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Governing Ukrainian Rebels; Battle for Donetsk; Assad Marches to Reelection; Imagine a World

Aired May 29, 2014 - 14:00:00   ET


HALA GORANI, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Hala Gorani, sitting in for Christiane Amanpour.

Ukraine under fire: today marks one of the worst days for the country's military since the start of Kiev's offensive against pro-Russian separatists. Fourteen people were killed, including an army general, when a Ukrainian military helicopter was shot down near Sloviansk. Pro-Russian militants quickly claimed responsibility for the attack.

The deaths are a major blow for Ukraine's army, which is trying to crush the rebels in the eastern region of Donetsk. But the violence between the two sides is becoming increasingly more intense. So why is the situation there seemingly spinning out of control and who is in charge of restoring order?

We spoke to the man Kiev has recently appointed as Donetsk governor. He's billionaire and local business man Serhiy Taruta. I began by asking him whether we are now seeing an all-out civil conflict in Donetsk.


SERHIY TARUTA, GOVERNOR OF DONETSK (through translator): Yes, there's a large conflict, the conflict's happening now in Donetsk with these terrorists. Anti-terrorist operations are taking place with central authorities' help. So there is no humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the large problems, we have been able to carry out the elections. We know that the main task of those who are terrorizing the Donetsk region and bringing about chaos was to try to break up the elections and we were not able to hold honest, transparent elections in eight districts.

I'd like to thank all members of the local election committees who, despite threats and despite intimidation, have managed to go to those election polling stations and elected a legitimate president.

GORANI: Who are these separatists? This is a question that people have been asking. On this program earlier this week, the Ukrainian ambassador to the United Nations told us that there are pro-Russian Chechen fighters, coming in to your region, fighting alongside the separatists.

Some of the fighters told our reporter on the ground as well that they've come from Chechnya.

Who is supporting and funding these fighters in Donetsk?

TARUTA (through translator): Yes, unfortunately, there is a large presence of fighters who have arrived from beyond the borders of our country, and including many from the Caucasus and it is difficult to stop them.

There are many. They have come to our Donetsk region not to bring about order, but to destroy it.

And they have somehow been given accommodation there. Former employees of the security forces are now taking part in all of these military actions. Our task is to hold a dialogue with them and try to convince them that there is no alternative apart from the composition of Ukraine.

GORANI: You're talking about dialogue; you're now in Kiev. You're speaking to us in Russian, but I see that you have on your lapel a Ukrainian flag. You're an ethnic Russian.

Have you been in talks?

Do you, directly with people representing the separatists, have you had any conversations with them? And if so, what have those conversations been?

TARUTA (through translator): We speak Russian, but we have always felt that we are Ukrainians. My roots are half Russian on my father's side and my mother's side, Ukrainian. But in my heart I have always felt that I'm Ukrainian.

Yes, as far as the negotiations are concerned, we are holding talks with the leader of the separatists. There have been large protests at the meetings, but I hope that in the final analysis, we will reach agreement and reconciliation to work together.

GORANI: And it seems like these talks are actually -- if I may, Governor -- not working at all, considering the amount of death and destruction of military aircraft we've seen over the last 48 hours.

Does the region need a visit from the newly elected president, Petro Poroshenko? He promised that this would be one of his first moves.

Did you meet with the president?

Did he tell you, Governor, when he would travel to Eastern Ukraine?

TARUTA (through translator): I have met the newly elected president. We discussed the situation and we also spoke about and we agreed that we must have a dialogue with the new president.

For this, we must ensure security and negotiations with the participation of society, politicians, including the protesters.

We are now considering the possible timetable for the arrival of the president and I hope that we will be able to bring about a deescalation of the situation and bring calm to all those who have protested.

GORANI: What is the timetable, Governor?

Will it be anytime soon?

TARUTA (through translator): We hope that it will be in the first half of June; it's a very busy timetable. Many trips are scheduled for the new president and his inauguration has to take place.

GORANI: You are a business man who made a lot of money in the steel industry and you were appointed because of hopefully your ability to apply some of what you know in business to politics.

Lastly, let me ask you this, how are you going to solve this crisis in Donetsk region?

TARUTA (through translator): As far as my appointment is concerned, there are large-scale reforms to be made in the Donetsk region and we've agreed for these measures to be carried out to bring about stability.

The level of external threats is very great. There's a large number of fighters who get through the borders and, as a governor, it's very difficult to deal with this.

