Monday

17th Dec 2018

EU cheerleaders go to Russia-occupied Ukraine

  • UN said the Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People's Republics (LPR) were ruled by 'armed groups' that 'cracked down on dissent' (Photo: Corneliu Cazacu)

A motley crew of has-been politicians from mostly far-right and far-left EU parties flocked to Russia-occupied Ukraine to cheer on puppet rulers there last week.

The propaganda campaign to entrench the occupation comes amid a Russian military build-up in the region, jangling nerves on a potential escalation.

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  • Thierry Mariani used to do election monitoring for the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a European democracy watchdog club, which declined to go to DPR and LPR last week (Photo: OSCE.org)

Thierry Mariani, a former transport minister from Les Republicans, a centre-right opposition party in France, was the most senior politician to go to east Ukraine last Sunday (11 November).

He was one of 81 foreigners who went there to appear on local TV saying that "elections" in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People's Republics (LPR) were fine.

Most of them were Russians, but four other Les Republicans, including two former MPs, also went.

They were joined by six small-time politicians from far-right parties in Belgium, Hungary, Germany, and Italy: Vlaams Belang, Jobbik, AfD, Forza Italia, and the League.

They were also joined by two men from the far-left German party Die Linke and one from Syriza in Greece.

The Greek delegate, former deputy defence minister Kostas Isihos, was the most senior one of these.

But the mixed bag of European visitors also contained characters like Johan Backman, a Finnish pro-Kremlin activist who is under a one-year conditional jail sentence for attacking a journalist.

It included Xavier Moreau, a Frenchman whose Moscow-based firm, Sokol Holding, recruits former French commandos to work in Russia.

It also contained a Greek cartoonist, an Italian conspiracy theorist, and a French volunteer fighter who sings in the Donetsk Symphony Orchestra.

Most of them have a track record of cheerleading dodgy elections whether in Russia-occupied Ukraine or in Russia in recent years.

They falsely claimed on TV that the votes were in line with the Minsk agreements, an EU-brokered ceasefire pact on the conflict.

They praised the high turnout, the orderly manner of the vote, and spoke of how "safe and peaceful" life was in the conflict zone, according to the European Platform for Democratic Elections (EPDE), an NGO in Berlin.

They "were invited to the 'republics' to provide a sense of general legitimacy and normalcy to the 'elections' in the eyes of the domestic and Russian audiences," the EBDE's Anton Shekhovtsov said.

They did it even though the EU said the votes were "illegal and illegitimate" because they "violate[d] Ukraine's sovereignty and law".

Their comments also flew in the face of UN reports, which say people in the Russia-occupied territories have "been effectively denied basic protection and deprived of basic human rights and freedoms".

The 2.7m people there live in poverty, the UN said in February, under a regime in which "armed groups" have "imposed an arbitrary system of rules", "cracked down on dissent", and "tortured and ill-treated" opponents.

From Paris to Donetsk

Mariani, from Les Republicans, flew from Paris to Moscow, then to Rostov-on-Don in Russia to get there, he told EUobserver on Friday.

He crossed the Ukrainian border into DPR, where local security forces drove him to his hotel, within earshot of live fire on the contact line.

He denied he went there for Russia propaganda purposes.

"I did not go there to support [DPR's] independence, just to look at the elections ... I did not go to legitimise anything," he said.

He also denied the UN report on abuses, saying that things might be worse in Luhansk, but that in Donetsk it looked "normal" and that "people didn't sound traumatised".

"There were no armed men in balaclavas. Yes, in the cafe, you might see a man with a kalashnikov on his back, and politicians tend to go around with five bodyguards, but we were just 15km from a conflict zone," he said.

The DPR invited him via his NGO, the Franco-Russian Dialogue Association in Paris, and paid him just €420 for his plane fare, he said.

The reason why the EU group was made up of junior figures from fringe parties was because other French politicians were scared of press "attacks", he said.

The EU and Ukraine should make peace with DPR and LPR then try to lure them back via economic incentives, the way Moldova was doing with Transniestria, another Russia-controlled entity in the region, Mariani added.

Azov problem

His musings on conflict resolution came amid EU and Ukrainian concern of escalation due to a Russian naval build-up in the Azov Sea.

EU foreign ministers will meet in Brussels on Monday to repeat non-recognition of the DPR and LPR votes and to discuss the Azov problem.

The Azov Sea connects the Ukrainian ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk to the Black Sea via the Kerch Strait.

Russian warships have recently stopped over 200 commercial vessels, including from Germany, Greece, and the Netherlands, in the area for lengthy inspections, causing financial losses.

They have also massed there to complete the "Azov Fleet" - a new Russian military deployment that makes south-east Ukraine more vulnerable to a Russian invasion, according to a Ukrainian security assessment, seen by the website.

It could signal the renewal of Russia's 'Novorossiya' project - to take all of south-east Ukraine, joining DPR and LPR to Russia-occupied Crimea, an EU diplomat said.

The fleet is to contain over a dozen armoured troop carriers, infantry landing ships, and missile boats, on top of other Russian warships already in the Black Sea.

"EU and G7 sanctions against Russia's ports in the Sea of Azov should be introduced" in order to stop the "escalation", the Ukrainian document said, referring to the Group of Seven wealthy EU states as well as Canada, Japan, and the US.

Opinion

The Azov crisis will backfire

Vladimir Putin's nightmare of Petro Poroshenko's re-election will be even certain as Ukrainians rally around the flag. Next March's election is not just to elect a new president but also a commander-in-chief to deal with five more years of Putin.

Opinion

The Azov crisis will backfire

Vladimir Putin's nightmare of Petro Poroshenko's re-election will be even certain as Ukrainians rally around the flag. Next March's election is not just to elect a new president but also a commander-in-chief to deal with five more years of Putin.

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