Swedish left and Ukraine

I had a chance to share my observations on the situation in Ukraine at Vänsterpartiet Malmö annual meeting as a displaced citizen and a leftist active here and there. Below is a memo of the speech:

"It is hard to undervalue the importance of solidarity! I can hardly find words to describe my feelings about the support I received from the comrades in Vänsterstudenterna and activists of the Vänsterns huset, when seeing promptly organised demonstrations after the war started. It felt particularly important when so many on the left, or progressives, kept refusing to see anything but the US or the West as an ultimate evil or culprit, continued to perceive Russia as some sort of reincarnation of the Soviet Union, or simply weren’t able to leave the world of theoretical abstractions and engage with the empirical reality. For many years after the collapse of the USSR, our activists were looking to the West for inspiration on how to reconstruct and reinvent the left. And these most typical reactions led to sobering up and a serious disillusionment! Vänsterpartiet, as I understand, also had internal discussions, but I am glad that you were able to overcome them and offer your support, even if it was mostly symbolic and limited to the very beginning of the conflict.

I would also like to describe some of the current challenges related to the war in Ukraine. First, the question of weapons or peace, so many times brought up in the debates. You can’t see them as mutually exclusive. For the people of Ukraine, the supply of weapons to defend themselves has an existential meaning. Yes, it may not be a solution, but without it, you may not be able to talk about one. I can hardly imagine a Ukrainian soldier who doesn’t want peace. But peace is not a magical thing that happens whenever you call for it, it is a result of the underlying power dynamics, which is very much affected by your ability to resist.

When talking about peace it is important to keep in mind the issues of setting a precedent, available freedoms, and security guarantees. Letting a state go away with military aggression and brutal annexation of the territory of its neighbour is a very dangerous precedent we may not want to have. Citizens of Ukraine to a greater degree can enjoy the bourgeois freedoms, and not because of the virtues of our government but because of its integration into the system of international law. They, at the very least, have to pretend that they respect human rights, being exposed to monitoring by (I)NGOs and the media. This is not the case in the occupied territories or in Russia. Finally, for the war to end and people to disarm, there has to be an understanding that this will last, that it is not a temporary ceasefire that will be broken at will several years past.

Then, our government. I cannot think of anyone, whatever their political convictions are, who trusts the government. A common perception of it is as of corrupt and incompetent, we can add 'neoliberal' for the leftists. Thus, they would use any opportunity to mobilise people under their banner, by presenting themselves as a protector and inciting further polarisation. The dominant discourse in Ukraine overall is, too, politically nationalist and economically liberal, making a sensible discussion very difficult.

Here I would like to elaborate on the perception of the left and the right. Traditional left phraseology has been long hijacked by Russian propaganda and thus discredited in the eyes of the majority of the population, leaving the left confused as to how to articulate their claims. Quite the opposite happened with the right-wing symbols. Arbitrarily chosen and exaggerated by Russian media discourse, they made it to the mainstream, regardless of the original meaning. For example, Stepan Bandera, a radical nationalist from the past, being instrumentalised by Russian propaganda and projected as a label onto all opponents, was embraced by many Ukrainians as a historical hero who fought the Russians as they do now.

Another challenge, perhaps connected to the previous ones, is growing polarisation. To distance ourselves from Russia and create an impenetrable barrier between us, the search for the enemy within began, alienating and othering part of the population. This is why I have certain reservations about describing the situation as a part of decolonisation struggles. It does have some merit and it helps to explain what is going on in the language understandable to the Western left, but it also contributes to the essentialising discourse within the country.

Finally, that is probably obvious, but nonetheless, Ukrainian infrastructure is destroyed: economy, housing, and utilities. People have no jobs, no money, no products, no shelter, and no heat and electricity. This leads to our complete dependence on the West, about which I’ll talk a bit later. The most important is that it is a reality in Ukraine and it is unlikely to change soon.

I would like to finish by outlining a possible response that the left can offer. Ukrainian left are trying to reconstitute themselves in the harsh and hostile environment. There are even talks about having a common forum for Central and Eastern European Left to discuss together the issues stemming from alike historical experience and act together. You can use your skills and competence to help Ukrainian comrades, e.g. Sotsialnyi Rukh, Solidarity Collectives, or any other groups/individuals you know, in their struggle to preserve the space for the ideas of social solidarity and justice. We don’t know when and how the war ends, but we know that the future won’t be bright, so this is very much needed. Left in Malmö is a serious force: more than 2000 members, a visible advance in the elections, there is a lot we can learn from you.

There are also things you can do from the outside. As I said Ukraine depends on the West, and it is likely to continue for a long time. And you are the West, you have representation in the parliament and the European Parliament. You can use your voice to define the terms of support or to pressure our government when they do something bad. Just be sensitive and make sure that the critique is not phrased in a way that undermines the right of Ukrainians to exist.

Finally, you can help Ukrainian refugees in Sweden. Despite being perceived as privileged, they are not so much, their main privilege is that they are allowed to come and be here but in a status similar to asylum seekers with all inherent vulnerabilities. As members of the Tenants Association, and trade unions you can extend your hand and help them to survive and organise.

Länge leve internationell solidaritet!"