Political Repression in Ukraine: the Case of Natalia Vitrenko’s Progressive Socialist Party

One of the departing Obama Administration’s last acts of hostility towards Russia was Vice-President Joe Biden’s Jan. 16, 2016 visit to Kiev, where he declared that “the international community must continue to stand as one against Russian coercion and aggression.” Biden, as well as President Obama of course, had actively supported the Feb. 2014 coup against President Yanukoych from the beginning.

Poroshenko himself praised the fight against corruption and the progress of “democratic values” under his presidency, but reality presents a very different picture. There has been a severe crackdown on opposition groups, including the Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine, led by economist Natalia Vitrenko, a good friend of the Schiller Institute. As we reported at the time, on Oct. 28, 2016, the PSPU’s rented office in Kiev was raided and occupied by paramilitary forces They were nominally acting on behalf of one Andrei Shatilin, who disputes the current landlord’s court-upheld ownership of the building, but the contents of the office – the property of the PSPU and of its newspaper and associated organizations – were carted off over that weekend and sequestered by the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU).

Since then, neither the premises nor the seized property have been returned, including obviously personal objects, such as Vitrenko’s scientific and family archives. While there are many cases of “raids” of real estate property in Ukraine carried out by paramilitary forces to which the collapsed court system does not react, in the PSPU case, the political subtext is obvious, as the party very openly and courageously criticizes the current regime, including the utter economic collapse.

Indeed, adding to Poroshenko’s anxiety about the policy the President Trump will adopt is the failure of Ukraine’s Association Agreement (AA) deal with the EU, the apparent trigger issue for the 2013-14 coup. It is not formally in effect, because in an April 2016 referendum Dutch voters rejected its ratification. As Vitrenko has underscored, there has been no expansion of trade with the EU since it was signed. Among the top five buyers of Ukrainian exports, Poland is the only EU member (the others are Russia, Egypt, Turkey and China), while only Germany and Poland are in the top five sources of Ukraine’s imports. Total exports have declined by more than 37% in the past two years.

In that same time period, Ukrainian businesses and the population have experienced an overall doubling of prices, but rate hikes for key utilities have jumped much more: natural gas 9.5 times over, heating 6-fold, hot water 4-fold, and electricity 3.5-fold. In a Nov. 25 video, Vitrenko reported that the GDP has fallen by 16% since the coup, and has still to reach its 1990 level. Unemployment is at one-third of the working-age population. In 2013, the minimum wage was equivalent to $143 per month, now it is $66. The 2017 government budget increases spending only for the military and for road construction, she said, while pensions are not being indexed for inflation. People cannot get health care, and are dying. Formerly middle-class people cannot afford to go to the hairdresser or to concerts. Parliament has offloaded the operating costs of schools and hospitals from the federal budget to regions, which are unable to handle them.

An article posted Dec. 22 on the PSPU site noted that demands to cut spending on schools and health care have persisted in Ukraine’s negotiations for credits from the IMF, as well as over the AA.