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Since 1991, the political elites and the new capitalist class have exacerbated nationalist passions and divided the country among ethnic and linguistic lines in order to pillage the country, says Professor David Mandel (2/2)

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore. And welcome to part two of our count conversation with our guest David Mandel to discuss the crisis in Ukraine.

David is a professor of political science at the University of Quebec in Montreal, and he specializes in the countries of the former Soviet Union, specifically looking at labor.

Thank you so much for joining us, David.


DESVARIEUX: So, David, I want us to kind of understand the historical context of this recent civil war. What has been the economic and political relationship with Russia? What has Ukraine’s relationship been like since their independence in 1991?

MANDEL: Well, so the eastern part of the Ukraine, which is the more industrialized part–I mean, the Soviet Union was a highly integrated economy. Since independence, there was some move to try to detach Ukraine to some degree, but still the Donbas, the Eastern Ukraine, and the Northeast and South are still highly integrated, especially the machine-building sectors, with Russia. The East is more agrarian. It’s mostly smaller towns. And so they don’t have that same economic interest or tie.

DESVARIEUX: Wait. So the West is more–. Okay.

MANDEL: The West is–I mean, there’s three reasons. I mean, I think [incompr.] provinces are regions there are, but there’s quite a few. But there’s three that are really the–what shall I say?–the cradle of Russian nationalism, which is a very anti-Russian nationalism. And this was part of Ukraine that was separate from the rest of the country for hundreds of years and only rejoined the rest of Ukraine in 1939 under Stalin, actually. It was part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop treaty, and at the end of the war it was occupied, and at the end of the war occupied by the Soviet Union. So this part is actually–it’s more to the west. It’s extremely anti-Russian, hostile to Russia. And also there’s not much economically or in terms of family ties, certainly no linguistic–not really much linguistically, ethnically. It had–it’s a different religion. It’s [incompr.] church [incompr.] in the East, it’s the Russia Orthodox. So it doesn’t have the same ties. And as I said, its nationalism has–a major part of its nationalism is hatred of Russia, and to some degree of Russians.

DESVARIEUX: Was there ever talk of partitioning sections of Ukraine? I mean, was there ever that conversation that they should divide the country at all?

MANDEL: Well, not really. But the eastern parts of Ukraine were–at the turn of the 20th century, it started being built up as industrial parts–coal mining, metallurgy, some machine building. And it was basically–I wouldn’t say unpopulated, but they were nomadic peoples. There were Cossacks there, who–it’s not clear if they’re Russian or Ukrainian. Anyway, people–cities started to be built and people came from all over. But they were Russians. These towns were Russian-speaking. Generally, in Ukraine the cities are Russian-speaking. So that–and it wasn’t really considered part of Ukraine at the time. It was called small Russia, Malorossiya.

Then, after the Civil War, though, in 1920, the Communist government decided to make this part part of Ukraine. So even this part became part of Ukraine only since 1920, really. And local communist elements actually opposed that to some degree, but they were overruled. And then they have the western regions, the three western regions, which were joined to the Ukraine only in–basically in 1940, 1939 and in the 1940s.

And the state, as–Ukraine as a state never really existed before. I mean, there was maybe a few months during the Civil War in Russia. So it first came into existence in 1991. And so it’s extremely fragile. And you’d think this kind of state, the political elites would be very concerned about keeping it together and creating a national identity or making everyone feel at home. But what there’s been since 1991 is a kind of tug-of-war, the western province wanted to impose their [incompr.] and their orientation, anti-Russian orientation, on the rest. And, of course, this is anathema to the east. And then the East, this last government that was overthrown, was more identified with the East, and it was overthrown in what people [incompr.] see as a kind of Western-sponsored coup d’etat, and they see it as illegitimate. So is what’s been going on.

And I’d say–and so the political elites, which have been basically at the surface of the so-called oligarchs, which is the new capitalist class–it’s a small class, but extremely rich, was basically pillaging the country for the last two-plus decades. They’ve been making–instead of trying to calm down these nationalist passions and these different linguistic and ethnic differences, have been actually exacerbating them to get [incompr.] in their inter-elite struggles and to gain elections, etc. That’s it. Yeah.

