Moldova Watches Ukraine with Special Concern

Moldova is watching the war in neighboring Ukraine with special concern. Like Ukraine, Moldova is not a member of NATO or the European Union, and it has a very large Russian-speaking population – factors that for some Moldovans have sown fears of becoming the next target of Russian ambitions. Jon Spier narrates this report from Ricardo Marquina in southern Moldova.

DC Restaurants, Bars Team Up to Help Feed Ukrainian Refugees

Washington’s hospitality industry quickly stepped up to help Ukrainian refugees after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February. In the US capital, restaurants and bars are actively raising funds to help. Maxim Moskalkov has the story. Camera – Dmytri Shakhov.

In Ukraine’s Lviv, Large Soccer Stadium Turned Into Refugee Shelter

The beautiful medieval city of Lviv in western Ukraine has become a refuge for hundreds of thousands of refugees from all over Ukraine. One Local soccer stadium, built for the 2012 Euro Cup, has been turned into a refugee center. Anna Kosstutschenko reports for VOA in Lviv.
Videographer: Yuiry Dankevych

Georgia Denounces South Ossetia’s Planned Vote on Joining Russia

Georgia on Thursday denounced as “unacceptable” plans announced by pro-Moscow separatists in the breakaway South Ossetia region to hold a referendum on joining Russia.

South Ossetia was in the center of the Russian-Georgian war in 2008 after which the Kremlin recognized the territory — along with another separatist region, Abkhazia — as an independent state and stationed military bases there.

On Wednesday, South Ossetian separatist leader Anatoly Bibilov said the statelet would hold a referendum on joining Russia shortly after the April 10 “presidential election” there.

Georgian Foreign Minister David Zalkaliani said Thursday “it is unacceptable to speak of any referendums while the territory is occupied by Russia.”

“Such a referendum will have no legal force,” he told journalists. “The European Court of Human Rights has ruled that the Georgian region is occupied by Russia.”

Also on Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow hasn’t taken any “legal” steps on the matter.

“But at the same time, we are talking about people of South Osseita expressing their opinion and we treat it with respect,” Peskov told reporters.

Bibilov’s spokeswoman Dina Gassiyeva told Thursday Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency that the decision to hold the referendum was “linked with the window of opportunity that opened in the current situation”, referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Last week, Bibilov said that South Ossetia had sent troops to fight alongside the invading Russian troops in Ukraine, where thousands of people were killed and more than 10 million displaced.

In August 2008, Russia launched an assault against Georgia which was battling pro-Russian militia in South Ossetia, after they shelled Georgian villages.

The fighting ended after five days with a European Union-mediated ceasefire but claimed more than 700 lives and displaced tens of thousands of ethnic Georgians.

In Guatemala, Woman’s Fight for Ukrainian Refugees has Global Reach

As millions of Ukrainians flee their homes, there has been an outpouring of support from people around the world. One Ukrainian woman in Guatemala has mobilized the online community to help Ukrainians. For VOA News Eugenia Sagastume has the story.
Camera: Eugenia Sagastume

UN Chief: 2 Billion People Live in Conflict Areas Today

The United Nations chief said Wednesday that one-quarter of humanity — 2 billion people — are living in conflict areas today and the world is facing the highest number of violent conflicts since 1945, when World War II ended.

Secretary-General Antonio Guterres cited conflicts from Yemen, Syria, Myanmar and Sudan to Haiti, Africa’s Sahel, “and now the war in Ukraine — a catastrophe shaking the foundations of the international order, spilling across borders and causing skyrocketing food, fuel and fertilizer prices that spell disaster for developing countries.”

He told the U.N. Peacebuilding Commission on Wednesday that last year 84 million people were forced to leave their homes because of conflict, violence and human rights violations. And that doesn’t include the Ukraine war which has already seen 4 million people flee the country and displaced another 6.5 million within the country, according to U.N. agencies.

Guterres said the U.N. estimates that this year “at least 274 million will need humanitarian assistance.” This represents a 17% increase from 2021 and will cost $41 billion for the 183 million people targeted for aid, according to the U.N. humanitarian office.

Guterres also cited the 2 billion figure of people living in conflict countries in a report to the commission in late January, which said there were a record number of 56 state-based conflicts in 2020. It doesn’t include the Ukraine war, which started with Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion and has affected almost all 40 million people in the country.

