Ukrainian leftist leader speaks: ‘From the beginning, Maidan supported imperialist plunder’
The following interview with Sergei Kirichuk, leader in exile of Union Borotba (Struggle), was published at Initiativ-online.org on June 11, 2014. It was translated from German by Workers World managing editor John Catalinotto.
“From the beginning the Maidan [the demonstrations in Kiev’s central square] supported the free trade agreement with the EU. We, on the other hand, were from the beginning against the EU, which had no other goal but to plunder and destroy the Ukrainian economy.”
Initiativ: How and when was Borotba created?
SK: We are a very young, very new organization. We founded Borotba in 2011 as the result of a coalition of various left-wing groups. Some came from Marxist associations; others came from the Communist Party of Ukraine (KPU) and also its youth organization. We are different people with different backgrounds. We have Stalinists, Trotskyists, Maoists and people of other political backgrounds in our organization. We reached a point when we realized that these divisions are no longer as important as they once were. In various campaigns we have all worked together and found that these differences are not as significant now. We can work together to build something new; that was the key idea. A lot of people have participated in this process. To be honest, it was mostly politically experienced and educated people who have supported this process. But even workers without special training were involved, as well as leading people out of the labor movement. One of them comes from Kharkov. A few days ago someone tried to kidnap him.
Although for a long time we were very well organized and active, we were numerically a very small organization. We had regional offices in all major cities. At our biggest demonstrations we had several hundred participants.
When the crisis began, when the Maidan movement started [last November], we were from the beginning against this movement. It was a position many people could easily understand, especially people from the working class. Riding this wave, we increased our influence, and became one of the leading forces in cities like Kharkov, for example. After the Maidan coup [of Feb. 22], the fascists destroyed our headquarters in Kiev. Our comrades in western Ukraine went underground, while we continued to lead public activities in the east, where it was still possible.
The Ukrainian city of Kharkov was one of the largest industrial centers in the days of the Soviet Union, after Moscow and Leningrad. Today, Kharkov is one of the largest railway hubs in Europe. It’s a city with a good old left and democratic tradition.
It is therefore not at all surprising that the mood in Kharkov was and is so strong against the new oligarchic coup government. There were huge gatherings, which were all peaceful, against this new government in Kiev. And of course, we won over new members from this movement. For example, in one day, 300 people signed a statement that they would like to join our organization. And of course they were not all communists, socialists or leftists; they expressed their agreement with a specific policy. But 300 such declarations alone already have enormous importance. It showed how our program was right on target.
Initiativ: If someone asks what Borotba is, how do you answer them? What sets you apart from the KPU (Communist Party of Ukraine)?
SK: We are a communist organization. But the best known leftist organization in Ukraine is the KPU. We criticize this party very sharply, and we were clearly against their parliamentary illusions. The KPU was part of the oligarchic Yanukovych government. But if you say you’re a communist, then everyone thinks you’re part of the KPU. That is why we have taken the name Borotba. The name literally means “struggle,” and implicitly evokes the tradition of Ukrainian communists, who once had a newspaper named Borotba. There have been other organizations in the past that were called Borotba.
For westerners, the name sometimes sounds strange, but it has true Ukrainian roots. What is humorous here is that Borotba is the name in Ukrainian. In the Ukrainian media, we are naturally represented as Putin’s agents, as a pro-Russian party. The problem is that we of course also appear in the Russian-speaking regions with the Ukrainian name Borotba. Most people find it difficult to understand why such a party would have a Ukrainian name.
Initiativ: Right from the start you were against the Maidan. Why?
SK: From the beginning, the Maidan demonstrations made no social demands. Many people think the Maidan was some sort of great democratic movement, with social demands. The fascist forces came into the Maidan like a natural catastrophe, destroying the progressive part of the movement and putting themselves at the forefront. From the beginning, the Maidan supported the free trade agreement with the EU, which has no other content except plundering and destroying the Ukrainian economy.
On the other hand, the idea of success of the individual held sway. This culminated in the idea that the corrupt Ukrainian system dominated by oligarchs could be overcome if we were part of the EU. Those who are willing to work hard will be successful and become rich.
Not only the liberal nationalist opposition but also the Yanukovych government spread the same propaganda in the media. Look at the Baltic countries, they said. They have implemented reforms, they are part of the EU, they have wealth, they are so rich, and we have to follow that path too. But Ukrainians can see and think. They have noticed the crisis in the EU and, for example, also seen what happened in Greece. And there was this big anti-Greek campaign in Ukraine, which argued the following: In Greece, socialism rules, the people are very rich and very lazy. And now they have to pay for their behavior. This is no joke; I mean seriously, it’s what they argued.
