WASHINGTON, D.C. February 5, 2016
TO: NCSEJ Leadership and Interested Parties
FROM: Daniel Rubin, Chairman;
Alexander Smukler, President;
Mark B. Levin, Executive Vice-Chairman & CEO
Ukraine’s economic minister Aivarus Abramavicius resigned this week over what he said was rampant corruption in the government and slow pace of reforms. In his resignation statement, Mr. Abramavicius said that many government officials had resisted his reform efforts and blocked systematic change. He said he and his team were unwilling “to serve as a cover-up for the covert corruption, or become puppets for those who, very much like the ‘old’ government, are trying to exercise control over the flow of public funds.”
This disturbing development may push Ukraine into a deep political crisis. Public trust in the government and its leaders has dramatically declined in recent months and Abramavicius’ resignation will further erode the government’s legitimacy. Many of Ukraine’s Western partners have also expressed disappointment and concern over the resignation. Ten ambassadors, including envoys from the United States, Germany, and France signed a joint letter of concern about the ramifications of this development.
In addition, a number of Ukraine’s civil society groups and activists urged the President to investigate which individuals are responsible for blocking reforms. However, many say that the problem is systemic and extends to the highest levels of country’s leadership.
In Moldova, the lasting political crisis may have boosted the popularity of pro-Russian parties, but the country remains firmly on a pro-European track, which is unlikely to be reversed. An interesting Voice of America article in this week’s update analyzes the composition of Moldova’s opposition movement, and the implications of the crisis.
I also want to highlight a Washington Post story about Russia’s campaign in Syria. According to the article, Russia sees its intervention in Syria as very successful in furthering its geopolitical goals in the Middle East and the world.
In addition, I recommend an opinion piece by Stephen Blank of the American Foreign Policy Council that urges the United States to reengage in the Caucasus and Central Asia regions.
Mark B. Levin
NCSEJ Executive Vice-Chairman & CEO
NCSEJ WEEKLY NEWS BRIEF
Washington, D.C. February 5, 2016
Lithuania vows to publish names of 1,000 suspected Holocaust perpetrators
JTA, February 2, 2016
Following the publication in Lithuania of a groundbreaking book on local complicity during the Holocaust, a state museum on genocide said it would publish a list of 1,000 suspected perpetrators.
Terese Birute Burauskaite, who heads the Vilnius-based Genocide and Resistance Research Centre of Lithuania, said her institution would “this year try to publish a book” containing “over 1,000 Lithuanian residents who are connected to the Holocaust,” the news website Delfi.lt reported Tuesday.
Burauskaite made her remarks in an interview on the findings of a book titled “Musiskiai” (“Our Own”) that was released last week. Co-authored by the Israeli Nazi hunter Efraim Zuroff and Ruta Vanagaite, a local author who began studying the Holocaust after discovering that members of her own family played a role in the murder of Jews during the genocide, the book focused media attention on the controversial issue of local complicity.
Russian non-Jews can begin conversion before immigrating to Israel
JTA, February 2, 2016
Russian non-Jews who are preparing to immigrate to Israel have been given the option of beginning their conversion to Judaism in Moscow.
The option came with the launch last week in Russia of the Maslul project, a joint initiative of several organizations for facilitating the conversion process for prospective immigrants even before they land in the Jewish state.
Started last year in Ukraine, the Maslul course, which was born out of a partnership between the Triguboff Institute, the Jewish Agency for Israel and the Australian branch of United Israel Appeal, will operate in Russia from Moscow’s Choral Synagogue Jewish community center, headed by the city’s chief rabbi and president of the Conference of European Rabbis, Pinchas Goldschmidt.
In Moscow, a six-person team will locate eligible nominees for the project and run the educational program, which meets the curriculum of the Jewish Agency’s National Institutes for Identity and Conversion, a state-recognized entity. In Ukraine, Maslul operates a program for several dozen people with 10 instructors. Conversion students are accredited for material covered in Maslul programs outside Israel and may complete the process in Israel. Read the full article here.
Russian Court Prolongs Arrest Of Suspected U.S. Spy
RFE/RL, February 3, 2016
A court in Moscow has prolonged the pretrial detention for a Russian citizen charged with high treason and espionage for the United States.
Yevgeny Petrin's lawyer, Ivan Pavlov, told the TASS news agency on February 3 that the Moscow City Court had prolonged his client's pretrial detention until March 5.
