Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 10, 2018

Russiagate, Victor Pinchuk and the Ukrainian kleptocracy

Filed under: Ukraine — louisproyect @ 6:28 pm

Victor Pinchuk paid $150,000 to Donald Trump for 20 minutes worth of bullshit at a conference he organized

Victor Pinchuk (l) also gave between $10 million and $25 million to the Clinton Foundation. That’s how Ukrainian oligarchs operate.

If you’ve ever heard the doddering old fool Stephen F. Cohen being interviewed by the creepy, reactionary John Batchelor on his WABC radio show, you will get the same talking points repeated over and over–the same sort of dark warnings about Russiagate being a McCarthyite witch-hunt that you can hear from Max Blumenthal on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show.

For Cohen and Blumenthal, a key part of this “leftist” defense of multipolarity keeps coming back to Ukraine that is depicted as a geopolitical chess game between the evil NATO/EU forces on one side lining up with Kiev and the good guys in the Donetsk People’s Republic on the other. From their rhetoric, you’d think it was 1940 and that an invasion of Russia was on the agenda. If you are even vaguely up to speed on historical materialism, you’d realize that the German bourgeoisie wanted to destroy Bolshevism. And what would the motivation of the owners of Mercedes-Benz be today? To bust down the walls blocking it from the Russian market?

Screen Shot 2018-04-10 at 12.42.53 PM

Today’s NY Times has a report on the ramifications of the FBI raid of Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen’s office:

The special counsel is investigating a payment made to President Trump’s foundation by a Ukrainian steel magnate for a talk during the campaign, according to three people briefed on the matter, as part of a broader examination of streams of foreign money to Mr. Trump and his associates in the years leading up to the election.

Investigators subpoenaed the Trump Organization this year for an array of records about business with foreign nationals. In response, the company handed over documents about a $150,000 donation that the Ukrainian billionaire, Victor Pinchuk, made in September 2015 to the Donald J. Trump Foundation in exchange for a 20-minute appearance by Mr. Trump that month through a video link to a conference in Kiev.

So who is this oligarch that is seeking to make an alliance with Trump, our dastardly president that is being described by Rachel Maddow as being in bed with Putin? You’d think that he would be one of Yanukovych’s pals. Remember Yanukovych? He was the former President of Ukraine who was overthrown by fascist mobs who were being deployed by Victoria Nuland as the first stage of a new World War intended to turn Russia into a colony of NATO and Wall Street banks.

Well, it turns out that Victor Pinchuk was a major advocate of the policies associated with Euromaidan, NATO, the EU, etc. The Tablet, a left-Zionist magazine, described an oligarch that in Cohen and Blumenthal’s eyes would be the embodiment of pure evil:

One breezy evening last September, Viktor Pinchuk, Ukraine’s second-richest man, stepped onstage at the Livadia Palace in the Black Sea resort of Yalta to introduce the star speaker of the annual international conference he hosts to promote his country’s ties with the West: former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Nearby, at a table set for an exquisite five-course meal, sat her husband; they were joined in the hall by Shimon Peres and Tony Blair, as well as a number of former European heads of state, top diplomats, and business tycoons. “Mr. President, you are really a super star,” Pinchuk told Bill Clinton in a seemingly apologetic tone, “but Secretary Clinton, she is a real, real mega star.”

But as you continue reading the article, you will discover that this was only the latest permutation of Pinchuk’s opportunist brand of capitalist deal-making. There was a time when he would have been hoisted on the shoulders of Cohen and Blumenthal:

In the fraud-ridden election that triggered Ukraine’s so-called Orange Revolution in 2004, Pinchuk backed Kuchma’s handpicked successor—Viktor Yanukovych, who eventually won the presidency in 2010 and whose recent decision to shelve a key treaty with the European Union and instead embrace Russia triggered the demonstrations that have seized Kiev in recent weeks.

Getting the picture? The Ukrainian oligarchy’s only loyalty is to its personal fortunes. Perhaps the clearest example of that was former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko who came to power as a Euromaidan type politician in 2005. Widespread discontent with her policies led to her being replaced by Yanukovych in 2010. Oddly enough, after she lost office she was charged with abuse of power and embezzlement and sent to prison. So what was her crime? Conspiring with the Rothschild bank?

Actually, it was conspiring with Gazprom—Putin’s petroleum piggy bank. In the sentencing, the court decided she deserved seven years in the can for abusing her power in forcing through a gas deal that saddled Ukraine with an exorbitant price for gas. She might have pissed off Ukrainians but she was his choice in the first election following Yanukovych’s departure despite her nationalist rhetoric as the Moscow Times reported:

Putin made it very clear that Moscow would like to see former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko become that country’s next president. He alluded to this twice recently, using almost exactly the same wording each time and wistfully recalling their productive working relationship.

Why is Putin endorsing Tymoshenko? Does he want to undermine her chances of winning the presidential elections on May 25 by casting her as the Kremlin favorite? Or does he have just the opposite plan in mind — to help Tymoshenko win the support of the pro-Russian voters who previously stood behind former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych?

The second theory is bolstered by the fact that Tymoshenko holds very close political ties to Viktor Medvedchuk, once the head of former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma’s administration and a man who has long and unabashedly been Putin’s personal agent for influencing the situation in Ukraine. Also, Medvedchuk’s long-time political and business partner, Andrei Klyuyev — a pro-Russian politician and former head of Yanukovych’s presidential administration — was one of the main advocates for unifying the Party of Regions with the bloc supporting Tymoshenko into a so-called “broad” coalition in 2009.

Yesterday I began reading Yuliya Yurchenko’s new book “Ukraine and the Empire of Capital” from Pluto Press. As far as I can tell, this is the first attempt to present a Marxist analysis of Ukraine’s miseries. After seeing the article on Pinchuk in the NY Times, I decided to see what she had to say about him.

To start with, Pinchuk’s billions were the result of his early inside track in the transformation of state-owned enterprises in Eastern Ukraine into private property. In this, he was enjoying the instant wealth that both Yeltsin and Putin’s cronies enjoyed. Furthermore, he linked up early on with Tymoshenko who became a partner of his in 1994 along with Pavlo Lazarenko in a business importing gas from Turkmenistan. Lazarenko was Prime Minister of Ukraine just like Tymoshenko and just as crooked. He was put on trial in the United States for money-laundering, corruption, and fraud where he began serving a 9-year prison term in 2006. Wikipedia states that he now owns a luxurious mansion in Marin County, California that was bought with money looted from the Ukrainian budget.

In an analysis of the different fractions of Ukrainian capital, Yurchenko links Pinchuk to one that is in partnership with Western investors and criminal elements, among them one Dmitry Firtash who had close ties to Paul Manafort as well as the deposed Yanukovych. In 2008, Manafort’s firm was involved with Firtash in a plan to redevelop the Drake Hotel in NYC for $850 million. One of the other partners working with Manafort on the deal was the former exclusive broker for Fred Trump’s properties, Brad Zackson. What a coincidence. Firtash is facing bribery charges in the USA for a deal he secured to extract titanium from mines in India and is now fighting extradition to the USA from Austria.

I’ll have much more to say about Yurchenko’s book but will for the time being conclude with the last two paragraphs:

Maidan of 2013-2014 was against the injustice brought on by the neoliberal kleptocracy, corruption of the judiciary, predatory militia, and widespread state asset embezzlement in the midst of deteriorating conditions of life. It was a culmination of a discontent that brewed for over 20 years and both in east and west of the country it had the grass-roots origin and included organised labour, miners too. The discontent over rising prices for food (58 per cent) and commonal housing fees (54 per cent), loss of work (34 per cent) and wage and pension arrears (32 per cent), corruption (27 per cent) and crime (20 per cent) – that is what unifies Ukraine’s people. Neither the EU, nor NATO; despite their growing popularity as a response to the current crisis. Ukraine-EU association agreement is a carrot that now does n4•1 match the stick anymore.

The combination of neoliberal marketisation and politically empowered kleptocratic and the internally heterogeneous ruling(/capitalist) bloc of Ukraine have created the combustive atmosphere in the country that has not gone away with Yanukovych’s escape. Instead, the rule of neoliberal kleptocrats entrenched even deeper. The war in the east of the country now serves as a sanction for further anti-social austerity reforms that will further untie the hands of the oligarchs while they will keep the IMF and the EU satisfied. All this comes at the expense of further state dependence on foreign debt and effectively makes Ukraine’s government more susceptible to external meddling in domestic policy-making in addition to making the economy increasingly vulnerable. The above developments are underlined by growing public disapproval of the official Kyiv manifest in the ongoing and growing number of protests the country as the Centre for Social and Labour Research surveys show. The second Maidan has not brought the change that many have already died for, yet it was only the beginning, not the end of the dispossessed fighting back. Ukraine is pregnant with the next, more violent Maidan.

