Ukraine endured another year of economic hardship and unprovoked Russian hybrid warfare on all fronts while a third post-Maidan government was installed amid political turmoil in another attempt to deliver the promises of democratic transformation espoused by the revolution of 2014.
2016 was also the year Ukraine marked the 25th anniversary of the re-establishment of its independence on August 24, 1991, and Ukraine saw many reasons to celebrate. A grand military parade was held on Kyiv’s main thoroughfare, the Khreshchatyk, as an expression of defiance toward ceaseless Russian aggression. President Petro Poroshenko had ordered a military parade for a third consecutive year intended to underscore the nation’s military capability. But it was the first year that highlighted hardware rolled fresh off factory floors and newly designed uniforms, marking Ukraine’s efforts to shed its outdated Soviet past.
After more than 4,000 armed forces units marched past, some equipped with Ukraine-made Tavor automatic rifles, and 200 armored vehicles rumbled by, Mr. Poroshenko said: “Our main guarantor is the Ukrainian armed forces.” Approaching a company of camouflaged soldiers still standing at attention, the president said: “Thanks for your patriotism, thanks for your protection. Ukraine’s independence was supposed to end at the 23rd anniversary (when Russia invaded Ukraine), but thanks to your sacrifice, it didn’t and that’s why we’re celebrating the 25th anniversary year.”
Noting that Ukraine currently spends about 5 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on defense, the president said, “from this parade, our international partners will get the message that Ukraine is able to protect itself, but needs further support.”
As a whole, Ukraine’s economy stabilized, with inflation slowing substantially to 12.4 percent – from 43.3 percent in 2015 – and gross domestic product (GDP) grew for the first time in four years by 1 percent, reaching the $90 billion mark. The banking system, riddled with so-called pocket banks that engaged largely in third-party lending, saw more than 80 financial institutions lose their licenses. Among them was Ukraine’s largest bank by assets, PrivatBank, co-owned by billionaire oligarch Igor Kolomoisky.
Still, Ukrainians haven’t felt the benefits of macro stability despite the fact that the government has moved forward to enact crucial legislation and set up institutions that would enable the full implementation of reforms bent on establishing rule-of-law and good governance.
Urged by Western donors and lenders, like the International Monetary Fund, to raise consumer utility rates at cost-recovery levels, households saw their utility bills soar by 47.2 percent. Meanwhile, the average monthly salary hovers at $200 due to the hryvnia having been devalued by 40 percent since 2014.
On the business side, industrial growth was at 2 percent driven by record grain exports. More than 39 million tons of grain went to foreign markets, 13 percent more than the previous season, which accounted for 40 percent of the nation’s total exports for the first nine months of 2016.
Ukraine slightly improved in the World Bank’s “ease of doing business” ranking, going up to 80th place among 190 countries and thus moving up three notches over the previous year. In corruption, Ukraine didn’t make much improvement in Berlin-based Transparency International’s yearly report. It ranked 130 among 168 countries surveyed on the level of perceived corruption, sharing the same position as Cameroon, Iran, Nepal, Nicaragua and Paraguay.
Thus, Ukraine needs to harness the positive changes it made so that “Ukrainian citizens can reap the benefits,” said a European Commission report published toward the end of the year, on December 13.
“Ukraine has taken important steps to address the key, systemic challenge of corruption both by limiting the scope for corruption in a number of areas and strengthening the means to pursue wrong-doers,” said Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations Johannes Hahn. “This work must continue and bring real change to the way the country operates. Tackling corruption and creating a reliable judicial system are also key to transforming the business climate and rebuilding prosperity. The European Union will continue to support Ukraine in these efforts, both politically and financially.”
According to the report, “Ukraine has implemented a number of reforms to curb corruption and to clean up the banking system, and has embarked on ambitious energy reforms, as well as strengthened democracy and the rule of law. Progress in other areas in the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement, parts of which have been provisionally applied since November 2014, has also been made, for example regarding the adoption of constitutional amendments to the judiciary, the adoption of an ambitious human rights strategy and action plan, and the undertaking of decentralization reforms.”
