When I decided to go to Ukraine, I e-mailed my old friend Natalia from the Helsinki Citizens Assembly (hCa).The hCa was an organization composed of Western European peace movements and Eastern European human-rights groups that was established immediately after the end of the Cold War to support civil society in difficult places. Natalia founded the Ukrainian branch. She is a dashing elderly lady who wears lots of scarves and rings and a blue velvet cap. She was a biologist in Soviet times, but after 1990 she became a pro-democracy activist. She speaks wonderful English; her favorite author is Margaret Drabble. Jewish and from a Russian-speaking family, Natalia is passionate about Ukraine and democracy.
When she received my e-mail she was in the south taking part in a civic blockade of Crimea organized by the Crimean Tatars. I had been to Crimea with Natalia 20 years ago in support of the Tatars. They are the original inhabitants of Crimea, but were deported by Stalin to Central Asia during World War II and only returned after the independence of Ukraine in 1991; now they are being persecuted by the new Russian regime. They are imprisoned, tortured, and killed; many lose their homes and many have had to flee Crimea. All this has been reported by Russian human-rights groups, as well as by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the High Commissioner for National Minorities. Natalia invited me to join her and I agreed.
We flew from Kiev to Odessa, together with my colleague Domenika, and hired a car to drive to Kherson, which is near the border. Odessa is a beautiful 18th-century city on the edge of the Black Sea. It used to be 40 percent Jewish, and there is still an active Jewish community. There is a magnificent opera house, where Tchaikovsky composed and conducted. Kherson is a typical Soviet-style town, with very little in the way of cafes, shops, or hotels.
We met activists in both Odessa and Kherson. In both places they are extremely proud of having thwarted the Putin government’s plans to establish a Russian land mass that connected Crimea and the Donbass and Russia, an area Putin and many Russian nationalists called Novorossiya, as it was called in the times of the Russian empire. Even though the area is predominantly Russian-speaking, many local people supported the 2013–14 Maidan protests in Kiev and indeed held their own protests; they wanted to remain part of Ukraine, not least because of their hopes for democracy.
When Russian separatists in the Donbass (Eastern Ukraine) seized administrative buildings with the support of volunteers from Russia, similar groups tried to do the same in the south. The Ukrainian government did nothing in any of these areas, but in the south, Ukrainian citizens resisted. In Odessa, there was a pitched battle between pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian activists. The conflict ended with the burning of the old Soviet trade-union building, which the separatists had occupied—it seems to have been an accident—in which many innocent bystanders were killed alongside Russian separatists. Now the concrete square in front of the building is filled with flowers. In Kherson, the resistance was more peaceful.
Mikhail Saakashvili, the former of president of Georgia, has been appointed governor of the region. Saakashvili is a hugely controversial figure. On the one hand, he is credited with a reduction in corruption and improved economic performance in Georgia during his presidency; on the other hand, he used brutal tactics against the opposition, pushed for Western military support, and was responsible for starting the war in Ossetia; now there are multiple charges against him, which he claims are politically motivated.
For many Ukrainians, Saakashvili is seen as a reformer in the region. People seem to be very hopeful; some even talked about Saakashvili becoming president. He has opened things up, we were told, although there are no concrete achievements yet. He has arrested several people for corruption, but none of them have yet been convicted. While we were there, there was much excitement about the appointment of a 26-year-old woman activist from the Maidan who has been appointed head of customs in the area (customs is the most notoriously corrupt part of the Ukrainian apparatus, especially the port of Odessa).
We met with Arsen, a Crimean Tatar and graduate of the London School of Economics, who is one of 26 people appointed by Saakashvili to head the individual raions (a raion is an administrative division). He is also running in the local elections. He was hugely enthusiastic about the possibilities of applying what he learned in public management at the LSE in order to get rid of corruption and to undertake land reform. Others are much more cynical—Saakashvili is seen as a self-promoter and an authoritarian figure.
