Ukraine on the Brink
Ukraine's politics are dominated by oligarchs. Its streets are more and more run by the far right.
- Interview by
- Joe Plommer
When the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991, its former republics’ economies went into free fall. Ukraine — the most populous of the new states, after Russia — was no exception: average incomes and life expectancy declined as violent crime soared. It had been a center of heavy industry in the Soviet Union, but during the 1990s its industrial facilities were sold off at bargain prices to figures linked to its political leadership. From 1994 that leadership was dominated by President Leonid Kuchma, a former factory manager who attempted but ultimately failed to keep both Russia and the West on its side.
By the turn of the millennium, Ukraine’s economy had stabilized — but most Ukrainians were still desperately poor, and the conspicuous wealth of a small minority fueled popular conviction that the country’s resources were being stolen. Gradually, Kuchma came to be seen as emblematic of that theft. In neighboring Russia, the chaos and relative openness of the 1990s was giving way to Putin’s new authoritarian order as political freedom was traded for a measure of stability.
It gradually became clear that there would be no such consolidation in Ukraine. In December 2000, a series of recordings was leaked in which President Kuchma discussed abducting the journalist Georgi Gongadze, as well as concealing the proceeds of corruption. The resulting protests were suppressed, and Kuchma remained in place, but the groundwork had been laid for much larger demonstrations — the so-called “Orange Revolution” — that came four years later after vote-rigging by Kuchma’s would-be successor, Viktor Yanukovych, in the 2004 presidential election. A rerun of that contest handed power to Western-leaning Viktor Yushchenko, whose tenure combined some economic growth with rising inequality — and spanned the 2008 financial crisis, which further impoverished ordinary Ukrainians. In the next election, in 2010, Yushchenko lost to the opportunistic Yanukovych. Having indicated that he would sign an association agreement with the European Union, in the autumn of 2013 Yanukovych bent to pressure (and incentives) from Putin and changed his mind. Demonstrators once again gathered in Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), leading to the president’s removal from power.
Sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko was present throughout the protest movements of the 2000s and became a prominent analyst of the 2013–14 Maidan protests. In this interview, Ishchenko reflects on the legacy of Maidan and the events of the five years that have elapsed since, as well as looking ahead to the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled to take place in 2019.
In late February 2014, as a post-Maidan interim administration took power in Kiev, you wrote that the new government “is likely only to aggravate” the poverty and inequality that forms “the root of pervasive corruption in Ukraine.” You said that “the socioeconomic demands of the Maidan movement have been replaced with the neoliberal agenda of the new government.” What were those demands, and has any progress been made in reasserting them since?
“Demands” was not really the best wording; we would more accurately speak of grievances. Some of the grievances that pushed masses of Ukrainians into the streets in 2013 were socioeconomic in nature. Polls among the Maidan protestors said the most popular concern was fighting corruption. Many also connected the European Union with their own aspirations for higher living standards, for jobs, for a “normal” life. But the problem was that such grievances were not articulated into any clear progressive agenda. The political representation of the movement ranged from right wing to far right.
Of course, the Maidan protests did involve a mass mobilization of regular citizens. But certain organizations played a particularly important role in sustaining this mobilization and in coordinating a large protest infrastructure spanning multiple regions. The organized part of the Maidan coalition included three opposition parties. Two were the Tymoshenko and Klitschko parties. Even the fact that it’s simpler to identify them by the leaders’ names, not by their ideologies, already says a lot about Ukrainian politics. These parties above all represent the interests of specific financial-industrial groups (often they are loosely called “oligarchs”): politically, they can be very opportunistic and can shift between various kinds of populism before adopting neoliberalism once in power. But the third party was more ideological, namely the far-right Svoboda (“Freedom”) Party — the radical Ukrainian nationalists. More extreme but marginal radical nationalist groups united under the Right Sector umbrella. Then there were a number of small but Western-supported NGOs, some focused on human rights, others on neoliberal reforms, others on fighting corruption.