The report also notes that “Ukraine successfully met all benchmarks under the Visa Liberalization Action Plan, which led to the European Commission’s proposal to the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament in April to lift visa obligations for Ukrainian citizens. In this context, the agreement reached on December 7 between the EU Council and the European Parliament on the suspension mechanism, paves the way for the conclusion of visa liberalization for Ukraine.”
Kyiv further solidified EU integration when the Netherlands on December 15 reached a compromise with the EU to ratify the Association Agreement with Ukraine. The Netherlands is the last country not to ratify the deal in the 28-nation political union of countries. The Dutch held a non-binding referendum on April 6 that rejected the Association Agreement. After the compromise, which stipulates that ratification doesn’t give Ukraine a path toward EU membership, Holland’s Parliament will vote on the measure in January 2017.
Kyiv also expects to receive visa-free travel to the EU for its citizens before the April 2017 French presidential election after passing nearly 300 required laws and other legislative measures.
No trickle down
Still, the public has grown disenfranchised with successive post-Maidan governments and with President Petro Poroshenko, Ukraine’s first wartime commander-in-chief. Populist sentiment has grown, public opinion surveys have found.
Authorities have failed to recover significant amounts of money and other assets that the previous regime, led by ousted ex-President Viktor Yanukovych, had stolen. No high-profile corruption cases were prosecuted and the killing of some 100 protesters during the Maidan uprising have largely gone unsolved.
Ukrainians were reminded of that fact when the disgraced former president gave testimony from Russia on November 28 via video link related to the trial of five riot police officers who were allegedly involved in the mass killings. Like Mr. Yanukovych, many of the law enforcement officers who allegedly gunned down some 100 protesters during the uprising either fled to the Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory of Crimea or to Russia.
During a break in the former president’s six-hour testimony, Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko read a notice of suspicion, charging him with committing “high treason,” aiding and abetting Russia to encroach on the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” and for causing more than 1 trillion hrv ($40 billion U.S.) in damages to the state.
The IMF, with whom Kyiv has a $17.5 billion lending program to prop its economy, has voiced frustration with “stop-and-go” reforms and lax crime fighting.
“Turning the current stabilization into strong and sustainable growth – so that Ukraine can catch up with its regional peers – will not be an easy task. This has been a challenge in the past, when stop-and-go reforms resulted in the repeated build-up of large imbalances and economic crises,” the IMF said on November 18. “Decisive steps particularly need to be taken to fight corruption… tangible results in prosecuting and convicting corrupt high-level officials and recovering proceeds from corruption have yet to be achieved.”
Thus, Mr. Poroshenko’s rating has dipped below 15 percent, according to a December poll conducted by the SOCIS Center for Social and Marketing Research and Rating sociological service. Another poll, commissioned by Kyiv-based think tank Democratic Initiatives in December, found that 73 percent of the public thinks that the “situation in the country has gotten worse, with 55 percent of respondents saying they aren’t willing to undergo hardships for the sake of successful reforms.”
The most popular government measure, according to public opinion polls, was the implementation of electronic income declarations for government officials. With more than 50,000 officials filing in 2016, the public witnessed their extraordinary wealth amid the paltry official salaries they receive. The Reuters news agency calculated that the 24 members of the current Cabinet of Ministers declared hoarding $7 million – and that’s just in cash.
Ukraine can expect to receive the next IMF installment in the first half of 2017 due to the reforms it has made, although belatedly, according to S&P, a leading credit-worthiness rating agency. Since 2015, Ukraine has received $7.6 billion of the $17.5 billion available under the IMF lending program. The bulk of the funds went to the central bank to enhance foreign exchange reserves. Ukraine expects to receive $1.3 billion in the next installment.
Third post-Maidan government
Arseniy Yatsenyuk headed the first two post-Maidan governments since February 2014. A third administration started forming on April 14 when the Verkhovna Rada approved Volodymyr Groysman as prime minister. He is the youngest head of government on record and the first Jew to hold the position. Most of his Cabinet subsequently turned out to be loyalists of Mr. Poroshenko, including Mr. Groysman himself and current Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko.