For a long time we were the minority of a minority. For example, when I took part in a discussion on a TV show, I was the only one against European integration. All the official representatives [of the Yanukovych regime] as well as the opposition were in favor. And of course they had no reasonable arguments against my position, because I pointed out what the consequences of the free-trade zone would be. They could make not a single rational argument. They said, “Looking at the EU, they are all so rich,” and when I made it clear that I did not agree, they countered by saying they no longer wanted to hear such Soviet propaganda.
Initiativ: What were the reasons Yanukovych refused to submit to the EU’s dictates?
SK: Yanukovych did not sign the declaration with the EU because there was pressure from the Russian side. The problem was that Russia was not able or willing to find a compromise that would have allowed Ukraine to cooperate with Russia as well as with the EU. On the other hand, there was great pressure from Ukrainian business, especially from the high-technology sector, for example, the industry that produces engines for helicopters, airplanes, nuclear weapons and space rockets; they produce for the Russian market and not for the EU. Some 50 percent of Ukrainian foreign trade is with the Russian Federation and the other half is with the EU. So Yanukovych had pressure on both sides from oligarchs.
The difference is Ukraine delivers many raw materials to the EU, and the profit from these sectors is very low, while what is delivered to Russia is high-price, high-tech products. Big capital exerted tremendous pressure and Yanukovych finally announced that there must be more negotiations. There should be more negotiations so that Ukraine would achieve more profitable exchanges with the free trade agreement. That was the reason why the Maidan movement began.
They tried to explain that the reason we are so poor is because we are living in the Soviet Union. It doesn’t exist anymore, but we still have a Soviet mentality, they say, and we need to break with this mentality and become a part of Europe. On the Maidan they built a symbolic wall. They said we are living in the Soviet Union, and if we overcome this border and become part of the EU, then we are breaking with our past.
Initiativ: What was the concrete political program of Borotba at that time?
SK: Of course we were in sharp opposition to the Yanukovych government. But we also understood that this opposition on the Maidan is just as reactionary as Yanukovych. Thus, we have directed our criticism towards both sides. At this time, the political camps were already very strongly polarized between Yanukovych and the pro-Western opposition. We represented at this time the thinking of a small minority of Ukrainian society.
Then some people began to understand what was really happening when the Maidan movement across the country began to destroy Lenin monuments. They destroyed hundreds of monuments that are spread all over the country. Then people could understand very well what was happening. These are reactionary forces, they have no progressive social demands, and they have this right-wing ideology. And they say all problems can be found in the person of Lenin.
After the coup, the Lenin monuments became important political symbols. In Kharkov, for example, they also tried to destroy the monument. Many people from all over Kharkov came to protect the monument, and only a minority of them were communists or leftists, the absolute majority were ordinary people. And they defended the monument as an expression of our history, our Soviet history. This is our history and we won’t let them take it away from us. For example, there was an older woman at a demonstration with a self-made placard on which she had written: You should not destroy your own house, just because it was built in the Soviet era.
Initiativ: What is the situation today?
SK: All our party offices were destroyed by the so-called National Guard, which is the legal cover for the neo-Nazi groups. When our people came to the offices they saw people in black uniforms, armed with AK-47s and blockading our offices. They took everything: flags, music systems, computers and even newspapers. It is easily understood that under such conditions no legal, open work is possible.
Two weeks ago, an attempt was made to kidnap two of our leading comrades following an anti-war demonstration in Kharkov. At the end of the demonstration, people with AK-47s tried to pull our comrades into a car. Bystanders were able to stop that from happening.
Our entire leadership is now in the underground. Many of our members have left the country. The Nazis have, for example, attacked the well-known left-wing journalist and Borotba member Andriy Manchuk, who is the chief editor of the daily Internet magazine Liva. In the end, we were made illegal and the leadership was forced into exile. But a few days ago there was an impromptu rally in Kharkov. Ordinary people gathered in the square, and we saw a lot of Borotba flags at this meeting.
Initiativ: You spoke of solidarity with the Kurdish liberation struggle? What did you mean by that?
