Jailed former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko lost an appeal Wednesday to overturn her conviction for abusing her power, charges that Western leaders argue are politically motivated.
Tymoshenko, a rival of current Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, was sentenced last October to seven years in prison in a case that revolved around a gas deal with Russia.
The politician, dubbed the “princess” of the Orange Revolution that loosened Ukrainian ties to Russia, has alleged that the case was pursued to sideline her as an opposition leader. Besides landing her in jail, the ruling also banned her from holding office for three years.
The Ukrainian high court found that the evidence backed up her conviction and said the appeal wasn’t justified. “The punishment is in line with the seriousness of the crime," a judge said while reading the court decision Wednesday, according to Interfax Ukraine.
The ruling disappointed Western leaders. The European Commission said the Tymoshenko trial “did not respect international standards as regards fair, transparent and independent legal processes.” British Minister for Europe David Lidington warned that the case would make it difficult to make progress on an agreement between Ukraine and the European Union.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich signed a bill into law Wednesday that makes Russian an official language in some parts of the former Soviet republic. The bow to the country's large Russian minority has outraged Ukrainian nationalists and the president's political opponents.
The bill introduced this year by Yanukovich's Party of the Regions spurred fistfights in parliament, demonstrations and hunger strikes. Opposition politicians, including jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, accuse Yanukovich of trying to boost his standing among Russian speakers ahead of October parliamentary elections. They also warn that making official the mother tongue of long-dominating Russia would remove the incentive for minorities to learn Ukrainian.
Ukraine is home to the Russian navy's Black Sea fleet and surrounded by countries where Russian is often spoken. Russian is also the native language for about a quarter of Ukraine's 45 million citizens, according to the CIA World Handbook.
In signing the controversial bill while vacationing in the Crimea, Yanukovich, a native Russian speaker himself, also called for the establishment of a commission to promote the use of Ukrainian, the Interfax news agency reported.
The new law makes Russian an official language in 13 of Ukraine's 27 regions, and will allow officials there to make public speeches in Russian. Ukrainian and Russian are closely related Slavic languages and are generally understood by anyone educated during the Soviet era, when both were taught.
Russian ceased to be an official language after Ukraine declared its independence in 1991, after a coup against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev set the Communist-ruled, 15-republic Soviet Union on a course for disintegration.
"Yanukovich has managed to do everything that the Russian emperors and the Soviet general secretaries could not do," lamented opposition political strategist Oleg Medvedev, according to the Reuters news agency. "He has passed a death sentence on the Ukrainian language."
Photo: Ukrainians poured into the streets of central Kiev on July 30 to protest passage of a law making Russian an official language in parts of Ukraine. President Viktor Yanukovich signed the bill Wednesday, setting off new protests. Credit: Sergey Dolzhenko / European Pressphoto Agency
This post has been updated. Please see the note below.
The spotlight hasn't always been kind to Ukraine as it hosts the Euro 2012 soccer championships, with international headlines drawing new attention to everything from Eastern European racism to the plight of jailed former leader Yulia Tymoshenko.
But on Monday, the start of the first Ukrainian game in the tournament highlighted the country's seemingly pessimistic anthem: “Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished.” The phrase started trending on Twitter shortly after the game began, as amused soccer fans joked that the Ukrainian anthem was somewhat short of uplifting.
"Saturday Night Live" comedian Seth Meyers quipped in one tweet, “The only way to make 'Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished' a more pessimistic anthem title would be 'Ukraine Has Not Perished (Yet).' "
The anthem, which comes from a 19th century patriotic poem written by Pavlo Chubynsky, begins, “Ukraine’s glory hasn’t perished, nor her freedom / Upon us, fellow compatriots, fate shall smile once more.” Though the impassioned lyrics have endured as a reminder of the nation's turbulent history and eventual independence, some Ukrainians lament that the words are dour and outdated.
Four years ago, the Kiev Post reported that musician Oleh Skrypka came up with an alternative version that replaced the opening lines with the cheerier, “Our dear Ukraine is flourishing like a spring field / We are glorious Ukrainians / We’ve got a happy fate.” Earlier this year, Ukrainian lawmakers reportedly weighed replacing the anthem with "Thank God Ukraine Has Justice and Freedom."
“Ukraine fought hard for its independence and Ukrainians have been killed in endless wars. But today, thank God, it is a peaceful country. It is time to put it in good order. And we must do it with God in our hearts,” lawmaker Dmytro Vetvitsky was quoted in Russian media as saying.
Despite repeated attempts to replace it, "Ukraine Has Not Yet Perished" has not perished. Neither, for that matter, has the anthem of its championship co-host Poland -- "Poland Is Not Yet Lost."
[Updated 2:17 p.m. June 11: As if to snub the anthem naysayers, Ukraine didn't perish in its first game in the tournament. It won 2-1 over Sweden.]
Photo: Andriy Shevchenko of Ukraine and his teammates celebrate scoring their second goal during the ongoing match between Ukraine and Sweden in Kiev, Ukraine, on Monday. Credit: Martin Rose / Getty Images
British ministers pledged Thursday to boycott the early games in the Euro 2012 soccer tournament over concerns for the health of Ukraine's imprisoned former prime minister, despite pleas from Kiev that soccer and politics shouldn't mix.