 

 

March 2, 2018

Breaking Point

Filed under: Film,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 9:49 pm

Opening today at the Cinema Village in NY, “Breaking Point: The War for Democracy in Ukraine” makes an interesting contrast to “A Sniper’s War” that I reviewed on February 9th. Both films begin with an introduction to soldiers fighting on either side of lines in the Donetsk breakaway republic. In “A Sniper’s War”, it was a Serb volunteer and a self-described communist who joined up with separatists because he hated NATO, especially for the destruction it wrought in his native country. In “Breaking Point”, it is a children’s theater workshop director who tells us that it is “beauty, art and love” that will save the world. Those ideals convinced him to risk his life trying to recapture Donetsk just as the Serb’s devotion to communist ideals, no matter how compromised, convinced him to risk his.

Unlike “Winter on Fire”, the Netflix cinema vérité that is focused exclusively on Euromaidan, “Breaking Point” begins with the protests and takes us nearly to the state of affairs that prevails today, which leads one Ukrainian to ask toward the end of the film: “What did people die for?”

The documentary was co-directed and co-written by Mark Jonathan Harris, a 77-year old professor in the School of Cinematic Arts of the University of Southern California, and Oles Sanin, a multi-talented 45-year old Ukrainian who obviously was instrumental in getting the film to accurately represent historical events. Harris is no stranger to conflicted territory and beliefs. His 1997 “The Long Way Home” dealt with the experience of Jewish refugees after World War II but erred in serving up what amounted to Israeli propaganda according to Spike Lee. Apparently, Lee’s criticism had an impact since Harris followed up with “A Dream No More” that was intended to show Israel with warts and all. Commissioned by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the film was scuttled for obvious reasons after it was finished. An angry Harris complained that the Center wanted a “feel-good Diaspora jubilee film” and were unwilling to accept an honest accounting of Israel’s history.

Although my perspective on Ukraine differs from Harris and Sanin’s, I encourage my readers to see the film since it is a cohesive and largely reliable presentation of the last 5 years of Ukraine’s tortured history, including a war that has cost 10,000 lives and the displacement of more than a million of its citizens, mostly in the east for obvious reasons.

The film is best when it presents the views of ordinary citizens like the children’s theater director who said that he had little interest in politics but simply wanted to act in the interest of Ukraine’s national honor. Or a physician who volunteered his services both at Euromaidan and in Donetsk. He is a middle-aged, overweight man seen in the trailer above with little to offer in the way of analysis but critical for how he represents of the decent and ordinary Ukrainian citizenry who tend to get slandered in the left media as tools of the CIA.

The problem lies in the expert presentations, which include the former Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk who offers platitudes about how democracy cannot be built in a day, etc. He claims that the “rule of law” is Ukraine’s salvation but does not go near the more urgent question of how the “rule of capital” will be Ukraine’s undoing, as the Serb sniper believed. We also hear from Anne Applebaum, the Washington Post pundit, and Yale professor Timothy Snyder who have impressive credentials as Ukraine experts even though their analysis of Ukraine’s problems tends to put all the blame for its woes on Putin.

In reality, Ukraine is impaled on the horns of a dilemma. Euromaidan was inspired by the hopes that Ukraine could become “normal” by joining the European Union. Ukrainians who worked in the Netherlands or Sweden must have been deeply envious of countries that could provide a decent standard of living and police departments that weren’t filled with thugs demanding bribes when they weren’t assaulting blameless citizens. What they didn’t count on was how the Netherlands and Sweden got there. It was by extracting super-profits from colonial peoples that helped create the conditions for the social democratic Eden that had been lusted after in Eastern Europe for generations.

Unlike Ukraine, countries like Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic have freely elected presidents that reject the EU and are adopting policies even more authoritarian than Putin, the man they consider their leader in the same way that Poroshenko looked to Obama. They had a taste of Washington Post type neoliberalism and spat it out. There is no Putinite waiting in the wings in Ukraine for obvious reasons.

Another failure of “Breaking Point” is its unwillingness to address the question of the country’s fascist elements. In an oblique way of addressing it, it includes a Jew who had trained to be a rabbi at one point in his life but became totally committed to the nationalist cause, so much now that he leads a battalion in Donetsk. When he asserts that there was no anti-Semitism in Maidan Square, he was certainly correct insofar as that was a reference to those who spoke from the platform. However, nobody can deny that some of the defense guards that protected the crowds from police attack did include anti-Semites, especially the neo-Nazis who would later on fight with the Azov Battalion in Donetsk. Ironically, the party its leader founded now opposes both EU and NATO, which, according to Putin’s apologists like Stephen F. Cohen, were supposedly the chief goal of the Ukrainian fascists.

This absence was most glaring when the film depicts the shoving match that took place in front of the Rada (Ukraine’s parliament) when it signed a treaty that left Donetsk in Russian hands two years ago. The protesters were members of Right Sector and Svoboda, the two main ultra-right parties in Ukraine that needed to be identified by Harris and Sanin in the interests of transparency. After all, that is the main job of the documentary filmmaker—to tell it like it is.

February 22, 2018

How Ukraine’s neo-Nazis came to oppose NATO and the European Union

Filed under: fashion,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 11:17 pm

Screen Shot 2018-02-22 at 6.15.31 PM A conference that unites Russian and Ukrainian fascists

Putin’s propagandists, including Boris Kagarlitsky, Roger Annis, Stephen F. Cohen and Daniel Lazare, would have you believe that Washington is using Ukrainian fascists as a battering ram against Russia. The overall strategy is to encroach militarily through NATO while using the EU to weaken Russia economically. Euromaidan was a conspiracy to further these aims, especially in light of the protests being triggered by Yanukovych’s refusal to join the EU. The next step would be for Ukraine to join NATO using the excuse that it had to protect itself against Russian designs on its territory, with Crimea and Donetsk being the prelude to further advances. Of course, everybody on the left must understand at this point that Russia had the right to protect its territorial integrity just as JFK did back in 1963 by demanding the removal of missiles from Cuba.

Of the three principal fascist organizations in Ukraine—Svoboda, Pravy Sektor and the Azov Battalion—the last of the three is the most clearly neo-Nazi. Russia Insider, whose editor Charles Bausman blames the Jews for being America’s worst warmongers, published an article titled “Media Ignore 20,000 Nazis Marching in Kiev, Obsess Over Charlottesville” on October 30, 2017. It states “Ukrainian Nationalists are being used as useful idiots in an ancient plan to divide and conquer Russia, starting with the destruction of Russia’s birthplace – Kiev. Western powers have been trying to do this since before the Austrian Empire.”

The organizers of the protest were the National Corps and the Pravy Sektor, both of which are banned in Russia. Most people are familiar with Pravy Sektor but what was the innocuous sounding National Corps? It turns out that this is a political party formed by Andriy Biletsky, the commander of the Azov Battalion that earned a reputation for being little more than a death squad in the Donetsk Republic. Just look at its insignia to get an idea of how closely tied to neo-Nazism it is:

Given this nefarious history, you’d have to believe that the National Corps would be gung-ho for NATO and the EU. Well, maybe not. In an article titled “The Frightening Far-Right Militia That’s Marching in Ukraine’s Streets, Promising to Bring ‘Order’”, the Daily Beast’s Anna Nemtsova reported:

Biletsky’s party, the National Corps, is against Ukraine joining the European Union and NATO. He says he thinks the EU wouldn’t let Ukraine join, and that he is “not a fan of NATO.” Among other things, both demand Western European democratic standards for membership.

While not neo-Nazi, the nationalist Aidar Battalion (now disbanded), which Amnesty International accused of “using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare”, agrees with Biletsky, as its former leader Serhiy Melnychuk made clear in a Huffington Post interview:

I am against Ukraine’s potential accession to NATO. I think that Ukraine should pursue common military objectives with NATO, like counter-terrorism. Ukraine’s official position right now is to become a member of NATO, which violates the Budapest memorandum’s calls for Ukrainian neutrality. We want to have some of the benefits associated with closer integration with Europe, like a visa free regime, but we should resist becoming part of the NATO security bloc. Instead, Ukraine can lead a new system of collective security, which will include all neutral countries.

These developments should not be that surprising. Despite their hatred of Russia, the far right in Ukraine has plenty in common with pro-Russian fascist organizations spreading up all over Europe. Anton Shekhovtsov, the author of Russia and the Western Far Right: Tango Noir tweeted about a conference in Germany shown above that seeks “a strong Europe that protects and promotes its peoples, their cultures and their idiosyncrasies. The Occident, with its millennia of history, is the foundation on which the Europe of the future is built.”

