Time to reboot the political scene?

First a pro-EU revolution, now war with Russophile separatists and economic crisis, both ongoing: but what’s next for Ukraine? Sophia Christoforidou of the Greek media outlet “Inside Story” arrives in Kyiv to speak to people from many walks of life about their hopes and fears for the country’s future.

My first experience of Ukraine was being ripped off by a taxi driver. I paid 700 hryvnias (UAH) for a journey that would normally cost 70. I went from the airport almost straight to the Vystavkovyj exhibition centre in Kyiv, where I was to meet the head of the far-right nationalist organization “Right Sector”, Andrei Tarasenko, who was being prosecuted by Russia for crimes against Russian citizens. “Right Sector is an interesting phenomenon. They appeared as an alliance of far-right groups, with many differences between them. Some are openly neo-Nazis, some just ultra-conservative. They self-identify as radical nationalists, with the distinction that they are not interested in matters of sexuality or ethnicity. Anyone who strives for an independent Ukraine is considered Ukrainian”, says Alia Shandra, chief editor of EuroMaidan Press.

The anti-Russian and anti-European Right Sector did not manage to get into parliament in the recent elections. “It came from nowhere and now it’s dissolving. It was just an ‘exotic story’ for the mass media, but it didn’t have support from the public, that’s why it didn’t do well in the elections”, Oksana Forostyna, journalist and owner of a newly established publishing house, tells me. Today the organization has split and its former leader Dmytro Yarosh has set up his own party, which has seats in the 450-member Ukrainian Rada.

Graffiti in Kyiv. Photo: Sophia Christoforidou.

“I personally have no sympathy for Right Sector: they’re autocratic, they’re homophobic, but they’re not racist or anti-Semitic. Factions that split from Right Sector are closer to racist ideas; some also have a Nazi past. We also have the Azov Battalion, which is much more worrying to antifascists and champions of human rights. In any event, even in this case, when some members of the battalion did get into parliament, they managed to lower the tone of their racist rhetoric. Of course, fundamentally, we suspect that they will continue to have this agenda, but luckily they don’t have influence when it comes to decision-making”, adds Maxim Butkevych, journalist and human rights activist at the Social Action Center and member of the left-wing organisation NoBorder.

There is of course also the nationalist party Svoboda, elements of which openly express neo-Nazi views. Of the 37 Svoboda MPs who were elected in 2012, only six were re-elected in the October 2014 elections. “Can we say that Greece turned them towards fascism because Golden Dawn has 12 seats in parliament? The image of a fascist Ukraine is what the Russian media portray”, adds Andriy Savenko, professor of Modern Greek Studies at the Taras Shevchenko University in Kyiv.

A celebration for volunteers

In any event, during those first hours in Kyiv, I kept taking for an undercover fascist anyone I saw at the Vystavkovyi exhibition centre, where a celebration was being held for volunteers who had fought on the eastern front against anti-government fighters. It was a celebration that had been patched together, much like the country itself. Young girls dressed in traditional costume and accompanied by jazz and swing, young men dancing the lindy hop, a Red Cross tent, models showing off camouflage uniform that made them look like bushes, stalls selling handicrafts in support of veterans, a stand handing out free tea and local food. And of course men dressed in fatigues.

“We provide legal and psychological help to soldiers and anyone who fought as a volunteer”, Victor, one of the volunteers informing veterans of their rights, tells me. What sort of legal help? They would have to prove they actually fought in order to be entitled to a basic monthly allowance of 40 hryvnias. Two years ago, when the war started “buses would pass by and pick up people from Maidan Square to fight in Donbass, without documentation or registration. No one thought that when they came back they would have nothing”, says Victor.