The case against Petrin, who was arrested in January 2015, is classified.
Petrin's lawyers said earlier that their client had pleaded not guilty.
Petrin's relatives have said Petrin used to work for Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) and quit the agency in 2013.Read the full article here.
Responding To Magnitsky List, Russia Puts Travel Ban On Five U.S. Officials
RFE/RL, February 2, 2016
Russia's Foreign Ministry on February 2 announced travel bans on five U.S. law enforcement officials in retaliation for a similar action by Washington.
The move comes a day after the U.S. Treasury Department added five Russians to its so-called "Magnitsky List," which now sanctions 39 alleged human rights abusers linked to the death of whistleblowing Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky.
Magnitsky was working as a tax lawyer for a Western-owned portfolio investment company in Russia when he discovered a $230 million fraud scheme involving shell companies and bogus tax refunds.
He was later arrested by Russian authorities, charged with similar fraud charges, and jailed.
His supporters say he was tortured and denied medical treatment, leading to his 2009 death in prison.
The Kremlin said on February 2 that the U.S. expansion of its Magnitsky List was a setback for bilateral relations.Read the full article here.
‘Russia & Israel Partners Against Holocaust Denial’
By Jonathan Benedek
Tazpit News Agency, February 4, 2016
Russia and Israel are partners in the struggle against Holocaust denial, says Valentina Matviyenko, head of the Federation Council of Russia.
Matviyenko attended a memorial ceremony in Netanya on Wednesday together with a number of regional council members and members of Knesset at the National Monument Commemorating the Victory of the Red Army Over Nazi Germany.
“The Netanya monument is a symbol of a shared memory and symbolizes the brotherhood of nations,” Matviyenko said, referring to Russian-Israeli partnership and friendship.
She also mentioned the current challenge faced by both Israel and Russia in fighting against false narratives of World War II and the Holocaust.
“Russia and Israel are partners in the struggle against the falsification and revision of the history of World War II. Together, we are partners in the struggle against Holocaust denial because any attempt to deny the Holocaust is a crime.”
Russia assures Israel: We're not passing weapons to Hezbollah
Arutz Sheva, February 2, 2016
An internal Russian probe has determined that Israeli fears of Russia passing arms to the Lebanese terror organization Hezbollah are baseless. The Israeli ambassador to Moscow, Zvi Heifetz, relayed the findings to a Knesset committee and added that the relations between the two countries "are flourishing in an unprecedented manner."
The assurance came following a few weeks of concern by Israel that Russia had been supplying Hezbollah with weapons, as the two are working together to help bolster Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the ongoing Syrian civil war. Russia made assurances to Israel that it did not and will not transfer any weapons to the terrorist organization that is in de facto control of a large area of Lebanon. Israel’s ambassador to Moscow made the report to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Monday.
Heifetz's briefing is the first time in years that an ambassador personally briefed the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee regarding the state of the relationship between Israel and the country in which he serves.Read the full article here.
Poroshenko: Greater Risk Of Open War With Russia Now
RFE/RL, February 3, 2016
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko says the risk of open war between Russia and Ukraine is greater now than it was a year ago.
In an interview with the German newspaper Bild published on February 3, Poroshenko said Russia had implemented "not one single point" of the Minsk accords, a cease-fire and peace plan aimed at resolving the war in eastern Ukraine.
"Instead, we can see 8,000 Russian soldiers with Russian commanders in our country, new military sites directly along the border, and constant military trainings," said Poroshenko, who met German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on February 1. "Russia is investing a lot in these war preparations."
Ukraine Entering `Serious Political Crisis' After Minister Quits
By Daryna Krasnolutska and Kateryna Choursina
Bloomberg, February 4, 2016
Ukraine’s leaders looked to shore up the ruling coalition after the speaker of parliament warned the nation is entering a “serious political crisis” following the resignation of its reform-minded economy minister, who accused presidential party members of corruption.
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk at an emergency government meeting on Thursday said the cabinet remains united and committed to overhauling the economy. Four ministers who earlier submitted resignations said they were ready to return for the sake of the reform program. Former Economy Minister Aivaras Abromavicius didn’t participate in the meeting and won’t change his mind after having quit Wednesday, his press secretary Oleg Shimanskyy said.
