Last week, in Lviv, an international delegation met with labour organizers and activists. The Swiss weekly newspaper, Die Wochenzeitung, followed the proceedings. What questions are most preoccupying the country’s workers, and why are anarchists angry with parts of the Western left? The following is a report by journalist Anna Jikhareva, translated from German by Jeff Kochan.
It is a colourful troupe who, on this sunny Wednesday afternoon at the beginning of May, raise their fists in defiance at the Ivan Franko monument in the heart of Lviv. Left wing parliamentarians from Finland, Denmark, Poland, and Switzerland stand next to feminists, eco-activists, and labour organizers from Catalonia and France, Belgium, Great Britain, and Ukraine.
At the invitation of the Lviv-based Ukrainian organization Sotsialnyi Rukh, the alliance European Solidarity Network with Ukraine drummed up over two dozen people from ten countries. This international summit is a kind of left wing counter-response to current attempts by Western state leaders to profile themselves through trips to the war zone. “We don’t just want to discuss the situation in Ukraine, but to provide concrete help,” says Stéfanie Prezioso, a Geneva representative of the left-radical coalition Ensemble à Gauche, who has a seat in the Swiss parliament, and who helped to organize the journey. “One possibility was to travel here and show solidarity with the Ukrainian left and their fight against the Russian invasion.”
The backdrop to the delegates’ group photo was not chosen at random. Not only was Ivan Franko one of Ukraine’s most famous poets, he also translated works by Marx and the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudon. And he was an avowed socialist, as Vladislav Starodubtsev emphasizes in his brief historical sketch. “Many wish to erase this part of his history,” he explains with a grin. Moreover, in the nineteenth century, Franko co-founded the local socialist movement, and he was imprisoned for his subversive political activities.
The presence of the war
Starodubtsev, who studied history in Kyiv, is also part of Sotsialnyi Rukh, which in English means “social movement.” With their approximately one hundred members, the group is not very big in number, but in a country where there is no progressive, left wing parliamentary power, extra-parliamentary activities are all the more important. The activists arrived in Lviv from all points on the compass, in order to familiarize the foreign guests with the everyday world of workers and social movements during the war. Again and again, they emphasized how much this meeting means to them.
But some have also come in order to catch their breath for a few days. Because, like hundreds of thousands of other Ukrainians, many leftists and anarchists have also fled to Lviv, which makes the city something of a nerve centre for the resistance. “Many people already start getting involved at the train station,” says Ksenia, who participates in a queer cooperative project.
Even though Russian rockets hit two electrical substations on the eve of the delegates’ arrival, it is much quieter in Lviv than in many other places. Life goes on unperturbed, almost in defiance, children continue to play in the park, the restaurants and shops serve their customers, families stroll through the streets of a city rich with history, one that for years has been a magnet for tourists.
Nevertheless, the war the Russian regime is waging against the country is ever present: with air-raid sirens screaming several times a day, and also in the night; with the presence of the soldiers; with the prohibition against alcohol sales after eight o’clock in the evening (though ignored by many merchants); or with the night curfew (likewise ignored by some). The arrival of refugees has also driven up the price of accommodation. Over a glass of cider in an apartment shared by friends, activists from Sotsialnyi Rukh offer the example of a now popular joke: “Elon Musk bought Twitter for forty-four billion. For this price, you can rent an apartment in Lviv for a year.”
New ‘anti-social’ laws
Over the following two days, many urgent questions will be discussed: what is the situation like for the health services, for those working in transportation and construction, or in the mines and the nuclear power plants? What is the impact of the war on the environment, or on gender roles and the queer community? How can an end be put to the dependency on Russian oil and gas? And why is support for Ukraine in the interests of all workers around the world?
The roughly forty conference participants sit in an ostentatious hall, with a sparkling chandelier, on the eighth floor of an austere convention hotel outside the city centre. The Trotskyist former French presidential candidate, Olivier Besancenot, who is documenting the delegation on film, tiptoes around with his camera. Things kick off with Vitali Dudin, chairperson of Sotsialnyi Rukh, clad in a smart red-and-white checkered shirt, who explains the reason for his organization’s existence. Ukraine is currently facing its greatest crisis since the Second World War. “In this situation, international solidarity, support not only from foreign presidents, but also from activists, is needed more than ever: in order to consolidate our movement, and—once the war has ended—to be able to build a progressive future,” he says.
Dudin is trained in labour law, and accordingly concerned with “anti-social laws,” as he calls many of the new policies that were recently waved through parliament. Since the declaration of martial law, strikes have been forbidden, the labour inspectorate has suspended its visits to workplaces, many salaries in the public sector are no longer being paid, and hundreds of thousands, if not millions, have lost their jobs. He says that, precisely during the war, when the rights of workers should be strengthened, not weakened, the unions have little room left to protect their member. “The workers are the first to suffer in the war, but there is no party that represents their interests, and they also have no influence within the political system.”
Symbolic of the dramatic changes is a law numbered 2136, which, among other things, loosens employment protection and raises maximum working hours per week to sixty hours. The temporary measures have not stabilized the situation of business, whose debts are, in any case, not the main problem, as they can request assistance from the state, or apply to the banks for credit. On the other hand, the new policies have plunged many people into poverty.
