Dimitry Kolesnik is the editor of the Ukrainian left wing website Liva and a leading activist in the Marxist organization Borotba. He attended the World Congress of the International Marxist Tendency in August 2014 in Greece, where he was interviewed by Peter Mikhailenko.
DK: First of all, thank you comrades for your invitation and for your support with the campaign of Solidarity with Anti-fascist resistance in Ukraine.
Borotba is a radical left wing Marxist organization. It was formed in 2011 from a split of the “Organization of Marxists”, former KPU youth members, the youth organization “Che Guevara” along with some individual activists including anarchists and environmentalists. Its aim is the struggle for a socialist Ukraine, with the understanding that the struggle for a socialist Ukraine should be connected with the struggle for a socialist world in general.
Also three years ago, the website “Liva” was created, a left wing website. This involved Borotba and other left-wing activists. We have many aspects we try to cover; including economic, social, politics interviews with various left activists and other well-known people. We translate many articles from modern left thinkers, especially Marxist thinkers and articles that cover current of events from a left-wing perspective.
PM: What do you think triggered the Maidan movement?
DK: Euromaidan started the day after the former president Yanukovich delayed the signing of the free-trade agreement with the EU, which was linked to IMF loans with conditions for imposing austerity measures. The day after, protests started by some layers of society, especially in Western Ukraine, where many people move to Western countries to take on precarious jobs. The media never mentions that the EU association agreement had nothing to do with mobility for Ukrainians in the EU or joining the EU. It was merely a free trade agreement, the kind which was signed with Tunisia, Egypt or Turkey, and many other countries that never joined the EU.
I want to emphasize that some Western-funded NGOs played the main role in organizing the movement. Many of their workers and activists prepared for the protests beforehand. Another important part were the far-right and neo-nazi groups. And just a year ago the Western media was often criticizing these groups; now, suddenly, they seem to be hardly noticing them and are whitewashing them, their participation in the new government along with the austerity measures has been covered by an abstract rhetoric about some “European values”.
Some layers of society were deceived by this rhetoric; others were indignant that the government of Yanukovich was responsible for the fall in living standards.
PM: What was Borotba’s attitude towards the former president Yanukovich?
DK: Borotba was critical towards the Yanukovich regime. We understood and predicted in many articles that his politics were rather dangerous. The corruption with the move to liberal capitalism was something evident in his rule. We had organized many anti-government protests during the years of his regime. So we never backed him; we were anti-government last year and we are anti-government this year.
PM: How did Borotba see the Euromaidan movement? The media clearly played a large role in promoting it. What would you say about its character?
DK: There has been a sociological study recently on the Euromaidan movement that was published even in Ukrainian media like UNIAN. The far-right made up about 25%. The others were either moderate right, like supporters of the Batkyvshina or UDAR parties - these were parties not in coalition with the Yanukovich government. A large part were middle class business owners, who were protesting what they called “creeping nationalization” and corruption because the government had raised taxes on them. Those businessmen who participated in Madian among them were either from Kiev or Western Ukraine (70% of the protestors). In fact, we see how the far-right were seen by the other protestors as heroes and their tactics and slogans were tolerated, and they saw this movement as a chance to impose their agenda.
PM: On what basis did the anti-Maidan movement start? How did the anti-Maidan movement go from anti-government protests to armed rebellion?
DK: Anti-Maidan and current rebel forces are connected. Anti-Maidan was a protest in a park near Maidan, composed mainly of supporters of Yanukovich and his government, because it really had some social base. After the victory of Maidan, the Anti-Maidan camp was destroyed and some days after that, there was a witch-hunt of anti-Maidan protesters. Many of them managed to reach their cities, mostly in south-eastern Ukraine, and began to organize protests at home.
Soon after the victory of Maidan, the far-right organized raids on other cities, toppling Soviet-era statues. This prompted some people to organize 24-hour watches around the statues. And as such, rallies around Lenin monuments served as a base for organizing a new protest movement composed of forces opposing Maidan.
