two years later, that wariness has not gone away. Several Ukrainians who were jailed in Russia have returned home in swap deals, including the prominent former helicopter navigator Nadia Savchenko, but many others remain behind bars.

Meanwhile, the peace deal Medvedchuk helped forge for eastern Ukraine is in danger of falling apart. The cease-fire is in tatters, with increased fighting this summer stoking fears of a return to full-scale war. And political aspects of the Minsk accords, which were supposed to reintegrate separatist-held territory into Ukraine and restore Kyiv’s control over its border with Russia by the end of 2015, have gone largely unfulfilled.

For many in Ukraine, questions about the motives of Medvedchuk have only been amplified.

Medvedchuk is “Putin’s personal representative in Ukraine,” said Taras Berezovets, director of the Kyiv-based political consultancy firm Berta Communications.

‘Just Jealous’

Medvedchuk has said it is a “great honor” to be counted among Putin’s friends. The Russian president reportedly baptized Medvedchuk’s daughter in St. Petersburg in 2004, and cameras have repeatedly captured him at Putin’s side — whether it’s at a Formula One race in Sochi, Russia, at a sambo martial arts meet, or with wife and kids in tow at a lavish Crimean villa.

In the interview with RFE/RL, Medvedchuk made no apology for his closeness with Putin. On the contrary.

“You know, those who talk about it, it seems to me they’re just jealous of me. They are just jealous of me, and that’s it,” he said, adding that he has nothing to hide: “I don’t even want to make other comments on this subject, because my work is transparent.”

Medvedchuk spoke to RFE/RL in a boardroom at his office, behind heavy doors flanked by beefy security guards in an unassuming building off Kyiv’s Leo Tolstoy Square.

He wore well-shined loafers, pressed slacks, musky cologne, and a tight-fitting white shirt that set off a fresh suntan he acquired in what might seem like the last place a Ukrainian politician would go for a summer vacation these days: Crimea.

“It was perfect — a warm sea, nice temperature, great location,” said Medvedchuk, whose practiced, pearly smile seemed to project a confidence grounded in careful preparation. “I first vacationed in Crimea sometime in the early 1990s and I’ve continued that tradition since.”

But this is not the early 1990s. Today, Crimea is at the heart of a rift between Moscow and Kyiv that may never heal: Ukraine says it will never give up the peninsula, while Moscow says it will never give back what Putin has called Russia’s holy land. Kyiv, rights groups, and Western governments say Russia has abused and oppressed Tatars and other Crimeans who opposed the annexation in March 2014, and visitors from other parts of Ukraine have been intimidated and threatened with imprisonment by the Moscow-imposed authorities.

Medvedchuk said that he understood their frustration and stressed that legally, Crimea is part of Ukraine. That is the position of Kyiv and most of the world.

“But de facto, unfortunately, it belongs to Russia,” he said. And don’t expect it be returned to Ukraine, he added, accusing the central government of pushing the peninsula away, alienating its residents, and prompting them to accept Russian control.

“If the authorities in Ukraine would like Crimea returned, they would not cut the electricity [from the mainland to the peninsula], not cut the water and declare an economic blockade,” Medvedchuk said. “It would not have stopped rail transport, both freight and passenger. It would not have stopped trucking.”

Medvedchuk is in lockstep with the Kremlin, or close, on other key issues.

While much of the world accuses Moscow of igniting the war in eastern Ukraine, Medvedchuk puts most of the blame on the Ukrainian government. He contended that Kyiv is wrong when it says that elections in the separatist-held territories, a key step on the path to peace set out in the Minsk deal, are possible only after Ukrainian control over the border with Russia in those regions is restored.

The accord called for an immediate and full bilateral cease-fire, followed by the withdrawal of all heavy weapons by both sides and the establishment of an effective monitoring regime before local elections should be held. Kyiv must also adopt a law governing the elections and pass legislation providing amnesty to separatists who have not committed heinous crimes, something that has become a contentious political issue in Kyiv and is yet to be done.

“Without these political changes…the Minsk deal won’t budge an inch,” Medvedchuk said, suggesting the onus is on Ukraine.

Echoing Moscow’s line, he said Kyiv must reach a consensus directly with the separatist leadership, “because there is no other way to bring these territories back [to Ukraine].”

