The final countdown in the struggle to save the Ukrainian prisoners of the Kremlin

Sergiy Gerasimchuk, Foreign Policy Council "Ukrainian Prism"

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In August, Ukraine’s domestic policy was not marked by an abundance of significant events. The development of the economic situation was put on hold due to the absence of the decision on continuing the cooperation between Ukraine and the IMF. However, the country was mentioned quite frequently on the international arena, first and foremost, within the context of saving Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian director illegally kept in prison in Russia and more than 100 days into a hunger strike.

Domestic Policy: At a standstill

August was a month of political calm in Ukraine. There were no significant political developments due to the parliamentary recess. The hopes for some resonant political statements on August, 24, Ukraine’s Independence Day, did not come true. The leaders of the presidential ratings repeated their previous notes, probably just testing waters for election strategies. Thus, Yulia Tymoshenko yet again mentioned changes to be made in the Constitution by national referendum on a transit to the parliamentary republic. The incumbent President Petro Poroshenko addressed the need to consolidate the country’s EU and NATO course in the Constitution.

The intrigue of the year has not been revealed yet: will the frontman of a popular music band Okean Elzy, Svyatoslav Vakarchuk take part in the presidential race? He is one of the moral leaders for the citizens of the country. During his first concert this year held on the Independence Day Vakarchuk dedicated his songs to the prisoner of conscience Oleg Sentsov as well as to the Ukrainian soldiers fighting in the east of the country. However, he did not make any statements regarding him running for presidency  in 2019.

It is highly probable that September will see more large-scale political events given the fully-fledged opening of the political season and next Parliament’s session.

Economy: MF cooperation on hold?

There is also a lull in the economy. After a slight devaluation of the national currency in early August the situation somewhat stabilized in the following weeks. Yet, issuing external bonds for $725 mln by the Ministry of Finance indirectly indicates that the economic climate is deteriorating. The government took this forced step because the IMF cooperation program was temporarily suspended. The main stumbling point in the negotiations is the cost of gas for the population. The IMF demands the price increase. In his turn, on August 23, the Prime Minister of Ukraine Vladimir Groysman stated that Ukraine acknowledges its obligations to increase gas prices and reminded that this increase is the guarantee for continuing the cooperation with international financial institutions, which “provide us with low-interest money”. The complexity of the decision to raise the price of gas is undoubtedly due to the fact that it can cause social tension, which is extremely undesirable for the government on the eve of the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2019.

Foreign Policy: Saving hostages

Despite holiday season and summer break, Ukraine remains on the international agenda and, in particular, the issue of Kremlin’s “prisoners of conscience”. Releasing Crimean director Oleg Sentsov is critical as his health is severely failing after more than 100 days on hunger strike.

Moreover, US Congressional Freedom of the Press Caucus calls for the immediate release of Ukrainian journalist Stanislav Aseyev held by Russia-backed separatist militants in Eastern Ukraine. Co-chairs of the Freedom of the Press Caucus, U.S. Representatives Adam Schiff and Steve Chabot issued the corresponding statement on August, 8. In their turn, the Association of European Journalists also called on the militants of the so-called DNR to free Aseyev.

Yet on August 21-22, the negotiating group in Minsk failed to provide any tangible results regarding the exchange and release of Ukrainian hostages and political prisoners kept in the Russian Federation and on the temporarily uncontrolled by Ukraine Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The Russian side rejected the initiative to meet to discuss the exchange of prisoners, as stated by Iryna Gerashchenko, Commissioner of the President for the peaceful Settlement of the Situation in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, on her Facebook.

Against the backdrop of severe fighting to free Ukrainian political prisoners, involving the international community, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton’s visit to Kyiv was of special significance and became yet another proof of US consistent policy regarding Ukraine. Mr. Bolton stated that the fact that Russia is discussing the issue of deploying peacekeepers in the Donbas is an indirect recognition of Russian participation in the war. The White House Advisor also called on Ukrainian authorities to seek alternative energy sources and said that building Nord Stream-2 pipeline  will lead to even greater dependence for both Europe in general and Ukraine in particular.

Another Ukrainian ally on the foreign policy front, the German chancellor Angela Merkel did not forget about Ukraine in the course of her meeting with the Russian President Vladimir Putin on August 18. The issue of resolving the situation in Ukraine’s Donbas region was also on the agenda of the negotiations. No agreements, as it was expected on the eve of the meeting, could be (?were?) achieved. However, the settlement issue remains on the international agenda. At the same time, Merkel showed a note of optimism when during her visit to the Caucasus on August 23-25 she stated that Georgia along with Ukraine has the greatest European prospects. Yet, Merkel considers it possible to return to this issue not earlier than in 10 years.