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Is Ukraine Descending Into Civil War?

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Professors Nicolai Petro and Aleksandr Buzgalin discuss the factional clashes in the Ukrainian city of Odessa and how the international community can deescalate tensions.


JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

Violence continues to escalate in Ukraine. Just last Friday, more than 40 people were killed in clashes in the port city of Odessa. Those who were killed were mostly pro-Russian supporters after a building they were occupying was set ablaze by petrol bombs. The images are quite graphic, so please be aware that throughout this interview you will be seeing them on a recurring basis.

Now joining us to provide us with more analysis are our two guests.

Joining us from Ukraine is Nicolai Petro. He’s a professor of politics at the University of Rhode Island. He has been in Ukraine since August as a visiting scholar and has observed the current crisis firsthand.

Also joining us, from Moscow, is Aleksandr Buzgalin. He’s a professor of political economy at Moscow State University.

So, Aleksandr and Nicolai, it’s very difficult to decipher who started what, but at the very least we can break down who these forces are on the street.

Nicolai, who are these groups, and what do they represent?

NICOLAI PETRO, PROF. POLITICS, URI, VISITING SCHOLAR IN UKRAINE: The two groups that came into conflict in the center of the city, and then, later on, a little bit further south, are basically categorizable as pro-Maidan and anti-Maidan. There are a number of smaller groups within them, but essentially that’s the division between them.

And the pro-Maidan forces essentially argue that what happened in February 22 was a positive thing, a legitimate transfer of authority, and they’re willing to grant credibility to the present interim government. The anti-Maidan views what happened after, on February 22 and most of the subsequent acts of the current interim government as illegitimate.

DESVARIEUX: So, essentially you were telling me earlier, though, that there was a soccer game and that’s where a lot of this tension arose.

PETRO: Odessa is fairly evenly divided among these two groups, although I’d say the largest constituency is one that is not terribly concerned with the politics of Kiev. It would really rather enjoy the beautiful scenery, allow tourism to flourish, and have a good and prosperous lifestyle here in this cosmopolitan port city.

But what happened on May 2 was that in addition to these two local constituencies, there was an addition of football rowdies—soccer rowdies, actually. There was a game on the 2nd between the Kharkiv team and the Odessa team. And they had agreed or coordinated with the pro-Maidan civil defense forces to hold a march in the center of the city to support national unity. And they put that out on social networks. And so everyone knew in the city where they were going to be, including the anti-Maidan forces, and they came to the same place, eager for a fight, and that’s exactly what happened.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Aleksandr, I want to ask you about Odessa’s history in Russia. Can you just explain a little bit about the relationship between Odessa and Moscow?

ALEKSANDR BUZGALIN, PROF. POLITICAL ECONOMY, MOSCOW STATE UNIV.: Yes, but first of all I will not agree on many points with Nicolai about events in Odessa. It’s not simply conflict between pro- and anti-Maidan forces.

In Odessa we have thousands of right-wing representatives of so-called right bloc, and they are openly supporting pro-fascist groups such as Bandera and so on [and past and now]. And they had majority in the streets. And because they were real hooligans, very dangerous for population. So-called people’s /druʒin/—I don’t know—people’s team, if it’s possible to say so, self-organization of people who are simply [incompr.] these fascist groups came to stop these provocations and direct attack on the peaceful people. But they had only a few hundred people, and they were beaten. Police was withdraw from this conflict, and they were trying to show that they are outside of the conflict.

And when this anti-fascist, I can say, forces were terribly attacked, they came back to the house of trade unions, and they were blockaded in this house. Then it was direct fire, shooting, from these right-wingers, right bloc representatives. There are a lot of evidences, photos and direct video, which showing that machine guns were used against defenders blockaded in this house. And then I send you photos and video, and we have our friends who were inside this building. They were beaten, killed, directly killed when building was occupied. It was used [, napalm,] against people. They were, I don’t know, using fire against these people. And this is directly right-wing nationalist attack.

DESVARIEUX: What’s your take—.

BUZGALIN: And I cannot talk without emotions about this. I’m sorry.

DESVARIEUX: I understand. Nicolai, what’s your take on that? Is that how it’s being interpreted in Ukraine?