“This crisis must be resolved by political parties’ representatives along with the president,” Volodymyr Hroisman told reporters earlier Thursday in the capital, Kiev. “We must update the coalition agreement as a clear plan to execute. We need to reshuffle the government for those tasks. We must end the squabbling and let those who want to conduct reform work and bring results for society.”
Why Do Ukraine’s Reform Ministers Keep Quitting?
By Anders Åslund
Atlantic Council, February 3, 2016
On February 3, Ukraine's Minister of Economic Development and Trade Aivaras Abromavicius announced his resignation at a press briefing with a big bang that may unleash a political crisis and shake the country's fragile finances.
Abromavicius, a 40-year-old investment banker of Lithuanian origin who has lived in Kyiv for many years as a fund manager, was one of the three foreigners recruited as a minister in December 2014. He has stood out as a strong reformer, taking pride in having introduced electronic state procurement on a large scale, carried out substantial deregulation, reformed his ministry, and improved management at state corporations. Together with Finance Minister Natalie Jaresko, he has been the top Ukrainian representative at international events.
He offered a candid statement about the reasons for his resignation: "My team and I have no desire to be a cover for open corruption or puppets for those who want to establish control over state funds in the old fashion." He continued: "These people have names. And one of these names I am going to mention. It is Igor Kononenko. As a representative of the political force that nominated me a minister, he has done a great deal recently to block the work of my team and me."
Railing Against Graft, a Georgian Leads Calls for a Cleanup in Ukraine
By Andrew Kramer
New York Times, February 3, 2016
It was supposed to be a routine cabinet meeting for Ukraine’s Western-backed government. The interior minister, Arsen B. Avakov, a banker and businessman, was reading a prepared speech about privatizing state assets.
Finally, Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia, who was appointed governor of the Odessa region last summer and has taken on the role of chief corruption fighter here, had heard enough, breaking in and flatly accusing the minister of wrongdoing.
“Blah, blah, blah,” Mr. Avakov responded.
“Blah, blah, blah?” Mr. Saakashvili snapped back. “Nobody ever talked to me that way.”
Ministers and their aides looked awkwardly down at their feet or twirled pens.Read the full article here.
Political Crisis Boosts Moldova’s Pro-Russians but Corruption Real Threat
By Daniel Schearf
Voice of America, February 4, 2016
A corruption crisis unfolding in Moldova has given a boost to Russia-leaning political parties, say analysts, even as the country remains on a pro-Europe path.
Protesters in January stormed the parliament building in the capital, Chisinau, and demanded new elections after the closed-door, midnight inauguration of Pavel Filip, the third prime minister in the past year.
The pro-European coalition is connected to Moldova’s most powerful oligarch, Vladimir Plahotniuc, who is accused of running the country through bribes and intimidation. Moldova’s president, Nicolae Timofti, publicly accused Plahotniuc of pressuring him and his family in an attempt to be nominated prime minister.
“From the very beginning, from the times when this so-called pro-European coalition was created, Mr. Plahotniuc exercised control on [the] general prosecutor, [and on the] anti-corruption center,” says program director at the Institute for Public Policy in Chisinau, Oazu Nantoi. “Mr. Plahotniuc has a number of docile judges. He is the owner of media holdings,” he says. “So, Mr. Plahotniuc has a very strong tool for small Moldova... to manipulate public opinion and to use first of all justice in [his] own interest,” concludes Nantoi.
Read the full article here.
U.S. to ban more Russians over human-rights abuses
By Eli Lake
Bloomberg View, February 1, 2016
As Secretary of State John Kerry works to cajole his Russian counterpart to help end the war in Syria, his State Department is planning this week to ban more Russian nationals from the U.S. and its financial system for the murder of a Russian lawyer in 2009.
The pending sanctions illustrate how President Barack Obama's Russia policy is a balancing act: Even as the U.S. punishes President Vladimir Putin's aides and allies, it still pursues Russia's cooperation in the Middle East. The same week Kerry has been urging Russia to help end the war in Syria, a senior Treasury official let it slip that Putin is hiding a personal fortune from his own people.
This week, the pattern will continue. State Department officials tell me they expect to add five more names to what is known as the Magnitsky list, named for Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who was jailed after exposing Russia's largest-known tax fraud and died in prison in 2009, after he was severely beaten. Russian courts have made a mockery of the investigation, leading Congress to pass a law in 2012 blacklisting the people responsible for Magnitsky's murder in the U.S.