Among the guest organizations is the Russian Imperial Movement, a right-wing political group united around reverence for the Russian Empire, the czar and Russian Orthodoxy.

And guess who is a guest speaker. None other than Olena Semenyaka from Ukraine who is speaking on “Beyond the ‘Wall of Time’: Ernst Jünger and Martin Heidegger on the New Metaphysics”. I am sure you know who Martin Heidegger is but Ernst Jünger might not ring a bell. He was not a Nazi but had beliefs that dovetailed with theirs. Wikipedia states that he criticized the Weimar Republic, stating that he “hated democracy like the plague.” He portrayed war as a mystical experience that revealed the nature of existence. Jünger considered total military mobilization as the life-blood of Germany. Nice.

And who is this Olena Semenyaka? She was the press representative of the Azov Battalion who was asked in an interview whether Euromaidan was about joining the EU. Her answer:

It should be stressed that the Maidan protests were not “pro-EU” per se. Although, before the beginning of war with Russia, a big percentage of Ukrainian citizens idealized the EU as an embodiment of civilization and higher living standards, the failed EU association agreement, which was probably not even Yanukovych’s fault, was only a trigger for expressing a wider public discontent with his regime in general. Of course, ignorance and the work of the mass media and international funds, above all, are to blame for the uncritical and unconditional support for the EU that still may be found among Ukrainian citizens. But experience has had a sobering effect on them as well, The EU’s friendly relations with Putin and the Russian Federation, in spite of sanctions, its disapproval of nationalism and demands for the federalization of Ukraine, which under current conditions means nothing but separatism, the lack of real political and military aid, and more, have led to growing disillusionment with the EU.

Also, I have to add that, although Yanukovych is believed to have been a puppet of Putin, he, in no way, can be considered “anti-Western” or “anti-EU.” As in Russia’s case, the anti-Western rhetoric is only a disguise for selling out the country to the West while claiming to “raise it from the ashes.” All high-ranking Ukrainian officials, the same as the Russians, keep their funds in Western banks while their children study abroad, so confrontation with the West is just a populist fiction. The reality is with the struggle for territories, like the Ukrainian Crimea, and resources.

It was Yanukovych’s regime that initiated Euro-integration, and during his rule the Berkut riot police, which tried to disperse the “pro-Western” Maidan, also protected the first gay parade held in the Ukraine that was attended by the Mayor of Munich. So, the mass pro-EU sympathies expressed during Maidan can be better interpreted as the first attempt of Ukrainians to escape from the yoke of post-communist oligarchic capitalism that flourishes both in Ukraine and Russia.

Fleeing the “the yoke of post-communist oligarchic capitalism that flourishes both in Ukraine and Russia.” Who can argue with that? Sounds exactly like the sort of thing that Boris Kagarlitsky might have written, or Ernst Röhm for that matter if he were alive today.

February 9, 2018

A Sniper’s War

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 5:48 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, February 9, 2018

“A Sniper’s War” just premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival and will next be seen at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in Missoula, Montana on February 23rd. Although I doubt that many of my readers will be in Missoula for the festival—or for any other purpose—I still want to call attention to a film that should eventually and hopefully make it into theatrical distribution before too long. This is a first-time work by a young filmmaker that shows remarkable courage, talent and perseverance in painting a portrait of a Serb volunteer who came to the Donetsk People’s Republic to defend his socialist beliefs. Whether or not those beliefs were grounded in reality is not really a question the film sought to answer. Director Olya Schechter simply wanted to tell the story of a man nicknamed Deki who was poised on the razor’s edge between duty to a higher cause and murder.

Early on in her powerful documentary, we see Deki showing photographs on his smart phone of the devastation wrought by NATO in Belgrade. There are bombed out buildings that by any definition were the result of war crimes. Behind him on the wall is a banner from the former Soviet Union of a hammer and sickle poised above a red star. Later on, we hear him and fellow separatist fighters mourning over the loss of Communism that they blame on NATO and Western imperialism. Deki is nostalgic for a system that provided free health care and education in Yugoslavia, as the militia members nod in agreement. The men are not ultra-nationalist special forces “volunteers” hoping to reabsorb the whole of Ukraine into a new Russian empire. Instead, they are the salt of the earth of Eastern Ukraine: middle-aged schoolteachers and coal miners.

Continue reading

January 29, 2018

Taking stock of Robert Parry (1949-2018)

Filed under: journalism,Syria,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 7:54 pm

Yesterday, Nat Parry announced the death of his father Robert Parry on Consortium News, a website he created in 1995 as an alternative to the mainstream news. While Robert Parry had announced to his readers on December 31, 2017 that a stroke would inhibit his ability to provide the kind of content to which they had become accustomed, the underlying ailment responsible for his untimely death was cancer of the pancreas that he had unknowingly been suffering from for the past 4 to 5 years.

Nat Parry’s article summarizes his father’s considerable accomplishments that date back to Reagan’s war against the Sandinistas. I recommend it as an indication of a career that any journalist could be proud of, as long as the cut-off date is 2011 or so.

He credits his father with digging beneath “the reality of the chemical attack in Syria in 2013” and for defying the mainstream media’s consensus on Putin and the war in Ukraine. We are told that:

Bob regretted that, increasingly, “the American people and the West in general are carefully shielded from hearing the ‘other side of the story.’” Indeed, he said that to even suggest that there might be another side to the story is enough to get someone branded as an apologist for Vladimir Putin or a “Kremlin stooge.”

This reduction of the parameters of the discussion on these matters to Robert Parry on one side and the NY Times and Washington Post on the other is a bit of a Hobson’s choice. As bad as the bourgeois press is with its inside-the-beltway mindset, are we any better off with the inside-the-Kremlin orientation of a whole range of highly respected leftwing reporters since 2011, including Parry, Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn, Seymour Hersh and Stephen Kinzer? Neither the mainstream media nor the “anti-imperialist” websites like Consortium News could take the trouble to learn and write about the people Obama dismissed as “farmers or dentists or maybe some radio reporters who didn’t have a lot of experience fighting”. Obama, his supporters in the bourgeois press, and Robert Parry all failed to engage with the humanity of those who find themselves on the opposite side of the barricades from Putin or Assad.

I have my own ideas of how that should have been done and credit my friend Anand Gopal with doing the kind of reporting that never would have occurred to the much more well-known figures above. Harper’s published Gopal’s article “Welcome to Free Syria” in August 2012 . Unlike Cockburn or Fisk, he was not embedded in the Syrian army. Instead, he was transported from Turkey into Syria in a car that “avoided the highway and hopscotched from village to village along back roads.” With his mobile-phone system disabled, it was impossible to know about government troop movements and the location of army checkpoints.

The pay-off was being able to interview people who Obama never had any intention of putting into power. Just consider how they saw themselves and how similar they were to those rising up in the Arab Spring as well as the Occupy movement in the USA:

In the neighboring town of Binnish, I visited the farmers’ council, a body of about a thousand members that set grain prices and adjudicated land disputes. Its leader, an old man I’ll call Abdul Hakim, explained to me that before the revolution, farmers were forced to sell grain to the government at a price that barely covered the cost of production. Following the uprising, the farmers tried to sell directly to the town at almost double the former rates. But locals balked and complained to the citywide council, which then mandated a return to the old prices—which has the farmers disgruntled, but Hakim acknowledged that in this revolution, “we have to give to each as he needs.”

It was a phrase I heard many times, even from landowners and merchants who might otherwise bristle at the revolution’s egalitarian rhetoric—they cannot ignore that many on the front lines come from society’s bottom rungs. At one point in March, the citywide council enforced price controls on rice and heating oil, undoing, locally, the most unpopular economic reforms of the previous decade.

“We have to take from the rich in our village and give to the poor,” Matar told me. He had joined the Taftanaz student committee, the council that plans protests and distributes propaganda, and before April 3 he had helped produce the town’s newspaper, Revolutionary Words. Each week, council members laid out the text and photos on old laptops, sneaked the files into Turkey for printing, and smuggled the finished bundles back into Syria. The newspaper featured everything from frontline reporting to disquisitions on revolutionary morality to histories of the French Revolution. (“This is not an intellectual’s revolution,” Matar said. “This is a popular revolution. We need to give people ideas, theory.”)

Except for Anand Gopal’s article and those written by the Syrian left, including Robin Yassin-Kassab, Leila al-Shami, and Joseph Daher, this was a perspective utterly missing in Parry et al. Instead, we were expected to choose between the mainstream media that featured articles on Assad’s brutality and Parry’s attempts to minimize or deny it. Syrian voices were omitted.

