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Democracy Now | 30Jan2014 | Amy Goodman interview Stephen Cohen vs.
Anton Shekhovtsov [22:27]
Debate: Is Ukraine’s Opposition a Democratic Movement or a Force of
anti-government protesters have rejected an amnesty bill aimed at
ending the country’s political unrest, refusing to vacate occupied
government buildings and dismantle their street blockades in exchange
for the release of jailed activists. The demonstrations in the Ukraine
are collectively referred to as "Euromaidan." They began in late
November after President Viktor Yanukovych reversed his decision to
sign a long-awaited trade deal with the European Union to forge
stronger ties with Russia instead. While the Ukrainian opposition has
been hailed in the West as a democratic, grassroots movement, we host a
debate on whether the rush to back opponents of Russian President
Vladimir Putin obscures a more complex reality beneath the surface. We
are joined by two guests: Stephen Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian
studies and politics at New York University and Princeton University;
and Anton Shekhovtsov, a Ukrainian citizen and University College
London researcher who has just returned from observing the protests in
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Ukraine, where thousands of anti-government
demonstrators have constructed what amounts to a self-sufficient
protest city within the capital, Kiev [Kyiv]. The standoff prompted the
country’s prime minister to resign on Tuesday. Its parliament has
agreed to repeal a round of laws that cracked down on dissent. On
Wednesday, lawmakers offered an amnesty to protesters who have been
arrested during the standoff, but only on the condition that activists
vacate buildings they’ve occupied in Kiev [Kyiv] and other
parts of Ukraine. This is the speaker of the Parliament, Volodymyr
VOLODYMYR RYBAK: [translated] Let me remind you that yesterday we have
approved the bill number 4007 about the law of Ukraine that ceased to
be in force. We have also agreed to discuss today the questions related
to the "removal of the negative consequences and non-admission pursuit"
and punishment of persons in relation to the events, which took place
during peaceful rallies. So, I come up with a proposition to vote on
legislation without discussion. I ask people’s deputies to vote.
AMY GOODMAN: The government’s amnesty offer was an attempt to get
people to remove their barricades and tents from the main protest zone
in Kiev. But so far, demonstrators have vowed to continue their
STEPAN: [translated] If the authorities had shown honesty, according to
the mandate they were given, we would trust them. But now they have
compromised the guarantees. We have no trust in these authorities. We
have doubts in their honesty and decency, and that’s why it’s risky. So
we are not leaving. That’s for sure.
VASIL: [translated] People came here so
that all of them would be gone, so that the president would be gone and
the government would be gone. We need full change. We cannot go on like
AMY GOODMAN: The demonstrations in Ukraine are collectively referred to
as "Euromaidan." They began in late November after President Viktor
Yanukovych reversed his decision to sign a long-awaited trade deal with
the European Union in a move that favored stronger ties with Russia
instead. The protests rapidly grew in size after a violent police
crackdown. While nationalists led the demonstrations at first, others
have since joined the movement. At least five protesters have been
killed in clashes with police; hundreds have been injured. Police have
also attacked dozens of journalists, destroyed their equipment. As
tensions continued to increase on Wednesday, Ukraine’s first
post-independence president, Leonid Kravchuk, emphasized the
seriousness of the crisis.
LEONID KRAVCHUK: [translated] The situation is, frankly, very dramatic.
All the world acknowledges, and Ukraine acknowledges, that the state is
on the brink of civil war. There are parallel authorities in the
country, and there is a de facto uprising. When the power is taken
over, which is a real fact, when the power is falling down and the
constitutional authorities refuse to honor their responsibilities, it
becomes clear that this is a fall of the power. This is simply a
AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by two guests.
Here in New York, Stephen Cohen is with us, professor emeritus of
Russian studies and politics at New York University and Princeton
University. His most recent book, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives:
From Stalinism to the New Cold War, is now out in paperback. He
"A Letter to 'The New York Times'" that was critical of its editorial
on Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s role in the country.
Joining us from London, Anton Shekhovtsov, a Ukrainian citizen who just
got back earlier this month from observing the protests in Kiev. He’s a
researcher at the University College London specializing in studying
the far right. He recently wrote a piece
titled "What the West Should Know About the Euromaidan’s Far Right
Anton Shekhovtsov, Stephen Cohen, welcome both to Democracy Now!
Let’s begin with Anton in London. What should people understand?
ANTON SHEKHOVTSOV: Well, first of all, thank you for the invitation to Democracy Now!