He informs me that when the war with Vladimir Putin began in Crimea and then in Donbass, on the eastern edge of Ukraine, between pro-Russian separatists and government forces, the Ukrainian army was at rock bottom. Over the last two years, the majority of active Ukrainians of all ethnicities have supported the army. Poor people volunteer and the rich give money, but do not want to appear in public. Their motivation is not necessarily humility, I think. In the days to come, a businessman will tell me that he gives 250,000 dollars a year to the army, explaining “don’t think that I give that for weapons; I give it exclusively for medicines”. That particular businessman is far from considering himself an oligarch, but the amount is astronomical compared to the 100 hryvnias (four dollars) that each Ukrainian family typically donates on an annual basis.

A few yards away, in a pavilion, soldiers with Azov Battalion armbands (which directly reference the symbol of the SS) teach children under ten to handle weapons.

A famous singer, Julia, tells us that since 2014 she has been touring the sites of conflict to give encouragement to the soldiers on the frontline, singing songs about the feats of the controversial national hero Stepan Bandera, leader of the historic movement for Ukrainian independence from the Russians, and Nazi collaborator.

The head of Right Sector

Among those who went to the front in the first days of the conflicts was Andriy Tarasenko, one of the coordinators of Right Sector during the Maidan uprising in February 2014, which resulted in the ousting of president Yanukovych. Tarasenko is introduced to us as the leader of the organization. He agrees to speak to Greek journalists despite his evident suspicion, as in his view all Greeks are Russophiles.

Our discussion starts with Maidan. “We started Right Sector because we wanted to show our nationalistic view. We didn’t have weapons, so it wasn’t a military organization, it was paramilitary”, he says, then immediately corrects himself: “Maybe there were some weapons in the final days, but it wasn’t just Right Sector that had them. The aim at Maidan was to overthrow the Yanukovych regime, and we succeeded. But we wanted to change the system, not just Yanukovych, but we still haven’t managed that even today.” When we ask him what type of changes are needed and if they include president Poroshenko, he replies, “It doesn’t matter who is president. Today’s president is the same as the others. It’s the system that needs to change. Oligarchs destroy everything, that’s what we need to change”.

We ask him to comment on reports that the Right Sector is an extremist and violent organization. “Yes, we are an extreme party, but we don’t hit people without a reason”, he says with disarming honesty. What would be the reason for them hitting someone? “Anything anti-Ukrainian. Our ideology is nationalism pure and simple”, he repeats persistently every time we ask in a roundabout or direct way about ideologies related to neo-Nazis, the Front National in France or Golden Dawn in Greece. “The problem is that Le Pen’s party is pro-Russian. A few years ago we had links with Golden Dawn, but that is also a pro-Russian party. We have links with nationalist parties in eastern Europe, such as in Latvia. We feel close to eastern Europe and the Baltic countries, Poland and the Czech Republic. Of course we are Europeans because we are in Europe geographically, but we are against the EU as a construct, because ideologically it is like a liberal dictatorship”, says Tarasenko.

All the time he is speaking I can’t take my eyes of the T-shirt he’s wearing. Four knives shaped into a swastika – which only he seems not to make out – with the slogan “no knife, no life”. “It’s nothing, it’s just knives”, he tells me, but when he poses to be photographed for Inside Story, he zips up his jacket to hide his shirt. “I want us to win and take back the land, I don’t want anyone to touch our independence. And that’s why the Russian Federation must be destroyed”, he says. For the moment, if anyone has been destroyed it’s Right Sector, who failed to get into parliament. “We gave our money for the war, not for the elections”.

The veterans

Two soldiers taking part in the celebration for veterans agree to speak to us, as long as their faces are not shown on camera. Yuri was a border guard and Dmitri, or Dima, served in the armed forces. They both lost their feet in the war.

Dmitri is famous for his achievements, as I realized from people interrupting us to ask to have their photograph taken with him. He was amongst those who fought in the Saur-Mohlya heights on the Lugansk-Donetsk border, controlled by the separatists. “I didn’t go to Russia, they came to attack my country. I stayed here and protected the motherland”, Dmitri says.

