Showing posts with label Ukraine-Russian War. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Ukraine-Russian War. Show all posts

February 15, 2017

Separatists/Ukraine are Asked About Missing Russ.Trans/Activist

Seroye Fioletovoye (center-hanging, aka Oleg Vasliyev and Maria Shtern) used to belong to
Pussy Riot

International rights groups have urged separatist leaders in eastern Ukraine to disclose the location and ensure the safety of a Russian LGBT activist and a fellow performance artist who went missing there two weeks ago.

Friends of transgender activist Seroye Fioletovoye (Gray Purple) and musician Viktoria Miroshnichenko say they have not heard from the two since they entered separatist-controlled territory on January 31.

The Kremlin-loyal tabloid news outlet Life News on February 13 cited an unidentified source with the separatists as saying that the two were detained because Fioletovoye had planned to stage a protest in support of sexual minorities in a separatist-held area of Donetsk.

There has been no formal confirmation of that claim, and Amnesty International said in a February 13 statement that it has "serious concerns" about the safety of the two Russians.

The international rights group published a petition calling on separatist leaders to reveal the location of the two Russians and protect them from "physical and psychological" abuse.

Russia-backed separatists control areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in Ukraine's east nearly three years after the start of their war against Kyiv's forces that has killed more than 9,750 people.

International rights watchdogs and Western governments have repeatedly accused the separatists of illegal detentions and abuses, including torture.

Fioletovoye, who was born Oleg Vasliyev and also goes by the name Maria Shtern, is a former member of the Russian art group Voina, which drew international attention with its daring antigovernment stunts and spawned the dissident art collective Pussy Riot.

The activist typically uses "it" in self-reference, and rights advocates became increasingly concerned after a February 9 update appeared on Fioletovoye's Twitter feed referring to the activist as male.
Two tweets from the account of Seroye Fioletovoye that use a different personal pronoun to refer to the missing LGBT activist.
Two tweets from the account of Seroye Fioletovoye that use a different personal pronoun to refer to the missing LGBT activist.

The tweet was subsequently deleted and replaced with a new post consistent with the activist's typical gender identification.

"Friends, I am in the far-flung regions of the DNR," the tweet reads, using an acronym used by the separatists that stands for Donetsk People's Republic.
"I am busy with a film. There is almost no Internet. I'm alive and well," it continued.

The Twitter feed had been dormant since August, and the sudden tweet has raised suspicions that the activist was not the person who posted it.

"It was very, very creepy, and very concerning, too," Tanya Cooper, a Ukraine researcher for the New York-based Human Rights Watch, told RFE/RL.

Miroshnichenko is a musician who previously collaborated with Fioletovoye. She staged a performance-art piece at a 2013 event related to LGBT issues that Fioletovoye moderated.

In her most recent Facebook post -- on January 31 -- Miroshnichenko wrote that she would be online infrequently until February 15. She added in a comment to the post that she was traveling to the southern Russian region of Rostov, which borders the Donetsk region.

Human Rights Watch said in a February 10 statement that it feared the two had become the victims of "forced disappearance."

"Their disappearance demands an immediate and effective investigation," Cooper said in the statement
Based on reporting by Christopher Miller in Kyiv and Carl Schreck in Washington

September 28, 2016

Investigation Shows Missile Downed Airliner Came from Russia

An investigation that implicated Russia in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was able to track the movements of a missile launcher thanks to photos and video clips from witnesses.
Investigators revealed social media posts aided their efforts to meticulously chart the surface-to-air missile system's path - concluding it was brought into rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine from Russia.
Prosecutors confirmed the plane with 298 people on board was shot down from the village of Pervomaysk by a Russian-made missile and the launcher was trucked back to Russia after the attack.
Reconstruction footage released by investigators contains witness photos and video that show the missile launcher traveling through the city of Donetsk and smaller towns towards the launch site. 

A spokesman had claimed: "First-hand radar data identified all flying objects which could have been launched or in the air over the territory controlled by rebels at that moment.
"The data are clear-cut...there is no rocket. If there was a rocket, it could only have been fired from elsewhere."
Russian officials also tipped off the JIT (Joint Investigation Team) that the rural town of Zaroshchenske was a potential launch site – claiming it was controlled by Ukrainian forces at the time.

A Dutch-led criminal investigation into the 2014 downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 released Wednesday found evidence the airliner was struck by a Russian-made Buk missile that was moved into eastern Ukraine from Russia.

The report confirmed multiple findings in the past of the cause of the crash of the Boeing 777, en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, killing all 298 people aboard.

Wilbert Paulissen, head of the Dutch Central Crime Investigation Department, said communications intercepts showed pro-Russian separatists separatists had called for the missile to be deployed, and reported its arrival in rebel-held parts of eastern Ukraine.

The missile which brought down Flight MH17 two years ago over eastern Ukraine was transported into the area from Russia, a Dutch-led investigation has found. Video provided by AFP Newslook

“It may be concluded MH17 was shot down by a 9M38 missile launched by a Buk, brought in from the territory of the Russian Federation, and that after launch was subsequently returned to the Russian Federation,” Paulissen said at a news conference, announcing the results of the two-year investigation.

Russia, which denied responsibility for the July 17, 2014, crash from the start, continued to do so Wednesday.

