Interview with Volodymyr Ishchenko, Deputy Director of the Center for Society Research in Kiev (28 February)
On Thursday, 27 February, Norbert Hagemann – accredited assistant of MEP Helmut Scholz (GUE/NGL) – organized a Round Table discussion on the Ukrainian crisis together with the Transnational Institute (Amsterdam) and the Institute for Globalization Studies and Social Movements (Moscow). Actors of the European civil society, including transform! europe, met with analysts from Ukraine and Russia and discussed the situation, as well as the challenges faced by the country. A focus was given to the Ukraine-EU Free Trade Agreement, abandoned by ex-President Yanukovych shortly before the Eastern Partnership Summit in Vilnius but which should soon be put back at the top of the political agenda by the new Ukrainian government.
Volodymyr Ishchenko*, from the Social Protests Research Department of Kiev, responded to our questions and provided us with key insights on the political situation of Ukraine.
Maxime Benatouil: What root causes explain that such large parts of the population joined the protests, on Maidan and elsewhere?
Volodymyr Ishchenko: First, let me tell you that the protests weren’t exclusively initiated by the students. It is a quite widespread misperception. The first protests were launched by various groups: journalists, civic activists, and students. All these groups share a common European dream, a very deep-rooted idea that Europe has the solution to Ukraine’s problems. To them, it means: more democracy, more justice, less corruption and a better welfare. This is a very old idea, well-anchored in Eastern European societies. Ever since the 19th century, there has been a will to catch up with Western Europe. Many Ukrainians still think that way. I would say that it is a naive perception of what the EU could bring to the country. Most of the people have no idea of the harsh implications of a Free Trade Agreement for the Ukrainian economy and its potentially disastrous consequences on the industrial sector.
Is the so-called “language border” a relevant factor to explain the tendencies within the Ukrainian society either leaning towards the Maidan protest or rejecting it?
There are still many divides in Ukraine: geographical divide, language divide, religion divide, etc. There is even a divide over memories, especially regarding the situation of the country during World War II. The divides correspond to different electoral attitudes. If the language factor is indeed dividing, one cannot say that all Russian speakers don’t support Maidan for example. But let me add that, in the Western part of the country and in Kiev, Yanukovych was never seen as a legitimate representative. There is a lot of social chauvinism: he was considered as a man from a little industrial area close to Russia.
The far-right party “Svoboda” and the neo-Nazi movement “Right Sector” played a central role in the revolution by protecting the protesters from police brutalities. In your opinion, can the prestige they gained be translated into political power?
Yes. Svoboda got concrete political positions in the new government. The vice-Prime minister belongs to the party, so do the new Minister of defense and Minister of agriculture. And I could go on with the examples… The party was rewarded for organizing the defense of Maidan. Regarding the “Right Sector”, there were suggestions that they will get representatives in the new Ministry of defense and the security service. It’s not clear yet. But three months ago, no one in Ukraine knew about their existence – apart from experts on radical right movements and small leftist groups countering them on the streets. The “Right Sector” is a plural organization gathering ultra-nationalists defending the legacy of Bandera and even more radical neo-Nazis groups. Now, to the public opinion of Western Ukraine, its members are the heroes of the revolution. People show them a very deep respect. They are slowly discovering that the “Right Sector” is against parliamentary democracy, liberal principles and is promoting very conservative values. But still, they are generally excused because of their “heroic” actions on Maidan.
Where does the Left in today’s Ukraine stand?
For the people who supported Maidan, the Communist Party is highly discredited and is seen as part of the former regime. They are paying the price of the support they gave to the Party of Regions. There are currently discussions in the Parliament about a ban of both the Party of Regions and the Communist Party. Not the ban of the communist ideology as such – which would be terrible for the left ideas and the further development of a new left movement in Ukraine. This movement consists of many small left groups. They are lacking of unity, to say the least. Some of them tried to participate in Maidan or in the charity activities on the occupied areas, also helping people not to get injured. Others criticize the whole Maidan movement in its essence. For now, they are too weak to play any significant political role. But I’m quite optimistic for the future. First, we need to create a united left organization to be able to push efficiently for a Leftist agenda in Ukrainian politics. With such a united left force, we could positively meet the imperatives of the forthcoming social anger that the neoliberal policies of the recently formed government will cause in a near future. People will again take to the streets. But if the left movements don’t unite, only the far-right movements will benefit from this anger.
What could come out of the next presidential election scheduled for May 2014?
The situation in Crimea will determine the stability of the political transition. It is a very sensitive issue for the Ukrainians as a whole. If the situation deteriorates, the nationalism on both sides will increase dangerously. Many things can happen before May: a war, a civil conflict… The nationalist feelings will definitely arise amongst the Western Ukrainians, and quite probably also in the Eastern part of the country where people might not object to a self-determination of Crimea. Before the beginning of the events in Crimea, I would have said that there will be two competitors for the Western electorate – Tymoshenko and Klytshko – and that a unifying figure will arise in the Eastern part of the country to represent its specific interests. This would have led to difficult elections with contentious results. But the crisis in Crimea changes everything. People of Western Ukraine won’t let their sovereignty on Crimea fade away: they will have strong demands for nationalist candidates. The nationalists might play even a larger role.
* Volodymyr Ishchenko is a Ukrainian sociologist studying social protests. He is the Deputy Director at the Center for Society Research in Kiev, and editor of COMMONS: Journal of Social Criticism.