Pilash: “Trapped… in a vicious circle”

16 03 2014
The following interview with Denis Pilash of the Left Opposition in Kyiv was carried out by SYRIZA (the Greek “Coalition of the Radical Left”). It was passed onto me by Marko Bojcun and can be read here in full. As it hasn’t been printed anywhere else yet (to my knowledge), I am sharing it here in full.

Question: The European Union has started a game that it is not able to finish. It (EU) couldn’t predict the reaction of Moscow?

Answer: People of Ukraine are trapped between Western and Russian imperialism but Ukrainian elite is itself an enough cynical player at this chessboard. And I’m not sure whether the EU started this game on its own. The ousted president Yanukovich, just as president Kuchma a decade ago, hesitated between pro-Western and pro-Russian orientation, but generally was convenient to both sides (for instance, his legacy includes endorsing Shell for eco-dangerous shale gas drilling in Ukraine). His Party of Regions went on elections with slogans oriented on pro-Russian electorate, but in 2013 his government switched to an official campaign in favour of the free trade / association agreement with the EU (). While finances and debt were deteriorating, Ukraine found itself under pressure of both IMF and Kremlin. Its leadership (Yanukovich and prime minister Azarov) canceled the prepared signing of the EU agreement hoping to get money from Russia.

This is the point when the so-called ‘Euro-Maidan’ protests started. Two decades of brainwashing about the ‘paradise in the EU’ created in many clusters of Ukrainian society an idealized view of European integration as a solution to all problems (but some support it from a quite pragmatic point – huge amount of unemployed Ukrainians work in the EU). It was paradoxical how protestors, many of whom were driven by rage caused by social injustice and economic inequality, manifested under EU banners while throughout the EU people protesting for similar reasons burn these flags! However, it seemed like the Euro-Maidan would decline and disseminate on its own until the government showed itself foolish enough to disperse it with brutal force thus shifting the main message of anti-government protests from enthusiasm for EU association to condemnation of police violence and Yanukovich’s arbitrary rule.

So this stage of protests was apparently less ‘pro-EU’ though different political actors from EU (be it Rebecca Harms, Carl Bildt, or Baroness Ashton) tried to intervene and use the situation to push their own interests.  However, there wasn’t some steady ‘EU plan’ behind the events, and their proposals were rather moderate compared with the final outcome. And since the protests turned to violent clashes with riot police after the adoption of repressive 16 January laws limiting freedom of speech and protest then, events in Ukraine were surely out of control of EU, Russia, US, or any other. Russian TV channels can be full of commentaries from Western fascists and conspiracy theorists (from Marine Le Pen to Lindon LaRouche) claiming contrary but people on Maidan weren’t mobilized and controlled by the EU.

As to the reaction of Moscow, it wasn’t predictable at all. A transparent approach from Russia would require joining its European counterparts, Ukrainian government, opposition and civil society in early tackling the crisis at round tables; instead Moscow chose to broker behind-the-scenes agreements with unclear provisions.

Question: Even if the EU was able to “play stronger,” it seems to be trapped between its geopolitical and economic interests? (= because of its economic relations with Russia, the EU is not willing to oppose harder to Putin)

Answer: Exactly. The reason why the EU (especially its main powers, Germany and France) is delaying the moment to impose economic sanctions is because they will affect its economic ties with Russia. Russia may be not the main trade partner but it’s important in supplying gas and oil. Ironically, it’s precisely Gazprom that makes the most obvious gains in Crimea – it’s going to privatize the local petroleum resources.

Question: How does Washington see its role in Ukraine (and the region in general) at this moment? What are the differences between the Republicans and the Democrats (concerning the US policy towards Ukraine)?

Answer: Being a staunch opponent of the US foreign policy, especially of their intervention to Latin American affairs, I have to notice that Washington didn’t play any important role in Ukrainian regime change, contrary to widespread cliché.