Initially, Russian officials suggested a Ukrainian fighter jet flying nearby could have shot down the airliner. On Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov the Dutch-led investigation was “biased and politically motivated.”

The Russian military insisted Wednesday that no air defense missile systems have ever been sent from Russia to Ukraine. The Defense Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, claimed the investigation's conclusions were based on information from the internet and Ukrainian special services, the Associated Press reported.

In Washington, State Department spokesman John Kirby said the latest findings are "another step toward bringing to justice those responsible for this outrageous attack."

Eliot Higgins, founder of the open-source research group Bellingcat, whose early reports pointing at Russian involvement were verified by the Dutch report, said Russia has consistently issued false information about the crash "from claims about satellite imagery to claims about the movements of Buk missile launchers."

Russia has repeatedly denied allegations that pro-Moscow rebels in eastern Ukraine were responsible for downing the plane. Russia also has denied supporting the separatists with arms and money, despite evidence to the contrary from foreign governments and news media.

Prosecutors from the Joint Investigation Team — made up of investigators from Australia, Belgium, Malaysia, the Netherlands and Ukraine — told the relatives of those killed that they would investigate about 100 people over the incident, the BBC reported.

Robby Oehler, whose niece died in the crash, told the broadcaster: "They told us how the Buk was transported [and] how they came to that evidence from phone taps, photo, film material, video."

A separate investigation by the Dutch Safety Board concluded in October 2015 that the plane was hit by a Russian-made Buk missile.

Eduard Basurin, from the Donetsk People's Republic rebel group, told the Interfax news agency: "We never had such air defense systems, nor the people who could operate them. Therefore we could not have shot down the Boeing.” 

In advance of the report's release, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia wanted "an impartial and full investigation of that tragedy."

"No conclusions can be made without taking into consideration the latest information that was published by our military — namely the primary radar data that recorded all aircraft or objects that could be launched or be in the air on the territory controlled by militia at that time," he told reporters, according to the Tass news agency.

He added that "the data are unambiguous and there is no missile (that allegedly downed the jet) there. If there had been a missile, then it could have been launched from other territory. In this case, I do not say which territory — this is a matter of experts.”


September 22, 2016

Ukraine’s Pain Gives Hope to a Birth of a Democracy


If you believe — as I do — that democracy is humanity’s best hope, these are discouraging times. China, the world’s next superpower, thinks it’s found a different path forward. The liberal nations of Europe and North America are gnawed by self-doubt, beset by problems of their own making. Moreover, they now regard their past enthusiasm for nurturing new democracies in the world’s unlikeliest places with an air of embarrassment. In fact, in recent decades, democracy promotion has nearly disappeared from the higher echelons of U.S. foreign policymaking.

But there’s one country that, through its example, offers hope — and some crucial lessons. That country is Ukraine.
I fully realize how unlikely this sounds. Having won its independence from Moscow 25 years ago, the country spent most of them sinking into oligarchy and stagnation. Its first major effort to move forward — 2004’s Orange Revolution — ended in abject failure: The corrupt system swallowed it whole. The Euromaidan revolution of two years ago began more hopefully. But it too, has disappointed in many ways. A panel of experts who were recently asked whether the country had “turned the corner” gave discouragingly ambiguous answers.

Nevertheless, Ukraine’s experience gives us reason to take heart.Ukraine’s experience gives us reason to take heart. Despite its many political shortcomings, the country has changed. More precisely, it is the Ukrainian people that have changed. And coming to understand the nature of that change — where it came from and what it can do — helps train our focus on the one thing that makes genuine democracy possible: the slow, painstaking growth of democratic human capital. It is this factor, above all others, that has made the difference in Ukraine — and can do so elsewhere in the years ahead.

Nurturing that capital is so important precisely because the limits of revolutions like the Euromaidan are so glaring. Though Ukrainians managed to topple their strongman President Viktor Yanukovych and many of his enforcers, the “deep state” — the mass of corrupt officials who run the country at the whims of its oligarchs — survived. That’s why the reforms of the last two years have just barely limped along, each tentative step forward provoking a fierce counter-reaction. There’s a fresh, Western-trained new police force, but its powers are useless in the face of the crooked courts. There’s an independent new anti-corruption agency, but it’s locked in fierce battle with the hugely powerful and utterly unreformed prosecutors’ office, which is trying to check its every step.

But if this is all you see in today’s Ukraine, you’re missing the most important part of the story — what’s happening underneath. Like every other post-Soviet republic, the country endured decades of authoritarian Communist rule before gaining its independence. Having eradicated private property and individual initiative, the Soviets rendered the country’s population atomized and politically passive. Lacking the social ties and mental models long taken for granted in the West, Ukrainians have, thus far, been unable to breathe life into the country’s shaky democratic structures.Ukrainians have, thus far, been unable to breathe life into the country’s shaky democratic structures.

But — due in large part to its growing contacts with the West — Ukrainian society has not been standing still. Viktor Kompaneyets, a gruff Kiev-based technology investor, first noticed it during a March snowstorm that crippled the region in 2013. As he tells it, Ukrainians reacted dramatically differently than Russians. Both countries’ capitals were hit equally hard, but while dozens in Moscow froze in the snow, residents of Kiev were largely spared — a fact he attributes to strangers helping strangers. “From isolated groups that have no common interests, suddenly, out of nowhere, when the government wasn’t doing anything, the people themselves decided to solve their problem,” he remembers. “That’s when it became clear to me that something had fundamentally changed.”

