Ukraine will be co-hosting the next European Cup soccer championship in 2012. As part of the build-up to this momentous event, it is organizing a mega-million advertising campaign promoting Ukrainian tourism throughout the world. I’ve even heard of “Ukraine–All About U” promotions as far aways as India. Ukraine also sees tourism with Israel as a major opportunity because there are many former Ukrainian Jews living in Israel, and Ukraine, as the cradle of Hasidism, includes major pilgrimage sites for Orthodox Jews to the graves of such luminaries as the Berditchever and Bratslaver rebbes and the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the movement. I myself visited these sites and saw how many Orthodox Jews from Israel and the Diaspora were drawn there.
This is why Ukraine still has interest in joining NATO and just signed a protocol with Israel ending the need for visas for mutual travel. On his current visit to Israel, Prime Minister Azarov emphasized his country’s interest in signing a Free Trade agreement with Israel that would create a duty-free zone for products and services between the nations. As part of this expansion of trade, there would also be an expansion of security and military cooperation of the sort that characterized Ukraine’s presumed participation in the abduction of Palestinian civil engineer Dirar Abusisi on a train in Poltava on the night of February 18th. Abusisi was later transferred to Mossad custody, flown out of Ukraine to Israel, and imprisoned in a Shin Bet interrogation chamber within hours of being spiriting off that train.
One might also presume that Ukraine would love to get its hands on some of that advanced weaponry, missile systems, and high-tech security applications developed by Israel’s weapons industry. A free trade agreement would go a long way toward satisfying Ukraine’s appetites for these new toys for its military.
In fact, I’d lay money on the fact that there was either a tacit or explicit quid pro quo between Israel and Ukraine for securing the FTA and that the rendition of Abusisi was part or all of the latter’s payment for the transaction to be completed.
Unfortunately for Ukraine, and even more for those it is attempting to draw to the championship games, the nation is not ready for prime time. First, Ukraine is a country now in the grip of a pro-Russian strongman style government more in the Soviet/Putin style than that of the Orange Revolution. Second, is a country where trade and security come before human rights. Where indeed human rights exists only as a concept honored in the breach if at all. Third, there is a huge trade in illicit weapons, drugs and even human trafficking. The European Union pays Ukraine hundreds of millions to wage a fight against the latter major crimes.
I’ve had a in-depth conversation with an American in Ukraine who specializes in immigration, human rights, and refugee issues there. He gave me quite an education. There really is no such thing as refugee protection in Ukraine. If you are fleeing from persecution suffered in a former Soviet Republic like Uzbekistan or Russia, you have no protections inside Ukraine. Upon entering that country, you may be beaten by immigration authorities. You may be arrested even as you enter a government ministry where you are about to apply for residency and refugee status. Take a look at this website established by Ukrainian human rights lawyers to see evidence of what I’m saying.
This is why Dirar Abusisi’s case is so important in the context of Ukraine’s push for international recognition. Why should the world welcome Ukraine on the world stage and allow it to exit the orbit of Russia as a former Soviet satellite, when it can’t respect the norms honored by other western democracies? Dirar Abusisi followed the rules as laid out by Ukraine. He went to the ministry to proffer his papers to apply for citizenship, since he wished to bring his country from Gaza to a place where he hoped they might have a better life (he is also married to a Ukranian national). And how was he repaid for following the rules as laid out by Ukrainian authorities themselves? He was kidnapped either directly or indirectly by a third nation whose agents were operating in Ukraine with the apparent tacit or explicit assent of Ukrainian security agents. Then he was flown into captivity by those Israeli Mossad operatives.
What message does this send to the thousands of refugees fleeing war, conflict, or persecution in other countries who find themselves in Ukraine? It tells them that this place is a free-fire zone for political refugees or dissidents. It tells them that if the Ukrainian secret police don’t get you first, your native security services will. And they might even do it inside Ukraine.
An Israeli TV news reporter recently broadcast an unsubstantiated rumor offered to him no doubt by the IDF that the ship recently seized by Israel allegedly containing Iranian arms allegedly destined for Gaza was organized by a company in Odessa. He also hinted that Abusisi may’ve been connected to this venture. What would be especially wild about this story if any of it was accurate (and keep in mind very well none of it may turn out true) is that Ukraine is the kind of place where a company can plot the transfer of tens of millions in advanced weapons systems to so-called terrorist states, while Ukraine also collaborates with the nation that would allegedly be victimized by these weapons in illegally seizing a citizen of a third state who might’ve been organizing the weapons deal. ”What a country,” as Yaakov Smirnoff used to say.
Does this sound like a country that’s ready to play soccer or anything else upon the world stage? Ukraine has a LONG way to go. It might start by making a full accounting of what happened to Dirar Abusisi. Who snatched him? Why? Who did they give him to? What happened to him? Why didn’t Ukraine do anything to protect him? What did Ukraine get in return for its cooperation?
This article first appeared at Tikun Olam