Interview with Serhii Guz, journalist and trade union activist from Ukraine
LeftEast: Could you introduce yourself?
My name is Serhiy Guz, I am 52 years old, and I have been working as a journalist and editor for 27 years. I am actively involved in public life. I was one of the founders and heads of the Independent Media Trade Union of Ukraine (from 2002 to 2012) and a member of the Commission on Journalism Ethics (from 2003 up to now – one of the oldest members of the Commission). I have also helped found and been an active participant in the environmental public organization “Voice of Nature” in my hometown of Kamenskoye since 1998.
LE: What were working conditions like before the war? What were unions in Ukraine like?
Both bad working conditions and attacks on trade unions had become a reality long before the war. The real disaster happened right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when Ukraine shifted to a market economy. Thousands of businesses were closing, others were not paying salaries on time, and barter and racketeering flourished in the country. At that time working conditions collapsed, health and safety standards were no longer met, and social benefits were phased out.
In the beginning of the 2000s, when the economy began to recover, it seemed that the situation with working conditions would start to improve, because companies started to receive the necessary resources. But it was precisely at that time that the campaign to discredit the unions – both the old Soviet unions and the new independent and free unions – began.
This struggle lasted with varying success until about 2019, and with the coming to power of the party “Servant of the People,” the attacks on trade unions and labor rights intensified sharply. The reason was probably that the ruling party and the government it formed embarked on a course of extremely liberal reforms.
However, they succeeded in fully implementing these reforms only with the beginning of the war, when martial law prohibited strikes and mass protests in Ukraine. Trade unions simply could not defend themselves under these conditions.
LE: How has the war changed things? Concretely, what are the reforms in labor law and practice happening now? How will this impact workers during or after the war? Have unions responded?
Taking advantage of the situation, the government has passed several laws that greatly restrict both labor rights and union activity. For example, today workers can be fired without the consent of the unions, which would have been illegal before the war. Also, employers have been given the right to unilaterally terminate labor contracts, change working conditions, and the validity of collective bargaining agreements has been significantly restricted. In essence, all the social gains that Ukrainian citizens had in terms of labor rights were taken away by the new norms.
In order to avoid mass protests, the parliament agreed to limit the action of the most odious norms for the duration martial law. But do not be fooled – these bills were drafted long before the full-scale invasion of Russia. And they were drafted with the expectation that they would last for decades. That is why I have no doubt that the government and business owners, under any pretext, will try to preserve all these changes, especially those restricting the rights of trade unions and the force of collective agreements.
I have no illusions that the unions will be able to do anything about it under the current wartime pressures. It will be a miracle if they manage to retain most of their members and their activism by the end of martial law. So far, they have not offered any visible resistance to these neoliberal reforms. And it seems to me that the existing are crisis. They will probably be replaced by new trade union organizations and methods of trade union struggle. There is no doubt about this.
LE: Could you tell us what has been happening within the Ukrainian media sphere over the last several months? What has been the role of journalists before and during the war? How does a union in journalism help or hinder journalists and reporting?
We are also experiencing a severe crisis in the media sphere. Not only economically, but also professionally and probably ideologically.
The myth that “democratic” journalism is incompatible with such notions as propaganda, censorship, self-censorship, or half-truths is crumbling before our eyes. The war has shown that all these phenomena are quickly returning to our journalism, under the noble guise of “patriotism.”
Let us be honest: today the Ukrainian media cannot work according to democratic standards both because there is a war on and because conditions on the media market are rapidly deteriorating. The advertising market has collapsed and has virtually disappeared in the regions. Subscriptions are down. Newspapers are closing down, local television companies are closing down. There are fewer and fewer truly independent media outlets, and those that remain are mostly supported by grants from Western foundations. And this also affects their work.
But instead of supporting the media in Ukraine, the government is trying to tighten state control over journalists. Parliament has already voted in the first reading of the draft law “On the Media,” which subjects all Ukrainian media to one state regulator. This did not happen in the times of Kuchma or Yanukovych, when we had a dictatorship and authoritarian rule.
Now only the National Union of Journalists of Ukraine opposes this law in Ukraine. As a result, we are torn between helping hundreds and thousands of journalists, who find themselves in an extremely difficult war situation, and fighting such legislative initiatives of our own government.
LE: What has been happening to oppositional political parties?
The only party that remains in opposition to the government is the European Solidarity Party of the oligarch and former president Petro Poroshenko. There are also right-wing radical nationalist parties, which are often allied with Poroshenko. All other opposition in the center or on the left of the political spectrum has been successfully defeated.
It is noteworthy that just the other day the Court of Cassation ruled to ban the “Opposition Platform – For Life!” party, which had a very large faction in parliament. And on the same day, the Ukrainian media published a scandalous investigation that the chairman of this court had a Russian passport. It is not surprising that the Court of Cassation did not question the verdicts of previous courts and upheld the decision to ban the party. What they are guilty of, however, is still a mystery to society. We must take it on faith that the party acted in the interests of our enemy, Russia.
Similarly, we must believe in the closure on the same grounds of another dozen of parties, most of them leftist, including the oldest, the Socialist Party of Ukraine.
LE: At a time when Ukraine is in the middle of such an existential threat as this war, most of its supporters prefer not to criticize the actions of its authorities. Yet you refuse to keep silent even at such a moment. Would this refusal not be seen as helping Putin?