PETRO: The national media in Ukraine is putting a very different spin on this. Namely, the national channels are arguing that what happened in the center was self-defense by the pro-Maidan forces, and that somehow they then went down to the trade union building, which is about a mile and a half from the center, and decided as a revenge for the deaths in the center to get rid of the tent city there. And they basically then don’t discuss how the fire began.

The local media here in Odessa presents a much more nuanced view, with the notion that indeed many of the things that Professor Buzgalin has said is exactly the view that is often mentioned here among people and the local media, namely, that this was orchestrated by groups close to the right sector, and that both—perhaps both of these attacks were organized beforehand in order to provoke deaths.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Aleksandr, I want to get a sense of how Russia is responding, ’cause we’ve heard from the Russian foreign minister that they would intervene if the needed to, if there was a humanitarian reason to intervene. And I’m sure they might be making this case now with this incident in Odessa. So, first of all, do you think they’re justified in making that case? And if they are justified, isn’t this very similar to what they often criticize the United States for doing, which is just intervening when they have a humanitarian reason to intervene?

BUZGALIN: So it’s many—you put many questions. But first of all I want to stress that what I said, this is not official information of Russian main TV channels or news agencies. This is direct information which we received from our comrades from Odessa. And our comrades, whom we know personally very well, who participated in our events in Moscow a few months ago, were beaten. Their friends were killed. And this is direct evidence of people who participated in these events. And this is brutal and bloody picture.

Second, very important, in Russia we do not have any information that Russian troops will intervene in the events in Ukraine, in the south and east of Ukraine. By the way, Odessa is part of the civil war. Now we have real civil war. This is not simply confrontation or something like that of pro-Maidan and anti-Maidan people. This is the beginning of civil war in Ukraine. And I do not think that it will be direct intervention of Russian troops in Ukraine. This is, I think, simply impossible.

There is another aspect which is important. There are a lot of Russian people who wants to go to this country, to Ukraine, and to help in the struggle against fascists. And this is the feelings among Russians, and this is common atmosphere. And now government is asking not to go to Ukraine and not to go to support these people. And the Ukrainian people from south of Ukraine, east of Ukraine, they ask to help with money, because they simply do not have a penny to buy gasoline for their machines to make patrol—patrolling—I don’t know how to say in English—to move in the cities to control situation. They don’t have money for gasoline. They don’t have money for medicine. They don’t have money for food. And in this situation, to say that there is intervention of Russian state, I think this is direct lie. I think even it’s necessary to help them, at least with some money, but this is another aspect and this is my personal opinion.

A few words about history. This is important. Odessa became part of Russian Empire 200 years ago, even more, and all time it was very specific city with Russian traditions, but very specific Russian traditions. It was and it is a lot of Jews in Odessa, and very special Odessa language, special Odessa anecdotes. And Brighton Beach in New York is a small Odessa because of many immigrants from this city who came to United States and other foreign countries. So this is very specific region, but which is very far from Ukraine, Ukrainian language and Ukrainian traditions. And, as many other places of former Russia, it became artificially part of Ukraine because of different reasons in different periods of Soviet history.

It doesn’t mean that Odessa must be outside of Ukraine.

And, by the way, there is big [incompr.] discussion and big discussion also about words, because if you say that separatist bandits are fighting against democratic government which is representing peoples of Ukraine—peoples, not people—different peoples of Ukraine, this is one case. If you say that fighters for human, national, and cultural rights in the East and South of Ukraine [promotes] just normal federal system of organization of this space in their country and they want to have real dialog and real democratic elections and real rights for the self-determination of regions, some independence, not even as separate state, this is absolutely another context and another discourse, if I can use postmodernist language. So this is also important to understand.

And one more important aspect. Now in Russia I think all people who has any feelings about this, any, I don’t know, political feelings, they’re spending all time with internet information, not even TV, but internet information, because we have direct opportunity to hear radio talks between mobile groups in East of Ukraine, we have opportunity to have permanent new information and internet from Odessa, different groups. We have a lot of internet information from Ukraine—and, by the way, very different information.