The move adds to the frustrations for Ukraine, which has been battling accusations of racism, homophobia and mistreatment of ex-leader Yulia Tymoshenko. As a result, the Eastern European nation has found itself under the microscope as the games approach.
Britain left open the possibility of going to later Euro 2012 games, but linked its involvement to the treatment of Tymoshenko.
“We are keeping attendance at later stages of the tournament under review in the light of ministers’ busy schedules ahead of the Olympics [in London] and widespread concerns about selective justice and the rule of law in Ukraine,” the British Foreign Office said in a statement Thursday.
The British ministers join a growing group of European leaders, including European Union officials and the presidents of France and Belgium, planning to avoid the games over concern for Tymoshenko. The former leader is serving a seven-year prison sentence for abusing her power, a conviction Western leaders believe was politically motivated.
MOSCOW -- Two dozen men from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia were sentenced Monday to long prison terms in Libya for their work in support of the late Moammar Kadafi's regime, Russian news media reported.
The men -- 19 Ukrainians, three Belarussians and two Russians -- were convicted of aiding the Libyan military during its campaign last year against rebels and NATO forces by servicing weapons system, RIA Novosti and Russia-24 television reported. They were captured by the rebel forces in Tripoli, the Libyan capital, last fall as Kadafi's regime was overthrown.
Alexander Shadrov, a Russian described as a leader of the group, was sentenced to life in prison while his fellow countryman, Vladimir Dolgov, was given a 10-year term, Ilya Samonin, the consular department chief of the Russian Embassy in Tripoli, told Interfax. The rest of the defendants also received 10-year sentences.
Russia-24 aired video that showed a long line of men apparently being led out of the court building after sentencing. At least one of them was seen wiping tears from his eyes.
The men maintain that they were in Libya to work in the oil industry, RIA Novosti reported.
Dolgov’s wife, Taisiya Shilova, told Russia-24 that she had not seen her for a year. He left for Libya on June 16, 2011, to work for an oil company, she said.
“I am more than confident that he is not guilty of anything,” Shilova said in a televised interview. “He simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Thousands of people died in Libya during the civil war that ended Kadafi's rule. He was captured and killed by rebels Oct. 20.
Russia's Foreign Ministry expressed indignation over the verdicts, which it called “unjust and unjustifiably harsh.”
“Moscow is expecting the Libyan authorities to rigorously observe all the rights of the Russian citizens,” Alexander Lukashevich, the ministry spokesman, said in a statement. “All necessary efforts will be continued without delay in coordination with the Ukrainian and Belarus colleagues ... to achieve a speediest resolution of the problem and a review of this clearly biased verdict.”
Photo: A Libyan soldier guards a group of 24 foreigners convicted of aiding late Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi's military during the rebellion against his rule last year. Credit: Sabri Elmhedwi / European Pressphoto Agency
A political debate over whether to enshrine Russian as an official language in much of Ukraine brought lawmakers to fisticuffs this week, playing on enduring divisions in the country over cultural identity.
The scuffle, caught on tape Thursday, was followed Friday by lawmakers blocking the podium to prevent the start of a parliament session. Hundreds of protesters gathered outside, and the spat even led the head of the Ukrainian parliament to call for dissolving the body and holding early elections, Ukrainian news reports said as the furor stretched into a second day.
The Russian tongue has been a sensitive subject in Ukraine sincein gained its independence just over two decades ago, said Damon Wilson, executive vice president of the Atlantic Council. For some Ukrainians, the push to protect their language has become enmeshed with protecting the nation.
"It's like French in Quebec," said Blair Ruble, director of the Kennan Institute in Washington. "Can you be Quebecois and not speak French? It's the same sort of issues."
The hotly disputed language legislation has been seen as a political ploy by President Viktor Yanukovich to rally his base in eastern Ukraine, where Russian is more commonly spoken. Political support for his party has softened there as pensions have been cut. Elections are coming up this fall.
“Of course far-right and far-left are not satisfied with it, because some want Russian to be the one official language, the others Ukrainian. We think that Ukraine is a multi-language and polyethnic state,” Vadym Kolesnichenko, a member of the president’s party, told Euronews.
Opponents fear that giving the official nod to use of Russian in hospitals, schools and other official institutions, even in just some parts of the country, could hurt the Ukrainian language. Jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is serving a seven-year sentence for abuse of power that is seen skeptically by many in the West, issued a blistering statement against it on her website.
“It’s a crime against history and against the people. And I seriously assert that I won’t let them do this! Listen to me, here, behind bars, I won’t let you sneer at Ukraine!” Tymoshenko said.
The bruising spectacle has put Ukraine in an unflattering spotlight once again. Already under fire from other Europeans for alleged mistreatment of Tymoshenko and scrambling to keep European leaders from boycotting the Euro 2012 soccer championship next month in Ukraine over her plight, the spat has grabbed headlines at a time when Ukraine had hoped to bask in the continental spotlight.