These forces contained supporters of the former government, different left-wing activists, communists (due to the rabid anti-communism of Maidan), some ethnic minorities (mostly Russian but also Romanians, Hungarians, Ruthenians, Greeks…). The attempts to impose a nationalist agenda on a multi-ethnic country inevitably caused the uprising of those minorities. There were also many social-racist statements made by Maidan activists towards industrial workers, especially from Donbass, causing their participation in the rebellion.
PM: There has been a lot of talk in the media calling this rebellion a “Russian invasion”, and there has been a lot of criticism of the leadership of the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Lugansk. How would you characterize the leadership of these republics?
DK: We are speaking about [Donetsk Peoples Republic] DNR and [Luhansk Peoples Republic] LNR as the protest movements in Kharkiv; Odessa and Zaporizhia had different characters. From the leadership of Donbass, we saw the general progressive demands of the people – which in Donbas are characterized by pro-soviet sentiments – and have over the past years developed a specific “Soviet nationality”. Many of those who are characterized as “pro-Russian” actually have pro-soviet sentiments.
As for the leaders, some of them are very conservative, some are Russian nationalists, some are pro-Soviet demanding nationalizations, some were supported by local businessmen who were soon ousted. What we first saw were local deputies who made initiatives to resist Kiev policies. Some like Gubarev entered the local administration building when the crowd stormed it. What I can say about the leadership of the Donbass rebels is that they are there more for their military experience than representing the will of the Donbass people. After the war is stopped, this has a chance of changing. There should be actions held in the regions, because now, the DNR and LNR are various military units that wage war against the government in such conditions that make it impossible to create any kind of real autonomy or republic or federal state.
We recently published an article in Borotba that stated that the leadership should heed the voices of the rank and file rebels or they will be defeated. There were no such no left-wing militants who were able lead the movement when it started. The rebellion can be effective only when it is not connected to one or another national ethic, but to the lower classes in general.
PM: How would you characterize the nature of the current Kiev government and their policies?
DK: We characterize the new government as a coalition of neo-liberals and far-righters. Ukraine has become an outright oligarchic republic, with a semi-dictatorship, where the far right operates with impunity and is used as a tool. The far right gangs are used as tool by the oligarchs to push through their agendas.
We now see that all of the major Ukrainian oligarchs are on the side of the Kiev regime. There were oligarchs appointed as governors in many regions in Ukraine. In such regions as Dnipropetrovsk for example – where Kolomoiskyi was appointed governor – he has funded far-right groups to suppress opponents in his region, and then sent them to suppress the rebellion in Donbas. Effectively he has created a dictatorial fiefdom in the region.
In terms of economics, we immediately saw the escalation of neo-liberal processes, such as the IMF loans. They came with austerity measures attached as a condition, such as freezing of wages, removing subsidies for gas along with other subsidies, rising prices and cuts to social spending. It has recently been announced by Prime Minister Yatsenyuk that the country will undergo the strongest wave of privatization since independence including 38 state mines and many other large industries.
The “Orange revolution” in 2004 and the Euromaidan contained many of the same activists, and we saw after both events the devaluation of the Ukranian currency. The US was constantly pressing Yanukovich to “free” the Ukrainian currency, and what it means is the increase of the real amount of foreign debt.
PM: What are the Russian, US and EU interests in Ukraine?
DK: Those three forces that are present make this, not a conflict of the West against Russia, but a three sided conflict because the US interests and those of the EU are often in conflict. The interest of the EU is the opening of the Ukrainian market for their goods, because the EU is facing an economic crisis and high unemployment. So a new market means some more jobs for the EU. However, Ukraine is one of the poorest post-Soviet countries, so they are not such good buyers of EU goods.
