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Ukraine communists: ‘face to face with 21st century fascism’

John Dolva

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Workers World: What is the role of U.S. imperialism in Ukraine today?

Victor Shapinov: It is very significant now, and Maidan showed that. [Maidan is the pro-imperialist movement which took its name from the central square of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, where it held protests in late 2013 and early 2014. The backbone of this movement, which received extensive funding and political support from the U.S. government, were neo-Nazi gangs and political parties. — WW]

[Maidan culminated in the overthrow of the elected government of President Victor Yanukovich in February. It brought to power an alliance of wealthy oligarchs, neoliberal politicians and fascists that have carried out a brutal war against the working class, primarily Russian-speaking population of the Donbass region and anti-fascists throughout Ukraine.]

Before Maidan, we didn’t believe that the U.S. role was so important in countries like Ukraine. We sometimes laughed at conspiracy theorists who said that everything was produced by the U.S. State Department, the CIA and so on.

Of course that’s not true, because its real basis is the capitalist crisis. Ukraine was just the weakest link in the chain of post-Soviet countries. There are many contradictions. Different imperialist forces and even nonimperialist forces, try to take advantage of this situation to achieve their goals. However, U.S. imperialism has the best instruments in this field.

For instance, in Ukrainian politics, U.S. imperialism is not limited to direct agents who are active in politics and who hold pro-Western positions. Around the edges, they have a field of friendship and alliances with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and human rights organizations. They do not always directly support U.S. imperialism. But in critical moments — for example, when Maidan started — in that situation, they had a command to go there and so they went.

We went to investigate Maidan at the beginning [in November 2013]. We saw only about 1,000 people, and many were from NGOs, human rights organizations and so on. We recognized many of them and some we knew personally, because when you are active in politics you get to know them.

From the point of view of political and financial mechanics, Ukraine is totally integrated into the system led by the United States. Ukrainian oligarchs all have their money, their bank accounts, in Europe and the U.S. They are closely linked with imperialist capital.

We also had political consultants such as Paul Manafort [u.S. lobbyist and campaign advisor to several Republican presidents]. He was a confidant of former President Yanukovich. But all Ukrainian politicians sought his advice. It was very good practice for them to go and ask him how to do everything. It was one of the ways for Washington to influence events. It was not overt; it was communication from Ukrainian politicians to some forces in the U.S. about how to do things in Ukrainian politics.

Another of these mechanisms is credit from the International Monetary Fund. All previous Ukrainian governments [since the breakup of the USSR in 1991] were dependent on IMF credits. The amount owed is always increasing, allowing the West to set conditions; for example, to destroy the social-care system or to raise prices of gas for the population.

WW: What is your view of the current ceasefire agreement negotiated in Minsk? [The Minsk accords were negotiated at the initiative of the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (representing the European Union) and the Russian Federation. The agreement, signed on Sept. 5, was supposed to end the civil war between Ukraine and the newly independent Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics in the southeast Donbass mining region. On September 16, the Ukrainian parliament passed a law granting “certain areas of Donetsk and Lugansk” special status for three years.]

VS: There is no real ceasefire. Ukrainian military attacks have not stopped for even one day.

After the treaty in Minsk, we saw the most cruel artillery attack ever on the city of Donetsk, even more than in the heaviest days of the war. We believe there is some under-the-table negotiation between U.S. imperialism, the European Union and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin over how to slow the situation to something acceptable for everybody.

The Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics are just pawns in this big game. It’s a pity but it’s true. The People’s Republics have to sign these treaties because now they cannot survive without humanitarian aid from Russia.

We think that’s the reason [former Donetsk Defense Minister and militia leader Igor] Strelkov was removed was because he was hardline in this conflict. Now we see that most military commanders don’t support the agreement. Before Minsk, the people’s militia was advancing, the Ukrainian army was depressed and close to defeat at some points.

One reason the militias don’t support this peace treaty is that there is only a small piece of land in this configuration. In this way the People’s Republics, or Novorossia, will not survive or will be completely dependent on Russia. They want to make a real state that can be independent. Of course, they want friendly relations with Russia, but it would not be a puppet.

Also — and we are exercising what influence we have on this point — it is not only about the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. It’s a question for at least a fifth of Ukraine, or maybe for all of it.

