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Ukrainian sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko says there will be little difference between a Poroshenko presidency and that of ousted president Yanukovich, and that the political rebellion in the Eastern regions is dominated by Russian separatists with widespread support there – not by an independent workers movement

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ANTON WORONCZUK, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Anton Woronczuk in Baltimore.

Presidential elections in Ukraine are set to be held on Sunday, and it looks as if chocolate magnate or chocolate tycoon Petro Poroshenko, who supported the Maidan protests, is set to win. But how will his presidency fundamentally differ from that of the former ousted president Yanukovych?

Now joining us to discuss this is Volodymyr Ishchenko. Volodymyr is a sociologist studying social protests in Ukraine. He is the deputy director of the Center for Society Research in Kiev, an editor of Commons: Journal for Social Criticism, and a lecturer in the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.

Thank you for joining us, Volodymyr.


WORONCZUK: So, Volodymyr, let’s start off with who is Poroshenko.

ISHCHENKO: Poroshenko is one of the hundred richest people in Ukraine. He’s well known for his confectionery production, for his chocolates. He is called “chocolate king” in Ukraine. And, yeah, it’s quite true that he’s the likeliest winner of the coming elections, probably win–he’s able to win in the first round of elections, so, basically, the day after tomorrow, on Sunday.

WORONCZUK: And it’s been reported in the press that he had supported the Maidan protests. Do you think that his presidency is going to fundamentally differ from that of ousted president, former/ousted president Yanukovych?

ISHCHENKO: No, for various reasons. It’s quite clear that he will not give up his business, and I don’t expect that he will not use the state preferences and his new power to help his business interests as well. So it’s actually the–Yanukovych created his financial/industrial group with the help of state apparatus. But Poroshenko is a rich man [incompr.] business. And this is actually the first time in Ukrainian history when the oligarch directly becomes a president.

WORONCZUK: So does his coming to power then represent a sort of a new seizure of power by a different set within the oligarchic class?

ISHCHENKO: Yes, although it can be just slightly different in the nearest future, because Poroshenko is now dependent on the genuine support from other oligarchs. The problem is, Yanukovych–and one of the reasons why he went down and why he lost his power: that he was trying to take too much control over economy and the state for his own oligarchic group. It was called–so-called family, basically family of Yanukovych and his relatives. And at this moment, Poroshenko would be much more dependent on the support of other oligarchs, because the situation in the Eastern Ukraine is not going to be pacified with these elections. And Poroshenko would be also more dependent on the Western government, on the Western powers, because of the IMF financial help, without which the Kiev government would not be able to solve economic situation in Ukraine. And also of that, not very evident and very clear, but still, the kind of, like, behind military support from NATO is also very important for Kiev government, ’cause the Russian foreign invasion is quite a real possibility still.

WORONCZUK: So, since the ouster of Yanukovych, it’s been widely reported in Russian media and some left media that there’s been a seizure of power by neofascists and the far right within the political establishment. How fair do you think this current characterization is of the current political ruling class within Ukraine? And how much does the far right and parties like, let’s say, Svoboda have within Ukrainian civil society?

ISHCHENKO: Yeah, you have to be quite precise here. And these exaggerations about the role of the far right are so over-present, and they have to be counteracted.

Of course, there are far rights in the new government. Svoboda have four ministerial positions–actually, not four; it’s three now. They had four after Yanukovych escaped Kiev in March, but the minister of defense is not from Svoboda at the moment. And there are also other people with high governmental positions, which if–they are not the far-right activists anymore, but they still had far-right background in the past. For example, the minister of education, the secretary for national defense and security, these people had been the activists of the far-right organizations, but they are not anymore.

Still, the presence of Svoboda is dangerous, but you should understand that while the Eastern Ukrainian uprising is still going on they would not be able to promote their nationalist policies. So this uprising [in Donbas?] were working as a kind of, like, balance. If they would try to promote something really divisive and nationalist policies, they would only put more fuel to this fire in the East.

And on the other hand, you cannot just ignore, because many people, for example, say that you look at their, like, electoral ratings, of Svoboda leader Oleh Tyahnybok or of the Right Sector leader, Dmytro Yarosh, they have very little, something like 1-3 percent, according to different polls, so they don’t have any chances to compete in the coming elections; but still they have more support as a party, so their party ratings actually is growing, especially for Svoboda. The support for Svoboda went up from 5 percent in March to 7 percent in May. And so they’re increasing their chances to have more support during the next parliamentary elections. And they would also be able to play on some oppositional issues. For example, if they would be smart, they could use their deteriorating social-economic situation in Ukraine and go against the IMF austerity policies. If they would go to the opposition, they may have chances to increase their support even more.