And yet anyone living in eastern Ukraine talks about their own “motherland”; they say that they were born there going back generations, but they don’t feel Ukrainian and want autonomy, we observe. “There are boundaries drawn so that the country has 24 areas, with Crimea, which we lost, I hope temporarily. All the separatists are egged on by the Russians. They have Russian flags, they use Russian weapons, tanks, heavy artillery, drones. They’re brand new weapons, not from the Soviet times”, he says, without answering the question. Yuri refers to the region’s past, he talks about Soviet purges amongst local populations and settlement by Russian ex-convicts working in the mines. “These criminals hope that if the former eastern areas are autonomous they will gain power. Something similar happened in Crimea, prime minister Aksyonov is an ex-con”.

Say Ukraine recovers the regions from the separatists, can they co-exist together? Can the wounds be healed? “I will never forgive those who tried to kill me, I will never forgive them for the foot I lost and for the dead children killed by Russian terrorists”, says Dima. Yuri adds: “I can’t forgive them either. I can’t imagine how they should be treated, they betrayed us.” Dima believes that the solution is for them to leave Ukraine at the end of the war. “We can’t keep them by force, let’s give them the opportunity to go to Russia and then lock our borders and take back Crimea”, he says with patriotic fervour. Yuri is more conciliatory: “We should filter them – who are the separatists and who are just their victims. Then we’ll follow the practices that European countries use for migrants, in other words they first have to pass exams about the history of Ukraine, the language, the laws.”

But which language? The two soldiers have been talking to us the whole time in Russian. “We don’t have a problem with the Russian language”, says Dmitri, “the main problem is that many Ukrainians don’t want to speak Ukrainian, it’s something that’s left over from the years of the USSR, when the regime obliged us to speak Russian. If you wanted to have a career in public administration, you had to be a member of the party and speak Russian. Most Russian-speakers are from the East, where [the language spoken] relates to urbanization, but even there we have nuclei of Ukrainian-speakers”.

Post-Maidan disappointment

The Maidan uprising, or Euromaidan as it is often called, had as its primary goal the exertion of pressure on the Ukrainian government to sign the association agreement with the EU, and was thus a pivotal moment in the history of modern Ukraine.

After Maidan, Ukrainian society has been trying to construct a new collective identity and maintain the activist momentum of 2014, in spite of the disappointment that exists about the hopes that were dashed and the reforms that did not come about. It is trying to build its future against the backdrop of the “frozen conflict” in the east of the country and the one million internally displaced persons that it has created, the return of the IMF, projected energy price rises and corruption in the judicial sphere.

“The people used to be very passive. If someone with money came along and destroyed a historical park to build a shopping centre, there was no reaction. But that changed after Euromaidan. There was a blooming of national and social conscience at that time, we had the feeling that society belonged to us. Now people will react if they see policemen preying on old ladies selling cigarettes on the underground”, professor Andriy Savenko tells me. And he himself admits that two years after Maidan there is great disappointment because change is very slow. “We reduce corruption in one place, it pops up somewhere else. And still, like before, you find the president’s flunkies in all the jobs. Whoever is closest to the president gets the jobs. I went down to Maidan to see a different Ukraine, but that only happens in fairy tales”.

The publisher Oksana Forostyna tells me that “governments and political elites didn’t manage to claim the window of opportunity that Maidan offered, that massive stock of capital. The excuse of the war was used to explain why one reform or another failed. Anyway, even if the reforms failed in the end, it would be better than Yanukovych staying in power”.

For his part, Maxim Butkevych comments: “Since Yanukovych fell, people had hopes of radical democratic changes. At first activists saw the authorities as partners, now there’s an ever-widening gap. And with the war as a pretext no changes go ahead.”

Corruption and the judicial system

“Everyone says we have to fight against corruption and the oligarchs, but corruption is in the whole country from top to bottom”, Forostyna tells me. “Neither Putin nor Poroshenko were to blame for your taxi driver demanding 700 hryvnias instead of 70. It’s the same in schools, hospitals. It’s not just the little ‘backhander’ that public officials take, using the excuse of their low salaries. It’s the ineffective management that doesn’t account for where public money is being spent. You pay taxes for a public health system and then you pay again because they don’t have the cash for drugs and other consumables, you pay under the table or they ask you to make a donation but you don’t choose how effectively your money is used, if they actually don’t have the stuff or if they’re just stealing. Anyone you ask will tell you the number one problem and the most urgent reform that needs to happen is the justice system. You might have a good police service (it’s a small success story, the new police service) but if you have the old corrupt judges, you can’t protect your property or your rights, you have to have a lot of luck or a lot of money”.