Parry could have been less interested in the people of a shithole like Binnish. Like most men who had made careers at Newsweek, Time, the NY Times, and the Washington Post, his focus was on “foreign policy”. Syria was just some real estate that the USA and its rivals were quarrelling over. On April 29, 2013, he expressed dismay over Obama’s failure to enter negotiations with Assad:

In 2012, there appeared to be a chance for a breakthrough both in talks with Iran over its nuclear program and with Syria’s Assad regime over a power-sharing arrangement with the country’s disaffected Sunni majority. Some people involved in those initiatives thought that after the U.S. election, a victorious Obama would have the political space to make concessions as well as demands. Then, when nothing happened, some thought he was waiting to install a new national security team and didn’t want to risk Senate obstruction of his nominations.

That disaffected majority was hardly worth Parry’s consideration since it was made up of “murderous Sunni fundamentalists.” How did he know that the Sunnis were so evil? Well, he read it in the N.Y. Times. So, you see, the mainstream media is to be shunned unless it serves your own ideological preconceptions.

Only five months after he wrote his article, he became just another Assadist propagandist claiming that Assad was innocent of the charge of killing over a thousand people in East Ghouta in a sarin gas attack. Shockingly enough, Parry backed up his claims by citing Carla Del Ponte, a UN functionary that Alexander Cockburn charged with running a kangaroo court to prosecute Slobodan Milosevic for war crimes. If that wasn’t the bottom of the barrel, Parry sunk even lower to rely on the allegations found in former Defense Department official F. Michael Maloof’s article for World Net Daily (WND), which alleged that the rebels used sarin gas on their own supporters. I guess you can say that WND.com is an alternative to the Washington Post but what kind?

WND was founded in 1997 by “birther” Joseph Farah as part of the Western Journalism Center that he formed 6 years earlier. Besides WND, the Western Journalism Center created NewsMax, another ultraright outlet. If you are looking for comparisons, they should be grouped with Breitbart News. Besides Maloof’s dubious reporting on sarin gas, WND had run a six-part series claiming that soybean consumption causes homosexuality as well as one that pointed to a secret 20-point Muslim plan “for conquering the United States by 2020.”

As for Maloof, a Mother Jones investigation revealed that he was key to providing a fake story that helped paved the way for the invasion of Iraq in 2002. When Maloof worked for the neoconservative warmonger Richard Perle, he cooked up evidence that the Soviet Union was stealing Western technology. And this is the guy that Robert Parry wanted us to trust?

Turning to Ukraine, it is just as bad—maybe worse. This time it was the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 on July 17, 2014 over Ukraine. He even tied the two “false flag” incidents to each other:

Despite doubts within the U.S. intelligence community, the Obama administration and the mainstream U.S. news media are charging off toward another rush to judgment blaming Ukrainian rebels and the Russian government for the shoot-down of a Malaysia Airlines plane, much as occurred last summer regarding a still-mysterious sarin gas attack in Syria.

Like Seymour Hersh, Parry refers to unnamed spooks in the “intelligence community”. Who knows? Maybe the aforementioned F. Michael Maloof was one of them.

Demonstrating a laughable departure from the rigorous norms of investigative reporting, Parry wrote:

According to a source briefed on the tentative findings, the soldiers manning the battery appeared to be wearing Ukrainian uniforms and may have been drinking, since what looked like beer bottles were scattered around the site.

No, this is Parry and not Onion.com. I love the bit about beer bottles scattered around the site. You’d think that he would have mentioned vodka in order to make it sound more plausible. Those Ukrainian troops were just like Bluto and Otter getting into trouble in “Animal House”. They must have gotten loaded and shot down a civilian airliner.

Parry also casted doubt on the possibility that the separatists had a ground to air missile capable of reaching the plane. Supposedly, they had MANPAD’s that were only capable of bringing down low-flying airplanes or helicopters. But in fact, just days before the Flight 17 shoot-down, a separatist missile had brought down a Ukrainian military transport, an AN-26 that was flying four miles above the ground and well beyond the reach of a MANPAD.

All of this demonstrates that one of the greatest collateral damages of the past seven years of conflict in Syria and Ukraine, besides the loss of lives, is its tendency to turn accomplished investigative reporters into shoddy propagandists.

After Trump’s election, Parry posed the question whether Trump would decide to be a great president in the mold of Franklin Roosevelt or someone more of the caliber of Calvin Coolidge. I am not sure whether Parry’s illness had some effect on his ability to clearly assess Donald Trump but it had already been established by then that Trump was a shameless liar who treated his workers like slaves. In 1980, he used undocumented Polish workers to clear the future site of Trump Tower, forcing them to work 12-hour shifts in unsafe conditions and paying them $4 per hour. To imagine that someone with a record like Trump could have been anything like FDR was as much a failure to do the proper job of an investigative reporter as was his articles on sarin gas and Flight 17. If Parry had read David Cay Johnson, he could have never considered this in the realm of possibility.

It is too bad that Parry did not retire in 2011. A book could be written about the decline of investigative journalism over the past 6 years. Let’s hope that the next generation of reporters can take their cue from Anand Gopal who is continuing in the tradition of the pre-2011 Robert Parry as well as all the other journalists who I held in great esteem until the awful assault on the truth and humanity that began under the combined power of Assad and Putin’s air force and their respective propaganda machines.

March 24, 2017

What Caused the Holodomor?

Filed under: Ukraine — louisproyect @ 5:31 pm

 

Mark Tauger: famines are caused by nature, not colonialism

COUNTERPUNCH, March 24, 2017

Three weeks ago, Grover Furr charged me with spreading fascist propaganda on CounterPunch because my film review of “Bitter Harvest” held Josef Stalin accountable for the famine in Ukraine in 1932-1933. Like the Australian theology professor Roland Boer who blogs at “Stalin’s Moustache”, Furr’s political life revolves around celebrating Stalin’s greatest achievements—such as they were. I advise my readers, especially younger ones, to visit “Stalin’s Moustache” and Furr’s website to get a handle on a school of thought that has largely died a natural death.

Instead of answering Furr’s attack, I will turn my attention to the historiography of Mark Tauger who he describes in a prefatory note as being a “world authority” on the famine. Since Tauger blames a severe drought for the deaths of between 2.5 to 7 million Ukrainians, it is understandable why he would be hoisted on the shoulders of both Grover Furr and Roger Annis, a Canadian leftist and occasional CounterPunch contributor who endorsed Tauger on his “New Cold War: Ukraine and Beyond” website as “One of the world’s leading scholars on the development of agriculture in the Soviet Union”. So, you get the picture. If you are in the business of representing Ukraine as a victim of Stalinist or Putinist colonial brutality, Tauger is essential for turning that victim into a criminal.

Continue reading

February 24, 2017

Bitter Harvest

Filed under: Counterpunch,Film,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 5:39 pm

Socialism Betrayed? Inside the Ukrainian Holodomor

“Bitter Harvest”, opening today at the AMC 25 Theater in New York is the first narrative film treatment of one of the 20th century’s greatest human disasters, the death by famine of millions of Ukrainians due to Stalin’s forced collectivization. The Ukrainians call this the Holodomor. The subject matter alone would make this film worth seeing, no matter your take on what is arguably a highly-charged question for many on the left. Beyond that, it is a dramatically compelling film about the life of a prototypical young Ukrainian from this period, a young man named Yuri (Max Irons, the son of Jeremy) who is torn between the peasant life of his native village and the allure of cosmopolitan Kiev where several his friends have gone to become part of the socialist experiment. For Yuri, Kiev is a place where he can also develop as an artist under the tutelage of instructors imbued with the revolutionary fervor of the pre-Stalinist USSR.

Filmed in the agricultural heartland of Ukraine, “Bitter Harvest” begins with a depiction of the daily lives of peasants that in the 1920s followed patterns that had existed for hundreds of years. It is circumscribed by the growing season, the harvest, religious observations and festivals. Considering the deep roots of Ukraine’s agrarian society, there would be clashes with the new communist authorities under the best of circumstances.

Read full article

February 21, 2017

Donald Trump’s team of con men drafts a peace plan for Ukraine

Filed under: Trump,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 8:58 pm

Felix Sater, a key player in a Ukrainian peace plan, once spent time in prison for attacking a commodities broker with a broken margarita glass

For most people on the left, there was unquestionably a preference for Donald Trump’s foreign policy in the 2016 election especially with respect to Russia and more particularly taking its side against Ukraine. Just as was the case with Syria, anybody that Obama or Clinton supported even if only rhetorically was the enemy of the left. This meant that Ukraine became as much of a symbol of evil as the “jihadists” in Syria. Granted that Trump is about as articulate as a garden rake, his reply to George Stephanopolous of ABC News on the Russian takeover of Crimea must have warmed the cockle of the hearts of people like Stephen F. Cohen:

I’m going to take a look at it. But, you know, the people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were. And you have to look at that also. Now, that was under, just so you understand, that was done under Obama’s administration. And as far as the Ukraine is concerned, it’s a mess and that’s under the Obama administration, with his strong ties to NATO.

