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Ukraine war: The luck of the Ukrainian oligarchs is beginning to change | Economy and Business

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In the room of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, in his residence on the outskirts of Kyiv, there is no trace of the Picassos or the Aivazovskys that used to hang on its walls. What does remain are the gigantic empty dressing rooms where the president’s girlfriend once had a space with capacity for a thousand rings. There were also many, many television sets. In the ample residence where the couple lived more than comfortably, there were up to 18 Samsung sets, sometimes several in the same room. Books, on the other hand, were practically non-existent.

However, the most valuable objects – works of art, furniture, jewelry – are no longer here. The former president took them in his hasty flight to Russia during the 2014 Maidan uprising that would change the country’s history. Anyone who is curious can see on YouTube how Yanukovych’s assistants loaded trucks for three days in order to get the spoils from so many years of looting out of the country. After his departure, shocked citizens entered the mansion to discover the shameless ostentation in which their leader had lived.

The mansion where Yanukovych spent his days of relaxation is much more than a house. Not only because the 150 hectares of the Mezhyhirya estate housed a zoo (with the friendly ostriches that are still there today, undaunted by the distress that Ukraine is experiencing), a museum with the luxury cars that the former president collected, a heliport, a tennis court, two huge golf courses, a spa with several saunas and 40 pieces of sports equipment, a shooting range, endless fountains and lakes, and even an artificial mountain complete with a waterfall. All this, just for the man who ruled Ukraine and his girlfriend. If his children visited, they slept in another house. Russian President Vladimir Putin also had another residence in the complex, in case he ever went to Kyiv. And at banquets with many diners, a dining boat received the guests. “During construction, it was estimated that each day of work cost $2 million. It would be impossible to calculate the value of all this,” certifies the guide Genadii Nikolaenko.

Protesters marched in Kyiv on March 14 outside one of the offices of oligarch Rinat Akhmetov.
Protesters marched in Kyiv on March 14 outside one of the offices of oligarch Rinat Akhmetov.Vitaliy Holovin – Corbis (Corbis via Getty Images)

Since his flight to Russia, Yanukovych has been an outcast in Ukraine. But Rinat Akhmetov, the oligarch who sponsored his political career, catapulting him to the top, is still the first fortune of his country, with a wealth that Forbes estimated last year at about $7.6 billion. Akhmetov is the most prominent name in the list of Ukrainian oligarchs who control the country through a network of companies and connections. However, luck seems to be changing for this select group.

A dangerous mix

Several factors threaten the position of the men who, until now, have defined the map of power, and who also managed to create political parties that obeyed their personal interests. On the one hand, the war launched by Russia is striking some vital nerves in their finances. On the other, the simultaneous political pressure from Kyiv and Brussels threatens to hurt them even more; a dangerous mix for those who filled their pockets with the privatizations of the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“To understand the role of the oligarchs, it is enough to think of medieval Europe, with kings who competed for power with feudal lords,” explains Volodimir Yermolenko, director of the Ukraine World website, from a placid terrace in Kyiv. This journalist admits that the excessive power of this small number of people is a burden for the country, but he also believes that, to a certain extent, the competition between the powerful entails a kind of balance game that prevents the authoritarian drift of the country that a single leader would imply, as is the case in Russia, where all the oligarchs are subject to the will of the Kremlin.

Akhmetov is the owner, among many other things, of Azovstal, the steel mill that gained worldwide notoriety for becoming the last point of resistance against the Russians in Mariupol, in southern Ukraine. This gigantic complex, one of the sources of Akhmetov’s fortune, generated tens of thousands of jobs, produced 40% of the country’s steel and had its own port at the Sea of Azov.

The former residence of Yanukovich outside Kyiv, during a visit on June 21.
The former residence of Yanukovich outside Kyiv, during a visit on June 21.Luis Doncel

In May, the tycoon who used to boast privileged ties to Moscow – and who sponsored Yanukovych – announced a $17-20 billion dollar lawsuit against Russia for the destruction of the plant and other assets in the Donbas area. Some analysts estimate that Akhmetov has lost two-thirds of his fortune since the beginning of the war. But for many businessmen the problems are not new; they began in 2014, with the seizure of Crimea and the beginning of the war in Donbas. “The key to seeing if they will recover their former power will be in how the reconstruction tasks are executed and who is entrusted with them,” says a European source. Another oligarch who’s fallen from grace is Viktor Medvedchuk, the Ukrainian billionaire closest to Putin; he was arrested in April accused of “high treason” by the Kyiv authorities.

Zelenskiy’s crusade

The oligarchs are not only haunted by financial problems. Perhaps more dangerous for their interests is the political crusade against them. In November 2021, before the Russian troops entered with force and fire, President Volodimir Zelenskiy had already promoted a law to reduce the weight of the tycoons, a group that included some 40 people with an industry monopoly, media outlets, a fortune of more than $90 million, and who take part in political activities. Some critical voices pointed out that, with this initiative, Zelenskiy was not seeking to balance the map of power, but rather to undermine the influence of former President Petro Poroshenko. Zelenskiy himself also has a group of oligarchs around him.

