MOSCOW — Not everyone who has a quarrel with Russian President Vladimir Putin dies in violent or suspicious circumstances – far from it. But enough loud critics of Putin’s policies have been murdered that Thursday’s daylight shooting of a Russian who sought asylum in Ukraine has led to speculation of Kremlin involvement.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the shooting in Kiev of Denis Voronenkov, a former Russian Communist Party member who began sharply criticizing Putin after fleeing Russia in 2016, an “act of state terrorism by Russia.”
That drew a sharp rebuke from Putin’s spokesman, who called the accusation “absurd.” Throughout the years, the Kremlin has always dismissed the notion of political killings with scorn.
But Putin’s critics couldn’t help drawing parallels with the unexplained deaths of other Kremlin foes. “I have an impression – I hope it’s only an impression – that the practice of killing political opponents has started spreading in Russia,” said Gennady Gudkov, a former parliamentarian and ex-security services officer, to the Moscow Times.
Here are some outspoken critics of Putin who were killed or died mysteriously.
Russia’s president Vladimir Putin has stated that he can bring troops into Warsaw, Vilnius and a number of other capitals of the EU and the NATO countries.
This information is revealed in a short message of the EU foreign policy service, a German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung writes.
As stated by the newspaper, Putin had told so to Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko.
In his turn, Poroshenko passed along the content of the conversation to the president of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso, “Evropejskaya Pravda” informs.
“If I had wanted, I would have brought troops within two days not only to Kyiv, but to Riga, Vilnius, Tallinn, Warsaw and Bucharest,” Putin told to Poroshenko.
Besides, as the German newspaper informs, Putin recommended the Ukrainian president “not to rely on the EU too much”, as if required, he can “influence and block passing a decision at the level of the European Council.”
Russia has already won “the real victory” in Ukraine, according to a former KGB general living in the United States.
“The Crimea is now Russian, that’s very important,” Oleg Kalugin, one of the top Soviet spies in the United States during the Cold War, told National Review Online. “Southeast of Ukraine, that’s part of the general battle between the Russians and Ukrainians, but it’s not as crucial as the real victory and pride of Russia — the Crimea, I mean.”
The Thursday-morning phone interview took place in the context of media reports that Russia had invaded Ukraine, but Kalugin reiterated that he does not believe Russian president Vladimir Putin wants annex another region of the country.
“I believe they’re just trying to do their best to keep as much as they can of pro-Russian population and communities in that area; but Russia does not plan, I am sure, to take the southeastern part of Ukraine just like they did with the Crimea,”Kalugin said.
“It will certainly do it’s best to provide secure access to the Crimea through that part of Ukraine, because otherwise the Crimea can only be accessed by the Black Sea, by water, and this is not the safest way,” he added.
Kalugin said he doubts Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko’s claims that “Russian troops were brought into Ukraine.”
“For political leaders, it’s important to maintain their stance and make people feel that things are still quite dangerous while he may know well that things are going to a peaceful solution,” Kalugin said. “Russia will not move any [troops] forward while western nations are alerted” due to the risk of expanded economic sanctions.
“It’s not in the interest of Putin,” Kalugin said. “His position as of today is fairly strong in the country, in his own country, so why put it at risk by moving further?”
Although Kalugin expects the Russians to keep a “low-profile” in Ukraine, he agreed that Putin has an interest in fomenting unrest in the country by providing weaponry and perhaps special forces assistance to the separatists.
“The tactical victory would be most likely the pro-Russian forces in that part of Ukraine will eventually triumph and Russia will be satisfied,” he said. “It will not necessarily be exactly to a Russian notion of how things should be, but at least it will not be pro-NATO, pro-Western.”
If Ukraine’s east is a combustive mix of languages and loyalties, its west can be even trickier.
In Transcarpathia, many residents live within shouting distance of four EU countries. Inhabitants speak not only Russian and Ukrainian but Hungarian, Romanian, German, Slovak and Rusyn. Many of its 1.3 million inhabitants hold more than one passport.
