Alex Salmond has offered to meet members of the Ukrainian community in Scotland in a bid to defuse a row over his praise for Russian president Vladimir Putin.
However, as pro-Russian separatists held “self-rule” referendums in eastern parts of Ukraine yesterday, the First Minister stopped short of apologising to the Edinburgh branch of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain.
Michael Ostapko of the association wrote to Mr Salmond demanding an apology following an interview published in GQ magazine earlier this month in which the First Minister said it was a “good thing” Mr Putin had substantially restored Russian pride. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March was met with widespread international condemnation, although the Salmond interview took place before the annexation happened.
In a reply to Mr Ostapko released yesterday, Mr Salmond said it was “a matter of regret” that some of his comments had been reported “out of context”.
He wrote: “As I made clear in the interview, and elsewhere, I disapprove of a range of Russian actions. Indeed, I have had no hesitation in condemning Russia’s activities in the Ukraine, the illegal annexation of the Crimea and its continued support for armed militia in the east of the country.”
The First Minister has offered to visit the Ukrainian community centre to meet Mr Ostapko and others in the group.
The leaders of Scotland’s Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties have already written to the Ukrainian Association insisting that Mr Salmond was not speaking for all Scots.
In his letter to Mr Ostapko, Mr Salmond wrote: “The three opposition leaders who wrote to you last week have said nothing – that is nothing whatsoever – on the record on these matters until they have sought to attack my supposed remarks.
“The Scottish Government takes a firm and enduring belief there is no place for prejudice or discrimination in Scotland and we strongly condemn human rights abuses wherever they take place.”
Mr Ostapko described the letter as a “somewhat tardy explanation” but has decided to take up the First Minister’s offer. Mr Ostapko said: “We asked that he make an unequivocal public apology. He has not done so.
“Instead we received a standard, somewhat tardy explanation strewn with political party rhetoric and little on the only matter we raised from his GQ interview; the praise of Putin the architect of the dismantling of a nation, Ukraine (not the Ukraine, an offensive description to Ukrainians).”
Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie branded Mr Salmond “obstinate” over his refusal to apologise.
“There is little point in meeting the Ukrainian community in Scotland unless he provides that reasonable request from them – an apology,” Mr Rennie said.
“Whilst thousands suffer at the hands of President Putin, our First Minister thinks it appropriate to admire him. Alex Salmond still does not understand the damage his has done.”
In the GQ interview, conducted by former Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell, when asked whether he admired Mr Putin, the First Minister added: “Certain aspects.”
THE LETTERS IN FULL
Michael Ostapko of the Association of Ukrainians in GB wrote:
Continuing the concerns of the Ukrainian Diaspora over the remarks made by the Scottish First Minister in the interview with Alastair Campbell for GQ magazine on March 14th 2014. We wrote to the First Minister on 28th April 2014 to express our reaction to his remarks and asked for an apology. He subsequently took questions at F.M.Q.s in the Scottish Parliament on May 1st 2014 and wrote to us on 7th May 2014.
We asked that he make an unequivocal public apology. He has not done so. Instead we received a standard, somewhat tardy explanation strewn with political party rhetoric and little on the only matter we raised from his GQ interview; the praise of Putin the architect of the dismantling of a nation, UKRAINE (not the Ukraine, an offensive description to Ukrainians).
He replied that “his comments were reported out of context”?
This is all we reacted to: AC: Putin? AS: Well, I don’t approve of a range of Russian actions, but he is more effective than most and you can see why he carries support in Russia. AC: Admire him? AS: Certain aspects. He’s restored a substantial part of Russian pride and that must be a good thing. There are aspects of Russian constitutionality and the inter-mesh with business and politics that are difficult to admire.
He further quotes a range of meetings as examples of actions taken by his colleagues and others in relation to events in Ukraine which, at closer scrutiny is misleading as the nature and subject matter of those meetings has not been clarified. This will be raised with the First Minister at the meeting he has agreed to attend with the Ukrainian community (date still to be arranged).
I take this opportunity to remind Scotland that since 1991 Putin has orchestrated the dismantling of Ukraine by financing placemen, fifth columnists and directing the theft of Ukrainian assets via corrupt politicians; not investing in her infrastructure and armed forces and he is now in Eastern Ukraine continuing the action taken in Crimea, sending in Russian special forces, mercenaries and arming disaffected locals (who are so because Yanukovich and his band of thieves failed to provide them with a future with jobs and quality of life). Putin is giving the orders to occupy strategic buildings then ordering referenda for separation, pretending to distance himself from their actions to lay down the grounds to send in troops when the ballots (how quickly they were prepared ?) say they want to be part of Russia and need protecting from oppression. That is why his troops remain poised at the border.
According to the Budapest Memorandum, the signatories: Britain, America and Russia pledged to “Respect Ukrainian independence and sovereignty within its existing borders” and “Refrain from the threat or use of force against Ukraine”. The Russian 2014 invasion of Crimea has been called a “blatant violation of Russia’s commitments, including the 1994 Budapest memorandum”
Chairman Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain
The First Minister’s reply:
Dear Mr Ostapko
Thank you for your letter of 28 March regarding an interview with me that was published in GQ magazine.
It is a matter of regret that some of the comments in the interview have been reported out of context and I am therefore grateful for this opportunity to reiterate my position.
As I made clear in the interview, and elsewhere, I disapprove of a range of Russian actions. Indeed, I have had no hesitation in condemning Russia’s activities in the Ukraine, the illegal annexation of the Crimea and its Continued support for armed militia in the east of the country. The Scottish Government has also consistently raised and opposed the Russian Governments stance on human rights, freedom of expression and homosexuality.
For example, on 9 January the Cabinet Secretary for Culture and External Affairs met the Russian Consul General to express our opposition to Russian policies on homosexuality; on 13 March We expressed, again to the Consul General, our Concern about the Russian attitude to Ukraine; and on 26 March we withdrew the invitation to the annual Consular Corps dinner following, as we stated, the Russian Federation’s “illegal and illegitimate referendum in the Crimea and the steps subsequently taken to annex the territory”. This was very widely publicised at the time.
Interestingly the three opposition leaders who wrote to you last Week on these issues have said nothing - that is nothing whatsoever on the record about these matters until they have sought to attack my supposed remarks.
The Scottish Government takes a firm and enduring belief there is no place for prejudice or discrimination in Scotland or any other part of the world - and we strongly condemn human rights abuses wherever they take place.
We are extremely concerned about the situation in Crimea and Ukraine and believe that the best interests of all people in Ukraine are served by a peaceful, inclusive and democratic process and urge all parties to work towards this.
The Scottish Government values the substantial contribution made by members of the Ukrainian community in Scotland and I would be very happy to visit the Ukrainian Community Centre to meet with yourself and others in due course.