The Ukrainian Evolution

Posted by Richard Stengel, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Follow @Stengel 
May 21, 2014
Ukrainian Polling Station
Ukrainian Polling Station

On Sunday, Ukrainians will go to the polls to vote for a new president. But that simple statement does not reckon with the significance of this election. The May 25 vote is not just a validator of their struggle for change and a harbinger of Ukraine’s future – plenty important enough — it is also a demarcation point between the global struggle for freedom and the forces of repression, of nations being able to choose their own future rather than have it imposed upon them.

So this is not just any election. It comes at a perilous moment in Ukraine’s long history. It follows the purported annexation of Crimea and Russia’s own efforts to destabilize the country and undermine the voting. For weeks now the Russian media machine has broadcast fictional stories of a “Neo-Nazi rampage” and a country on the verge of civil war, while the Kremlin has encouraged separatists in the east to seize power at the barrel of a gun.

Last week I traveled to Ukraine to see for myself. I found Kyiv to be calm but nervous; people were going about their business, having coffee at sidewalk cafes, taking their children to school. But they were a little anxious about the election. And why wouldn’t they be? There’s a lot riding on it.

While in Kyiv, I walked through the Maidan and paid my respects at monuments to the Heavenly Hundred, the protesters who gave their lives fighting for a truly representative government. I met young Ukrainians who protested in the Maidan and lost friends in the struggle. I spoke with one university student who told me she had always passed out at the sight of blood, yet during the protests, she volunteered to care for the wounded in one of the Maidan’s makeshift hospitals and never fainted or faltered. She said she has seen enough bloodshed for a lifetime, and now she is focused on finding a democratic future for her country. Everywhere I found a quiet patriotism, a faith that if only the people can exercise their will, Ukraine will prosper.

Graffiti on the side of a building near the Maidan in Kyiv symbolizes Ukrainians' desire to turn their struggle for change into the evolution of their country, May 2014.
Graffiti on the side of a building near the Maidan in Kyiv symbolizes Ukrainians’ desire to turn their struggle for change into the evolution of their country, May 2014.

Sunday’s elections are the best route to political healing in Ukraine. Polls show that more than 70 percent of Ukrainians want to stay intact as a nation. The elections should be an antidote to the mayhem created by Russia and the separatists who seem more intent on tearing the country down than raising it up. Everyone I spoke to in Kyiv wants a nation that includes minority voices, a nation that looks both westward and eastward. They reject the notion that they must choose one or the other.

Elections are never perfect — and this one will not be either. There will be disruptions, and some people will stay home in the east, where election officials have been intimidated and in some cases even kidnapped. Russia has also ensured that no voting will take place in Crimea. But instead of preventing people from voting, the separatists should register their dissent in the voting booth. The story of the 21st century shows that in the end, the ballot box is more powerful than the bullet. Around 400 million people in Europe are eligible to vote this weekend in European Parliamentary elections — Ukrainians deserve the same right to express their will.

More than 200 years ago, Thomas Paine wrote that “the right of voting…is the primary right by which other rights are protected.” Let this election be the beginning and not the end of the Ukrainian people being able to choose and construct their future. It should not only reflect the will of the Ukrainian people but be an engine for protecting the rights of minorities as well. That is the future of Ukraine.

Promoting Tolerance, Respect and Freedom for All

Posted by: David Young, Legal Officer, United States Agency for International Development

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idahoOn May 17, 2014, the world will observe International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO) in support of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons and communities across the globe.  IDAHO promotes a world of tolerance, respect, and freedom regardless of people’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

The U.S. Government maintains a vision in which the human rights of LGBT persons are respected and they are able to live with dignity, free from discrimination, persecution and violence.  In this world, the human rights of LGBT persons are upheld; they are able to participate fully in democratic decision-making in their households, communities and countries; they have equal access to sustainable livelihoods, economic assets and resources; and they are not barred from accessing the basic education, health and other services that are enjoyed by their fellow citizens and that are essential for personal well-being and growth.  LGBT persons and their allies can come together to advocate for the equal treatment for all persons, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.