The US interests are a kind of covert war against Russia, moving military bases closer to Russia. And certainly Russia has economic interests connected to its gas, because the majority of Russian state profits come from gas exporting, particularly to EU. Most of these pipelines go through Ukraine, so, by putting a government hostile to Russia in Kiev, the US is simultaneously undermining Russia and the EU. Russia would be left without a large amount of export profits and the EU would be forced to buy gas somewhere else. We have already read that the US is getting ready to export shale gas to EU, in an article in Guardian by Naomi Klein entitled something like “Why US companies are licking their lips over the Ukrainian crisis”. Shale gas from overseas will be more expensive, so here we see an attempt by the US to enlarge their export profits. Also, such companies as Shell and Chevron have started to extract shale gas through fracking in Ukraine as well, and we know that the son of Joe Biden was appointed to the board of a Ukrainian gas company. In the city of Slavyansk, a city with considerable shale gas potential, we saw fracking equipment being brought in immediately after the rebels were forced to flee the city.
As for Russia, they are interested in having a “friendly” neighbor and an ally in the political sphere, in preserving their naval base in Crimea and their customs union, through which they are trying to attract Ukraine and other post-soviet countries into their own sphere of economic influence.
PM: In what way is Russia supporting the rebels and what are their interests in this rebellion?
DK: First of all, we have to understand that Russia is not only Putin, but in fact, the interests of a number of oligarch clans; and Putin as any president or national leader, is the voice of those that put him in power. There are also tensions inside the Russian government. Some of them are seeking some kind of peaceful agreement with the US and EU, and others are more belligerent.
Russian policy toward the rebels is not always completely logical. Russia actually denounced the Ukrainian government and their attacks on the rebels. Officially Russia does support them, and there are also many volunteers among the rebels, although it has to be said that Russian nationalists have been fighting on both sides of the conflict.
The rebels are supported by initiatives of some Russian businessmen, but Russia remains very suspicious of the rebels, mainly because a significant part of them are pro-socialist and pro-soviet oriented. They demand nationalization…they can be a threat to Russia because such sentiment can easily spread among the Russian population and can resonate among workers in Russia.
PM: So would you say that there is significant anti-oligarch sentiments among the rebels?
DK: Yes, as I said all of the Ukrainian oligarchs are on the side of the Kiev government. Because of such sentiments, Putin’s government cannot elaborate a clear position towards the rebels, as there are still tensions within the government itself, and it is not clear how radicalized they will be an example to the Russian people.
PM: What are the perspectives for the Kiev government going forward? Will they be able to consolidate their power, given the austerity measures, the rebellion and the mothers’ and wives’ movement against mobilization?
DK: The prospects for the Kiev government are rather gloomy for several reasons. Firstly, it does not have the support of a majority of the country. This is why the overthrow of the former government was needed as the forces that came to power could not do remove it by democratic means. We had elections scheduled for the beginning of 2015, but the opposition to Yanukovich understood that they needed his overthrow to come to power. They can rely mostly on far-right gangs that suppress any kind of opposition to the government including that coming from the mothers’ and wives’ anti-war movement. This is why these gangs are armed and funded, because without them, the government would not stay in power. If they were not so important, then they would be disarmed, as they serve as a justification for Russian propaganda.
Secondly, it is rather risky to maintain a policy of austerity measures, social cuts, devaluation of currency, price hikes, oppression of minorities, attacks on communists, leftists. We know that such a policy is risky for any government because it will inevitably meet resistance from various layers of society. The Ukrainian budget is empty as has been recently announced by the Prime Minister. The Russian market for Ukrainian goods is closed meaning the absence of the main source of profit.
Moreover, the current Ukrainian government is also not homogeneous. Apart from the far-right groups and parties like the Radical Party of Oleg Lyashko, Svoboda, and Right Sector, there are tensions among the oligarchs themselves. Last week we saw tensions and mutual accusations among the supporters of media outlets linked to Poroshenko and Kolomoiskyi. Even if the south-east rebels are defeated, we will see the next stage of conflict among the so-called oligarch “winners”.
