[Updated] Why did Ukraine suspend 11 ‘pro-Russia’ parties? (plus statements by Sotsyalnyi Rukh)

By Volodymyr Ishchenko

March 21, 2022 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Al Jazeera — During the weekend, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s government suspended 11 Ukrainian political parties citing their alleged “links with Russia”. While the majority of the suspended parties were small, and some were outright insignificant, one of them, the Opposition Platform for Life, came second in the recent elections and currently holds 44 seats in the 450-seat Ukrainian Parliament.

It is true that these parties are perceived as “pro-Russian” by many in Ukraine. But it is important to understand what “pro-Russian” means in the country today.

Before 2014, there was a large camp in Ukrainian politics calling for closer integration with Russia-led international institutions rather than with those in the Euro-Atlantic sphere, or even for Ukraine entering into a Union State with Russia and Belarus. After the Euromaidan revolution, and Russia’s hostile actions in Crimea and Donbas, however, the pro-Russian camp was marginalised in Ukrainian politics. And at the same time, the pro-Russian label became very inflated. It started to be used to describe anyone calling for Ukraine’s neutrality. It has also started to be employed to discredit and silence sovereigntist, state-developmentalist, anti-Western, illiberal, populist, left-wing, and many other discourses.

This wide variety of views and positions could be grouped together and condemned under one label primarily because they all criticised and raised questions about pro-Western, neoliberal, and nationalist discourses, which have dominated Ukraine’s political sphere since 2014, but do not really reflect the political diversity of Ukrainian society.

But the parties and politicians who have been branded as “pro-Russian” in Ukraine – and recently been suspended by Zelenskyy’s government – have very different relations with Russia. While some may have links to Russian soft power efforts – though these links are rarely properly investigated and proved, others are actually themselves under Russian sanctions.

Most “pro-Russian” parties in Ukraine are first and foremost “pro-themselves” and have autonomous interests and sources of income in Ukraine. They are trying to capitalise on the real grievances of a sizeable minority of Russian-speaking Ukrainian citizens concentrated in the southeastern regions. These parties do command significant public support. For example, three of the recently suspended parties participated in the parliamentary elections in 2019 and combined received about 2.7 million votes (18.3 percent) and in the most recent polls conducted before Russia’s invasion, these parties collectively scored about 16-20 percent of the vote.

Other parties on Zelenskyy’s suspension list were of left-wing orientation. Some of them played an important role in Ukrainian politics in the 1990-2000s, such as the Socialist and Progressive Socialist parties, but by now they are all completely marginalised. Indeed, there is no political party in Ukraine today with “left” or “socialist” in its name that could secure any considerable portion of the general vote now or for the foreseeable future. Ukraine had already suspended in 2015 all of the country’s communist parties under the “decommunisation” law, which was strongly criticised by the Venice Commission.  The latest round of suspensions may not be necessarily motivated by the wish to erase the left from Ukraine’s political sphere, but it certainly contributes to such an agenda.

The irony is that the suspension of these parties is completely meaningless for Ukraine’s security. It is true that some of the suspended parties, like the “progressive socialists,” were strongly and genuinely pro-Russian for many years. However, practically every leader and sponsor of these parties with any real influence in Ukraine condemned Russia’s invasion, and are now contributing to Ukraine’s defence.

Moreover, it is not clear how the suspension of party activities would help to prevent any actions being taken by members or leaders of these parties against the Ukrainian state. The Ukrainian party organisations are typically very weak as political or activist collectives, perhaps, with a partial exception of Sharii’s party among the suspended, founded by one of Ukraine’s most popular political bloggers and now focusing on humanitarian activities. Those who are thinking about collaborating with Russia, either directly with the Kremlin or through its propaganda network, amid the invasion would do this outside of party structures. They would have no reason to try and move Russian money via their party’s official accounts.

All this signals that the Ukrainian government’s decision to suspend left-wing and opposition parties has little to do with any objective war-time security needs of Ukraine, and much to the with the post-Euromaidan polarisation of Ukrainian politics and redefinition of the Ukrainian identity that pushed a variety of the dissenting positions beyond the borders of tolerable discourse in the country. It also has to do with Zelenskyy’s attempts to consolidate political power that began long before the Russian invasion.