The Euromaidan brought this latent force out into the open. “We’re definitely living in a different country,” says Kompaneyets.“We’re definitely living in a different country,” says Kompaneyets. “I can’t say it’s easier or simpler. But there’s some kind of almost spiritual change. If you have a question, you don’t hide it inside yourself. You have a community to which you can turn.”

Svitlana Zalishchuk, a young journalist and activist elected to parliament after the revolution, describes it a little differently. “One of the main shifts [since the Euromaidan],” she says, “is the relationship between the government and society. It’s become more horizontal. The idea of accountability has become normal.”

This all has immediate political consequences. Even before the Euromaidan, Ukraine’s civil society — nurtured by grants, exchange programs, and other contacts with the West — was known for its vigor. In the new Ukraine, independent journalists, civic groups, and non-profit organizations have played a heroic role in pushing the government to fulfill its promises in the face of bureaucratic and oligarchic resistance.

One of the most striking examples is the Reanimation Package of Reforms (RPR), a remarkable civic organization that unites dozens of independent groups. It was founded in the days after the Euromaidan to redirect activists’ revolutionary energy from the streets into the halls of parliament.

Thanks to now-overwhelming public pressure to address corruption, eight political parties signed statements of support for RPR’s “roadmap of reform,” which covers 24 distinct areas, from energy policy to the media. Five of these parties ended up making it into parliament after the revolution — and when they formed a governing coalition, they incorporated many of the RPR’s priorities into the text of their official agreement. Olena Halushka, RPR’s manager of foreign affairs, says that more than 70 members of parliament regularly cooperate with the group, and its website lists 82 bills from its agenda that have been adopted into law.

Of course, that commitment has often been spotty, and some of the bills are worth more on paper than in reality. But consider what’s been accomplished. Naftogaz, the notoriously crooked gas company that was bleeding the state dry, is now posting a profit. The state railroad company, now headed by a Polish crisis manger, has turned the corner and is now also making money. The National Anti-Corruption Bureau, an independent new agency, is doggedly pursuing corrupt officials. And the beginnings of decentralization have returned more tax revenue to local communities, enabling cities across the country to invest in new infrastructure, from roads and buses to hospitals and kindergartens.

All this demonstrates how far Ukraine’s civil society has come since the failed Orange Revolution. Back then, says Zalishchuk, “we elected [pro-reformist President] Yushchenko, and then we went back to our kitchens and folded our hands. That’s why the revolution didn’t work.” But ten years later, after the Euromaidan, she says, “we [now] understood that electing a new government would not be the end of the story. Changes happen when bottom-up meets top-down.Changes happen when bottom-up meets top-down.”

The indispensable role Ukraine’s civil society has played in making the Euromaidan count is the most important lesson the country can teach aspiring democrats. Real democracy — democracy that’s more than just a hollow institutional shell — can’t be built quickly. It takes years of deliberate effort for enough of a democratic mindset to develop among enough people.

But it’s not hard to see where the resources for building this mindset can come from. It’s striking how many of Ukraine’s young politicians have spent time in the West. Svitlana Zalishchuk, Sergii Leshchenko, and Mustafa Nayyem, three of the most active parliamentary reformers, were all fellows at Stanford University’s Center on Democracy, Development, and Rule of Law. Olena Sotnik, a lawyer on the Maidan and now a leading parliamentary voice for judicial reform, attended a school run by the Council of Europe to train future leaders in transitional countries. Oleh Berezyuk, the leader of the pro-European Samopomich party in parliament, trained and worked as a biologist in Chicago. There are thousands of others.

The West also has another crucial role — that of pressing the government directly. James Brooke, a former New York Times journalist who is so bullish on Ukraine that he’s just moved to Kiev to open a new business magazine, says that international involvement after the Euromaidan has been much more forceful than in 2004. “We’re hip to your tricks,” he says, describing the attitude of the European Union, the IMF, and other international partners towards Ukraine’s political establishment. By making financial assistance and other goodies, such as visa liberalization, conditional on real change, these institutions have made it impossible for the government not to deliver.

This is a widely held view among Ukrainians. Zalishchuk maintains that 70 percent of what’s been accomplished so far has only been possible thanks to international pressure. Sergii Leshchenko, another pro-reform legislator (and a muckraking anti-corruption journalist), agrees, arguing that the only way successful reforms are possible in Ukraine is if international assistance depends on their realization. “I can say it as an insider,” he says. “It works.” Both Zalishchuk and Leshchenko emphasized that the West must be even tougher as the oligarchs dig in.

But international pressure, even in tandem with civil society, will only get you so far. The most important and difficult changes — such as revamping the justice system and defanging the oligarchs — can only happen with a critical mass of support in parliament and in the key ministries. For now, Ukraine isn’t even close. Leshchenko says that only about 10 percent of his fellow legislators are real reformers.Leshchenko says that only about 10 percent of his fellow legislators are real reformers.

