Ukraine: 'Before Maidan, Ukraine was more democratic', says Volodymyr Ishchenko

Image removed.

A toppled statue of Vladimir Lenin in Ukraine.

Volodymyr Ishchenko interviewed by Javier Morales

April 27, 2015 -- LeftEast, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal

Javier Morales: How do you think that Ukrainian society is assessing the consequences of the Euromaidan revolution? Has there been any change in their attitudes in the past year?

Volodymyr Ishchenko: Before the Maidan, polls showed that European integration and the Russian Customs Union had almost an equal support, but there was of course a geographical divide between different parts of Ukraine in their answers. After the Maidan, what happened is probably a typical effect of the victory of political mobilisation: the number of supporters for European integration grew a lot. At this moment, supporters for the Russian Customs Union are evidently a minority, [but] much less than in late 2013.

However, attitudes towards the Maidan are determined by a variety of factors. You can have one attitude towards the protests, another one towards Viktor Yanukovych’s removal from power, another one towards the current government and its policies… so it is quite complex. My own personal perception is that people are very much dissatisfied with the economic crisis and with government policies. So I am not so sure about the extent to which they support official propaganda, for example, about the “revolution of dignity”.

One of the most significant figures is the level of support for Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s party, the People’s Front.  It was the winner of the parliamentary elections, getting more votes than the Petro Poroshenko Bloc. But now, polls show that the People’s Front has a support of about 5-7%, not really more than the Right Sector, which has increased its support. In October the Right Sector got 2%, but now it has 5% – if elections were held today, it quite probably would get into the parliament. Of course, that might be connected to dissatisfaction about the economic situation.

Can we speak of a democratisation of politics and political culture as a result of the Euromaidan? Has Ukraine adopted a more “Europeanised” or “Westernised” national identity?

There are different processes at the level of institutions, civil society or political culture that have influenced the attitudes of ordinary Ukrainians. What can be said for sure is that Ukraine has hardly become more democratic, and there are many developments which can make Ukraine more repressive than it was before the Maidan [protests] started. Of course, repressive measures [approved during those protests] such the January 16, 2014, laws systematically limited political freedoms.

However, before Maidan, Ukraine was a more democratic country. We can speak about various criteria: for example the strength of the opposition and the extent to which it was not affected by repression. Now, one of the main opposition parties, the Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU), is under threat of being banned. It is going to be a long process, but under the new “decommunisation laws” it will not be able to keep its name and symbols.

With regard to the problems with freedom of speech, the latest journalist who has been murdered, Oles Buzina, was quite a controversial figure, with views that some considered “anti-Ukrainian” – but that just does not justify that someone could kill him.

Another example is the case of Ruslan Kotsaba, another journalist who was arrested in February for making a video in which he called on citizens to resist the army draft. He argued that this is a fratricidal and unjust war, therefore you should not go to the army and take part in it. He was accused of state treason, which is punished with 12 to 15 years of imprisonment; now, he is still under trial and in preliminary detention. Basically, he was repressed for expressing a critical opinion. Whatever you think about the war and the mobilisation of Ukrainian men into the army, it does not justify arresting and charging a journalist with a crime that carries such an enormous punishment.

This is just anecdotal evidence from these two cases and would require more systematic research on the evolution of political culture. However, it does not feel like Ukraine has become more tolerant. For example, what do you call “Europeanisation”? Maidan supporters tend to promote a progressive understanding of Europe. But Europe is about progressive values, tolerance, equal rights for everyone, and so on. It seems that they indeed believed in these ideas, but it does not mean that this was the reality of Maidan. The far right did have strong positions there, despite the fact that they were a minority – numerically a minority, but also the most active in the movement.

At the same time, that European discourse does not correspond to the reality of the country, where there is a huge “patriotic” mobilisation as a result of the war [on eastern Ukraine]; it is not about tolerance. It seems ridiculous now to be so much focused on the typical liberal agenda of minority rights while totally forgetting about a number of Ukrainians actually excluded from the political discourse, and also from political participation, because they do not support what has happened in the past year. Hate speech is quite overwhelming. Words that are obviously derogative and pejorative for opponents of Maidan are everywhere, repeated by top officials and the media.

I know about the idea that a “civic nation” is now finally emerging in Ukraine. The media and some intellectuals claim that, finally, it is not really important who is Ukrainian, who is Russian, who is a Pole, a Jew, a Crimean Tatar… or which language people speak, Ukrainian or Russian. We are allegedly one nation. But this idea of a new nation is based on support for Maidan: your language or ethnic group does not matter as long as you agree with what happened in the past year and you blame Russia first of all.

Of course, this excludes those who have another opinion. I would not say that repression is really systematic unless you are involved in the separatist movement, which is openly criminalised – actually, you cannot publicly claim that you want your region to separate from Ukraine, even if you are not involved in violent activities. So the focus of this repression is on the separatists, especially those who might use or be willing to use violence. However, even people that are not for separation from Ukraine but are critical of Maidan are under informal pressure.

