Friday, February 27, 2015

Ukraine: One year after Maidan: Interview with Borotba's Sergei Kirichuk

Sergei Kiirichuk

On the one-year anniversary of the “Maidan revolution” in Ukraine, the country faces economic collapse and is torn apart by a bloody civil war. International's Per Leander has interviewed Sergei Kirichuk, leader of the Ukrainian socialist party Borotba (Struggle), to get his views on the situation in the country.

Over a million Ukrainians are now estimated to be displaced as a result of the last year's developments in the country. Most have fled the war in the Donbass and seek refuge in Russia. Others have been forced to flee because of political persecution, like Borotba leader Sergei Kirichuk, who currently lives in Berlin. He believes that the Maidan was the biggest disaster that his country has experienced in modern times. 

“Right from the beginning we were very critical of the Maidan and warned of what the movement would mean for Ukraine. But then it got even worse than we feared,” says Sergei Kirichuk. 

“To many it appeared at first glance that Maidan might be a democratic mass movement. But we argued all along that it was a reactionary movement and warned of the extremist influence on the Maidan. The fascists were certainly in the minority in the square, but they were well organized, armed and had a decisive influence on the change of power. Since then, we have also seen how their influence in Ukrainian politics has continued to grow,” he says.

But there were several reasons why Borotba did not support Maidan. 

“The main demand of the demonstrators was that Ukraine should join a trade agreement with the EU, which would result in a neoliberal restructuring of our country's economy that would shatter our domestic industry and lead to mass unemployment and poverty,” says Kirichuk. 

“Now we also see the result of this policy. Our currency and economy have collapsed, and the government responds with harsh austerity measures the hit the common people hardest. It has carried out mass layoffs in the public sector, and prices are rising everywhere – housing, electricity, food, medical care and public transport. Pensions and wages are halved. My mother works as a nurse and her latest monthly pay hit a low of 750 hryvnia. People are beginning to fear that we will relive the 1990s crisis with massive inflation and general social disaster,” he says.

Still, there were some other leftist groups that, unlike Borotba, supported the Maidan. But Sergei Kirichuk says that they had no chance to influence the movement. 

“There is a small group calling itself the Left Opposition, consisting mainly of middle-class academics. They decided Maidan was good and tried to take part in the demonstrations. But they had no influence whatsoever. On the contrary, they got beat up by the Nationalists when they came with a banner reading: 'For a social Europe.'

“Some of our activists also made attempts to enter the Maidan. Not as representatives of Borotba, however, but for the union they were members of. They distributed leaflets on trade union rights in the area of the square. But they were also chased away by the fascists,” says Kirichuk. 

“Then there was also a small group of anarchists who were united with the nationalists in their anti-communist rhetoric and in their strong hatred towards Ukraine's Soviet history and heritage. They saw no problem with fighting alongside the Right Sector. Our anarchists are not like those you are used to in Europe, unfortunately. Ukrainian anarchists are often very nationalistic.”

The civil war that is raging today in Ukraine is also a direct result of the Maidan, he says. 

“We must of course take account of all the reactionary forces that contribute to the escalation of this terrible war, Russia, the U.S. and the EU. But the main responsibility lies with the government in Kiev. The civil war was a logical consequence of the ultra-nationalism Maidan stood for. The new government is trying to reshape Ukraine into a unitary ethnic state, which is impossible because we are and have always been a multicultural country. So the Russian-speaking population in eastern and southern Ukraine was radicalized and started protesting against the new government. In addition, people protested because they could not choose their local leaders after Kiev took the liberty to appoint governors in the regions,” says Kirichuk. 

“President Poroshenko should have negotiated a political solution and compromised immediately to give these regions a certain degree of autonomy with local elections. But instead, he initiated the so-called "anti-terrorist operation" (ATO) against the rebels, who responded by taking up arms. That led to this terrible war in which innocent people are killed every day. An entire generation of young men is being lost. It is clear that the Ukrainian army and volunteer Nazi battalions cannot defeat the rebels.”

How big is the Russian influence on the rebels?

“Moscow clearly has a huge influence over the rebels, since they turn to Russia for help. But it is not a Russian invasion as depicted in Ukraine. It is weapons and some volunteer soldiers from Russia, and probably there are military advisers from Moscow among the rebels. But the absolute majority of the rebels are Ukrainian citizens from the Donbass region who now want independence. They are miners, taxi drivers, unemployed, and former policemen and soldiers,” says Kirichuk. 

“Basically it's a civil war. But even in civil wars foreign powers tend to intervene and support various groups, such as during the Spanish Civil War when the Soviet Union supported one side, and Hitler's Germany and Italy supported the other. It is not just Russia that is involved in Ukraine. Western powers provide both moral and material support to Kiev. Now Kiev is trying to get even more support from NATO, and the United States is considering sending advanced weapons. It could be very dangerous when Ukraine risks becoming an arena for a war between NATO and Russia. It would be terrible not only for the Ukrainian people, but for the whole of Europe.”

Who are the rebels?