“Well, there is one more way, but it is unrealistic,” he continued. “The Ukrainian army must go on the offensive and seize these territories by force. But neither Washington nor Brussels will let Ukraine do that.”

In contrast with Medvedchuk and the Kremlin, Kyiv and the West have stressed the need for Russia to fulfill its obligations under the Minsk deal, which requires the withdrawal of “all foreign armed formations, military equipment, as well as mercenaries” from Ukraine.

Swap Deals

In addition to being an architect of the Minsk deal, Medvedchuk has become a key go-between for Kyiv and Moscow in arranging prisoner exchanges — most notably the swap of Savchenko, on May 25, for two Russians Kyiv says were military intelligence officers. In all, he claims to have facilitated the release of 402 illegally held persons since December 2014.

In this area, he is quick to tout his importance.

“I am the only person conducting negotiations with the administrations of the self-proclaimed LNR and DNR [and] with the administration of the Russian Federation,” he said, grasping his chest with his hands and leaning over the table. LNR and DNR are acronyms of the names the Russia-backed separatists use for the territory they control.

Three weeks after Savchenko came home, Medvedchuk was able to get Russia to release and return Ukrainians Hennadiy Afanasyev and Yuriy Soloshenko, in exchange for two Ukrainian citizens charged with promoting separatism in Odesa.

Since then, though, the swaps have stalled, and each side still holds many dozens of people in custody. Among the Ukrainians held by Russia are Oleh Sentsov — a filmmaker who was detained in Crimea in May 2014 and sentenced to 20 years in prison in August 2015 on a terror plot conviction that supporters say is a travesty of justice — and Oleksandr Kolchenko, who was detained at the same time and sentenced to 10 years.

The U.S. State Department has called the charges against Sentsov and Kolchenko “groundless” and said they “were taken hostage on Ukrainian territory.”

There have been rumors in recent months of negotiations to free them, but no deal has materialized. According to Medvedchuk, that’s because the men are in a different category than those detained on the battlefields of the Donbas.

“There are people who [were detained] in Donetsk and Luhansk…in connection with events that occurred on the territory of the ‘antiterrorist operation,'” Medvedchuk said, using Kyiv’s term for its military operation in eastern Ukraine. He said Savchenko is the best example.

In Russia’s view, he said, the cases of Sentsov, Kolchenko and some others are different because “they were convicted of an offense committed on the territory of Crimea, which de jure is perceived by Russia as its territory.”

According to Medvedchuk, more than 600 people whose release is sought by the separatists are being held on Kyiv-controlled territory. He said that’s about equal to the number of those held by the DNR, LNR, and Russia combined.

From Kyiv to Washington, many have long viewed Medvedchuk as a Russian stooge, an accusation he vehemently denies.

When Russia seized control of Crimea, the United States imposed sanctions on Medvedchuk for “threatening the peace, security, stability, sovereignty, or territorial integrity of Ukraine, and for undermining Ukraine’s democratic institutions and processes.”

A White House statement also said that Medvedchuk had “provided financial, material, or technological support” to Viktor Yanukovych, the president who was pushed from power and fled to Russia after setting Ukraine’s upheaval in motion by scrapping plans for a far-reaching Association Agreement with the European Union and seeking closer ties with Russia.

That decision was in line with policies advocated by Medvedchuk, who had been criticizing the EU for years.

In 2012, his nonprofit political group Ukrainian Choice pushed for a referendum on Ukraine’s accession to the Moscow-led Customs Union — one of the groupings of former Soviet republics that Putin seems to see as a counterbalance to the European Union and to Western influence in the region.

Ukrainian Choice also played a role in stirring up anti-EU sentiment ahead of the November 2013 summit in Vilnius during which Yanukovych had been set to sign the Association Agreement. In a nationwide campaign, it put up billboards showing same-sex stick-figure couples holding hands and the words: “Association with the EU means same-sex marriage.”

Born in Siberia to a father who was deported there from western Ukraine after suffering political repression for participating in national movements, Medvedchuk was not always such a critic of the West.

East And West

While a deputy in Ukraine’s parliament between 1997 and 2002, he often spoke well of Europe and especially Poland, where he enjoyed close working relationships with government officials. Those who know him say they noticed a shift to pro-Russian views when he worked as Kuchma’s chief of staff from 2002 to 2005.