What are the prospects for left-wing social and political actors in Ukraine? Do you think there is a future for them, or are they going to remain marginal in the political landscape?

At the moment they are much weaker than before Maidan. Even before then, they were very weak.

The CPU—to the extent that you can call it a “leftist” party at all, which I have some doubts about—is a bourgeois and even conservative party with regard to cultural values such as feminism, gender equality or minority rights. It ha published many conservative statements. But for the first time it did not get into parliament in the last election; before that, in any Verkhovna Rada we had Communist Party MPs. Now, in this parliament there is no leftist party at all, in any possible understanding of the word.

Some of the most important CPU cells were in the Donbass, where they had the strongest support. Their offices were attacked by the far right; a number of party officials were also arrested. More recently, the decommunisation laws have been another blow to them.

The “New Left”, which is not connected to the CPU or other parties evolved from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, is divided. Some of them took quite a strong position in support of Maidan and others did the same in the anti-Maidan movement. They became the left wings of the two competing nationalist camps: nationalist/liberal pro-Maidan people and the anti-Maidan Russian nationalists. In this process, they were compromising class politics with other issues. Their support is quite marginal, and they are not able to get any closer to a hegemonic position in any movement.

What influence do left-wing forces have in eastern Ukraine, as a result of participating in the “anti-Maidan”?

In fact, their situation is not any better than in the rest of the country. In some ways, it is even worse.

The CPU was not allowed to participate in the November elections in the areas controlled by the separatists, who define themselves as an “anti-fascist movement”; but the so-called “Kiev junta” did allow them to compete in the rest of the country. This says something about the perverted rhetoric in use; although it does not diminish the problem of repression against Communists in Ukraine as a whole. Those areas are actually under an effective military regime, so it is more difficult for CPU members to organise and mobilise themselves.

Do you think that the new “anti-totalitarian” legislation will contribute to improve the political and social situation in the country?

It is first and foremost having an impact on the CPU. Anti-communist rhetoric is becoming totally legitimised. Now, even for groups that are not “pro-Soviet”, it is more dangerous to carry on their activities. They are marginal and do not represent any challenge to the state; but they are an objective of far-right groups. Obviously, the far right is going to use these new laws to create legal problems for the left.

There is also the question of whether an objective historical research on the Soviet Union is going to be possible in the future. These laws seem to be much more extreme than the decommunisation laws in other Eastern European countries: in all of them there is a clause protecting freedom of historical research. In Ukraine, even in the context of historical research, you are not allowed to reject the “criminal totalitarian nature of the Communist regime”. The meaning of this is so broad that it could include everything. It may become an opportunity for the nationalists to prosecute historians who show a principled position towards the Ukrainian nationalist movement in the Second World War. Would recognising any achievements within the Soviet Union mean that you reject the “criminal totalitarian nature” of that system, or not?

This is an extreme position in which the state makes a decision about what should be treated as historical debates. Rather than being closer to European laws, it is more similar to the USSR, where “anti-Soviet activities” were banned and you could get into serious trouble with the state for having an independent historical perspective. In some ways, these “anti-totalitarian” laws are taking Ukraine closer to a totalitarian regime than to a democratic society.

[Volodymyr Ishchenko is a sociologist studying social protests in Ukraine. He is the deputy director of the Center for Social and Labor Research, a member of the editorial board of Commons: Journal for Social Criticism and LeftEast web- magazine, and a lecturer at the department of sociology in the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.]

Submitted by Terry Townsend on Sat, 05/16/2015 - 22:59


By Josh Cohen, Reuters, May 14, 2015

As Ukraine continues its battle against separatists [sic], corruption and a collapsing economy, it has taken a dangerous step that could further tear the country apart: Ukraine’s parliament, the Supreme Rada, passed a draft law last month honoring organizations involved in mass ethnic cleansing during World War Two.

The draft law — which is now on President Petro Poroshenko’s desk awaiting his signature — recognizes a series of Ukrainian political and military organizations as “fighters for Ukrainian independence in the 20th century” and bans the criticism of these groups and their members. (The bill doesn’t state the penalty for doing so.) Two of the groups honored — the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) — helped the Nazis carry out the Holocaust while also killing close to 100,000 Polish civilians during World War Two.

The law is part of a recent trend of contemporary Ukrainian nationalism promoted by those on the extreme right to break with the country’s Communist past and emphasize Ukraine’s suffering under the Soviet regime. In addition to the moral problem of forbidding the criticism of Holocaust perpetrators, the law hinders Ukraine’s European ambitions — and validates Russian President Vladimir Putin’s claims that the country is overrun by neo-Nazis.

