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Savchenko Sworn In As Lawmaker, Urges Fight For 'Kremlin Prisoners'

  • RFE/RL

Ukrainian military aviator Nadia Savchenko, who spent two years in Russian custody before her release in a prisoner swap last week, has been sworn in as a lawmaker and used her first appearance in parliament to urge the return of "prisoners of the Kremlin."

The 35-year-old former battalion member has been greeted as a war hero and appears intent on keeping the country focused on the fight against Russia-backed separatists as she tries to parlay her popularity into political muscle.

"I am back, and I won't let you forget," she told fellow deputies in Ukraine's unicameral legislature on May 31, before adding references to EuroMaidan unrest that ousted a pro-Russian president two years ago and the ongoing conflict in a region of eastern Ukraine known as Donbas.

"I won't let you, who sit in these chairs in the Verkhovna Rada, forget those guys who died at the Maidan and who currently are dying in the Donbas."

Savchenko vowed to make it her priority to fight for the release of other Ukrainians held in Russia, whom Ukraine describes as political prisoners.

She then removed a poster with her image on it from the rostrum, where it had been hanging for months as Kyiv sought to secure her release. In its place, Savchenko hung a banner depicting several other people who remain in Russian custody.

Savchenko removes a poster with her portrait as she attends her first session in the parliament in Kyiv on May 31.

Savchenko removes a poster with her portrait as she attends her first session in the parliament in Kyiv on May 31.

"You absolutely have to pull out every single prisoner," Savchneko said, describing what she called "prisoners of the Kremlin." "No one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten."

She added, "The people of Ukraine will not allow us to occupy these seats if we betray them."

Moscow says it is not a party to the two years of conflict that has followed its invasion and unrecognized annexation of Crimea, but Kyiv and NATO cite overwhelming evidence that Russia has provided troops, heavy weaponry, and other support to separatists in the eastern Ukrainian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk.

Savchenko had left the Ukrainian Army and was serving in a volunteer battalion in eastern Ukraine when she says she was captured by Russia-backed fighters in June 2014 and smuggled across the border.

A Russian court in March sentenced her to 22 years in prison for her alleged role in the deaths of two Russian journalists in the conflict zone, a charge she rejects.

Her ordeal lasted 708 days -- stretches of which she spent on hunger strike -- and was marked by repeated acts of defiance against the Kremlin and Russian courts.

She returned last week to Ukraine after she was pardoned by Russian President Vladimir Putin in exchange for two Russians who were convicted in April on terrorism charges for fighting alongside separatists and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

Savchenko's custody and trial have been condemned by Kyiv and Western governments critical of Moscow's actions in Ukraine.

The Kremlin has portrayed her release as a humanitarian gesture, but it came just weeks before the European Union decides whether to extend sanctions against Russia.

More than 9,300 people have died in the fighting in eastern Ukraine.

Political Player

Ukraine's president and other major political players currently suffer from abysmal popularity ratings that some observers attribute to chronic corruption and nepotism, ongoing economic woes due in part to the fighting in the east, and a lack of political courage.

Their dilemma has left a leadership vacuum that some people suggest Savchenko could fill.

Savchenko is a member of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko's party, which in February left Ukraine's governing coalition and in whose ranks she sat on her first appearance as a legislator.

At one point, she scolded her fellow deputies, suggesting that there is a perception in Ukraine that "legislators are like lazy schoolchildren who neglect their work."

On May 27, she said she would be willing serve her country in any capacity, including as president "if you want me."

With reporting by RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, Reuters, AP, AFP, and dpa
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