So with all of these strong ties to NATO, Ukraine is a mess, Crimea has been taken. Don’t blame Donald Trump for that. And we’ll do better. And yet, we’ll have better relationship with Russia. And having a good relationship, maybe. And having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing.

Now, admittedly it is pretty hard for me to get inside the head of people like Cohen, Mike Whitney and Boris Kagarlitsky but I wonder what they make of the report in yesterday’s NY Times about a “peace plan” Trump’s cohorts have put together. The amateur hour group of diplomats include Michael D. Cohen, who is Trump’s personal lawyer; Felix H. Sater, a business associate who helped Trump look for deals in Russia; and Andrii V. Artemenko, a Ukrainian legislator who is part of a political opposition movement that is taking its cue from Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort.

Artemenko claims that he has evidence of corruption in President Petro O. Poroshenko’s administration, something that does not strain credulity. And it might even confirm that old saw “it takes a thief to catch a thief” since Artemenko spent time behind bars in a Kiev jail in the early 2000s for an embezzlement conviction. He maintains that he was framed for political reasons. Who knows?

Artemenko is obviously aspiring to be the new Yanukovych, the former president who fled to Russia as the Euromaidan protests made him dispensable, even to his own Party of Regions. At a gathering of his party on March 29, 2014 delegates voted to expel Yanukovych and senior members of his government, including prime minister Mykola Azarov, the head of the Ministry of Revenues Oleksandr Klymenko, deputy prime minister Serhiy Arbuzov, minister of the Department of Energy Eduard Stavytskyy, and the head of the Donetsk Oblast Administration Andriy Shyshatskyy. To my knowledge, Victoria Nuland was not in touch with the delegates who voted to boot these people from their pro-Kremlin party.

If ex-con Artemenko seems a bit dicey, he is small potatoes compared to Felix H. Sater, who seems to have stepped out of a “Sopranos” episode. He acted as a middle-man, conveying Artemenko’s peace plan to Trump. It should be mentioned that the plan is not quite what you’d expect from a tool of the Kremlin, at least on the face of it. It calls for the withdrawal of all Russian forces from eastern Ukraine and leasing Crimea to the Russians for 50 to 100 years, as if it were real estate. Since Russia claims that there are no Russian troops in Ukraine, it is not clear what the first plank is meant to accomplish.

Sater, a Russian Jew who came to the USA as a political refugee, was involved with Trump in real estate deals for the better part of a decade. His ties to Trump were first reported by the NY Times in a December 17, 2007 article.

Before Sater got involved with real estate, he was a stockbroker. In 1991, he was celebrating at El Rio Grande, a midtown NYC restaurant, with a friend who had passed the stockbroker’s exam that day. He was also feeling good about the $3,000 commissions he made at work earlier. A bit lubricated from one too many cocktails, Sater got into a beef with a commodities broker at the bar that quickly escalated. According to NY Times, “he grabbed a large margarita glass, smashed it on the bar and plunged the stem into the right side of the broker’s face. The man suffered nerve damage and required 110 stitches to close the laceration on his face.”

Sater went to prison for this assault and was banned from selling stock. That did not get in the way of him forming a stock brokerage with two partners not long after his release. It was basically a “pump and dump” firm that sold securities at inflated prices based on false information. In the mid-90s, there were so many of these criminal enterprises that you needed hired muscle from the Mafia to protect your turf as if you were a crack dealer. In 1995, Edward Garafola, a soldier in the Gambino crime family, tried to extort money from Sater, who hired Ernest Montevecchi, a soldier in the Genovese crime family, to lean on Garafola to back off.

In 1998, the law caught up with Sater. He was charged with money laundering and stock manipulation. Two years later, there was another indictment that named him as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in a $40 million scam involving 19 stockbrokers and members of four Mafia families. He never went to prison for his crimes, apparently because he cooperated with investigators.

Under ordinary circumstances, people like Artemenko and Sater would never be taken seriously by an American president but we are now operating under extraordinary circumstances. When Donald Trump’s personal lawyer and his one-time campaign manager give these two whack jobs the kosher stamp of approval, this tells you that we are not in Kansas anymore. It is likely that Trump lent them his ear since he has had ties to organized crime for most of his career.

Wayne Barrett, the long-time Village Voice investigative journalist who died this year from a lung ailment, exposed Trump’s mafia ties in a 1991 bio titled “Trump: The Greatest Show on Earth: The Deals, the Downfall, the Reinvention”. For a recap of Barrett’s findings, I recommend an article written by fellow Trump biographer David Cay Johnston that appeared in the Politico on May 22, 2016 under the title “Just What Were Donald Trump’s Ties to the Mob?” Johnston writes:

FBI agents subpoenaed Trump in 1980 to ask about his dealing with John Cody, a Teamsters official described by law enforcement as a very close associate of the Gambino crime family. The FBI believed that Cody previously had obtained free apartments from other developers. FBI agents suspected that Cody, who controlled the flow of concrete trucks, might get a free Trump Tower apartment. Trump denied it. But a female friend of Cody’s, a woman with no job who attributed her lavish lifestyle to the kindness of friends, bought three Trump Tower apartments right beneath the triplex where Donald lived with his wife Ivana. Cody stayed there on occasion and invested $500,000 in the units. Trump, Barrett reported, helped the woman get a $3 million mortgage without filling out a loan application or showing financials.

In the summer of 1982 Cody, then under indictment, ordered a citywide strike—but the concrete work continued at Trump Tower. After Cody was convicted of racketeering, imprisoned and lost control of the union, Trump sued the woman for $250,000 for alteration work. She countersued for $20 million and in court papers accused Trump of taking kickbacks from contractors, asserting this could “be the basis of a criminal proceeding requiring an attorney general’s investigation” into Trump. Trump then quickly settled, paying the woman a half-million dollars. Trump said at the time and since then that he hardly knew those involved and there was nothing improper his dealings with Cody or the woman.

This is par for the course. The real estate industry and the mob are joined at the hip in New York. My building was created under the Mitchell-Lama law that was intended to create affordable housing for middle-class people in exchange for tax breaks for the developer, which in my case was the DeMatteis company. The NY Times reported on December 26, 1991:

New York City has revoked a $1.2 million contract with a major construction company that officials say concealed and altered reports about possible ties to organized-crime figures.

The contract was awarded in July to the Leon D. DeMatteis Construction Company of Elmont, L.I., to supervise the building of a $67 million jail annex on Rikers Island. But in a decision made public this week, the city said the company had withheld “troubling” information about its business associations and had submitted an altered copy of a report concerning its possible ties to reputed organized-crime figures.

Now this is the way that business is done in New York. But did anybody anticipate that the White House would be following the rules of the NY real estate game after January 20th? Donald Trump is using his political office to make money. People who have convinced themselves that he is ideologically driven to create a fascist state that will mold people according to some master race schema are deluded. Trump has about as much ideological conviction as the Home Shopping Network.

Even Putin, who is as big a crook as Trump, feels that this “peace plan” does not pass the smell test. Immediately after the NY Times reported on it, he dismissed it as absurd. As I said before, he denies that there are Russian troops in Ukraine. He also insists that Crimea is now part of Russia. Even as articles continue to be churned out on why the Deep State seeks to oust Trump because of his friendliness to Russia, there is scant recognition that the peace plan for Ukraine might signal a policy much more like Clinton’s than people like Stephen F. Cohen might have anticipated. Keep in mind what Nikki Haley, Trump’s Ambassador to the UN, said about the conflict:

The United States stands with the people of Ukraine, who have suffered for nearly three years under Russian occupation and military intervention. Until Russia and the separatists it supports respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, this crisis will continue.

Eastern Ukraine, of course, is not the only part of the country suffering because of Russia’s aggressive actions. The United States continues to condemn and call for an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea. Crimea is a part of Ukraine. Our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine. The basic principle of this United Nations is that states should live side by side in peace.

Showing more clarity than leftist supporters like Stephen F. Cohen, Putin ordered state media to back off from their fawning coverage of Trump. This is probably a reaction to Haley’s comments at the UN as well as concerns about FBI investigations into the contacts that Trump’s advisers had with Russia during and after the 2016 campaign. The peace plan crafted by Artemenko and sponsored by Sater was designed to end the sanctions against Russia. Given the fecklessness of their efforts, which are consistent with the overall ineptitude of the Trump White House, it appears that the sanctions will remain in place for the foreseeable future.