That’s a battle Ukrainians will have to fight. But we in the West should make sure we’re providing meaningful, sustained, long-term assistance along the lines of what we already know to work. Exchange programs such as Open World and the International Visitor Leadership Program have introduced hundreds of Ukrainians to American democracy. Funding for such programs — which are relatively cheap and which also benefit Americans who gain exposure to different perspectives — should be doubled and tripled, with a special emphasis on Ukraine. Universities should be encouraged (and, where appropriate, assisted financially) to host Ukrainian students, fellows, and academics.

And the process of getting temporary American visas — currently a major barrier for anyone outside the elite — should be made as easy, painless, and as cheap as possible. As we’ve seen, developing the democratic mindset that undergirds meaningful change takes years. The sooner we ramp up our outreach, the sooner we’ll see it pay off. In the meantime, Western pressure on Ukraine’s government to enact reforms should remain relentless.

The geopolitical implications of a democratic Ukraine are huge — this is an opportunity not to be missed. With its large, Russian-speaking population and its strategic location, a Ukraine that — in five or 10 years — is considerably more democratic and successful could begin to show the Russians just across the border that another way is possible. Zalishchuk is sure of this. “I think that a democratic Russia could never happen without a democratic Ukraine,” she says. Going further, she describes Ukraine as “a model for the reformation of all the post-Soviet countries.” All the more reason we’ve got to start now — and to get it right. 