Absent are the foreign technocrats who had resigned in disgust with corruption and resistance to change from entrenched interests. Mr. Groysman’s appointment ended political turmoil that started on February 3 when Lithuanian-born Aivaras Abromavicius resigned as economic development minister. The former asset manager and other foreigner technocrats said they were beings used as window dressing for Western lenders and donors, and as a cover for corruption.
Mr. Abromavicius singled out Ihor Kononenko, a senior lawmaker close to Mr. Poroshenko, saying Mr. Kononenko had lobbied to get his people appointed to head state companies and at top government positions. Mr. Kononenko rejected the allegations as “completely absurd” and accused Mr. Abromavicius of trying to shift the blame for his own failures atop the Economy Ministry.
Chicago-born ex-Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko didn’t join the new government, while others resigned before Mr. Groysman was appointed. They include Georgia-born Health Minister Aleskandr Kvitashvili (July 2) and former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili (November 7), who was governor of Odesa Oblast. Also resigning during the year were National Police Chief Khatia Dekanoidze (November 14) of Georgia.
Members of the Ukrainian diaspora and other specialists filled key positions in Mr.
’s government. Detroit physician Ulana Suprun became the acting health minister on July 27. Former U.S. federal prosecutor and assistant U.S. attorney Bohdan Vitvitsky on August 8 joined a selection commission that will choose members of a newly created General Inspectorate at the Prosecutor General’s Office. Canadian attorney Daniel Bilak became the prime minister’s chief investment adviser on November 1 and American Petro Matiaszek was appointed deputy director of Ukraine Invest – the nation’s investment promotion office – on the day of its creation, October 19.
Diplomacy keeps Russian sanctions intact
Another constant besides political infighting was that Kyiv’s diplomatic corps managed to keep Western partners on board with their restrictive measures that punish Russia for its military aggression towards Ukraine. EU leaders in December extended economic sanctions against Russia by another six months, until July 31, 2017, for its illegal annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea and for stoking war in eastern Ukraine. The U.S. has followed suit with its own set of sanctions through the Treasury Department, some of which include the prohibition of doing business with Russian enterprises.
“We welcome the unanimous decision by the EU to extend economic and sectoral sanctions against Russia,” Mr. Poroshenko said in a statement on December 15 when the EU sanctions were extended. “I am sincerely grateful for the unwavering unity and solidarity of the European leaders in restoring Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, including Crimea.”
Mr. Poroshenko, Foreign Affairs Minister Pavlo Klimkin and Deputy Prime Minister for EU and Euro-Atlantic Integration Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze were instrumental in convincing the nation’s partners of Russia’s incessant belligerence.
A testament to the combined work of the diplomatic corps came when the United Nations General Assembly on December 19 passed a resolution that recognizes Crimea as “temporarily occupied” by Russia and condemns the “abuses” and “discrimination” against Crimean Tatars, ethnic Ukrainians, and other groups on the peninsula, RFE/RL reported. “The resolution calls on Russia, as an ‘occupying power,’ to end all abuses against people living in Crimea, including arbitrary detentions, torture and other ‘cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment’,” the report said.
Also not helping Moscow were two reports that pointed the finger at Russia for the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Russia-occupied eastern Ukraine in 2014, which resulted in all 298 people on board being killed. A Dutch-led investigation concluded on September 28 that the surface-to-air missile that shot down the passenger aircraft “came from Russia.” The missile system came from and returned to Russia after blowing up the airliner and was part of a military convoy of Russia’s 53rd anti-Aircraft Brigade based in Kursk, concluded Bellingcat, a group of citizen journalists who use open-source information, including satellite imagery, to analyze data.
Combined, their findings, coupled with dozens of news reports by The Ukrainian Weekly, Reuters, Kyiv Post, The Telegraph, as well as other news outlets, raise questions about the involvement of Russian armed forces, the Kremlin and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the disaster.
One hundred people were identified for their involvement in the disaster, Dutch prosecutors said, but they didn’t provide the names of the suspects.
Ukrainian diplomats countered Russia during the ongoing peace talks in the Belarusian capital of Minsk. Notably, they prevented Russia from what former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt described as an attempt “to confuse, distract, deny and to get Ukraine off track – to keep us off balance.”
