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Sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko says the threat of foreign invasion by Russia cannot justify the Ukrainian government’s assault on political freedom

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

A Russian convoy of trucks carrying tons of humanitarian aid left on Tuesday for Eastern Ukraine, where a humanitarian crisis emerged since the Kiev government launched what it calls an antiterrorist operation against the pro-Russian armed rebellion that began in April, primarily in Donetsk and Lugansk regions. Thousands are reported to be without water and electricity. But Kiev says it won’t accept the vehicles crossing into its territory. With 45,000 Russian troops on the Ukrainian border, NATO said that there was a, quote, high probability that Moscow might now intervene militarily in Ukraine.

Now joining us from Kiev to discuss this 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 of Social Criticism, and a lecturer in the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.

Thanks for joining us, Volodymyr.


WORONCZUK: So, from Kiev, does it look like there’s about to be Russian intervention in the eastern regions?

ISHCHENKO: No, now it seems more probable, and this move with the humanitarian convoys looking like little bit dangerous. And to this day there are kind of mass of very contradictory messages from Ukrainian government, Russian government, and Red Cross.

And it’s hardly doubtful that Russia indeed concentrated the troops around Ukrainian border. It doesn’t actually mean that they really have a plan to intervene, but they have a potential to do this.

And another important thing that’s actual: the military situation in the Eastern Ukraine have changed and rebels are in very critical situation now, where the Ukrainian army made quite important victories on the local level, and they really have a chance to circle and to cut Donetsk group of rebels from Lugansk group of rebels and to cut in their supply and making the situation worse. So this might be a reaction to this military dynamics. But now it’s very confusing.

WORONCZUK: Okay. And do you think you can give us a sense of what public opinion is in Ukraine now that the antiterrorist operation, as Kiev calls it, has lasted now for months?

ISHCHENKO: I haven’t seen the polls results, so I can’t say how many percent of Ukrainian population are supporting or not supporting. If speaking about some anecdotal evidence, it seems that the population is not really supporting the mobilization of the Ukrainian army, which the government announced several weeks ago, and taking to the army more and more young–and not only young, actually–young men. And there were a number of protests against mobilization for missions, especially in the Western Ukraine.

And, actually, this mobilization of the army has a very interesting class nature. They take the army much less from the middle-class people in the bigger cities, but they recruit in much larger ratio, for example, from the villages, taking the poorer guys to the army, very often using the support of the local administration in the villages, or in the case of the cities they also sometimes use the support of factories [incompr.] stations management. And in some cases I was told that, for example, the management in one of industrial Ukrainian cities, Kryvyi Rih, actually sent this draft cards to all the union members in the factory. So, like in good old times, the recruitment of the army can be used for political repression as well, against union activists in this case. And then it appears that the war, which is now waged mostly–it’s not the only reason, but the oligarchs of Ukraine are actually making profits on this war [incompr.] directly, for example, [incompr.] This war is waged using the blood and power of quite poor guys. And this is [quite interesting (?)] class division. And like in good old times a century ago, the poor people are dying for the rich people interests.

WORONCZUK: [snip] interview on Ukraine, that of the recent ban of the Communist Party. Now, you wrote an article about it recently, and you wrote, quote, this will be “will be only the first step in outlawing most forms genuine, peaceful opposition in Ukraine.” Can you talk about that?

ISHCHENKO: Yes. That’s an important case. And for leftist progressive people in the world, which they [would probably agree (?)] that Communist Party is not the Communist Party, it’s not a genuine leftist party, it’s quite conservative, reactionary, bourgeois Russian nationalist party, which was for the last at least ten years more interested in cultural division and cultural wars in Ukraine than the questions of bondage, even church split in Ukraine, than in social class issues. And this party voted anonymously for Yanukovych repressive wars on January 16, when not even all party regions, the ruling party MPs, voted for those laws. I would remind that those laws were [a capitalist who were there (?)] violent phase of Maidan and capitalizing in the toppling down of Yanukovych then. And the Communist Party was selling the positions in their electoral list to grand bourgeoisie. For example, the richest woman in the parliament, Oksana Kaletnyk, was a member of communist parliamentary group.

