Oksana Forostyna: “Kiev hasn’t faced such violence since the Second World War.”

February 19, 2014
Protesters hold captured riot police shields in Kiev, Ukraine, February 18, 2014

Two weeks ago, The Interpreter‘s editor-in-chief Michael Weiss interviewed Oksana Forostyna, executive editor for Krytyka Journal (think Ukraine’s London Review of Books). An outspoken intellectual and pro-Euromaidan activist, she talked about what the protestors in Kiev, now facing the bloodiest day of a three-month-long uprising (for more on this, see our liveblog), really want and what the United States and European Union can and should be doing to force the Yanukovych government’s hand. A month ago, Forostyna wrote a piece titled, “Ukraine Was Hijacked and America and Europe Are Next” warning of the consequences of Western inaction on Ukraine. The following interview was conducted two weeks ago, but in light of the last 24 hours, Forostyna’s comments are both prescient and relevant. — Ed.

Michael Weiss: You wrote a powerful appeal aimed at the US and Europe for what you say is acquiescence in what’s happening in Ukraine. How do you feel Washington and Brussels should respond to this crisis? What have they not done that might have altered its course?

Oksana Forostyna: I believe the most effective way is harsh personal press. Yanukovych, [former Prime Minister Nikolay] Azarov, [powerful Ukrainian businessman Andriy] Kliyuev, all have business and real estate in Europe.

MW: So what are you saying? EU should sanction or freeze assets? The U.S. appears to have done that with some officials.

OF: I’m afraid Europe and US didn’t have a clue about the persons they were dealing with. The only language they understand in pressure. Personal assets are their weak point.

MW: Can you be specific? Whose assets? Where?

OF: Publishing Deluxe Holding GmbH, the company in Austria owned by Azarov’s daughter-in-law could be an example.

MW: But now Azarov has now resigned.

OF: It means nothing. [Acting Prime Minister Serhiy] Arbuzov is in charge instead of him, and he is one of “The Family.” Police is still under Yanukovych control, people are still being kidnapped, arrested, and attacked. Even today, even now. So, there are two important leverages: first, freezing the accounts of Yanukovych, his family, Azarov, his family, Kliuyev brothers and their families, and other Ukrainian authorities, and also visa ban for all of them. Second, the pressure on Ukrainian oligarchs, Rinat Akhmetov first of all. They are mostly concerned about their business interests in Europe, as well as their image, both business and personal. European negotiators get nothing if “The Family” doesn’t see a potential threat. Unless they have no respect to these European fools.

MW: How does Euromaidan win?

OF: The victory we all with is a resignation of Yanukovych and total reboot of the state. The short-term victory would be freedom for all detained, the resignation of the Cabinet, police and gangs back off. However, it’s rather the zero-point to move on, to negotiate further.

MW: A lot of pro-Kremlin — and even a lot of Western — media coverage is focusing on ultras and fascists in the opposition now. Those throwing Molotov cocktails and burning tires. Also, Svoboda was involved in Euromaidan from the beginning but their rhetoric was not extremist as in the past. Is this argument, about ultra-nationalism, being overplayed, or is it legitimate?

OF: It’s not even narrow-mindedness, it’s cynicism and hypocrisy. That’s the regime who use gangs to terrify peaceful citizens. So called titushki, the gangs paid by regime and controlled by police attacked pedestrians and crashed cars, not radicals. The attack on Hrushevskoho Street happened after the parliament anti-protests “laws.” I’ve always said the protests should be peaceful, but I have to admit if Hrushevskoho hadn’t been attacked I wouldn’t be here now.

There are no ultras and right radicals in the world more dangerous than the alliance of criminals and state repression machine we’re dealing here in Ukraine. Another important point: Euromaidan patrols Kiev synagogues. The Association of Jewish Organizations made a statement that they are concerned about possible provocation of regime. Two Jewish clerics (a tutor and a student) had been attacked in January, and the police did nothing, so Maidan activists offered help.

MW: Let me ask about Russian involvement in Ukraine. Do you believe rumors that Putin has sent Russian snipers into Kiev and that Russian intelligence is working with Yanukovych to suppress the protest movement? Clearly Putin is deeply involved through the $15 billion bailout and Russian state media’s portrayal of the crisis.

OF: I’m absolutely sure Yanukovych would be more compliant and reasonable if not Russian pressure on him. The statements of Russian officials are far from diplomatic, they are very clear about their readiness to “help”. I can say nothing about snipers, not my expert area, really, but the body of secondary evidence is for Russian involvement at least on provocateur agents level.

Yanukovych outsourced his bodyguard from Russia, that’s just a detail. That may also means he is a hostage and restrained in decision-making.

It’s a thin line between hard power and soft power: anti-Ukrainian Russian propaganda here had been sustainable, massive, and well-organized during last few years. That’s why it’s hard to say if a riot policeman beats and tortures an activist so severely, or destroys Ukrainian flag because he is originally of Russian “death squad,” or he’s brain-washed Ukrainian citizen. The fact is the hate of such scale is hard to understand for anyone outside from Ukrainian-Russian context.

MW: How connected are the party leaders to the protest movement at this point? Vitaly Klitchko, et al — do they still command a following?

OF: That’s another important point: Maidan doesn’t stand for leaders. They are criticized, and people make decisions themselves. The power distance between protesters and leaders are very short. They are booed, for example, when the compromise they proposed was not acceptable for Maidan. So they had to stop negotiate, and in twenty minutes new barricades appeared on the front lines. It’s very hard to manipulate people on Maidan: there are liberals, lefts, rights, businessmen, students, farmers, together, united for the same goal. They don’t worship political leaders, they just gave them a mandate to negotiate. If they are not happy with the results, they are very clear about that.

The most important point is many people are still missing, including one of the leaders of “Maidan On Wheels”. His name is Dmytro Bulatov, he disappeared a week ago. Cars of other activists had been burned last night [two weeks ago — ed.], at least 5 of them. 150 of them are pursued by police.

Kiev hasn’t faced such violence since the Second World War.