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Sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko says the Ukrainian civil war has led to popular mobilization around anti-Russian nationalism instead of the major socioeconomic issues facing the country

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

It’s been about three weeks since Ukraine, Russia, and rebels in East Ukraine agreed to a ceasefire in an agreement called the Minsk Protocol, though it doesn’t seem like much of a ceasefire, as the fighting still continues. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s parliament has passed legislation granting a three-year status of greater autonomy to Lugansk and Donetsk, which are the two regions that remained a stronghold for rebel fighters since the armed revolt escalated in April of this year. And a week ago, on September 19, Russian and Ukrainian officials met with the OSCE, that is, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, to work on terms for implementing a buffer zone to bring the fighting to an end. And while the Russian role in the civil war continues to remain unclear, over 100 Russian soldiers have been reportedly killed and Ukraine, and NATO is claiming that Russian soldiers have withdrawn a significant amount of troops from Ukraine.

The death toll from the six-month-long civil war stands above 2,500 and has created over 1 million refugees, with about 800,000 of them now living in Russia, according to the UN. And Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, after announcing steps for closer ties to the E.U., said the worst part of the fighting is now over.

Joining us now to talk about the ceasefire and the outcome of the civil war in Ukraine is Volodymyr Ishchenko. Volodymyr is a sociologist studying social protests 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, do you think that the ceasefire proposals and the special autonomy status will resolve the fighting and bring the civil war to an end?

ISHCHENKO: That’s–first of all, the ceasefire has not been actually followed by both parties of the conflict, either by Ukrainian forces or by separatists, although it’s definitely true that the scale of fighting is now much less than it was before. But still, even today there was news that some shelling happened in Donetsk.

Today, Poroshenko said that for the first day since many months, no one had been killed in this area. So the military conflict is definitely becoming much less intense.

But still there’s–the problem is also this: there’s no centralized command in the separatist forces, so they do not actually control all their groups which have weapons and may attack Ukrainian forces. And on the other hand, it’s pretty much the same on the Ukrainian side, where there are volunteer battalions which may be more or less autonomous. So to establish a real ceasefire, it would take much longer time.

And in the same time, this law on the autonomy, it’s not actually a law on the autonomy. It’s a law on some special self-government [incompr.] only some departments in Donetsk and Lugansk provinces. It’s not even about the whole area of those provinces, but only about the districts controlled by the separatists. And it was pushed through the parliament by Poroshenko very much in the way that Yanukovych used to push his famous dictatorial–so-called dictatorial laws in January, which then escalated the violence in the center of Kiev.

And these laws were criticized for breaking the procedure, and they were immediately criticized by the far-right Svoboda Party and by Yulia Tymoshenko party for betraying the national interests of Ukraine. So they were seeing it as a kind of a capitulation to surrendering to Russian demands. And it seems that these laws are not satisfying either party in the conflict. Neither you claim Ukraine one nor the separatist one, or the–it seems that they are not actually recognizing this law.

The messages we receive from that side are mainly that they will not help the Ukrainian elections scheduled for the late October. They will have their own elections on their own procedure. And they are not agreeing either on federation or confederation; they are speaking about a sovereign state in this area.

And it’s–very much depends on the Russian pressure on the separatists in case Russia is actually interested in to stop the war. And it also depends on the Western powers’ pressure on Ukrainian government to prevented to have another offensive and then to these areas in, well, the military way. And the biggest problem with all of this is that the institutional changes are not discussed. So this law is only for three years. It’s not even given the autonomy, it’s not given the economy for the whole areas. The separatists are have ambitions to take control. And it doesn’t seem to solve those problems which were at the bottom, beneath this whole civil conflict in Ukraine. That’s the biggest problem with it.

WORONCZUK: So what effect do you think that the civil war is going to have on the upcoming parliamentary elections, which are due to take place on October 26?

ISHCHENKO: Well, it seems that these elections may escalate the nationalist mobilization in Ukraine. So the major political parties will compete with each other mainly on the nationalist agenda. And any significant concession to the separatists or to Russia will be immediately attacked by other competitors basically on the nationalist ground. And in this situation, it’s actually quite dangerous that it will continue with the nationalist mobilization we see now. And actually what we need now is to decrease it, not to increase it. And these elections are actually very bad, creating very bad opportunities for a dangerous development.

WORONCZUK: Okay. And to conclude, as a researcher of social protests in Ukraine, can you give us an update on what your research has found in recent months on protest activity?

ISHCHENKO: Yes. We have the most recent data of our systematic [humanitarian overall protest demands and repressions (?)] in Ukraine, and the number of interesting findings of what has happening in the last month, this updated about August. And what we see is a still very high level of protest activity after almost half a year since the Maidan ended in the late February.

But this very high number of protest events, which is two, three times higher than it was in comparable period in the previous years, this very high number of protest events is, very unusually, about ideological mobilization, about ideological demands. More than half of them were connected to this or that demands related to Ukrainian nationalism or Ukrainian /prɛtɛrtiz/ and demands, so the protests for the united Ukraine or against Russia, against Putin, against Russian intervention, and usually very little number of social economic protests, even despite indeed deteriorating economic situation and the falling national currency the wage areas and growing unemployment and growing crisis and expenditures of the household. But people are not protesting about those issues. They protest very little. Usually you are seeing that the absolute majority of protest events and Ukraine were about social economic issues. This was true, for example, in the last years before Maidan started. More than half of protest events in the last year before the late November were about social economic problems. And in the last month, in August, social economic protests were only twentysomething percent of all of then protest events in Ukraine.

And it’s not only about social economic protests. It’s also about some concrete reforms which were actually demanded by Maidan, for example, so-called /wʌsˈtreɪʃən/ or cleaning the power of former officials corrupted by Yanukovych regime, or protests with demand to fight corruption, or even antimobilization, meaning against mobilization to the war. Protests are not among the most popular demands for Ukrainian protesters.

And what we can conclude from this data is that the expectations for another protest wave in Ukraine, which some commenters of the social Maidan were basically meaning that deteriorating economic situation will push people to raise social economic demands and challenge their economic policy, mainly neoliberal economic policy, of the government, this is too premature to say that this is happening now. It seems that unless this wave of patriotic mobilization pushing people /tuːər/ fight against their foreign enemy, which is seen as the main enemy now, until this wave of patriotic mobilization wave become lesser, it doesn’t seem probable that this social mobilization would increase. So for people to start to fight for their immediate social economic interests, it’s important to totally change their vision of where their enemy is. And their real enemy is at home, not actually abroad, the policies of the new government aligned behind what they’re suffering and behind the lowering living standards. And also they have very much to do with the ongoing war in the Eastern Ukraine.

WORONCZUK: Okay. Volodymyr Ishchenko, coming to us from Kiev.

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.