The secretary-general told the commission that conflicts are increasing “at a moment of multiplying risks that are pushing peace further out of reach — inequalities, COVID-19, climate change and cyber threats, to name just a few.”

He also pointed to an increase of military coups and seizures of power by force around the world, growing nuclear arsenals, human rights and international law under assault, and criminals and terrorist networks “fueling — and profiting from — divisions and conflicts.”

“The flames of conflict are fueled by inequality, deprivation and underfunded systems,” Guterres said, and these issues must be addressed urgently.

According to his report to the commission, the world is seeing the increasing internationalization of conflicts within countries, and this, together with “the fragmentation and multiplication” of armed groups linked to criminal and terrorist networks, “makes finding solutions arduous,” he said.

Consequently, Guterres said, “there are fewer political settlements to conflicts,” with Colombia a notable exception.

“Over the last decade, the world has spent $349 billion on peacekeeping, humanitarian relief and refugee support, he said. “And global military expenditures rose to nearly $2 trillion in 2020.”

The Peacebuilding Commission has worked to advance peace and prevent conflict in countries including Ivory Coast, Iraq, Africa’s Great Lakes region and Papua New Guinea, the secretary-general said, and the Peacebuilding Fund has grown, investing $195 million last year.

But it relies on voluntary contributions and peacebuilding needs are far outpacing resources, which is why Guterres said he is asking the U.N. General Assembly to assess the U.N.’s 193 member nations a total of $100 million annually for the fund.

“When we consider the costs of war — to the global economy but most of all to humanity’s very soul — peacebuilding is a bargain, and a prerequisite for development and a better future for all,” he said. 

British Judges Quit Hong Kong Court Over Beijing-Imposed National Security Law

Two senior British judges resigned from Hong Kong’s highest court on Wednesday as part of a broader British rebuke of the territory’s claim that its courts are independent of political interference.

In a prepared statement released by Lord Robert Reed and his colleague Lord Patrick Hodge, the judges cited the territory’s Beijing-imposed National Security Law (NSL) as central to their decision, which followed discussions with Dominic Raab, the U.K. lord chancellor and justice secretary.

“I have concluded, in agreement with the government, that the judges of the Supreme Court cannot continue to sit in Hong Kong without appearing to endorse an administration which has departed from values of political freedom, and freedom of expression,” said the statement. “Lord Hodge and I have accordingly submitted our resignations as non-permanent judges of the HKCFA with immediate effect.”

Britain, which handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, has said the security law that punishes offenses like subversion with up to life imprisonment has been used to curb dissent and freedoms. London also says the law is a breach of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration that paved the way for the handover.

British officials on Wednesday issued comments explaining their decision to withdraw the judges from Hong Kong’s highest court, calling their presence untenable.

“The situation has reached a tipping point, where it is no longer tenable for British judges to sit on Hong Kong’s leading court and would risk legitimizing oppression,” said British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss in a statement. “I welcome and wholeheartedly support the decision to withdraw British judges from the court.”

Raab said, “I thank our judges for being a bastion of international rule of law in Hong Kong over the past 25 years.”

Brian Davidson, the British Consul General to Hong Kong and Macao, also echoed the announcement in a video posted on Twitter.

Hong Kong government officials, however, were quick to respond to the resignations, calling the national security law typical for any country seeking to defend itself. In a harshly worded statement, officials called the British decision “appalling.”

“We take strong exception to the absurd and misleading accusations against the NSL and our legal system,” the statement said. “Every country around the world would take threats to its national security extremely seriously.”

Some observers not surprised

Hong Kong legal and political experts have said the action was expected because rule of law in the city has deteriorated in recent years.

Democracy advocate and political scientist Joseph Cheng told VOA in an email that the decision of the two British judges shouldn’t come as a surprise.

“This is expected as the international community becomes aware of the deteriorations in the rule of law in Hong Kong,” he told VOA. “Western societies know very well that the rule of law can hardly be maintained effectively when freedom of media and civil society are suppressed.

“Within the judiciary, the implementation of the National Security Law has been quite damaging,” added Cheng, who was secretary general of the Civic Party, a pro-democracy liberal political party in Hong Kong, and a member of various pro-democracy groups.

“A special group of judges have been chosen to adjudicate national security law cases, no juries are provided for such cases, and those prosecuted normally cannot seek bail. … The situation is expected to further deteriorate in the near future.”

Eric Yan-Ho Lai, a law analyst and fellow at Georgetown University, wrote on Twitter that the judges’ decisions were “respectable.”

