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Ukrainian civil society under attack

The conditions for the Ukrainian civil society are becoming increasingly difficult ahead of a highly contested presidential election in a few months time.

November 8, 2018 - Alexandra Wishart - Articles and Commentary

“Night on Bankova Street – Silence Kills” by the news platform GORDON

While presidential elections in Ukraine are only five months away, the climate for Ukrainian civil society and activists has increasingly turned sour. With assaults on prominent investigative journalist Kateryna Handziuk in an acid attack on July 31st, numerous more recent accounts of activists being attacked have been heard all throughout 2018. While some Ukrainian news outlets have covered the assaults on Handziuk and the attacks on Sergiy Nikitenko and Vitaly Ustymenko, the assaults on other activists have largely been underreported. The current regime of incumbent president Petro Poroshenko has done little in condemning recent attacks. With the international community slowly gaining awareness, an event was created to draw attention to them. Under the name Noch’ na Bankovoj (“Night on Bankova Street”), the event started out with prominent civil society groups showcasing the names and crimes of recent victims. However, they came under fire as it was discovered that members of C-14, a Maidan born nationalist political fringe group, as well as members of National Corps participated in the event.

How to understand the events – a word of warning

As authors such as Denys Gorbach have pointed out, writing about Ukrainian issues nowadays has turned into a political minefield; most incidents of hate speech, street violence and other types of hooliganism are easily skewed into either Russian propaganda “Ukrainian fascist junta” discourse or a pro-European endorsement of Maidan. It may seem that the current Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian society are a heterogeneous entity, but it is exactly the polarisation that has driven Ukrainians into the arms of extreme political fringe groups. One of Gorbach’s arguments is that for many Ukrainian far-right actors’, the presence of political opportunities play a massive role in their success. By capitalising on their “expertise in violence,” they have presented themselves as the protector of the nation in recapturing Mariupol from Eastern territory separatists, while simultaneously continuing to infiltrate prominent governmental positions. In my former article (Why the Ukrainian far-right has become the biggest proponents of Intermarium), I elaborated in-depth on these groups’ “sneaktrance” into the political mainstream. By hijacking a former Gramscian term “entryism,” they have successfully penetrated the centers of power while gaslighting the Ukrainian public on their real intentions.

Adding to this, authors such as Volodymyr Ishchenko have pointed out that the tendency of Ukrainian society to flirt with far-right populism has much more to do with the country specific context that Ukraine finds itself in, rather than an overall U-turn towards full-blown fascism. While we should not fall into the same trap of glorifying the democratisation efforts taken by the Ukrainian government since 2014 and the efforts taken to combat corruption in recent years, there are extremely worrisome trends visible in Ukrainian society, as seen in the attacks on prominent activists all over Ukraine.

In agreeing with what has been said by both Gorbach and Ishchenko, one should not label countries as either full-blown puppet states of “the West” or “Russia,” or equating any formal government with the sum of their citizens. As research on civil society in Eastern Europe is already scarce, widespread notions of Ukrainian civil society as weak triumphs and unaddressed civil activism within the country takes shape through non-formalized channels. Such groups are rarely detected or acknowledged by foreign observers. While more investigative research would help to increase understanding of the Ukrainian political sphere, native experts often lack the type of platform Western journalism can provide. Therefore, gaining more empirical “boots on the ground”’ would help demystify Ukraine in the international arena and ground current events in its wider social political environment. In light of these challenges, articles on Ukrainian civil society, social movements and political activism by both domestic as well as international authors should always be taken with a grain of salt, as political affiliation highly colorises the overall debate.

Just the tip of the iceberg

Throughout 2018, more than 50 attacks on political activists all around the country have been reported. Among the most well known attacks was the beating of journalist Serhii Nikitenko on June 6th in Kherson, as well as the acid attack on Ekaterina (Katya) Handziuk on July 31st. While both cases have received public attention and investigations were initiated within Kherson oblast and the wider Odessa region, there are no signs indicating that assaults on political activists will stop.

“Who ordered the attack on Katya Gadziuk?” Source: UNIAN 

In fact, Odessa has proved to be a place for particularly violent cases of attacks throughout the year, targeting high-profile activists and journalists. Another case is the Odessa activist Serhii Sternenko, who has suffered head and hand injuries as a result of three attacks in 2018. Furthermore, publicly known Euromaidan figure, Vitaly Ustymenko, was attacked by unidentified people on June 5th after leaving a local TV station. On August 2nd, the leader of the Odessa organisation People’s Party, Mikhail Kuzakon, was hit by a car in what the police are now investigating as a murder attempt where arrests have been made. On September 22nd, the well-known public activists Oleh Mikhailik, one of the multiple leaders of the party “People’s Force,” was shot by unknown perpetrators. After being clinically dead, his condition has now stabilized. According to local sources and activist circles, the regional prosecutor, Dmitry Zhuchenko, as well as the mayor of Odessa, Gennady Trukhanov, are suspected to be behind the assassination attempt.