WORONCZUK: Do we see a coinciding rising of support for leftist parties?

ISHCHENKO: No. The problem is that–in fact, we have–for the recent years, we had only one party which could–it was pretend to be leftist. It was the Communist Party of Ukraine. But in fact they were leftist supporters for Yanukovych regime. One of the most embarrassing things: that they anonymously voted for the repressive laws of January 16, which quite significantly restricted the civic liberties–freedom of speech and freedom for peaceful assemblies [incompr.] Not even everyone from the ruling Party of Regions voted for those laws, but every MP from the Communist Party of Ukraine.

And they were actually very much discredited. By many people, they were not even seen as a leftist party at all. For example, the richest woman in the parliament, Oksana Kaletnyk, she was an MP from the Communist Party of–Communist Party faction. So they were directly dependent on some oligarchs in Ukraine, and they were actually defending their interests.

And at the moment, the Communist Party can be actually banned for support of separatist actions in the Eastern Europe. And the acting president of Ukraine, Turchynov, has called for some trial against the Communist Party, and the possible resolution of this trial can be bad for the party.

And on the other hand, there are some new left initiatives, and quite important one, but still they have quite marginal positions and they are very weak and very divided. And this Maidan protest has only added to this division, and that’s–many people on the left cannot even speak with each other and cooperate now, because some supported Maidan and some groups support the anti-Maidan protests at the moment in the Eastern Ukraine.

WORONCZUK: So let’s shift the conversation to the political rebellion that’s taking place in the eastern regions of Ukraine, like Donetsk. There’s been several different accounts that I’ve read that characterizes the protesters. Some of these accounts include describing them as self-organized independent militias that have no particular affiliation or, you know, particular sympathy for Kiev or Moscow. Other accounts describe them, especially in the Western press–in The New York Times you’ll see them described as pro-Russian militants who seek annexation from Russia. And then some other accounts I’ve also read have described them as, described the political rebellion in the East as a workers rebellion, nonetheless with orders issued from the coal and the steel oligarchs. Which of these characterizations do you think is fair or accurate?

ISHCHENKO: The leaders of the protest are definitely the pro-Russian separatists. And these are the people–many of them are actually Russian citizens, like, for example, Igor Strelkov, who is the Russian citizen, and he’s suspected to be a Russian intelligence officer, so, like, real Russian agent, but there are also many accounts that he can be just a simple volunteer volunteering for this cause to separate Donbas from Ukraine. And other leaders of Donetsk People’s Republic and Lugansk People’s Republic, they do really have Russian nationalist views. Even the constitution of Donetsk People’s Republic is quite, actually, conservative; it is even more conservative than the Ukrainian Constitution. For example, basically they banned abortion. They proclaimed the state religion, which is to be Ukrainian Eastern Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate.

But having to say this, it’s–you cannot reject that the separatist rebellion in Donbas has some mass base. And for example, according to the last polls taken in, conducted in the beginning of May, 56 percent of the citizens in Donetsk, in Lugansk regions, they see the uprising as a people’s rebellion, not as a terrorist act, not as a covert aggression from Russia, but as a legitimate people’s rebellion. So the majority in these regions do so see this uprising as legitimate and the uprising with legitimate claims.

And on the other hand, yes, there are some worker support, but also that’s–there are some workers who are on the side of Kiev government. And there are many actions, actually, by workers who do not support neither Kiev government nor Russian separatists.

WORONCZUK: And how, also, would you characterize some of the–I mean, you mentioned some of it before, but how would you characterize some of the politics of these rebellions? Are they mostly of a nationalist character?

ISHCHENKO: It’s–you can’t actually talk about the politics at the moment, because they didn’t have so much time, actually, to do some policies. And one of their–for example, it was an exaggeration from some of the leftist authors, who compared this people’s republic with Paris Commune. But it is not like this. They–for a whole month they were not actually taking power in these regions. They started to take actual power only after referendum on May 11. So only in the middle of May, not so–quite recently. And the ideological texts, like the Constitution, as I said, it’s quite conservative, and it is not so much leftist or social or whatever you can call it. They tried to–actually, there is a lot of talks about nationalization, but this nationalization is connected more to the position of the richest man of Ukraine, Rinat Akhmetov, who is based in the Eastern Ukraine. He’s from–he is of Eastern Ukrainian origin. And, you know, he has many property in the Eastern Ukraine and in Donbas particularly. And recently he said that he will not pay taxes to this self-proclaimed people’s republic and that he’s actually–he was trying, actually, to mobilize his employees against Donetsk People’s Republic–actually, without much success, I would say. And in return, the leaders of separatists said that they are going to nationalize Akhmetov’s industries.