As a signatory of the Minsk peace accord, Russia – not its proxies – was supposed to ensure that fighting stops in occupied Donbas, heavy weapons be withdrawn, captives be released based on the principle of “all for all,” and Ukraine regains control over the eastern border with its belligerent neighbor. In addition, Kyiv was to conduct local elections in the occupied territories.
Russia “has not implemented a single point of the Minsk agreements,” Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated in February. The MFA further reported: “Illegally armed groups controlled by the Russian Federation continue to systematically shell and fire on positions of the Ukrainian armed forces. During the previous month, the illegally armed groups fired on Ukrainian positions over 1,200 times; …The Russian side continues to send weapons, military equipment and mercenaries across the border into Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.”
As The Ukrainian Weekly wrote in an editorial on February 14: “The Washington Post had it right in its February 5 editorial titled ‘Is Mr. Putin serious about making peace in Ukraine?’ ” The Post noted: “The necessary first step is an end to the shooting and other measures to ensure security, such as the deployment of international monitors to all parts of the Russian-controlled territories. …Rather than pressure Ukraine, the Obama administration should enlist the European Union in insisting that Mr. Putin demonstrate with acts that he is ready to end the war. If he does, the climate for a political deal could be set. If not, all will know who is to blame for a frozen conflict.”
Peace monitors from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe charged with observing the implementation of the truce have consistently voiced frustration. They never have had unfettered access to the war zone to carry out their mandate. Nearly 700 monitors from 46 OSCE participating states, of whom 39 are from Russia, work in the war zone to provide objective data on compliance of the ceasefire that never took hold. The OSCE’s $98.8 million monitoring mission is set to expire on March 31, 2017, if it isn’t extended.
Three U.S. senators visited the frontline area near Shyrokyne just on New Year’s Eve. Sens. John McCain, Amy Klobuchar and Lindsey Graham visited with Ukrainian soldiers at a forward command post together with U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and President Petro Poroshenko. “We urge our colleagues to take more meaningful and severe sanctions against Russia for its hacker attacks on the United States,” Sen. McCain said, adding that there is “clear evidence” of Russian intervention in the American presidential election. Sen. Mc Cain also stated: “In 2017, we will defeat the invaders and send them back where they came from. To Vladimir Putin – you will never defeat the Ukrainian people and deprive them of their independence and freedom.”
President Poroshenko underscored that Ukraine is fighting for more than its independence amid Russia’s unprovoked war. “We are fighting for freedom, for values, for democracy, protecting them in the center of Europe in the 21st century.”
Upon the senators’ return to Washington, where a new session of Congress was soon to convene, a group of bipartisan lawmakers said they would prepare a bill that would offer sanctions against Russia, CNN reported.
Russia’s multi-faceted war
Another constant in 2016 was Russia’s war. Ukraine lost 211 soldiers in combat last year and an additional 256 servicemen in non-combat incidents, the armed forces reported toward the end of the year. More than 10,000 people have been killed since the Moscow-engineered war in Donbas started in April 2014, according to the United Nations. More than 1.7 million have been internally displaced, with at least another million seeking refuge abroad, mostly in Russia.
As of the end of 2016, about 5,000 regular Russian soldiers are in occupied Donbas, Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak said. Moscow also has 600 tanks, 1,300 combat vehicles, 760 artillery weapons and 300 multiple-rocket launch systems in eastern Ukraine, he added. A December 21 Bellingcat report concluded that Ukraine faced at least 279 separate attacks likely fired inside Russia, targeting 408 Ukrainian military sites in the “entire border area of the conflict zone.”
Calling the cross-border attacks an “act of war,” Bellingcat said they numbered in the “thousands” and were the “first and strongest evidence of a direct Russian participation in the fighting.” Although they were already proven to have occurred by Ukrainian officials and the U.S. government, the new report analyzed the extent to which they were used in the summer of 2014, when they largely contributed to stemming a Ukrainian counterattack to retake the border areas near Russia, and cut off and surround the occupied Donbas capitals of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Moscow consistently used cyberattacks to target Ukrainian government institutions and energy infrastructure, Mr. Poroshenko announced at an end-of-year National Security and Defense Council meeting.
