Illia Ponomarenko: Ukraine’s Friend & Foe of the Week
Editor’s Note: This feature separates Ukraine’s friends from its enemies. The Order of Yaroslav the Wise has been given since 1995 for distinguished service to the nation. It is named after the Kyivan Rus leader from 1019-1054, when the medieval empire reached its zenith. The Order of Lenin was the highest decoration bestowed by the Soviet Union, whose demise Russian President Vladimir Putin mourns. It is named after Vladimir Lenin, whose corpse still rots on the Kremlin’s Red Square, more than 100 years after the October Revolution he led.
Friend: Joel Lion, Ambassador of Israel to Ukraine
Rosh Hashanah — the Jewish New Year celebration — is just about to begin on Sept. 18.
However, several hundred Jewish faithful, namely members of the Hasidic sect, are not enjoying the upcoming holiday.
For as long as a week already, they have been stuck on Belarus’ border with Ukraine, trying to enter the country and carry out a traditional pilgrimage to the resting place of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the founder of their religious movement, in the central Ukrainian city of Uman.
But Ukraine won’t let them in — the borders have again been closed for foreigners since Aug. 26 to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Large annual gatherings of Jewish guests have long been a feature of life in Uman (and a good source of revenue for locals).
This year, Ukrainian authorities warned the pilgrims that they cannot make their typical journey. But someone told them they should try and enter the country via Belarus. Sadly, that turned out to be wrong.
So now up to 800 Hasids are still effectively waiting at the border, with many running short on food and water and relying on aid from Israeli diplomats and Jewish organizations. Some commentators have even said they are on the brink of a humanitarian disaster.
The ordeal caused yet another international scandal, with relatives of the Hasids in Israel even protesting against Ukraine’s policies.
Amid this trouble, the Israeli mission in Ukraine supported Kyiv’s travel ban — even when it affected Israeli citizens and Jewish faithful.
In an interview published on Sept. 17, Israeli Ambassador Joel Lion said that the pilgrims should return home instead of endlessly waiting at the border.
“We respect the Ukrainian government’s decision,” the diplomat said. “We tell (the faithful) they need to return to Belarus and then to Israel, as they cannot enter Ukraine… Ukraine is closed to foreigners, to all foreigners.”
The Kyiv Post cannot help but appreciate the Israeli diplomat’s wise stance on the situation.
The plain truth of this ordeal is that letting large groups of people enter or exit Ukraine is dangerous to our anti-pandemic efforts — particularly when they are coming to celebrate a holiday traditionally marked with mass gatherings.
Over the past few weeks alone, the epidemic situation in the country has deteriorated significantly. The Ukrainian Ministry of Health regularly reports record-high numbers of new infections, sometimes over 3,000 a day. Ukraine also often breaks its own records for daily deaths from COVID-19.
Ukraine is not doing well as it attempts to overcome the disease’s spread on its territory, despite spending three months in lockdown and over three more under different degrees of quarantine. Our national health care system is rapidly hurtling toward the humble limits of how many sick patients it can accept for treatment.
Israel is also struggling. It will return to lockdown for three weeks starting on Sept. 18.
In this situation, difficult solutions are required. And sometimes that can derail people’s plans to travel or even celebrate important religious holidays.
For this reason, the Kyiv Post declares Ambassador Lion as Ukraine’s Friend of the Week and provides him with a symbolic Order of Yaroslav the Wise.
The top Israeli diplomat in our country merits this decoration for speaking the hard truth: The Hasidic believers need to return home to Israel.
It’s not that they are not welcome in Ukraine. Now, simply isn’t a good time for cross-border travels and large gatherings.
Hopefully, next Rosh Hashanah, which is due to take place in early September 2021, will be different. And everyone will be very much free to visit Uman or any other corner of our country.
For centuries, on certain holidays Jewish people across the world completed their prayers by saying “Next year in a rebuilt Jerusalem” in hopes of returning to their promised land of Israel.
In our situation, we’d like to take the liberty of paraphrasing the saying a bit and reassure the Jewish faithful that we would love to see them again “next year in a healthier Ukraine.”
Foe: Slawomir Nowak, former acting head of Ukraine’s Ukravtodor road agency
Ukrainians are no strangers to being stabbed in the back by fake messiahs who promised them the world, but delivered either little or nothing.
Slawomir Nowak, the Polish politician and government official, is just one of many.
When he was invited by the Ukrainian government in 2016 to come and take charge of Ukravtodor, the agency responsible for the national automobile road network, it seemed like a bright sign of hope.
Many expected that Ukravtodor, well-known for its apocalyptic corruption, would finally be brought to order by a foreigner, the transport minister in the cabinet of former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
Many thought Ukraine would finally get a chance to tame the mass embezzlement in road building under a new chief from outside the corrupt system and to construct highways that are no worse than those in Poland.
While he did manage to achieve some reforms within the agency, he also gave into the temptation of corruption.
Nowak left office in October 2019, almost a year ago.
Just a month later, Ukraine’s National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption accused him of concealing assets in his official declaration.
And, in July, Polish anti-corruption operatives, as part of a criminal case investigated in cooperation with their Ukrainian colleagues, arrested Nowak on charges of mass bribery, organized crime and money laundering.
Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) had to examine numerous tenders carried out by Ukravtodor under Nowak in 2016-2019.
This week, it became known that Polish law enforcement had discovered that Nowak concealed over $1 million in cash in two hiding spots. Apart from that, Polish anti-graft agencies revealed a $500,000 apartment and a Land Rover vehicle most probably purchased with dirty money.
“The new conclusions demonstrate the scale of Slawomir Novak’s crimes, which are far larger than was previously believed,” Polish TV channel Polsat News said on Sept. 15.
This whole story is so telling that it hardly requires any further comment.
Beyond doubt is the fact that Nowak is a foe of Ukraine, considering everything we have learned about him and how much money he likely siphoned off while working as a government official here.
He had a chance to do something remarkable in his career and to become a national hero for all Ukrainians who are tired of endemic corruption that sucks immense amounts of taxpayer money out of the country and results in nothing but poor, broken roads that cause deadly car wrecks.
But when he arrived in the tempting swamp of mass corruption in Ukraine’s government, he apparently decided to enjoy himself.
Hopefully, the Polish court of justice will give a decent answer to Nowak’s alleged corruption crimes.