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Volodymyr Ishchenko: Small independent protests are taking place amid the pro-Russian separatist rebellion, but workers remain weak as a political force in Ukraine and the government is continuing to restrict civil liberties

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

Ukraine has signed a free trade agreement, along with Georgia and Moldova, that Ukrainian President Poroshenko and E.U. officials claim will give the nation access to markets of 28 other nations and lead to higher living standards. Meanwhile, a ceasefire between Ukrainian state security forces and pro-Russian separatists is due to end just hours from now. The United Nations high commissioner for refugees also has said that over 16,000 Ukrainians have been displaced from Eastern Ukraine in the past week.

Joining us now to give an update on the situation in Ukraine is Volodymyr Ishchenko. Volodymyr is a sociologist studying social protests in Ukraine. He is deputy director of the Center for Society Research in Kiev and editor of Commons: Journal for Social Criticism and a lecturer in the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.

Thanks for joining us, Volodymyr.


WORONCZUK: So, as we speak right now, the ceasefire between Kiev and the pro-Russian separatist rebellion in the East is due to end in a couple of hours. So what has been the result thus far of the ceasefire?

ISHCHENKO: Actually, it’s hard to call it a ceasefire, because both sides blame that the opposite side actually broke it, and the Ukrainian side said that the separatists opened fire, like, 40 or 50 times during that week, and the separatists said that there were some attempts from Ukrainian forces to attack as well. So the ceasefire was actually kind of a fiction. And [incompr.] the armed groups in Donbas are so, actually, decentralized, and they’re kind of not controlled from anyone, you could say. It’s a big question how to actually enforce a ceasefire which would be really working and not just a fiction. Just to tell one example, today there was attempt to attack a military zone controlled by Ukraine soldiers by separatists armed with tanks. And that was–like, they ended [the new?] ceasefire.

On the other hand, the attempts, or at least in some way starting informal negotiations to start the negotiation in the Kiev government and the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republic are very promising, but there are question as to would they develop real negotiations. Would they be just another talks, or [in the?] [incompr.] of the war?

WORONCZUK: So when the ceasefire officially comes to an end in the next couple of hours, do you think that we’re going to see a subsiding of violence? Or do you think it’s going to re-escalate?

ISHCHENKO: I’m not sure it would–I would say that it’s going to continue as it is–small attacks by small groups and not really coordinated with each other. I’m not sure there is, like, a plan for some great attack or storming each other positions.

WORONCZUK: So one thing I wanted to ask you is that we don’t normally see this or I don’t see any reporting about this in the press here in the United States. Are there any other social protests of significance taking place right now in Ukraine that are not connected or affiliated with the pro-Russian separatist rebellions taking place in Eastern Ukraine?

ISHCHENKO: There are many of such protests. The problem is that they’re not usually really big and really kind of taking the form of all-national campaign. But the number of local social-economic protests are very high. It’s usually high here. For example, in the last year, the majority of all the protests [direct?] despite the start in Maidan, were nevertheless about social-economic issues like wages, taxes, environment, privatization of public space in the cities. And this is what they talk–the issues which were provoking the largest number of protest events during last year.

And even now, despite the war, there are, for example, labor protests in–one of the most important and interesting, it just ended in Kryvyi Rih, which is a big industrial city in the [country of?] Ukraine, the center of metal [work?] here, and where the miners demanded increase of wages. And they were quite clear that they are protesting not for Kiev government and not against Kiev government and in dissent and not in support of separatists. But they did the protesting in defense of their primary material [incompr.]

And so it’s interesting that most of the Kiev government and the separatists group are trying to mobilize workers, but without much success. As you probably report, Akhmetov, the richest person in Ukraine, was trying to mobilize his employees–and he has, like, 300,000 of them in Ukraine–to protest for united Ukraine and against the separatist groups, but he failed to do this. And at the same time, the separatist groups are trying to mobilize workers, sometimes even forcefully, to support them, and in the fact that they usually have to use force actually says that they don’t have, really, [own?] support for them. But in general I would say that workers in Ukraine are more or less [free?], but it doesn’t mean that they are ready to fight against each other and ready to fight either for Kiev government or for separatist groups.

WORONCZUK: Could you give us, then, a general sense of public opinion in terms of support for Kiev and support for the separatists?

ISHCHENKO: Unfortunately, I didn’t see the polls of this since the first half of May. And the polls which were done in the first half of [May–and?] it means after massacre in Odessa and after very brutal attack on Mariupol by Ukrainian forces, they were showing that at least even in Donbas there are various–some sort of support for the claims of separatists, and the people in Donbas saw their seizure of governmental buildings as people’s [incompr.] not as a terrorist act, not as a Russian intervention. But this were the public opinion in Donbas. In the rest of Ukraine–and many people actually seen what was happening in Donbas precisely as Russian intervention. But as I said, I didn’t see the more recent polls by any company. And that’s actually a problem, for example, a nice, proper survey in Donbas in this situation.

WORONCZUK: Okay. And then just for a final comment, many critics have said that the National Endowment for Democracy, which, in full disclosure, has been funding your research into social protests in Ukraine, some critics say that it was–that the NED is instrumental in provoking some of the protests that were calling for–earlier this year that were calling for closer ties to the E.U. What’s your response?

ISHCHENKO: I would say that it’s a very common conspiracy theory about the role of foundations. But usually the people actually do not understand how they work and how they actually are able to impose their own agenda. And that’s–that were mainly over-exaggerated, that see the institutions like NED as some provokers of protests in Eastern Ukraine. They could support some NGO, they could support some initiatives, but they definitely didn’t play any significant role in, like, [making the protest come to zero?]. That was [political from?] internal phenomenon. That was a protest driven by internal problems in Ukraine, and without the genuine support from people, it would just be impossible to [incompr.] and it would be impossible to [incompr.]

So, as for our project, that was a project in defense of peaceful assemblies and even the cooperation of the human rights campaign [incompr.] was protesting against a bill which was pushed for by Yanukovych’s government and requiring some restrictions on the procedure to organize peaceful assemblies. And that campaign was quite successful, at least in the terms of advancing this bill to be imposed, and it would mean quite serious and very detrimental restrictions to organize any kind of protest, including social-economic protest and including labor protest.

And what is real interesting that in the program announced by Yatsenyuk in the first days of the new government, he included this bill on peaceful assemblies into program, so that it shows us a kind of a continuity between the governments in Ukraine. Despite their animosity to each other and despite some superficial differences, they are using the same tools for control and for–try to restrict the freedoms to organize and to protest and to defend your own interests. Actually, as– if you recall, the [rules?] which were passed by the parliament on January 16 and which actually provoked–turned to violence by Maidan in the [month?] of January–and the [incompr.] [of those rules?] were precisely their restrictions of civic liberties, of freedom to organize the protest or freedom of speech and so on. But now the government are proposing and pushing forward quite close restrictions. And, of course, they justify it with this threat from Russia, from the threat from separatists, and always this situation of the war. It’s moving the country into kind of like a militarist camp, where civic liberties are made more and more restricted.

WORONCZUK: Alright. Volodymyr Ishchenko, thank you so much for that update from Ukraine.

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.