Speaking to a Shopkeeper about the Boycott of Russian Goods, Corruption and Storming the Security Service Office

Recently I attended a child’s birthday party and the conversation turned to the topic of Maidan, revolution and the future elections. Some of the guests at the birthday were local businessmen, lawyers and officials. Their identities will remain anonymous, but what we discussed grants insight into the workings, experiences and consequences of recent events in Ivano-Frankivsk and around Ukraine that cannot be gained from simply walking around the city, working at a university or consuming media, whether local, national or international.

So this post will offer insight into how Maidan was funded and organised, the Security Services’ work in Ivano-Frankivsk, including responses to their HQ being set on fire (which I witnessed), as well as life after Revolution, including the boycott of Russian goods and the role of Right Sector in the city.

Most of what I write is a representation of people’s first-hand experiences, or what they heard from those who were at the heart of the action. I end on a comment on further attempts to come to terms with the recent past in the local and national press, as well as in society.

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A billboard in Dolyna, Ivano-Frankivsk region, calling for a boycott of the ‘occupiers” products.

We’ll start with the boycott of Russian goods by a few small chains of local convenience stores. One of the people I spoke to owns a few shops in the city and helped to organise the local boycott, which received significant local and national media attention. Indeed, the media attention was so great that the shopkeeper started to ignore his phone as tv crew after tv crew turned up at his stores. His female staff, meanwhile, made sure that they turned up to work with their best make up and hair styled, he said.

The idea for the boycott started as a patriotic attempt to support the Ukrainian economy. The shopkeeper stressed that in interviews he made sure that his views were not presented as an anti-Russian act, but as a pro-Ukrainian one. While the action brought positive PR, there was also a crisis when some young locals went around one shop involved in the boycott and found products still bearing Russian barcode numbers, with the film quickly going viral around Frankivsk. The initial planned response to this setback on the second or third day was to abandon the boycott, removing stickers advertising it from the shops’ windows.

However, the shopkeepers decided to continue and conducted a further clearance of Russian products, upsetting some customers as Snickers and chewing gum fell victim. As the shopkeepers and consumers have found, however, it is not easy simply to judge the provenance of a product by the barcode. The BBC has reported on an app created in Ukraine to aid identification, as some products bear a Ukrainian or another country’s code yet were manufactured in Russia.

The Greenfield Tea brand has proved particularly difficult, as both the BBC article and shopkeeper noted, as it claims to be a British company, but is merely registered at a PO box in London. The ultimate owners are Russian, but the barcode is Ukrainian, with the tea being packaged in Ukraine. Equally, a brand that appears Polish, and has a Polish barcode, Żubrówka vodka, is in fact owned by a Russian corporation now. Meanwhile, cat food is problematic because Whiskas is an international brand with profits largely not going to Russia but what enters the Ukrainian market is produced there. And customers have been complaining that their fussy cats won’t eat anything else, but the danger of a backlash or bad PR in social and traditional media mean that Whiskas stays off the shelves.

Product Boycott

 

As this poster being circulated on social networks shows, plenty of the brands do not seem Russian at all but merely global, part of the brand collections of conglomerates. For example, I bought some Oral-B toothpaste recently whose packaging was entirely in Russian, but the stated place of manufacture was Germany, whereas the barcode suggested that it was actually Belgium and Luxembourg. Equally, Nescafe and Nestle are Swiss, but their products for the Ukrainian market are produced largely in Russia. Persil, meanwhile, is a German brand but if you go to a store here, some versions of it are produced in Poland while others in Russia. Lays crisps (chips) may be produced in Russia here, but the ultimate owner is American (PepsiCo). Coming from Leicester, the home of Walkers Crisps, as I do, these are the kind of things you know. So it seems that such social media campaigns are not really accurate in terms of targeting purely Russian products.

In the age of globalisation and mega corporations, the patriotic act of a boycott proved much less simple than imagined. Only switching petrol providers can be relatively unambiguous, as brands like Lukoil and TNK are boycotted.

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A boycotted Lukoil petrol station seen from the Bandera monument in Ivano-Frankivsk.