In addition to leading the opposition, Poroshenko is one of the richest men in the country thanks to an empire of candy, cars, media outlets and much more. The tycoon faces up to 15 years in prison for high treason, for the purchase of coal from the pro-Russian separatists of Donetsk, as well as other charges of corruption, trials that he sees as politically motivated.

In an interview with EL PAÍS, last week Poroshenko made the case for demanding responsibility from those “who ruin the country by stealing billions of euros.” Reminded that he too is an oligarch, he angrily protested. “Please don’t use that word!” he exclaimed. “We are in a war right now. And who has stayed here to defend their country, and who has fled? Who is spending their money to support the army and who is stealing? Who pays their taxes and who doesn’t?” His spokesmen assure that he has invested more than €10 million out of his own pocket to help defend Ukraine.

The pressure also comes from Brussels, who wants to get its hands on the Ukrainian super-millionaires. When approving the country’s candidacy to join the EU, the European Commission demanded seven chapters of reforms, one of them to advance the anti-oligarch law. But this must be done, according to Brussels, avoiding arbitrariness. The document also recalled the “disproportionate” influence of these businessmen on the media, especially on television.

Before the war, the gardens that witnessed Yanukovych’s excesses were full of families having picnics. This place, which the guide considers “the heart of Ukraine” due to a story that goes back to the 12th century when a monastery was founded there, is now a public museum and it also served as a refuge when Russian troops approached Kyiv. But it also symbolizes the rise and fall of the man who wanted to control the entire country. Yanukovych, in the words of the journalist Yermolenko, tried to be king and feudal lord at the same time. The question is whether the oligarchs who accompanied him in his career will know how to adapt to a new era of an increasingly European Ukraine, or if they will fall by the wayside.

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‘There are snakes – but we attack the fires’: refugees fight flames in the Sahara | Global development

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Ahmedou Ould Boukhary knows he can get the call at any time, day or night from the local authorities in Bassikounou, a town in the south-east of Mauritania. Someone has spotted a fire in one of the villages perched on the edge of the Sahara. How soon can he and his men be there?

Boukhary leads the Brigade Anti-Feu – the Anti-Fire Brigade – a volunteer force of about 500 Malian refugees living in M’bera camp, towards the border with Mali, 11 miles (18km) from the town. When the call comes, teams of between 50 and 70 men pack themselves into the backs of pickup trucks and zoom out of the camp to deal with the blaze. Sometimes they travel up to 20 miles to put out fires.

A view from a plane of the vast expanse of Sahara close to Bassikonou and M’bera Camp where bush fires rage after the rainy season under the immense heat of the sun and the gusts of wind that spread the burning.
Malian refugees queue outside a distribution centre in M’bera camp for their allocation of food and feminine hygiene products
Two Malian refugee herdsmen watch their cattle next to a water trough in M’bera camp.
Members of the M’bera camp Brigade Anti-Feu drive to their training exercise. Before the rainy season, wildfires become a risk

With little more than axes and tree branches, the brigade helped to put out 36 fires in and around the camp since October, during the most recent dry season, which runs until June. The fires typically come after the rains, when scrubland, full of green plant life, slowly becomes a tinderbox.

Ahmedou Ould Boukhary, a founder of the 200-strong Anti-Fire Brigade who organises training for its members, at a tree nursery in the camp. A key method by which the community prevent bushfires is the creation of fire-breaks cleared of plant debris and other vegetation.

  • Ahmedou Ould Boukhary, a founder of the Anti-Fire Brigade, at a tree nursery in the camp.The brigade plants trees to replace those used for building and cooking

During a recent practice run, the trucks race into the desert. When they halt, the men jump out and start hacking at a small tree, passing its wispy branches around to use as makeshift brooms. They form a line, and start sweeping at the ground just as they would if putting out a real fire. Dust and sand billows into the hot air, which fills with the sound of excited shouts. The equipment may be modest, but branches used well are enough to stamp out many scrubland fires.

Brigade members arrive for a training exercise

“It’s a little tiring, it’s a little risky,” says Mine Hamada, one of the brigade leaders. “We have the courage to not be afraid. We’re brave – we go at midnight, we go at 1am, we go at whatever hour. We go into the bush. There are snakes, there’s everything – but we attack the wildfires.”

An influx of thousands of refugees escaping an upsurge in violence and rising insecurity in Mali since March has reduced the number of callouts this year. The hungry livestock they brought with them ate many of the shrubs and trees that would have posed a fire risk. Between October 2020 and June 2021, the teams extinguished 58 fires.