Overall, the National Police has also opened investigations into three different crimes: the mentioned attacks on the Kherson city council member, the murder of an activist in Berdyansk, and the assassination of a deputy of the city council in the Dnipropetrovsk region.  

Night on Bankova Street

In reaction to these attacks, a news platform called GORDON has taken measures to draw attention to recent events in an action called “Night on Bankova Street – Silence Kills,” which was organized in Kyiv on September 27th near the Presidential Administration on Bankova street. Parallel activities were scheduled in Kharkov and Lviv, with more than five hundred participants appearing at the event. Opening remarks were made by public activists and victims of recent attacks, Vitaly Ustymenko and Serhii Sternenko. The names of different victims were read out loud and a candle lit for them. Famous activist Katya Gadziuk had also recorded a video message saying “I look bad, but better than justice in Ukraine.”

Activists at the event Night on Bankova Street. Source: UNIAN

Organizers called for intensified efforts into investigations and justice for the crimes committed, all in an attempt to raise awareness for the “inaction of authorities and law enforcement agencies.” Quoting the motto of the actions, “silence kills,” activists proclaim that the systematic ignorance of the Ukrainian authorities has only worsened in light of the election year. Activists affiliated with different organisations that I have spoken to have confirmed that they believe the intensification of these attacks can be directly linked to the president. Simultaneously, they argue that Poroshenko is drawing on favors by local municipality leaders to bolster support for the current election campaign in return for conniving. As much of the political power play is decided by controlling regional centers of power, Poroshenko’s attempts of pooling together these resources have not been left unnoticed by local activists who suffer from the extradition of favors in their communities.

In light of the upcoming parliamentary elections, predicting a possible candidate to win the race seems further away than ever. While the incumbent prime minister has severely dropped in the ratings, no other candidate is predicted to make it through the second round and people generally have low public support for the contenders. With the first round being held on March 31st, 2019, Yulia Tymoshenko and the second most popular candidate, Anatoly Hrytsenko, are leading the current polls while Poroshenko’s re-election seems unlikely. However, as the OSW research institute has pointed out, Poroshenko has one major asset in his hand: access to statewide infrastructure in spreading his political campaign. Bringing the debate surrounding recent attacks on civil society into the mix, one can see the attacks being linked to being an election year. As in many cases of activists being attacked, the perpetrators have either not been brought to justice or released on minor charges. This leaves many activists without protection by the state. Seeing that this period is crucial for Poroshenko’s reelection to the Rada (the Ukrainian parliament) next year, the question on why the government refuses to condemn attacks on civil society remains, giving birth to speculation and conspiracy theories.

As the event Night on Bankova purposefully coincided with the president’s meeting with the United Nations, activists received a statement from the president on national television. The president expressed his “deep concerns” about the situation, which was received by civil society groups as deadly irony. When I spoke to a representative of the group “Who ordered the attack on Katya Handziuk?”, I was told that expressing “deep concern” has negative connotations in Ukrainian society; such a response was made by prominent world leaders following the Crimean annexation in 2014, an event that many Ukrainians interpreted as a betrayal of a strategic ally.

In addition to this political dimension of the event, several Ukrainian media outlets reported that the event was attended and guarded by well known activists from the National Guard and National Corps, as well as C-14. With these groups being known as prominent far-right actors, some Ukrainian news outlets called it an outright scandal.

The connections between different civil society actors in Ukraine are multi-layered and sometimes go above simple “far-left” or “far-right” classifications often used in  Western political analysis. Events such as the Night on Bankova illustrate this point, as they show the strong divisions within the Ukrainian civil society. As a preliminary analysis, one could argue that there is a second battle taking place. On a formal political level, NGO’s and liberal civil society actors battle for changes in the Ukrainian political system, penetrating the center of power held by the current Ukrainian elite. Issues on their agenda are mostly connected to justice system reforms, taxation and anti-corruption measures. Attempts by these groups have not gone unnoticed by the authorities, who have been behind major reform push backs throughout the year. Adding to this dimension, one should note that far-right actors in Ukraine have penetrated not only the current ruling elites, with prominent figures in parliament and the government, but also remained active outside of it. However, when it comes to their role in the overall political landscape, one can attest that they are as much behind attacks on activists as they are themselves falling victim to them. Therefore, the presence of National Corps and C-14 activists at an event designed to raise awareness of attacks on activists has been seen by some as a direct provocation, especially in the case of Katya Handziuk, whose attackers have been identified as members of C-14. Some voices, however, pointed out that they believe higher political figures in Kherson are behind the attack of Handziuk and the link to C-14 is a deliberate dead end for the investigation.