Very important: in Germany it was 40,000 demonstration [incompr.] Soviet Union, not even Russia, just a few days ago. In website of /ɑːltərnəˈtiv/, alternatives dot RU, you can find video of this huge rally. And there are a lot of speeches on the different meetings and the, I don’t know, demonstrations in Berlin and other cities. The same in Greece and many other countries. So this is international critique of situation. And it’s necessary to make real analysis. And I’m very glad that you are doing this, because typically there is too simplistic picture in the Western mass media. In Russia, I think [incompr.] by the way, also we have a simplistic picture, but at least we do not have direct lie.

DESVARIEUX: Aleksandr, I want to get back to your point that you made about Ukraine being in a civil war right now. Nicolai, you’re actually in Ukraine. First of all, do you agree with that? And secondly, how much is this really being driven by ultranationalists on both sides?

PETRO: I’m cautious about using the phrase civil war, because to me that conjures up images of two clear sides confronting each other and having fairly clear objectives and organizations. There’s a period in Ukrainian history—actually, several periods, the latest one at the turn of the century, when there was simply a lot of local groups, not terribly organized, but each of them trying to defend their own turf. And I think—I’ve read also on the internet that some analysts have compared this not so much to a clear-cut civil war as /maxəˈnoʂəna/, a period of time when simply a sense of disorganization, lack of trust in the government, a feeling of one’s own vulnerability. And as a result of this vulnerability, people are starting to arm themselves and look to defend themselves, because they cannot trust and they don’t believe that the government will be able to do so. So I anticipate more of these sorts of conflicts, but on a fairly small scale, not really united across the entire sweep of the East and South of the country.

DESVARIEUX: But how much is this really being driven by more of the right-wing ultranationalist Ukrainian factions?

PETRO: Yeah. I would say, and the latest polling available from the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology in April confirms that one of the dominant themes of why people are skeptical and fearful of the government in Kiev and willing to lend their, at least, some support to the federalist movement in the East and the South is this fear that the right-wing nationalists are, behind the scenes, able to manipulate outcomes to their advantage, even if they’re not sort of the first people that one sees on television. They’re not the spokesmen, they’re not the prime minister or the president. But nevertheless, they have a firm grasp over the security forces in Ukraine, and they’re very fearful of having that extend into their regions and then not being able to control the situation locally.

DESVARIEUX: Aleksandr, I’m going to turn to you and ask a hypothetical question. If the intention of Russia and Ukraine, America, Europe, you know, all parties directly or indirectly involved, was to really de-escalate the tensions there in Ukraine, what would your approach be? What kind of policies would you be advocating for?

BUZGALIN: No, this is very complex question, of course.

But first of all I want to tell a few words about beginning of civil war, why I use this very dangerous words, I can say, even. Of course civil war, it’s not simple struggle of two paths, two wings. In Russian Empire, it’s Russian Empire. When we had civil war, it was a lot of different groups—anarchists, bandits, [white] supporters of monarchy, supporters of, I don’t know, liberal model, supporters of Bolsheviks, Mensheviks. It was very complex picture and permanent, terrible, bloody actions. The same we have at the beginning. We have the beginning of the same situation in Ukraine.

But there is more or less consolidation. East and South of Ukraine has military groups and organized groups who are not one army. They do not have one leader, they do not have one military organization. This is groups of people who partly has armaments, partly has nothing, and a civil population who supports them. There are a lot of such people, and young people, not only old one, women, even teenagers. And they are—they simply want to have this federal system of organizations. They want to have Russian language as second or first among—with two languages.

By the way, I had very interesting direct interview with one of the leaders of organized group of defenders in Donetsk region, and he is speaking very well Ukrainian, and he likes Ukrainian songs, and their groups like these songs. But they want to have two languages. They want to have self-management in their region, even in Russia, which is not very democratic country at all—and I was and I am very critical about democracy inside my country, but even in Russia we have federal system. We have in some republics two languages. And this is not tragedy for nobody. I do not—I know why Kiev authorities do not want to have these referendums and federalism, because they’re afraid to lose support in one half of Ukraine. And this is real threat for them. They have very small bases.