Neither the NGOs nor the parties could articulate any progressive, egalitarian agenda. It was pretty clear from the outset that even progressive liberals were in the minority, never mind socialists. They were only loosely organized, and had no substantial influence, either on the development of the protests or on their ideological framing. They were probably more important in terms of framing the protests for parts of the Western audience which, in a kind of wishful thinking, focused on the most progressive elements of the movement but not the much stronger reactionary ones. From the outset it was clear that if the Maidan protests succeeded, they would bring right-wing opposition parties to power.
What we’ve seen in the five years since then is that Ukraine has become poorer. The IMF recently updated their global statistics on GDP per capita, and Ukraine’s is now the lowest in Europe. The only countries even lower down the scale are located in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. Ukraine is the northernmost of the Global South — and not just in terms of economic statistics. Its economic structure is also more typical of the Third World: it is export-oriented and primarily focused on raw materials. And unlike Southeast Asia, Ukraine is not industrializing but deindustrializing — particularly because the most advanced parts of Ukrainian industry, which were inherited from the Soviet Union and primarily served the markets of the former Soviet republics, have been harmed by the introduction of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area with the European Union; they are not usually competitive on global markets. A significant part of those industries is located in Donbass, where the war is going on.
Nor do Ukraine’s politics seem to be moving toward the European norm, as we are told. Oligarchs dominate mainstream politics and own all the major TV channels — independent ones remain marginal. Paramilitaries play a role in Ukrainian politics not seen in any other country in Europe: it is a situation more like Latin America or sub-Saharan Africa.
As the Maidan protests reached their crescendo, you wrote that “the Maidan movement must decisively break away from the far-right,” warning that although “the far right are not numerically dominant in Maidan … neofascists have become normalised as a legitimate part of the movement.” To what extent have ultranationalists managed to maintain this foothold?
The far right was unable to capitalize on the protests in parliamentary terms: Svoboda lost seats in 2014 and the Right Sector didn’t get into parliament, although they do have a chance in the parliamentary elections scheduled for autumn 2019. There are already talks among some far-right parties to unite into a joint nationalist bloc, which would have a very good chance of getting into parliament (although they have thus far failed to agree on a candidate for the presidential elections, which are scheduled to take place in the meantime).
Many argue that this lack of parliamentary representation means that all the talk about Ukrainian fascists and the far right is simply Russian propaganda. But this is wrong — at the extra-parliamentary level, the radical nationalists have become much stronger. No party or coalition of liberal NGOs can mobilize so many people on the streets as the Ukrainian nationalists do every year on their key dates. These include the day of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which is now a national holiday in Ukraine (it wasn’t before Maidan), and the birthday of Stepan Bandera (the leader of the Ukrainian nationalists during World War II, and of a movement which conducted ethnic cleansing of the Polish population in western Ukraine, as well as collaborating with the Nazis in the Holocaust). The nationalists gather tens of thousands of people for these rallies, and it’s incomparable to anything that the liberals can mobilize.
The radical nationalists have also acquired arms, and since the start of the war in the Donbass they have formed many of the most prominent volunteer battalions. The most important was Azov, which started as a battalion and is now a regiment. In 2014 these were more like independent, autonomous forces, but gradually the government tried to incorporate them into the official law enforcement structures. Today Azov is officially a regiment within the National Guard. This was “necessary” in order to take at least some control over these units, but also means that we now have ideological nationalists within the official law enforcement structures. This has many dangerous consequences, for example in terms of the police’s treatment of nationalist attacks on minorities — they don’t intervene seriously, and sometimes they even help the nationalists and blame the victims. That’s just one example, and of course this helps cover up the far right’s crimes. Today the deputy chief of the national police is a former neo-Nazi who was Azov’s deputy commander. Having someone in such a high position is obviously an asset for Azov and other radical nationalists.
Some liberals try to argue that the nationalists in Ukraine are not important, that they’re irrelevant, not represented in parliament — compared with the results of forces like the Front National, or Alternative für Deutschland. They say “Just look, Le Pen got over 30 percent in the elections, and Ukrainian nationalists didn’t even manage to get into parliament!” But an obvious question here would be: how many battalions does Le Pen have? None. Here, every more-or-less-important far-right party has an affiliated armed unit, which would be a very important factor in the case of a major political crisis — a resource that they could use, even if not for taking power, then for influencing the composition of the government and the results of elections.