“Everyone talks about the new police force because they have good uniforms, but this new body only covers low level criminality. Ukraine’s problem is the people at the top, who steal a lot of money and no one touches them”, says Alia Shandra of Euromaidan Press. Not only did the General Prosecutors Vitaly Yarema and Viktor Shokin fail to go into the substance of investigations into the murders that took place during Euromaidan, but they themselves were mixed up in corruption scandals. The two deputy prosecutors Sakvarelidze and Kasko, who took the job after a public competition, filed a big case against the prosecutors themselves. “They started to dig, until they uncovered a big case. At the houses of two Kyiv prosecutors, Aleksandr Korniyts and Vladimir Shapakin, discoveries were made of 65 diamonds, cocaine, guns and more than half a million dollars. It was a big case and the prosecutors with diamonds were the tip of the iceberg. The question is, why didn’t Poroshenko do something? The only possible explanation I can give is that he is also tangled up in it”, says Shandra, who has investigated the matter as a journalist.

The “troublesome” prosecutors Sakvarelidze and Kasko were eventually laid off and what’s more a prosecutorial investigation was brought against them for violation of the code of ethics. For some months now Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko has been in place, a Poroshenko man, who had no legal qualifications (the law even had to be changed for him to get the job). Of the 12 top members of the judiciary accused of corruption or obstructing investigations, the Prosecutor General has fired just one, a fact that for many shows he functions more as a politician maintaining his public relations than as a reformer of the system.

Towards a new Maidan?

Today, various small opposition parties come and go from the governing coalition, tied all the while to the economic interests of the oligarchs. One of the biggest oligarchs (and the owner of a TV-channel) is president Poroshenko himself, whose fortune is said to have doubled following Maidan.

“After Yanukovych fell there was a power vacuum, which was filled by oligarchs wanting to control the flow of money. But they didn’t move far away from Yanukovych’s take on society. Poroshenko put in place the National Anti-Corruption Bureau, which he controls himself. Avakov who is now the Minister for Internal Affairs responsible for the reforms was a businessman who had a problem with the law!” says Aleksandr Kravtsov, an activist who started AutoMaidan and a candidate for the Democratic Alliance party in the local elections. He spent 1000 dollars on his campaign, but in the end he finished behind the candidate from the oligarchs’ party, who of course spent a lot more.

Now Kravstov has dedicated himself to his business in order to get money together for the next elections. “There is the danger of our democracy taking backward steps because the people leading think with the old mind set. It’s time to reboot the political scene”, he says, predicting that “maybe in five to seven years we’ll have a new Maidan. The pressure on the government will be via the internet, because the television channels belong to the oligarchs”.

For now, at least, no one dares to take the step of organizing the next Maidan and destabilize the government, for fear of appearing to add grist to Putin’s mill. “We have to take the middle road, so as not to destabilize Poroshenko and for everything to collapse meanwhile, as is Russia’s aim”, says Alia Shandra. War and the danger of new instability have often led journalists to self-censor.

Anyway, some people seem to be in a hurry for more overthrows. According to research on the portal Texty.org.ua, the frenzy on social media that started in February 2016 and has gone on for eight months calling for the overthrow of the government by a new Maidan was orchestrated from Moscow. According to the research in question, there are 29 groups on Facebook and Vkontakte (the Russian edition of Facebook) where more than 2000 troll profiles with IP addresses in Russia are coordinated by a former fighter of the Donetsk People’s Republic who now operates in Moscow.