It’s a region, in short, where loyalties don’t necessarily lie with Kyiv. So when armed violence broke out on July 11 between police and Right Sector nationalists in the Transcarpathian city of Mukacheve, it was an eerie echo of the Kremlin’s insistence that Ukraine’s problem is not outside meddling, but internal strife.
“[The Right Sector] has a thousands-strong military wing and its own command, but it does not report to the government,” the pro-government news channel Russia Today stated in its coverage of the Mukhacheve shoot-out, which left two people dead and several more wounded.
Sputnik International, a second Kremlin-backed outlet, ran articles describing Right Sector militants running amok, lowering EU flags in Lviv, hacking the Twitter account of the National Security and Defense Council , and heading en masse toward Kyiv.
Right Sector — a heavily armed militant organization branded by Russia as “neo-Nazis” and “fascists” for their ties to World War II-era Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, who cooperated with German forces to fend off Soviet troops — is estimated to have as many as 10,000 members serving in volunteer battalions in the Donbas war zone and elsewhere in the country.
A sometimes uneasy ally of last year’s Maidan protesters, the group has since grown critical of the government of Petro Poroshenko, in particular for cracking down on volunteer units.
But one member, while confirming the group’s intention to protest in Kyiv, said they would not do so “with assault rifles and machine guns.”
The group has also sought to portray the weekend violence as fallout from the group’s self-described anticorruption efforts. Oleksiy Byk, a Right Sector spokesman, said police were to blame for the bloodshed.
“If we had started shooting first, there would have been many police among the victims,” Byk said during a July 12 press conference.Dmytro Yarosh
Dmytro Yarosh, the head of Right Sector, said on Facebook that his group was cooperating with the Ukrainian Security Service to stabilize the situation in Transcarpathia.
“I am asking you to ignore fake reports, which are disseminated to discredit Right Sector and provoke Ukrainians to shed blood,” he said.
Poroshenko, addressing an extraordinary meeting of the National Security Council’s military cabinet, appeared unswayed. Accusing Right Sector of undermining “real Ukrainian patriots,” the Ukrainian leader on July 13 suggested that fresh tensions in Donbas “have been mysteriously synchronized with an attempt to destabilize the situation in the rear — and not just any rear, but in a place 1,000 kilometers away from the front line.”
A KGB Favorite
Local reports suggest the Mukhacheve violence may have been the result of a business dispute. Cross-border smuggling of cigarettes and other contraband is said to be worth billions of dollars in Transcarpathia, with its easy ground access to Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland.
The region’s customs officials have been suspended in the wake of the violence, and at least one authority — parliamentary deputy Mykhaylo Lanyo, who has been accused of ties to smuggling networks — has been called in for questioning.
But it remains to be seen whether suspicions will trickle up to powerful local authorities like the so-called Baloha clan — revolving around Viktor Baloha, a former emergency situations minister and current parliamentary deputy — which is said to rule Transcarpathia with near-complete autonomy.
Some observers have suggested that the July 11 violence was little more than a battle for influence between Lan and Baloha.
Others say they suspect Russia of stirring the pot. During the Soviet era, Transcarpathia — with its mix of languages and nearby borders — was of special interest for the KGB, who used the region as a “window” to the west and the entryway for its armed invasions of Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968.
“The FSB has successfully picked up the baton,” he wrote. “For Russia, Transcarpathia and its surroundings remain an important region. Taking into account the blurred identity and ethnic diversity of the local population, the field of activities for these agents is quite fertile.”
The weekend unrest, with its threat of gang-style violence spilling over the EU’s eastern border, has put Ukraine’s goal of visa-free EU travel at immediate risk.
With the involvement of Right Sector, Kralyuk says, the clashes have given Russia “a wonderful gift.”
Transcarpathia, which during the 20th century was alternately ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary before being claimed by the Soviet Union, leans heavily on largesse from its western neighbors.
Budapest in particular has provided passports and special benefits to residents with proven Hungarian roots. The country’s pro-Russian prime minister, Viktor Orban, has set Ukraine on edge with professed concern for Transcarpathia’s Hungarian minority, which many see as shorthand for a Russian-style separatist conflict.