Among liberals there is a strong trend not to recognize the problem, to justify nationalists, to downplay the danger — because otherwise, it would play into the hands of Russian propaganda. This is a very dangerous position which helps to cover nationalist violence. Outrageously, respectable liberal media like BBC Ukraine have given sympathetic reports on a neo-Nazi terror group, C14, whose major activity is harassing and terrorizing opposition journalists, bloggers, and citizens. In 2018 this group initiated a series of attacks on Roma camps. And they long received primarily sympathetic reports, with mainstream journalists trying to justify what they were doing, to find excuses, to say that maybe they are just doing what the state doesn’t — that the state doesn’t repress that “fifth column,” those pro-Russian separatists, so these young “radical patriots” are just doing the job of the state. And of course, this legitimizes even more far-right violence.
This also makes it hard to articulate this problem for a Western audience, because you always get these so-called “friends of Ukraine” who attack you as a Russian propagandist. In fact, when the local opposition to the radical nationalists is so weak in Ukraine, Western NGOs, international organizations, and even Western governments could at least raise the problem of human rights violations. For example, they press Ukraine hard on corruption, and have forced the government to set up a system of anti-corruption institutions. Yet they do not use their leverage to condemn the radical nationalist groups which commit violence against political, gender, and ethnic minorities.
In November that year, you noted that “[the far-right party] Svoboda (as well as the Right Sector) might well criticize the new government not only on nationalist grounds, but also by highlighting a deteriorating economic situation.” Indeed, the far right often combines violent bigotry with a relatively progressive economic stance; it is involved in vicious vigilante attacks on Roma and other minorities but has also managed to gain a reputation for providing practical support to poor communities. Can the Left learn anything here?
First, it’s important to understand that radical nationalists don’t actually have so much popular support. It may seem surprising, but they have more legitimacy within civil society than among Ukrainian society at large — many so-called “Ukrainian liberals” are basically just moderate nationalists. The far-right parties’ electoral support, even if they were to unite, would at best be 5–10 percent. That’s support for the parties — support for some nationalist ideas would be higher. The reason for this low support is that the politics is dominated by much better-resourced oligarchic parties that control the media and have money they can put into electoral campaigns.
In 2014, the oligarchic parties captured their nationalist-patriotic rhetoric; and perhaps it didn’t make so much sense to vote for the radical nationalists if the so-called “centrists” were talking about the same things. The oligarchic parties are also pretty good at capturing social-populist rhetoric. It looks like neither Svoboda nor other far-right parties can propose anything fundamentally different. The major populist now is Yulia Tymoshenko — the most probable winner of the next elections. She’s pretty strong in social populism, criticizing high prices and even talking about stopping cooperation with the IMF. If you have people like this, of very long standing in Ukrainian politics, with resources and some oligarchic backing, then the far right don’t look like they’re proposing anything much different, even if they also talk about social redistribution.
This is also a lesson for the Left. It is often said that in speaking about identity politics the Western left and has forgotten about material socioeconomic issues, and that’s why the far right is winning, as workers start to vote more for radical nationalists and less for leftist parties. Ukraine actually gives another lesson: that the Left must propose a really radical alternative in terms of socioeconomic policies, and not simply some superficial populist demands. These kinds of demands can easily be taken up by the far right, by the right-wing populist parties, and if they can capitalize on their better recognition and resources, and better attitudes from parts of the media, they can outcompete the populist left. So it is important that the Left develop a future-oriented, consistent, progressive-looking agenda for radical social change.
For the Ukrainian left, the lessons of the Latin American left are probably much more relevant than those of the current Western European left. We can’t simply copy tactics and rhetoric from Corbyn or Bernie Sanders, Podemos or Syriza, because these parties are operating in liberal-democratic regimes. The Ukrainian regime is definitely not liberal-democratic — it’s increasingly authoritarian, nationalist, and anticommunist. In this situation, the experience of the Latin American left — fighting pro-American right-wing dictatorships in the 1970s and 1980s, not necessarily in armed struggle but primarily by forming broad democratic fronts — could now be much more relevant for us.