The same with right-wingers. I agree here with Nicolai that right-wingers, these semi-fascist groups, nationalist groups, they are not represented very well in the government or among members of parliament in modern parliament of Ukraine. But they’re only one real force, and they’re fighting and they’re killing people. And this is very bloody force. That’s why people are extremely angry against them in many regions. And now, even more and more, they are angry inside Central and even Western Ukraine.

A few words about escalation of conflict and possible scenarios.


BUZGALIN: So the best variant for me will be peaceful solution of this situation. And here I think both Russian and Western authorities, diplomats, presidents must sit together. And I think it’s good idea to put them in one room and not to open this room, and do not give them food, as when [the pope] is—when there is elections of [pope], and wait till they went—they will decide something exact and will tell to everybody openly what they decide. And the decision can be—it can be decision that modern and new Ukrainian authorities will tell no to right wing and the right bloc, and took all armament from this bloc, and simply will tell they’re criminals. Then, second decision in this situation will be disarmament of Eastern people. If everybody will tell parliament of Ukraine, president of United States, president of Russia, and so on, we guarantee that it will be federal system, new constitution, and open discussion, in this situation it’s possible /toˈweɪ/ that situation will be solved peacefully.

Now we have escalation of violence. We have more and more tanks, armed vehicles, different weapons, aircrafts from their side of Ukraine, and here in Russia we have a lot of records of English-language negotiations among armed groups. And from another side, Russian—how to say the /braˈvoɪtzə/? Peoples who want to—.

PETRO: Volunteer.

BUZGALIN: Volunteers. Yeah, I’m sorry. Sometimes it difficult for me to find words. I’m really [crosstalk]

DESVARIEUX: No, it’s fine. Continue.

BUZGALIN: Yeah. So these volunteers, they want to come to Ukraine, and they possibly will come from different regions. And more and more workers from enterprises, from manufactories, will come to these groups who want to protect their cities and their villages.

And one more important aspect. We had direct interviews with militants and leaders of different groups in Donetsk region, and they directly said that they do not have any material support from big bourgeoisie of Ukraine, both East bourgeoisie, West bourgeoisie, Central bourgeoisie [incompr.] They do not have no support from any oligarch at all. They have terrible shortage of money. They have only resources which ordinary people are bringing them—food, gasoline, medicine, and so on. And that oligarchs now directly or indirectly supporting Kiev government. So this also economic and social basis for the conflict, and it’s impossible to withdraw, to forget about this problem.

Also important, that East of Ukraine, this is industrial region. This is a region of huge, big steel, coal, and other enterprises, coal miners, other enterprises. And this is also—but in some aspects, class conflict, because supporters of Ukraine government now, this is so-called middle class, and this is not majority of Ukrainian people, and not majority in Russia. This is 20 percent of population who has incomes more or less the same as in the United States middle class. And they’re mainly supporters of modern government, plus oligarchs who are now simply afraid that it will be redistribution of property if in the East of Ukraine, where all huge enterprises are located—they’re afraid of redistribution of property. They’re afraid that their power will go down. So this is also a background for the conflict, plus culture and languages. This is important.

If Kiev government will tell that in the South and East of Ukraine, Russian language will be first language, together with Ukrainian, it will solve at least 30 percent of contradictions. [crosstalk] guarantees of self-management, and real opportunity to make elections and referendums.

Simply to make open referendums with foreign observers from any country, this is requirement of these people, nothing else. And I think this is necessary steps to solve the contradiction without huge blood—.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Nicolai, since you just heard all that, just very quickly—we don’t have much time.

PETRO: Exactly. Yeah. Before Professor Buzgalin’s very good suggestions can be implemented, however, basically two things need to happen. One is there needs to be recognition in the West that these are really indigenous problems in the Ukraine, not brought in from Russia or any other country. These are problems that come from within Ukrainian society.

Consequently, the West needs to stop criticizing Russia gratuitously, and instead focus on the real problems, which are internal. And it needs to then recognize that Russia must be part of the solution as Ukraine’s greatest, largest economic partner and neighbor.

DESVARIEUX: Alright. Nicolai Petro and Aleksandr Buzgalin, thank you both for joining us.

PETRO: Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: And, of course, you can follow us @therealnews on Twitter, and you can send me questions and comments @Jessica_Reports.

Thank you so much for watching The Real News Network.

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