Moreover, the region has long shown an affinity for pro-Russian parties. In the 1990s, Transcarpathia was a solid supporter of the Social Democratic Party of Viktor Medvedchuk, the pro-Kremlin strategist with close personal ties to Vladimir Putin.
Before the Maidan protests, it put its weight behind Viktor Yanukovych and the Party of Regions, rather than pro-democratic “orange” candidates.
Political analyst Viktoria Podhorna says government negligence has only added to Transcarpathian exceptionalism. Poroshenko, who earned atypical support from Baloha, appears to have responded by involving himself only minimally in Transcarpathian issues.
“There’s some kind of trade-off between the central government and regional authorities, who are basically owned by local princelings,” Podhorna says. “And this is the foundation that can lead to conflicts like those in Donbas.”
The treacherous six-hour drive from Odessa to Bolgrad, the rural town where Petro Poroshenko was born, helps explain why in May the Ukrainian president entrusted the job of regional governor to Mikheil Saakashvili, the maverick reformer and former president of nearby Georgia .
In these agricultural heartlands, impoverished locals struggle to get produce to markets. With deep potholes and dirt tracks, roads are more torn up than in Ukraine’s war-torn breakaway east.
After years of neglect, the 244km ride from the cosmopolitan regional capital and Black Sea port hub of Odessa to this southwest corner of Ukraine is like navigating a minefield.
“We feel abandoned, cut off and left for despair . . . Leaders from Kiev, including Poroshenko, aren’t welcome any more,” said Viktor, a resident in the largely ethnic Bulgarian town. “But we like Saakashvili so far,” he added.
Last year’s clashes in Odessa city between pro-Russian and pro-Ukraine forces fed fears that the Moscow-backed separatism fomented in the Donbas region could spread to Odessa, which has a high proportion of Russian speakers and is an ethnic melting pot.
Some feared the arrival of Mr Saakashvili, a foreigner and pro-western politician who in 2008 clashed with Russia over control over two Georgian separatist enclaves, could stoke fresh geopolitical tension.
Kiev’s hope was that he would repeat his success in Georgia, where he helped turn the economy around, and thus neuter support in Odessa for Russia.
So far, the arrival of the straight-speaking Mr Saakashvili, who studied in Kiev and speaks Russian, Ukrainian and English, has injected fresh energy and hope into a region that faces some of the same challenges Georgia did when he took over more than a decade ago. He is now exiled from his country by criminal charges that he says are politically motivated.
In Odessa, road reconstruction has accelerated and Mr Saakashvili has sacked corrupt regional officials and promised investment and new jobs, swiftly winning over desperate locals.
Hopping into a crowded and sweaty Odessa minibus last week, with no notice and without bodyguards, Mr Saakashvili made one of his regular trips around the region to get a glimpse into what works and what doesn’t.
At first his presence stunned his fellow passengers, tourists and residents alike. But the locals quickly made their feelings clear, pleading for reforms.
Mr Saakashvili told them his top priorities are fixing infrastructure and boosting business and tourism, tasks that will be financed by a crackdown on corruption.
“The old system is collapsing,” he said, as the minibus bounced erratically over potholes. “Revolutionary reforms are the answer and we need to act fast.”
“We know Putin is plotting to foment separatism here,” he added. “Without Odessa, there will be no Ukraine. It will be cut off from the Black Sea . . . its exports will be choked.”
As the bus rolled into the resort town of Serhiyivka, residents launched into accusations against a once-feared mayor who has controlled the city for more than a decade. They took Mr Saakashvili on a tour of dilapidated infrastructure, pointing out the luxurious estates built by local officials.
Sergei Lutenko, a 26-year-old who hopes to challenge the mayor in forthcoming elections, said Mr Saakashvili’s presence had “broken fear and offered hope”.
Hours later, in the governor’s office, Mr Saakashvili called in the heads of anti-corruption departments for a televised cabinet meeting.
