Already counting three years of existence and activity, “Autonomous Workers’ Union” (AWU) is a Ukrainian anarcho-syndicalist organization with branches in Kiev and Kharkov, which was the product of the meeting of anarchists, libertarian Marxists and other activists. On the occasion of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, we talk at length with Oles Petik, a member of the “Autonomous Workers’ Union” from its Kiev branch.
How do you interpret the ongoing deadly turmoil in Ukraine and how do you assess the role of the western governments, as well as Russia, so far?
The past several months, as times of trouble always are, have been a perfect opportunity for different social agents to press on their interests on different levels. We see USA and Russia using Ukraine as a pretext to undermine each other’s international sphere of influence and resolve long-time grudges- and also there is an interest for Russia’s more direct involvement, namely financing the separatists and providing armaments for them; and let’s not forget that Russia seized the opportunity to expand its territory by annexing Crimea.
But the main “actors” are the capitalist elites of the fallen regime, which are reluctant to give up their power base in the East and forfeit the economic concessions they received earlier; and against them are the investors of the new government, trying to squeeze out as much as they can both from the defeated side and from the working class. The former utilized the “federalization” and “separatism” rhetoric in order to have the upper hand in talks with the latter and repeat the consensus of 2005. This time, however, they may be unhappy to have unleashed the genie from the bottle, as the separatist movement slips away from their control, supported by local police officers and criminals.
Alas, the disorganized masses of workers, which made the change of the government possible, were unable to realize their immediate interest and resorted to cheap nationalism or, worse, social chauvinism. The anti-corruption sentiment, which was the driving of the “Maidan” and is the foundation of what popular support the anti-“Maidan” movement has in the East, is only used to fuel the petty struggles of capitalist and criminal cliques.
We went into details about this in our recent statement regarding the shoot-out in Mariupol and the “anti-terrorist operation” of the new government.
Having cautiously read the statement that you have issued and co-signed regarding the massacre in Odessa, I have the feeling that you underestimate the participation of neo-nazis in this deadly incident. Am I wrong?
One can never underestimate the involvement of neo-nazis. The participation of football hooligans and members of “Maidan” self-defense unit was obvious, as well as the atrocities they committed- and that is a universal opinion. We were not, and we will never be, equivocating nazis and fascists.
But universal opinion about one fact does not mean lack of ambiguity. The most horrible thing about the Odessa tragedy is that there died many a noncombatant; and the people behind this escaped unharmed. There were neo-nazis on both sides, and their role was nothing but the defining one. There were ordinary people, caught in the middle of the incident, some of them fired up and committed acts of violence, some of them tried to placate the former and prevent the worst, and some of them were killed. And yet there were forces that provided assistance to neo-nazis- I am speaking primarily about local anti-“Maidan” leaders.
The person we mentioned in the statement, Alexey Albu of “Borotba”, on one photo was seen chatting with “pro-Russian” attackers in the midst of armed violence; then he was directing people into the trap of the barricaded building; then, on the other, video he was seen leaving the scene unharmed- and yet he emerges the other day with bruises and speaks about being assaulted.
Horrible acts, such as the one happened in Odessa, are not something you cannot expect from a neo-nazi. In fact it goes without saying that you can expect everything from them, and fascists, under any mask, will always be our mortal enemy. And people who help them- regardless if they do so due to their ignorance, or from their stupidity, or because of their desire to use the situation for their advantage- are our enemies also.
What are the political differences between AWU and “Borotba” union?
I think it may be correct to assume that we are total opposites. They use authoritarian, stalinist rhetoric to exploit the sentiment of soviet nostalgia. And their leaders indulge in traditional representative elections, which yields nothing but satisfaction to their personal ambitions. Right now “Borotba” is trying to win the electorate of the discredited and crumbling Communist Party of Ukraine (which has nothing communist in it save the name). Let them have it, I say, but it has nothing to do with working class interests, or left agenda whatsoever.
What is the history of AWU?
In 2011, libertarian activists, who had been for some time organizing protests against the new labor code project (which was supposed to give more power to the employer over firing, imposing longer working weeks or spying on the workplace etc.), decided to join their efforts into something more organized, utilizing both political and economic methods for the class struggle. Since then, many new activists have joined, including me.
Could you outline AWU’s ideological/political background, as well as its appeal in Ukrainian society?
As I’ve already said, we believe that political and economic struggle has to be combined to make our lives better not only in the distant, abstract future, but here and now. And I think it is the only viable strategy for the radical left in the former USSR, where people heard many promises about “building communism”. This being said, I think the only connotation many Ukrainians have for communism is the authoritarian rule of nomenklatura, and that is what really hinders our growth.
To what extent and in what ways is AWU actively involved in class struggles?
We have organized many campaigns of protest. The most notable were the rallies against the labor code project, against the pension reform, against corporations, such as Privatbank and LG, against the restriction of peaceful assembly, as well as pro-choice and anti-clericalism rallies. The recent one we organized was the protest against the authoritarian policies of the “Batkivshchyna” party, which assumed nearly all the power after the“Maidan” events. We are also starting to organize our activists into industry associations, as all of us are working people. We have yet to create our first workplace primary organization, but we are working on it.
