WASHINGTON, D.C. March 4, 2016
TO: NCSEJ Leadership and Interested Parties
FROM: Daniel Rubin, Chairman;
Alexander Smukler, President;
Mark B. Levin, Executive Vice-Chairman & CEO
President Barack Obama signed an executive order this week extending sanctions against Russia over its actions in Ukraine. The sanctions target senior Russian officials, key Russian state companies, and others who are closely connected to President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.
The European Union also extended its sanctions against Russian officials and pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine. It has been reported that the decision to extend the sanctions came without major disagreements among the EU members, unlike the extension of economic sanctions on Russia, which is expected to be highly contested in the upcoming months.
Uncertainty about potential changes in Ukraine’s leadership continues as speculations rise about the potential replacement of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Early parliamentary elections are also possible. I want to recommend an article by Anders Aslund about the potential benefits and drawbacks of holding early elections.
Another interesting story included in this week’s update is a Reuters article on northern Kazakhstan, which is heavily populated by ethnic Russians. The article analyzes a potential separatist threat in the region, as well as broader Kazakhstan-Russia relations.
In a disturbing development on Wednesday, vandals desecrated a synagogue in Moldova. The building was defaced, and the Torah and other religious objects were damaged. The local police have launched an investigation.
I met this week with the Deputy Head of the Presidential Administration of Ukraine Dmytro Shymkiv and discussed the country’s progress on reforms. Mr. Shymkiv chairs the Executive Committee of the National Reforms Council, which prepares reform proposals and monitors implementation of reforms.
I also want to highlight a story about a presentation of a Sefer Torah by L’Dor V’Dor congregation in Oakland to the Masorti community in Ukraine at the end of last year.
Mark B. Levin
NCSEJ Executive Vice-Chairman & CEO
NCSEJ WEEKLY NEWS BRIEF
Washington, D.C. February 26, 2016
EU Approves Pipeline Deal Linking Azerbaijan to Italy Via Greece
RFE/RL, March 3, 2016
The European Commission on March 3 gave its approval to a deal with Greece for the construction of a pipeline meant to transport natural gas from Azerbaijan to the European Union.
The 878-kilometer Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP) is meant to reduce Europe's energy dependency on Russia.
Plans call for the pipeline to link Azerbaijan's Shah Deniz II natural gas field to Italy by passing through Greece and Albania and then under the Adriatic Sea.
The pipeline is meant to connect with the Trans Anatolian Pipeline (TANAP) in Turkey -- crossing from Turkey into northern Greece near the Greek border village of Kipoi.
Death Toll in Ukraine Conflict Hits 9,160, U.N. Says
By Nick Cumming-Bruce
New York Times, March 3, 2016
The United Nations said on Thursday that 236 civilians were killed in conflict-related violence in Ukraine in the 12-month period to mid-February, and it estimated that at least 9,160 had died since the conflict started in April 2014.
The number of casualties from fighting between government forces and pro-Russian armed groups in eastern Ukraine has fallen in recent months, Gianni Magazzeni, a senior official at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in Geneva, but rights monitors have continued to receive reports of killings, abductions, torture and poor treatment of prisoners by rebel groups.Read the full article here.
Sefer Torah Is Presented to the Masorti Community of the Ukraine by Congregation L’Dor V’Dor
Congregation L'Dor V'Dor - Oakland Little Neck Jewish Center, October 2015
On Wednesday, October 21, in the Beit Midrash of Machon Schechter in Jerusalem, one of the Torahs that had been part of the Oakland Jewish Center was presented, as a gift, to Rabbi Reuven Stamov to take to the Masorti congregation in Kiev.
During his childhood in the former Soviet Union, Rabbi Stamov was forbidden to practice any form of Judaism. It was not until he was 18 that he became involved in Midreshet Yerushalayim, a division of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. His move to live in Israel in 2003 was combined with summer visits back to his native country, during which he promoted Masorti traditions to the estimated 100,000 Jews that currently live in Ukraine. After intensive rabbinic training and engagement with Jewish life both in Israel and in the Ukraine, Rabbi Stamov was ordained and in 2012 was officially installed at a full time Rabbi in Kiev. Janet and Irwin Tobin were present at the installation of Rabbi Stamov and learned that the Masorti community in the Ukraine was in need of a sefer Torah. Three years later, as representatives of our congregation, Janet and Irwin, together with Rabbi Yaffe were able to fulfill this need and present a sefer Torah to Rabbi Stamov.
The Torah, based on the Ariza’l script, most likely was written in Russia approximately 90 years ago. It was in need of some repair and with the help of generous donations from the people listed below, a scribe was hired to fix the cracked letters, replace the stitching on some of the seams, clean the parchment and make some other repairs to render the Torah Kosher and appropriate for reading in public.
