Challenges from the dialogue with leftists in Ukraine
By Jule Nagel, Gregor Henker, Eva Olivin, Mark Gärtner | Deutsche Version des Artikels hier
The article was first published on Rosa-Luxemburg-Foundation’s website. The foundation supported the tour.
>>>>>The text is based on the discussions that took place during a delegation trip,from January 20 to January 30, 2023. The delegation handed over humanitarian aid to Ukrainian organizations as well. The trip was organized by linXXnet Leipzig. Among others, Jule Nagel, Gregor Henker, Eva Olivin and Mark Gärtner participated. Their impressions are reflected in the text. The goal of the trip was, among other things, to answer the calls of Eastern European leftists, not just to talk about them, but to talk with them.<<<<<
On a trip to Ukraine, volunteer initiatives can be seen on every corner, which also take over functions of the state: Partly because traditionally almost nothing is expected from the state, partly because the state simply fails. This unprecedented self-organization of Ukrainians has become known as “Ukrainian communism”. Artem Tidva, for example, an employee of the FPU, a major trade union confederation, is hopeful for the post-war period: social policies will not come of their own accord, but the people who are currently practicing “Ukrainian communism” themselves may want to translate this approach into peaceful times.
In Kyiv, this can be seen, for example, in the Solidarity Kitchen in the DVRZ district, which volunteers launched after the Russian attack on February 24, 2022, and used to support people in need as a result of the Russian attack. In the first weeks and months, several hundred people took up the offer every day. The voluntary helpers took over and continue to take over state tasks of social care, since the politically responsible people would not have shown themselves weeks after the Russian invasion. This met with approval from the population. “If what we are doing here in terms of support and solidarity is “left-wing”, then this has a good perspective politically. However, we won’t be able to talk about that until after the war,” a young computer scientist who has just been drafted and has to go to the front in a few weeks tells us. He is not enthusiastic about the draft.
In addition to the newly formed volunteer initiatives, some leftist groups have also been active in Ukraine for a long time. The analytical magazine “Commons” repeatedly publishes analyses of Ukrainian society, and the initiative “Marker” documents right-wing violence. In the course of the war, the anarchist-influenced network Solidarity Collective has emerged, which provides humanitarian aid, among other things. The group Sozialny Rukh (Social Movement) has also been active in Ukraine for a long time.
The Political Landscape of Ukraine – A View from the Left
Even though in Germany people often talk about nationalism and fascist organizing in Ukraine, Sergiy from the “Marker” collective, for example, points out that extreme right-wing parties such as Svoboda, the Right Sector or the political arm of Azov “Corpus national” together did not come close to exceeding the 5% threshold in the last parliamentary elections in 2019. Of course, fascists also fought in the army, just as leftists do. However, the political future of the country would not be negotiated there. The incorporation of the well-known right-wing Azov battalion into the Ukrainian army in November 2014 achieved a long-term depoliticization and de-radicalization of the group. Nonetheless, the fighters of this force are heavily heroized by their military clout and continue to have an appeal to neo-Nazis from all over Europe. Most certainly, raising awareness of and fighting against the dangers of nationalism and anti-human ideologies is an urgent task in Ukraine as well, especially when the brutality of war is forced to inscribe itself further into Ukrainian society. On the other hand, we should analyze and recognize that Ukrainian nationalism must be distinguished from Western European and especially German nationalism. The struggle for Ukrainian nation-building goes back to the 17th century and was obstructed, and in some cases even repressively opposed, primarily by Russia and later by the Soviet Union. The underexposed Ukrainian history in this country should at least open the awareness that Ukrainians understand the Russian attack and territorial claims as a colonial practice and their struggle against it as an anti-colonial struggle.
There is neither a social democratic nor a socialist party in Ukraine. The Communist Party of Ukraine is clearly described by Ukrainian leftists spoken to during the delegation trip as reactionary and loyal to Russia. It does not advocate forward-looking leftist, socialist and internationalist policies. The wartime ban on several parties calling themselves leftist or socialist nevertheless met with criticism from leftist organizations.