Some 6,500 Russian cyberattacks were launched only in the last two months of 2016. They included an energy grid in northern Kyiv that led to a brief power outage; the Finance Ministry, Treasury Service and state-owned railway monopoly Ukrzaliznytsia. Nuclear power stations and the nation’s biggest air hub, Boryspil Airport, were also targets.
Moscow has also weaponized information and propaganda on a sophisticated and massive scale, publishing fake or skewed news stories whose ultimate aim is to discredit Ukraine and its pro-European and NATO ambitions.
Ukrainian citizens are also constantly harassed in occupied Crimea and inside Russia, where the largest Ukrainian diaspora resides. Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Ministry warned its citizens to avoid travel to Russia because of the high risk of arbitrary harassment and detentions by Russian security services, according to an October 5 statement.
It expressed its “resolute protest to the Russian Federation in connection with the ongoing repressions, illegal detentions, searches, arrests, tortures and ill-treatment towards the citizens of Ukraine,” in a separate statement published on December 29. “The aggressor state continues to ignore its obligations under the Minsk agreements on the exchange of hostages and illegally detained persons by the principle ‘all for all.’ Though six prisoners have returned to Ukraine, their total number has not decreased but increased: now we have information on at least 17 Ukrainians who are being kept under politically motivated reasons on the territory of the occupier. Even more of our compatriots are arbitrarily arrested and detained on the occupied Crimean peninsula. More than 100 Ukrainians are being kept in appalling conditions by the Russian-terrorist forces in the occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine.”
Crimean Tatars have faced persecution ever since Russia illegally occupied the peninsula in March 2014. Its highest ruling body, the Mejlis, was suspended and branded “extremist” by Russia’s Justice Ministry on April 18. Before the annexation, Tatars made up around 12 percent of Crimea’s population of 2.5 million. Human rights watchdog Amnesty International said Russia’s decision signaled a new wave of repression against Crimean Tatars.
“Anyone associated with the Mejlis could now face serious charges of extremism as a result of this ban, which is aimed at snuffing out the few remaining voices of dissent in Crimea,” Denis Krivosheyev, Amnesty’s deputy director for Europe and Central Asia, said in an April 13 statement.
Towards the end of World War II, about 84 percent of the Crimean Tatar population, or 180,000 people, were deported on the orders of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and carried out by his henchmen. They were only allowed to return to their ancestral homeland in the late 1980s during what was called perestroika. Now they were being forced to leave their homes once more.
Ukrainian hostages released
Perhaps the foremost symbol of Ukrainian resistance on the global stage toward Russian aggression was Nadiya Savchenko, whom Mr. Putin released on May 25 in exchange for two Russian military intelligence operatives. Ukraine’s first female military aviator had defied Russia’s kangaroo court system with patriotic attire and spells of hunger strikes throughout her extrajudicial prosecution. While incarcerated, she was elected in absentia to the Verkhovna Rada and was appointed as part of Ukraine’s delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe – the EU’s statutory body. Ms. Savchenko was abducted in Ukraine while serving in the volunteer Aidar Battalion and on June 17, 2014, taken across the border to Russia. She was subsequently sentenced to 22 years in prison on trumped-up charges and cynically fined $443 for violating the border.
Upon her release, Ms. Savchenko was Ukraine’s most popular politician, according to numerous polls. But her allegiance to Kyiv came into question when she met with Kremlin-backed proxies in Minsk on December 11 to discuss prisoner swaps. She justified the meeting in Belarus as a step toward releasing prisoners of war and “strengthening” ongoing peace talks between Ukraine, Russia and its Donbas puppets. Her colleagues in Parliament, including from the Batkivshchyna party on whose ticket she was elected, criticized her for the move.
Her detractors say that, by meeting with the Kremlin-backed separatists, Ms. Savchenko creates the illusion that the key to peace in war-torn Donbas lies with them, and that such overtures lend them legitimacy and undermine Kyiv’s efforts to hold Russia responsible for the war and keep Western sanctions in force as punishment.