A man swings an axe cutting branchs from one of the many shrubs that litter the Sahelian landscape.
Brigade members practise a variety of different fire-fighting techniques. Some sweep, some swing and some hitting the ground aggressively with branches. In the background, a younger boy also practises. The Anti-Fire Brigade has acquired a heroic cachet. Teenagers can join once they are 18.
Members of BAF stand listening to a debrief from leader Ahmedou Ould Boukhary after the training session while dressed in long tunics and tagelmusts head scarves.
As ordered by their leader Boukhary, men walk in a diagonal line across the desert whooping and yelling as they practise a variety of fire-fighting formations

  • Clockwise from top left: a man chops long, bushy branches from a shrub – highly effective for beating back low-level fires; brigade members practise fire-fighting techniques. A younger boy also practises: the brigade has acquired a heroic cachet, and teenagers can join at 18; men practise and listen to a debriefing from Boukhary.

Founded in 2013 as an initiative between the Mauritanian NGO SOS Desert, the local authorities and the UN high commissioner for refugees, the brigade is among a number of volunteer groups that have sprung up in M’bera since the camp was established 10 years ago. The camp is home to about 80,000 Malians.

As well as putting out fires, the refugee fire brigade attempts to mitigate the risk of blazes by cutting down trees and shrubs to create firebreaks between patches of vegetation. The brigades also plant trees to replace those cut down to make homes in the camp and for cooking. These efforts are contributing towards the Great Green Wall – a massive reforestation project that aims to grow an 4,350-mile-long barrier to combat environmental degradation in the Sahel.

The men walk in a diagonal formation during their firefighting practice session, whooping and yelling

Miraculously, the brigade has only incurred one injury over the past nine years, Hamada says. Amid high winds, a man tripped and fell into a fire he was battling. His fellow firefighters were able to pull him to safety before he could be seriously hurt.

The volunteers say they take on the dangerous work, which often has them out in the field for hours at a time, because they want to protect the area in which they live. But they also do it out of gratitude – to pay back their Mauritanian hosts for the years they have spent as refugees.

“We must help les adoptants,” says Boukhary, referring to the local Mauritanians who, by accepting the Malians into their country, he suggests have “adopted” them. “We intervene to help them. Because we’re refugees on their territory. No one asked us to ‘Do this, do that’ – it’s our initiative.”

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Kiev Selling Off Country, Prioritizing Poland in This ‘Business Project’ – Russian Foreign Intel

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Previously, Russian Foreign Intelligence Service chief Sergey Naryshkin said that Warsaw and Washington were plotting to “reunite” Poland with western Ukraine, with the statement branded “false” by the Polish secret service.

The Kiev regime has, essentially, already started selling off the country, giving priority in this “business project” to Polish neighbors, the Foreign Intelligence Service of the Russian Federation stated on its website.

Poland’s aspirations are being facilitated by newly-adopted legislation in Ukraine.

“The new legal framework adopted by the Rada at the end of July offers special guarantees for Polish citizens and allows the sale of Ukraine’s industrial enterprises at a 50% discount, according to the SVR website.

Ukrainian flag and Polish Eagle on the building of the Polish Embassy in Kiev. File photo. - Sputnik International, 1920, 04.05.2022

Poland Plans to Annex Western Ukraine, Former Lawmaker Claims



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The repeal of abortion in the United States leaves doctors in legal limbo | International

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On June 29, five days after the US Supreme Court struck down federal protection of abortion rights, Emily Diament, pregnant with her second daughter, was due for her 20th week checkup. Everything was going well in a pregnancy that “could not be more desired.” She will always remember it: it was Wednesday, at two o’clock in the afternoon, when the doctor told them that the fetus’s heart had stopped beating. “It was terrible. At that time, Ram [her husband] and I had to think: Where does the Supreme Court ruling leave us now? “All of this was new”, adds this 33-year-old public relations officer in an email: “a panorama full of unknowns and fears”.

The gynecologist explained the alternatives. The first, “induction,” was the least safe. It essentially means giving birth to the stillborn baby. The second, more reliable and less onerous for her, was to undergo a D&E operation, an acronym for “dilation and evacuation”. “The process is also faster,” explains Diament. The couple opted for the latter.

The couple live in New Orleans, “the best city in the world”, as Diament likes to define it. The Supreme Court ruling, which overturned the half-century precedent of 1973 by the ruling Roe v. Wade, gave power to regulate women’s reproductive health back to the States. Diament’s legislators in Louisiana, anxiously awaited the moment of a “trigger law”, ready to take effect since 2006. Three days after the ruling, a judge blocked the activation of that rule, one of the most restrictive in the country. But it was just a mirage: on July 8 abortion was outlawed in Louisiana even for rape and incest. And so it goes: after several comings and goings in the courts, the ban holds up, pending new legal battles.