Socialny Rukh attempts to fill this void in the future: It functions as a rallying movement of left-wing trade unionists*, left-wing theorists*, feminists*, and climate activists*. And it is growing, especially through young people joining. On questions of EU accession, Sozialny Rukh oscillates between a pro-European position regarding human rights guarantees and the fight against corruption on the one hand, and demands for reform of the EU into a social and democratic association of states not based on capitalist principles on the other. A positive perspective on EU membership, combined with the hope that this will help Ukraine get on its feet economically, is also shared by other leftists in Ukraine. When asked about the position on NATO, however, clear skepticism can be heard. NATO is not needed, but instead Ukraine needs security guarantees, especially in the current situation. After the war, a new global security system urgently needs to be discussed. Sozialny Rukh is also working toward founding a party. This would be a first in recent Ukrainian history – in a country whose political system is deeply shaped by the influence of oligarchs and whose major parties are not worldview and membership parties, but act as ideology-free “catch-all parties” with a neoliberal bent.
Economic and social policy in war… and after?
One focus of the leftist groups’ activities is, on the one hand, the social situation in Ukraine, which is worsening as a result of the war. Many people depend on humanitarian aid from civil society organizations, which, however, is steadily decreasing. Social benefits and wages are not enough to cope with just this difficult period of the war. Socialny Rukh, for example, promotes debt relief for Ukraine and the countries of the global south. Ukraine has been immensely indebted since the start of the Russian war in 2014 (as of 2020: US$ 129 billion) and has had to make huge repayments to the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the EU Commission. These repayments are no longer affordable since the war was extended in 2022. Although a debt moratorium was recently agreed upon, a real write-off will have to be discussed in the future. This is where the demands of Ukrainian and German leftists meet.
On the other hand, they are concerned with the question of global aid for the reconstruction of the country. In particular, it is necessary that reconstruction will be linked to social guarantees for the population. The neoliberal dictate of the money and credit lenders to reduce social spending must be strictly rejected. After all, even after the war, the stability of Ukrainian society and also the integration of the annexed territories in the East stand or fall with living wage and universal social benefits. Currently, the opposite can be observed: The state is using the current precarious situation of the war to push ahead with the neoliberal restructuring of the social security systems, which is planned in the medium term anyway. Social benefits are to be reduced to merely providing for the very poor, and social services are to be privatized. A reform of the pension system, meaning the abolishment of the solidarity-based system, is also being discussed. The war encourages further deregulation of labor relations, privatization and corruption. From the point of view of Commons and Sozialny Rukh, however, what is needed is redistribution, an increase in income tax, and a movement for a solidarity-based welfare state.
However, trade unions are also protesting against this, yet under more difficult conditions. Due to the restrictions on the right of assembly and the right to strike, unions have only limited possibilities to fight for the rights of wage earners during the war: With backroom negotiations, by filing lawsuits in court, and by continuously informing workers*. Trade union activists like Oleksandr Skyba of the railroad workers’ union in the KVPU do not think that protesting and striking in wartime is too dangerous for demonstrators, but being accused of weakening the defense of the country and working for Russia could come quickly. Nevertheless, even in these times they try their best. And the fights are many: because even before 2022 and before 2014, they had to fight against the trend of deregulation. Oleksandr also mentioned another aspect: After the annexation of the Donbas by Russia, Ukraine stopped paying salaries and social benefits to the people there. The effect is obvious: while some of those affected had to start working for Russian companies, others sank into poverty – or fled. But unions are also doing essential work in evacuating and assisting their members directly threatened by bombs and destruction.
“Who will bear the cost of the war?” asked Artem Tidva, a staff member of the large FPU union federation. “The workers* have almost nothing right now. We need redistribution!” By this he means the oligarchs on the one hand, but also the lower management levels in the companies and politicians*, who of all people would have increased their salaries now. All these people are very well paid, also because corruption has never really been punished in Ukraine.
Taking legal action against war criminals
In times of war, the documentation of war crimes is an important field of activity for civil society actors. One of the 25 organizations active in this field is the Center for Civil Liberties (CCL). They document war crimes in order to support the indictment of Russian decision-makers and ordinary soldiers before the International Criminal Court. The CCL is involved in the initiative “Tribunal for Putin – T4P” and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2022 together with the Belarusian lawyer Ales Bjaljazki and Memorial, the human rights organization from Russia. They have already documented over 30,000 war crimes in the first ten months of the war. According to Executive Director Oleksandra Romantsova, there are currently three groups in Ukraine that are particularly vulnerable: Civilians* who are forcibly displaced, people affected by filtration (selection), and children who are abducted. However, international law is nowhere near the level where it should be. The crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes can all be legally dealt with without difficulty at the International Criminal Court in The Hague (ICC), provided that the perpetrators one day fall into the net of the prosecuting authorities. The crime of aggression, however, is likely to require a special tribunal, which is yet to be established by the UN General Assembly – a challenge that Ukrainian diplomacy and civil society are currently addressing. The CCL relies on many sources for its documentation work. For example, it is trying to verify cell phone videos and images. Regardless of who is particularly at risk, anyone in Ukraine can witness a war crime within seconds. The NGOs and the Ukrainian judiciary are cooperating with the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Kharim Khan. Investigators of the International Criminal Court are also active in Ukraine, for example in Bucha.
