Since Russian troops invaded on Feb. 24, news about the war in Ukraine, which has officially entered its second month, as well as news about the inestimable amount of pain and destruction the war has wrought on the people of Ukraine and the ripple effects it is having on the rest of the world, has been coming out at a furious pace. And yet, while trying to responsibly navigate the fog of war and the incessant militaristic propaganda coming from corporate media, it has been understandably difficult for English-speaking audiences, especially in the West, to find reliable information and critical on-the-ground perspectives that can shed light on what life in Ukraine currently looks like.
For TRNN audiences, I was able to conduct an interview with a prominent journalist and trade unionist in Ukraine about the political climate in the country while martial law is in effect, President Zelenskyi’s recent moves to ban oppositional political parties and centralize state control of the media, and the dire circumstances working people are enduring on a daily basis. However, we also spoke about the political turmoil that existed long before the war began, as well as the systematic attacks on labor rights and political dissent in Ukraine. At the request of the interviewee, because of the repressive wartime circumstances under which this interview was conducted, and out of fear for his own safety and concern for being able to speak freely about the conditions within Ukraine, we have disguised his identity.
Maximillian Alvarez: There is a lot of disinformation online here in the West, to say nothing of the constant war propaganda coming out of corporate media. So Real News readers are hungry for reliable information and critical on-the-ground perspectives about what’s happening in Ukraine but understandably suspicious of a lot of the sources they come across. Given the state of the political climate within Ukraine right now, we have committed to disguising your identity so as not to jeopardize your safety. But, without revealing any information that would compromise your anonymity, can you tell readers a bit about yourself, your work, and your expertise? And what should readers know about the circumstances in Ukraine that have led you to do this interview using a pseudonym?
Also, I know it’s impossible to fully communicate to people who aren’t there, but could you tell readers about what daily life looks like for you right now?
“Andriy”: I have been working as a journalist in Ukraine for many years, writing on a wide variety of topics but mostly focusing on politics, economics, society, and journalism itself. So I have known for a long time about the pressures journalists and activists face. Indeed, for those journalists who honestly write about existing problems in Ukrainian society, about corruption, conflicts with corporations, and the like, there is always a danger. Not only in Ukraine, but also in many other countries, especially those that are developing democracies like ours.
Now, in my work, there is much more news related to Russia’s war against Ukraine, although I am far from the hostilities of the front lines. But the fear of war comes to us when the air raid sirens start to sound.
Of course, I understand the desire of people in the United States to have reliable information from Ukraine about the events taking place in our country. While I am committed to Ukraine and ready to defend its independence, as any of you would defend the independence of the United States, some of the restrictions imposed in Ukraine due to the war may affect how faithfully I could convey the situation in our country if I used my real name. These are the circumstances that have forced me to give this interview anonymously, so that I would not be bound by any obligations of censorship.
MA: Last week, under the pretext of martial law and national security, President Zelenskyi suspended 11 Ukrainian political parties, including Opposition Platform – For Life, which holds 44 seats out of the 450 in Ukrainian parliament. We’re hearing all kinds of different things about why Zelenskyi made this move, what it means for the political climate in Ukraine, and what these different parties actually are (are they “left-wing” parties? Do they have clear and compromising connections to Russia, as Zelenskyi claims?) Again, people really want to know what’s happening but it’s very hard to make sense of the situation based on what’s available in English. Can you break this down for Real News readers?
“A”: The ban on these parties did not come as something unexpected in Ukraine. Calls to shut down the Opposition Bloc party have been made since 2014: This political party was made up of former members of the Party of Regions, which is closely associated with the ex-president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia. It is believed that this party is financed and controlled by the Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov.
The other major party, Opposition Platform – For Life, is another fragment of the former Party of Regions—though, in recent years, politicians from other, smaller parties from the era of President Leonid Kuchma (who ruled until 2004) have joined it. This party has also been accused of being “pro-Russian” due to Viktor Medvedchuk being one of its leaders. Medvedchuk is considered to be associated with Putin because the latter is the godfather of Medvedchuk’s daughter. “Godfathers” are a fairly common tradition in our region, so this connection is considered a good reason for suspicion. In addition, Medvedchuk has actively advocated for negotiations with Russia and the normalization of Ukraine’s relationship with Russia. On the eve of the war, he was arrested on charges of treason by the Ukrainian General Prosecutor’s Office. However, these allegations have not been proven in court. Now, Medvedchuk is hiding from Ukrainian law enforcement.