2 months later, anti-Semitic graffiti remains at Polish Jewish cemetery
Times of Israel, February 29, 2016
Over two months after anti-Semitic and pro-Islamic State graffiti was spray-painted at a Jewish cemetery in central Poland, the offensive inscriptions have yet to be removed, according to a Channel 2 news report Sunday.
The graffiti, which vandals painted at the Jewish cemetery in Sochaczew in December, includes the slogans “Holocaust never happened,” “Allah bless Hitler,” “Islamic State was here,” “Islam will dominate,” and “F**k Jews.”
At the time, the local Sochaczew Museum, which cares for the cemetery, appealed to residents of the city for help in removing the paint.
But by February’s end, the graffiti was still in place, and was stumbled upon by a group of touring Jews from the US and Israel.Read the full article here.
Amnesty Says Kazakhstan Failing To Investigate Torture Reports
RFE/RL, March 3, 2016
An international human rights group says authorities in Kazakhstan are failing in their duty to investigate reports of torture and other ill treatment by police and prison staff.
In a report published on March 3, Amnesty International said human rights groups in Kazakhstan receive hundreds of reports of torture and other ill treatment each year.
John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's director for Europe and Central Asia, said "the failure to investigate torture and prosecute those responsible leaves victims hopeless and intimidated."
Dalhuisen said torture victims in Kazakhstan must rely on their families and a small group of activists and lawyers to "negotiate the labyrinthine process of appealing against a refusal to investigate a report of torture."
Obama Prolongs Sanctions on Russia Over Ukraine Crisis
By Patrick Reevell
ABC News, March 3, 2016
President Obama has extended for another year U.S. sanctions imposed on Russia over its military intervention in Ukraine, according to a White House statement.
Obama signed an executive order to prolong the raft of measures that target senior Russian officials and businessmen connected to President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, as well as a number of key Russian state companies, blocking them from visiting or holding assets in the United States, as well as doing business with some U.S. companies.
The United States imposed the sanctions in March 2014, after Russian troops seized Crimea from Ukraine, sparking the most serious crisis between Moscow and Washington since the end of the Cold War.
Obama broadened the sanctions again after Moscow launched a covert war in eastern Ukraine, where the Kremlin has been arming pro-Russian separatists. The European Union has also imposed its own sanctions against Moscow over the crisis.
Referred to as "targeted sanctions,” the measures are meant to inflict discomfort on the Kremlin leadership as well as hurt Russian state companies, intended to express U.S. disapproval and to deter Moscow from further land-grabs.Read the full article here.
EU to Continue Sanctions on Some Russians, Ukrainians
By Laurence Norman
Wall Street Journal, March 2, 2016
The European Union will extend sanctions against almost 150 Russian officials and pro-Moscow separatists in Ukraine and continue an asset freeze on 16 people accused of misappropriating Ukrainian state funds under former President Viktor Yanukovych, diplomats said Wednesday.
The decisions come as the bloc gears up for a debate over the next few months on whether to continue broader economic sanctions on Russia. That decision, which must be taken by July, is expected to be far more contentious.
In 2014, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the EU imposed sanctions on dozens of Russian officials and Ukrainian separatists involved in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. They were accused of undermining Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The Russians being sanctioned include two deputy prime ministers, Dmitry Kozak, who the EU said was in charge of integrating Crimea into Russia after its annexation, and Dmitry Rogozin, who publicly called for the seizing of the territory, according to the EU. It also includes senior Kremlin aide Vladislav Surkov.
With 'resignation' announcement, Chechnya's strongman woos Putin
By Fred Weir
Christian Science Monitor, February 29, 2016
When Chechnya's pro-Kremlin strongman, Ramzan Kadyrov, appeared to tender his resignation on Saturday, the Moscow rumor mill went into overdrive.
Just days after a liberal opposition group published a damning report accusing Mr. Kadyrov of corruption, murder, and imposing an unconstitutional dictatorship of sharia law during his eight-year rule, he told a stunned TV interviewer on the weekend that he felt his time at Chechnya's helm was up.
"Now I feel that the country’s leadership should find another person so that my name cannot be used against my fellow people," he said. Instead, he added, he'd like to devote himself to family, business, and the study of Islam.
Experts caution that absolutely none of this should be taken at face value, or viewed through a Western political lens.
They suggest that if Kadyrov is feeling nervous, it is not because of the 65-page report authored by Ilya Yashin, which pulled together a lot of evidence about his brutal rule that has long been known. Rather, it may be due to unseen shifts within the Kremlin, including changes in President Vladimir Putin's inner circle.