“The resignations of Lord Hodge and Lord Reed from Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal are respectable moves in light of the ongoing political suppressions in the city,” he tweeted. “Yet it’s uncertain whether the remaining (Non-Permanent Judges) NPJs, who are retired judges, will follow so.”

He added that the U.K. Supreme Court’s statement “appears to imply the resignations are votes of no confidence to the city’s administration that does not respect political freedom and free speech anymore, and the Court does not want to collaborate with the Hong Kong administration anymore.”

The Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal website, which has yet to be updated, lists 12 overseas non-permanent judges including the departing Lord Hodge and Lord Reed. Judges from Britain, Australia and Canada make up the list.

Chan-Chak Ming, president of the Law Society of Hong Kong, issued a statement to regional media outlets calling the criticism of Hong Kong’s judiciary system “unfair and unfounded.”

Six-month report

Wednesday’s announcement is the latest development in an increasingly strained relationship between Britain’s legal professionals and officials in Beijing.

In December, Britain released a six-month report about Hong Kong that outlined the eroding freedoms that have taken place since the enactment of the security law. The report included the accusation that Hong Kong’s judicial independence was at risk.

But Hong Kong’s chief of justice, Andrew Cheung, hit back in January stating that Hong Kong’s judiciary independence is a “fact.” Hong Kong legal experts disputed that in interviews with VOA.

Former Democratic Party leader Emily Lau hopes the judiciary can remain uncompromised.

“The foreign judges sitting in the Court of Final Appeal as stipulated in the Basic Law has been regarded as a sign of international confidence in the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law in Hong Kong, which is vital to the city as an international financial center,” she told VOA.

“I hope the legal profession and the judiciary can remain independent and professional and can resist pressure from the powerful sectors, to ensure the rule of law, due process and to safeguard the Hong Kong people’s human rights and personal safety.”

Following Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democracy demonstrations, Beijing implemented the national security law, arguing that it was required to bring stability to the city. Critics, however, point out that the law prohibits secession, subversion, and collusion with foreign forces, criminalizes dissent, and makes it easier to punish protesters and reduces the city’s autonomy.

Under the new law, authorities have waged a political crackdown on dozens of civil society groups and independent media outlets. At least 150 dissidents have been arrested since the law was implemented, including dozens of democratic lawmakers and political figures.

In landmark cases, some dissidents have faced trial without a jury and with specially enlisted national security judges.

British judges have long served among the foreign jurists appointed to Hong Kong’s highest court, an arrangement that London had long described as a way to maintain confidence in the city’s legal apparatus amid Beijing’s tightening political grip on the territory.

Fourteen non-permanent judges remain at the Hong Kong court, including 10 from other common law jurisdictions such as Australia and Canada.

The Hong Kong Bar Association called Britain’s decision “a matter of deep regret” and appealed to the Court of Final Appeal’s remaining overseas judges to stay and serve the city and help uphold its judicial independence.

Some information for this report came from from Reuters and The Associated Press.

Ukrainian Girl Singing in Kyiv Bomb Shelter During Russian Attack Now Living in Poland

A Ukrainian girl seen singing in a viral video while in a Kyiv bomb shelter is using her newfound fame to help raise money for her homeland. VOA’s Myroslava Gongadze caught up with Amelia Anisovych, 7, and her family in Poland, where they are living as refugees.

UN Rights Chief Tells Russia to Stop War in Ukraine Immediately

The U.N. high commissioner for human rights on Wednesday called Russia to immediately withdraw its troops from Ukraine and stop the war that she said had caused immeasurable suffering and grief for millions of people.

In a dramatic rendering of conditions in Ukraine to the U.N. Human Rights Council, Michelle Bachelet described the living nightmare Ukrainians have endured for more than a month and said the war must end.

She said at least 1,189 civilians had been killed and 1,900 injured. She said relentless bombing raids and the persistent use of explosive weapons by Russian military forces had caused massive destruction and damage to homes, infrastructure, hospitals and schools. She noted cities such as Mariupol had been nearly razed, while others had been mercilessly pummeled and no longer existed.

Bachelet said her office had credible allegations that Russian armed forces have used cluster munitions in populated areas at least two dozen times. She said her office also was investigating allegations that Ukrainian forces have used such weapons.

“Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited under international humanitarian law and may amount to war crimes,” she said. “The massive destruction of civilian objects and the high number of civilian casualties strongly indicate that the fundamental principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution have not been sufficiently adhered to.”

Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, Yevheniia Filipenko, condemned Russia’s unprovoked aggression against her country. She called Russia’s actions against a sovereign state an attack against the norms of the world’s rules-based order.

‘Flagrant violation’ of charter

“This step by the country occupying a seat in the U.N. Security Council and in the Human Rights Council has become a flagrant violation of the U.N. charter and fundamental principles of international law, which will have long-lasting implications for the future of the world order and humanity,” she said.

Yaroslav Eremin, first secretary at the Russian Mission in Geneva, dismissed the conclusions of multiple investigative bodies that have found Russia guilty of widespread violations and abuse.

He listed a litany of alleged crimes committed by Ukrainian soldiers. He said these included preventing civilians in Mariupol from seeking safety in Russia, using civilians as human shields, and blowing up a factory and blaming it on Russia. Speaking through an interpreter, he accused the Ukrainian military of torturing Russian prisoners of war and innocent civilians.

“All these atrocities against civilians were carried out with the use of weaponry supplied by the Western countries,” he said. “We urge the high commissioner and OHCHR [Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights] to give a due assessment of these facts.”

Nearly 50 countries that participated in the interactive discussion on Ukraine did not buy into Russia’s viewpoint. One by one they stood up and demanded that Russia stop what they called an illegal war.

Ukrainians Struggle to Tell Russian Relatives About the War

Olga M. spent the first week of the Russian invasion hiding with her teenage son in a shelter in Kotsiubynske, a Kyiv suburb. As the shelling intensified in nearby Irpin, they fled, reaching Spain a week later.

“My legs are bloodshot” from standing on the trains and in lines, said Olga, who asked that her last name be withheld to protect family members, including her husband, who stayed behind.

Throughout her ordeal, she tried to talk about the war with her parents, who live in Ekaterinburg, Russia.

“Why are you so upset?” she recalled her father asking her on the first day. “We will bomb your military bases. What difference does it make to you?”

Olga said she stopped talking to him after that, but maintained relations with her mother, who avoids discussing the war that has made refugees of her daughter and grandson.

Olga’s father grew up in Ukraine but moved to Russia in the mid-1970s and married Olga’s mother, a Russian woman. Olga married a Ukrainian man and moved to Ukraine but still considers herself Russian and maintains Russian citizenship.

She said her parents have not visited her in Ukraine since 2008, insisting they would be thrown into jail for speaking the Russian language.

“I was telling it was not true. I don’t speak Ukrainian, and I still haven’t obtained Ukrainian citizenship,” Olga said.

‘Propaganda narratives’

As much as her communication with her parents pains her, Olga finds talking to her former classmates in Russia worse.

“They start with sympathy, saying they are on my side, but always follow with accusations,” she said. “They repeat the propaganda narratives, like that we have been bombing Donetsk and Luhansk for eight years, or that we bomb ourselves. They told me that the Ukrainian government handed out 10,000 guns to the citizens, and now we shoot each other.”

Only one member of her family in Russia, her brother, doesn’t need to be convinced. “He knows that it’s Putin’s fault,” she said.

Other residents of Ukraine with family in Russia tell similar stories.

Tatiana L., who evacuated with her 17-year-old daughter to western Ukraine from Hostomel, one of the hardest-hit towns near Kyiv, describes talking to her relatives in Moscow and the Ural region.

“First, I was sending them my videos explaining what was happening in Hostomel. They were not replying. I was sending videos of Borodyanka, Mariupol. On the second week of the war, they blocked me,” she said.

She recalled that they sent a message to her mother about the price of potatoes in occupied Kherson and what sounded like a pleasant life under Russian occupation. “After that, they blocked my mom,” she said.

Her Ural relatives, said Tatiana, explained to her that the bombing was the Ukrainians` fault. “They told us that we should have surrendered to avoid casualties, but we didn’t do that because we wanted to be heroes. They don’t even try to understand that we want to stay alive, live in our own homes, raise our children in peace.”

Some Ukrainian residents report getting a more sympathetic hearing from relatives in Russia.

Evolving opinions

Vladislav, a political scientist in Kyiv, said his relatives in Moscow clearly understand what is happening.

“On the first day of the war, they sent me a message saying they were ashamed,” he said. The relatives, originally from Ukraine, know the Ukrainian and English languages, follow the Ukrainian television channels and ask him questions. “They wish us victory,” he said.