Since then, Medvedchuk has helped shape political and economic policies in a way that detractors say plays directly into Putin’s hands.

They point to his involvement in drafting a contentious 2010 gas agreement signed by Putin, then prime minister, and his Ukrainian counterpart Yulia Tymoshenko, as an example of him brokering a deal that favored Moscow.

More recently, he has said that Ukraine must be “federalized” if it is to be stable, meaning that that regional authorities including the separatists in the east should be granted more power at the expense of the central government — an idea that has also been promoted by Moscow.

“Medvedchuk is a political genius,” said Berezovets. “But his efforts are directed at Putin’s success, not Ukraine.”

Turning to the third person to refer to himself, Medvedchuk denied that in the interview.

“Mr. Medvedchuk lives here in Ukraine,” he told RFE/RL. “He studied here, worked here, continues to work here. It is home to his family; his children are studying here.”

“I’m not going to go anywhere. I wish happiness and prosperity for the country and will do everything to ensure that this country finds peace,” Medvedchuk continued. “My relationship with the president of Russia, I believe, helps me to help [Ukraine’s] interests. I use it wherever possible.”]

‘Real Peace’

Right now, Medvedchuk said, he is using it to seek an end to the war in Donbas. It is coincidence, he says, that his position on this issue — that Donbas is part of Ukraine — is shared by Putin.

“[Putin says] that there should be peace in Donbas. He also recognized and continually said that the Donbas is the territory of Ukraine,” Medvedchuk said. “Putin, however, also repeatedly said that he thinks about the safety of the Russian-speaking population in the Donbas…as outlined in the Minsk agreements.”

Two days after interviewing Medvedchuk, RFE/RL visited the front-line positions of a Ukrainian battalion in Maryinka, a town 28 kilometers from the center of the separatist stronghold of Donetsk. There was no cease-fire.

On the night of July 27, tanks unleashed a barrage of shells on the battalion’s positions from the separatist-held side about 100 meters away, setting off blasts that rocked the town and set one home ablaze. There was nobody inside; many have fled Maryinka since the start of the war.

It’s a conflict that many of those fighting want to end. Asked about the Minsk deal and Medvedchuk’s role as an arbiter between Kyiv, Moscow, and the separatists, battalion commander Vyacheslav Vlasenko echoed what has become a widespread sentiment in war-torn eastern Ukraine: “I don’t care.”

“It could be the devil or Adolf Hitler himself,” Vlasenko told RFE/RL at the battalion’s Maryinka headquarters. “If this person brings real peace, then I don’t care who he is.”

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The Independence Day 2016 celebration in Ukraine

ery soon the vibrant blue and yellow colors of Ukrainian flag will adorn the streets of every city; shopkeepers will clear their counters for little two-colour flags and patriotic merchandise. TV channels will start airing documentaries, movies and talk shows to commemorate the important national event of our Ukrainian Independence Day.

All region capitals will celebrate this event. Meanwhile, Kyiv had begun preparing for this day a couple of weeks in advance.

Independence Day in Kyiv

Kyiv, the Capital of Ukraine, is where the most important events of Independence Day take place. While other regions do have similar events, it is Kyiv that has more importance when it comes to celebrating this day for both cultural and historical reasons.

Parade. Spectacular military parade is one of the significant traditions that have been observed on August 24th every year. This part of the celebration turned out to be rather controversial in a light of recent events in Eastern Ukraine. Many Ukrainians consider a parade in a time of active military conflict somewhat inappropriate, however, official Kyiv says that a parade is a good way to show respect and gratitude to all the soldiers and their families.

All the disputes aside, one of the most spectacular military parade in independent Ukraine’s history will start on Wednesday morning, August 24th at Khreshchatyk street. It will count over 4 thousand participants and will showcase 200 units of military machinery. The President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko will be also attending the parade on the Independence Day 2016 of Ukraine.

Fairs. On August 24th, The Independence Day of Ukraine, one will have a chance to attend numerous art fairs. Ivan Mazepy street, located in Kyiv downtown, will turn into huge Pechersk fair field. Starting from noon and till the late evening Pechersk Fair will offer retro cars exhibition, local artists’ exhibitions and patriotically themed fun flash-mobs to all eager visitors.