We don’t think Ukraine, even the northwest parts, should have to be under the power of the oligarchs, nationalists and fascists. People should not have to live under this regime, even if it has some mass support right now. We think it is very bad for all Ukraine. It destroys the economic well-being of the people in the West and in Kiev also.

WW: How is Borotba raising the question of autonomy and self-determination for other regions of Ukraine, such as Odessa, where neo-Nazis massacred 48 activists on May 2?

VS: After the Maidan coup, Borotba was very active in building the resistance movement in southeastern cities such as Kharkov and Odessa.

Now, from exile in Crimea, we have helped to establish a Committee for the Liberation of Odessa, which consists of some members of the Odessa regional parliament, city council members, and civil and political activists. We’ve made a demand for the Ukraine government to expand the treaty with Lugansk and Donetsk, to grant self-government and other things like their own municipal militias so the people’s militia can transform into it and have some legal rights to retain their arms, for example. Also the right of residents to education in their native languages.

We think this can be a first step to stop the civil war, which continues not only in Donbass, but in Odessa and Kharkov, not as an armed struggle, but as partisan actions and civil protests which are repressed. But still, people are going out and making demands. There is always far-right terror against activists. Many are political prisoners, some of them were beaten or killed by neo-Nazis, and others had to leave like our members, who left Ukraine and now live in Crimea.

One of the first steps toward stopping the civil war can be extending the special status

for Donetsk and Lugansk to all the territories of the southeast. We will try to hold a demonstration in Odessa soon to support this demand. The ultranationalist forces are already very angry about this demand because, from our side, it is a constructive step. They can’t just say, “They are terrorists. They are separatists.”

We say, “Okay, you have passed this law on special status, so we want to use it for our regions too.” Because now these regions are directly ruled by people who were appointed from Kiev and have no roots in these regions. They utilize nationalist paramilitary gangs, who in critical situations, can defend them. So it is an occupation regime. This special status would be a first step toward some form of self-government.

But it’s only a tactical thing because as we said from the first day of this civil war, the only way to make peace is to defeat the Kiev junta. The class and social nature of the junta is to wage war against all people and groups. It is the only way for them to hold their power. That’s why we don’t believe these tactical measures, like a ceasefire or even the spreading of the special status regime to the southeast, will be a solution for Ukraine.

The forces awakened by Maidan are very destructive and dangerous for all society. We are face to face with the fascism of the 21st century. It is not because they have portraits of [ukrainian Nazi collaborator] Stepan Bandera or because they say “Ukraine über alles” like clones of Nazi Germany. The nature of fascism is that this is direct state power of big capital that uses some mass support from the middle class and other groups to destroy any political opposition with violence. This is the essence of fascism.

They say “We are democrats, we are liberals.” But they built this political structure. Now, if you conduct opposition politics in Ukraine, they will use violence against you. It can be police violence to accuse you as a separatist or terrorist; or if they cannot use police or the Security Service of Ukraine, they use the neo-Nazi gangs that can just kill you or beat you or terrorize your family and force you to leave the city.

Workers World: Tell us about your background and the founding of Union Borotba.

Victor Shapinov: I was born in Russia near Moscow, where I also went to school and university. At age 18 I joined the communist movement and the Russian Communist Workers Party (RKRP), which still exists.

For several years, I communicated with Ukrainian leftist and communist militants. In Russia, it was not the best time for left activities. There was a lot of repression. So in 2005, I moved to Kiev and began to organize there, mostly with former members of the Communist Party of Ukraine (KPU). In this way I began to work with Sergei Kirichuk and others who later participated in founding our movement.

In the late 1990s, the Communist Party was very popular. Many people believed that its chairperson, Peter Simonenko, could win the presidency. But the party leadership was very passive and always wanted to make deals with the bourgeois camp of Ukrainian politics. Grassroots activists were very upset, especially the young members, and there were a lot of splits from the KPU at this time.

We always tried to bring these forces together in some way. So we formed the Che Guevara Youth Movement, which became famous for organizing a rally against privatization and for renationalization of big factories. It was the biggest anti-capitalist mobilization ever held in Kiev [since the breakup of the Soviet Union — WW].