Human rights

Ukraine has had to face a succession of challenges in the field of human rights, inside and outside the country. Alia Shandra recalls the cases of 28 Ukrainians imprisoned in Crimea, including the director Sentsov and the anarchist Kolchenko, who were sentenced as members of the “terrorist organization Right Sector”. “In Crimea everyone is called a terrorist, we have human rights violations against Ukrainians and Tatars, there is no press freedom, and Muslims in Crimea are prosecuted for supposedly being part of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is associated with ISIS. In the areas liberated by the Ukrainian army many organizations championing human rights have collected data on people who were imprisoned underground and tortured. 50 per cent of those imprisoned were executed”, Alia Shandra tells Inside Story.

For his part Maxim Butkevych notes that “they’re not all ‘baddies’ on that side and goodies from the Ukraine”. He cites the example of illegal prisons created by the Ukrainian security forces in areas of tension and the violence inflicted by the Tornado battalion against non-combatants. The battalion’s commander is facing charges of war crimes, the case is proceeding and he is hoping that justice will not be biased. “This is talked about more by human rights activists. Something like that was more difficult two years ago because we were facing the war and people were frightened that the Russian forces probably wouldn’t stop in the east”.

Today there are 1.7 million internally displaced people from Crimea living in Ukraine and they’re mainly from the eastern provinces. “20 to 30,000 people prosecuted for being activists left Crimea: Tatars and Ukrainians, independent journalists, human rights defenders, members of religious groups and anyone who didn’t want to live under occupation. People from the eastern provinces did not have particular views about Russia or Ukraine, they just wanted to move to a safe place. Some went to Russia, because the distance was shorter. Most of those who are in Ukraine moved to Kharkiv, Dnieper and Kyiv, where it was easier to find work, but on very low salaries, and two years later they still can’t build a normal life”, says Butkevych.

“The IMF is good for us”

Along with everything else, Ukraine has to face IMF pressures for reform in pensions and energy. “Ukrainian society still does not talk about the measures that accompanied the disbursement of the loan. We had a budget deficit and along came the IMF to give us a loan, so it was seen as something useful and good. Let’s see what’ll happen if more painful reforms are implemented”, Maxim Butkevych tells me. He himself took part in the anti-globalization movement, but he sees the IMF as a necessary evil. “I don’t like the fact that my country is in debt, but this loan is seeing off bankruptcy”, he says, even though he voices the complaint that “a country in such a strategic location and with such an economic, political and military crisis perhaps deserves other forms of external cooperation instead of the usual sinking into debt”.

The reception of foreign creditors in Ukraine is very different to that in Greece. “Here the IMF is not seen as an enemy. Many people are worried that we are in debt and we will have to pay a lot in the future, but at the same time they understand that as long as we have the support of the IMF the value of the hryvnia will remain stable”, Oksana Forostyna tells me.

“I would like the IMF not to give them a single cent. The extra money makes them lazy, they do a few reforms just for show”, says Alexandr Kravtsov, referring to the Poroshenko government. “Part of that money is given for the people, so that we don’t have protests, but Poroshenko can manage the IMF money to ‘control’ the situation in the country. If the oligarchs that govern us want to find money for public funds, they should look inside their own business empires”.

The most recent package of measures to fund the instalment of 1.7 billion dollars included the single natural gas price (regardless of consumption) as of May 2016. “Society is never happy to be put out, but realistically speaking the tariffs were very low, because for years they were being subsidised by Russia. It was its way of controlling Ukraine, and our citizens were brokers in this relationship. Ukrainians would waste energy because it was always so cheap. The increase in prices is the only way to increase energy saving and energy efficiency, which today is five times worse than in the EU”, says Alia Shandra. “Of course it is difficult for people with the economic crisis and the devaluation of the currency when tariffs go up too, and we see that populists keep on exploiting popular dissatisfaction. For example, the former prime minister Tymoshenko, who made a fortune from natural gas agreements is doing really well in the polls on the promise that she will bring down tariffs, and Ukrainians have a very short political memory”.