Despite pressure from salesmen, arriving at the stores as regularly as TV crews, pleading the Ukrainian provenance of their brands or appealing for compassion, fearing losing their jobs as no one is buying their tea, the shopkeeper held out. And, he admits, since the boycott and good press, business has picked up a fair bit, offsetting some losses incurred by abandoning Russian or Russian-made goods that were already in stock.

Another aspect of post-revolutionary life that has improved business for the shopkeeper is – for now – the end of what was, effectively, extortion caused by corruption at various levels in state institutions. During the Yanukovych years, after easing off in the “Orange” years, shakedowns and raids, as well as state inspections, increased significantly, reaching levels that recalled the bandit years of the 1990s. State institutions under Yanukovych got in on the act, so the fire department, for example, would call up asking for some booze or other goods with the hardly implicit threat that not obliging them would see some costly inspections take place, which inevitably would find some fault or other with fire safety. The fire department weren’t the only ones at it.

During the revolutionary days of February 2014, the fire department called again calling for a donation but this time, unusually, of tushonka,or canned meat. This unusual request aroused suspicions, while the explanation that it was for “Afghan veterans”, who were supporting the revolution in large numbers in this part of Ukraine, was dismissed. The shopkeeper eventually elicited the information that the meat was to be donated to the state’s internal military and special forces. Since turning down this request, nearly two months ago, and the change in power, the shopkeeper has not faced any further extortion. How long this lasts will depend on how successful the civil revolution demanded by ordinary Ukrainians is.

The shopkeeper knew that the tins of meat could not possibly be for the Afghan War veterans because he was clued up as to how the local Maidan activists from Frankivsk in Kyiv were funded. While I tried to indicate in November how the local occupation functioned in Frankivsk, what happened once the centre of attention shifted to Kyiv and those most active here moved to the capital, I’ve not been able to fathom. Yes, there were local donation boxes and ways of transferring money to secure accounts, while others volunteered to take activists to Kyiv by bus or other means. Equally, once in Kyiv it was possible to find support on the Maidan, getting food and shelter. But donation boxes would not cover those costs. There are theories and rumours of US/EU/CIA funding etc., but what I found out about was how local businessmen, involved in businessmen with turnover much greater than shopkeeping, were funding local activists.

The logic of it is quite clear – if you are a small or medium-sized business owner and the business climate created by the Yanukovych-era authorities was disastrous, then investing in revolution makes sense, while also satisfying an urge to do something patriotic.

Of course, it was far from clear that the Yanukovych regime would fall until he actually fled the country. So funding revolution was a dangerous act, and it turns out that the local Security Services (SBU) had compiled a case against the businessman who had helped fund sending Frankivsk residents to Kyiv to Maidan. One of the lawyers present had seen the reports and evidence some two inches thick in a file, with sixteen years in prison being the sentence demanded of this businessman. However, before he could be sentenced, the local SBU office was stormed on 18 February, once mass killings were initiated in Kyiv. (The new authorities in Kyiv have started to release their findings from their investigations today.) And then the Yanukovych regime started to unravel and collapse.

However, on the night of the storming of the SBU office, the fate of Yanukovych and his apparatus was not clear. So, the storming of the security office in Ivano-Frankivsk and the smaller raid on the Prosecutor’s office by the court, involved the destruction by protesters of numerous files and documents, as well as computers and other equipment. The fear was that if the Yanukovych regime were to survive, then the evidence gathered would implicate not only the businessmen funding activists in Kyiv but also the activists themselves who had been traced by the Security Services.

The lawyer explained that one favoured method is to trace mobile phone signals. A phone usually active in Ivano-Frankivsk which then remained in Kyiv for a few days or weeks was clearly indicative of someone being on Maidan. And many such individuals who returned to Frankivsk either in December after the initial wave of protests or later in January and February were summoned for interviews or “chats” at the SBU.

So as well as some demonstrators collecting weapons and shields from the SBU building on 18 February, part of the reason for storming the building – aside from expressing anger – was to destroy evidence which could have been used against significant numbers of the local population were there to be a clampdown on protestors and activists.