Yatsenyuk defies Poroshenko, says his replacement will do no good
By Georgi Gotev
EurActiv, March 2, 2016
Aides to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko spoke on Tuesday (1 March) of replacing the country’s premier in the next two weeks, while the incumbent, Arseniy Yatsenyuk said he didn’t believe a “reboot” of the government would work. EurActiv.com reports from Kyiv.
Yatsenyuk sounded rather upbeat and determined to stay on as prime minister, as he spoke yesterday to a group of visiting Western journalists and scholars, invited by the Institute of World Policy, a Ukrainian think tank.
The premier survived a no-confidence vote on 16 February, which came hours after Poroshenko asked him to resign because he had lost the public’s trust.
Crisis deepens as Yatsenyuk survives no-confidence vote
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk survived a no confidence vote on Tuesday (16 February) that came hours after the president asked him to resign because he had lost the public’s trust.
The political crisis in Ukraine comes on the top of a deep economic and social crisis and a hybrid war waged by Russia against its neighbor. The living standards of ordinary Ukrainians have deteriorated dramatically, and the EU, which is struggling with successive crises, seems unable to respond to the wishes of many Ukrainians to become part of the European family.
Ukraine bans officials from criticising government
By Alessandra Prentice
Reuters, March 1, 2016
Ukraine banned government officials on Tuesday from publicly criticising the work of state institutions and their colleagues, after damaging disclosures last month that highlighted slow progress in fighting corruption.
The move immediately drew criticism from some civil servants who saw it as a blow to freedom of speech at odds with the embattled government's Western-backed reform drive.
The rule on "loyalty" is one of several outlined in a new ethics code that civil servants must follow or face disciplinary action, according to a decree posted on the government website.
"The government has decided to introduce standards of ethical conduct for civil servants to restore public faith in the work of the state bodies and officials," the decree said.
Government employees should "avoid any public criticisms of the work of state institutions and their officials," the code stipulates, alongside rules on the need for transparency and integrity.
The shock resignations in February of Economy Minister Aivaras Abromavicius and a top prosecutor shone a spotlight on the failure of the Kiev leadership to follow through on promises to eliminate the influence of vested interests on policymaking. Read the full article here.
Early Elections in Ukraine Aren’t So Scary. Here’s Why
By Anders Åslund
Atlantic Council, February 29, 2016
The dominant view in Washington is that Ukraine must avoid early parliamentary elections. Many Ukrainians, however, see them as inevitable and ultimately they decide. Therefore, we need to discuss not if early parliamentary elections should be held, but instead how and when.
Both the United States and the European Union reckon that Ukraine needs political stability to carry out necessary reforms. Historically, however, this view is flawed. At a time of radical change, many politicians quickly become obsolete. In the four most reformist post-communist countries—Poland and the three Baltic countries—the government changed on average once a year during their first decade of transition.
The dominant concern in all post-communist countries is corruption, for which the incumbent government is always responsible. Therefore, incumbent governments usually lose elections in Eastern European democracies. A stable post-communist government is a corrupt government. Remember that Mykola Azarov was post-Soviet Ukraine’s longest serving prime minister.
Three arguments are currently raised in favor of political stability and against early elections in Ukraine. The most compelling is the war with Russia, but that war has calmed down as the Kremlin becomes bogged down in an even bloodier war in Syria. Read the full article here.
After Ukraine, Kazakhstan wary of ethnic Russians broaching autonomy
By Olzhas Auyezov
Reuters, March 3, 2016
In the city of Kostanay in northern Kazakhstan, the ribbon of St George, a black-and-orange symbol of resurgent Russian patriotism that was adopted by separatists in Ukraine, hangs from every second car's rear-view mirror.
Most people in this town and the surrounding region are ethnic Russians, distinct from the mainly Muslim ethnic Kazakhs who are in the majority nationwide and control the main levers of power in this oil-producing former Soviet state.
Demographically, the region therefore has much in common with Ukraine's Crimea peninsula and the eastern Donbass region, whose majority Russian-speaking populations pulled out of Kiev's orbit with help from Moscow.
There is no separatist rebellion in northern Kazakhstan, but the ethnic Russians, who make up more than a fifth of the country's 18 million population, are feeling increasingly insecure and some sympathize with the separatists in Ukraine.
The Ukraine experience has made the Kazakh authorities highly sensitive to any signs of disloyalty by ethnic Russians. Ethnically based political parties are banned.
Last year, a court in eastern Kazakhstan sentenced a user of Vkontakte, a Russian-based social network, to five years in prison for posting a poll which asked people whether they would support the idea of that region, which also has a big ethnic Russian population, becoming part of Russia.