What is the extent and the gravity of the involvement and influence of extreme right-wing/openly neo-nazist elements, both in the past demonstrations and the formation of the central political agenda, through their participation in the present government?
If you are asking about the street groups, in particular the much-feared “Right Sector”, I can assure you that the situation appears dreadful only to the outside. I will give you only one piece of statistical data by http://www.public.ru/, a Russian press monitoring agency. It has counted the references to political parties in the Russian press — the first place, obviously, is occupied by “Edinaya Rossiya”, “The Party” in Russian politics, with 19K mentions. Only 200 mentions short is the runner-up, the “Right Sector”. In the third place, Communist Party of Russia is far away, at 12K references. So, you can plainly see where all the hype is coming from- it may be very convenient to create a vision of a fearsome opponent for yourself.
But, in reality, “Right Sector” is a poorly coordinated confederation of several far right organizations. Some of my comrades go as far as to say that the government is waging an undercover war with their contribution, but I’m not sure whether this is exactly the case. What one can be sure of is that different far-right groups are employed by local authorities and politicians for their undercover business, and that means a lot of infighting between those groups. “Right Sector” is definitely not a monopolist in the “market” of right-wing violence, and it is far from being as powerful as portrayed.
The real problem is not the support the far-right receives from the population, because the popular appeal of the radicals remains fairly low, but that the people generally tolerate them. And that makes it possible for capitalists and politicians to use those groups to their own advantage. The streets remain safe, but of course the whole situation remains dangerous for any left activist, as always.
The other side of the coin are the parliamentary fascists of “Svoboda” party. And these guys really hate the “Right Sector” for stealing their thunder. There has been huge decline in their popularity after the “Maidan” events, and I think this happened for two reasons. The first is obviously the rise of more radical and militant groups and also several self-organization initiatives, which “Svoboda” unsuccessfully tried to take over and appropriate (and the backlash associated with such attempts). The second, more subtle, is that “Svoboda” was used as a fake ally/opponent by Yanukovich regime and received substantial media support in the months before the “Maidan”. I think that Yanukovich was preparing a suitable opponent for himself for the presidential elections in 2015 by allowing disproportionate amount of airtime for this party on state TV (and on channels controlled by loyal oligarchs), coverage in press etc.
Do the presidential elections constitute an opportunity, or are a charade aiming at the legitimization of Kiev’s authoritarian, as I perceive it, regime? How do you comment President Putin’s claim that these elections are, under some conditions, “a move into the right direction”?
Well, elections on the basis of the “representative democracy” are always a charade. Election in the modern capitalist state is only used to create a sense of legitimacy and of a people’s choice, while, in reality, the people never possess any meaningful choice. Regardless of what different politicians say, they do not serve the interests of the people, but the ones of the capitalist class. After the elections, only the façade changes, while the core of the system remains unaltered. And we are indifferent to what Putin, or any other politician, says. The politicians are always telling something either to please their electorate, or for negotiation with and intrigue against other politicians. What they say never reflects their true intent.
As an anarcho-syndicalist union, would you “encourage” people to participate in the electoral process at this particular moment, or is abstaining from it more compatible with your political beliefs?
At the moment we are preparing an education campaign against elections, and we always encourage people to boycott any elections and persuade their friends to do likewise. We have some experience with this- an eco-campaign we did back in 2012, urging people to recycle the political wastepaper. With lessening popular support of the elections, the charade that supports the “legitimacy” of the capitalist regime will fall, eventually.
How do you assess the outcome of these elections?
The peculiarities of the 25th of May voting did not interfere with the fact that we got elections as good as one may get in any modern “representative democracy”. People of Ukraine went out to vote and indeed supported the one candidate with an overwhelming majority. You should not suspect anyone in forging fake results neither in tampering with the vote count, because there was no need of it, as there was no real competition. People were subtly led to accept the one candidate elected and inaugurated.
One million voters of Crimea (plus some hundred thousands in regions controlled by fascist “separatist” juntas in the East), which were lost to these election, could have perhaps delayed Poroshenko's victory by dropping his vote total below 50%. Or maybe they couldn't- Poroshenko has equal appeal in every part of Ukraine. In any case, people across Ukraine were led to believe (in no small part by Russia's diplomatic trash talk over the preceding months) that the country needs to have the "legitimate" president, and Poroshenko assumed the role.
But being legitimate means nothing as long as you are hated. Poroshenko has been actively participating in the politics for almost 15 years now, always finding his place under the sun, but keeping a low profile- and the latter saves people's hatred for other political figures. He is well known for his unscrupulousness, but over the course of recent events he made some pinpoint moves, not appearing very much in media but choosing crucial topics to speak about- and it's no surprise that his unscrupulousness was forgotten in the light of other politicians.