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In Kherson we met with a group of people who were to form our mission to the border. It included a member of the Kherson battalion, dressed in military fatigues. The Kherson battalion is composed of volunteers who went to fight in the east after the takeover by Russian separatists. They are now answerable to the interior ministry. There was also Andrey, dressed in a black leather jacket and with a revolver attached to his belt. At present, Andrey is a member of the militsiya inherited from Soviet times. But this is to be transformed into a police force; he explained that while the job of the militsiya was to keep order, the role of the police is to support and protect civil society.
There was George, who runs a research center that focuses on the southern Ukraine border, and a woman who organizes an NGO that promotes multiculturalism; they are trying to help the minorities in the region, including the Meskhetian Turks and the Kurds. There was also a former teacher, who joined the state administration after his experience in the Maidan protests in Kherson; he felt he needed to do something to change Ukraine. And there was Ibrahim, a Crimean Tatar, who could not join the mission because he was running in the forthcoming elections and was planning to spend the day knocking on doors.
We drove (very fast) in three cars to the border at Kalanchak (there are two other crossing points). Natalia had told us that three weeks earlier hundreds of activists came to support the blockade, and queues of lorries and trucks were trying to cross the border. Now the road was empty and only about 20 people were manning the blockade—a sign of their effectiveness. People are allowed to cross the border, but not goods and transport. We saw old ladies cycling across the border, as well as a bus that offloaded people with suitcases and bags to walk across.
The blockade had the air of a peace camp. There was a wooden hut with a makeshift table with a plastic covering where we were offered pancakes, jam, and tea for breakfast. There were tents, a campfire outside, and several dogs running around. But where it differed (sharply!) from a peace camp was that nearly all of them were wearing military fatigues (sometimes only trousers or a jacket). They were accompanied by the police, whose role is to search for weapons and drugs, and by the Kherson battalion, who are there, we were told, to defend them in case the Russians attack. A tank drove past flying the Ukrainian flag and a helicopter flew overhead. Even more bizarrely, two people dressed as musketeers turned up; they explained that they were two Finns traveling around to see the world.
The person in charge of the blockade was a feisty Crimean Tatar with long black curly hair and red nails. The others, to my surprise, were from the Right Sector. This is a very conservative nationalist group that came into being to defend the Maidan after brutal police attacks. At that time, they included even more extremist elements, like the Azov battalion and White Hammer, which later broke away and have been fighting in the east. It is worth noting that the Right Sector won only one seat in the parliamentary elections, and all together the right-wing groups only obtained a small percentage of the vote (less than the anti-Europe, anti-immigrant United Kingdom Independence Party did in Britain), so they do not have widespread support in Ukraine.
The volunteers in Kalanchak included a shy young man who said he had joined the Right Sector because he applied to join the army but was refused, as well as a confident young woman from Western Ukraine who spoke excellent English and Greek and told us that she had joined the Maidan and fallen in love with her husband there (he was also from the same area) and her husband had joined the Right Sector. The Tatar leader explained that she wanted the Right Sector because they are the most disciplined part of civil society. She had volunteered to fight in the est and had been imprisoned twice by separatists. The Right Sector had organized her release through prisoner exchanges, so she trusted them. They explained that people who volunteer to join the blockade come for two weeks at a time on a rotation. The confident young woman had only just arrived.
I asked them about their beliefs. They said they stood for a multicultural political Ukraine; that’s why they are shoulder to shoulder with the Crimean Tatars. Indeed, this idea of Ukraine as a political rather than ethnic or cultural nation is one that was forged in the Maidan, even though there are, of course, right-wing groups that support an ethnic concept of the nation. However, they also said they believe in tradition and “family values”; this tends to be code for “anti-homosexual,” and the Right Sector had been among those who beat up people participating in a gay pride march in Kiev. I asked if they would be against Russia if Russia were democratic. Most of them were skeptical as to whether Russia could ever be democratic, arguing that authoritarianism is deep in the Russian psyche and that ordinary Russians cannot escape the relentless Russian media propaganda (even though some of them are Russians themselves)—suggesting that, despite their claims to multiculturalism, they hold deep-seated anti-Russian views. The confident young woman disagreed, pointing out that 500 people had demonstrated in Moscow the day before against Russian intervention in Syria and Ukraine. “That’s a lot,” she said, given the role of the police in Russia. “You have to be very courageous to demonstrate.”