DESVARIEUX: So, David, you’ve been involved in labor you education in Ukraine for many years. So for you, what are the issues faced by the Ukrainian working class? You mentioned that, that elite that has kind of risen to power, these oligarchs. Can you speak to that a little bit? And what are the concerns of the working people?

MANDEL: Well, that’s just it. This kind of–it’s kind of a postmodern identity struggle, although there are economic interests somewhere involved. But basically it keeps the working people [incompr.] mass of the population are very poor in Ukraine. Most are really known as the working class in terms of [incompr.] There’s almost no social safety net in Ukraine. It’s much worse. I mean, you get sick and Ukraine, you pay for everything. You pay for the sheets. You pay for the food. You pay for the soap that cleans the floor. And you get nothing. You pay for the doctor, you pay for the medicine, you pay for the bed dressers. So there’s really no social safety net. And this is the mass of the population that, instead of–.

And then there’s a ruling group, a small ruling group of oligarchs. They’re called oligarchs. This is big capital who basically just pillage the country and grasp for pennies, grab the factories and all the wealth that was inherited from the Soviet Union, and created very little. You have this group that keeps the population divided along these ethnic and linguistic lines so they can’t get together to fight the corruption. The corruption is just horrible in Ukraine.

And so that’s the real–and for me the real issue is to overcome this communitarian strife, so that you can get [incompr.] social and economic issues and fight corruption and get control over the economy so that it can start developing. I mean, Ukraine is–I think it’s one of two or maybe the only one of the former Soviet republics that hasn’t yet reached the level of GDP per capita that it was in 1991 when the Soviet Union fell apart.

DESVARIEUX: So for you, then, does it mean that being in this, like, sphere of influence, I guess, to kind of borrow the language of geopolitics, of either Russia or Europe, would either one really benefit the conditions of workers? Do you have a stance on that?

MANDEL: Sure. I mean, just from a purely rational point of view, the most advantageous position for Ukraine is to be neutral and to be between the east, Russia, and European Union, to, as much as possible, play one against the other. And I think that’s something that Russia would definitely accept. I mean, it’s probably not proved its first choice. But the West is insisting that Ukraine become part of, be drawn into the Western camp in a kind of [incompr.] really hostile move. I mean, there was a declaration in 2008 that the intention of NATO is to bring, eventually, Ukraine in. I mean, how real that it is is another question.

And then this government, the prime minister, the government announced that it’s going to apply for NATO membership. I don’t think it’ll get in, but that’s beside the point. I mean, they have to–from Russia’s point of view, what’s been happening since the Soviet Union fell apart is that NATO has been advancing, incorporating the country–advancing toward the east, incorporating countries that are getting closer and closer to Russia’s border. And Russia views this as basically–I mean, it doesn’t–it’s a hostile policy aimed at containing Russia, eliminating any kind of influence it has within its own borders, and surrounding it with hostile states. And if you know anything of Russian history of the first half of the 20th century, you can understand how sensitive Russia would be.

And Ukraine is the big prize, as its 2,500 kilometers of common border with Russia–I mean, this is–and this is–it’s bordering on the part of Russia where all the population and the great part of the industry is. Ukraine has deep, deep historical, ethnic, family, linguistic, and other ties. And the West has just been totally indifferent to that, you know, insensitive to that. And that’s the basic source of the problem. [incompr.] I think if the West were not supporting to the hilt the Ukrainian–the nationalist faction of the Ukrainian elite, we wouldn’t have seen the Civil War. So the West bears a lot of responsibility.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. David Mandel, thank you for joining us.

MANDEL: Okay. Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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David Mandel teaches political science at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal. He specializes in countries of former Soviet Union, especially labour. For many year has been involved in labour education in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine, where he visiting this summer. David is the author of many articles and books, among which is Labour after Communism (Black Rose Press, Montreal, 2005).