Vitaliy Dudin is a member of the Left Opposition in Kyiv and pro bono lawyer for the independent trade union Zakhyst Pratsi (Defence of Labour). In this interview, given on the eve of Ukraine’s presidential election last month, Dudin says the country’s workers have to unite against the oligarchs in whatever region they live.
Recorded in Kyiv on 24 May and translated by Marko Bojcun
Q. How do you characterise the politics towards Ukraine of the Russian Federation on the one hand and of the USA and the European Union on the other, if indeed you consider the latter to be a united bloc?
A. The politics of the Russian Federation towards Ukraine is particularly aggressive. It is exerting such pressure that accordingly legitimizes any actions taken by the USA. Everyone who is more or less aware of the situation here can see the Russian Federation is attacking human rights and the rights of workers in particular. And so this state is viewed as an authoritarian, pro-fascist state. We know what a powerful neo-nazi movement is active in Russia, and when they caricature and accuse Ukraine of fascism this is absolutely unconvincing coming from the mouth of the Putin regime, which is not constrained by any values. This is an aggressive, imperialist power both towards its own citizens and towards Ukraine. It is intervening today into the affairs of Ukraine. It has annexed Crimea in defiance of international law.
As for the USA, we should note it now has a carte blanche to strengthen its influence in Ukraine because it can appear as the peacemaker which wants to save Ukraine from Russian aggression. While at the same time it asserts its own priorities, to get Ukraine to implement neo-liberal economic reforms and to push Ukraine towards membership in NATO or tighter integration with NATO.
Q. How would you characterise the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s republics?
A. The so-called Donetsk People’s Republic is an artificial creation supported solely by the arms of the people who control its territory. There has been no legitimate referendum which can fully express the will of the people living there. Resting on the small number of votes they actually canvassed they are attempting to strengthen their influence. They are strengthened by the Russian agents working on the territory of the Donetsk and Luhansk republics.
I cannot regard these creations as progressive. Their class essence is directed against the toilers of Ukraine, leading to a split between the toilers of the east and the rest of Ukraine. While we should be uniting our forces against the neoliberal government of Ukraine which collaborates with the oligarchs they are proposing to isolate themselves. In no way can that serve the interests of the workers’ movement.
Q. What do you think of the claim that these republics are creatures of the old Yanukovych regime, that they were initiated to save the old regime when it became clear it was collapsing here in Kyiv?
A. This separatist movement is based on three supports. First the revanchism of Yanukovych and of the Party of Regions’ structures which reside on this territory. Second, the real influence of the Russian Federation and its agents. And third, there is a protest from below by members of the lumpen proletariat and by some public sector workers who are dissatisfied with the imposition of austerity policies at a time when everything is rosy for the oligarchs. These are the three key forces, and unfortunately the last one, third, is the weakest. And so the influence of social demands on the further development of this movement is not apparent.
Q. Does the Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) of the Kyiv government help or hinder the stabilisation of the situation in the eastern oblasts?
A. It was clear to me from the very start that the ATO is a bloody adventure (avantiura), fruitless, but fostering a split in Ukrainian society. The methods by which the ATO has been implemented shows that the people carrying it out don’t want to solve the problem but to aggravate it. Rather than abandoning its anti-social orientation this government has started saying that the people living in the eastern regions are not patriotic enough. Instead of sitting down right away to negotiations they took to mounting aggressive military actions.
And as a result the conviction arose among people in the east that they really are fighting a fascist regime supported by the oligarchs which doesn’t want to enter into negotiations with them but which threatens them with force in the same way as Yanukovych did. The words “ultimatum”, “terrorists” and “restoring order” are the typical words used by Yanukovych. And the new government quickly turned to the same approach as Yanukovych’s and thinks it has the right to dictate to everyone with the use of force.
If you read the messages of the Cabinet of Ministers on the site Uriadoviy kurier (Government courier) in March and April this year, or the statements coming from the Verkhovna Rada (Parliament) or (Acting President) Oleksandr Turchynov, you will find only the language of ultimatums.
I also take the view that this military operation could have been carried out much more effectively at the very beginning of the crisis, in March, had it been directed against individual separatist leaders. But it subsequently became clear that they really need to deepen the crisis so as to be able to steer the society more firmly. So that the society seeing this big threat of separatism and pro-Russian terrorism could be more easily manipulated.
