[Socialist Appeal editor, Alan Woods, interviews Evgenii Leshan, member of the Ukrainian parliament.]
Q: How would you sum up the experience of the Ukraine since the collapse of the USSR?
A: Over the past ten years we have seen a movement for the re-establishment of capitalism, just as in all the other ex-soviet Republics. There has been a drive towards privatization and now most of the big firms are either in private hands or under the control of big capitalist groups.
Q: And what have the consequences been for the population?
A: It has been a real nightmare. The Ukraine used to enjoy one of the highest living standards in the Soviet Union. It is now on an African level. There is widespread suffering. Many pensioners now get ten dollars a month. Moreover, pensions are often not paid, or paid with delays of maybe two or three years. It is the same story with public employees, such as doctors and teachers. The big capitalists are merciless squeezing workers like the miners, witholding wages and not investing in health and security measures. As a result there are many accidents and deaths.
Q: For instance?
A: There was an accident at the Barakova mine in Lugansk region where over eighty miners were killed. More recently there was a similar accident at the Zasyadko mine (Donets), where 54 were killed. Smaller accidents occur all the time. Every year up to 300 miners are killed in this way.
Q: What about wages?
A: In some industries the workers are well paid - for example, shipbuilding. I mean 160 US dollars a month. Some can get up to 200 dollars a month. But not many earn this kind of money. The average wage is about 80 dollars a month.
Q: Is it possible to live on this?
A: Well, possible, yes, though not in Kiev. Most people rarely eat meat. Just basic vegetables. Mostly, people live on a diet of bread and potatoes.
Q: What about health?
A: There has been a very serious decline in health. The pharmaceutical industry is privatised and many clinics are private. These are so expensive that most people cannot afford to use them. The state clinics are supposed to be free, of course, but there also the doctors take bribes to treat people.
Q: So there is a lot of corruption?
A: Corruption exists at all levels: in hospitals, schools, clinics, universities. In a private school, there are official fees, but in the state sector, the teachers, headmasters and members of the governing bodies all take bribes. Parents pay bribes to get a place for their children and so on. It is far worse than in the previous system. Before, there were cases of corruption to some extent, but not on this scale. Then, if a teacher were caught taking a bribe, he would be punished.
Q: So now you have the worst of all worlds - the worst aspects of Stalinist bureaucracy and the worst aspects of capitalism.
A: Yes, the corruption exists in state circles also, reaching up to the highest places. The state is being used a s a milking-cow for the big capitalists.
Q: Who are they?
A: The biggest groups, closest to the state are the Interpipe company that produces pipelines for oil and gas. Then there is the group controlled by Medvedchuk and Surkis, who dominate grain production and also the electro-energetic sector. There are many others. They really dominate the state. Medvedchuk is the speaker of the Ukrainian parliament.
Q: You are a member of the Ukrainian Communist Party (KPU) and, at 25 years of age, a Member of Parliament.
A: Yes, I was elected in the Spring of 1998.
Q: You must be the youngest member of parliament.
A: Not quite, there is one a bit younger than me.
Q: The KPU is the biggest parliamentary group. Can you say something about it?
A: The party has 110 MPs. It was formed out of a part of the old CPSU led by Pyotr Simonyenko. It mainly based itself on Soviet patriotism, playing on people's nostalgia for the past. Many joined it for this reason. It has more than 100,000 members, and is the biggest party in the Ukraine. But most are old people.
However, although it calls itself Communist, and claims to stand for Marxism Leninism, in reality it is trying to base itself on certain sections of the Ukrainian capitalists.
Q: What position does it take on privatisation?
A: The KPU always claimed to be against privatisation. But in practice, it has jumped on the bandwagon. It supports the establishment of so-called free enterprise zones, and has also supported privatisation in individual cases, arguing that we should support the "good" capitalists against the "bad" ones. It also supported a reactionary trade union law that limits workers' rights and introduces strict state control of the unions.
However, the KPU does defend the rights of the poorest sections of the population: pensioners, disabled, children, the Chernobyl victims (which is a big problem) and so on.
The problem is that the KPU does not take a class position, but claim to support Ukrainian capital against western capital, and also closer relations with Russia. they also advocate a "strong state".
Q: Have there been movements of the working class?
A: There is the beginning of a fight against closures of mines and for higher wages. There have been some strikes and marches on Kiev. The teachers are also beginning to move.
Q: What are the perspectives for Ukrainian capitalism?
A: One thing is clear: there is no such thing as good capitalism. Even if it were successful, the working class would be no better off. We need an independent class policy, whereby the workers fight for their own class interests. Once they have understood this, they can bury capitalism once and for all.
October 10, 2001.
For more material in Russian see the Russian Marxist Paper Workers' Democracy