I wrote the piece to highlight a very dangerous trend, in my opinion,
is that many people in the West buy into Russian propaganda which is
saying that Euromaidan is infiltrated by the neo-Nazis and
anti-Semites. And this is completely untrue. There is a far-right
element in the Euromaidan protests, but it is a minor element. And
Euromaidan protest is basically a multicultural, democratic movement
which is trying to build a new Ukraine, a democratic Ukraine. And
sometimes, by the name "far right," there goes Ukrainian nationalism,
and Ukrainian nationalism has -- its main thrust is building of a truly
independent Ukraine, a Ukraine which would be a national democratic
state and not a colony of Russia, as Ukrainian nationalists think
So the move towards Europe is a move towards democracy and away from
the authoritarianism of Russia and its projected Eurasian union, which
would unite several authoritarian states, like Belarus, Kazakhstan and
Russia. So Ukrainians do not want this. They want to be away from
authoritarianism, and they struggle for democracy now in Ukraine. So,
basically, Ukraine is now a front line of democratic Europe. And
they’re not -- Ukrainians are not only fighting for their own freedom,
but they are fighting to stop authoritarianism to spread westwards.
AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Cohen, what is your take on what’s happening in
Ukraine right now?
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, it’s not what Anton said. Where to begin? Can we
begin at the beginning? What’s happening in Ukraine, what’s been
unfolding since November in the streets, is probably the single most
important international story underway today. It may impact for a very
long time the geopolitics of Europe, Russia, American-Russian
relations, and a lot more. At the same time, media coverage of this
story, particularly in the United States, has been exceedingly
misleading, very close to what Anton just told you. I would
characterize Anton’s characterization, to be as polite as I can, as
half-true. But a half-truth is an untruth.
The realities are, there is no "the Ukraine." All this talk about
Ukraine is on the front line of democracy -- there are at least two
Ukraines. One tilts toward Poland and Lithuania, the West, the European
Union; the other toward Russia. This is not my notion. This is what
every public opinion poll has told us since this crisis unfolded, that
about 40 percent of Ukrainians want to go west, 40 percent want to stay
with Russia, and, as usually true in these polls, 20 percent just don’t
know or they’re not sure.
Who precipitated this crisis? It was the European Union, in this sense.
It gave the Ukrainian government, which, by the way, is a
democratically elected government -- if you overthrow this government,
just like they overthrew Morsi in Egypt, you’re dealing a serious blow
to democracy. So if the crowd manages to essentially carry out a coup
d’état from the streets, that’s what democracy is not about. But here’s
what the European Union did back in November. It told the government of
Ukraine, "If you want to sign an economic relationship with us, you
cannot sign one with Russia." Why not? Putin has said, "Why don’t the
three of us have an arrangement? We’ll help Ukraine. The West will help
Ukraine." The chancellor of Germany, Merkel, at first thought that was
a good idea, but she backed down for various political reasons. So,
essentially, Ukraine was given an ultimatum: sign the EU economic
agreement or else.
Now, what was that agreement? It would have been an economic
catastrophe for Ukraine. I’m not talking about the intellectuals or the
people who are well placed, about ordinary Ukrainians. The Ukrainian
economy is on the brink of a meltdown. It needed billions of dollars.
What did the European Union offer them? The same austerity policies
that are ravaging Europe, and nothing more -- $600 million. It needed
billions and billions.
There’s one other thing. If you read the protocols of the European
offer to Ukraine, which has been interpreted in the West as just about
civilizational change, escaping Russia, economics, democracy, there is
a big clause on military cooperation. In effect, by signing this,
Ukraine would have had to abide by NATO’s military policies. What would
that mean? That would mean drawing a new Cold War line, which used to
be in Berlin, right through the heart of Slavic civilization, on
Russia’s borders. So that’s where we’re at to now.
One other point: These right-wing people, whom Anton thinks are not
significant, all reports -- and I don’t know when he was in Ukraine,
maybe it was long ago and things have gone -- but the reports that are
coming out of Ukraine are the following. One, the moderates -- that’s
the former heavyweight champion boxer, Vitali Klitschko, and others --
have lost control of the street. They’ve asked the people who have been
attacking the police with Molotov cocktails, and to vacate the
buildings they’ve occupied, to stop. And the street will not stop,
partly because -- I’d say largely because -- the street in Kiev is now
controlled by these right-wing extremists. And that extremism has
spread to western Ukraine, where these people are occupying government
buildings. So, in fact, you have a political civil war underway.
What is the face of these people, this right wing? A, they hate Europe
as much as they hate Russia. Their official statement is: Europe is
homosexuals, Jews and the decay of the Ukrainian state. They want
nothing to do with Europe. They want nothing to do with Russia. I’m
talking about this -- it’s not a fringe, but this very right-wing
thing. What does their political activity include? It includes writing
on buildings in western Ukraine, "Jews live here." That’s exactly what
the Nazis wrote on the homes of Jews when they occupied Ukraine. A
priest who represents part of the political movement in western Ukraine
-- Putin quoted this, but it doesn’t make it false. It doesn’t make it
false; it’s been verified. A western Ukrainian priest said, "We,
Ukraine, will not be governed by Negroes, Jews or Russians." So, these
people have now come to the fore.