The first gatherings already started happening in November last year, and were repeated again this summer – some even christened the demonstrations about the increase in energy tariffs, “Tariff Maidan”. The new prices were imposed at the end of spring, when the weather had warmed up, and the big test will be in winter this year when consumption goes up.

Ukraine’s tomorrow

Kravtsov is trying to become part of the changes he wants to see in the country. After Maidan he started a business importing used electric cars. At the same time, his company’s Research and Development department developed a new type of portable battery for wireless use, and his next plans include importing solar panels for cars. “I want to see pragmatic changes in my country in the next 10 years. I dream of a Ukraine whose energy is independent of Russia and the energy oligarchs. We can achieve this goal of ten million “green” cars in ten years”. Today this goal seems very far off, as there are just 2000 electric cars on the country’s roads. Each one costs 15,000 euros, while the average salary is just 200 euros.

In 2015, Oksana Forostyna decided to leave her job as chief editor at a literary and art magazine to start her own business. “In the Yanukovych period I wouldn’t have thought of going self-employed. In the best case scenario I would be caught up in bureaucracy as the whole system was anti-business, you had to pay as much as you could in taxes and grease palms just to survive. If you were lucky and your business was going well, the risk was even bigger; you were in danger of falling victim to extortion. They would approach you and make an offer for you to sell at a low price, and if you refused you would be subject to stringent checks by the tax office and the police, which were essentially extortion. Even if the environment is even more difficult I no longer have the fear that if I make a mistake in my accounting books I’ll face massive fines”, she tells Inside Story. Seeing that people have an interest in business and innovation, she went on to publish books such as “Start-up nation” and Elon Musk’s biography.

A shining example of the new entrepreneurship springing up in Kyiv is ZeoAlliance, creator of popular software products “PC Keeper” and “Mac Keeper”. Rather than moving to the West Coast of the United States, the team was selected to be developed in Ukraine – creating 1000 jobs. Of course, their motto “Create the new normal” does not work for most people, for whom normal is the experience of a difficult environment with three successive currency devaluations against the dollar, inflation at 48.5 per cent and a 9.9 per cent recession for 2015. With wages ranging from 1500 to 5000 UAH (50-170 euros), which is not enough to live a normal life, it is no surprise that more than 40 per cent of Ukraine’s GDP comes from the shadow economy. One of the most archetypal examples is taxis: many Ukrainians use their own cars as taxis in Uber-style companies, while many work as complete pirates and cooperate with hotels to ferry their customers. Many people operate on the black market, and a lot of the unemployed do not go and declare themselves to the employment agency because they do not see the point in doing so. Therefore, it is not easy to identify the true economy.

“One of Maidan’s causes was social justice. We see the divide between rich and poor growing, and more and more people fall into the category of extreme poverty, especially those in the countryside and the elderly”, emphasizes Maxim Butkevych.

According to British Council research, almost one in two young Ukrainians consider migration as a solution. The translator Angelika Vengrous is amongst those who have opted for internal migration rather than heading abroad. “I was living in Nikolaev, in southern Ukraine, close to Crimea, and in 2014 I was scared that the Russians would arrive in tanks. I could also have gone abroad, I would just have needed a laptop and Wi-Fi to keep working, but I love my country and I want to stay here. I decided to come to Kyiv to set up my small business here. Luckily I didn’t have to grease any palms, but the situation is very bad. In spite of all this I’m trying to be optimistic”.

“When war first broke out many people joined the army because they wanted to support the country, others who had made a career abroad came back to work for the new government. Now I see things heading in the other direction. Many young, educated Ukrainians are looking for better luck abroad because they see that change is happening very slowly in Ukraine, and all our lives are going by quickly”, says Kravtsov. And what about him? “I’ll stay living here, unless this government also wants to lock me up or kill me”.

Published 9 December 2016
Original in Greek
Translated by Lucy Miles
First published by First published in insidestory.gr 4 November 2016 (Greek version); Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Sophia Christoforidou © Sophia Christoforidou / insidestory.gr / Eurozine

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