“There is a wide spectrum of ideas among them. The largest group is the pro-Russians, who mainly want independence from Ukraine and think that Donbass should become part of Russia. But there are also many leftists who primarily sees the war as a battle against the oligarchs. One of the most famous rebel leaders is Alexei Mozgovoi, who says he wants to unite the whole of the Ukrainian people against the oligarchs and build a people's state. And it is an interesting and important difference between the two sides in this conflict, that on Kiev's side are just nationalists and right-wing extremists, but on the rebel side are both right- and left-wing battalions,” says Sergei Kirichuk.

But he does not believe that the leftist-minded rebels will be able to win. 

“Putin would never allow a socialist revolution in the Donbass. If the socialists gained power in eastern Ukraine, they could inspire a similar social revolution in Russia, because many people there are also dissatisfied with capitalism's injustices. Putin will therefore do everything possible to crush the radical forces in eastern Ukraine, which demand social change. The imperialist forces on both sides are more interested in making this a new Yugoslavia and playing on ethnic rather than social divisions. Therefore, we must highlight the social issues and not the ethnic,” says Sergei Kirichuk.

As an example of the internal struggle that has now begun among the rebel groups, Kirichuk says that four of his comrades from Borotba were detained by a group of pro-Russian separatists in the breakaway region of Donetsk in December. 

“They accused Borotba of being enemies of Russia, because we work with our Russian sister organization, the Left Front, which is also struggling against Putin and his oligarchs. Our position is that the Russian people are suffering under the oligarchs, in the same way as the Ukrainian people, and that we must unite across national borders against our oppressors.”

But after two weeks, the four Borotbists were released, after a major international campaign. 

“We are known to oppose the far-right regime in Kiev and support the democratic and linguistic rights of the people of eastern Ukraine. The battalion that had imprisoned our comrades simply got too much bad publicity and criticism from the other rebels, so they had to release our comrades,” he says.

A couple of Borotba's former members also participate in combat on the rebel side, but they are no longer members of the party. One of them, Vsevolod Petrovsky, who was 29 years old, was recently killed. 

“It's tragic. But he was born in the Donbass. For him it was very important to not only look on as the Ukrainian army bombed his home and killed his people, so he joined Mozgovoi's battalion as an open communist. He was a journalist and had never held a gun before,” says Kirichuk. 

“Vsevolod Petrovsky has an interesting political biography. He was initially politically liberal and active in the 'Orange Revolution' in Ukraine in 2004-2005, which was a precursor to the Maidan. But he then became disappointed with neoliberalism and eventually became a Marxist instead.”

What do you think about the peace talks in Minsk?

“The Minsk Declaration is a compromise, and no one is happy with it. The right-wing forces in Kiev says that Poroshenko is a traitor and want to continue the war against the breakaway republics. While the most radical forces in eastern Ukraine feel betrayed by Putin and will not give up until they get real independence. But the Minsk Declaration is the only way to try and create peace. It would be good if both sides could respect it,” says Kirichuk. 

“Meanwhile Kiev is preparing for continued war and now, a second mobilization is underway. It is mainly the poor who get called up. The sons of politicians and oligarchs do not have to be mobilized, while ordinary people are now forced to go to war and die. 

“But people are increasingly war-weary, although our Ukrainian propaganda, and also your Western propaganda, states that the Ukrainian people are united and want to continue to fight against the 'enemy.' On the contrary, tens of thousands are now fleeing abroad to avoid mobilization. They flee to Russia, which is ironic because it is claimed that Russia is our enemy. This suggests that the Ukrainian people do not want war,” says Kirichuk. 

“But to protest against mobilization and war is now a serious crime in Ukraine, and deserters can be shot.”

What is the situation of Borotba today?

“We do not have the opportunity to work openly in Ukraine, we must work underground. We are accused of being traitors or Moscow agents, and both the Security Police and the Nazis pursue our activists. Some comrades have been killed, others have been imprisoned, and the best known leaders have been forced to flee abroad. 

“But the most important work we do is agitate against the war. We do not choose sides in this conflict, but instead try to unite workers in East and West, to make them understand that they must fight for their own class interests and not for the imperialists' or oligarchs' interests. But right now it is very difficult because of the military hysteria that permeates the entire Ukrainian society,” says Kirichuk. 

“This is a big challenge for us because we have never had any experience with this kind of underground work. Previously we always worked under more or less democratic conditions with freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. But all that changed after the Maidan. There are no longer any democratic rights to speak of in Ukraine. The country is on its way to becoming a military dictatorship. The nationalist and extremist forces are pressing for such a development. Unfortunately, I think it will soon become much worse in Ukraine,” he says.

What is your solution?

We need a new constitution which says that Ukraine should be a democratic federation, with real local elections and greater regional autonomy. The Russian language, and also other minority languages like Hungarian, must be given the same status as Ukranian, and human rights must be respected. The Nazis and the other paramilitary units must be disarmed. We need an economic model that is not based on submitting to EU directives. We need to continue to have good relations and trade relations with both Russia and the West,” says Sergei Kirichuk.

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