I asked what they hoped to achieve from the blockade. They said they had already achieved some of their goals. First, they had stopped smuggling across the border, which had benefited both Ukrainian and Russian border guards. Second, they had already had an economic impact. Trade (Ibrahim had told us in Kherson) amounted to $1 billion over the past 11 months. Goods enter the free economic zone on the other side of the border and get stamped as Russian and sold all over the federation at a profit—milk, sugar, and so on. Ukraine receives no taxes for this activity. The Russian reaction is contradictory. On the one hand, Putin boasts that Russia can supply all Crimea’s needs. On the other hand, he has already accused the blockade of “genocide” and has raised the issue in the United Nations Security Council.
Third, the blockade puts Crimea back on the international agenda and draws attention to the plight of the Crimean Tatars as well as the Crimean people in general. After what Ukrainians call the Revolution of Dignity, a coalition of Crimean Tatars and Maidan protesters were poised to form a government. Instead, it was a group of Russian nationalist mafia, who had received only 5 percent of the vote in earlier elections, who took over. It is not only Tatars who are persecuted but all those who are pro-Ukraine. The current government is engaged in widespread theft of property. Yet internationally there seems to be general acceptance of the Russian annexation, or at least a lack of action.
I expressed some concern about the impact on Crimea. Economic hardship can easily be manipulated by Russian propaganda, especially given the role of the Right Sector. I was told that the blockade has the support of all the Crimean Tatars inside Crimea and has also received support from Russians on Facebook. The day before our visit, 300 Crimean Roma had crossed the border to express solidarity.
My concern has been amplified by the recent actions to block the supply of power—those involved in the blockade complained that Ukraine continues to provide power and electricity to Crimea despite the Russian annexation. On the morning of Sunday, November 22, four electricity pylons were blown up, leaving three-quarters of the Crimean population without power. Images of the destroyed pylons showed Ukrainian flags and Crimean Tatar flags on some of the pylons. Reportedly, activists prevented engineers from repairing the pylons in the Kherson region. Surely this is punishing the wrong people—it is one thing to draw attention to Russia’s crimes, but by threatening what could be life support, it must alienate the very people whose support is needed.
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In many ways what is happening in the south is echoed in the rest of Ukraine. Back in Kiev, everyone was incredibly busy. We meet Nelly for dinner. She used to work in business, but when the war broke out she joined the defense ministry and is now deputy head of procurement, where she is trying to eliminate corruption. It is much more difficult in distribution; soldiers and officers sell their weapons and provisions. “Corruption is a reflection of society,” she said. “It is very difficult to change a whole society.”
We meet Petro, an MP, at a cafe by Parliament. He had been a former soldier but was working in a travel agency in Thailand at the time of the Maidan protests. After the war began, he decided to return and joined Self-Reliance, a progressive party. He has formed a special commission to introduce new laws in Parliament for reforming the military. Dennis, a left-wing activist and PhD student, showed us the Maidan and walked with us down Khreshchatyk Street, the main street in Kiev. He and his friends have established a Bureau for Labor and Social Research, where they work for free. Another Natalia, who introduced us to several interesting people, is part of Vox Ukraine, a group of academics who debate reform and put forward proposals, particularly on social issues.
And then there are numerous, often very professional, human-rights organizations that document war crimes and other violations of human rights, monitor courts and trials, and assist internally displaced persons (IDPs). There are some 1.4 million registered IDPs in Ukraine, and many more that have not registered. All of them say that after the Orange Revolution in 2004, they were hugely disappointed by the so-called reformist politicians. They realized that they could not depend on the political class. They have to change Ukraine themselves. It is reform from below.
After the change of regime in Ukraine, when for a brief period before the presidential elections far-right groups were playing a much more prominent role, rebels in Donetsk and Luhansk, with the help of Russian “volunteers,” seized administrative buildings and began to terrorize the local population in order to establish political control. This was the beginning of the war. The area was plagued by high unemployment, weak governance, and a high level of criminality. The rebels undoubtedly were able to build on domestic discontent, although they could not have succeeded without Russian help. At the time, most of the Ukrainian army officers were corrupt appointees of Viktor Yanukovych (ousted from the presidency in February 2014, as the culmination of the Maidan protests) and there were only 5,000 troops. So individuals, often from right-wing groups, volunteered to fight in the east.