But we have to stabilize the situation and I call on all people, including Russia, to sit around a negotiating table with Europe, with America and with representatives of Ukraine in order to discuss and deal with these terrorist operations.

GORANI: And, sir, you just mentioned Russia, so let me ask you this.

How much do you think Russia is involved in all of this?

Do you think Russia is controlling these, quote, "terrorists," in your words?

TARUTA (through translator): According to my information, the family of the former president and his entourage have a huge concentration of money, which they took out of the state budget to the harm of the ordinary people.

And now they are conducting this in order to bring about chaos in the Donetsk region, to terrorize and destabilize the situation. And I consider that the participation of the Russian side is an absolute must.

I'm convinced that our only hope lies with presence of all parties who were at the Geneva conference, which has now not been implemented at all, unfortunately.

We must hold such a conference with Russian participation.

GORANI: Is there -- so you were accusing President Yanukovych of having basically fled with money from state coffers to fund some of these separatist operations?

Am I understanding you correctly?

TARUTA (through translator): Yes, you have understood correctly.

According to these sources who are present today, they have said quite reliably that they receive sources from intermediaries from Yanukovych's family. And unfortunately this is taking place on a very large scale today.

There's been so much corruption and money concentrated in the entourage of the president and his own family and, unfortunately, they are working to bring about the destruction of Ukraine.

GORANI: All right. Thank you very much, Governor Taruta, the governor of Donetsk, joining us from Kiev today.

Appreciate your time, Governor. Thank you very much.

TARUTA: Spasibo.


GORANI: Our Nick Paton Walsh is in Donetsk right now. He's been witnessing what's going on there and he joins me now live.

Nick, you've spoken to some of those separatists, those who participated in the assault on the airport namely. And one of the things that the governor of Donetsk is saying is that President Yanukovych, the former pro-Russian president of Ukraine, is directly funding some of these separatists. When you speak to them, what do they tell you?

NICK PATON WALSH, CNN SR. INTL. CORRESPONDENT: Well, they obviously don't reveal who's funding this. But they've suggested the whole thing is sort of somehow put together by locals for the goodness of their hearts. So we spoke to one man down at the morgue here, who while the separatists today bizarrely, for the first time, decided to admit the 33 of their dead from that assault on Monday were Russian citizens who'd come here from Russia to fight, from towns like Grozny in Chechnya, Penza, Rostov, Moscow, that they in fact were not paid to be here apart from $100 a week, one of them said, I think like cigarettes and general self-sustenance, a suggestion these are all volunteers and also a suggestion today that at that the death toll was as high potentially a 70. But we don't know where the financing from this is and of course it's the key mystery and perhaps a solution to this entire crisis, is the Kremlin in fact funding sorting this out or are they able to somehow stop their proxies if you buy the Washington-Kiev line through negotiations here -- Hala.

GORANI: And when you ask the governor how do you solve this crisis, he's not in Donetsk yet. He was in Kiev when I spoke to him. He's essentially saying, look, it's hard because separatist leaders change so much that it's difficult to have an interlocutor that fighters get through borders easily. I mean, essentially listing reasons why it's difficult to calm the situation.

Is this something that you've noticed as well on the ground, that the leadership -- that there's no real person to talk to in order to try to bring the situation to calm the situation?

WALSH: Well, the separatists themselves are confusing to really work out how they seem to associate themselves. There's the mayor of Sloviansk, he calls himself, Vyacheslav Ponomaryov. He runs a group of militants around there, probably the militants seem to have their own autonomy, too. And then there's a bizarre scene we've seen here, where Mr. Taruta should be officed, the regional administration's been seized by separatists for over a month now. Today, though, they're all cleaned out by a whole group of new separatist militants, some of them Chechens, saying they're working for the same political leaders as the separatists, and separatist leaders agreed with that, too. And they're to instill order. It's extraordinarily messy; there seem to be fractured disputes in and amongst themselves. Today, I think, certainly trying to look like they had one unified voice. But whether that's actually something that can be negotiated with and what their terms are is unclear.

Serhiy Taruta, I saw him when this first started. He was living out of a hotel from here. That hotel was recently visited by some of these new armed separatist militants, looking for him. He wasn't there. So I mean, clearly, you know, his job extraordinarily difficult. Simply his own physical security let alone the task of trying to fight the insurgency, not something as a billionaire you get much training in.

GORANI: Right, absolutely. Nick Paton Walsh, we asked him if he feared for his safety, he said, well, there are concerns, but I'm going back to Donetsk anyway.