He swiftly fired them and their staff after one admitted he had brought no officials to justice for corruption since the beginning of the year.
“Have you not seen the roads?” said Mr Saakashvili. “Where did the money go? I’m firing you for doing nothing.”
The ruthless accountability demanded by Mr Saakashvili has regional officials in a panic: many have started repaving roads at their own expense.
“They know I will come to their town next, and they are trying to hold on to their jobs by covering up their wrongdoings,” Mr Saakashvili said.
Broader plans include streamlining local government from about 8,000 to 3,000 staff and clamping down on the rampant evasion of customs duty at regional ports.
This, he says, will free resources to improve governance by replacing fat-cat bureaucrats with more motivated — and often western educated — young people. His flamboyant style strikes a chord in a region known for its sense of humour.
“We need to move fast . . . It will be messy; mistakes will be made,” he said. His combative approach may yet anger entrenched mafia interests and even put him in danger.
“First they will try character assassination, to discredit me. After that they will come after me with other methods,” he said.
Echoing the views of residents across the region, Viktor, from Bolgrad, said:
“It was strange at first to have a former president from another country as our new governor, but in one month we see him doing more than anyone did for us in years.”
The ecocide case against ex-Deputy Prosecutor General Anatoly Danylenko in connection with a fire at an oil depot near Kyiv has been closed, Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin said on June 19.
The move followed the June 18 dismissal of State Security Service Chief Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, who has accused Danylenko of covering up alleged violations at oil firm BRSM-Nafta, which owns the oil depot, and co-owning it. The company denies any links.
Some critics attribute Nalyvaichenko’s sacking as SBU chief to his criticism of prosecutors.
His dismissal also triggered an uproar over alleged horse-trading at the Verkhovna Rada that led to it and allegations that either Nalyvaichenko or President Petro Poroshenko is linked to exiled tycoon Dmytro Firtash. Corruption accusations have also been made against Nalyvaichenko’s potential replacement Anatoly Hrytsak and other top SBU officials.
The case against Danylenko, who has been at the center of several major corruption scandals, is being halted as critics accuse the Prosecutor General’s Office of failing to investigate any high-profile graft cases.
“We have found out that Danylenko is not a co-owner (of BRSM-Nafta) and has not struck any deals,” Shokin said. “The ecocide case has been closed. It was started without proper grounds. Currently we have no questions for Danylenko.”
At the same time, the SBU cancelled an interrogation of Danylenko scheduled for June 19, UNN reported, citing the security agency.
Nalyvaichenko’s spokesman Markian Lubkivsky said by phone that he attributed his boss’s dismissal to what he described as his crackdown on corruption, including his accusations against Danylenko.
Accusations against Danylenko and his former boss, ex-Prosecutor General Vitaly Yarema, were made after Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said last week that in October the Prosecutor General’s Office halted a criminal case against BRSM-Nafta into the sale of hazardous substances and illegal sales of excisable goods.
The fire at the BRSM-Nafta oil depot that sparked the accusations was called the biggest in Ukraine for half a century. It continued for a week earlier this month and killed six people.
Danylenko was also at the center of a major corruption scandal in September 2014, when Nashi Groshi, an investigative TV project, reported that 140 hectares of land and ponds in Kyiv Oblast had been illegally privatized by a firm that used to be owned by Danylenko’s son Vyacheslav.
Alina Strizhak, a journalist at Nashi Groshi, said then that she and her family had been threatened by an unknown man shortly before the investigation was aired.
Nashi Groshi also reported last year that Vyacheslav Danylenko owned about five hectares of forestland in Kyiv Oblast and that companies linked to Danylenko’s family were running a real estate business in Kyiv.
Yarema said later an internal probe had found no wrongdoing on Danylenko’s part.
Andriy Demartino, a spokesman for the Prosecutor General’s Office, was not available by phone.
The latest scandal about Danylenko coincided with one about alleged backdoor deals reached before Nalyvaichenko’s dismissal.
