“This political force should be liquidated,” said Pavlo Petrenko, Ukraine’s justice minister, quoted in the July 9 edition of Capital (Kiev’s equivalent of the Australian Financial Review).
Petrenko was referring to the Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU). For a time in the 1990s, it was the most supported party in Ukraine and it still won 13% of the vote at the 2012 parliamentary poll.
Maybe Petrenko, a member of a government desperate to get Ukraine into the European Union and which has just signed an Agreement of Association with Brussels, has not yet had time to read Article 12 of the EU’s “Charter of Fundamental Rights”.
That says: “Political parties at Union level contribute to expressing the political will of the citizens of the Union.”
Oleksander Turchynov, the speaker of the Verkovnaya Rada (Ukraine's national parliament), was just as aggressive. On July 24, two days after changing its rules of procedure, the parliament voted by just 232 votes out of 450 to dissolve the CPU’s parliamentary group. It did so on the pretext that 10 of its 32 MPs elected in 2012 had since left the party.
Turchynov commented on the vote, which had been proposed by president Petro Poroshenko: “We have corrected a historical error by disbanding the faction. I hope there will be no more communist ideology in Ukrainian society.”
On the same day, the Kiev District Administrative Court began hearing the justice minister’s application for the banning of the CPU.
Outside the court, members of the extreme-right party Svoboda heard Igor Miroshnychenco, one of the party’s MPs, crow over events in national parliament earlier in the day: “The communists are the fifth column of the Kremlin. They announce all of Putin’s wishes in parliament.
“And yesterday, we smashed the communist [leader Petro] Symonenko right in the face, who had been saying everything Putin wanted to hear, and who was making Goebbels-like propaganda films for Putin.”
Why this ferocious onslaught on the CPU, which is not exactly famous in Ukraine for revolutionary activity, and why now?
In immediate terms, the attack on the CPU is a response by the Kiev government to pressure from its right. This is chiefly from Svoboda, but also from the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR―Klitschko, literally “Punch-Klitschko”), the political tool of heavyweight boxing champion and political aspirant Vitali Klitschko.
On July 24, these parties withdrew their support from the government of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. This left it without a majority and gives Poroshenko the option of calling parliamentary elections if a new governing majority cannot be cobbled together before August 24.
The question for the ruling (and rival) elites in Kiev is whether to go for parliamentary elections early, as desired by 80% of the population according to polls. Poroshenko wants to grab his best chance of getting rid of the “fifth columnists” in parliament, but the risk of an early poll is that the CPU may not be banned in time.
Its trial resumes on August 14. The court hearing the case has recently banned two other parties, United Russia and the Russian Bloc.
However, if the decision is to hold off on parliamentary elections until the war against pro-Russian separatists in the East is won (no certainty), then the government runs the risk of paying a high political price for the austerity measures it is introducing. If the CPU is out of the way, the likely beneficiary would be Svoboda.
Kiev’s immediate tactical concerns also clash with the “need” for the thorough “de-communisation” of Ukrainian society and government dreamed of by some rightists.
For example, in a May 15 article titled “How to Properly Ban the Communist Party of Ukraine?” the Kiev newspaper The Day cited the concerns of “historian and publicist” Andrii Plakhonin.
Plakhonin said: “The ban of the Communist Party without a new Nuremburg process, this time for Lenin, Stalin, and their successors, a ban of communist ideology, total lustration [vetting and purging] of former party and Komsomol functionaries at all levels, will play against Ukraine, its political institutions, and its future.
“Because the cause of the Communist Party will live … in the form of offshoots of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union [sic]. These will create the absolute majority of state officials and functionaries of all political parties of Ukraine, without exception.”
More seriously, in a country that has shown how to topple governments, political elites in Kiev would expose themselves to possible large-scale social revolt: growing protest against conscripts being sent to fight in the Donbas could mix with protests against job losses and neoliberal “reform” of what is left of the country’s social safety net.
In this sense, a ban on the CPU is not targeting the CPU alone, whose comfortable participation in the perks of government is well documented. Rather it is aimed at a potential revolt against EU-imposed austerity and the threat of left participation in organising it.