Shooting of Opposition Leader Roils Georgia Ahead of Contentious Election
By Michael Cecire
Foreign Policy, February 29, 2016
A prominent Georgian opposition leader, Aleksi Petriashvili, was shot and wounded on February 26 at a cemetery in central Tbilisi. While he is expected to make a full recovery, the attack is likely to aggravate Georgia’s worsening political divides. At the very least, it will raise questions about the government’s ability to maintain pubic security just months before October parliamentary elections. Petriashvili’s attackers, reported as “well trained,” remain unknown and at large.
The attack has prompted a number of theories, most of which assume that the primary motive was not political. The most broadly circulated explanations focus on clan rivalries mixed in with various rumors about personal vendettas and conflicting business interests. Even so,
Petriashvili’s prominence virtually guarantees that the attempt on his life will have political ramifications.
A former Minister for Euro-Atlantic Integration, Petriashvili is a leading figure in the Free Democrats party, which broke away from the ruling Georgian Dream coalition in November 2014 after its leader, Irakli Alasania, was dismissed by then-Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili from his post as defense minister. During their period within the Georgian Dream coalition, the pro-western Free Democrats were outspoken supporters of liberal reforms and deeper ties with Euro-Atlantic institutions.Read the full article here.
Moldova's Corruption Blocking Its Path to European Future
By Daniel Schearf
Voice of America, February 29, 2016
Corruption scandals have tainted Moldova's pro-European leadership and boosted support for pro-Russia parties that argue for closer ties with its Soviet-era ally, Moscow.
Moldova's pro-Russia parties say the West for years supported corrupt Europe-leaning politicians running the country, and therefore, they argue, a re-alignment with Moscow is the way forward.
Igor Dodon, a protest leader with Moldova’s Socialist Party, has a photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin on his office wall and makes no secret about which direction he wants to see his country take.
“The strategic interest of Moldova is [solving] the economic problems and the country's integrity,” he told VOA. “This objective can be achieved only in strategic partnership with the Russian Federation.”
For Ukrainians, Minsk Agreements 'Poison'
Voice of America, March 2, 2016
Two years after the start of the Ukraine conflict, Ukrainians are coming under pressure from the West and Russia to comply with the Minsk agreements, and many here doubt the country will be able to enact the overdue constitutional reforms required to implement the peace deal.
Politicians and analysts say Ukraine is being cornered by both Russia and the West to implement the deal, which requires granting greater autonomy to the separatist-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk regions and take other actions they believe will eventually lead to the eventual loss of more territory.
“The West says we have to implement this Minsk agreement, which for Ukraine is poison,” Alexey Arestovich, a former Ukrainian intelligence officer and military analyst, told VOA. “It is not supported by society and is just not possible.”
Ukraine accuses Russia of failing to provide the necessary security conditions to implement the peace deal, especially as Russian-backed separatists intensify their attacks in the country’s east. Holding regional elections, as mandated by the peace deal, they say, is impossible as the fighting continues.
Kyiv Could Rename 'Moscow Avenue' After Nationalist Bandera
RFE/RL, March 2, 2016
Kyiv is considering stripping a major thoroughfare of the name Moskovsky Prospekt, or Moscow Avenue, and renaming it after late Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera -- a move that would be certain to anger Russia.
The possible change is part of a push to rid Ukraine of Soviet-era symbols under “decommunization” laws that were passed last year after ties with Russia were torn apart by Moscow’s seizure of Crimea and support for separatists in the east.
The Kyiv City Hall commission that deals with name changes has approved the proposal, Volodymyr Vyatrovych, the director of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance (UINR), said on his Facebook page on March 2. He said the UINR had made the proposal.
Vyatrovych said a day earlier that the commission has asked Mayor Vitaliy Klitschko to put the proposal to public debate in the capital. Such a debate, if Klitschko decides to initiate it, could take up to two months.
Under legislation adopted in May 2015, the communist government that ruled between 1917 and 1991 is condemned as a criminal regime.
Russian Man Could Be Jailed For Saying God Doesn't Exist
By Tom Balmforth
RFE/RL, March 2, 2016
A Russian man could be jailed over an Internet exchange in which he said that God doesn't exist.
Viktor Krasnov, 38, was in court in the southern city of Stavropol on March 2. He could be sentenced to a year in prison if convicted under 2013 legislation that made it a crime to “insult the religious convictions or feelings of citizens.”
A lawyer representing Krasnov, Andrei Sabinin, said that Krasnov's accusers told the court during the closed-door hearing that they want him punished "for his remarks about God."
A prominent activist group said it is Krasnov whose freedom of conscience is being violated.
The controversial legislation was adopted following the high-profile jailing of members of the band Pussy Riot over a protest in which they burst into Russia’s main cathedral and performed a “punk prayer” urging the Virgin Mary to rid the country of President Vladimir Putin.
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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.