Note how Mr. Cohen inserts his Judeophobia card into the discussion.
The irony is that most Jews support the Euromaidan.]
The first victims of any revolution -- I don’t know if this is a
revolution, but the first victims of any revolution are the moderates.
And the moderates have lost control of what they created, helped by the
European Union and the American government back in November. And so,
now anything is possible, including two Ukraines.
AMY GOODMAN: Anton Shekhovtsov, can you respond to Professor Stephen
ANTON SHEKHOVTSOV: Yes. So, this is basically what I said, as I called
as a distortion in the Western media. I don’t know if Professor Cohen
have been in Ukraine. I’ve been to Ukraine just a few days ago. I
haven’t seen that the right-wingers have taken control of the streets.
The streets are controlled by Euromaidan, which is ideologically very
different. There is a right-wing element, but this is the element which
is only a minor component of Euromaidan. And if you remember the
Solidarity movement in the ’80s in Poland, it also comprised some
right-wing elements, but in the end they built a democratic national --
national democratic Poland.
As for the neo-Nazis and anti-Semites in western Ukraine, there are
some, but at the same time, if you talk to them, if you interview them,
and if you read their demands, you will not find any discrimination
laws among their demands. What they demand is the national democratic
state, independent from Russia. Even if they say that they are against
the European Union, they at the same time support the pro-European
protests. And this is partly what Euromaidan is about.
And then, again, there are many false reports about the beatings of
representatives of national minorities in Ukraine. And mostly these
reports are all false. They are being spread by Russian-backed
propagandists, like Viktor Medvedchuk, leader of the pro-Eurasian,
pro-Russian party, Ukrainski Vybir, Ukrainian Choice. So, these people,
they’re trying to distort the image of Euromaidan and picture it as
something very violent, as something very right-wing, although the
right-wing element, as I said, is a minor element at Euromaidan.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Richard Cohen --
STEPHEN COHEN: Stephen.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Stephen Cohen --
STEPHEN COHEN: Richard Cohen writes for The Washington Post.
We are completely different people.
AMY GOODMAN: But he’s not a professor, so --
STEPHEN COHEN: No, we’re still different people.
AMY GOODMAN: Stephen.
STEPHEN COHEN: Yeah, thank you, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you respond to what he’s saying? And also talk about
how people are informed here, largely through the media, the media
coverage of what’s happening in Ukraine.
STEPHEN COHEN: I’ve already responded to what Anton has said. To me,
it’s a fundamental misrepresentation, and it raises questions in my
mind, though he’s entitled to his political allegiances, who he
represents in Ukraine. He is clear where he stands. But even the
American media, which deleted this right-wing element for two months,
now has gotten worried about it. There was an article in Time magazine, I
think the day before yesterday. I think, because I saw it on the
Internet, but today’s New
York Times, January 30th, 2014 New York Times
editorial, is now worried about these people. So, Anton is not worried
about them, for his own reasons, but the plain reality is that the
so-called moderates, who are democratic, have lost control of the
And here’s the evidence. The moderate leaders, including Klitschko, the
boxer, who wants to be president of Ukraine, entered into a negotiation
with Yanukovych, the democratically elected president of Ukraine. And
what did he offer them? He offered them a coalition government, which
is a traditional democratic solution to such a crisis. He said, "We
will give Klitschko and the other Ukrainian democratic leader the prime
ministership and the deputy prime ministership." That’s a colossal
concession. It’s power sharing. That’s what you do in a crisis. They
didn’t accept. Now, they didn’t accept for several reasons.
AMY GOODMAN: The protesters didn’t accept.
STEPHEN COHEN: No, wait a minute. Klitschko and the other democratic
leader didn’t accept. One reason, the main reason, is the street
wouldn’t accept it. And since both of these guys want to be president,
when there’s elections in 2015, if there are elections, they’re not
going to go against the street. They’ve become captives of the street.
Now, the street, increasingly, is in the control of these right-wingers.
Let me make a point, and it would be interesting to hear what Anton
thinks about this. Many young thugs in the street are trying to kill
policemen. They’re throwing Molotov cocktails at them. They’re beating
them up. Now, the police are brutal also. But name me one democratic
country that would allow mobs to attack policemen in the street of a
capital city and not crack down? And, in fact, the Ukrainian police
haven’t cracked down.
AMY GOODMAN: Anton Shekhovtsov, your response?