Afterward, we set up the Organization of Marxists of Ukraine. It was the result of the merger of several groups. It turned out to be very broad and academic, and not very revolutionary.

After assessing the development of this organization, and following further splits in the Communist Party, we were able to found the Borotba movement. We began this work in 2011 and held our founding congress in May 2012.

It’s important to explain about the Communist Party of Ukraine. At that time, its leadership was always seeking alliances in parliament with whichever capitalist party was strongest. Not many people in the West know this, but before allying with the Party of Regions of [deposed President Victor] Yanukovich, they were partners with the party of Yulia Timoshenko [far-right politician associated with the 2004 “Orange Revolution” and today part of the Kiev junta].

It was an unprincipled position by the KPU leadership, and for us, it meant we couldn’t just be the left wing of the Communist Party. Besides, comrades who wanted to be the left wing of the party were always swept out. Every year groups of good communists were expelled.

Alexei Albu, one of our comrades, was a left-wing leader of the Communist Party and Komsomol, the communist youth organization, in Odessa. He resigned and joined in organizing Borotba. Other militants in Odessa followed his example.

We focused on organizing within the labor movement. But by late 2012 and early 2013, the issue of fascism and radical nationalism came to the fore. Borotba was the first party to organize a protest against the fascist Svoboda Party entering parliament. We held a rally of 500 people in Kiev.

We never supported the Yanukovich regime, though, because we knew it was one of the reasons for the rise of the far right. Its politics were directed only to the interests of the biggest businesses, the so-called oligarchy. It bestowed money and power on the oligarchic groups, and these in turn supported the neo-Nazis. We could see that the fascists were an instrument that they used in politics.

WW: Borotba seems unique in the post-Soviet left in bringing Marxists from many backgrounds and historical currents into a united communist organization. How were you able to achieve that?

VS: We worked hard on it. It involved both theoretical and organizational work.

From the theoretical side, we tried to focus on the contradictions that exist in society now and analyze them from the point of view of Marxism.

We see that the splits that were part of the communist movement in the past are not so important now, or we see them in a very different way. We saw that there were some groups that are like reconstructors [this term refers to people who re-enact historic military battles, like Civil War re-enactors in the U.S.]. They want to refight the old battles.

We don’t want to be like this. We want to make real politics for the working class and oppressed peoples, and not play at being Stalin, or Trotsky, or Mao Zedong, or whatever. Because those people did not play at being Marx or the Jacobins. They made revolutionary politics for their times.

From the organizational side, when we started to create Borotba, we decided to try and look upon ourselves and what we were doing through the eyes of the people, not through the eyes of competing leftist groups.

How do the common people see us? That is a practical criterion for our work, not the opinions of some publications that spend all their time critiquing other leftists. If you don’t waste a lot of time on that, you have more time to observe how the people see you and how to reach them.

Even how bourgeois journalists see us is more important. How will they try to show our activities? Because the majority of people watch television or read the bourgeois press, it is important how we are represented to them.

Even if they write that we are “communist bastards,” it will be very good. Many people who are our potential supporters don’t believe in the capitalist media. But they see only the capitalist media because they don’t have any alternative. So if they read that we are bad, maybe they will think we are good!

It’s a question of how to use the possibilities offered by bourgeois politics and the bourgeois media to promote our work. Don’t be a sectarian who only goes to a picket line with their own newspaper to sell and tune everything else out.

I can’t say that we were so successful in these things, because the situation in Ukraine gave us very little time to realize our plans.

Workers World: What was Borotba’s view of the Maidan movement that overthrew President Victor Yanukovych in February? Washington and the corporate media told U.S. workers that it was a great democratic movement facing repression from a tyrannical dictator. [Maidan took its name from the central square of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, where it held protests in late 2013 and early 2014. — WW]

Victor Shapinov: Before the Maidan coup, Ukraine was a country without a significant army. Ukraine did not have any real enemies around, so our ruling class only established a police apparatus. The army was something that issued decrees and was used for corruption. Ukrainian military pilots didn’t even have enough hours in the sky to really be pilots.

But afterward, when the Maidan forces came to power, we saw a very fast militarization of all aspects of social life.