We have seen protests and social uprisings all over Ukraine. We have seen protests of fired workers and doctors against social cuts. At the same time, we have seen the soldiers’ wives’ and mothers’ protests, who simply do not want them to be killed. We recently heard a mother in Chernivtsi say on television that “we were not the ones who started Maidan, let those that did go to the war”.
Also, because the budget is almost empty, Ukraine has to rely on American and Western support for the war, which could lead to protests in those countries. They will have to ask why their budget is being diverted to a civil war in Ukraine.
The state is even forcing its soldiers to buy medicine with their own money.
PM: Describe the increase of censorship by the current government and the persecution of their opponents such as Borotba? What are the perspectives for Borortba and how could people from outside Ukraine help the cause in Ukraine?
DK: Borotba as well as all other oppositional forces have faced repression as well as a kind of far-right terror… this included the Communist Party and other kinds of “left” groups and organizations. The Borotba office in Kiev was raided by far-right thugs. Borotba activists were attacked and beaten at Euromaidan. Due to the strong anti-communist sentiments and the impunity for the far-right gangs roaming the streets, any kind of left or communist activist can be attacked, beaten, arrested, or murdered.
After the raids on the offices in Kiev, Borotba had to move its main offices to Kharkov and participated in the protests there, with many workers and youth joining these movements. This lead to attacks by state security forces; there were searches of Borotba offices, attacks on Borotba members by far-right thugs during the rallies. Denis Levin was almost kidnapped at a rally in Kharkov by men in black from the neo-nazi Social National Assembly, but some people at the rally managed to release him. There were attacks on other activists and many of them had to move underground. At the Odessa massacre on May 2nd, Andrey Brazhevsky from Borotba and a communist youth member were among those killed. Many of the protesters who survived the massacre were put into prison.
Borotba activists who managed to escape their arrests have fled, although some activists have remained. Borotba is now preparing for the next wave of protests. Comrades in exile are organizing political schools for political refugees. In Ukraine, in the conditions of illegality, it is very hard to develop the work.
We are very thankful for any kind of support. We would like to see protests against fascist terror and persecution of left groups in Ukraine. The Ukrainian government actually depends very much on Western countries, and protests in those countries can go towards helping the stopping of the bombing of Donbas and the persecution of left activists. We would also like to see the solidarity movement disrupt the wall of lies by the Ukrainian media by telling the people in the West the truth. The mainstream media is all corporate media and have the same interests as western corporations. There are some flashes of truth in BBC or Al-Jazeera, but these are only flashes.
We also need help in the political education of those refugees and even some comrades that under are threat may need to be evacuated from Ukraine. But I emphasize that the main aspect is the enlargement of the campaign of anti-fascist solidarity in order to put pressure on Western governments.
PM: On behalf of the IMT, I would like to thank you for attending our congress and raising the understanding of the situation in Ukraine among all of the comrades here. What message would you send to the comrades of the IMT?
DK: I am very thankful to the comrades from the IMT involved in the anti-fascist solidarity campaign. It was rather useful for me to be at the congress of IMT not only to talk about the situation in Ukraine, but also to learn from various countries around the world, not only about their situation, but also the prospects of left-Marxist groups in those countries. I found that on Ukraine and many other questions in the world perspectives that were discussed and the current state in the development of capitalism, our positions mostly coincide.
We wish for the comrades from the IMT to be prepared in advance for the turbulence that will come around the world; to raise the political consciousness of workers and lower classes in those countries so they are not diverted into nationalist and fascist direction. I would like the comrades from the IMT to be prepared for developments like the ones in Ukraine, but the comrades from the IMT and all of us need to work hard on this. We understand that this is not an easy task, but I once again thank the comrades for all of their work so far.
PM: Thank you very much Dmitri.
August 2, 2014, Greece