August 24, 2016

Russian Meddling in US Elections Backfires on Both Putin and His Man Trump

THE BIG IDEA: Eight years ago this month, Barack Obama’s high command became very worried after Russia invaded Georgia. 
The first-term senator, then 47, had no meaningful national security experience, a liability Hillary Clinton had highlighted throughout the Democratic primaries. And he happened to be vacationing in Hawaii.
Campaigning in Pennsylvania, John McCain recounted a phone call he had just had with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. "Today, we are all Georgians,” the hawkish war hero said, drawing cheers from the crowd of several thousand.
The Obama team was worried about losing voters of Eastern European descent as a result of McCain's hard-line rhetoric on Russia. There are lots of Polish Americans, Ukrainian Americans and Lithuanian Americans who live in swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. Many came to the United States to escape the Iron Curtain. 
The campaign manager responsible for Pennsylvania and Ohio, vividly remembers pushing the pro-Georgia and anti-Vladimir Putin message. “We also were hopeful that the ethnic communities, particularly the Polish Americans in the Cleveland suburbs, would be a hidden block for us, and did a lot of coalition work there,” he recalls. “It wasn’t ultimately enough to overcome the massive Obama [get out the vote] effort in Cuyahoga County, but it was definitely part of our strategy to drive up our numbers.”
Now the script is completely reversed. Those voters for whom McCain fought so hard in 2008 are still out there. They normally would be very inclined to vote for someone like Trump — on paper, they look just like his core supporters — but Putin’s clear preference for him over Clinton (combined with Trump’s naiveté on all things Russia) gives them great pause.
John Weaver, who was John Kasich’s chief strategist this year and advised both of McCain’s presidential bids, thinks the blowback is starting to show up in polls, specifically Trump’s weakness among Catholics who regularly attend Mass.
“In and around Cleveland, Akron, Toledo, Detroit and all throughout Wisconsin, you’re talking about voters with family in Poland, the Baltics, Ukraine and the Czech Republic,” said Weaver. “These voters are key to any narrow path that Trump has left.”
-- Trump alarms Americans of Eastern European ancestry for many reasons. Among them:
  • He has suggested that America will only conditionally live up to its obligations under the NATO charter and questioned the value of the alliance.
  • He’s said he’ll look into whether Putin should be allowed to keep Crimea, which he annexed with complete disregard for international law. “Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing,” he said this month.
  • Just three weeks ago, Trump pleaded directly with the Russian government to find and release tens of thousands of Clinton’s private emails. Asked whether Russian espionage into the former secretary of state’s correspondence would concern him, he replied: “No, it gives me no pause.
  • Trump’s campaign chairman until last FridayPaul Manafort, orchestrated the ill-fated political comeback of Putin ally Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine and is closely linked with other Putin cronies.
  • At the Republican National Convention last month, the Trump campaign stripped the party platform of language calling for the United States to provide lethal weapons to Ukraineto resist Russian belligerence.
-- This is not some silly political issue. The stakes are enormous. My colleague Andrew Roth reports from Kiev that “Russia is set to hold large military drills on the peninsula next month. And in eastern Ukraine, the use of heavy weapons between Russian-backed separatists and the army has increased as opposing trenches have crept so close that opposing fighters can shout across the breach. … And in Kiev, it is not unusual to hear again that Russia is preparing to invade Ukraine.”
-- Putin clearly likes what he sees. U.S. intelligence officials believe very strongly that Russian intelligence agencies were behind the hack of the Democratic National Committee and other Democratic entities before the stolen emails were then published by WikiLeaks. Many Democratic members of Congress are getting new phones and emails after their pilfered personal contact info was mysteriously posted online. Trump has not spoken out as Russia has become increasingly aggressive in this vein.
“Kremlin-controlled media outlets have stated publicly their preference for Trump,” former U.S. ambassador to Moscow Michael McFaul notes. “RT, Russia’s state-controlled television station broadcasting in the United States, has a clear preference for Trump. In one of many pro-Trump reports, the Russian state-controlled news service, Sputnik, said it confirmed Trump’s claim about Obama being the ‘founder’ of the Islamic State and tweeted the hashtag: #CrookedHillary. With vigor and volume, pro-Kremlin bloggers echoed these same messages on Twitter and Facebook. Putin himself has weighed in, praising Trump as a ‘colorful’ (‘yarkii’) and talented politician (though not as a genius, as Trump has claimed).”
-- Eastern Europeans are keenly aware of these developments, perhaps nowhere more so than in Ohio, a must-win state for Trump. “If there is an effect, Ohio is a good place to see if it has resonance,” said Kyle Kondik from the University of Virginia Center for Politics, who has written a book about the demographics of the Buckeye State.
If you were in Cleveland for the RNC last month, you noticed many monuments that showcased how much of the region’s cultural identity is tied to the east. The Ohio delegation, for example, stayed next to a monument to those harmed by the 1956 Soviet crackdown on Hungary.
-- A story in today’s New York Times chronicles the despair about Trump in the suburb of Parma: “Ukrainian-Americans have felt at home in the Republican Party since Franklin D. Roosevelt and Stalin divided control of Europe at Yalta. But … they are watching (2016) with a mix of confusion and fear,” Sheryl Gay Stolberg reports.
The best vignette from her piece: “As a proud Ukrainian-American, Taras Szmagala has worked for decades to elect Republicans, the party he associates with freedom. He ran an ethnic outreach program for Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 campaign, and advised President George Bush as the Soviet Union crumbled, when Ukraine became an independent state. Mr. Szmagala, 83, will mark Wednesday’s 25th anniversary of statehood at a parade and festival on Saturday in this Cleveland suburb, where the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine flies along the main thoroughfare in ‘Ukrainian Village.’ But there is a pall over the festivities. His name is Donald J. Trump. ‘The party’s dead as far as I’m concerned,’ Mr. Szmagala declared.”
Quote du jour: “Oksana Zavhorodnyuk, 44, was serving schnitzel and jumbo pirogi from behind a counter. She wrinkled her nose when asked about the presidential race. ‘I don’t like Trump,’ she volunteered, in English that is still halting, though she has been here for 25 years. ‘He likes Russia; he likes Putin. He’s not in his mind, you know?’
-- I hear anecdotes like this almost every day now. It’s important to reiterate that these would probably be Trump supporters if they did not find his position on Russia so repugnant. Most of these folks do not like Obama or Clinton.
-- Democrats see a major opening, and they are planning intensive outreach to these voters this fall. “You can get rid of Manafort, but that doesn't end the odd bromance Trump has with Putin,” Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook said in a statement. “Trump still has to answer serious questions hovering over his campaign given his propensity to parrot Putin’s talking points, the roster of advisers like Carter Page and Mike Flynn with deep ties to Russia, the recent Russian government hacking and disclosure of Democratic Party records, and reports that Breitbart published articles advocating pro-Kremlin positions on Ukraine. It's also time for Donald Trump to come clean on his own business dealings with Russian interests.”
The campaign has prepared a web video showing how Trump and Putin often echo one another: 
-- Joe Biden could also play a key role in this effort. It was no coincidence that, appearing with Clinton in his home town of Scranton last week, he attacked Trump for expressing fondness toward Putin. “He would have loved Stalin,” Biden told the crowd. Watch for him to make a similar cast post-Labor Day.
The vice president landed in Latvia overnight. While in Riga today, he will participate in a summit with the leaders of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. Biden’s mission is to reassure these fearful allies in what was formerly the Warsaw Pact — who know all too well what it’s like to be under the yoke of Soviet oppression and whose national survival depends on an American security guarantee — that the United States still has their back, no matter what Trump says.
-- At least two Ukrainian activists were given credentials to the Democratic National Convention by the DNC office responsible for taking care of coalitions and allied groups. One wrote a first-person account for the Ukrainian Weekly about their efforts to work media row drawing attention to Manafort’s ties with the Viktor Yanukovych. “We were very happy to see many friends of Ukraine on the convention floor,” wrote Ulana Baluch Mazurkevich. “It is clear that the decisions the U.S. electorate will make regarding its next president will invariably determine … the future of Ukraine.”
-- The Trump campaign pushes back: Asked for comment, the campaign responded by highlighting an allegation in the book “Clinton Cash” that donations to the Clinton Foundation influenced the handling of the sale of U.S. uranium mines to a Russian-backed company. “Hillary Clinton, who effectively sold U.S. uranium to Russia for cash, is complicit in large-scale criminal activity,” adviser Stephen Miller said in an email. “Therefore, anything she says should be regarded as untrue.” (The Clinton campaign replied with a link to a nonpartisan fact check, as well as another story that offered a partial refutation of the book.)
-- 1976 offers a precedent that should worry Trump. Gerald Ford’s insistence during a debate with Jimmy Carter that there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” — mild compared to what Trump has said — hurt him badly with white ethnic voters. “Ohio and Wisconsin were two of the closest states that year, and both of those states had a fair number of white Eastern European ethnics,” the University of Virginia’s Kondik notes. “So in close races (Ohio was decided by less than a point, and Wisconsin by about two), there are all sorts of things that could have been decisive.”
A refresher:
-- Many experts in the political and national security realm are baffled by what they believe is Putin’s myopia. “I don’t quite understand what kind of long game he is playing,” said Weaver, the Republican strategist who has worked for Kasich and McCain. “She’s going to win. How does Putin think this is going to help his relationship with the next president?”
This story appeared on Tuesday 23, 2016 on The Washington Post and it was written 
 with Breanne Deppisch (@breanne_dep) and contributions from Elise Viebeck (@eliseviebeck).

