Marko Bojcun from the Ukraine Solidarity Campaign attended the conference “War in Ukraine and the Politics of the Left” in Kiev in September. He spoke to Solidarity.
The conference brought together people from European countries including Russia, Sweden, Moldova, Czechoslovakia, Germany and Britain. It reviewed the situation in Ukraine, particularly the war and discussed the response of the international and Ukrainian left.
Labour movement speakers addressed attacks on living standards and wages; others talked about working with refugees coming out of the zones; we heard from lawyers monitoring the erosion of democratic and civil rights. And Russian comrades spoke about their anti-war movement there.
The Ukrainian left is quite small, with much less influence on the politics than the left in Britain. This is because of the experience of Stalinism and Ukraine’s incorporation into the Soviet Union for 70-odd years. It has left a deep mark on the popular consciousness about socialism and communism. Since independence it has been very difficult to mount any left political response to the rise of capitalism in Ukraine.
People from the left did take part in the Maidan protests but didn’t really benefit because they were dominated by the nationalist forces. However after the separatist movement emerged in the east, Russia invaded Crimea and intervened in the Donbas, there’s been a very interesting and positive evolution. We’ve seen the emergence of a number of different left-wing groups, including the National Communist Front in the Donbas, Anti-Imperialist Action in Kharkiv province, Autonomous Resistance in Western Ukraine.
Young people involved in the protests have evolved to the left. They seem to have re-interpreted the situation and the politics of national self-determination and human emancipation and evolved towards a socialist position. So the left today is more heterogeneous, is larger.
In addition to the groups that came out of Trotskyist politics in the 1990s, or came out of the Communist Party Youth, you now have people who have evolved from Ukrainian nationalism.
The Ukrainian Left at the conference, and those from elsewhere, view the war in eastern Ukraine as a combination of an internal civil conflict/civil war and a foreign intervention by Russia. There are disagreements on the nature of the civil war in Ukraine, such as the extent to which there is popular participation on the side of the separatists. Or the extent to which this movement is really inspired and financed by big oligarchs that were driven out of Kiev after the fall of Yanukovych, and who mounted a revanche in eastern Ukraine in order to defend their property in the Donbass and mount a comeback.
No one on the Ukrainian left doubts that there has been a Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea and now an intervention by Russian forces into eastern Ukraine. What is the response to that? To demand the withdrawal and removal of all foreign fighters from the territory. To call for the participation of only Ukrainian citizens in the rebuilding of legitimate local government in Eastern Ukraine.
To say there needs to be a process of de-centralisation of power in Ukraine. But unless Russia ceases to have influence then any kind of federal arrangement for Ukraine really becomes a recipe for Russia to continually interfere in not only the domestic affairs of Ukraine but also its foreign policy.
Another most commonly held position [at the conference] was opposition to intervention by all the imperialist forces into Ukraine, Western or Russian. There has been a discussion about the extent to which western governments have been involved in the conflict. But it’s pretty widely agreed that Russia really has taken the initiative, has introduced force, has crossed borders and NATO’s and the EU’s reponse has been rather mild and hesitant.
There is a long ongoing struggle to incorporate Ukraine either into an Eastern-organised Eurasian economic union or a Western-organised European single market. Russian capital as well as West European capital has been investing heavily in the Ukrainian economy over the past ten years. Now that struggle has taken military form, but it’s the Russians that have taken the first big step. But there was in Ukrainian society, and in the Kiev government, a hope if not an expectation that NATO would more energetically and forcefully come in on the side of the Kiev government against Russia. However the EU has been fairly deeply divided about not only what support to give to Ukraine but about what level of sanctions should be put on Russia.
If you take the British left in a really broad sense, then the supporters of Putin, of the Russian campaign in Crimea and the separatist movement, are not a very big contingent in British society. The overwhelming majority of British society, I would say, is sympathetic to Ukraine’s claims and opposed the Russian intervention. On the left, there is an abiding and long-term tradition of support for the Soviet Union which has, since the collapse of the USSR, morphed into support for the geo-political enemies of America, and Russia is one of these. So therefore there is this rather unrealistic and in many ways absurd support for Putin’s Russia as though it stands in for an absent Soviet project. The accompaniment to that position is to paint the Maidan protesters in Ukraine as universally fascists and reactionaries.
There’s many people in the trade unions and in the mass media that were on the left before the collapse of the Soviet Union, that were allied to the Communist Party in one way or another, who don’t really want to point out the absurdity of this position.
I think it’s the responsibility of the left that understands what’s going on and is in contact with the Ukrainian and Russian Left, who are fighting both the Russian intervention and the capitalist government of Kiev in order to support the Ukrainian workers and students and pensioners to patiently and persistently explain the nature of the social and political forces that are lined up on either side of this struggle.
I think it’s very important that we bring to the British left, and to the British public the authentic voices of the left in Ukraine as well as in Russia.
We are translating the statements from the labour movement in Ukraine, the official trade union federation, the left-wing organisations. A lot of the stuff coming from the pro-Putin or pro-separatist left is really a recycling of material from state agencies and from long-standing lobbyists and apologists for the Kremlin. We need to hear authentic voices from Ukraine.