Obama and Kerry seem to combine seeking for diplomatic resolution with play on oil prices and other economic parameters sensitive to Russia. I’d attribute this not only to less aggressive politics of Democratic administration but also to the crisis of the US global hegemony. In the 2008 Russian offensive, Republicans were unable to effectively back their Georgian clients, so Democrats try to be less belligerent in their speeches but more clever in actions. Ultimately, the main points of the 2 parties are pretty the same. Lots of observers, in Ukraine and abroad, spoke extensively on John McCain visit to Maidan in December; however, few noticed that the old Republican warmonger was, in full accord, accompanied by another US senator – Chris Murphy – who is considered one of the most liberal Democrats.

In more general approach towards the region, that Republicans are eager to rely exclusively at pro-American East European governments to counterweight both Russia and Germany/France while Democrats agree at more complex solutions satisfying interests of multiply powers. Therefore during ongoing crisis even Brzezinski, the hawkish advisor to Democrats, warned Ukrainians from joining NATO and proposed Finland-style neutrality instead. I’m afraid, however, that new Ukrainian establishment facing Russian military threat will intensively pull Ukraine towards NATO membership. So it’s an important task for anti-war activists to prevent Ukraine’s submission to any military bloc.

Question: How important for Russia are Crimea and eastern Ukraine? How far do you believe that Putin will go?

Answer: Putin is quite hypocritical when claims Russian troops in Crimea are defending Russian-speakers, compatriots etc. It’s an open intervention, and a very adventurous one. Yes, Ukrainian ultranationalists’ activity and failures of new Kiev leadership (like revoking the almost nonfunctional bill on regional languages – but not ‘banning Russian’ as is reported in pro-Kremlin sources) contributed to counter-protests in the (Russian-speaking) Southern and Eastern Ukraine. But the formal pretext of Russian invasion was forged and it’s a clear violation of international law. I support the right of self-determination but I can’t support a referendum carried out in a rush and at the point of bayonets.

Previously, many saw a war between Russians and Ukrainians less possible than, say, US and Canada. We used to be fraternal peoples but these actions seriously raise the menace of a war. In my opinion, the unanimous voting in the Federation Council providing President Putin the right to deploy Russian forces in Ukraine, was the major step towards this disaster. What’s even worse, nobody can predict how far the situation will deteriorate; violent clashes between Russia’s supporters and opponents occur in eastern regions of Ukraine.

On the other hand, interests of Russia’s ruling class correspond with a relatively smooth capture of Crimea (with its Russian community and Sevastopol naval base) not a full-scale war for eastern Ukraine. Industrial cities of Kharkov, Donetsk and Dnepropetrovsk located there still have lots of Soviet-era factories (owned mainly by Ukrainian bourgeoisie) but, in reality, Ukraine, one of the poorest countries in Europe, isn’t too economically attractive for any foreign power. Russian intervention in Crimea seeks rather symbolic and irrational long-term aims of ‘re-establishing Russian empire’, and leads to dangerous race of nationalisms in both states: in Ukraine it gives even more legitimacy to the far right and its paramilitaries, in Russia thousands are forcefully driven to pro-intervention rallies while socialists and pacifists (even an old Leningrad siege survivor) are attacked and arrested for attending anti-war rallies. That’s why we need an international anti-war solidarity campaign like in 2003 against US-led invasion to Iraq.

Question: What are the latest reactions of the people in Kiev towards the temporary government? Who is winning in Ukraine: one group of oligarchs, fascists, EU, USA, Russia…?

Answer: Ordinary people in Kiev who overwhelmingly supported the Maidan protests against the corrupt and increasingly authoritarian Yanukovich are divided in relation to the temporary government. Some succumb to the patriotic hysteria and turn blind eye on the misdoings of the new authorities; but others feel betrayed by the politicians who used their uprising and death of more than 100 people (including an anarchist) killed by snipers to get into power. Many are definitely discontented with the composition of the government: they demanded it not to include the wealthiest or unprofessional people but it did. They say, at the core of the system, little has changed.