Andriyivsky (Andrew’s) Uzviz will host Ukrainian crafts and arts fairs on August 24th. On the Independence Day of Ukraine guests will have a chance to buy unique artisan souvenirs from different regions of Ukraine.

Race in ‘Vyshyvankas’. On Independence Day of Ukraine (August 24, 2016), the traditional Race in ‘Vyshyvankas’ (embroidered shirts) will take place in the capital of Ukraine. This is a charitable event aiming to collect funds for the purchase of track and field kits for students of five schools in Kyiv. The big Independence race will start with at Rusanivska waterfront on August 24, 2016 in Kyiv. However, the festive race will last until August 27, 2016 in other cities. Both adults and children can step into the fight for the Independence Cup. Everyone will be able to contribute to the charity and to test their strength at different distances: children up to 10 years will run 100 meters; under 15 – 500 meters; and adults will compete in the races of 500 meters, 5 and 10 kilometers distances.

Independence Fest hosted by Parkovka art-platform invites all the guests to reveal Ukrainian within themselves (that is a festival motto) and listen to some good Ukrainian bands. The line-up will include such hipster bands as “Odyn v Canoe” (Single in Canoe), Vivienne Mort, Gapochka, Zapaska, Dj Mary Jane and many others. Food Court at the festival will be catered by Master Chef (popular culinary tv show) participants. Location of the Independence Fest in Kyiv is Izumskaya street, 7, Demiyivska metro station.

Historical reenactment festival will take place in Kyiv Rus Theme Park near Kyiv. Travel back in time and feel an intriguing and breathtaking ambiance of the ancient Ukraine on its Independence Day. The spectacular show will start at 10 AM and will last until 4 PM. The Kyiv Rus theme park is located in Kopachiv village, 45 minutes car ride away from Kyiv via Obukhiv highway.

Shifting away from Kyiv, other Ukrainian cities offer plenty fun and patriotically themed activities to celebrate the Independence Day.

Independence Day in Lviv
Lviv will be hosting annual «Etnovyr» Festival on August 24th. This is one of the most spectacular festivals of Western Ukraine. Folklore of different countries as well as different retrospectives of Ukrainian folk culture will be showcased to all the guests in forms of dance, theater, cinema, fine art and literature. This spectacular event drives thousands of attendees from different countries to Lviv in order to create a unique multicultural atmosphere. «Etnovyr» will be happening on numerous locations all over town. We suggest you check the detailed information on its schedule on-line. The majority of events during the festival are fee.

Independence Day in Odessa

«Okean Elzy» concert will be the highlight of Independence Day 2016 of Ukraine celebration in Odessa. This is without any doubt the most popular Ukrainian band, the symbol of Ukrainian pop-rock contemporary music. The band is well known not only in Ukraine, but in many other countries worldwide. Each concert of «Okean Elzy» gathers thousands of fans and creates unforgettable atmosphere. The Independence Day concert will take place at «Chernomorets» stadium, on August 24th at 8 PM.

Independence Day in Dnipro
«Vil’ne Nebo» («Free Sky») air show will soar over city of Dnipro (former Dnipropetrovsk) on August 24th , 2016 featuring Ukraine’s most modern aircrafts. «Vil’ne Nebo» will be an awe-inspiring show featuring thrilling performances by the best Ukrainian pilots. The show starts at noon and will last for the whole day until 10 PM at Mayskiy Airfield.

The days leading up to the Independence Day will see increased security covering of important places to ensure smooth functioning. With Ukrainian national flags adoring every building, the cities of Ukraine get ready for the busy day of festivities.

Celebrating the Independence Day 2016 in Ukraine is one of the best parts about summer. You get a chance to spend a wonderful day with your family, watch fireworks, go to a parade or attend various concerts and fairs— the options are endless and extremely exciting.

Almost One-Quarter of Russians Ready to Sell their Votes, Says Poll

Almost one quarter of Russians are willing to sell their votes in upcoming parliamentary elections, according to a survey published Monday by the independent Levada Center pollster.

A total of 11 percent of Russians were prepared to give away their vote for 5,000 rubles ($78) while 7 percent would sell for 2,000 rubles or less, according to the Levada Center.

The ruling United Russia party is expected to win a majority in Sept. 18 elections to Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma.