That’s the drama of the moment for many people like me: we hear a lot of similar accusations.
But I love Ukraine as much as the rest of our citizens. And of course, I am shocked by this monstrous aggression on Putin’s part, for which there is no justification.
I’ve talked about it a lot with my friends, journalists and trade union activists from different countries. Of course, Ukraine needs support in this war, especially humanitarian support.
But in the same way, its democratic institutions need support — the press, parties and public organizations, human rights, parliamentarianism and many others. But “support” is not just money, is it? It also means to talk honestly about the problems that exist, to collectively look for a way out of the situation, which does not diminish the democratic gains already made in Ukraine.
And if we turn a blind eye to the problems, if we keep silent about their existence, they multiply and grow, undermining our society even more from the inside. This is why I think the honest work of journalists devoted to their professional duty is so important now.
LE: You have also made a larger point, namely, that over the course of the war, Ukrainian society—not only the Ukrainian government—has become less democratic. Isn’t this an inevitable result of wartime conditions that should be squarely put down on Putin’s door? What do you see as the long-term consequences of this development within Ukrainian society? How democratic was it before the war?
This is the paradox of existing “young democracies,” which are always ready to roll back their democratic institutions under one pretext or another. For example, this happened to us because of the economic crisis, then the pandemic, now it’s because of the war, and then the pretext will be the need to restore the economy of Ukraine. It seems to me sometimes that the government is just waiting for a pretext to become authoritarian for a while for the sake of “the most democratic reforms.”
And the fact that we are now seeing a deeper reversal of democracy in Ukraine is of course directly attributable to Putin and the aggression he has unleashed against Ukraine. Just as he previously supported the anti-democratic drift of Belarus and several other post-Soviet republics.
But it would be a big mistake to shift all the responsibility to Putin or Russia alone. First and foremost we should look at our own mistakes. And among them is the so-called “revolutionary expediency,” which each time justified the departure from democratic principles when the country needed them most.
And today Ukrainian society has just as easily accepted the biggest rollback of democracy in Ukraine, which the ruling parties justify with the war.
All of this can end very badly for Ukrainian society, especially if the war drags on for years. Ukrainians will simply get used to living with an authoritarian style of governing society. That is exactly how the country is governed now, according to martial law. And believe me, very many politicians and officials will not want to part with this style of government.
That is why we must not allow this war to break our society from the inside, turning it into an authoritarian regime like the one in Russia or Belarus.
LE: Do you consider any of these restrictions of civil rights justifiable at a time of war? Haven’t Russian FSB agents (of whom there are undoubtedly many working on the ground) recruited Ukrainian media or political figures?
Any accusations must be proven in a court of law, and any restrictions on rights must be justified and must be exactly such as are necessary to prevent negative consequences for society. It is written so in the Declaration of Human Rights and the Constitution of Ukraine. But in practice, we see that many loud accusations remain without evidence, trials are held secretly, and society is deprived of objective information.
Under such conditions, it is very easy to accuse not only one’s real enemies, but also one’s political opponents. All this not only looks bad, but also has extremely negative consequences for the future. After all, society gets used to the fact that you don’t need proof to arrest and imprison a politician, or to ban a political party – loud accusations are enough.
Unfortunately, our political partners from the United States and Europe are also to blame for what is happening. It is hard for me, for example, to imagine a party in the United States or Germany being shut down solely on the basis of secret service documents, without a public trial. It is simply impossible in any democratic country. Why then is it possible in Ukraine? What prevents law enforcement authorities from making public the evidence on the basis of which parties were closed or politicians were arrested?
Without transparency and publicity of such decisions, which strike at the basis of democracy itself, the destruction of all the democratic achievements in Ukraine takes place. And it is not in vain that people today begin to ask the question: what are we fighting for?
LE: What is the future of workers and working conditions in Ukraine?
This is the most difficult question, because in the current conditions hardly anyone dares to predict the future. I still believe that the Ukrainian army will win on the battlefield and the war will end at the negotiating table. But then everything will depend on the extent to which the Ukrainian civil society, Ukrainian trade unions, and generally democratic citizens will be able to declare their interest. The minimum task is to restore, without losses, all the civil, political, and social rights that we had before the war. But I think there will be losses, mostly in the realm of labor and social rights. There is a very high probability that Ukraine will become a convenient ground for the next social experiments, which I would hate to see.
We are in for a very difficult future even after the victory in the war, of this I definitely do not doubt.
LE: What is the future for you?
My future is in journalism. In this field, too, there will be many difficulties, both because of the consequences of the war and the global changes in the profession.
LE: Any advice for us?
I told my friends in Britain that they should appreciate the peace they have in their country. As long as you have peace, you can negotiate, make reforms, stand up for your rights, plan your future, and so on. Peace is the foundation of democracy, of that I have no doubt now.
So all of our efforts in a global sense must be to achieve peace, to build a truly just society, because that is the key to peaceful and democratic development for any society.
And yes, we have to oppose the arms race. Because militarized states like today’s Russia can easily start a war against those whom they consider weaker. And if we abandon the idea of disarmament, then weaker countries will be forced to spend more and more money on weapons rather than on medicine or education. For example, next year Ukraine plans to spend 50% of its budget on the army, and only 30% on pensions and social programs, including medicine and education. We understand why this is happening, but we also need to understand that we are burning away precious resources in war.
So I am for peace and disarmament, for democracy and social justice.