In Ukraine, the U.S. Government supports programs that counter abuse, discrimination and human rights violations targeting LGBT persons.  For example, the U.S. Embassy provides small grants to LGBT non-governmental organizations and helps enhance the skills of LGBT leaders through training programs and exchanges in the United States.  The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) civil society activities work with non-governmental organizations, including those focused on LGBT concerns, to help them advocate for human rights. Additionally, a USAID media development project monitors and reports on media activities related to gender, and the ways in which LGBT persons and issues are portrayed in the media. USAID also supports programs that counter the trafficking in human beings, which includes support for LGBT persons who can be victims of trafficking.

Ukraine faces many challenges at the moment.  Supporting the fight against homophobia and passing legislation to prevent discrimination against LGBT persons will not only improve the lives of Ukrainian LGBT citizens but will also strengthen Ukraine’s ability to meet these challenges by improving the business environment for foreign investment and furthering visa liberalization with the European Union.  The U.S. Government looks forward to working with the Government of Ukraine and all Ukrainians to further protect the rights of LGBT persons.

Crimean Residents To Face Russian-Style Repression

Posted By Tom Malinowski, Assistant Secretary, Bureau Of Democracy, Human Rights, And Labor

APRIL 25, 2014

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A View of the City of Bakhchysarai, Crimea
A View of the City of Bakhchysarai, Crimea

One unfortunate effect – and perhaps intent – of the Russian government’s threats against eastern Ukraine has been to divert the world’s attention from the part of Ukraine it has already seized.

On April 15, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a report on Crimea documenting what the Russian government has tried to hide by denying international monitors access to Crimea:  the imprisonment, torture, and killings of Crimean citizens who opposed Russia’s illegal annexation of the peninsula prior to the March referendum.

The world is already familiar with some of the more horrific reports that have emerged in recent weeks, such as the discovery on March 18 of the body of Crimean Tatar activist Reshat Ametov two weeks after he had been abducted, bearing clear evidence of abuse.  On March 25, Human Rights Watch reported that two Euromaidan activists in Crimea had been kidnapped and brutally tortured by Russian and local forces in secret facilities for 11 days.

A Tatar woman cries during the funeral of Reshat Ametov, a Tatar pro-Ukrainian activist and father of three, who disappeared after attending a rally on March 3 in Simferopol, Crimea, on March 18, 2014.
A Tatar woman cries during the funeral of Reshat Ametov, a Tatar pro-Ukrainian activist and father of three, who disappeared after attending a rally on March 3 in Simferopol, Crimea, on March 18, 2014.

After spinning a fictitious tale of protecting members of the ethnic Russian minority in Ukraine, the Russian government and its proxies are subjecting members of ethnic minorities in Crimea to the very abuses they pretend to oppose.  On March 31, pro-Russian thugs beat a 14-year-old Tatar boy for speaking Tatar in public.  On March 18, Crimean Deputy Prime Minister Temirgaliyev announced that Tatars must give up their land to be used for other purposes.  On March 15 and 16, pro-Russia thugs kidnapped Ukrainian Greek Catholic priests, interrogated them, and had local “authorities” charge some of them with “extremism.”  Following anonymous death threats, the Chief Reform Rabbi of Crimea has fled.  All told, international organizations report that around 5,000 people, including minority Christians, Jews, and at least 3,000 Tatars, have fled Crimea and sought refuge elsewhere in Ukraine.