SK: That must be clarified. If we look at the flag of Borotba, we see a great many similarities with the flag of the Workers’ Party of Kurdistan (PKK). It was not that we conceived it as such from the beginning. But we have quite a few Kurdish members in Borotba. And it was ultimately pro-capitalist, neoliberal students, hostile to us, whose pressure brought about this agreement on the flag. They wrote in a statement that Borotba is connected to the PKK and that the Kurdish Workers’ Party is considered a terrorist organization in the EU. They claimed that both together form a terrorist front against the EU. We were always in solidarity with the liberation struggle of the Kurds.
Initiative: Where do the Kurds come from? Did they immigrate to Ukraine in the days of the Soviet Union?
SK: The majority of Kurds living in Ukraine come from the south, from the Odessa region. Some of them are students and others work in the markets as traders. The Ukrainian government has always worked in close cooperation with Turkey. This put pressure on the Ukrainian government to take steps against the Kurds.
Previously, the authorities did not actually arrest Kurds, nor did they want to carry out greater repression against them. But the university authorities exerted pressure, for example, on the students, saying they should only study and not take part in political activities. Nevertheless, the Kurdish students have organized political meetings.
The main propaganda that the Ukrainian media always repeated was that Kurds simply cannot live in peace. And that although Turkey is such a “democratic” and “peaceful” country, the Kurds would always carry out terrorist acts. The media always asked, “Why are they coming to Ukraine? They cannot live in peace.”
Initiativ: What do you think about the concept of a democratic federation? Also in relation to the concrete situation in Ukraine?
SK: The Kurdish people must decide for themselves what form self-determination will take. In Ukraine, we are for democratic federalism. This means budgetary, political and social autonomy for southeastern Ukraine. The southeast would be a part of the Ukrainian Federation. And of course we need full equality of languages.
The people are very shocked about the historical mystifications. Nazi collaborators are suddenly turned into national heroes in Ukraine. Those days are now good pages of our history. If they now want to build monuments to Bandera [Hitler’s Ukrainian collaborator], please leave me out. People from the southeast want none of that. They say they are building monuments in Lvov in the west for Nazi collaborators and we defend our Soviet Army monuments.
Whether that should be happening in the same state or in two states is now the ultimate question. In the southeast, in the People’s Republics, there is now a debate. What should we do? Do we enter into a federation with Ukraine or will we be separate?
Initiativ: How will the struggle continue, given the new situation?
SK: We always criticized the KPU because they were focused on the parliamentary struggle. We have always concentrated on mass mobilization of working people and youth, on government service workers, etc. We were under the illusion that we were going to live for many years in a liberal democracy, with freedom of assembly and association. We are not at present nor were we ever prepared for this new situation, this guerrilla warfare. We have no infrastructure, weapons and experience. That was a big mistake.
Initiativ: Are the majority of people who are struggling in the southeast on the part of the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk made up of Russians, as is claimed by the media again and again in the west?
SK: Of course, the absolute majority of people come from the region itself. Just as there are people from the southeast fighting on the side of the Kiev junta, so there are also people from Russia fighting on the side of the People’s Republics. In the southeast there is no significant Russian influence. For example, there is a Russian citizen who is the leader of the resistance in Slavyansk. And Kiev has been claiming that he is a member of the Russian secret service. According to research by journalists it has now come out that he is a member of the “Rekonstructer” movement. These are people who wear the uniforms that date from the time of the Tsars. They meet for public appearances and organize spectacles, etc. Well, he became a leading commander of the resistance in Slavyansk, and to that extent this is Russian influence. But there are no experienced officers of the Russian secret service who lead and control everything, the way the media present it.
On the other hand, there are some Russians in the southeast, but in turn not as well suited for pro-west media propaganda, because they take a clear position against Putin.
Initiativ: Now one last question about Crimea. What is the situation overall, and in particular that of the Tatars in Crimea?
SK: Putin is now playing the game. He has now given the Tatars in Crimea some national rights. They are represented in the local parliament and in the government. This is exactly what the Tartars have always demanded from the Ukrainian government for 20 years.
As the Ukrainian army left Crimea, nobody wanted to fight against the Russian army; all accepted the new situation more or less. Only the Tatars expressed their rejection. And the Ukrainian nationalists called on the Tartars to join with the Ukrainians in this struggle. But no one joined, not even the Tartars.
Not all people in Crimea were happy about the annexation to Russia. But now they watch TV and see the Odessa massacre, the civil war and the bombing of apartment blocks in Donetsk, and they say to each other, “Thank god that we are not affected.”