Thanks very much, Nick Paton Walsh, live in Donetsk.

Now as separatists' clashes escalate in Ukraine, we are turning our attention next to Syria, where more than three years of civil war have scarred the landscape, shattered entire cities, left over 100,000 dead, most probably more and driven millions more from their homes.

The result of all of this is that President Bashar al-Assad, the architect of that slaughter, is asking the voters for seven more years in office.




GORANI: Welcome back to the program. I'm Hala Gorani, sitting in for Christiane.

You think presiding over the deaths of over 100,000 people might disqualify you for higher office. But Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, seems to be romping to reelection. For the second day in a row, Syrians around the world are casting their early ballots in a presidential election scheduled for this Tuesday.

Thousands of expats and refugees flooded embassies to vote. Check out this massive crowd behind me in Lebanon, many of whom are chanting support for Assad, who is all but guaranteed to win another seven-year term in power.

For months, there's been a growing trend that the tide is turning in Assad's favor. So could this reelection be the moment when the tide finally breaks? As Middle East correspondent for National Public Radio, Deborah Amos has reported extensively on Syria from inside and out, as she joins me now from Istanbul.


GORANI: Thanks for being with us, Deborah. And now that Assad is running for reelection and we are pretty much -- there's no big suspense there -- certain that he will win another seven-year term in office. It seems as though a political solution out there is further than ever for Syrians entering the fourth year of this civil war.

DEBORAH AMOS, NPR NEWS CORRESPONDENT: I think that's right and I think what we have seen in the Middle East and other countries as well is elections have nothing to do with democracy. Certainly in Bashar al- Assad's case, there will be some who will vote for him because they support him. There will be many who will vote for him because they fear him. We heard reporters, we're told, in Beirut that refugees were afraid that if they didn't vote, they could never go home again. They had to bring cards with them, that they got at the border. Those cards were stamped. So there is some record of them having voted.

They can't vote here, Hala. The Turks didn't allow that to happen. So what you see at the consulate here are Syrians trying to get passports. That is more important to them. And also here I am in a country that has unofficially a million Syrian refugees and they aren't paying much attention to that election at all.

GORANI: Yes, and I think people underestimate how much fear is still attached to actions of Syrians even outside of Syria's borders. There's one woman I spoke to whose son, a Sunni refugee, whose son she said went back to Syria to serve in the military because he was called up for military service, when I asked why you would go back, she said, well, we don't have a choice; we have to do this because otherwise we might never be able to return if Assad stays in power.

So that's an important component and something people rarely think of.

AMOS: I know. And it is really amazing, the reach of the government and the fear that people have that there will be retaliation. There will be punishments . They will never be able to go home, not that anybody thinks that that is going to happen anytime soon. I think what this election really is a symbol of is how much longer this conflict will go on. You're absolutely right in saying that the election really shuts off diplomatic solutions. Assad's message is I'm here; you have to deal with me. Will he serve out seven years of his term? I think that's not clear. But in the Middle East power really is important and the projection of power is important. So on Tuesday, when Syrian cameras show hundreds of thousands of Syrians going to the polls, I think that is the point of those pictures.

GORANI: Right. And let's talk about the human cost here, of course, the dead, the wounded and also the refugees. And Deborah, you are in Istanbul; you are in Turkey. And officially you said a million -- I was recently in Lebanon -- a million refugees, about a quarter of the population pretty much.

Tell us about your experience reporting on those people who had to flee the war zone.

AMOS: We went out to a neighborhood here in Istanbul and these are abandoned buildings, you know, no windows, no electricity, no water. And we found more than 40 Syrian families, just in this one couple blocks. And what was very striking is we met some children at the local mosque. One was 7, one was 8; there was a little boy who was 5. Their job was to collect the only water that the family was going to have. And it was so heavy to watch these little kids filling up the water and taking it back.

But that -- those are their resources. We met an older woman. She said, "I might be 100. I'm not really sure." She's from Aleppo, which is in northern Syria. She said her husband had been killed in a government airstrike there. And she told us that her grandchildren were out of school because they were picking garbage and they could get paid for picking garbage.

And that was the only money that the family had to be able to feed themselves. And we went around the corner from the place they were staying and there were tons and tons of bagsful of plastic bottles.