By Brian Whitmore
RFE/RL, February 2, 2016
Russian officials seem to have developed an execution fetish of late.
One example, of course, is the disturbing video Ramzan Kadyrov posted on Instagram showing opposition figures Mikhail Kasyanov and Vladimir Kara-Murza in the crosshairs of a sniper's rifle.
Another is the bizarre series of animated clips Vladimir Putin's All-Russian Popular Front posted on their website showing the Kremlin leader personally executing several officials accused of corruption.
One is beheaded with an ax. One is cut in half with a buzz saw. One has his head removed by a crane. One is eaten by piranhas. One is vaporized with a laser gun. And another is eaten by rabid dogs.
Putin is no Josef Stalin -- but apparently he likes to play him on the Internet.
"So welcome to the theatre of tyranny. A style of governance which actively encourages the appearance of being tougher and nastier than it really is, and at the same time enthusiastically telegraphs that it could be tougher and nastier still," Mark Galeotti, a professor at New York University and expert on Russia's Security Services, wrote recently.Read the full article here.
After four months, Russia’s campaign in Syria is proving successful for Moscow
By Andrew Roth
Washington Post, February 4, 2016
Four months after launching airstrikes in Syria, the Kremlin is confident that Moscow’s largest overseas campaign since the end of the Soviet Union is paying off.
Under the banner of fighting international terrorism, President Vladimir Putin has reversed the fortunes of forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which were rapidly losing ground last year to moderate and Islamist rebel forces in the country’s five-year-old crisis. Government forces are now on the offensive, and last week, they scored their most significant victory yet, seizing the strategic town of Sheikh Miskeen from rebels who are backed by a U.S.-led coalition.
According to analysts and officials here, the Russian government believes it has won those dividends at a relatively low cost to the country’s budget, with minimal loss of soldiers’ lives and with largely supportive public opinion.
Read the full article here.
U.S., France Charge Russia, Syria With 'Torpedoing' Peace Talks
RFE/RL, February 4, 2016
The United States and France have charged Russia and the Syrian regime with stymieing peace negotiations with an unrelenting campaign to retake opposition-held territory even during the talks.
Throughout two days of fitful negotiations in Geneva on February 1 and 2, Syrian ground forces backed by Russian air strikes were waging an intense campaign to retake rebel-held territory around the strategic city of Aleppo in Syria's north, and on February 3 they succeeded in cutting off the rebels' supply line from Turkey.
The campaign, undeterred by the talks, was cited as the reason that the largest opposition coalition refused to fully join the negotiations, and "military activities" were also cited by United Nations Syrian envoy Staffan de Mistura as a principle reason for suspending the negotiations on February 3.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius accused the Syrian government and its allies of "torpedoing" the peace talks and said "neither [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad's regime nor his allies clearly want to contribute in good faith" to the negotiations.
Read the full article here.
Is Washington re-engaging Baku?
By Stephen Blank
The CACI Analyst, January 19, 2016
Throughout its tenure, the Obama Administration has minimized U.S. involvement with and engagement in both the Caucasus and Central Asia. However, a change in this policy may now be visible. Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent, and first, visit to Central Asia suggests a new interest in an expanded and hopefully regular mutual dialogue with the region. In the case of Azerbaijan, three high-ranking U.S. delegations have come through Baku in the last few months, clearly signifying renewed interest in dialogue and the subjects of their discussion, as revealed in the press, tend to corroborate that impression.
BACKGROUND: The deterioration of the situation in the South Caucasus and the failure to make much progress in Central Asia attest to the shortcomings of U.S. policy towards these regions, which many commentators have criticized as creating vacuums that Moscow or Beijing might be too eager to fill. Azerbaijan has been a particularly egregious example of this process. It is fair to say that the considerable decline in Azerbaijan’s democratic potential reflects Baku’s earlier belief that it had no reason to consider the U.S. obsession with human rights, because Washington would not pay attention to Azerbaijan’s security challenges and would offer no countervailing incentive to justify a turn away from that increasing authoritarianism.
1120 20th Street NW, Ste. 300N Washington, DC 20036-3413
Founded in 1971, NCSEJ represents the organized American Jewish community in monitoring and advocating on behalf of the estimated 1.5 million Jews in Eastern Europe and Eurasia, including the 15 successor states of the former Soviet Union.