The OUN was founded in 1929 as a revolutionary organization designed to liberate Ukraine from Soviet rule and create an independent Ukrainian state. Many OUN leaders were trained in Nazi Germany, and the group’s philosophy was influenced by Nazi racial theorists such as Alfred Rosenberg. OUN literature, for example, declared the need to “combat Jews as supporters of the Muscovite-Bolshevik regime… Death to the Muscovite-Jewish commune! Beat the commune, save Ukraine!”

The OUN fought both the Nazis and the Soviets, and many Ukrainian nationalists have argued that the OUN was primarily a national liberation movement. But while the OUN’s core goal may have been the creation of an independent Ukrainian state, along the way its members were responsible for terrible atrocities.

Starting with a pogrom in Lviv shortly after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union, OUN militias — with the support of the Nazis — embarked on a killing spree in Western Ukraine that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of Jews. After the Nazis dissolved these militias, many of their members joined the Ukrainian Auxiliary Police in German service, where they received weapons-training and became one of the most important instruments of the Holocaust in Belarus and Western Ukraine.

By 1943 the OUN had seized control of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), a Ukrainian nationalist paramilitary group, and declared itself opposed to both the retreating Germans and the oncoming Soviets.  Although no longer in Nazi service, the UPA nevertheless continued to target and kill Jews, herding them into labor camps for execution. The UPA also engaged in the mass ethnic cleansing of Poles during this time, killing nearly 100,000 people.

Even after the Red Army pushed the Germans from Ukraine in the summer of 1944, the UPA continued to fight a partisan war against Soviet forces well into the 1950s, before it was finally crushed by the massive power of the Red Army. It is this legacy of sacrifice that explains the Rada’s decision to pass a law honoring the OUN and the UPA.

This law echoes a recent trend of glorifying right-wing Ukrainian nationalist organizations with controversial pasts. Under former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, a number of leading Ukrainian nationalists were honored with a memorial at Babi Yar — site of the single-worst massacre of Jews during the Holocaust. Yushchenko also bestowed the highest government honor of “Hero of Ukraine” upon the controversial former OUN leader Stepan Bandera — a step roundly condemned by the chief rabbi of Ukraine, the president of Poland and the European Union.

More recently, radical nationalists played a key role as “shock troops” on the Maidan, and the anti-government camp was full of OUN-UPA flags and cries of “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!” — chants that originated with the OUN. Currently, a number of OUN-UPA apologists occupy important government positions, including the minister of education, the head of the Security Service of Ukraine and the director of the Ukrainian government’s Institute of National Memory. Even Poroshenko has gotten into the act, laying a wreath in honor of the OUN at Babi Yar last year.

The draft law has a number of downsides beyond the moral problem of giving the OUN and UPA a free pass for atrocious crimes. Most obviously, making criticism of Holocaust perpetrators illegal is not compatible with Ukraine’s European ambitions. It is natural that many Ukrainians would wish to define themselves in opposition to the former Soviet Union, but as a budding democracy, banning criticism of any organizations — particularly those with such dark pasts — is the wrong way to build national identity.

Kiev also must remember that its conflict with Putin’s Russia is taking place in cyberspace as well as the Donbass. Kiev has now handed the Kremlin “evidence” for Putin’s claim that Russia is facing off against fascists. Not surprisingly, Russian state-owned media outlets have had a field day condemning the law.

Perhaps the worst effect of this law is the way it would split the country. Eastern and western Ukrainians already possess widely diverging views on recent political events such as the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Maidan revolution. The law would only exacerbate these regional differences. Historically, support for the “OUN-cult” originated primarily in the western Ukrainian regions of Galacia and Volhynia, where they are seen as heroic freedom fighters against Soviet oppression. Eastern Ukrainians, by contrast, grew up viewing these groups as Nazi collaborators to be feared and condemned rather than celebrated.

The Rada’s passage of this law has already greatly harmed Ukraine. It is now up to Poroshenko to mitigate the damage by vetoing it.

Note by New Cold editors: The original title assigned by Reuters to this article was ‘Vladimir Putin calls Ukraine fascist and country’s new law helps make his case’. For the record, the president of Russia has never called Ukraine ‘fascist’. Here, for example, is an exceprt from a speech by Putin to the Russian Duma in on March 18, 2014, on the subject of the secession bvote in Crimea:

“I would like to reiterate that I understand those who came out on Maidan with peaceful slogans against corruption, inefficient state management and poverty. The right to peaceful protest, democratic procedures and elections exist for the sole purpose of replacing the authorities that do not satisfy the people. However, those who stood behind the latest events in Ukraine had a different agenda: they were preparing yet another government takeover; they wanted to seize power and would stop short of nothing. They resorted to terror, murder and riots. Nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes and anti-Semites executed this coup. They continue to set the tone in Ukraine to this day.”