We have many casualties now, terrible losses for the population. We have our government taking in volunteers from neo-nazi groups to serve in the armed forces’ campaign in the east. And later these same armed forces will be used to enforce order on the streets of towns and cities across Ukraine.
Q. What position do you as socialists take towards the Kyiv government, bearing in mind that Ukraine is under threat from the Russian Federation?
A. In order to correct its course we should consistently criticise this government, pointing out that this government objectively expresses the interests of the oligarchs. At the same time we stand opposed to the Russian Federation’s covetous desires. We don’t want to be liberated by Russian tanks and automatic rifles. The working people of Ukraine alone, carrying forward their struggle on all fronts through their own organisations, trade unions and parties, should work out the problems of their own government.
As for its legitimacy, our government is just as legitimate as the government of Yanukovych was. And it is just as illegitimate, too, because it doesn’t represent the people. And by what procedures power was taken, well that doesn’t concern us that much. Some people protest that Yanukovych was driven out illegally; such people simply justify in advance the terrible human costs that would have been incurred had he not been ejected by revolutionary means. There was no other way to deal with the old regime.
For the new government to claim to be representative there must be parliamentary elections conducted in a democratic way. It should include lowering the threshold of electability (for party lists elected on a proportional basis) to 1 percent so that all new political forces which appeared on the wave of the Maidan can take part in the legitimization of the new government authority.
Second, limits on election funding and the provision of some public funding are needed so that all candidates have equal opportunity, so that the truth wins out and not those with the greatest wealth. And the voters must have the right to recall the deputies they elect, including parliamentary deputies. And then we can say our government is truly becoming more democratic. Today it differs little from the Yanukovych regime. So whether we support it or not, it nevertheless exists.
And I will say once again that the Russian Federation has no right at all to make any assessment of our government. I am not saying that all the arguments being made by the Russian Federation should be taken as lies. No, there really is some truth there: they do say that the Ukrainian government is working with neo-nazis. And there is the Svoboda party, which itself is not completely neo-fascist, but is ultra-conservative and nationalist. This party has pro-fascists elements in it who work with European and Russian neo-nazis. The Russian Federation is right when it says the oligarchs and the neo-nazis co-operate in the Ukrainian government. But that doesn’t mean we can improve the situation by returning to the Yanukovych regime.
Q. Can the presidential elections bring anything positive? Will they bring democratic legitimacy to the government? Are there any candidates you support?
A. As far as law making is concerned these elections will bring about a stabilisation. There will be less doubt on the part of the European Union and the criticisms of the Russian Federation will be less convincing. Because, after all, a president will have been elected according to the rules.
I think that Petro Poroshenko will win, possibly even in the first round. We cannot support him because his victory will require the entire country to work for the wealth of one person. Possibly, it will lead to a clearer recognition on the part of workers of their own class interests because they will see that “the state cares not for us”, as the Internationale says (“Держава дбає не про нас”). Perhaps the class character of the state will become clearer for people to see, that by their work they are enriching the oligarchs.
At this point in time, however, it is hard to understand who in fact is directing our state. So when there is less chaos than now, when we have a clear relationship between the people (narod) and the president, then we will have a more conscious and predictable political struggle. The completion of the presidential elections will objectively foster better conditions for the birth of a workers’ movement. Regardless of how reformist this may sound the conditions we live in today are very unfavourable. The chaos works against us.
Q. Are there any signs of a rebirth of the workers movement in Ukraine today?
A. There is hope for such a movement. Those people who went through the Maidan now know they can influence developments in society. But they also see that this revolution brought them no results. They can now apply the experience they gained on the Maidan to advance their own interests.
And some focal points have appeared – Kryvyj Rih is one of them, where the miners were the majority of the activists on their Maidan. That core of activists fought the criminal gangs and the police who were sent against them. We can also see a new centre of the independent workers’ movement appearing in Krasnodon. In Kyiv, too, there have been actions by tram workers for social and economic demands, including payment of their wages in arrears. They were supported by the leftists, and not by any of the bourgeois parties.
We can see that the people are tired of simply being the spectators of political games played by the bourgeois elites. On the other hand, the separatists and the banderivtsi (Ukrainian nationalists) see no particular advantage for themselves in these actions by workers. We would like to believe that people will indeed stop being passive observers of this conflict, and will become the makers of decisions that they themselves require.