Indeed, the decision to suspend the parties follows a pattern. Since last year, the government has imposed sanctions on opposition media and some opposition leaders on a regular basis, without providing any convincing evidence of wrongdoing to the public.

One year ago, for example, the government sanctioned Viktor Medvedchuk, a personal friend of Putin, soon after polls started to show that his party may have more public support than Zelenskyy’s “People’s Servant” party and could overtake him in a future election. At the time, the sanctions against Medvedchuk and his TV stations were also endorsed by the US Embassy in Ukraine. Several analysts have since speculated that those sanctions may have been among the factors that led Putin to begin preparations for the war, by convincing him that Russia-friendly politicians would never be allowed to win an election in Ukraine.

Now, Medvedchuk escaped house arrest and is hiding from Ukrainian authorities. The Opposition Platform for Life removed him from the party leadership, condemned Russia’s invasion, and called its members to join the forces defending Ukraine.

While it is easy to classify the decision to suspend the “pro-Russian” political parties amid a Russian invasion as a security necessity, the move should be analysed and understood in this wider context. It is also important to point out that the government’s sanctions regime against opposition parties, politicians and media has long attracted widespread criticism within Ukraine. Many in the country believe that the sanctions were designed and implemented by a small group attending Ukraine’s Security and Defence Council meetings, without serious discussion, on dubious legal grounds, to further corrupt interests.

This is why there is little reason to expect the suspension of the parties to be lifted once the war is over. The Ministry of Justice will likely take legal action and ban the parties permanently.

This, however, will neither help the war effort nor the political ambitions of the current government. In fact, they could push some Ukrainians to collaborate with Russia.

Indeed, so far collaboration with the invaders in the occupied areas has been minimal. There is no indication that the public will get behind a pro-Russia party or politician in large numbers. And while Russia would certainly approach these parties first if it decides to install a puppet government in Ukraine, many in their political cadres would likely decline the offer – they would not want to risk their capital, properties and interests in the West. Some of the local leaders who have been elected with the backing of these “pro-Russian” parties have already made it clear that they do not intend to collaborate with the invading forces.

But after the suspension of these parties, members of their local organisations and councils, as well as their active supporters, may be more inclined to collaborate with the Russians in the occupied areas. Indeed, if they become convinced that they have no political future in Ukraine and rather face persecution, they may start looking towards Russia. This could fuel violence as masses begin searching for and punishing “traitors” and strengthen Russian propaganda about Ukraine’s “Nazism” problem. There is already a worrying growth in reports about searches and arrests of opposition and left-wing bloggers and activists in Ukraine.

Today, Ukraine is facing an existential threat. The Ukrainian government needs to understand that moves such as these suspensions that alienate parts of the Ukrainian public – and make them question the intentions of their leaders – make the country weaker not stronger, and only serve the enemy.

Volodymyr Ishchenko is a research associate at the Institute of East European Studies, Freie Universität Berlin. His research focuses on protests and social movements, revolutions, radical right and left politics, nationalism and civil society. He is working on a collective book manuscript, The Maidan Uprising: Mobilization, Radicalization, and Revolution in Ukraine, 2013-2014.

Sotsyalnyi Rukh: Statement on temporary 'ban' on some parties

March 21, 2022 — Recently, the National Defence and Security Council decided for the temporary suspensions of the activities of a number of Ukrainian political parties. The list includes both major opposition parties and less known ones that use words ‘progressive’, ‘left’ or ‘socialist’ in their names. President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky accused them of “connections with Russia” not backing the claims with any proper legal reasoning.

We clearly realize that at least some members of these parties, and particularly their leadership

* downplayed the danger of Russian chauvinist ambitions and bordered on justifying the aggression if not directly worked with the Kremlin;

* misdirected popular frustration caused by neoliberal policies of the governments into fighting the caricature image of “the West” destroying “Slavic civilization”;

* spread xenophobia, anti-semitism, homophobia and hatred.

