Words not actions: can British MPs help the Ukrainian diaspora?

On January 29 2014, hundreds of Ukrainians rallied outside 10 Downing St while community activists together with four UK MP’s handed a petition to the Prime Minister’s  Office, calling for the UK to impose sanctions on Yanukovych’s regime and support the Ukrainians in their fight against violations of their human rights.

2014-01-29 14.51.15-At least 300-350 Ukrainian migrants gathered on Whitehall in the pouring rain by 2 pm this Wednesday. Yet another protest against violence in Ukraine was advertised on Facebook as ‘the biggest and most important protest’ that migrant activists have taken part in since the rallies started over two months ago. This time, the protesters were supported by four British MPs: John Whittingdale, Jason McCartney, Stephen Pound and Jim Dowd (the former two are Conservative, the latter two represent Labour). The local London’s Automaidan, up to 10 cars signalling and waving Ukrainian flags, drove past the protesters and then past Cameron’s office a few times, being greeted by the protesters’ cheering and shouting ‘Molodtsy!’ (‘Well done’).

The petition with over 6,500 signatures, nicely packed in a box with yellow and blue ribbons that made it look like a cake, was handed over to 10 Downing Street. The document included requests to impose individual sanctions on those Ukrainian government officials directly or indirectly responsible for violence and on the Ukrainian oligarchs who have financial links to the UK, and call on the EU to support civic movements and institutions in Ukraine. The first and the last request listed in the petition urged to stop the interference of the Russian Federation, protest against its aggressive foreign policy and boycott the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.

After the petition was delivered, the MPs joined the group of the protesters, climbed up the fence and gave small speeches. They touched upon such matters as the importance of democracy, respect for the Ukrainians’ struggle for human rights, condemnation of violence, and assured the crowd of their utmost support of freedom and justice. Two of the speakers even managed to spell out a popular slogan ‘Slava Ukraini!’ (‘Glory to Ukraine’) which was responded to with a cheerful ‘Heroyam slava!’ (‘Glory to heroes!’).

2014-01-29 15.24.24-Some of the participants, however, did not seem entirely satisfied. This was reflected in their slogans: ‘Actions not words!’ ‘Sanctions! Sanctions!’ Being grateful for the attention of the MPs and having triumphantly handed over the petition did not seem to provide a relief from certain scepticism: will the UK and EU officials really do anything apart from expressing their condolences and support?

While it may look like the presence of four MPs was an important step forward for the migrant protest movement, however, this kind of support might be slightly more dubious than it looked like. In fact, Serhiy Leshchenko has started this idea by exploring the connections between the influential Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash and some British parliamentarians and businessmen. The key nodes in Leshchenko’s analysis are the British Ukrainian Society, the British-Ukraine All-Party Parliamentary Group, and the Firtash Foundation.

  • The British Ukrainian Society describes itself as a not-for profit organisation promoting interaction and cooperation between Ukraine and the UK. At least five of its twelve directors have links to Firtash, says Leshchenko.
  • Some of these directors were part of the organizational committee of the last year’s ‘Days of Ukraine’, funded by Group DF (an international group of companies owned by Firtash) and organised by the Firtash Foundation (a charity fund supervised by the oligarch’s wife, Lada Firtash).
  • The third organisation mentioned by Leshchenko, the British-Ukraine All-Party Parliamentary Group is a ‘friendship group’ supposed to ‘build relations between the UK and Ukraine’.

There might be more links between these organisations than just friendship, though.

The parliamentary group register demonstrates that three out of four MPs who went out to support the Ukrainian protesters on January 29 are members of the group: Stephen Pound, Jim Dowd, and John Whittingdale who is, in fact, its chair. It is the same John Whittingdale who spoke to the crowd of Ukrainian protesters outside the Parliament in December 2013, convincing people that they ‘have friends in the British Parliament’. It is also the same John Whittingdale who is one of the directors of the British Ukrainian Society. It is also the same person who received funding (sums ranging from £1,700 to over £3,000) from the British-Ukrainian Society to travel to conferences in Ukraine (in a capacity of a representative of the parliamentary group), four times since September 2010.

In his declaration of spending tax and donor money, Leshchenko underlines, Whittingdale provides the London address of the British Ukrainian Society: 25 Knightsbridge, London SW1X 7RZ, which also was until recently the location of the Firtash Foundation, and is now listed as the trading address of both of these organisations (see here and here). The same address was associated with a company called Scythian Ltd., which was involved in a scandal about some questionable ‘donations’ made to the Conservative central office by the company. Concerns were raised by the company’s suspicious status, as well as the links of its chair and part owner Robert Shetler-Jones to Firtash’s Group DF. Shetler-Jones is – surprise, surprise – one of the directors of the British Ukrainian Society…

When Leshchenko published the article I’m referring to, someone on Facebook called it ‘provocative’ and tried to ‘defend’ John Whittingdale, stressing how supportive he had been. Indeed, the MP could be quite genuinely worried about the troubles of the Ukrainians and willing to help. He may have also been interested in developing ties between the UK and Ukraine and promoting Ukrainian culture. After all, Firtash’s money sponsors not only the Days of Ukraine: Firtash Foundation supports the Ukrainian Studies programme at Cambridge, provides scholarships to promising Ukrainian students, and funds many other cultural and educational initiatives.

2014-01-29 15.30.52-One should not forget though that just a few days before submitting the petition, the same migrant protesters were shouting ‘Firtash – out!’ near London Stock Exchange or protesting near Akhmetov’s flat earlier (Akhmetov and Firtash, both influential oligarchs who support Yanukovych’s regime, in particular, by exerting control over a number of deputies in Ukrainian Parliament, have financial ties to London).

The situation seems paradoxical: migrants are campaigning for sanctions on Ukrainian oligarchs, but the British business partners of one of these oligarchs are the ones assuring them of their support. I’m not sure that the words of support uttered by the MPs are likely to turn into actions – at least, in regard to this particular demand of the protesters. In London, it’s rather ‘finance above all’ than ‘Ukraine above all’.

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