Is there anything that the Ukrainian left in should learn from the far right in terms of grassroots engagement with the poorest Ukrainians?
I’m not sure that engagement with the poorest Ukrainians was really such an important part of the far right’s success. Svoboda at least tried to form front groups to penetrate civil society and meet popular needs through its own ideologically affiliated leisure and cultural organizations. But I’m not sure this has really been so important for their success.
More important has been the far right’s readiness for and skills in violence. Generally, Ukrainian politics before Maidan was very nonviolent. Before 2014 we hadn’t seen anything like, for instance, France’s gilets jaunes protests. This means that two generations of Ukrainians, those born since the 1950s, didn’t have direct experience of massive violent protests. The most violent event in Ukraine before Maidan happened in 2001 during the opposition campaign against the then-president Leonid Kuchma. The clashes lasted for an hour or two, mainly between radical nationalists and the police, and involved at most a few hundred people.
But the radical nationalists had the most experience of violence among all protest groups and ideological currents. They used these skills in the Maidan protests, when opportunities for violent escalation were opened up by both the extraordinary government repression and the moderate opposition’s inability to propose any effective nonviolent strategy against the Yanukovych government. At this moment, the radical nationalists intervened, and because of their skills at violence, their political organization, and radical ideology, they could take up the role of a violent vanguard for the movement. Violence is the most important resource on which their limited popularity and success is based. After Maidan they were ready to go to the war, to form battalions, to fight — and that has also aided their legitimacy within Ukrainian civil society; they are “heroes” fighting for Ukraine.
This readiness for violence was probably much more important than their work with the poorest Ukrainians: I can’t say they even had a consistent strategy for this, or really did anything important.
The poet Serhii Zhadan said recently that in Ukraine, “You can call ‘left-wing’ anybody you don’t like; this is a very good way to hurt somebody.” Indeed, in the discussion in which he was speaking, Oleksandr Sushko, the director of a prominent NGO, sought to equate the “far left” with the far right. Are attempts to discredit the very notion of the Left gaining ground in Ukraine?
Generally, yes. This is indeed a quite popular position in civil society, which is usually strongly anticommunist. When the government started its decommunization policies — renaming streets and cities and dismantling remaining Soviet monuments — there was very little public resistance. These policies laid the basis for banning the Communist Party of Ukraine; the irony with this ban was that the party was neither communist nor dangerous in any way, and was just a very easy scapegoat that nobody would defend. The majority of Ukrainian civil society took for granted that the ban was reasonable, although they had banned a major opposition party — something that should not be done in any democratic polity. This was a party that had got 13 percent of the vote as recently as 2012.
The Left is politically nonexistent right now, and so it becomes a scapegoat, an empty signifier onto which some groups project everything bad. Nationalists very often attack the Left, but by “the Left” they mean anyone who is for human rights, for minority rights, who supports LGBT people. But subjectively most of these people are liberals, often distant from Western leftist parties; they would usually even share in popular conspiracy theories that the Left are pro-Russian and paid by the Kremlin to undermine Western governments.
Given how easy it is in Ukraine for any explicitly left politics to be smeared by association with the country’s Soviet past, should emergent left groups abandon tradition left imagery and language and build a new idiom and aesthetics in which to couch radical social demands?
It’s not a problem only with aesthetics, and it’s not even a problem of the Left’s choices, because communist symbols are now banned, and use of those symbols could be grounds for criminal prosecution. There have indeed been some ridiculous cases where people got two years’ probation — so, a criminal sentence — for writing Soviet-era slogans on Facebook. This is not really systematic, but occasionally it happens.
The ban on the Communist Party has minimized its public activity, and the public activity of other left groups is also pretty minimal. It’s even difficult to have a public event without hiding its physical location; usually, we have a preliminary registration where we try to check the people who want to come to our event, and we send the address only to those people we are sure are not radical nationalists and will not leak the location. So, this is a semiunderground mode of activity.