Another one of the political parties that has been shut down, Nashi (“Our People”), has also been accused of having ties to Russia, but there was no evidence of such ties. Already on the eve of the war with Russia, allegedly, according to British intelligence, the leader of this party, Yevhen Muraev, was due to be appointed head of a new pro-Russian government after the occupation of Ukraine. But no one knows how reliable these data are.
It is noteworthy that, in 2021, Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, which is controlled by Zelenskyi, banned TV channels owned both by supporters of the Opposition Platform – For Life and directly by Muraev. These channels criticized both the activities of the current government and the policies of the nationalist parties.
In fact, the long-standing attempts to ban or restrict the political activities of these parties, including the media they control, as well as the lack of a transparent trial to adjudicate the charges, are the main problem. These channels were closed without presenting any evidence to the Ukrainian public; it is not known whether this evidence will be presented in the future, and how strong the evidence will be.
It is important to understand that both of these big parties—the Opposition Platform – For Life, in particular—are parties of Ukrainian oligarchs. And, in fact, the banning of these parties shows that the struggle between oligarchic groups among Ukraine’s power elites is shifting towards the strengthening of the so-called “patriotic” group, which promotes more pro-Ukrainian (and even nationalist) political traditions. However, on economic terms, on social policy, there is no difference between the active oligarch-controlled political parties and these banned parties.
The remaining eight parties that were banned can be described as Ukraine’s “left-wing” parties. They were so small that they did not pose any threat to the state. Some of the politicians who are members of these parties may well have some kind of connection with Russian politicians. But, again, no evidence of their subversive activities against Ukraine was presented. The fault of these small parties on the left is that they still opposed reform policies aimed at increasing the power of corporations. They actively maintained ties with trade unions, workers’ protests, and publicly criticized reforms that worsen the social situation of ordinary workers.
The ban on left-wing parties that have at least some mention of “socialism” in their name is a continuation of the ban on left-wing ideology in Ukraine in general. Indeed, after Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity in 2014, under the pretext of “decommunising” society, the activities of the Communist Party of Ukraine were limited. Formally, its activities were not banned outright, but the authorities have prevented them from participating in elections because they have the word “communist” in their name, demanding the party rename itself instead.
By banning its opponents, the president’s Servant of the People party gains control not just over a majority of the Ukrainian parliament, but over a “constitutional majority” (ie, the number of People’s Deputies needed to allow a single political party to change the Constitution of Ukraine). Obviously, this is very important for the president in the context of negotiations with Russia, and the possible terms of a peace treaty that could cause protests in Ukrainian society—first and foremost, by the right-wing radical nationalist and patriotic parties.
MA: I want to ask about two other significant political developments that have been somewhat overshadowed by the suspension of the 11 political parties. The first is Zelenskyi’s decree to unite all national TV channels under one platform as part of a “unified information policy.” What does that mean for you and others living in the country right now? How is this affecting independent reporting and dissident voices? And is this affecting social media as well?
“A”: Not everything is clear regarding the establishment of unified control over Ukraine’s national broadcasting. On the one hand, it seems that this measure is logical during war. But on the other hand, as mentioned above, even before the start of Russian aggression, the authorities had closed TV channels controlled by representatives of the Opposition Platform – For Life party the previous year. Individual websites or YouTube channels that were very harshly critical of the authorities were also banned. All this was done under the pretext that they had a “pro-Russian editorial policy,” but there was not a single trial, as is required by Ukrainian law, where these accusations were proven. Moreover, attempts to take control of the media were also made at the legislative level. Fortunately, the journalistic community opposed the increase in state influence over the media, and these legislative initiatives were never implemented.