Another factor is the confrontation in the East, which is presented in Ukrainian media as a threat external. It seems that in the days before the elections the army tried to maintain the level of tension while not engaging in an all-out attack. Looks like the oligarchs who control the army (along with their de-facto private armies, which is an extremely dangerous development- but I digress) wanted to have the people “unite in voting” under the patriotic sentiment; so the tension had not been neither attenuated, nor escalated during those days. Now we can observe violence on the rise, as if Poroshenko were trying to impress people with his swift and resolute actions, and the military as well were trying to impress the new president.
We, the anarchists, unconditionally perceive the election mechanism as the one that robs people of a real choice and of a real power. Thus we are always prepared to oppose, and incite people against any president, be it Poroshenko, Tymoshenko, Yanukovich or anyone else. The elections themselves mean little, as the capitalism system preserves itself by changing masks. President is always a figurehead. While nowadays we may have the situation that oligarchs are forced to come out of the shadow and assume positions direct control (and it is a good development- the sooner they will fall!), there is always a conglomerate of capitalists and officials who support them.
One thing that was overlooked by many was the local elections. It is known that city councils are the centres of rampant corruption concerning the distribution of communal resources, land in particular. As people's and observers' attention was fixed upon the presidential elections, one can suspect any kind of falsification concerning the local. For instance, in Odessa, the international observers were banned from watching the vote count of local mayoral election, on the grounds that they were only to observe the presidential vote count. There were reports of mass falsifications on Kiev city council elections as well.
It is important to remember that the corrupt official of lower level is as bad and as dangerous for the people as the president himself. And we have yet to find the one not corrupt.
Would you use the term “dictatorial” in order to describe the current regime?
It is a dictatorship only to the extent that every modern state is a dictatorship of bourgeoisie, as Marx said. The current regime is more like a common bourgeois oligarchy, quite similar to the one that was before the “Maidan”, only with less stability. One can compare that government to the Russian Provisional Government of 1917- there is a significant chance of some dramatic changes in the future.
The foundation of this government lies in the perfectly “legitimate” Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian Parliament, when dozens of deputies from the then ruling “Party of Regions” switched sides. This allowed “Batkivshchyna” to take over “Maidan’s” agenda and come to power. Apparently, they were never going to fulfill any of the Maidan’s requests, but that does not make them dictators. In fact, one of the things that tipped the scales in favor of “Maidan” was the infamous “anti-protest laws” of January 16, which greatly restricted freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Now, if Yanukovich was ever successful with implementing those laws, that would rightfully be a dictatorship akin to the Putin’s.
What was “Maidan” about, after all?
The “Maidan” was, essentially, a movement of disorganized masses of workers, driven by the sentiment of anti-corruption. The forms in which their struggle embodied ranged from foolish, like pompous and pathetic patriotism, to outright dangerous, such as national and/or social chauvinism and hatred.
The irony of the situation is that the top officials of “Maidan” were just as corrupt as everywhere, but the movement received quite impressive material support from the population of Kiev (food/medicine/clothes donations, active participation in rallies, meetings and hostilities against the police, volunteering etc.). What is also important is that the movement generally retained the peaceful approach, while fighting against the police occurring in the space of several adjacent streets in the center (I’m deliberately avoiding the issue of shootings of February 18, because I’m speaking about people’s involvement).
The population of Eastern regions shares the anti-corruption sentiment very much. I can go as far as to say that this sentiment (and the realization that “Maidan” failed to accomplish anything in that regard) is what keeps the popular support of Eastern juntas comprised of criminals and local police. The problem is that anti-“Maidan” movement, so to say, took a shortcut by receiving armaments from Russia, and that shapes the conflict between the protesters and the government in completely different way.
After the recent massacre in Odessa, do you estimate that Ukraine is heading towards a generalized civil war similar to the ones that ravaged former Yugoslavia?
No, I don’t think so really. In the core of the turmoil is the interest of local capitalists, as they try to negotiate favorable terms with the government. Recent development shows that things may have gotten out of their control, but eventually the agreement will be reached, like it was in 2005, after the Orange revolution. On the other hand, I believe that many people in former Yugoslavia had also given good reasons why the situation in their country should eventually calm down, but it didn’t. We have to be careful, for sure.
And, if so, which political force, or forces, might benefit from it and how such a prospect could be avoided?
First of all, the escalation of the conflict might help the current government greatly, as it diverts attention from all the other problems the government has- and there are plenty! But of course they would prefer a token war to a real one.
A sensible person understands, of course, that no one can benefit from the all-out war, from the death and misery of thousands and millions. But we should never underestimate the extent of depravity which the various fascist, stalinist and conservative populists are capable of when it comes to their own personal advantage. Thus, we should exercise caution and never use our pure emotions when making judgements about the situation, because emotions are what the populists use as their target.
Which would a viable way out of the crisis be?
We are not going to help resolving the conflict between capitalist cliques and do the government’s job. The only viable solution for us is solidarity of the working class and the realization of our class interests. General strike, boycotting of military initiatives and fight for our rights here and now- to make possible a peaceful future, where no people will be dying for the foolishness of nationalism or for someone’s profit.
More about AWU’s statements, as well as other information, can be found translated on its website http://avtonomia.net .
This is the updated english version of the interview, previously uploaded on this blog in Greek.