So, I don’t think that the aesthetics are actually a problem, because even those groups that are trying to be as pro-Ukrainian and as anticommunist as possible, while appealing to left ideas, remain largely unsuccessful — they’re as marginal as the rest of the Left. The problem is probably more general: the repressive political regime, strong right-wing paramilitaries, the lack of resources, the weakness of labor or any other progressive grassroots movements. All this encloses the political left in a marginal niche.
On November 26, a thirty-day period of martial law was declared across a large swath of Ukraine after three of its naval vessels came under fire from Russian ships. How do you interpret the origins of this situation, and will it affect the presidential election, scheduled for March 31?
The incident itself owed either to the stupidity of some of those involved, or to an intentional provocation by the Ukrainian ships, possibly connected to the president. Even if we do not accept the Russian annexation of Crimea, and all its consequences, it doesn’t mean we can ignore the reality of Russian control over the Crimean Peninsula and the adjacent waters of the Black and Azov seas. And here the Ukrainian ships tried to ignore this fact.
Yet the problem is not so much what exactly happened, but how it was used by the president. On the same day, he called for a Security Council meeting, which proposed the introduction of martial law. The next day, parliament didn’t accept the original proposal — martial law over the whole territory of Ukraine for two months — because this would have meant postponing the elections scheduled for March 2019. Indeed, it seems the Western leaders whom Poroshenko consulted were also very concerned at this possibility.
In the end, parliament voted for martial law only for the half of Ukraine adjacent to Russia, to the Black and Azov seas, and to Transnistria — mainly regions in which the majority of citizens have an oppositional attitude and do not support the president.
Some politicians have described this as a victory for the Ukrainian parliament — that it didn’t allow a coup d’etat by the president. But the fact is that martial law in any form was unnecessary, because there were no serious grounds to believe that the threat from Russia would grow. There have been many other cases in recent years where there was a real threat to the Ukrainian army: it suffered serious defeats in 2014 and 2015, and in those cases Poroshenko didn’t call for martial law because he was interested in the elections and in stable financing from the IMF. Now, before the elections, he is suddenly calling for martial law after a relatively marginal incident.
Despite this, a quite large majority in parliament supported a more limited version of martial law. I expected that this would give Poroshenko a strong pretext for further such measures, and incentivize him to escalate matters in Donbass or, better, to conspire in some bloody incident in Odessa or Kharkov. That could really have contributed to the atmosphere of fear. This would also have provided good grounds for postponing elections that Poroshenko now has very little chance of winning. He’s very unpopular — polls tell us he is uncertain to reach the second round, where he would in any case lose to any of his main rivals.
However, he has not yet made such moves. This is most likely because of his dependency on or at least vulnerability to the West, where he keeps some of his own valuable assets. The West sent clear messages against a prolonged state of martial law. And this also suggests that the Kremlin is betting not so much on destabilizing Ukraine as on the victory of politicians friendlier (or less averse) to Russia in the parliamentary elections in autumn 2019 or even in the electoral cycle that follows. Even faced with a perfect opportunity to provoke Poroshenko, feeding a wider mistrust in the president and extra-parliamentary opposition on the streets, it looks like Putin is more interested in the elections.
The current front-runner to be elected Ukraine’s next president is Yulia Tymoshenko. Her positions are rather contradictory: she wants Ukraine to move towards the EU and NATO, but also claims to stand against some elements of IMF-mandated austerity. What should we think of her?
She’s just an opportunist populist. She’s not so much ideologically pro-EU and pro-NATO; she just understands that the core electorate would probably not accept any other geopolitical orientation. She needs to take this line because otherwise Poroshenko would attack her as pro-Russian — as he has actively been doing already. He recalls that in 2009 Tymoshenko made a deal with Putin over natural gas that turned out to be disadvantageous for Ukraine, for which she was imprisoned under the Yanukovych government.
As an example of her opportunism, while she understood the political game Poroshenko was playing, she still voted for martial law. Otherwise, pro-Poroshenko trolls and opinion leaders would have attacked her: “Look, she’s not patriotic, she’s pro-Russian, she’s playing into the Kremlin’s hands,” and so on.