Sotsialnyi Rukh promotes the repeal of Law 2136. But Dudin also criticizes the recently adopted reform that lowers corporate taxes, and so transfers profits to the rich. “We are against these neoliberal reforms, and the war is being used as a pretense, in order to weaken our rights.” The student of history, Vladislav Starodubtsev, also views the government’s politics with ambivalence. “We support Zelensky as a symbol of the Ukrainian resistance, he helps to lift the morale of the people. But we reject his anti-social policies, in a time when people need as much stability as possible.”
The consequences of austerity politics
As Zelensky’s government thus severely restricts the rights of workers, many of them are already facing enormous challenges. Among the issues now occupying his people, the Kyiv train engineer, Aleksandr Skyba, from the Free Union of Railway Workers (VPZU), standing in the conference hotel’s opulent meeting hall, reports the following. “We not only transport millions of people, but also all kinds of materials and relief supplies. The railway is now the most important form of transportation in the country. Without it, many cities would be isolated,” he says. “We railway workers are carrying a huge responsibility.”
Especially at the beginning of the war, daily shifts frequently reached up to thirty hours, without breaks for meals or sleep. The VPZU provided the battalions of the “Territorial Defence” with material, and brought food and medicine into the combat zones. “We were taking care of everything that the state wasn’t able to take care of,” says Skyba. Most other labour unions have also taken on similar duties: they provide their members with everything of necessity, campaign for their rights, and assist in the flight from conflict.
What dramatic consequences the austerity politics of recent years can have in a situation like the present one was, in turn, described by labour organizers from the health sector. The hospitals, geared toward profit, were already badly prepared for the corona pandemic, and the war has just made everything even worse. Although clear gains have also been made, such as the stabilization of wages, the hospitals did not then actually have the money to pay the agreed upon wages. “So they have become hostages of the system, and have had to lay off part of the workforce, which made working conditions worse,” says Serhi Kubanskyi, from Kyiv. Another problem is that health sector workers are not permitted to leave the country. The ones who nevertheless do so, lose their jobs. “The labour unions cannot protect these people.”
Especially alarming, meanwhile, is the report from Pavlo Oleshchuk, who represents the labour union Atomprofspilka, for workers in the nuclear sector. Oleshchuk himself worked for seventeen years in Saporishchia, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, now under Russian control. The situation there is especially precarious: the occupiers have no understanding of the situation they are in, and they are unable to operate the instrumentation, says Oleshchuk.
People nevertheless carry on with their work, but they do not follow the orders of the invaders, Oleshchuk adds. He is greatly worried that safety measures are not being properly followed. The labour activist speaks of the “world’s first instance of nuclear terrorism,” for the handling of which there is no protocol. “We know who the people are who have invaded the compound. They must be sanctioned, because they are putting the entire world in danger.”
Tighter ties to the West
The many reports from labour organizers, environmental and anti-racism activists, feminists, and representatives of Sotsialnyi Rukh serve to provide the foreign visitors with an overall picture. Yet, disappointment and anger over the behaviour of parts of the Western left could also often be felt: regarding the absence of solidarity, and the poor understanding of the people’s situation in Ukraine, which sometimes leads to ignorance and indifference. Germany’s left wing party, in particular, fails to enjoy great popularity. And although their figurehead, Gregor Gysi, was visiting Lviv at the same time, it seems no one expected to see him in the conference hotel Sonata.
Serhi Movchan, from Operation Solidarity, a project that supports refugees and people in crisis, and gathers military protective gear for the territorial defence, responds to questions about Gysi’s stance on the delivery of weapons: “There is no confusion among Ukrainian leftists, and even anarchists, when it comes to this question, and to us solidarity means more than just warm words. But if you’ve already decided not to send weapons, then at least send humanitarian aid.” His colleague Yuri Chernata later adds that, at the moment, the people of Ukraine do not have the luxury of being pacifists one hundred percent of the time.
But another point is also crucial for Movchan: “If you’re really a leftist, listen to the people on the ground, and try to understand that Ukraine has its own subjectivity.” This is also a concern for those who travelled to Lviv for this meeting. Swiss parliamentarian Stéfanie Prezioso put it this way: “In parts of the Western left, Eastern Europe is completely dismissed, which strikes an internationalist like me as a very peculiar.” The fifty-three year old see the congress in this respect as a success: ties have been tightened, and concrete support has been discussed. “Building on this will also become particularly important after the war.”
Perhaps the gathering in Lviv could even be called the starting shot for a new internationalism, something about which guests, over evening drinks in the friends’ shared apartment, were also in agreement. A few of them say that they had consumed hardly any alcohol since the outbreak of the war, but toasts over shared drinks nevertheless have been rewritten for the new reality: “Death to Putin, long live freedom,” wishes one activist as the glasses clink together.
Anna Jikhareva is a staff reporter with the Swiss left wing news collective Wochenzeitung WOZ. Her work covers migration and labour struggles, right extremism and countries in the post-Soviet region.
This article was first published in German, Die Wochenzeitung WOZ #19, May 12, 2022.