Sergei Vysotsky, a member of the People’s Front parliamentary faction, confirmed in a Facebook post on June 19 that he had written a message about an alleged agreement between Lviv Mayor and Samopomich party leader Andriy Sadovy and Poroshenko on firing Nalyvaichenko. Vysotsky claimed, however, that the message was referring to a rumor and he had no factual information proving it.
According to a YouTube video of the June 18 Verkhovna Rada session recorded by journalists, Vysotsky texts blogger Karl Volokh on a smartphone:
“(Lviv Mayor and Samopomich leader) Sadovy was given the position of the Lviv prosecutor and the Lviv customs office in exchange for Valentyn (Nalyvaichenko).”
Sadovy referred to Vysotsky’s message as nonsense in a Facebook post on June 18.
Nalyvaichenko’s dismissal also re-ignited the outcry about allegations made in an Austrian court in April by Firtash, who faces racketeering charges in the U.S.
Firtash, an ally of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, claimed he had met with Poroshenko and Vitali Klitschko, who is now mayor of Kyiv, in Vienna before the May 25 presidential election and reached an agreement with them on getting Poroshenko elected as president. Poroshenko has confirmed that he had met with Firtash but denied the existence of any agreement.
In what was perceived as a veiled threat to Poroshenko and Klitschko, Nalyvaichenko told the Obozrevatel news site in a June 18 interview that all participants of the Vienna meeting would be taken to court in the U.S. and Austria.
The comments followed accusations by Poroshenko Bloc lawmaker Serhiy Leshchenko that Nalyvaichenko is a protégé of Firtash.
The people reportedly being considered as Nalyvaichenko’s replacement have also come under fire.
One of them – SBU Deputy Chief Vasyl Hrytsak, who was appointed as the agency’s acting chief – is in charge of SBU operations in the war zone.
“He’s responsible for smuggling through checkpoints, the trade in war zone permits (for civilians) and coal trains from the Donetsk People’s Republic to Ukraine,” Yegor Firsov, a member of Nalyvaichenko’s UDAR party and the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, wrote in a column for Obozrevatel on June 18.
Poroshenko himself addressed the problem of smuggling on June 18. “Countering smuggling is a direct responsibility of the State Security Service and there is nothing to be proud of. I am very disappointed with that,” he said at a meeting with SBU officials.
Ihor Kononenko, a Poroshenko Bloc member, defended Hrytsak on June 18, saying that he is “probably the only top SBU official that we have no complaints against.” Hrytsak spends most of his time in the war zone and is in charge of the highly efficient Alfa special forces unit, Kononenko argued.
SBU Deputy Chief Yury Artyukhov, who heads the SBU’s anti-corruption department, is another potential candidate to replace Nalyvaichenko, according to Firsov.
But on June 19 speculation about Artyukhov replacing Nalyvaichenko was effectively refuted by Poroshenko. He asked Hrytsak to prepare documents for firing Artyukhov, as well as SBU deputy chiefs Vitaly Tsyganok and Viktor Yahun, as well as Vasyl Vovk, head of the agency’s main investigative department.
Firsov wrote that “everyone knows that (Artyukhov’s) department covers up all corruption schemes in Ukraine.”
In May Tetiana Chornovol, a People’s Front party lawmaker, accused Artyukhov of running a protection racket for smuggling oil products from the occupied territories to Ukraine jointly with Yanukovych allies.
Earlier this month Chornovol also accused Artyukhov of illegally seizing a car dealership in Kyiv from a U.S. citizen. Artyukhov has admitted at a Rada committee hearing that Gennady Razumei, who reportedly owns the dealership now, is a friend of his, Serhiy Shcherbina, head of the INSIDER Internet news project, wrote on Facebook on June 18.
Shcherbina also said Artyukhov was closely linked to Poroshenko through a network of business interests and common friends one of which recently got the job of aircraft maker Antonov’s president.
Lubkivsky told the Kyiv Post he would not comment on corruption accusations against SBU officials, while SBU spokeswoman Olena Hiklianska was not available by phone.
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