 

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The main entrance to Ivano-Frankivsk Security Service HQ burns on 18/19 February 2014.

Who those active in setting fire to the security service HQ were, is not clear, and I doubt there will be an investigation. But on that night, alongside ordinary people, Right Sector and Self-Defence were evident, although by then, the leading locals activists from those organisations were in Kyiv as the situation in the capital was becoming fatal. Since the collapse of the Yanukovych regime, Right Sector especially became more visible in the city, although for the past three weeks, they have not been significantly evident – in terms of marches, rallies or propaganda materials – in the city centre.

At the moment, no one is really sure who Right Sector are (beyond those who generalise about right-wing, neo-Nazis and so forth). Well, the reality on the ground is that regardless of the ideas that Right Sector and affiliate groups claim to promote, no one really knows who they are.  Here is Mustafa Nayyem’s view, in English. Nayyem, a Ukrainian activists and journalist of Afghan origins - not a veteran but a former migrant – was one of the first to initiate civil protests in November when the decision to abandon the EU Association Agreement was announced. He sees Right Sector, like many in Ukraine, as a murky group with connections to funding by oligarchs and even the Yanukovych regime itself, so an organisation which may have swallowed up the smaller nationalist organisations that now come under the RS umbrella.

In Ivano-Frankivsk, after a period when the local media seemed to en masse (and some of my students too) buy the idea of Right Sector as Ukrainian patriots, the backlash is now starting, with one local journalist producing (in Ukrainian) an astute critique of the ‘parasitism’ that characterises the organisation nationally and on the local level while dismissing the myths it has built up around itself. Indeed, 75% of its members in the city are under 18 and simply from the Tryzub youth organisation, which was subsumed under the RS umbrella. It provides those youths once seen around the city, marching around with baseball bats, but hardly suited to genuine (para)military action.

However, it is clear what young lads with a few weapons are good for. Locally, according to the people I spoke to recently, Right Sector is becoming associated with, or always was associated with, protection rackets and dodgy businesses. Hence the rather selective approach taken by Self-Defence and RS to meting out justice on businesses perceived as being corrupt. The local market was targeted, for example, for its Party of Regions associations, yet other businesses that could be suspected of similar remain safe.

Of course, as the article by Roman Kapiy on the local Right Sector argues, those who were under its banner in Kyiv, along with Self-Defence and others, radicalised the revolution and pushed forward the collapse of the Yanukovych regime. However, it is worrying now how such groups attempted – on the local level – to fill in the power vacuum, repeating the methods of violence and raids that were associated with the Yanukovych era. However, it seems – at least locally – that this is coming under control again, while the state authorities in Kyiv are beginning to establish what happened in Kyiv in February and are setting about establishing what is going on now.

As Nayyem has argued, supporting Euromaidan doesn’t make you a Right Sector supporter. However, it does make you responsible for challenging them – whoever they are and whatever their ideas are – to make sure that the initial hopes of a civil revolution, and a shift towards “Europe” – as imagined as a civil, open society with improved quality of life and incomes – becomes possible.

That’s why I encouraged my students to head out to Maidan in November already. And that’s why, in my own little ways, I’ve been trying to critique and challenge the authoritarian and extremist nationalism that prevailed in the vacuum after the collapse of Yanukovych’s regime.

 

4 thoughts on “Speaking to a Shopkeeper about the Boycott of Russian Goods, Corruption and Storming the Security Service Office

  1. Pingback: Collapsing Currency and Restaurant Opening, plus parking, priests and Easter | Revolution, lecturing and life in western Ukraine

    • I think it is impossible to generalise about Ukraine right now. The perspective someone has on the country depends on where they happen to be in it.
      This blog looks at the situation in a particular city in western Ukraine where the boycott of Russian goods has enjoyed significant support.

      Like

  2. Pingback: “Don’t sponsor war” – an update on the boycott of Russian goods in Frankivsk. | Revolution, lecturing and life in western Ukraine

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