But what is really important now: that the Communist Party [reframing (?)] is not going to be banned for being reactionary, conservative Russian nationalist, but for voicing opposition opinion against the antiterrorist operation and the other decisions of the government. And, for example, in the official accusations voiced by the Ministry of Justice against the Communist Party, they say that–I’m almost quoting–the Communist Party expressed overtly negative attitudes for the actions of Ukrainian military in the Eastern Ukraine. So expressing overtly negative attitudes. And if [incompr.] militarily, it means a quite plain and simple attack on the freedom of speech. And now very many Ukrainians are expressing those negative attitudes. And it doesn’t mean that they should be punished for this. And it’s very important that this case–the Communist parliamentary group was disbanded some weeks ago, and the case disband the Communist Party will be or should be taken to the court in this court session, which should be somewhere in the middle of August.

And all this case is going now in the framework of quite large assault on the political freedoms in Ukraine, actually, which tend to actually compare to those repressive laws on January 16 passed by the Yanukovych government. And the reach includes–for example, today it was very important development (but this is not the only one, but only the peak of this): the parliament passed a bill in the first reading, not fully, but only the first reading, but yet a bill–it’s called “on sanctions”. And it was supposed to give a little ground towards [incompr.] sanctions, primarily against Russian Federation, as other countries in the UN and the United States passed sanctions following the Ukrainian annexation. But under this pretext, this bill include very large range of various repressive activities which can be implemented on very abstract grounds and under no court decision. So, for example, they can ban mass media or disband the party of social movement under no court decision if their national–if the Council for National Security and Defense will decide about this. And this [council (?)], this National Security and Defense Council, is actually a group of a very narrow sort of people, of the top officials in Ukraine. Its constituency is decided by the president. And it includes the top officials from the law enforcement agencies, like the Ministry of Defense, the ministry of interior, Security Service, intelligence, also some officials who are responsible for economic security, like the minister of finance, the head of the National Bank. And this is not more than 15 people. And they can decide on these things, like to ban a party, to ban mass media, to arrest the property, without any court decision. And the [interim (?)] bill will be passed on Thursday to the second reading. It will be kind of creating a mechanism for establishing of full-scale dictatorship in Ukraine.

And, of course, for many people now in Ukraine, the patriotic feelings are very, very high, and they can justify many things under the threat of foreign invasion.

WORONCZUK: But do you think that this sanctions–.

ISHCHENKO: It’s really important to see that this attack on the political freedoms cannot be justified with this Russian threat. It’s really exceeding what can be justified in this situation. For example, I understand some suspicion of danger to national interests, that it can arrest property, ban mass media, disband movements, disband parties, and it doesn’t even involve some real participation in the armed struggle. The grounds for the sanctions, as it’s said in this law, are very abstract. As I said, it can be some things like real or even potential threat to national interests, to national security, sovereignty on territorial integrity of Ukraine. You can put here very many things, even voicing some opposition opinions [on the floor (?)] it’s quite clear that the opposition media might be in danger after this law may be passed this week.

WORONCZUK: Well, as a lecturer at a university in Kiev, do you think that this sanctions bill can also be a threat to academic freedom?

ISHCHENKO: Yes, but as I said, it’s not the only development in this assault on political freedoms in Ukraine. Recently, Serhiy Kvit, who had been new minister of education, wrote a letter, official letter to university administrations allowing them to sack university lecturers on the grounds of their immorality. They found a kind of article in the labor code of Ukraine where it’s possible to sack lecturers, the lecturers and the teachers working in the schools and education sphere, and it should be kind of like a morality of [authorities (?)]. And it’s also possible to sac them on this immorality grounds.

But what he makes is connecting this immorality thing, which can be interpreted very widely–huge space for interpretations what is moral and what is immoral [incompr.] And [incompr.] connects this morality, I think, to the political position of those lecturers. And this is done under the pretext that many (especially Eastern Ukrainian) lecturers supported separatist movement. And now he says that it’s immoral to let them teach in the Ukrainian universities.

But what is the problem and actually the essence of this document: that if a person participating in some, let’s say, terrorist activities, an armed struggle against the state, this person should be prosecuted by the security service or other law enforcement agencies, he should be taken to the court, in the court, to prove that this person was actually breaking the law or were participating in the armed struggle. A nd if they prove it, their punishment for this unlawful activity would definitely exclude any possibility to teach in the university.

But why youth and university administrations against–like, it’s a kind of a repressive factor pfor those people, for those lecturers who were not participating in any kind of real terrorist activity or who were organizing referenda and unlawful referenda in Donetsk and Lugansk regions, but precisely for those who are voicing some opposition opinions. And in this situation they can be threatened, they can be blackmailed, and they can be punished without any court decision on there. They can be sacked from the universities. They can lose their job position. And, of course, this is another mechanism of establishing censorship and oppression in Ukraine.

WORONCZUK: Okay. Volodymyr Ishchenko, thank you so 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.