Less than two thirds of Russians, 63 percent of respondents, said they would not sell their vote as a matter of principle, according to the poll conducted at the beginning of August.

The number of people ready to give away their votes is slightly higher than that recorded ahead of Russia’s last Duma elections in December 2011 when 19 percent of respondents said they would sell their vote. That election was marred by widespread fraud, including vote rigging and the casting of multiple ballot papers per person, and triggered a series of large anti-Kremlin street protests.

The poll was conducted among 1600 respondents in 48 Russian regions.

Smugglers Secretly Repairing Russian Roads To Boost Business

Gangs smuggling goods into Russia have secretly repaired a road on the Belarussian border in order to boost business, the TASS news agency reported Monday.

Smugglers have transformed the gravel track in the Smolensk region in order to help their heavy goods vehicles traveling on the route, said Alexander Laznenko from the Smolensk region border agency. The criminal groups have widened and raised the road and added additional turning points, he said.

The road, which connects Moscow to the Belarussian capital of Minsk, is known to be used by smugglers wishing to avoid official customs posts and is now under official surveillance.

A convoy of trucks was recently stopped on the road carrying 175 tons of sanctioned Polish fruit worth 13 million rubles ($200,000). The produce was subsequently destroyed, TASS reported.

Local border guards, customs and police officers have checked over 73,000 vehicles entering Russia from Belarus this year, Laznenko said, claiming that the number of heavy goods vehicles crossing the border from Belarus has increased dramatically in the last year, he said.

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There will be no ‘reset’ with Russia

The Question: What should the next president do about an increasingly authoritarian Russia?

Angela Stent directs the Center for Eurasian, Russian and East European Studies at Georgetown University and is the author of “The Limits of Partnership: US-Russian Relations in the Twenty-First Century.”

It’s been a quarter-century since the Soviet Union collapsed. In the aftermath, the United States had two main goals: The first was integrating the new Russia into Euro-Atlantic and global institutions; the second, if that did not work out, was ensuring that Russia not thwart America’s commitment to create a peaceful, rules-based post-Cold War order. A quarter-century later, it is clear that the first goal was not achieved. That means the next occupant of the White House will have to redouble efforts to achieve the second.

The Russia challenge has radically changed since the 1990s. Today we read new allegations that Russia is interfering in the U.S. election, hacking into the Democratic National Committee and, through intermediaries, posting confidential and sometimes damaging information. Whatever the accuracy of these charges and scope of these disclosures, they seem clearly intended to sow doubts about the legitimacy of our democratic election process. From the Kremlin’s point of view, the more uncertainty and questioning the better.

How should the United States respond? First, we need to understand the domestic motivations for Russia’s actions. Recent shakeups in top leadership — most notably the firing of Vladimir Putin’s longtime aide Sergei Ivanov and the creation of Putin’s own Praetorian Guard to protect him both from a “color” revolution and a palace coup — suggest that the president remains focused on ensuring that the September elections to the Russian Duma and his own re-election in 2018 are carefully managed to prevent a repetition of 2011, when tens of thousands of Muscovites took to the streets to protest what people believed were falsified elections results. Putin blamed Hillary Clinton for the demonstrations.

Since then, Russia’s economic situation has deteriorated because of economic mismanagement, falling oil prices and Western sanctions imposed after the Crimean annexation. But the Kremlin has skillfully played a weak hand by appealing to patriotism. It blamed the United States for Russia’s economic problems and launched an air campaign in Syria last September that forced the United States to negotiate and recognize its enhanced international role.

Faced with a Kremlin that defines the United States as its main adversary, how should the next U.S. president approach Russia? She or he should not seek another “reset” but accept the fact that the Russia we are dealing with today requires a different approach. Engagement for engagement’s sake does not work.

The United States should continue negotiating with Russia over both Syria and Ukraine, but it should only open an intensified dialogue with the Kremlin if and when the Russian leadership is genuinely interested in offering constructive proposals. The gap between U.S. and Russian interests in both cases is significant.

As long as Russia supports the conflict in eastern Ukraine that has already claimed 10,000 lives, U.S. sanctions should remain in place. The United States should consider enhancing its own military presence in Europe and needs to deter any further attempts by Russia to destabilize its neighboring countries. The Russia challenge is long-term and will likely outlast both the next U.S. president’s term and Putin’s time in office.

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