When the Yanukovych regime was still in place there were illusions about its pro-Russian disposition, because indeed there were times like last December when it did display such a disposition and other times when it did not… Indeed, his pro-Russian disposition figured in his election to the presidency in 2010, and his period in office thereafter was considered to have been dominated by the pro-Russian vector. And that restrained the independent workers movement: people thought they were impoverished because our state was pro-Russia, not because the oligarchs were in power. And if the state became pro-Ukrainian then things would get better.
But our new president will be an oligarch and the whole system of power will have a more clearly visible liberal and pro-oligarchic character. And the task of he leftists is to carry the fight to that state which is hostile to the workers’ interests.
Q. Tell us about the most recent developments in Kryviy Rih.
A. We can’t say it’s the most favourable time for the development of the workers’ movement because the Russian intervention leads everything to be divided up into black and white. This is very good for the Ukrainian oligarchs who are defending Ukraine’s independence. War is good for them: war means new state orders, and tenders that take place with just one bidder. Kolomoyskiy, Poroshenko and company are getting access to billions of public money for the goods they supply to the Ukrainian army. Some people portray them as though they are doing good deeds. In reality, however, they are taking care of their own economic interests. In these conditions many people are convinced we should not bother them or impede their class interests because no matter how tough it is for the workers we should all keep sailing along in the same boat.
Indeed we came across such an illustration after the Kryviy Rih miners’ first action when Mykhailo Volynets, leader of the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KFPU) announced that the main enemy is Russian capital in the form of the corporation EVRAZ controlled by Roman Abramovich, the Russian billionaire. Naturally, we don’t accept that position because the workers’ movement will only succeed if it stands up for class interests, not political ones. And the workers in all the mines should be fighting together for proper working conditions everywhere. The oligarchs should share what they have. Then there will be no reasons for civil conflict.
We cannot preserve their wealth and at the same time materially benefit the workers. And that’s why there are wars. Because the people do not appear today as an independent political force. They are pitted one against the other: they are recruited as soldiers either to the pro-Russian terrorists or to pro-Ukrainian self defense forces. That means this terrible situation will persist.
We believe its impossible to divide oligarchs into good and bad ones. And that’s why we supported the actions of the Kryviy Rih miners who demanded doubling the wages of workers both at the enterprises owned by the Russian multi-billionaire Roman Abramovich and at the iron ore enrichment plant owned by Akhmetov and Kolomoiskiy. The owner of the enrichment plant declared that he was raising wages by 20 percent, and so the workers, he said, should back off. But that concession was forced out of him. It doesn’t mean the oligarchs have recognized the justice of the workers’ demands. They just want to improve their image. Their profits are growing even faster now; they sell their production for dollars, whose value has almost doubled in the exchange rate with the hryvnia (Ukrainian currency). At the same time the real income of the workers is falling because they are paid in hryvnia.
So let’s be honest here, there needs to be same radical demands put on all the oligarchs and the benefits should go to all their workers. We are for co-operation with the Confederation of Free Trade Unions (FNPU) and the Independent Union of Miners of Ukraine (NPHU). We recognise their leaders as they were democratically elected. But the priority for us is to take account of the wishes of the work collectives, the actual members of the union. And we expect that the leaders will develop positions that accord with those of their base organisations. We have instances today where the rank and file workers are more pro-active than their leaders. It sometimes happens the other way around as well. However, we in the Left Opposition are committed to working with the rank and file.
Q. Tell us about the situation in Western Ukraine.
A. Developments in Western Ukraine give us some cause for optimism. People are fed up with Svoboda. They can see that the nationalist ideology don’t allow them to resolve the problems faced by their communities. They give them populist slogans and nothing more. People are beginning to realise en masse that they need an alternative, and more and more movements are appearing to challenge the corruption practiced by officials belonging to Svoboda, and their xenophobia which is splitting the country.
Q. Where are there signs of opposition to Svoboda?
A. In Lviv, a left nationalist movement has sprung up that is composed of people who previously stood on ulta-right positions. These people have evolved to the left and they are criticising the governments in Lviv and Ternopil oblasts for their xenophobia and defence of big business interests. Well known businessmen have been cutting down forests and destroying parks for commercial development with the connivance of Svoboda members in government. In Lviv they are destroying an historic part of the old city with the approval of Svoboda. There are going to be more labour disputes in this region with those employers who support Svoboda and Bat’kivshchyna, their allies.