Russia is in dire straits now economically, just as is the USA. Their problems are related to falling oil prices while ours are more complex. Although economist Nick Eberstadt is a neoconservative, his article for the echt-neocon Commentary Magazine titled “Our Miserable 21st Century” gives you a sense of how bad things are:

Between late 2000 and late 2007, per capita GDP growth averaged less than 1.5 percent per annum. That compares with the nation’s long-term postwar 1948–2000 per capita growth rate of almost 2.3 percent, which in turn can be compared to the “snap back” tempo of 1.1 percent per annum since per capita GDP bottomed out in 2009. Between 2000 and 2016, per capita growth in America has averaged less than 1 percent a year. To state it plainly: With postwar, pre-21st-century rates for the years 2000–2016, per capita GDP in America would be more than 20 percent higher than it is today.

For both the USA and Russia, a quick fix would be to eliminate its military starting with nuclear weapons. Costa Rica disbanded its military in 1948 and the country has been better off for that, with worries about counter-revolutionary coups being put to rest as well as helping to afford a welfare state some compare to Sweden’s.

The USA spends 600 billion dollars per year on the military while Russia spends a tenth of that. Since Russia’s population is less than half of ours, that would still represent a considerable savings. Instead what we can expect is a ratcheting up of military expenditures as Trump brandishes the sword against China, Iran and maybe even Russia. The world is confronted by what Haile Selassie described as war and rumors of war, words that Bob Marley put to music.

On “Sixty Minutes” last Sunday there was a segment on North Korea’s “threat” to the USA with a top American officer on duty in South Korea, an African-American no less, reassuring his African-American 60 Minutes interviewer that if Kim Jong-un used nuclear weapons, his country would be “wiped off the map”.

In the Junius Pamphlet written one year after the outbreak of WWI, Rosa Luxemburg said:

Friedrich Engels once said: “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to socialism or regression into barbarism.” What does “regression into barbarism” mean to our lofty European civilization? Until now, we have all probably read and repeated these words thoughtlessly, without suspecting their fearsome seriousness. A look around us at this moment shows what the regression of bourgeois society into barbarism means. This world war is a regression into barbarism. The triumph of imperialism leads to the annihilation of civilization. At first, this happens sporadically for the duration of a modern war, but then when the period of unlimited wars begins it progresses toward its inevitable consequences. Today, we face the choice exactly as Friedrich Engels foresaw it a generation ago: either the triumph of imperialism and the collapse of all civilization as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration – a great cemetery. Or the victory of socialism, that means the conscious active struggle of the international proletariat against imperialism and its method of war. This is a dilemma of world history, an either/or; the scales are wavering before the decision of the class-conscious proletariat. The future of civilization and humanity depends on whether or not the proletariat resolves manfully to throw its revolutionary broadsword into the scales. In this war imperialism has won. Its bloody sword of genocide has brutally tilted the scale toward the abyss of misery. The only compensation for all the misery and all the shame would be if we learn from the war how the proletariat can seize mastery of its own destiny and escape the role of the lackey to the ruling classes.

These words are as relevant today as they were just over a century ago.

May 20, 2016

Almost Holy

Filed under: Film,religion,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 4:12 pm

Opening today at the Village East in New York is “Almost Holy”, a documentary about a Ukrainian pastor named Gennadiy Mokhnenko who created the Pilgrim Republic, a home for drug addicted street kids in Mariupol in 1998. Mokhneko is a larger than life character with an absolute conviction that he is doing the right thing even if it involves what amounts to vigilantism. When he goes into a pharmacy that has been selling opiates to children and reads the pharmacist the riot act, you tend to view him in a positive light especially in a society like Ukraine where the cops are frequently nothing but criminals themselves. Although Jesus Christ was only a figure of legend, it is remarkable to see a contemporary Christian trying to emulate that side of the son of god who drove the money changers from the temple.

The film is also of interest as a running commentary on the civil war in Ukraine as Mokhnenko has to dodge rockets and artillery attacks to continue with his mission, which mostly consists of going into what amounts to the Ninth Circle of hell to reach 13 to 17-year-old boys and girls who are living in abandoned buildings or shacks with needle tracks running down their arms and nothing to live for until their next fix. Mokhnenko lays it on the line: Come with him to the Pilgrim Republic if they want to live. Oddly enough, it evokes Arnold Schwarzenegger’s line in Terminator 2 especially since Gennadiy Mokhnenko looks like he is carved out of granite.

The film is a good companion piece to “The Tribe” that I reviewed almost a year ago. Like “Almost Holy”, it was set in a home for Ukrainian society’s marginalized youth—in this instance deaf teenagers who were trapped into gang life and prostitution by the men who ran the institution. Although it would have been obvious to anybody following the recent history of Ukraine, director Myroslav Slaboshpytskiiy made it explicit in the press notes:

A boarding school is better than just a school because it is a closed system, which––like a prison––can be perceived to be a metaphor of the state even if that isn’t the intention. The Tribe is, to a certain extent, a metaphor of the arrangement of the Ukrainian state, at least the pre-revolutionary Ukraine. And the arrangement of the state of Ukraine was based on the principle of a Mafiosi group.

In “Almost Holy”, the children are victims more of neglect than direct exploitation by Fagin like characters. They have run away from impossible situations at home, usually the result of having alcoholic and abusive parents. Indeed, the social portrait that emerges is the same as Russia during Yeltsin’s rule when Jeffrey Sachs’s shock therapy was destroying the economy and driving millions of Russians into drug and alcohol addiction. Now that Sachs has recast himself as an “anti-imperialist”, he would obviously side with the Russian special forces that were bombing Mariupol when the film was being made. In a CNBC article, he justified Russian intervention in the Ukraine using the favorite talking point of the “realists” like Stephen F. Cohen or John Mearsheimer:

Some claim that each country has the “right” to choose its own military alliance: that this is simply Ukraine’s choice to make. Yet the U.S. has never allowed its own neighbors like Cuba (or Nicaragua, Granada, and several others) to choose their own alliances. To claim to Russia that Ukraine’s membership in NATO is Ukraine’s decision alone is the beam in the eye of the West.

So there we have it. If it was all right for the USA to blockade Cuba, it was also all right for Russia to launch a separatist war.

Apart from what it says about life in Ukraine, the film is documentary at its finest. Director Steve Hoover starts with a compelling main character, something that is essential to the success of most documentaries, and uses the camera and film score to sustain your attention for the film’s entire 100 minutes. This is a morality tale that will force many of my readers, who like me tend to be atheists and skeptical of organized religion except for the Latin American liberation theology current, to engage with a personality who in many ways has more in common with the Christian right in the USA. Gennadiy Mokhnenko is not a member of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church but a Protestant sect. For that matter, he doesn’t appear to be functioning as a pastor but much more as a kind of community activist. It should also be understood that he is an anti-Communist, endorsing at one point the trashing of a Lenin statue. As the son of factory workers, he probably came to resent not only the social distinctions of Stalinist society but its failure to at least satisfy the needs of the population as it reached its terminal stages in the 1980s.

In doing some background research on the director, I discovered that I had reviewed his last documentary, which was titled “Blood Brother” and had a main character resembling Gennadiy Mokhnenko:

When I first heard that the documentary “Blood Brother” was about a young American going to India to work with HIV-positive orphans, the first thing that entered my mind was “another Mother Teresa”. The only question is what would motivate someone to take what amounted to a vow of poverty and devote himself to people he barely knew and who were in such desperate straits. Was it religion? Was it a kind of AIDS activism that was prevalent in the USA during the early years of the outbreak?

It turns out that the protagonist, a lean and handsome youth named Rocky Braat who grew up in Pittsburgh, remained as much of a mystery as the film ended as when it began. This, however, is what makes it appealing. You are both impressed with his dedication but at a loss to figure out what makes him tick. In an age when people his age are desperate to find a job—any job—it is a mystery (in the original sense) as to why Rocky would reject that path and choose to live a Christ-like existence. As the press notes state: “Rocky endures a daily diet of rice, a rat infested hut, visa problems.”

Upon further investigation, I discovered what motivated Hoover to make “Blood Brother” and why that troubled some critics. It turned out that Braat and Hoover were both members of the evangelical Greater Pittsburgh Church of Christ, which is part of the International Churches of Christ. This is a church that deploys missionaries and proselytizes for beliefs that are probably not that far from Gennadiy Mokhnenko’s. Although it has no connections to the rightwing fundamentalists who follow politicians like Ted Cruz, it is not exactly an institution that most film critics would feel sympathy for.

