Ukraine: Enough With Stale Insider Debates in the Media

03/12/2015 10:24 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2015

To the extent that U.S. media covers Ukraine at all, outlets tend to focus on "what's good" for "the west" and how "we" can outflank Vladimir Putin. Going overboard with the geopolitical analysis, the media invites wonky policy insiders to discuss how "U.S. interests" should be deployed in the fight to protect Kiev. Since the vast majority of Americans have little or no say over what their government does, it's unclear who the policy wonks are actually referring to when they casually employ such terminology.

Western European media, meanwhile, tends to provide more thorough coverage of the conflict in Ukraine. Nevertheless, some outlets such as the BBC seem to follow a familiar insider script. Take, for example, one recent article which quotes aging cold warrior Henry Kissinger. NATO, the former Secretary of State warned, must develop a more "coherent strategy" to confront the Kremlin.

Just what do Ukrainians themselves think about politics and the wider war with Russian-backed separatists? From watching the talking heads on CNN, you wouldn't really know. Anton Shekhovtsov, a visiting fellow at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna and an expert on Ukrainian politics, told me in an interview that "Western media tends to deprive Ukrainians of any agency of their own. There's always a lot of talk about conflicting interests between the west and Russia, geopolitics, expansionist interests on both sides, etc. All of these issues are certainly legitimate, but somehow Ukrainians themselves get left out of the discussion." Denis Pilash, who cut his teeth as a political activist with Direct Action student labor union in Kiev, agrees. In the west, he tells me, many so-called experts refuse to see Ukraine as an independent player, but rather as a mere object or "bargaining chip."

Voyage to Kiev

In an effort to get away from such stale policy discussions, I recently conducted a research trip to Ukraine where I interviewed activists who had participated in last year's Maidan revolution. In seeking out potential interviews, my thinking was informed by the following question: "What will it take to create a more progressive and tolerant country in the midst of war?" It's doubtful whether economic or political elites, along with their "oligarch" backers, are interested in such an agenda, and needless to say setting up interviews with the far right nationalist set would have been a complete and total waste of time. Accordingly, I made a particular effort to seek out and identify progressive-minded activists linked to Ukraine's newly independent left [not to be confused with the old hard-line and authoritarian Soviet left].

Speaking with Maidan political veterans proved to be a sobering experience. While last year's revolution in Kiev had achieved some limited goals and reforms, much of the anti-authoritarian spirit of the square seems to have dissipated. Paralyzed with fear over the war, most Ukrainians have placed their trust in Petro Poroshenko, a member of the country's oligarchic elite. As hostilities have heated up in the east, the public has tended to focus on military developments rather than pushing for Maidan's earlier social agenda. Needless to say, the government has failed to provide sufficient criticism of the far right and may even seek to legitimate such undesirable elements in the long-term.

What Happened to Western European Left?

So just how viable is the Ukrainian independent left? Shekhovtsov has his doubts. "Politically," he remarks, "such forces are not very competitive in elections. There are some left wing/liberal forces which I would call progressive, but we're not talking about political parties but rather clubs, milieus or circles around particular magazines...I don't think the left can oppose right wing nationalism. Their share of the vote [if you subtract the old Communist Party of Ukraine, which isn't even that Communist but more pro-Russian] is smaller than the political right's."

Denis Gorbach, an organizer with Ukraine's Autonomous Workers' Union, doesn't deny the independent left in his country is relatively small. On the other hand, if the left in Western European countries would provide more political support for progressive Maidan elements then the story might be different. Mainstream trade unions, he remarks, are usually connected to larger social democratic parties, many of which have in turn chosen to support the Russian separatist movement in an effort to oppose western elites. Gorbach says one political party in Germany, Die Linke, is particularly guilty of adopting such backward and reprehensible hard-line positions.

Eastern European Left: Out of the Shadows

Pilash however says the picture is slightly different in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet bloc. In Slovenia for example, a new left party opposing austerity measures has entered parliament. Meanwhile, Pilash and his colleagues meet with small groups of Czech activists from time to time. Ukrainians also have links with Polish activists who have established some leftist journals. Even in Hungary, where right wing politics holds sway, a group of intellectuals has managed to launch Eszmélet, a left wing journal. Over in neighboring Romania meanwhile, leftist web site CriticAtac covers political matters of vital importance and has links to a Ukrainian publication called Commons Journal.

Pilash, however, doesn't sugar coat the situation. With the possible exception of Slovenia, the left in Eastern Europe and Poland is weak and the political arena is full of conservative nationalists and pro-market neo-liberal modernizers. Without a lot of logistical or moral support, Ukrainian progressives find themselves in a menacing and slightly isolated milieu.

Brazen Attack

Recent events illustrate the disturbing vulnerability of Ukrainian activists on the ground. Take, for example, the case of Vasyl Cherepanyn, a lecturer at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Cherepanyn is an editor at Political Critique magazine, "the largest Eastern European liberal network of institutions and activists." Despite Cherepanyn's contacts on the wider Eastern European scene, the academic was brazenly attacked in broad daylight in crowded Kontraktova Square, right next to the university where he works.

Cherepanyn was assaulted by a group of men dressed in camouflage paramilitary uniforms. As they proceeded to pummel their victim, the thugs shouted "communist" and "separatist." Unfortunately, police arrived late to the scene and failed to catch the assailants. For his part, Cherepanyn sustained heavy injuries including a fractured face. Pilash says the attackers had no clear insignia on their uniforms, but he suspects they may have belonged to local battalions which assist the police.

Faced with such blatant impunity and brazen attacks, the incipient Ukrainian left needs all the political support it can muster. Yet it seems unlikely that the mainstream media will provide more complex on the ground reporting from Ukraine, where politics is presented as a mere geopolitical game between Washington and the Kremlin. That's hardly surprising, yet it is dispiriting that the western left, such as it is, has not been more responsive to the needs of activists who seek to preserve the memory of Maidan struggle.

Nikolas Kozloff is a New York-based writer who recently conducted a research trip to Ukraine.