Thus, even those using, but in fact hijacking, left-wing phraseology in reality just served the oligarchic consensus.

Nevertheless, any possible cooperation of the aforementioned organizations, as well as of their individual members, with Russian imperialists has to be investigated, and they tried by the court. Concrete persons involved in sabotage of the popular resistance have to bear individual responsibility for their actions. We recognize the importance and symbolism of democratic freedoms and believe that indiscriminate party bans have no place in today’s struggle.

We have already seen how the government tried to abuse the situation of war to attack the labor rights of Ukrainian workers, now its actions are aimed at limiting political and civil freedoms. We cannot support this.

Moreover, we would like to warn against any attempts to stigmatize left and social movements in general by the absurd linking of progressive agenda to the Kremlin which actually embodies everything opposite to it. Left and union activists today are fighting the aggressor as members of the military force and territorial defense, as volunteers involved in provision of equipment, food and medical supplies, evacuation and accommodation of the refugees and IDPs, as groups building up international solidarity and demanding to write off the foreign debt, seize the assets of the Russian state, and stop tolerating offshoring.

We can only appreciate numerous left movements around the world that already voiced their support, recognized Ukraine’s right to self-defense and keep pressuring their governments to take concrete steps.

The people of Ukraine, not the capitalists who always used them to extract value and store it abroad, are bearing immense hardships today, and they deserve a fairer tomorrow. Socialism is the best way to bring more justice in our society and pursue common aims. That is what we, Sotsialnyi Rukh, stand for.

Is Zelenskyy Cracking Down on the Ukrainian Left?

By Volodya Vagner

March 24, 2022 — Novara Media — On 19 March, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy ratified a decision taken by the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine to “temporarily suspend the activities” of 11 Ukrainian political parties, citing their alleged “links with Russia”. The decision applies to both electorally significant forces, like the Opposition Platform for Life (OPZZh), and a number of marginal parties, including several ostensibly leftist ones.

The response from Ukrainian leftists has been mixed. One of those to have weighed in is artist and publisher Dmytri Mrachnik, who represents the national-liberation tendency prevalent amongst Ukrainian anarchists and socialists, which favours militant struggle against Russian imperialism. Tweeting from the front lines, where he is serving in the Ukrainian army, he describes the affected parties as reactionary and collaborationist, and states that “martial law is a time of tough decisions”. In his view, the decree shouldn’t be construed as a blanket repression of the genuine Ukrainian left.

Germany-based Ukrainian sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko, meanwhile, who has previously argued that Ukraine should negotiate an end to the fighting as soon as possible rather than aim for a decisive military victory at whatever human cost, has offered a more critical perspective. He believes the banned parties’ alleged Russian ties are overstated, given that many of them have come out against the invasion, and argues that the decree is a continuation of Zelenskyy’s push to consolidate his political power – a push that began before Russia’s recent invasion.

Earlier this week in Lviv, Novara Media met with Vitaliy Dudin – head of the Ukrainian democratic socialist organisation the Social Movement, which itself hopes to become a political party – to get his perspective on the decree.

Zelenskyy’s decree is concerning. We’re living through very difficult times, but restrictions on freedom of speech and association are only defensible when necessitated by compelling legal grounds. Even during a state of emergency, measures must be proportional to their aims. This presidential decree, however, does not fulfil its main stated aim – namely, ensuring Ukrainian security.

For Ukraine to win this war, two things will be needed: popular unity and international support. This ill-conceived decree risks jeopardising both. The most electorally significant parties affected by the decree – OPZZh and the party of blogger Anatoly Shariy – have certainly done a lot to divide Ukrainian society. If Ukrainian nationalists pull society in one direction, then the OPZZh and Shariy’s party pull in the other. Both promote the idea that Ukraine is under ultranationalist control, and that Russian-speaking populations are being oppressed. But the government now telling several million Ukrainians that the parties they voted for are beyond the pale likely won’t necessarily motivate them to keep fighting the invaders at the front either. And since the decree doesn’t exactly improve the country’s image, international support may be weakened, which could affect the supply of humanitarian aid and weapons to Ukraine.