Three weeks after Ms. Savchenko’s release, two more Ukrainians were freed on June 14: Hennadiy Afansyev and Yuriy Soloshenko.
Mr. Afanasyev is a Crimean photographer who was arrested months after Russia annexed the peninsula and sentenced to seven years in jail after being convicted of plotting a terrorist act against the Russian imposed authorities. Mr. Soloshenko, 73, is a former electronics-plant chief who was arrested by the Russian authorities in Moscow in August 2014 and accused of trying to buy restricted components for the S-300 air-defense missile system. He was sentenced in October to six years in prison.
“I think that while Putin’s regime is running Russia, it will remain our enemy, and therefore we will have to do everything [we can]to release all our friends from Russian jails. …They are waiting for our help and I believe they will join us,” Mr. Soloshenko said, as quoted by RFE/RL’s Ukrainian service.
At least 17 Ukrainians are being held for politically motivated reasons in Russia, says Ukraine’s Foreign Affairs Ministry, and more than 100 Ukrainians are being kept in appalling conditions “by the Russian-terrorist forces in the occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine.”
Crimean filmmaker Oleh Sentsov and Oleksander Kolchenko in August were sentenced in Russia to 20 and 10 years’ imprisonment, respectively. The pro-Ukrainian Crimeans opposed Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea and were prosecuted on trumped charges of “terrorism.”
Milestones and notable events
Ukraine marked the 75th anniversary Babyn Yar, in which more than 100,000 people – mostly Jews – were killed during Germany’s occupation of Kyiv during World War II. Commemoration of the horrific event took place on September 23-29 and was organized by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, a Canada-based non-profit that works to foster understanding of Ukrainian-Jewish relations.
“It’s essentially a cemetery, a huge killing field. It’s a necropolis, a place for reflection,” Prof. Paul Robert Magocsi told The Ukrainian Weekly of the massacre site located in northwestern Kyiv that stands in a public park surrounded by a concrete jungle of Soviet-era high-rise buildings.
In just two days, on September 29-30, 1941, more than 30,000 Jews were slaughtered in the ravine, which the Germans chose to serve essentially as a huge burial pit that required no digging. Jews residing in the city and the surrounding area had been ordered to march to the site the first morning. Due to Soviet propaganda and misinformation, many weren’t aware of the Nazis’ racist policies towards the Jews. And because of the nearby freight train station, some marchers thought they would be deported to Palestine.
The Nazis would continue using the site to kill more Jews, Ukrainian patriots, Communist Party members, Roma, homosexuals and other so-called “undesirables” before retreating in 1943.
“We wanted to do something that has lasting value for Ukraine as a state, and for Jews and ethnic Ukrainians living within the boundaries of Ukraine, and outside the boundaries of Ukraine,” said Prof. Magocsi of the two-year commemoration planning period. As a board director at the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, the New Jersey native eschewed the typical conference format, where “academics from various aspects of the profession come give papers, and then begin to plan, ‘wouldn’t it be great to publish something,’ and this happens two to eight years from that time in which the whole process and interest will have changed by then,” he said. Instead, 1,000 foreign delegates gathered in Kyiv for the solemn anniversary and were treated to a unique format of commemorations consisting of film screenings, art shows, the presentation of a book on Babyn Yar that was co-edited by Prof. Magocsi and panel discussions, all of which was topped off by a commemorative concert.
The stricken Chornobyl nuclear reactor No. 4 was finally confined on November 29, 30 years after the world’s largest nuclear accident occurred north of Kyiv on April 26, 1986. The sliding structure is the largest moveable land-based structure ever built, with a span of 257 meters (843 feet), a length of 162 meters (531 feet), a height of 108 meters (354 feet) and a total weight of 36,000 tons. It has a lifespan of 100 years and was built by Novarka, a consortium of French construction firms at a cost of $1.6 billion donated by 45 governments. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development is the administrator of the Chornobyl Shelter Fund, which financed the project and which totals $2.24 billion.