So it's clear that that's what the kids were picking up. But it's a very tough life for many of these refugees. They call them urban refugees. There are beautiful camps in the south that the Turks have put up for Syrian refugees, where people live in caravans. They're well taken care of. But so many people have fled. There is no government that could keep up with the kind of numbers that have come across the border, people who are running from barrel bombs, almost daily attacks on civilian neighborhoods. And so, so many people come here illegally and they can't get into those camps. And that's what you're starting to see here in Istanbul. I saw two boys on the street just two days ago and they held their passports up. The idea was I am a Syrian; can you give me some money. They were maybe under 10. But you see more and more of those Syrian beggars showing up on the streets of Istanbul.

GORANI: Well, as I mentioned, I was recently in Lebanon; the collection of horror stories and of tragic personal stories is almost at some point, there's almost -- you sort of overdose on it because you can't catalog it all in, you know, relentlessly, one after the other, coming to you to tell you how awful their lives are. And it's almost too much to bear.

Kids with the 1,000-mile stares and the rest of it, I mean, how do you bring that story home to our audiences, some of whom I think have turned away from Syria right now? How do you still bring it home to them?

AMOS: I think that is true, that is true. I think audiences have turned away from Syria. What I try to find is little vignettes of life that tell the larger story. I was in Jordan and the first Girl Scout troop was founded there. And it really is a symbol of how long these people are going to be in these refugee camps. There was a Safeway grocery store that had opened. You know, a couple of years ago, that -- the camp in Jordan really had discipline problems because everybody's --


GORANI: All right. We're just having some technical issues with Deborah Amos of National Public Radio.

So, Deborah, apologies for that. But we certainly got an opportunity to speak -- Deborah?

Actually we have to leave it there. But thanks so much for -- I understand you can hear me now. Thanks so much for sharing some of your reporting with us on Syria.

Also I have to have another opportunity to talk to you about some of the other things you've done across the Middle East.

Thanks for being with us this evening on CNN.

Always a pleasure.

And while Syria's President Assad doesn't have to worry about term limits, U.S. President Obama has less than three years in office. One issue that may haunt him until he leaves the White House is the unauthorized release of government secrets.

The young man who leaked them, Edward Snowden, is haunted in another way, a man without a country, exiled in Russia. We'll examine the blurred line between trader and patriot when we come back.




GORANI: And a final thought this evening, Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor who ripped the cover off U.S. government surveillance, stated his case last night to the American television audience in an interview with Brian Williams of NBC. The interview was framed by a seemingly simple question: is Snowden a traitor or a patriot?

Now imagine a world where walking the tightrope between treason and patriotism is not that simple. A year ago, U.S. President Obama had this to say about the hacker as he dismissed him at the time, who stole U.S. secrets.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: No, I don't think Mr. Snowden was a patriot. If in fact he believes that what he did was right, then like every American citizen, he can come here, appear before the court with a lawyer and make his case.


GORANI: As we said, dismissing him as a hacker. But what kind of justice could Snowden expect to find if he came home? Here was what he said last night.


EDWARD SNOWDEN, NSA LEAKER: When people say why don't you go home and face the music, I say you have to understand that the music is not an open court and a fair trial.


GORANI: Facing the music can sometimes mean more than exile. It can mean execution. Back in the 1950s, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to death for passing American nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. A worldwide call for clemency was joined by Albert Einstein, Pablo Picasso, even Pope Pius XII. But despite accusations of anti-Semitism, the Rosenbergs went to the electric chair. And even 60 years later the controversy and questions remain.

And then there's the case of John and Bonnie Raines, two average Americans who, along with six other amateur burglars, broke into an FBI office in suburban Pennsylvania back in 1971. Their avowed mission was to uncover unlawful surveillance of civil rights and antiwar activists and make all of that public.

Incredibly, they pulled it off and remained anonymous for over 40 years. We recently interviewed them on this program and asked them why they risked arrest and accusations of treason.


BONNIE RAINES, ANTIWAR ACTIVIST: I had a concern about the kind of society our children were going to grow up in and what would their future be.

JOHN RAINES, CIVIL RIGHTS ACTIVIST: See, that's crucial. I mean, we're parents; we're also citizens, so that we have a double responsibility, yes, as parents to our children, but also as citizens to the nation those children are going to live in and have children in.

So we had those two responsibilities.

GORANI: From rank amateurs to Cold War spies to Edward Snowden today, traitor versus patriot is not a simple binary equation. But a complicated calculus, one that changes with the benefit on hindsight.

That is it for our program tonight. Remember you can always contact us at our website,, and follow me on Twitter @halagorani.

Thanks for watching and goodbye from London.