If the Russian government begins to impose through its occupation and purported annexation of Crimea the repressive laws it is increasingly implementing in Russia, Crimean residents may experience surprising restrictions on the rights they once freely exercised.  Among these are:

  • A Loss of Autonomy.  Even as President Putin demands decentralization in Ukraine, he is abolishing it in Russia.  A new bill in the Duma could cancel direct mayoral elections in Russia, stripping citizens of their ability to elect their local leaders.
  • Censorship and Propaganda.  As has already been done within Russia, Russian authorities have tried to limit Crimean residents’ access to TV channels that are not Kremlin-controlled.  From Russia’s internet space, Crimean residents could find themselves unable to access certain independent news sites.
  • Criminalization of Dissent.  The Russian government could attempt to subject Crimean residents who wish to express dissent to its arsenal of laws unduly restricting freedom of expression, including Russian-style prosecutions of journalists and activists for “extremism” and “hooliganism” simply for expressing independent views.
  • “Foreign Agent” Hysteria. Following the xenophobic trend encouraged by authorities in Russia, lists of local “traitors” and “foreign agents” have already begun to appear in Crimea.  Crimean non-governmental organizations (NGOs), like Russian ones, may find themselves subjected to a range of new burdensome regulations, including the notorious Russian “Foreign Agents” NGO law.  Many Crimean human rights defenders have already fled Crimea, and many of those who stayed are considering a principled stance to avoid taking on the false and stigmatizing label of “foreign agent.”
  • Limits on Freedom of Assembly. Recent Russian laws instituting harsh fines (over $9000) for participating in peaceful unsanctioned protest, if imposed in Crimea, may have a chilling effect on public demonstrations.  We’ve already seen evidence in Sevastopol – on April 15, the city banned an LGBT pride parade, citing Russia’s ban on LGBT “propaganda.”

Russia will continue to pay a high price if it continues to occupy Crimea.  Sanctions imposed because of its actions in Crimea will remain so long as those actions continue.  And we will increase these costs if Russia does not follow through on the commitments it made in Geneva on April 17 to de-escalate the crisis it has manufactured in eastern Ukraine.  We will also continue to empower Ukraine to withstand Russian pressure and move towards a prosperous and democratic future.  In recent days, the United States has signed a loan guarantee agreement with Ukraine to unlock $1 billion in financing, which will help the Ukrainian Government to provide critical services and protect vulnerable citizens as the government implements necessary economic reforms.  We are providing additional assistance to support those reforms, as well as free and fair elections, anti-corruption initiatives, recovery of stolen assets, and helping Ukraine withstand politically-motivated trade actions by Russia.

Video: Sanctions: How Did We Get Here?

As we look to what has happened in Crimea, and seek to diffuse tensions in eastern Ukraine, we are reminded what is at stake.  This is not a dispute between different parts of Ukraine.  It is a contest, as President Obama has said, between two competing ideals: “the belief that through conscience and free will, each of us has the right to live as we choose,” and an “older, more traditional view of power” which holds that “order and progress can only come when individuals surrender their rights to an all-powerful sovereign.”  The desire to live in freedom, under a state that serves its citizens, not the other way around, is universal.  Ukrainians don’t want to lose their freedom.  Their fellow citizens in Crimea, and neighbors in Russia, deserve to reclaim it.


Ukraine: Choosing Diplomacy Over Aggression

Posted by: Douglas Frantz, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs

April 13, 2014

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Pro-Russian Demonstrators Beat an Activist in Kharkiv, Ukraine on April 13, 2014 , (c) AP Photo
Pro-Russian Demonstrators Beat an Activist in Kharkiv, Ukraine on April 13, 2014, (c) AP Photo

This was no peaceful spring weekend for Ukraine.  Coordinated, well-armed Russian-backed militants attacked government buildings in a professional operation in six cities in eastern regions.  Many of the attackers were carrying Russian-origin weapons and outfitted in bulletproof vests and camouflage uniforms with insignia removed.

Observers on the ground saw that the events were carefully planned and orchestrated.  In Kharkiv, as pro-Russian groups neared pro-Ukrainian protesters, women, children, and medics moved away, leaving only well-armed young men to approach the pro-Ukrainian protestors.  These people were looking for a fight.  The pro-Russian “demonstration” was in fact a bloody attack on peaceful, pro-unity demonstrators.