But it would be too exaggerated to see it as a kind of, like, leftist turn or leftist policies. They are now in the objective situation where they are threatened by the Kiev government. They do not have so overwhelming support within Donetsk region. They are fighting with the oligarchs, who are /baɪ.dzɛr/ and who are actually sponsoring the so-called volunteer battalions to fight the separatists. And in this situation they have some–maybe objectively moved forward to nationalization issues and other issues.

It’s also important how the social-economic situation will develop in Ukraine, for example if it’s continue to deteriorate. And when people will see how much they are going to pay for electricity for public utilities according to IMF-required austerity measures, the social component in this uprising may become more significant, may become more evident and clear, and these people will talk more about the social demands, about social-economic demands.

But actually I doubt that these Russian nationalist leaders will be able to lead this social-economic struggle and I don’t think that they would become, like, leftists or socialists this way.

So it would be–the most precise way to characterize this complexity would be to say that there are real important and legitimate grievances which are driving Donbas people against the Kiev government, not only identity issues, not only cultural issues, but also social-economic. But this whole idea with separate people’s republic, people’s republics, it is not–they’re–basically, they’re channeling these social-economic grievances and social-economic protest to this nationalist agenda, to pro-Russian agenda, and it is not beneficial for development of genuine social protest for social reform in Ukraine.

WORONCZUK: So what do you think needs to be done to bring an end to the civil war in the eastern regions of Ukraine? And do you think the presidential election is going to play any role in that?

ISHCHENKO: No, that’s–I’m quite sure that this election will not pacify the Eastern Ukrainian regions. Many people are now waiting for kind of, like, legitimate president, but Poroshenko is not, would not, will not be seen as a legitimate president in Donbas. Now he has only something like 6 percent support in Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts. And so 6 percent is just–is nothing.

And, moreover, in many, probably even in the majority electoral districts in Donbas and Lugansk regions, no elections would be possible to have; they are controlled by separatists. So what would be the reason for Donbas people to see Poroshenko as a legitimate national leader if they were not even able to vote for him and they do not trust him and they don’t support him?

And basically now we have two options for Ukraine.

Either we will have a large bloodshed and escalation of civil war after presidential elections–because the Kiev government is not going to stop a so-called antiterrorist operation, and as far as the armed rebels do have support among local civilians and they can, for example, hide in the resident blocks in the cities, actually in the houses where the people, civilians, live, this military action would lead to more and more victims, deaths, and suffering to the local population, and they would only push them into more opposition against Kiev government. And in the final instance it would be not the worst scenario if it will only be just local Ukrainian civil war without participation of Russian forces, without participation of NATO forces–there can be much more devastating for the whole-world scenarios.

And the alternative option, the peaceful option, is to have negotiations with the leaders on the armed rebels. At the moment, in the last week’s Kiev government was trying to organize round tables of so-called national unity, but they were speaking with the Party of Regions representatives, the former ruling party under Yanukovych, which had its major support in the Eastern Ukraine. But at the moment they do not control anything. They are not the legitimate authority for the Eastern Ukraine. They are not real representatives for the people who took up the arms against Kiev government. So this is more like a show, it is more like–as it’s not a serious negotiation.

For a peaceful solution, you have to start the negotiations with those people who are actually fighting with each other. And it will be–the best option would be if we will see some moderate wins, both in Kiev government and among pro-Russian separatists that would try to negotiate with each other and that they would try to marginalize the radicals on both sides. But the problem is that at the moment we do not see the emergence of these moderate wings. Kiev government seems to be very much unified in its position against the separatists, and they’re anonymously saying that no negotiations with the terrorists. But the problem is, yeah, so [if?] the terrorists stopped–stop being terrorists at the moment when they become freedom fighters, at the moment when they become the legitimate power at some territory.

And on the other side, we are seeing now growing contradictions within the separatist camp, where, for example, the mayor of Sloviansk, [the] town where the whole uprising started, is not supporting the Donetsk People’s Republic government in Donetsk. And so we see more a kind of–not a unified camp, more or less contradictory and even quarreling with each other, various groups of separatists.

And in principle, Kiev government can play on this and can try to differentiate that we can negotiate with these people and we can support these people against other. But at the moment they are doing quite stupid continuation of military action, that it’s only leading to more suffering for Donbas people.

WORONCZUK: Okay. Volodymyr Ishchenko, thank you very much for joining us.

ISHCHENKO: Thank you.

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


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Volodymyr Ishchenko is a sociologist based in Kyiv. He has published articles and interviews in the Guardian and New Left Review.