The body of Ukrainian journalist Heorhii Gongadze was buried on March 22 in Kyiv, nearly 16 years after his killing, but family and friends say their fight for justice is not over. Gongadze, a dogged investigative reporter who exposed high-level political corruption, was kidnapped in September 2000. His headless body was found that November in a forest outside the Ukrainian capital. After years in a morgue, his body was buried on the grounds of a Kyiv church. His widow, Myroslava, the head of Voice of America’s Ukrainian Service, and two daughters, Solomia and Nana, flew in from Washington to attend the ceremony. Gongadze’s relatives “feel relieved that Heorhii’s body has been buried with the dignity every person deserves,” according to a statement from the family that was read at the funeral by a friend of Gongadze’s, journalist Yevhen Hlibovytskyy.
Leonid Kuchma, who was president from July 1994 to January 2005, came under suspicion after the publication of a recording on which a voice that sounded like his spoke of the need to “deal with” Gongadze. Prosecutors charged Mr. Kuchma with involvement in the case in 2011, but a court dropped the charges later that year. In 2008, three former police officers were sentenced to lengthy prison terms after being convicted of involvement in the killing. In 2012, former top police official General Oleksiy Pukach received life in prison after being convicted of strangling Gongadze to death.
A Dutch court on December 14 ruled that a priceless collection of gold artifacts from Crimea that were on loan to a Dutch museum when Russia occupied the peninsula must be returned to Ukraine, reported RFE/RL. The Amsterdam district court said that Crimea was not a sovereign country and so could not claim the treasures as cultural heritage. The ruling drew a swift and angry reaction from Russia and praise from Ukraine, whose president said it means that “Crimea is ours, period.”
Kyiv and four museums in Crimea have been wrangling over the fate of the archeological treasures – which range from gold artifacts to a Scythian helmet dating back more than 2,000 years – ever since Russia seized control of the Ukrainian peninsula in March 2014. The Ukrainian government claimed that, as state property, they could not be returned to territory outside its control, while the Crimean museums argued the objects must be returned by the Netherlands to the institutions from which they were on loan. The treasures, popularly known as Scythian gold, are in the Netherlands because they were borrowed from the four museums in Crimea and one in Kyiv for an exhibition in early 2014 at Amsterdam’s Allard Pierson Museum.
Popular Crimean Tatar pop singer Jamala won the 2016 Eurovision song contest on May 14 in Sweden. Known for her style of R&B and soul, the talented star performed “1944,” a song that ties the current persecution by the Russian occupation to the genocide in which Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin deported most of the Crimean Tatar population to Uzbekistan. The Verkhovna Rada declared the 1944 forced deportation of Crimean Tatars a genocide on November 12, 2015, and designated May 18 as the Day of Remembrance of Crimean Tatar Genocide Victims. In the final round, Jamala – whose birth name is Susana Jamaladinova – won enough votes to surpass runner-up Dami Im of Australia and Sergey Lazarev of Russia.
Looking ahead to 2017
Ukraine could expect to see more signs of economic recovery this year. The state budget has a deficit target of 3 percent of GDP that is in line with IMF program requirements, according to Kyiv-based investment capital Dragon Capital.
“That said, Ukraine can realistically receive $1.3 billion from the IMF, the fourth tranche of its Extended Fund Facility program, in early 2017,” Dragon Capital wrote in a note to investors.
“Ukraine is unlikely to face serious economic hardships next year. We expect recovery to continue, with real GDP accelerating to 2.5 percent year-on-year from 1.0-1.5 percent this year,” the investment bank said.
However, Ukraine faces a new international political arena given the ascension of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency and key national elections taking place in Europe – notably France and Germany against the backdrop of the United Kingdom having voted to leave the EU in 2016.
“Domestically, the government will mark its first year in office in April, becoming subject to a potential no-confidence vote, but the risk of early parliamentary elections remains low, in our view,” Dragon Capital noted. “Investors will stay focused on [the]general reform progress, especially in IMF-related areas such as pension reform, privatization, corruption fight and land reform. Global commodities prices (steel, iron ore, oil, grain) and the military conflict in the east will also remain on the watch list.”