June 1, 2016

Ukraine exHero Soldier is Gay and was Openly Out While in Service

                                                                          Ex-soldier Oleh Kopko talks about his service in the army and his experience of hiding his sexuality from his comrades on Jan. 22.
Ex-soldier Oleh Kopko speaks with the Kyiv Post on Jan. 22. (Pavlo Podufalov) 

Ukrainian Oleh Kopko, 31, was summoned to war in August 2014 and spent a year fighting against the Russian-separatist forces in an artillery battalion in eastern Ukraine.

Kopko has been in some of the hottest spots of the conflict: He’s been to Debaltsevo, Illovaisk and at the Russian border. He has the warmest memories of his comrades, who were “a real brotherhood.”

His commanders even invited him to rejoin the army as a professional soldier. But Kopko doubts that the invitation will still stand after this story is published.

That’s because Kopko is gay.

He wasn’t open about his sexuality while serving in the army (“For obvious reasons,” he says), but decided it would be right to open up about it now.

When Kopko was summoned to war, he was living with his boyfriend of 6.5 years in Zaporizhzhya. When he went to war, the couple broke up. The service was one of the reasons.

Tough service

Kopko says he never considered dodging the conscript, although he knew that Ukraine’s army was a mess. He got a proof of it very soon: When he and other fresh troops arrived to a training base near Dnipropetrovsk, they weren’t fed for 24 hours.

After some 1.5 months at the training center, the conscripts were sent to the frontline – first, to protect the border near Luhansk, then to Artemovsk.

Kopko served in the artillery and says he has never been in a close fight and rarely even saw his target. It didn’t make it safer, though.

“Near Debaltsevo and Starobeshevo we were shelled 10 to 15 times a day,” Kopko recalls.

Ex-soldier Oleh Kopko talks about his service in the army and his experience of hiding his sexuality from his comrades on Jan. 22.

Ex-soldier Oleh Kopko speaks with the Kyiv Post on Jan. 22. (Pavlo Podufalov) 

The soldier says a lot of strange things were happening at war.

“Sometimes we would be sent to a fire position and then be ordered to leave without shooting and without an explanation. Or we were ordered to leave a base suddenly, and minutes after that the base was shelled,” Kopko recalls. “There were a lot of things that I couldn’t explain.”

Even though artillery mostly works in the rear, Kopko says they experienced the horror of the war to the full extent. He saw the death of two of his comrades during the shelling and feared for his life in Ilovaisk.

“There was one day when we were constantly shelled and were waiting for the order of some kind, but no order would come. This indefinite waiting was the most horrible thing to me,” he recalls.

Despite all of that he says he never regretted the decision to serve his country.

“Even when you are on a leave you feel like you should come back to war as soon as possible, because your friends are there and you need to be with them,” he says.

Sexuality at front line

Kopko didn’t tell his fellow soldiers that he was gay. He didn’t say that he was straight, either. The man says his homosexuality wasn’t an issue, because “there were a lot of other things to worry about at war.”

And war psychologist Olena Batyrskaya agrees.

“There is no homophobia in the army, simply because there is no sex life in the army,” she says. “Be youheterosexual or homosexual, private life is not a matter for discussion thereat all. There, it is all about war.”

Batyrskaya is a war psychologist at Psychology Crisis Center and has been working with Ukrainian soldiers for two years now. She says that she hasn’t heard of any scandals regarding sexuality in all this time.

But in Ukraine’s peaceful life, the homophobia outbursts are frequent. In March, the right-wing radicals dispensed a human rights forum in Lviv just because the gay rights were on the agenda, and tried to do the same to a similar event in Kyiv in March.

In 2015, anti-gay activists threw petards into the participants of a gay march in Kyiv, wounding several police officers. Representatives of the Right Sector radical group threatened to repeat the attack at this year’s gay pride on June 11.

Danylо Blinov, a Ukrainian serviceman, has never met Kopko or any other gay soldier at the war front and is surprised to be asked about his attitude to homosexual soldiers.

“If a gay is a good soldier then let him serve. What is worse: gay or an alcoholic?” he says, adding that drinkers are the worst problem at the war front.

Batyrskaya doesn’t deny that being openly gay in the army might cause a problem.

“There are a lot of brutal men who don’t have enough knowledge about the matter. And if you come and say: ‘Hey, I am your company commander, guys, and I’m gay!’ - believe me, that company won’t be very effective,” she says.

Kopko agrees that the main problem with homophobia in Ukraine is the lack of knowledge and says that it is probably better not to talk about one’s homosexuality in the army.

“Soldiers are just the same as everyone else, and there are gays among them,” he says with a smile.