Such developments give us great hope that one section of Ukrainians have been immunised against this rightist populism. I’m sure that people in Central Ukraine will be paying all the more attention now to the west of the country. Having had illusions about them in the past they are shocked to learn this is a corrupt party, which claims in Kyiv that it defends parks there from developers. And look at what is happening in Lviv that contradicts their decorative façade: Svoboda sends its deputies and a hundred football fanatics to disperse protesters at the sessions of Lviv City Council.
I get upset to hear people from Eastern Ukraine speaking about the independence of Donetsk as their way of protecting themselves from the banderivtsi and from the residents of Western Ukraine in general. People in Western Ukraine itself are already struggling against these ultra-right politicians. They are struggling in their own way, criticising them over quite concrete problems, but at least they are doing it.
People may have different interpretations of history, but most of them understand that to emphasise them without pause is damaging to the general interests of the workers, the ordinary citizens. The workers in the eastern region are saying they don’t want to live in the same country as the banderivtsi, who live in the western region. I think this is an incorrect position to take. Rather, we all need to unite in our struggle against the authorities rather than retreating into separate rooms and creating artificial republics.
Q. What do you have to say about the whole debate over fascism and anti-fascism?
A. It angers me as an anti-fascist and left activist that the Russian Federation, which is intervening in Ukraine, is playing the anti-fascist card. It amounts to the argument that the Ukrainian government is pro-fascist, so let’s go help the Ukrainians with Russian tanks and automatic weapons. This is nothing more than a cover for aggression.
The Russian government cannot give an objective assessment of our government because it is itself infected with the viruses of xenophobia and authoritarianism. Just recently they kidnapped an anarchist in Crimea, transported him to Moscow and charged him with organising violence protest. This person was engaged solely in peaceful protest; he is a student union activist. He constitutes no threat at all, neither to the Ukrainian nor the Russian government. But as we see the Russian government is aggressive, even considering ideas to be dangerous if they don’t accord with its own ideas. In that case it applies the strictest controls.
We are insulted when it acts in the name of anti-fascism because we know that it has nothing to do with internationalism, nor with the victory of the Soviet people in the Second World War. The Russian authorities openly support football fanatics’ organisations, legitimise neo-nazis, include them in the political process by calling them nationalist leaders, whereas they are truly racists, xenophobes and neo-nazis.
We also know that clandestine far right terrorism has is origins in Russia. Russia developed the model and provided transit for it abroad. More than ten anti-fascists have been murdered there. Fortunately, the more radical far right organisation in Ukraine have been kept on the margins, and so ultra-right terrorism has not emerged in Ukraine, at least not yet. I don’t know how the situation will change after the government began including far-right volunteers in its military campaign.
But all the same the system in Ukraine was not under the control of radical nationalists. To accuse the Ukrainian authorities of being pro-fascist is a blatant lie. Sure, Svoboda is represented in the government, but their ministers do not make policy for the government, but have to work under the dictate of Bat’kivshchyna, liberal-conservative party.
Anti-fascists around the world should not support the separatist movement. Nor should they uncritically relate to the so-called anti-Maidan. Very strict demands must be placed on the anti-Maidan: its members must reject xenophobic rhetoric which is present there. In their ranks there are antisemites, Black Hundreds, people of ultra-right, pro-Russian views. How can anyone work with them to fight Ukrainian fascism? Ultra-right and pro-fascist forces have a tight control over the anti-Maidan, and behind them stands an aggressive, authoritarian Russian Federation which is ready to use any language and make any claims in order to justify its aggression, including “anti-fascism”.
If we really do want to combat fascism in Ukraine then we should unite the workers of the east, the centre and the west in a common struggle against the Ukrainian authorities. To build the home called solidarity Ukraine should remain united in the struggle against the oligarchs, regardless of whether they are Ukrainian or Russian. Ukraine must fight consistently against the xenophobia of our native neo-nazis and Russian xenophobia which is produced by the Russian state machine, by the radical movements in Russia and the anti-Maidan.
First published on Observer Ukraine