Another problem with Tymoshenko is that she is unpredictable, not only at the level of her views on the EU and NATO. The same concerns her social populist rhetoric. This is an easy way to criticize Poroshenko: nobody wants to pay more for utilities and so on, and obviously most people don’t want austerity — they are poor and do not see many prospects in this country. But that doesn’t mean a Tymoshenko administration will really be more redistributive — definitely not consistently.
But it would still be a good sign if the elections were to happen, and she were able to compete on a more or less free and fair basis. Otherwise, it just means that there is no change, no hope at all. For his part, Poroshenko is now running on very nationalist grounds — his major slogan is “Army, Faith, and Language.” The very possibility of changing the president through elections is important for its own sake, even if Tymoshenko doesn’t look more progressive.
You wrote at the end of 2015 that “The left flank of Ukrainian politics is vacant for now but won’t be for long.” Is this space being occupied again? Are there likely to be any presidential candidates, however marginal, who could reasonably be called ‘progressive’?
No, unfortunately not.
The Communist Party has decided to take part in the elections and will probably try to find some technical way to do this despite the ban. But the same man has been leading the party since 1993 — its unchallengeable leader Petro Symonenko, who has absolutely no chance of winning serious support. Not to mention the question of whether the Communist Party is really progressive — and there are many grounds for believing that they stopped being so many years ago.
Ukrainian politics doesn’t have any left representation. In the current parliament there is not a single left-wing party, however broadly defined. Not even the neoliberal left; not even the opportunist or reformist left. Even more: there is not a single leftist member of parliament.
It looks like this isn’t going to change in the next elections. We’ll see a lot of flirtation with social populism, but this doesn’t imply egalitarian policies. The best outcome would be not a hope for change, but that the country would not collapse in a total state failure after the elections, which is not an impossible outcome — considering the martial law precedent, the probable electoral falsifications, and activity of armed paramilitaries.
This doesn’t give much hope — but I believe that it’s objective. The lack of a hope on the Left means the country is losing a sense of the future. Even if Ukraine and particularly the youth proclaims its pro-Western orientation, it actually stands in contrast to North American and Western European youth who are becoming more and more leftist, while Ukrainian younger generation is more neoliberal and nationalist than the elder people.
You’ve called for the resurgence of an internationalist left in Ukraine. Could such an approach really gain traction in the present political landscape, or should the Left first win back its role as a leading force of Ukrainian nationalism?
The basic problem here is not even the Left’s prospects in Ukraine, but whether the country itself has a future. The state is undermined as social divisions intensify and pull the country apart. This will not likely end up in a Libyan or Syrian-style scenario, but these risks are pretty serious, and this is a potential that must be recognized — something must be done to stop it. Against this background, the question of which kind of left we might have is really rather marginal: there simply isn’t one.
From my personal position, an internationalist left would be better than a nationalist one. But it’s also a problem of the general direction of development of society. Of course, an internationalist left would much more easily connect with the Western European left, with the North American left, speaking to them in the same language and appealing to the same problems. That would obviously be better for the development of Ukraine’s international connections, should progressive parties come to power abroad.
Looking at the global scene, are there any particular social or political movements from which you think a nascent Ukrainian left might draw practical lessons?
As I said, the Latin American left probably has the most relevant lessons for the Ukrainian left. Of course, we need to consider some very important differences between a post-Soviet country and Latin American ones, but at least some of the problems that they have faced — with pro-American authoritarian regimes, with oligarchs, with large inequality, with right-wing paramilitaries sound pretty relevant to what we’re experiencing now, and this is definitely something to which the Ukrainian left needs to pay much more attention.
Developments in the Western left can also serve as an inspiration, showing that not everywhere is headed in a reactionary direction; there are strong political forces, that bear a progressive agenda, that can seriously fight for power. This is itself an important argument for us — that the Left is something legitimate. And, at least for those who look towards Europe as some kind of model, this argument can have some some traction: that these societies have a left, and so should we.
This may sound like a colonial orientation: that we need a left because the West has one. The major point would be, that we need the left for Ukraine’s own future — not just to copy-paste from Western models. If you would like to have this country together, we need some space for leftist politics — without them, the country would probably just disappear. Progressive developments are very unlikely, but the only alternative to it could be Ukraine’s total collapse.