In July 2014, after military reforms, the Ukrainian government undertook an offensive and liberated considerable amounts of territory. The offensive was very destructive and included the shelling of civilians and, according to the OSCE, the use of cluster munitions. The offensive provoked a Russian response with a big influx of troops and weapons sent into the east by Russia, including, by most accounts, the missile that shot down the Malaysian airliner, though this has not been conclusively confirmed (the Dutch Safety Board has confirmed that it was a Russian-made missile, and the rebels claimed that they had shot down a Ukrainian military plane in the aftermath of the disaster). The result was a humanitarian catastrophe with millions of refugees and displaced persons, tens of thousands of casualties, and a predatory, criminalized war economy. Whether the war promotes or hinders reform is a moot question. One person argued that in war people become very patriotic and corruption is betrayal. But others argued that the war had diverted the energies of civil society and militarized part of civil society.
Everyone was very skeptical of the government. They say that the president and the prime minister are old-style politicians. It is better than before, when the kinds of activities that everyone is engaged in were impossible, but there is much to be done. The blockade was organized because the government has done very little to protest the Russian annexation of Crimea. It has not even raised the issue in the UN General Assembly. There is also criticism of the lack of strategy toward the east. The government focused on a military response and completely failed to have a communications strategy. It has never tried to explain to people that they are Ukrainian and that the government is on their side; it merely describes the separatists as terrorists. The government has also ended the payment of salaries and pensions in the occupied territories. It is argued that it hardly tries to counter Russia’s information warfare (an important tool emphasized by Russian strategists along with what they call “political technology”). In general, people I met argue that government reforms are very slow except in defense and energy, where reliance on Russia has been greatly reduced.
Since September 1, a cease-fire agreement has held and everyone is holding their breath. The general view is that Putin is feeling the effects of low oil prices and sanctions and could not take action in both Ukraine and Syria at the same time. I asked many people what they thought about the Minsk Agreement, the accord pushed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande under which the cease-fire has taken place. They all expressed relief that the most overt violence was halted. But at the same time, the agreement entrenches the lawless situation in the east, where separatist gangs are in control. There are widespread attacks on civilians and persecution of those who support Ukraine, minorities such as Roma, as well as the Protestant churches. Civilians suffer imprisonment, torture, and killings. Of course, crimes are also being committed by pro-Ukrainian armed groups. The economic situation is dire. Factories are closed. People can only get their pensions by traveling to the liberated areas. Infrastructure is damaged or destroyed. Looting, pillaging, smuggling, and other typical wartime criminal activities are rife.
There was also criticism of the European Union for its slowness, bureaucracy, and lack of support for Ukraine during the Minsk negotiations, which were between Ukraine, the separatists, and Russia, It was argued by some of the human-rights activists I met that Ukraine needed the presence of the EU to strengthen its bargaining position.
OSCE is responsible for monitoring the situation. Its monitors, which include both Americans and Russians, report violations of the cease-fire, monitor the withdrawal of heavy weapons under the cease-fire terms, report the presence of Russian weapons and personnel, promote dialogue, and organize temporary truces in order to repair damaged infrastructure. Because of the security situation, they travel around in armored cars and they use small drones to monitor ahead of patrols and for satellite imagery. They are also involved in de-mining. The monitors are civilians, although many of their personnel are ex-military. Many people criticized the OSCE for not doing enough. Monitors have been reported socializing with separatists in restaurants and imbibing “expensive drink like whisky” with them. Some told us that their obsession with security means that they are unwilling to get out of their cars to help people. And human-rights groups claimed that they unaccountably miss human-rights violations. Nevertheless, the general view was they are getting better.
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So what do I conclude from this highly complex situation?