Still others say their relatives in Russia are gradually changing their opinions as the war grinds on.

Olexander, currently serving in territorial defense in Kyiv, talked about his conversations with his father, who has lived in the Altai region of Russia for the last 10 years.

“When I called and told him that the war started, he told me that we deserved it because we were Nazis and bombed the Donbas; he was repeating all these television messages,” he said.

That began to change after Olexander helped his father install a VPN that allowed him to follow the Ukrainian television channels and official statements from the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense.

“Now he keeps silence and asks me if I have a bulletproof vest, tells me to be careful,” Olexander said.

He said he believed his father had been heavily influenced by seeing images on Ukrainian TV of dead Russian soldiers and their demolished tanks.

“Their military TV channel, Zvezda, broadcasts that the Russian army is [so] powerful, as no other,” he said. “After seeing the destroyed tanks and dead soldiers, he understood that they lied to him.”

Alex L., a pensioner who spent three weeks in heavily shelled Chernihiv before evacuating to Germany, said he believed that his cousin in Moscow also had changed her mind, but that he didn’t know for sure.

“She called me, asking what was going on,” Alex said. “I said we were bombed and shot at. ‘Who is bombing and shooting at you?’ ‘Russians.’ ‘You are making it up.’ I stepped outside and held my phone to the sounds of explosions. She still told me that it was fake.”

Alex said he stopped talking to his cousin but remained in contact with her daughter, who understood what was going on.

“Her daughter probably convinced her. She says that her mother understands now. But they are speaking so carefully. They are very, very afraid,” he said.

While Ukrainians were eager to describe their conversations with their relatives in Russia, they refused to put VOA in contact with them. They also asked to have their identities not revealed to protect their relatives.

Questionable polling

Russian opinion polling indicates that support for the war has been growing in Russia despite the lack of military progress. The All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center reported on March 23 that 74% of Russian citizens supported the decision “to conduct a special military operation in Ukraine,” up 9 points from a February 25 poll and 3 points since March 5.

But Natalia Savelyeva, a resident fellow at the Future Russia Initiative with the Democratic Resilience Program at the Center for European Policy Analysis, pointed out that polling in authoritarian countries is unreliable, especially during a crisis like a war.

“In autocracies, citizens are often afraid to answer pollsters’ questions, let alone questions about politics,” she has written. That tendency has been reinforced by a new law providing long prison terms for any candid discussion of Russia’s so-called “special military operation.”

Savelyeva points to an independent study conducted in Moscow by jailed opposition leader Alexey Navalny’s organization, which “demonstrated that during the week from February 25 to March 3, the number of people who blamed Russia for the conflict and believed that Russia is an aggressor increased.”

Whatever the true numbers, it is evident from the experiences of Ukrainians with relatives in Russia that many Russians have accepted the narrative of the war provided by state-controlled media, even when it runs counter to what they are told by close family members.

“A person rejects information that contradicts their vision of the world, which is unpleasant. Even if this information comes from verified sources — from relatives, from friends in Ukraine,” said Maria Snegovaya, a political scientist and researcher at Virginia Tech, a research university in Blacksburg, Virginia.

She said people often choose to disbelieve the words of relatives because otherwise they would feel they must do something. “This motive is important for understanding why even liberals in Russia refuse to acknowledge their responsibility for what is happening,” she said.

Peter Pomerantsev, a senior researcher at Johns Hopkins University and an author of two books on propaganda, agreed, saying many Russians are experiencing cognitive dissonance — believing in mutually exclusive things and trying to push away doubts that make them uncomfortable.

Even so, he said, Russians understand that their government lies to them and can be convinced if their Ukrainian relatives persist with a sensitive approach. “Everybody in Russia has doubts,” he said. “Everyone, even the most fascist ones. None of them trust their government.”

In an interview with The New Yorker magazine, Russian investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov, who left Russia in 2020, pointed out some cracks in the Russian propaganda message were already beginning to appear.

“There are some cracks, but it’s not about more sympathy toward Ukrainians. It’s more killed soldiers, because the casualties are really big in the Russian military,” Soldatov said.

“I know from my relatives in the Volga region, quite far from Moscow, that now in small towns, they have people who have had their kids killed in Ukraine,” he said. “So, society started talking about it because there are so many deaths. But unfortunately, I don’t see any sympathy for Ukraine, which is a very hard thing to say.”