I believe the government is trying to achieve both long-term goals, namely, weakening its competitors, and short-term goals, such as showing its readiness to pacify society at a time of war. While right now, the president is appealing to patriotic sentiments amongst Ukrainians – to those who are ready to fight to the end, or at least support the idea of armed resistance – we mustn’t forget that the political field is dynamic, and that any war ends with negotiations. Zelenskyy may be trying to prepare the ground for these negotiations and the conclusion of some kind of peace agreement with Russia. That is, his rhetoric may at some point need to take on a more peaceful tone, like that of the OPZZh, and he may then need the support of OPZZh’s traditional voters.

Indeed, the rationale behind this decree is political, based on unspecified accusations of anti-Ukrainianess on the part of these parties. It’s an unreasonable restriction on one of our most fundamental rights. This isn’t Russia, this is Ukraine, and our constitution proclaims a pluralist, multi-party system. We can’t just give up this essential component of our democracy under the pretext that we are at war.

Ukrainian legislation on political parties and martial law doesn’t include any clauses on the temporary suspension of the activities of political parties. Yes, the country is at war – but the law still demands that any such ban go through the courts. In fact, on top of the decreed temporary suspension, the government also tasked the Ministry of Justice with pursuing a permanent ban on these parties. This raises the question: why did the government not go via the courts to begin with?

I’m afraid that this trial may be rushed through before the end of martial law, and thus be held behind closed doors. If they get a fair trial, however, the parties’ lawyers will be able to present counter arguments, the Ministry of Justice will have to lay out its case, and the judge will have to consider the evidence, which takes time. Notably, the case against the Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU), which was banned in 2015, has been dragging on for years, despite the fact that decommunisation legislation made its banning much easier than is the case with these parties.

What all this means in practice isn’t quite clear yet. Until there is a court decision, these parties aren’t subject to dissolution, and their representatives in parliament should be able to remain there – though perhaps no longer under their parties’ names. But it’s clear that these parties face the threat of further repression, and in the future, others that criticise the government may too.

As leftists, of course, we are particularly concerned about restrictions on the left, and that the decree will create the perception that everything connected with the left and with socialism is part of some Russian strategy against Ukraine. At the same time, while many foreign comrades are currently asking us whether leftwing thought is now banned in Ukraine and if this is the start of a broader repression of the left, I don’t think it’s that categorical. Rather than an attack on the left per say, the government seems to have been guided by fairly vague ideas of what is ‘pro-Russian’ and ‘pro-Ukrainian’. You might say: no real leftists were harmed in the making of this decree. None of the targeted parties fight for social justice or for democratic socialism.

To explain: the ostensibly leftwing parties affected by the decree can be broken down into three categories. The first is those that have split from the Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU), which hasn’t contested elections for years after itself being banned. Here we have the State and Left Opposition, both of which promote undemocratic values, are fairly Stalinist, anti-LGBT, and focus on the cultural markers associated with the Slavic world’s struggle against the evil West.

The second is those that are essentially business projects, created to serve the interests of their leaders. Here we find the Union of Left Forces and the Socialists. While these parties include those with pro-Russian views, these are less pronounced. These are leader-centric parties, set up to support individual politicians ahead of elections rather than representing actual social constituencies.

The third group is where you find the Socialist Party of Ukraine (SPU) and the Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine (PSPU) – once influential parties that are now shells of their former selves. In the 1990s, the SPU was the main pro-European centre-left force in Ukraine, but after a series of dirty games and party takeovers there is very little left of it. The PSPU was also an active party in the past, and was essentially a xenophobic version of the Communist Party in which Marxism was replaced with rhetoric about the need to protect Orthodox populations and Slavs and which held a strong anti-NATO position that bordered on hatred of the West.

In short, in spite of the restrictions now placed on these parties, those fighting for social justice in Ukraine will continue to do so. In that sense, things haven’t changed that significantly.

Volodya Vagner is a freelance journalist based in Sweden, covering culture and politics.