Among the restrictions contemplated by the law is the veto on D&E unless the mother’s life is in danger, or the baby has already died. Diament’s case fell into the permitted categories, but her ordeal compelled her to tell her story. “After going through that process and talking to several doctors about their concerns,” she explains, “I know this happened to me at this exact time for a reason.”

Bhavik Kumar is one of those nervous doctors, pushed into legal limbo by the new rules. He is a consultant in the largest provider of abortions in the United States, Planned Parenthood, in Houston, Texas, another of the epicenters of the restrictive tsunami that hits the United States. He explains that an “induction” can last “from one to 12 or 24 hours”, carries more risks (“the same as childbirth”) and generates more hospital expenses, causing serious debt among less well-off patients. Some, however, prefer it, because “the baby comes out intact, and they can bond with it,” adds Kumar. With D&E, which uses forceps, mothers do not see the dead body.

Conversation between doctor and patient

And that is all that Kumar asks: that the matter be resolved in a conversation between doctor and patient, “without political interference.” “Since the law came into force [in Texas], the only cases in which we are allowed to intervene after six weeks is if the life of the person is in danger, or if there is no doubt that the pregnancy is not viable.”, he warns.

Kumar, like many of his colleagues, has doubts around the idea of “life in danger”. “It’s not exactly a scientific concept,” he clarifies. “Every doctor, every ER, every clinic, and every hospital may have their own theory of what that means. Now, instead of looking at the data and talking to patients to decide what’s best, doctors, hospitals and clinics have to consult with lawyers, ethics committees or administrators about what they can and can’t do. Meanwhile, they also remain in limbo. The precautions seem justified: both Texas and Louisiana threaten prison sentences of between 10 and 15 years to those who perform abortions outside the supposedly permitted limits.

A gynecologist thus defined the new dilemmas of her practice during an interview with EL PAÍS held at a reproductive health center in Des Moines (Iowa): “It’s terrible,” lamented the doctor, who asked to speak anonymously. “They make us choose between the Hippocratic Oath [the famous “Do no harm”] and the penal code.”

This week, Attorney General Merrick Garland decided to take matters into his own hands with a Justice Department lawsuit challenging a new Idaho law that, when it takes effect at the end of the month, will allow prosecutors to “indict, arrest and prosecute a doctor merely by showing that an abortion has been performed, regardless of the circumstances.” The rule thus endorses the burden of proof on doctors (that is, to prove whether the woman’s life was in danger or not, for example, or if there was incest or rape, in cases where the law contemplates those exceptions). According to Garland, who warned that it would be the first in a series of legal actions by the Biden Administration to mitigate the effects of the new state laws, that provision conflicts with a federal regulation, The Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA).

“D&E requires training that many physicians lack,” explains Diament. “With the new laws, it is likely that there will be doctors who prefer not to learn the technique to avoid its possible consequences. It’s not that we don’t have autonomy over our bodies, it’s that doctors can’t watch over our health either. This is not protecting life, quite the contrary. It’s completely surreal.”

“We must not forget that we are facing cases in which pregnancies are absolutely desired. First they have to accept terrible news, and then they are forced to go through a process that is very traumatic for many, and after that, a few weeks later, they have to relive the experience when the hospital bill arrives”, argues Gabriela Benazar Acosta, spokesperson from Planned Parenthood Latino, New York.

Kumar warns, for his part, that “medicine is a science with vast gray areas, no matter how hard these legislators insist on the contrary. No one better than doctors, in an empathetic dialogue with patients and their families, can know in each specific case what is the best way to act.”

These days, stories like Diament’s are emerging in the United States (“there have always existed,” says Kumar, “but now the spotlight is on them”). Stories of women who are sent home by hospitals with instructions to return when they get worse and are “really” bleeding (“And that, even when it is clear that there is no turning back,” warns the doctor). A patient in Texas whose water broke at week 18 and was advised to stay in the hospital until week 24 to keep her pregnant until then, which is when “viability” outside the womb is set to begin. Maybe then, the baby might survive (the chances, Alan Peaceman, a professor of maternal-fetal medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, told NPR that the chances are “as close to zero as far as medicine is concerned”).

“All this means that some have to travel to other states because they do not want to wait to get even more sick,” adds Kumar. Since the Supreme Court toppled Roe, class and race are two factors that have surfaced in the debate on reproductive health in the United States. With this regressive wave, which comes after half a century in which women took for granted a protection that they are now denied, began an exodus of patients from their places of origin to States in which abortions can be performed. This has created yet another gap, between those who can afford to take vacation days, often unpaid, from their jobs and pay for the trip and the intervention, and those who simply cannot afford it. In the case of miscarriages, inevitable in between 10% and 20% of pregnancies, this different position in the wheel of social fortune can become, if things get complicated, deadly.

Translated by Xanthe Holloway.

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