Knesset committee chair sparks row with visit to Russian-controlled Crimea
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Knesset committee chair sparks row with visit to Russian-controlled Crimea

Moscow uses Ya’akov Margi’s trip as propaganda coup, while Ukraine says visit to peninsula is a crime

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Ya'akov Margi attends a meeting of the Education, Culture, and Sports Committee which he chairs  on January 27, 2016. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Ya'akov Margi attends a meeting of the Education, Culture, and Sports Committee which he chairs on January 27, 2016. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

The chairman of the Knesset’s Education Committee broke Ukrainian law, overstepped diplomatic protocol and sparked a spat with Ukrainian authorities by meeting Wednesday with the president of the Crimean Republic, regarded by Ukraine as a Russian puppet and not recognized by most of the world.

Russia invaded and subsequently annexed the former Ukrainian-held territory in March 2014 in the wake of Ukraine’s so-called revolution, which pitted pro-European groups against pro-Russian ones. Crimea is today recognized by only seven nations other than Russia — Syria, Afghanistan, North Korea, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

Ya’akov Margi of the ultra-Orthodox Shas Party met with Sergei Aksyonov without telling the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem in advance, the Haaretz newspaper reported Thursday.

Knesset sources said Margi visited privately after an invitation by the rabbi of Sebastopol to tour Jewish institutions in the city. The Knesset Ethics Committee had cleared the trip.

But the Russian and Crimean governments rushed to portray the visit as official and a diplomatic coup. A statement issued via the Crimean Republic’s official news agency said Aksyonov had thanked Margi for helping the republic’s PR battle.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, left, speaks to Crimean Premier Sergei Aksyonov while visiting Crimea in Simferopol, Crimea, Monday, March 31, 2014. (AP Photo/Alexandr Polegenko)
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, left, speaks to Crimean Premier Sergei Aksyonov while visiting Crimea in Simferopol, Crimea, Monday, March 31, 2014. (AP Photo/Alexandr Polegenko)

After the meeting, the president told journalists that “we’ve succeeded in breaking the information blockage imposed on us.”

Margi had come “despite what people think — that Crimea is a dangerous place for parliament members and businessmen. I’m sure that he will return to Israel and tell people there that Crimea has returned to its Motherland according to the will of its people.”

Margi told journalists that he had come to check on the situation of the local Jewish community. “I saw people living their lives, despite the very different picture which people tried to draw for me [before the visit],” he said.

Drawing an apparent parallel between Crimea and Israel, he added: “When you turn on the TV, you think that Israel is a place where everyone has guns, but the reality is very different. It’s not enough to see the pictures. You have to read the small print. I felt comfortable in the Crimea and when a Jew feels comfortable in a particular place, it says a lot.”

Ukrainian law forbids visiting the Crimean Republic. Should Margi visit Ukrainian territory, he risks arrest for committing a crime. Israeli policy over recent years has been to remain neutral in the face of Russian-Ukrainian tensions.

Last month, the Ukrainian Embassy in Israel published a warning to Israelis not to have contacts with the Crimean Republic and threatened sanctions against Israeli individuals or companies doing business with the regime.

An embassy statement said it heard that Israelis were breaking Ukrainian law by visiting the “illegal authorities” in Crimea and compromising the “rights and freedoms of the citizens and legal government in the occupied territory of Crimea,” Haaretz reported.

The statement added that such visits contravened a March 2014 measure adopted by the UN General Assembly which declared as invalid the peninsula’s annexation by Russia and called on the sides to “pursue immediately a peaceful resolution of the situation.”

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