Under Yanukovich, neoliberal reforms were launched in pension system, healthcare and education. Now Yatsenyuk, the new premier, calls for austerity and agrees to all IMF demands regarding increasing fees and cutting pensions in order to get the credit. Under Yanukovich, the political system was under the control of the wealthiest oligarchs like Akhmetov, Firtash, Pinchuk, and the ruling Party of Regions represented their interests. Now the oligarchs just switched their allegiance and remained; two of them, Kolomoysky and Tatuta, were appointed governors to Dnepropetrovsk and Donetsk respectively and use restrictive measures to suppress discontent. Only one oligarch, Firtash, was detained – interestingly, not by Ukrainian authorities but by FBI in Vienna. So, in fact, groups of oligarchs still are the main force dominating in Ukraine. Contrary to Bosnian protests, even grassroots movements in Ukraine weren’t ready to demand recall of privatization protests.

Maidan was a contradictory mass movement not a ‘fascist coup’; but it really included strong far right elements (Svoboda, a party with 10% vote on last national elections, and Right Sector, a coalition of barely known fascist movements). Their militants still patrol some streets; Svoboda got several secondary posts in the mainly Batkivshchyna (Timoshenko-led party without clear ideology) government (now it’s an ‘EU-tolerant fascist party with ministers’ like LAOS was) – but it’s surely not the dominant force there. They joined the protest though being hostile to almost all proclaimed aims of the movement – political democracy, parliamentary republic, European integration (Svoboda even opportunistically started endorsing joining EU though its notorious foreign partners – National Front in France, National Democratic Party in Germany, Golden Dawn in Greece – are very Eurosceptical). At the other hand, they shared anti-Russian sentiment and tried to impose on the movement their own agenda and symbols: red and black banner of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, chants ‘Glory to Ukraine’ and (more extreme and rejected by Maidan majority) ‘Death to enemies’, fierce anti-communism leading to destruction of monuments dedicated to Lenin. These dubious actions triggered by the Nazis naturally alienated the population of Eastern and Southern parts of Ukraine. Polls show that popular support of the two far right presidential candidates, Tyahnybok and Yarosh, is now below 2-3% each. But open neo-Nazis, namely C14 (affiliated with Svoboda) and SNA (part of Right Sector), remain a real threat. Nazis have repeatedly attacked left-wing activists and venues in last years, the previous government turned blind eye on their violence and even promoted Svoboda as a counterweight to mainstream opposition; in fact, nothing has changed dramatically for anti-fascists.

Question: Should the Ukrainian people choose a side in this imperial game? (Is Putin really protecting the interests of the Russian speaking Ukrainians or…)

Answer: Certainly not. Ukrainian people shouldn’t side with governments neither in the West nor in the East; instead, they have to find their own way. But first, they need to overcome the vicious circle of oligarchs and fascists (both Ukrainian and pro-Russian). All Ukrainian parties are on the right; they are economically pro-capitalist, socially conservative and try to draw the social unrest away from the enormous cleavage between the narrow group of oligarchs and the working majority to different identity conflicts on the ground of language, ethnicity or historical memory.

The trade unions are weak, and there is no genuine left force to represent the working class. Parliamentary ‘Communist’ party, a recent loyal satellite of the bourgeois Party of Regions, is communist in name only. It’s time for small new left initiatives like Left Opposition, Direct Action student union or Commons journal to propose a clear socialist alternative so that Ukrainians could join SYRIZA and other left movements throughout Europe against neoliberal austerity and nationalist prejudice; after all, Ukraine is not only Bandera’s birthplace but also Makhno’s and Trotsky’s.

As to the international support, as Nikolas Kozloff, a progressive expert on Latin America, pointed out: ‘The left must continue to critique U.S. foreign policy while seeking out, identifying, and providing solidarity for progressive elements which are resisting Putin in both Russia and Ukraine’. And this is the point where Greeks could give Ukrainians a good lesson of class solidarity and struggle.



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