The attacks occurred simultaneously in multiple locations.  These were not grass-roots political protests.  These armed “demonstrators” took over government administration buildings and security headquarters, seized weapons, forced local officials to abandon their offices, and attacked communications towers.

There are reports that independent Ukrainian and Russian media have been harassed and excluded from covering the seizures, while pro-Russian media had special access to broadcast the demands of these armed groups.  Observers have also reported that the militants have taken journalists into custody, attacked at least one, and in one case fired weapons as a warning to other journalists.

Ukrainian officials have reported that Russian intelligence officers are directly involved in orchestrating the activities of these attackers.

Ukraine has seen this before.  The parallels to Crimea are worrying.  There, highly organized, well-equipped, and professional forces wearing Russian military uniforms, balaclavas, and military gear without identifying insignia moved in first to take control of Crimean government and security facilities before being later replaced by regular Russian military forces.

Under extreme pressure from their large and well-armed neighbor, the legitimate government of Ukraine is nevertheless using diplomacy first.  Kyiv has only used force when public safety was at risk and dialogue failed.  Prime Minister Yatsenyuk was in the region on Friday to discuss the central government’s willingness to work with regions on decentralization in advance of the May 25 presidential elections.  The government is clearly seeking a future as a nation fully integrated in international institutions, a nation that uses words and not force, a nation that defends the rights of minorities, a nation at peace with the West — and the East.

The transitional government of Ukraine has shown admirable restraint to date as it deals soberly with its bullying neighbor to the north.  As Secretary Kerry said, “The United States and our allies will not hesitate to use 21st-century tools to hold Russia accountable for 19th-century behavior.”  Russia has a choice — it is time to make the right decision.


Remembering the Past, Safeguarding the Future

Posted by: John Kerry, the 68th Secretary of State

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2014_0127_holocaust_memorial“It was so terrible. It was hard for the mind to absorb it.” Those were the words of U.S. Master Sergeant Marvin Josephs as he entered Buchenwald on April 12, 1945, along with military chaplain Rabbi Herschel Schachter.

Decades later, Josephs still remembered vividly the words “You’re free” reverberating from Rabbi Schachter’s bullhorn. He remembered seeing the crematoria and the house of the commandant and his notorious wife, Ilse Koch, the “Beast of Buchenwald.” Above all, he remembered the survivors — emaciated and tortured — coming forward at the sound of the rabbi’s bullhorn.

The scenes of liberated prisoners were so overwhelming that Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered every man in the U.S. 4th Armored Division to walk the grounds of Buchenwald. Josephs immediately understood why: “He didn’t want people to ever deny what happened.”

Nearly 70 years after World War Two ended, 70 years after the world’s collective horror at the Holocaust, anti-Semitism remains a global menace. It is not enough to remember the millions of innocent lives lost in one of the darkest chapters in all of world history. We must reaffirm our vow never to forget the evil that comes from bigotry and intolerance and turn that commitment into action.

Many of us in the United States have personal and family connections to this difficult history – and to the cause of action now. My brother’s interest in our family’s genealogy took him back to the Czech Republic just months ago to learn more about the history of ancestors we had never even heard about until the last decade, stories of a great uncle Otto and his sister Jenni who perished in the Holocaust.

I’ll never forget, on my first trip to Berlin as Secretary of State, meeting with a group of young Germans. They told me something I never knew about the city where I’d spent time growing up in the aftermath of World War Two. Throughout the city, they’ve placed “stumbling stones” to mark where Jews were murdered in the streets and other victims of the Holocaust. Every day, passers-by remember what happened — and equally important — they never forget or deny it.

Holocaust Remembrance Day calls us to condemn anti-Semitism in every form – whether it’s the disturbing rise of xenophobic and anti-Semitic parties in Europe or the uptick of violence against Jewish people anywhere in the world.

The EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights 2013 Report on Anti-Semitism underscores the stakes. One third of those surveyed experienced some form of anti-Semitic harassment over the past five years, with 26 percent enduring verbal assault or harassment over the past year alone — just because they were Jewish.