The second level of analysis one has to consider in this debate are the attacks on far-left activist groups by far-right actors, which often remain underreported and rarely investigated. One could argue that the reason for this is that they are not seen as challenging the political elite as directly as the war with Russia over the Eastern territories does. Therefore, one could talk about a hierarchy of precedence in the way authorities deal with these groups.

After talking to representatives of anarchists groups across Ukraine, it has become clear that before 2013, the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) was busier keeping track of these activists groups than monitoring the unfolding conflict with Russia. When studying Ukrainian civil society, it quickly becomes apparent how divided the groups are among themselves, especially on issues such as overall evaluation of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. While some groups joined the fighting divisions Sotniaks against the Ukrainian riot police known as Berkut during Euromaidan protests, others have refrained from doing more than criticising the conflict. This divided attitude towards the war with Russia feeds into the issue of ongoing smear campaigns. As some parts of civil society are accused of not being patriots who wholeheartedly support Ukraine, they are often portrayed as pro-Russian. This proves that Gorbach’s point of the absence of nuance in the discussion of these events go hand in hand with the existence of what some would call internal subcultural wars.

Arguments against the Night on Bankova from far-left groups comprise mostly of the idea that picking on the presidential administration rather than the Ministry of Internal Affairs means not localising the issue at its core; the Ministry of Internal Affairs has been penetrated by the perpetrators themselves. There is also the obvious critique of co-organizers of the Night on Bankova street being involved in attacks themselves, as well as a disregard to frequent attacks on Roma, feminists and other anarchists groups. Activists have said that the reason for many crimes not being reported in cities such as Uzhgorod, Lviv and Kyiv have to do with the fear of activists being wrongfully detained or accused. As in the case of the far-right paramilitary group Karpatska Sich in Uzhgorod, it seems local and political criminal structures and alliances have successfully developed a symbiotic relationship with each other. Their attempt to create patronage networks might even challenge the hegemony of the Azov/National Corps intertwinement with state actors. This scenario would potentially add another layer of complexity to the current situation, as Gorbach argues.

Where to go from here?

Classical divisions of left and right have been proven difficult to use while understanding the kaleidoscope of political actors in contemporary Ukraine. However, one can pinpoint two levels of analysis in order to understand the full scale of attacks on Ukrainian civil society. On the one hand, there is the struggle to find and end corruption, and create a more just society where civil society actors are openly challenging the Ukrainian elite’s status quo. As the current government perceives some civil society groups as a threat, a case can be made for them wanting the assaults on civil society actors to continue. This leads to most civil society groups being left alone, lacking proper protection or having the chance of investigating the assaults committed against them.

On the second level of analysis, there is an evident underreporting of attacks on and between far-left/far-right actors. Since their infighting serves the current government by keeping them away from more direct attacks on the government itself, it also explains why there seems to be no need for investigating these hate crimes. While they check and balance each other, the chances of these cases gaining public attention are slim. Overall, the war in the East has taken prominence on the political agenda, and subcultural wars over ideological matters by political fringe groups are useful for keeping these groups from cooperating. While much of the conflict between political groups originates in the interpretation of key historical events such as the Euromaidan and the overall attitude towards “Russian Imperialism,” events such as the Night on Bankova Street have shown that a division into left and right political groups actually hinders a contextually relevant analysis of current political cleavages in Ukraine.

Update: On November 4th it was confirmed that activist Kateryna Handziuk died from complications connected to the acid attack that she was subjected to on July 31st this year.

Alexandra Wishart is pursuing her Master’s degree in the CEERES program at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. Holding a BA in Cultural Anthropology and Development Studies, she focuses on matters of culture and ethnicity in the post-Soviet space. She is passionate about political activism, economy and social movements in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States.

This article is part of a collaboration between Lossi36 and New Eastern Europe.

Lossi 36 is a student-led initiative. It seeks to rally people who are passionate about the post-socialist states of Central and Eastern Europe, Russia and Eurasia around a common project.

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