Even when Yanukovych was still in power, we knew they had firearms and bombs on Maidan Square. Everybody knew it. But Yanukovych feared the Western powers. They warned him that if he used police against the Maidan, he would be attacked and eliminated like [former Libyan leader Col. Muammar] Gadhafi. He was afraid, and as a result he lost everything.

Of course, we are not upset that Yanukovych disappeared. But you can see the influence of imperialism, its magnetic pull. You may have everything at your command — secret service, police — but you can’t use them if Western imperialism says, “Don’t do it.”

The core of Maidan was formed by paramilitary gangs, most of them with neo-Nazi or radical nationalist ideology. Some of them were called “Maidan Self-Defense.”

Another component was the “Golden Youth” — wealthy and middle-class young men who drive luxury cars and carry firearms. They hate the people accused of supporting Yanukovych, because, according to them, they are poor and stupid, human livestock. To them, politics should only be for businessmen.

These two ideological trends merged on the Maidan and developed a common enemy: the people of Donbass [the mining and industrial region of southeastern Ukraine].

They consider Donbass people bad because many of them are Russian speakers, and some of them are pro-Russian. This makes them the enemy of the fascist, nationalistic part of Maidan.

Donbass people are poor, most of them are miners and workers, and this makes them the enemy of the Golden Youth. They say the working classes are second-class people who should not vote or have political influence.

So it was not only a national question or language question, it was also a social and class question. They had not only Russophobic ideas, but also a kind of class racism against the Donbass “cattle.” The Polish aristocracy used this term for the peasants, and now the Maidan uses it for the people of Donbass.

WW: What did these groups do after Yanukovych’s overthrow?

VS: After the coup, they formed military brigades, paramilitary groups and started to hold demonstrations against political opponents.

Borotba was face to face with it. We were one of the first groups targeted. They came to our office right after the Maidan victory.

They wanted to kill us. They have the slogan, “Communists to the tree branch,” meaning communists should be hanged. It comes from the Bandera movement [pro-fascists who fought against the Soviet Red Army during the World War II Nazi occupation].

So we evacuated our comrades. When the fascists arrived at our office, they found only empty walls. All they could do was cut up some posters with knives.

In this situation, we could not continue our political activity in Kiev. We moved to Kharkov [ukraine’s second-largest city, located in the southeast]. Odessa and Kharkov became the most important centers of our organization during the AntiMaidan movement.

The nationalists and oligarchs sent their paramilitary gangs to the southeast. They called them “Trains of Friendship.” It was very cynical, because they wanted to beat up their opponents. They said, “We will teach you to love Ukraine.”

First, they went to Donetsk, but the people there fought back and they lost. After that, the first People’s Militias were formed in response.

Before that the resistance in Donetsk was peaceful. Of course there were some people with rifles, because there had also been people on Maidan with rifles, but it was not a militarized movement. They held rallies, like Maidan, but in the other political direction.

The paramilitaries also came to Kharkov and there were some fights. In one battle, two comrades from the Kharkov self-defense squad were killed by the fascists. It was a completely neo-Nazi outfit named “Misanthropic Division.” They made videos of themselves where they said, “We don’t fear death, because we will meet the Führer [Adolf Hitler, dictator of Nazi Germany from 1934 to 1945] in Valhalla.”

The high point of these clashes was on May 2 in Odessa. The fascists were very organized, they had several thousand paramilitary people, and they massacred protesters from Kulikovo Field who were against Maidan.

After Kiev launched its war in Donbass, many of these people joined the so-called territorial battalions. These are paramilitary groups armed by the state with firearms and artillery, but not within the structure of the official Ukrainian military, and not subordinated to the minister of Internal Affairs. Sometimes they are just private gangs, like the paramilitaries directly armed by the oligarch Igor Kolomoisky.

This situation does not exactly resemble classical German or Italian fascism. It’s more like the pro-fascist paramilitary movements of the 1970s and 1980s in Latin America. The oligarchs create paramilitary groups and use them to spread terror.

Even Amnesty International, which is supported by U.S. imperialism, published a report of military crimes by one of these groups, the Adar Battalion, which is guilty of marauding, looting, torturing and killing people in Donbass.

Next: Oligarchs and austerity

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