Writing for PBS’s POV blog, Tom Roston offered a carefully nuanced assessment of “Blood Brother” and its ties to the International Churches of Christ:

Hoover says he did not have a Christian agenda making the film. It’s up to you if you want to connect the dots the way I have. But, I should add, these questions become more pointed when you remember that the credits direct viewers to the charity LIGHT. Is there an appropriate amount information provided by Hoover’s documentary, or even on LIGHT’s website, to make an informed decision to donate? Presidential candidate Barack Obama had to answer for his pastor, Jeremiah Wright. He confronted those issues and was able to move on — and get elected. Hoover might not want us to go there, but I think this is the price of membership in his church.

I hope three things come from me raising this issue. One, that we can have a constructive discussion about when and whether a filmmaker’s personal life is relevant to a discussion about his or her film. Two, if Hoover puts himself in his next film, about a rogue Ukrainian priest who goes to extreme measures to get drug-addicted youth off the streets, that he considers acknowledging his past doing similar work and mentioning how his faith relates to how he tells that story. And, third, that Blood Brother gets that Oscar nomination. Hoover is a good filmmaker and Blood Brother‘s cause, as it is presented in the film, is more than just.

Keeping this background in mind, it is appropriate to quote Steve Hoover from the film’s press notes as to “mentioning how his faith relates to how he tells that story.” It is also a fascinating account of what it meant for Americans to make a film in a war-torn nation:

The journey of this film began in 2012 when some of my co-workers were commissioned to do a promotional video in Ukraine. While in Mariupol, they met Gennadiy Mokhnenko and spent a few days with him. After listening to his stories and witnessing his amorphous work, they returned with enthusiasm and proposed doing a feature length non-fiction film on Gennadiy. I wasn’t interested in the idea until they shared raw footage with me and further explained some of the context. I was struck by the character of Gennadiy.

Once in Ukraine, we encountered many challenges, the most obvious being that we don’t speak Russian. With the exception of the main subject’s broken English, almost all of the dialogue was Russian. While shooting, we relied heavily on a translator, observation and the main subjects’ limited explanations of events. We had four cameras; two of them were constantly rolling. We committed to filming everything we possibly could, which made for a difficult but rewarding post process.

My life has changed radically throughout the making of this film. Formerly, I was Christian, or I at least identified as one, but I no longer am. There’s a lot to the story. I was raised in a religiously apathetic, broken, Catholic family. I converted to a nondenominational church in college. To me, faith was a solution to the existential confusion I found myself in after a long, overindulgence in psychotropic drugs, which spanned my adolescence. As a teenager, I was obsessed with hallucinating and the drugs were boundless. The faith eventually helped me to pull myself together, giving me guidance, discipline and a moral framework, all of which I didn’t really have beforehand. It also dispelled an attraction I had to heroin. I had never used heroin, but I was always seduced by the idea and a step away from it, along with several friends who came to die from overdoses. My college roommate at the time was dealing and coaxing me with free dope. He has since overdosed and died.

Gennadiy’s former work with drug addled street kids in Ukraine struck a chord with my darker past. Had I been born in Mariupol, Gennadiy would have had me by the collar. I found deeper interest however, not in the kids I empathized with, but in a character I didn’t understand. The story could have gone in many different directions.

Eventually, I found myself standing in a van while our crew was being attacked by an angry Pro-Russian mob in Ukraine. I was both terrified and calm. I knew that if we made it out of the situation, my life would change – this time in a different way. Up until that point, for several years I had resisted coming to terms with the fact that my beliefs had changed. My cultural liberalism didn’t align with the faith, no matter how hard I tried to squeeze it in. I had grown weary of the behavior and practices of the church that I was a part of and increasingly uncomfortable with the social pressures that some of the members were asserting on me.

The van broke through the mob and after a short car chase, I found myself resolute. I would embrace my worldview and move on. I spent the remainder of the year, mostly alone with the edit. Working on the edit of the film was a means of catharsis for me.

Though the making of this film had a distinctive effect on my life personally, this is definitely not a call to action film; if anything, it’s more of a portrait. It is something to look at, reflect on and discuss. In light of current events, I hope it gives people a reason to research the conflict in Ukraine. Although this film isn’t designed to be a political tool, it has obvious relevance to the turmoil between the EU, Russia and Ukraine and offers some context. The film could develop additional relevance as the conflict progresses.

While the film was in development, I was told by different establishments that there was some controversy surrounding the film. Some felt the portrayal of Gennadiy was too objective and people wanted to know “how the director felt about him.” Some liked Gennadiy, while others were disapproving. I believe Gennadiy is confounding, so I wasn’t comfortable telling people how to think and feel about him. I wanted to show the complicated nature of this character and the world he lives in.

May 9, 2016

Ukraine, NATO and Noam Chomsky’s deficits

Filed under: Chomsky,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 6:16 pm

 

Showing up on TomDispatch, the Guardian, Alternet, CounterPunch and ZNet just for starts is an excerpt from Noam Chomsky’s new book Who Rules The World?, which is basically a variant on the same book he has been writing for 25 years or so. For example, in 2004 he came out with Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance and before that in 1992 What Uncle Sam Wants. Such books have had an enormous influence, mostly beneficial. Unfortunately, given the geopolitical orientation that serves as Chomsky’s compass, there is a tendency to adopt a Manichean understanding of world politics in which the USA symbolizes Darkness. While it is true that the USA is evil, it does not follow that those who oppose it are pure as the driven snow. Of course, an anarchist like Chomsky would never write the same kind of pro-Kremlin propaganda as a Seymour Hersh or a Patrick Cockburn, but he has come dangerously close on occasion and even wandered into their territory.

The most obvious example is Chomsky relying on the word of Cockburn about Syria who he described as “doing the best job of reporting” on ISIS. Probably like so many on the left, Chomsky is simply uninformed about the critiques of Cockburn mounted by Idrees Ahmad and others. It was Ahmad who debunked Cockburn’s characterization of the Assad dictatorship being ISIS’s main enemy. There was abundant evidence that the Baathists had worked out a nonaggression pact not long after ISIS showed up in Syria.

The excerpt does not take up Syria but it does have a section on Ukraine, another country susceptible to Manichean geopolitical reductionism. Chomsky writes:

Of particular concern to Russia are plans to expand NATO to Ukraine. These plans were articulated explicitly at the Bucharest NATO summit of April 2008, when Georgia and Ukraine were promised eventual membership in NATO. The wording was unambiguous: “NATO welcomes Ukraine’s and Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in NATO. We agreed today that these countries will become members of NATO.” With the “Orange Revolution” victory of pro-Western candidates in Ukraine in 2004, State Department representative Daniel Fried rushed there and “emphasized U.S. support for Ukraine’s NATO and Euro-Atlantic aspirations,” as a WikiLeaks report revealed.

Russia’s concerns are easily understandable. They are outlined by international relations scholar John Mearsheimer in the leading U.S. establishment journal, Foreign Affairs. He writes that “the taproot of the current crisis [over Ukraine] is NATO expansion and Washington’s commitment to move Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit and integrate it into the West,” which Putin viewed as “a direct threat to Russia’s core interests.”

This passage encapsulates Chomsky’s intellectual and political deficits when it comes to the traditional Cold War narrative, especially quoting a realist like Mearsheimer. If I read something like moving “Ukraine out of Moscow’s orbit”, alarm bells would go off. How in the world does an anarchist repeat the words of a shithook like Mearsheimer on Moscow’s prerogatives? By this yardstick, JFK had every right to blockade Cuba since it was traditionally in Washington’s orbit. Mearsheimer was a supporter of the first Gulf War, writing an op-ed piece in the NY Times on February 8, 1991 that concluded: “Fortunately, a quick victory will reduce losses on both sides and allow the U.S. to turn to the more difficult task of helping to construct a lasting political settlement in the region.” My suggestion is to stop treating Mearsheimer as some kind of expert witness. He is only a step above Henry Kissinger on the food chain.

Like so many on the left, Chomsky’s tendency is to find the secret telltale document that will reveal the truth about American intentions so that the scales will fall from his reader’s eyes and turn him into a resolute anti-imperialist. More often than not, the smoking gun turns up in Wikileaks as indicated above. What needs to be addressed, however, is the complex interplay of Western and Ukrainian interests with respect to NATO that are by no means as Manichean Black-and-White as Chomsky would have you believe.

Speaking of colors, a lot of the confusion arises with the Orange Revolution of 2004 that grew out of anger over the perception that the presidential elections that year had been rigged. It pitted the Western favorite Viktor Yushchenko against Viktor Yanukovych, whose initial victory was tainted by corruption, voter intimidation and outright fraud. Massive protests eventually led to a recount and Yuschenko being declared the winner.