The city of 30,000 inhabitants was captured by the Russian army on February 27, 2022, and remained under Russian control until the end of March. In the meantime, 419 people, mostly civilians, have been documented as having been murdered during this period. 116 of them were temporarily buried in a mass grave behind the church of Priest Andrei. Alina Saraniuk from the city administration of Bucha, when asked how people dealt with the trauma, does not really know what to answer: “I don’t know. It’s just there.” In total, more than 20 psychologists work at the Bucha Centre for Psychological Support. Speaking is not always possible. Especially the silence of women who have been raped will last for a long time, if not forever. And there are several Buchas: many places in Kyiv oblast (Kyiv region) were occupied by the Russian army for weeks and were largely destroyed, which is visible on a drive out of Kyiv. This was also the case in Vyshhorod. Just last November, a bomb hit a residential building here – daycare center and school in the immediate neighborhood. Seven people died, people who had fled the Eastern areas of Ukraine. Tanya Samoylenko, Kyiv oblast deputy, emphasizes the need for humanitarian support and attention, for example, through town twinning. A very concrete and effective way of practical support, which also plays a major role in Bucha. The deputy mayor of Bucha, Mykhaylyna Skoryk-Shkarivska, bids us farewell with the words: “The criminal Putin has been able to act with impunity for decades. In Chechnya, Georgia, Syria, since 2014 in Eastern Ukraine. The crimes in Bucha and all the others in Ukraine must have been the last.”
The political mammoth task – dialogue between Ukrainian and German leftists
One thing the trip to Ukraine clearly showed: although there are contacts with German leftists and sporadic practical support, the Ukrainian left is increasingly distancing itself from the LEFT. One actor summed it up well: “If the Left Party in the Bundestag and in the public debate would at least abstain from the question of arms deliveries, that would be helpful for our position in Ukrainian society. What we need is an unmistakable sign of solidarity with Ukraine, with the people here – and a clear demarcation from Putin’s Russia.” Sanctions, on the other hand, especially the question of their effective enforcement, are being debated on the left across Europe and could be a unifying bond in these times.
The LEFT is also viewed with skepticism as a partner because Ukrainian leftists are suspected of being Stalinists in disguise anyway. In this narrative, Ukraine’s struggle for independence is also the continuation of the struggle against the Soviet Union and is thus often understood as anti-communist. Decoupling “being leftist” from this narrative is a mammoth task that SozRukh has taken on. Too much closeness with us, celebrated on social media, for example, could endanger this enterprise, Ukrainian comrades* fear. Another topic for dialogue would be the exchange on the Euro-Maidan, which is perceived quite differently by Ukrainian leftists than in Germany, where the focus is often solely on the fascists on the square. The Ukrainian leftists do not deny this, instead they self-confidently state that they were also present – together with many others who are not Nazis. As leftists, they would not have been able to generate political capital from their protests.
For further dialogue, we therefore need solidarity with the people affected by the war and a resolute opposition to Russian bombings, massacres of civilians, attacks on civilian infrastructure and war crimes of all kinds. This includes the clear naming and condemnation of those responsible for the illegal war under international law around Vladimir Putin as well as the illegal annexations of Ukrainian territory. It needs the support of the organizations documenting war crimes with the goal of getting Putin and his helpers to the International Criminal Court and within the framework of a special tribunal. What is obvious to do as well is the humanitarian support of war victims inside Ukraine as well as those fleeing to other European states, regardless of their passport and origin and belonging to marginalized groups (e.g. Rom*nja) as well. In addition, left organizations, initiatives, trade unions and projects need to be supported in their work against the war and for alleviating the consequences of it as well as their struggles for social justice and democracy inside Ukraine. A regular exchange with representatives of left organizations in Ukraine should take place in order to take the perspectives of the allies on the ground seriously when developing own positions to end the Russian war, not only in the case of Ukraine.