Kopko says that Hornet, a popular smartphone application for dating, is just as popular among soldiers as anywhere else. The app shows all the people nearby with an active search status. Kopko used it during his service – without mentioning to his fellow soldiers that he was looking for same-sex matches.

He says that he even got date invitations from Russian soldiers deployed in the area nearby. He declined them.

Editor’s Note: This article is a part of the “Journalism of Tolerance” project by the Kyiv Post and its affiliated non-profit organization, the Media Development Foundation. The project covers challenges faced by sexual, ethnic andother minorities in Ukraine, as well as people with physical disabilities andthose living in poverty. This project is made possible by the support of the American people through the U.S. Agency for International Development and Internews. Content is independent of the donors.

December 1, 2015

The Queen of war torn Luhansk Mikhail Koptev was good- until the Tanks Arrived

Koptev modelling at an Orchid show organised as part of the recent School of Kyiv art biennial. Image: Sasha Kurmaz
Even drinking on the street in Luhansk is dangerous. At any moment a military patrol could walk past and demand to see your documents. Being seen to be drunk, they say in these parts, is a good way to “end up in the cellar” of the rebel fighters, which at the very least means losing all your money — and perhaps something even worse. Offering blow-jobs to the brusque men of Luhansk, some of whom are dressed in army fatigues, isn’t the safest thing to do either. But fortunately on this particular Saturday those walking past were just a little frightened by Koptev’s come-ons. 

The self-taught fashion designer Mikhail Koptev really is the star of Luhansk. They know him in Brazil. He was a star long before the arrival of its other celebrities, the field commanders and the head of the Luhansk People’s Republic, Igor Plotnitsky. When he was 14, Koptev escaped from a monastery near Rostov in Russia, where he was sent to be educated at the age of seven. He returned to Luhansk, where he went to college to learn to be a shoemaker, throwing his heart and soul into fashion, his first love. When his family used to send him food parcels, he would pore over the pages of the foreign magazines that they used to wrap them in.

No-one who has seen the Orchid’s erotic show, live or online, will ever forget it
Koptev began working as a model at the local fashion house, Nuance. He modelled at army barracks and miners’ headquarters in and around Luhansk. He then became the commercial director of a theatre, before founding the Orchid, where shows thrilled with “absurd clothes, fantastical hairstyles, bizarre body art and hardcore erotica”. Soon the Orchid gained fame outside of Luhansk as well. Before the war, film crews from television channels in Moscow and Kiev often came to interview Koptev. On the Ukrainian version of the talk show Let Them Talk they debated whether his work was fashion or pornography. Vice sent an interviewer to visit him, who, in stunned admiration, declared Koptev to be the world’s finest trash designer.

No-one who has seen the Orchid’s erotic show, live or online, will ever forget it. Photographs from one of the performances have become an internet meme, bouncing from site to site with various sobriquets (one site published it in its “Shock of the day” section). Unattractive men and women – young girls and boys, old men and old women — strut across the room in odd costumes, displaying parts of themselves that usually stay covered. Naked flesh daubed with vulgar body art frolics in torn negligees made from fur, leather, plastic, old rags, horns, skulls, hub-caps, children’s toys and anything else you might find at a rubbish dump.  

Mikhail Koptev in his modelling days

Koptev’s creations shun all that is pure, harmonious, polite, peaceful, traditional. It is deranged trash art, which aims to defile the concept of beauty. Koptev believes that “art should provoke”; you want to run away from his creations – just as once in a club Fillip Kirkorov, a  well-known Russian pop star, once ran away from him, drunk and naked, and with horns made from tree branches on his head. 

“Oi!” Koptev bellows at another passer-by, his big jewelled hands wrapped around his cup of vodka. “Here’s to you! Here’s to you and your cock!” The passer-by hurries away.

“I have known Misha for 15 years”, says Tatyana Litman, who for the last 35 years has managed Luhansk’s largest cultural centre, where Koptev hosted the first performances of the Orchid. “First he asked me for a place to put his clothes. I was imagining suits and dresses, not heaps of garbage. Then he began to put on shows. He told me to come to see them, that there would be a surprise.”

Naked flesh daubed with vulgar body art frolicks in torn negligees made from fur, leather, plastic, old rags, horns, skulls, hub-caps and children’s toys
There was a surprise all right. Litman remembers her first Orchid show. “The hall was full. But as the show started, I was sat on a couch with my head in my hands, praying to God that my bosses wouldn’t come in. It was appalling: painted naked bodies; horns, tails and dead cat skins draped over little girls and boys. The audience went wild.” Despite Litman’s reaction, Koptev brought more erotic shows to her Stalinist-era theatre. She only showed him the door when a Russian TV channel did a feature on him, and she started to fear for her job.

Wild Orchid 3
Luhansk in 2015, after recent conflict. Image: Denis Boyarinov.
It's hard to imagine a worse place for erotic shows and provocative gay culture than Luhansk today. The town is pock-marked with bullet holes from snipers, and all its windows are shattered. I am talking with Tatyana Litman in a cafe on the street outside Luhansk’s trade union building, which has been taken over by the Federation of Trade Unions of the Luhansk People’s Republic. A list of contacts for the administration of the unrecognised republic hangs on the glass doors of the building, alongside an appeal by its Ministry of Emergency Situations for citizens not to walk on unfamiliar streets, where it is possible to tread on unexploded land mines.  