Now the war has become a pretext for complete state control over television broadcasting at the national level. There is no such total control in local media, but all journalists and media owners are forced to comply with the restrictions imposed by martial law. And these concern not only bans on publications detailing information, for example, about the movement of the Ukrainian military, or other defense or military operations. Everything that can be interpreted as a justification for aggression or a “pro-Russian narrative” has been banned as well. These are such general concepts that anything can fall under them, including any criticism of the Ukrainian government.
It is obvious that this uncertainty pushes journalists to strictly self-censor. No one dares to criticize the authorities in this situation. This also applies to such concerns as excessive depictions of violence in the media, the rapid spread of hate speech, and many other negative phenomena that arise in wartime.
The situation is even more difficult for human rights defenders. Indeed, against this backdrop, many people are detained in the country who fall under suspicion because of their statements or activities. Not all of them are Russian collaborators. Some, for example, are left-wing activists who opposed the war in principle and believe that the governments involved are to blame for its unleashing. However, the Ukrainian court system has essentially stopped operating—under these conditions, sustaining activities defending human rights is very difficult. The press does not publicize these cases, due to the same self-censorship, and due to the lack of sufficient facts to support both accusations against and defenses of those who are being detained.
Today we can say with confidence that there are practically no real opposition media operations in Ukraine. It’s the same for the voices of dissidents. If they exist, then they only exist on social media. And even then, many of them limit their messages to only their circle of friends.
I can only hope that all these strict bans are temporary. However, I fear that this is self-deception. Experience suggests that the authorities very quickly get used to controlling the media, and it will be very difficult to restore freedom of speech without a fight. And now I see that many journalists are not only justifying these restrictions by referring to martial law, but they’re also sincerely supporting them. This support appears to be greater from those journalists who are openly beginning to side with the right wing, the nationalists, and who are trying to demonstrate their “patriotism” to society.
MA: The second significant political development that I wanted to ask about has gotten even less attention in the English-speaking media: the crackdown on labor rights in Ukraine. It’s no secret that workers and unions sacrifice a lot, and are kept under close watch, during wartime, because they are carrying national production to support the military and provide for a civilian population that is going through hell. Workers’ rights immediately become secondary to the war effort. It’s happened here in the US plenty of times. But I’ve seen some trade unionists in Ukraine express fears that these measures will last long after the war. Can you explain what is happening in regards to workers’ rights in Ukraine right now? And can you give non-Ukrainian audiences some context so they can better understand what state workers’ rights and the labor movement were in before the invasion? Simply put: What are working people in Ukraine going through right now?
“A”: You need to understand that the attack on trade unions has been going on for 30 years, since the collapse of the USSR. During the Soviet era, trade unions were subject to control by the Communist Party and could not be compared to the free trade unions we know in the US or Europe. After the collapse of the USSR, we in Ukraine hoped that we could build new trade unions that would really protect the rights of workers. However, since Ukraine achieved independence, instead of reforming them, successive governments have tried to establish their control over the trade unions. Moreover, after the mass privatization of enterprises, new factory owners and industrialists began to establish control over trade unions.
All this happened at a time when reforms in the Ukrainian economy were accompanied by catastrophic social upheavals. Salaries in Ukraine are the lowest in Europe and, on the eve of the war, averaged about $500 a month. Pensions barely exceeded $100 a month. More than 60% of the population lives in poverty.
But you haven’t seen mass strikes in recent years. Why? Because Ukrainian oligarchs and representatives of global corporations, alongside the Ukrainian government, did everything possible to prevent the creation of truly free trade unions capable of major strikes.
But then, in 2019-2020, when people began to spontaneously organize protests against the increase in utility tariffs and rising prices, and when trade unions began to join these movements, the government immediately announced that this was subversive activity serving the interests of Russia. And this, surprisingly, coincided with increased state pressure on some media outlets, which were subsequently closed.
Moreover, starting in 2020, the government began developing new legislation that would have curtailed both labor rights and trade union rights. However, just as journalists had opposed increased state influence over the media, almost all trade unions opposed these legislative restrictions on labor rights, and the government failed to implement them.