What’s more, 4 percent reported physical violence and 23 percent said they avoid Jewish events or sites because they don’t feel safe.

Of course, the numbers don’t tell the full story.

In Italy, police are tracking down the culprit who sent pig heads last week to Rome’s Grand Synagogue, the Israeli Embassy, and a museum sponsoring a Holocaust exhibit.

In Romania, a government-owned television channel aired a profoundly anti-Semitic Christmas song, which claimed that Jews are only good “in the chimney as smoke.”

If these acts of hate don’t hit you in the gut, I don’t know what will. If this isn’t a call to action, I don’t know what is.

We need to be forceful about what is right and what is wrong. But we also need to work to recognize our common humanity in others, and to start the conversations that will help others recognize ours.

That’s why the Obama Administration has launched the Atrocities Prevention Board. That’s why we’re working hand in glove with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide so that we can detect and highlight this global scourge.

And that’s why, last year, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Ira Forman and President Obama’s Special Envoy to the Organization of Islamic Cooperation Rashad Hussain joined an historic interfaith visit to the concentration camps at Dachau and Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The United States is committed to having the difficult conversations across cultures and religions that can actually change people’s opinions. Pope Francis calls it “the dialogue of life,” and we reaffirm today that there are indeed millions of lives that depend on it.

We — each of us — have a responsibility to stand up and affirm human dignity. In an interconnected world, anti-Semitism that goes unanswered anywhere is a threat to people everywhere. That is a collective challenge we all face in the 21st century.

Inmate Counseling and Better Policies Key to Reducing Risky Behavior

Posted by: Mark Breda, U. S.  Agency for International Development (USAID/Ukraine)

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DSC_0279It is New Year’s Eve at a prison in Ukraine and men stand around in a large cell, sharing a single blunt, filthy syringe as they mutilate their arms to inject drugs. “The scene is typical of Ukrainian prisons,” explained an ex-inmate who wished to remain unnamed.

In Ukraine, prison inmates often participate in risky behaviors that contribute to the spread of HIV. Some prisoners use old syringes over and over. Others manufacture their own injecting tools using pens and plastic tubes. Still others tattoo their bodies using non-sterile instruments or have unprotected sex with fellow inmates or visitors.

A recent USG funded survey of 1,300 prison inmates shows that HIV prevalence among inmates is more than 13 percent (10 percent among men and 33 percent among women), 20 times higher than in the general population. Forty-four percent of those surveyed reported injecting drugs during their lives and 17 percent admitted using drugs while in prison.

The state penitentiary service in Ukraine has been slow to implement Ukraine’s National AIDS policies.  Only 60 of Ukraine’s 183 prisons receive HIV/AIDS treatment supplies.  Poor prison conditions and abusive practices by prison staff increase inmate vulnerability to infection and sometimes obstruct treatment for HIV positive prisoners.  Harm reduction services such as syringe exchanges, opiate substitution therapy, and even HIV testing are either not available or offered inconsistently.

After leaving prison, injecting drug users face challenges that may lead them to transmit HIV; many have no home, no job, and poor knowledge of HIV and sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

USG is partnering with the government of Ukraine and other international donors to address these tough issues with a two-pronged approach, and things are slowing beginning to change.

DSC_0880First, USG’s Project Start is collaborating with Ukraine’s Ministry of Justice to implement a HIV/STI/Hepatitis C risk-reduction program for inmates who are soon to be released. It begins two months before they leave prison and continues for three months after their release. The program includes seven one-on-one sessions with each client, providing a range of counseling and prevention strategies tailored to each individual.

Second, USG’s PLEDGE Project, implemented in partnership with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, is promoting systemic change in Ukraine’s penitentiaries by advocating new harm-reduction policies through Ukraine’s legislature and directly with prison authorities.