Victor Shapinov, spokesperson of the left group Borotba (“Struggle”), has recently described the CPU's role: “It was a party with a decomposed leadership, fully integrated into the political system of Ukrainian capitalism, which collaborated at different stages with [former presidents] Tymoshenko and Yanukovych.
“It was a party with a limp and passive base, which could not affect or frighten the bourgeoisified top ... And of course, this party has done much to discredit the ideas of the left in Ukraine.”
Yet, as Borotba leader Sergei Kirichuk recently wrote: “With the rightist regime persecuting the Ukrainian left, it is not the time for petty schadenfreude towards the cornered Communist Party.
“The trial of the Communist Party … is guaranteed to be a trial of the entire leftist ideology that they want to ban and finally expel from Ukrainian politics.”
The legal ground of the case against CPU is its alleged support for the secessionist struggle in the Donbas, and its chief crime calling for an end to the “anti-terrorist operation” there.
In the May presidential election, before pulling out in the final days of the campaign, CPU leader Petro Simonenko called Kiev’s “anti-terrorist operation” in the East “a war against our own people”. He said that if he were head of state, he would “immediately call back all the troops”.
Commenting on the justice ministry case, social scientist Volodymyr Ishchenko said on August 4: “It is true that some local [CPU] cells participated in the Anti-Maidan movement in an organised way, and it is possible that individual members even participated in armed separatist militia groups … At the same time the CPU leadership is unequivocally supporting ‘united Ukraine’.
“The allegations against the CPU voiced by the Ministry of Justice officials include, for example, statements like the following: ‘[Individual CPU representatives] overtly expressed negative attitudes to the actions of our military in eastern Ukraine.’
“If interpreted literally, such accusations amount to a plain and simple attack on the freedom of speech.”
Taking up the argument that Kiev had to do something against Russian interference in the Donbas, Ishchenko notes: “Some would see these repressive sanctions and propaganda hysteria as necessary or at least logical steps for the state in a country with an ongoing civil war fuelled by a stronger foreign power.
“But even leaving aside the question of the class nature of the new Ukrainian government and the necessity of supporting it by any means at all, a more careful look at its recent repressive moves and rhetoric shows that the restrictive measures against the freedom of speech and political activity are starting to exceed what might be justifiable even considering the de facto war situation.
“The CPU case seems to be only a part of this anti-democratic assault comparable to the repressive laws the Yanukovich regime passed in January and in some aspects even exceeding them.
“No other Ukrainian government since 1991 has ever attempted to ban a major opposition party.”
Within Ukraine, voices not associated with the CPU are already worrying about its banning.
A May 19 report by Radio Free Europe quotes Ruslan Bortnik, director of the Kiev-based Institute of Analysis and Management Policy, saying: “The south and the east are practically losing their last political representation.
“[Yanukovych’s] Party of Regions doesn’t represent them any more, but the communists, at least to some extent, reflect the whole range of opinion in those regions. Such a step [banning] would definitely prompt the communists to initiate more radical forms of resistance. And the communists have the necessary human and financial resources.”
For political scientist Ihor Reiterovych, it is unjust to ban the whole party for the acts of individuals. He said: “If the security organs have documented violations of existing laws, then individual deputies can be deprived of their mandates and prosecuted.”
In the rest of Europe, the left is starting to mobilise against the threat to democratic rights that a CPU banning will mean.
The left group in the European Parliament, the European United Left-Nordic Green Left (GUE-NGL), will send observers to the CPU banning trial. In case of a negative verdict, it will raise it in the European parliament.
In the case of a ban, an appeal to the European Court of Justice will be inevitable. Given recent successes there by, for example, Basque nationalists against the repressive laws of the Spanish state, a favourable ECJ decision could cause the Ukrainian government and the European Commission a lot of political pain.
However, that outcome will only be likely if left and progressive activists give full solidarity to the struggle of their Ukrainian brothers and sisters for democratic rights.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s European correspondent.]