Everyone remaining in Luhansk, whose population is a quarter of what it used to be, has a story to tell about how they have survived. They are all similar to each other: gunfire like clockwork; hiding in basements; anxious, sleepless nights; Chinese whispers about gruesome rumours; long queues for water broken up by gunfire, and hauling heavy water buckets up flights of stairs; food shortages; batteries and candles becoming the most valuable currency; not being able to contact relatives outside Luhansk. Those who endured the blockade talk a lot about the material problems of war, but say nothing of loved ones and neighbours who died or were wounded — their heads try to block out the horrors that they have seen.

Now the town, still trying to recover from the war, is enjoying a poor but relatively peaceful life. The factories have stopped working, and electricity, water and mobile reception is still cut off, but a few cafes and restaurants have opened again. Their clients are predominantly armed men in mismatched camouflage gear. There is almost no shooting in Luhansk at the moment. It gets particularly quiet at 9pm, the start of the curfew, when people are scared to go outside in case they end up in the cellar, and are scared to drive anywhere in case their cars are hijacked.

In the town where LGBT activists once published a magazine and planned to organise a parade, and where there used to be gay discos every week, people can now only find each other on the internet
The separatist fighers have become Luhansk’s wealthiest class – a new military elite, whom people are afraid of. The girls of Luhansk dream of meeting a fighter from abroad, making him fall in love with her, marrying him and escaping with him as far away as possible. In the town’s main park, pensioners in their Sunday best dance the waltz as an orchestra plays, just like on Victory Day. Locals joke that pensioners are the town’s second wealthiest group of people, because since April they have started to receive their pensions again: about 2,000 roubles a month — barely enough to stay alive.

The day after our vodka-fuelled interview at the cultural centre, we are sitting on leather couches in Koptev’s small one-bedroom apartment on Kommunalnaya street. He has lived in this prefab box for the last 10 years. But in comparison with the poverty of the surroundings (the hallway doesn’t have any radiators – alcoholic neighbours sold them as scrap metal), it is an oasis of opulence: renovated, with an air-conditioner, a wardrobe with a sliding door, raspberry-coloured curtains, a brown leather sofa, Swarowski crystals coming unstuck from threadbare cushions, and on a bed-side table a book titled Strategies of Brilliant Men.

Wild OrchidMikhail Koptev. Image from Koptev’s archive
Over a glass of dessert wine, Koptev talks about how his good life came to an end as soon as the war started. Just as the cultural centre had battled until the bitter end to make people happy, so did his house of provocative fashion. “It was April 2014. We travelled to a show at a nightclub outside of Luhansk," says Koptev. "We got there through a shower of bullets. In May the TV channel Ukraina invited us to Kiev. For this trip I couldn’t get any models — they had all fled from Luhansk. I had to use my mother-in-law. I say ‘mother-in-law’: she’s my lover Fairycake’s mum. She knows all about us, so I call her my mother-in-law”.

“I still want to live — and to live in style. But when?”
For the last year Koptev has halted his tolerance-testing performances, no longer arranging shows and gay parties. As soon as the Luhansk People’s Republic came into being, it became obvious that those in control were set to persecute the LGBT community. First there were rumours that homosexuals would be shot on sight. Then a strict anti-gay law was discussed, and they even named the date when it would be passed. The gay people in the Luhansk region didn’t wait for the repression to start, they left for wherever they could: Rostov and Voronezh, Kiev and Crimea. Luhansk’s rainbow faded as the skies got darker: in the town where LGBT activists once published a magazine and planned to organise a parade, and where there used to be gay discos every week, people can now only find each other on the internet.

But a new kind of hero has emerged recently: the rebel fighter. “Fighters from Moscow are especially active on our dating sites,” explains Koptev. “They have no fear at all. They write things like, 'I’m the same as you and I want to try it.'"  

By the book
Education versus intolerance at Moscow’s new gender school
Joining the rebel fighters in Luhansk is easy; people do it out of desperation, as there are no jobs in the town. “My man gave them a couple of medical certificates and was admitted the same day. They didn’t even do any health checks,”  says Koptev. “And the guy has been an unemployed drunk, a junkie and a convict. He fits right in!”

Taking another sip of wine, Koptev starts telling me blood-curdling stories about the ordinary people of Luhansk having to face these armed men in strange uniforms. “Trust me man, everything is really scary here. To you it might look like I’m sat here on a leather sofa, so audacious and beautiful, wearing silk shirts… But anyone here with any money fucked off a long time ago. I keep asking myself: ‘Misha, you’re a girl who will turn 46 in August. How do you see your future? It’s always either been the USSR, the crazy 90s, the war, or the Luhansk People’s Republic.’ And I still want to live, and to live in style. But when?”

Suddenly he changes the subject: “Everyone thinks I’m a monster, but it’s not true. People classed as evil by this evil world may in fact be saints. And those considered to be saints often turn out to be evil.” Luhansk’s devil incarnate, dressed in a teddy-bear jacket, announces: “I think I’ve started talking shit.” He raises his glass again: “Let’s drink to you, mate!”

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