Whatever Yuschenko or Daniel Fried favored, the fact was that NATO was not popular with the Ukrainian people—a fact that somehow gets lost in the shuffle in the millions of words written about their nation’s post-Soviet history. The Jamestown Foundation reported on a poll taken in 2008:

A recent public opinion poll on the issue, conducted by the Kyiv-based Sofia think-tank from May 7 to 14, showed that only 21.4 percent of Ukrainians are inclined to support NATO membership, and 53 percent of those polled approved of the April failure to secure a MAP [Membership Action Plan]. The poll identified the main reasons for the negative attitude to NATO membership. Most Ukrainians fear that this would spoil relations with Russia (74 percent of those polled), force them to take part in US-led wars (67 percent), exacerbate tension in society (60 percent), prompt more spending on defense (58 percent), and make Ukraine a target for terrorists (58 percent).

With so many leftists regarding the Ukrainians as an undifferentiated mass of puppets whose strings are pulled by George Soros (except in the workers’ paradises in Donetsk and Luhansk of course), this kind of information is best swept under the rug if it ever came up on their radar screen to begin with. People like Noam Chomsky, I’m afraid, only read material that reinforces their own bias.

The will of the people was obviously reflected in decisions made at the top. Despite the fact that the president of Ukraine was all in favor of a hard linkage to Washington, there was little evidence of rapid progress toward that end, nor any signs that Yanukovych, the Kremlin’s best friend, was particularly opposed to ties with NATO.

In 2006, Yanukovych became Ukraine’s Prime Minister, a post that is below that of President but that has significant political weight. He replaced Yulia Tymoshenko, who had been fired by Yuschenko for mismanaging the economy. Despite her reputation as a mortal enemy of Russia and a heroine of the Orange Revolution, she was Putin’s favorite politician in Ukraine and arrested for her part in a crooked deal that favored Russian gas exporters.

Despite his reputation as a fierce opponent of the West, Yanukovych was okay with NATO as Novye Izvestia reported on August 9, 2006:

Ukraine’s newly-appointed prime minister, Viktor Yanukovych, is continuing the previous government’s policy of integration into the European Union and NATO. What’s more, at the end of last week the Supreme Rada, controlled by Yanukovych, passed a resolution legalizing the presence of foreign troops in Ukraine. NATO soldiers will soon take part in three military exercises, and NATO vessels will visit Sevastopol in September.

One month later he made a speech at NATO HQ in Brussels that could have been made by Yuschenko himself, as reported by the BBC on September 21:

Today we have the intention of concentrating on deepening relationships of partnership with the Alliance on the basis of Intensified dialogue on membership and the annual goals of action plans.

Ukraine highly values the level of cooperation with NATO. We value continual support for our Euroatlantic desires, support for military reform and democratic and market transformations.

Among the foremost priorities of government activity are strengthening informational work in sphere of relations with NATO. There is not a lack of such programmes, but they need to be augmented with specific content.

And at the risk of beating a dead horse, there’s a Washington Post article dated November 28, 2006 that reveals Yanukovych as a willing tool of the West—the kind of reprobate who deserved a swift kick in the pants from a bona fide anti-imperialist like Noam Chomsky:

“My goal, first, is to develop a strategic relationship between Ukraine and the United States that is predictable, effective and has a good perspective,” he said of his Washington visit, during which he will meet with Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. His aides are still hoping for a meeting with President Bush, however brief. According to protocol, he should meet only with the vice president, since he is not the head of state, but a presidential handshake would imply some acceptance of Yanukovych’s new incarnation.

Ever read anything about Yanukovych like this on TomDispatch, ZNet, CounterPunch, DissidentVoice, Alternet, Truthout or the Nation Magazine? I bet you didn’t.

Now some of you might think that Yanukovych was taking this tack because as Yuschenko’s subordinate he was obligated to. Was he just waiting for the day when he could reveal to the world that he was a genuine fighter for the “axis of resistance” and maybe the next best thing to Lenin today (even if he had to keep that a secret from Putin who described Lenin as Russia’s worst nightmare)?

In 2010, he would run for president against Yulia Tymoshenko, who was widely regarded by the Kremlin’s friends in the west as a mortal threat to Russia, the woman who was on the phone with Victoria Nuland about how Ukraine would become a colony of the West and who shocked the world (or at least the conspiracy-minded part of it) for advocating that the Russians be “nuked” for intervening in Ukraine against Euromaidan. As a candidate he could repudiate his sordid past, just as Donald Trump did when he spoke about making donations to politicians so as to influence legislation that would favor his businesses.

Well, once again reality defies anti-imperialist schemas as the Observer reported on January 10, 2010:

Yanukovych is understood to have angered Moscow by supporting Ukraine’s attempt to join the EU. But Tymoshenko has become the unexpected hero of the Kremlin, after tempering the anti-Russian stance that was a hallmark of her 2004 campaign and early premiership. While remaining avowedly pro-EU, she has built a pragmatic alliance with Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister. The two very publicly ended the drawn-out gas dispute between the two countries last winter and were credited with avoiding a repeat this year. Tymoshenko now calls the Orange Revolution “a revolution of lost opportunities”.

After winning the election, Yanukovych continued to demonstrate the trustworthiness to the West that somehow got overlooked in the analysis of Chomsky, Stephen F. Cohen, John Mearsheimer and other denizens of prestigious American academic outposts. On October 8, 2010 the BBC filed a report titled President reaffirms Ukraine’s EU bid, says ties with NATO “comfortable”. He reassured an audience of French academics and businessmen that he was on the same wavelength as them:

He reaffirmed Kiev’s bid to join the EU. The Interfax-Ukraine news agency at 0950 gmt on 8 October quoted him as saying: “I have always insisted and still insist that Ukraine will never drop either its European integration policy or its ambition to become a EU member.”

“Ukraine has the right to expect more from the EU,” Yanukovych continued. “We are not seeking to have it all and have it now, but we think that it is possible to speak today about the conclusion of an association agreement and about preparations for the introduction of visa-free travel.”

He said that, to achieve this, Ukraine was ready to do “homework” and carry out reforms.

Yanukovych also said that Ukraine was pleased with its relations with NATO, Interfax-Ukraine reported at 0906 gmt the same day.

“Relations with NATO are currently taking shape. They are comfortable for both Ukraine and NATO. They are open and honest, at least,” he said, adding that Ukraine was developing pragmatic relations with the alliance through participation in its peacekeeping missions and fight against terrorism.

Up until this point, the average Ukrainian could give less of a shit about NATO. He or she did want to be part of the EU because they saw it—rightly or wrongly—as an alternative to the kleptocracy they had been living under.

When Yanukovych was essentially blackmailed into backing away from the EU and falling in line with Russia economically and politically, the country erupted. Have doubts about whether Yanukovych was coerced? Then just consider what Fred Weir reported in the Christian Science Monitor on October 23, 2012:

President Vladimir Putin met with his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovych at the Russian leader’s country home Novo Ogaryovo late Monday, and declared some progress toward Mr. Putin’s goal of integrating Ukraine’s economy with Russia’s. But he gave no word addressing Mr. Yanukovych’s hope of winning a reduced price for Russian natural gas exports to his post-Soviet nation.

The meeting, though one in a routine series, illustrates that Ukraine may be gradually edging toward Russia as its other alternatives wear thin. The Ukrainian economy, which has few natural resources, has suffered badly in recent years, in part due to the deepening crisis in the European Union, in part thanks to the crippling price of Russian natural gas for its extremely inefficient industry and housing stock. Yanukovych’s insistence on prosecuting and jailing his main opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko, has deeply alienated the EU and further complicated any chances for economic integration with the West.

“There are some reasons to think that Ukraine and Russia’s positions are drawing closer,” says Mikhail Pogrebinsky, director of the independent Kiev Center of Political and Conflict Studies.

“If we don’t develop our relations with Russia, Ukraine might be facing serious economic problems,” he adds. “Trade turnover with Europe has been falling due to the recession, and Ukraine’s government budget is in serious doubt. The only direction we can look for financial aid would be Russia. If the worst happens, and there is no money to pay pensions and other benefits, our authorities will be in trouble.”

That might ring a bell. It is just the Kremlin using its muscle on a head of state who had very little leverage. It is just the Russian version of what the Germans did to Alexi Tsipras. Once the Ukrainians got wind of this betrayal, they came out into the streets. They came out not because Victoria Nuland got on the phone with Yulia Tymoshenko or because Daniel Fried “emphasized U.S. support for Ukraine’s NATO and Euro-Atlantic aspirations.” If you’ve had to put up with police brutality, corruption, neglected social services, and a general sense of being a colonial subject, you too would take to the streets and raise hell. It is to the everlasting shame of the Western left that it cannot get it into its thick skull that the Syrians and Ukrainians have the same kind of aspirations as the rest of humanity, no matter what Noam Chomsky thinks.

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