Through USG efforts on the legislative side, a Joint Order for the treatment of detained persons was recently created with Ukraine’s Ministries of Health, Interior, and Justice.  Also with USG support, Ukraine developed and approved a comprehensive National Anti-Drug Strategy. The strategy demonstrates a shift from previously repressive measures to a more human-rights-based approach for people who inject drugs, promoting increased coverage and accessibility for syringe exchanges, opiate substitution therapy and integrated services to address HIV/TB, Hepatitis C, and other related diseases.

Finally, USG, in collaboration with the United Nations Development Program and UNAIDS, has developed comprehensive HIV services for pilot prisons, including education about drug use for prisoners and prison staff.

This past July Serhiy Zinchenko, head of the Ukraine State Penitentiary Service Personnel Department, expressed the government’s new found support for a comprehensive approach to HIV/AIDS when he stated “We now understand the need to improve the situation in this sphere. It is important to learn international standards for treatment of prisoners, in particular related to their right to health care.”

Strengthening links to Podil’s Jewish Past and Future

Posted by: Yaryna Ferencevych, Press Attaché

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Ambassador Pyatt at the Hatikva Reform Synagogue opening
Ambassador Pyatt at the Hatikva Reform Synagogue opening

On September 27, I joined Ambassador Pyatt in Kyiv’s Podil neighborhood for a very special ceremony.  Joined by his Canadian and German counterparts, the Ambassador spoke at the dedication ceremony for the Hatikva Reform Synagogue and its new community center in Kyiv.  In his remarks, the Ambassador acknowledged the congregation’s rabbi, Rabbi Dukhovny, as “a friend and teacher to generations of American ambassadors here in Kyiv.”  Pausing to remember the 72nd anniversary of the massacres at Baby Yar and its victims, he spoke about the history of the Jewish community in Ukraine, its resilience, and how he was inspired by the congregation’s return to its roots in Kyiv’s historic Podil neighborhood.  Reminding participants that “the guiding principles of tolerance, cooperation, and respect for human dignity that are embodied in this center are essential to Americans as well,” the Ambassador told participants he had great expectations for the center and its future work.

Concert at the Hatikva Reform Synagogue opening
Concert at the Hatikva Reform Synagogue opening

The new structure, paid for with donations by three North American families, replaced rental facilities which had served the community for 22 years. The new 4,000 square-foot center has a sanctuary with seating for 150, activity rooms, a library, youth center and kitchenette. After the speeches, the fun began!  Hatikva’s youngest members, approximately 20 of its Kyiv Reform Kindergarten students kicked off the festivities with song and dance, reminding all of us that the Center has a bright future ahead!  A rousing performance by Irina Rosenfeld followed, along with many more expressions of congratulations.

pic2With the new center now open, the Embassy wasted no time in kicking off our cooperative relationship.  Just two weeks later, on October 10, Hatikva hosted the first Ukrainian screening of the film Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness.  The movie, a portrait of a great writer whose stories became the basis of the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof, tells the tale of the rebellious genius who created an entirely new literature. Working in at the end of the 19th century in Western Ukraine, he explored the depths of a Jewish world locked in crisis and on the cusp of profound change and he captured that world with brilliant humor.  In an earlier blog we wrote about the Ambassador’s visit to the building in Lviv that Sholem Aleichem once called home.

According to the film’s director Joe Dorman, Sholem Aleichem was one of the men who shaped a new modern Jewish identity.  After the screening, Dorman, an award-winning independent filmmaker, answered questions and discussed how he made visits to Ukraine during the production of the film and gained a deeper understanding of Jewish and Ukrainian culture, including the many links between the two.  He explained the critical role that Sholem Aleichem’s works played in preserving Jewish identity in the United States, and for Jewish diaspora more broadly.  The Embassy was happy to present the film as an interesting cultural link between the U.S. and Ukraine, but also as an example of Ukraine’s multicultural past, and Ukraine’s Jewish heritage.  In addition to the Hatkiva screening, the Embassy sponsored public presentations of the film in Kyiv and Lviv, which were well attended.