ANTON SHEKHOVTSOV: Well, the police has already cracked down on the
protesters at the end of November, when peaceful protesters were
brutally beaten by the riot police. They did not do anything except for
staying on the Independence Square in Kiev [Kyiv], and they were beaten
up. And some people have disappeared. And since then, since the end of
November, there are tens of, dozens of people who have been kidnapped
by the police, and now they are found sometimes frozen to death with
their hands tied at their backs. So, there is a whole campaign of state
terror going on in Ukraine. And more than five people were killed
And Arseniy Yatsenyuk, one of the whom -- one of the politicians whom
Professor Cohen called the moderates, he was offered a position of
prime minister. But Ukraine is a presidential republic, so the whole
power, the whole political power, is in the hands of President Viktor
Yanukovych. So this position is not really powerful. A prime minister
does not have any influence on politics and on the way Ukraine develops.
STEPHEN COHEN: Amy, I --
ANTON SHEKHOVTSOV: So, it wasn’t really a concession.
AMY GOODMAN: Stephen Cohen?
STEPHEN COHEN: Yeah, Anton may have been in Ukraine a week ago, but
he’s completely out of touch. Part of the deal that Yanukovych offered
the moderates was to change the constitution to deprive the president
of the power he now has and switch it to the prime minister. So --
ANTON SHEKHOVTSOV: This is completely untrue. This is simply untrue.
STEPHEN COHEN: Please -- it’s not untrue. I mean, I’ve read the
documents. I’ve read the speech. It hasn’t gone through. It’s still at
the Parliament. They may vote on it; they may not. But you’re simply
not representing the situation correctly.
ANTON SHEKHOVTSOV: Well, I am representing the situation correctly,
because I’ve been there. I’ve seen all the documents that were being
discussed in the Parliament. And President Yanukovych never offered to
go back to the constitution of 2004, which would reintroduce the
parliamentary republic. He wants all the power he’s got during three
years of his rule. He has now control of all the oligarchic business in
Ukraine. He’s trying to build -- he was trying to build a whole
business empire and give his family and the oligarchs and businessmen
connected to the family all the economic power in Ukraine. So, of
course, he is now -- will be fighting 'til death, because if he loses,
his family is losing -- will lose all the money that they've stolen
from Ukrainian people and invested it in European banks, invested it in
European businesses, as well as American businesses, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to -- I want to get Stephen Cohen’s response to
last month Senators John McCain and Christopher Murphy visiting the
protesters at their hub in Kiev’s Independence Square and voicing
support for their cause.
SEN. CHRISTOPHER MURPHY: We are here to tell you that the American
people and the United States Congress stands with the people of Ukraine.
SEN. JOHN McCAIN: I am a Republican.
Senator Murphy is a Democrat. We are here together speaking for the
American people in solidarity with you.
AMY GOODMAN: Professor Stephen Cohen?
STEPHEN COHEN: Well, that’s Anton’s position. I mean, Anton represents
-- at least his description of the situation -- the mainstream American
media political view of what’s going on in Ukraine. And when I say
"mainstream," I mean it extends from the right wing in America to
MSNBC, to the so-called liberals and progressives, to Bill Maher, who
did this on his show the other night. There’s no alternative voice in
America, except what I’m trying to say to you today. It’s wrong -- it’s
wrong factually, it’s wrong in terms of policy -- for McCain to go, as
he’s done in other countries. He once said, "We’re all Georgians." Now
he’s saying, "We’re all Ukrainians." If he understands the situation in
Ukraine -- and he may not -- then he’s being reckless.
But a true understanding of Ukraine begins with the fact that there are
at least two Ukraines, two legitimate Ukraines, culturally,
politically, ethnically, economically, culturally. This isn’t Putin’s
fault. This isn’t Yanukovych, the president of Ukraine’s fault. It’s
either God’s fault, or it’s history’s fault. This is what came down
through the centuries. The situation has been explosive since the end
of the Soviet Union 22 years ago. When Western politicians go there,
they’re playing with fire, metaphorically, and now they have real fire.
It is the fault of Stalin and the chauvanistic Russian elite for
implementing genocidal policies against the Ukrainian nation via the
Holodomor, Great Terror, etc.]
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think this is about the media’s vilification of
STEPHEN COHEN: I think that the vilification of Putin in this country,
demonization, is the worst press coverage by the American media of
Russia that I’ve seen in my 40 years of studying Russia and
contributing to the media. It’s simply almost insane. This idea that
he’s a thug --
But Vladimir Putin really is a KGB thug, who has become a ruthless
AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds.
STEPHEN COHEN: -- and that explains everything, passes for
analysis in America today --
AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. I want to thank you very much,
Stephen Cohen, as well as Anton Shekhovtsov, for joining us to talk
about Ukraine. We’ll continue to follow it.
Filed under: Russia