Why Leveson mustn’t shackle the press, Elton John’s fury and a mini-me

Ukraine shame
To Kiev, where Elton John was campaigning against the appalling treatment of people with HIV/Aids in a country with one of the worst epidemics in eastern Europe. The Elton John Aids Foundation, which will be 20 next year, has raised more than £250m for people infected with this terrible disease. Anyone who thinks all famous people who do charity work are more interested in their own PR than the causes they promote should have seen him harangue the Ukrainians. During a press conference, he lost his temper and yelled: "For fuck's sake, Ukraine! You live in the 21st century, not the 19th century! This is a disgrace! It's a disgrace how some human beings are treated in this country." Marvellous watching the assembled delegates turn to the translator, who lost his way. Tantrums, if not tiaras, work in any language or country.

Bleak midwinter
Ukraine has pretensions to democracy and closer links with the EU. But walking around the streets of the former Soviet state, it did not feel like a European country. Poverty is visible on every corner, where drug addicts loiter and mothers beg. We visited Kiev's Lavra Clinic, next to the Lavra cathedral where the president, Viktor Yanukovych, worships. It is the oldest HIV clinic in Ukraine, and the only one where gay men can receive vital antiretroviral drugs without fear of stigma. But the government and church, which claims to own the land on which the clinic is built, have decided to sell to a hotel developer - it is to be closed by Christmas. We spoke to several men with haunted faces who claimed that if the clinic goes they will soon die. They said they understand it's all about business and patronage; but why can't they coexist with the church? After all, they said, God is supposed to care for the needy. Long before Ukraine joins the family of European democracies, the betrayal of such men must stop.

Wishing on a scar
And the young women. I bumped into Sabina, a beautiful, gaunt and pregnant 17-year-old prostitute with HIV. She has lived on the streets for five years, having fallen into a cycle of addiction and poverty. She lives with her boyfriend under a bridge, next to a hot-water mains pipe, searching for warmth. She told me her only dream in life was that her baby should be born alive. To paraphrase Tony Blair, Sabina is a scar on the conscience of Europe. I will be writing about her and others for the Independent on World Aids Day, on 1 December.

The future's orange
One person who stands up for people such as Sabina is Eugenia Tymoshenko, daughter of the former prime minister Yulia, who has spent over 100 days in jail for daring to challenge the vested interests that rule the country. Eugenia, who has been thrust into the public eye by her crusade seeking justice for her mother, was coy about her political ambitions when we met. She said that Ukraine urgently needs western help, to stimulate its economy and enforce sanctions against those who stifle its democracy. There are few bright spots in Ukrainian politics, but this smart, strong-willed woman is one of them. My feeling is there is anger across the country and, without better representation, there will soon be rioting on the streets of Kiev, as seen during the Orange Revolution. Ukraine is ever more isolated from Russia and the west, and is going the way of its autocratic neighbour, Belarus.

Peace in our time?
I met with Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, in Istanbul a few weeks ago. He was very positive about the progress the country is making and said Britain is his most important ally, something US troops may be surprised to hear. In September, the former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani had conveyed the same ebullient tone as Karzai when I met him in Kabul. Six days later he was murdered by a suicide bomber posing as a Taliban envoy. Watching the moving tributes to our fallen on Remembrance Sunday, I felt Rabbani's grim fate, rather than Karzai's optimism, was the better clue to Afghanistan's future. The withdrawal of western troops in 2014 will not be the beginning of the end for this country's trauma, but the end of the beginning.

Devil wears Pravda
The Leveson Inquiry, which has just begun, must not be allowed to shackle our free press. Having grown up in the Soviet Union, I know what an unfree press looks like and wouldn't recommend it. Some appalling things have been done by British newspapers in recent years, damaging the reputation of our press. They know who they are and should be prosecuted. But we have many of the best journalists in the world here and their work is central to our democracy. What we need is more effective self-regulation that is independent, transparent and understandable to the public. I have been, and plan to continue, discussing what this means in practice with fellow proprietors, who have a duty to hold editors to account.

Hit parade
I was in Moscow last week, on the day my dad was dragged into court on charges of hooliganism. In September, while on Russian television, he hit a man called Sergei Polonsky, after being threatened by him and enduring 90 minutes of abuse. Polonsky is best known for saying that if you don't have a billion, you can go to hell. Neither my dad nor I condone violence but, given that Polonsky was back on his feet in seconds and barely suffered light bruising, I think the Russian courts really have better things to do, such as bringing corrupt bureaucrats to justice.

Bruv love
In any case, Lebedev Sr has other matters on his mind. On Monday morning, his partner gave birth to son number three, all 3kg and 51cm of him. Mother and child are both well. The middle brother, Nikita, who is two and takes a sometimes painful interest in my beard, will be delighted to have a new comrade. His younger brother still has no name. Naturally, my vote is for "Evgeny II". The parents remain undecided. If you have any ideas, do pass them on.

Evgeny Lebedev is chairman of Evening Standard Ltd and Independent Print Ltd:

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