First of all, what is happening in Ukraine, though it is different in the east, is an extraordinary civil-society experiment in what might be called do-it-yourself reform. Civil society is not supporting neoliberal reforms, being pushed by the IMF and the EU, which usually mean budget cuts, trade liberalization, and privatization. Indeed, it can be argued that it was neoliberal reforms from above, particularly privatization, after the breakup of the Soviet Union that allowed Communist leaders to transform themselves into kleptocratic oligarchs. For the most part, civil-society groups and individuals like Nelly and Dennis are pushing for reforms aimed at constructing a meaningful democracy, ending corruption, and promoting social justice—something that people in Greece, Spain, and other parts of Europe are also yearning for.
“Do-it-yourself reform” is not necessarily good, because different people have different ideas about what works best. Civic activism includes the Right Sector as well as human-rights defenders. It is somewhat anarchic, with different people and groups doing their own thing, including volunteering for the military and the rising nonstate armed groups. That is why it is so important to complement all this civil-society activity with meaningful reform from above, both by those in government and by the European Union. One possible opening is the local elections. As part of the Minsk Agreement, constitutional reform includes far-reaching decentralization, with power devolved to local councils, although prefects appointed by the government will oversee these councils. Elections took place on October 25, but it remains to be seen whether people like Arsen or Ibrahim will be able to bring about real change.
Second, in terms of the war it is important to counter the geopolitical narratives of both NATO and those who are sympathetic to Russia. NATO argues that Russia has become a revisionist power aiming to restore the Russian (or Soviet) empire and makes the case for strengthening NATO and the Ukrainian army. This approach just feeds the Russian narrative. The Russian narrative is that their actions are a counter to NATO expansion and a response to Western violations of international law in Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan, as well as the promotion of anti-Russian color revolutions. Russian behavior can be viewed as a distorted mimicry of what they see as Western behavior—claiming self-determination in Ukraine as in Kosovo (but coercing the vote), or promoting local separatists in the Donbass, as they imagine the West engineered the protests in the Maidan.
Of course, it is true that NATO expansion was a provocative mistake (unless the West had been ready to include Russia), and of course it is true that the West’s wars in Kosovo and Iraq were illegal, and in the case of Iraq a terrible and disastrous tragedy. But that cannot justify Russian annexation of Crimea and the promotion of a destabilizing war in eastern Ukraine, in which thousands have been killed or tortured and more than a million uprooted from their homes. The Maidan was a genuine grassroots protest. The Russian depiction of the Maidan as being engineered by the West or led by “fascists” is a gross distortion, even if there has been reckless and provocative behavior (like the Ukrainian language law, which was rescinded) on the Ukrainian side.
The most convincing explanation for Russia’s actions is that what Putin fears is defeat of the criminalized oligarchy and a successful transition to democracy, because that would provide an example for Russians as well; in other words, if the protests succeed in democratizing Ukraine, it could have knock-on effects on Russia. The economy was already weakening because of the lower price of oil; indeed, his moves in Ukraine are reminiscent of the attempts of other leaders of oil states to shore up their positions.
On the Ukrainian side, weak state capacity (especially in the east) after years of corruption, the arrival of armed volunteers, and, later, the destructive offensive all contributed to what I call a “new war”—something that is a mixture of war, organized crime, and human-rights violations. In new wars, traditional approaches (military intervention or top-down peace agreements) don’t work. The former makes the situation worse; the latter legitimizes the extremist criminal networks that fight the wars and have a vested interest in disorder; the only solution is the construction of legitimate governance.
The problem with the Minsk Agreement, as is the case with other contemporary peace agreements, including Minsk, is that while such agreements may stop the worst of the violence, the parties involved have an interest in not implementing them properly, and indeed continuing their predatory behavior. It is important, therefore, to help the democratic reform effort in Ukraine; this would increase resistance to separatist demands, as in the south, and help to counter Russia’s information war.
Finally, Western Europeans should understand that the situation in Ukraine is not so different from, for example, that of Greece. Most of the protesters in the Maidan wanted the same thing as those who have occupied squares or established new parties like Syriza or Podemos. It would be a great achievement to build pan-European links with Russian civil society, so as to shift the European Union away from its neoliberal obsessions and toward the kind of reform that could truly help ordinary Europeans.