And now, using the implementation of martial law, and facing a situation where many enterprises have been destroyed by the war and millions of people have been forced to evacuate to safe regions or even other countries, the Ukrainian parliament has adopted the most severe restrictions on labor rights and trade unions—even more severe than anticipated. The severity of the situation also comes down to the fact that the unions cannot go on strike now, nor can they openly oppose these draconian measures. The role of trade unions has been reduced to “public monitoring” of employers. But in practice that means nothing. In fact, trade unions have been deprived of all their key rights.
The paradox is that the war is laying an incredibly heavy burden on the shoulders of workers, whereas for business owners and for corporations, the government introduces more and more benefits, reduces taxes, provides interest-free loans and other support. But no one is introducing any tax benefits to workers, no one offers them interest-free loans, and no one even offers to compensate workers for the rapid rise in prices of essential products. The only thing that those who have lost their jobs can count on is compensation from the government to the tune of about $200 a month. But it is impossible to pay for housing, utilities, and food with this money. The poorest are the hardest hit. If the situation does not change, many of them will need international humanitarian assistance to survive.
MA: What can unionists and other working people in the West and beyond do to show solidarity with their siblings in Ukraine who are suffering from this war? How can the international labor movement help stop this bloodshed?
“A”: Many of those who supported the labor movement in Ukraine are now in a very difficult situation. They are forced to repel Russian aggression while simultaneously defending against attacks on our workers’ rights.
This situation has many facets to it, which, correspondingly, means there are many ways for people to help us. Of course, first of all, Ukrainians need military assistance. Only your governments can do this. And although the US government is actively helping with military supplies, one must take into account the fact that these supply shipments must be much larger in order to stop the war and prevent it from turning into a protracted conflict that will claim even more lives and plunge tens of millions of people into catastrophe.
Ukraine is one of the largest food producers in Europe. The war is not only destroying industrial enterprises, but it is also significantly limiting the capacities of agricultural enterprises and farmers. This means that food problems in Ukraine will only increase. In the near future, food supplies and humanitarian aid will be no less important than arms supplies.
It is also very important that unions in the United States and around the world do not forget the difficult conditions trade union activists specifically and left-wing activists in general find themselves in here in Ukraine. Many are at risk of arrest or other forms of persecution. It is very important to create international support for these activists. Indeed, due to martial law, they cannot freely leave the country to protect themselves from political persecution. We need not only working-class solidarity, but also funds to provide these people with legal support, the opportunity to hire lawyers, and to achieve a fair trial in which they can contest the charges against them. Without such support, the labor movement in Ukraine will be completely trampled down very quickly.
And most importantly: Not a single labor movement in the world, including in Ukraine, wants war—and all stand for peace. In order to stop this war, and in order to avoid its repetition in the future—not only in Ukraine, but anywhere in Europe—it is necessary to demand from governments, including the US government, that they reconsider the political and economic integration of the former Soviet republics into modern political and economic associations.
All these years, since gaining independence, Ukraine has been left on the margins of global integration. This contributed to the flourishing of corruption, selective justice, and the spread of poverty and misery in Ukraine. The same thing happened in Russia, where these processes have been intensified by Putin’s authoritarianism.
The governments of the leading democracies turned a blind eye to this for decades, only pretending to show concern for these very real problems. In fact, Western corporations at this time were making billions of dollars of investments in Ukraine and Russia, cashing in on cheap labor, cheap raw materials, and the ability to easily resolve any issues with our governments through corrupt, backroom deals. For the sake of maintaining these profits, controlling the labor movement, and tamping down labor protests, they often supported very reactionary political forces in our countries and literally nurtured authoritarian rulers
The US government, as well as the governments of the European Union, should reconsider their policy towards Ukraine. They must stop turning a blind eye to the problems we face in the realms of politics the economy, and in the struggle to uphold human and labor rights. And they must open the door for Ukraine to fully integrate with democratic countries. But this will not happen without the support of ordinary citizens in your countries, without the support of trade unions in your countries, without the support of the leading political parties in your countries.
Our real war for independence is not only a war on the battlefields of Ukraine. It is also our common demand for the establishment of a stable peace in Ukraine. A peace that will not only benefit global corporations looking to profit in and from Ukraine once again, but a peace that will mean prosperity for everyone who, through their work, creates material wealth in this world—the working class.