"Playing this card -- east versus west -- is not good for Ukraine," Wilson said. "Language is a serious issue in Ukraine. It merits a serious political discussion. But this isn't how you do it."
Video: Violent scuffles erupted in Ukraine's parliament Thursday evening over a bill that would allow the use of the Russian language in courts, hospitals and other institutions in the Russian-speaking regions of the country. Credit: Associated Press
After a flock of European presidents sent their regrets to protest the alleged beating of imprisoned former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, Ukraine called off a European summit scheduled for this weekend.
The cancellation over the treatment of Tymoshenko, a rival of Ukraine's president, was an embarrassing decision for a former Soviet country still trying to court the European Union for trade ties and other partnerships.
"Considering all circumstances around this event that was to be held in Yalta, Ukraine has decided not to hold it," Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleksandr Dykusarov told Interfax. He said it had been postponed indefinitely because so many heads of state were "unable to attend."
Germany, Italy and the Czech Republic were among more than a dozen European countries whose leaders had refused to take part in the summit, which had been scheduled for Friday and Saturday.
The European Council president has joined a growing number of leaders who plan to boycott an upcoming soccer championship over the alleged abuse of jailed former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The decision by Herman Van Rompuy deals a fresh blow to the Eastern European nation's hopes of using the event to build ties and woo tourists.
None of the European Union commissioners will attend the Euro 2012 tournament scheduled next month in Ukraine, the Interfax News Agency reported Thursday. The presidents of Austria and Belgium and the head of the European Commission will also join Van Rompuy in skipping the event.
"The president is not happy with how the situation in Ukraine is developing," Van Rompuy's spokesperson told Germany's Spiegel Online. "As such, he will not travel there."
Although European leaders have also announced they'll shun an upcoming Central European summit, the burgeoning soccer boycott seems to have especially infuriated Ukrainian leaders. They had hoped to use the beloved sporting event to showcase their country and advance their aspirations to join the EU. Ukraine and Poland are cohosting the event.
"We view as destructive attempts to politicize sporting events," the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said in a Thursday statement, according to Agence France-Presse. "An attack on this big dream undermines the chances of ... former Socialist bloc members to prove that their economic, human and scientific potential can turn them from the debtors of Europe to its engine of growth."
Tymoshenko, once known as the “princess” of the Orange Revolution that loosened Ukrainian ties to Russia, was sentenced last year to seven years in prison on charges of abusing her power. The case centered on her signing a gas deal with Russia. Western leaders believe the case was pursued to punish her as a rival to President Viktor Yanukovich.
The charismatic former prime minister went on a hunger strike last month, saying she had been beaten by prison guards. Her claims -- backed up by photos of her apparent bruises disseminated by supporters -- have led to indignant calls for Ukraine to investigate the alleged assaults and ensure that Tymoshenko receives medical treatment.
Photo: Jailed Ukrainian opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko shows what appears to be a bruise on her forearm at the Kachanivska women's prison in Kharkiv in April. Credit: Ukrayinska Pravda / AFP/Getty Images
MOSCOW -- A series of explosions rocked the Ukrainian city of Dnepropetrovsk on Friday, injuring almost three dozen people.
The explosions, officials said, were caused by small bombs placed in litter bins in the downtown area of the industrial city, about 280 miles southeast of Kiev. Officials said there were four explosions, while local residents said they heard five to nine blasts.
Ukraine Prosecutor General Viktor Pshonka said at a briefing in Kiev that 29 people were injured, including 18 who were hospitalized.
President Viktor Yanukovich said, in televised remarks, “We understand that it is another challenge for us, for the entire country.
“We will think of a worthy response," he added. "I think we will get to the bottom of it.”
Speaking at an urgent session of Ukraine's parliament in Kiev, Vladimir Rakitsky, deputy head of the national Security Service, said that a terrorism investigation had been initiated.
One resident said the city population was in a panic. “Everyone is afraid and people are scared to go outside as we are expecting new attacks,” Marina Boychenko, a 38-year-old housewife said by phone from Dnepropetrovsk. “My two children and I are planning to go visit my mother who lives out of town and stay at her place until the situation calms down.”
No individual or group immediately claimed responsibility. But some theories quickly emerged: that the blasts were aimed at disrupting plans for an upcoming international soccer match, were set off by criminal gangs, or had a political aim.
The explosions came the day after Yulia Tymoshenko’s supporters handed photos of the allegedly bruised body of the jailed ex-premier to foreign diplomats. Tymoshenko is serving a seven-year prison term after being convicted of abusing her powers in signing Ukraine’s gas deal with Russia. She has accused prison guards of beating her.
“The explosions were obviously not designed to kill as many people as possible but they were most certainly aimed at aggravating the political situation in the country,” Vitaly Portnikov, editor-in-chief of TBI, a Ukraine television network, said by phone from Kiev. “Against the backdrop of the growing popular discontent in connection with Tymoshenko’s beating in prison, the attacks in Dnepropetrovsk play into the authorities' hands, diverting the public attention focus.”
Last November, an explosive device placed in a litter bin in downtown Dnepropetrovsk killed one person.