Dmytro Potekhin is a Ukrainian democracy and nonviolence activist who was captured by pro-Russian rebels in Donetsk in August and held 48 days. He was in Kyiv when we interviewed him in early November.
METTA SPENCER: It’s great that you made it out okay. I was worried. Tell me about it.
DMYTRO POTEKHIN: One hour before I was to take a train back to Kyiv, I took a picture of a hotel where I had stayed several years ago. The rebels were there and one of them saw me. They arrested me on the assumption that I was a spy.
They handcuffed me and put a bag on my head, took me to the restaurant in the basement. For several hours they questioned me and threatened to beat me, but then they got interested in my stories and changed their behavior. They removed the bag from my head. I spent the night in one of the rooms of that empty hotel. In the morning they blindfolded and handcuffed me, and took me to another place were I was interrogated by several other people. Then they brought me to a former factory, where I spent 48 days.
SPENCER: How truthful were you about your own politics?
POTEKHIN: Most of the things that I do could be found online, so there was no sense in hiding them.
SPENCER: Were they hostile? Did they beat you?
POTEKHIN: Some quite hostile, some not. They threatened to beat me and some of them pushed my head. One was firing his gun behind me to frighten me. It not a jail but a factory’s office building with armed guards. People were kept there in four or five places.
SPENCER: Who held you? Were they Russians?
POTEKHIN: No, mostly local Donetsk guys, though some of them wore uniforms with Russian insignia. They had arrested some Russians too. There were two Russian volunteers who came to Donetsk to fight but were in prison. There were also some members of the Russian Orthodox Army—pro-Russian religious fighters. I was interrogated by an FSB officer. The head of the investigative department of the NGB had the Russian flag in her office—the DNR flag and the Russian flag. But she was a pro-Russian local.
SPENCER: Were you treated well?
POTEKHIN: No. In jail they have toilets and water. We had just bottles to use as toilets and sometimes they withheld water from us. I was not beaten but most other people were. They were not investigating—just beating people. Most of the people who were doing this were forced to do it. It’s not their free choice. Some of the guards had initially been prisoners themselves. Lots of people are leaving the rebel group and the area. Donetsk is still almost an abandoned city.
SPENCER: You think the rebels are losing support?
POTEKHIN: I don’t know. I could only talk with the people in the cells. They were anti-Kyiv, yet definitely not happy with the regime that arrested them. They were indoctrinated with anti-Kyiv, anti-Ukraine, anti-Western sentiments.
SPENCER: How did you get out? Did they trade you?
POTEKHIN: No, they believed me to be an agent so they told me that neither the Ukrainian side nor the Russian side wanted me. They proposed that I work for their TV propaganda. I refused and, after a month in prison, I went on hunger strike, which made them angry. The bosses concluded they had no legitimate reason to keep me and actually tried to get rid of me. One of them said “We should just take him outside and let him go, as if he had escaped.” But then they found another way to get rid of me and ten other people. They found a local woman who was willing to take me and help. I contacted my friends—journalists who were staying in Donetsk at this time—and we were escorted to them.
SPENCER: The activists with whom I was in contact seemed to avoid making you into a famous case, lest your captors conclude that they had caught a big shot. Was that the right approach?
POTEKHIN: Actually I tried to show them that I was a big shot. That’s why they released me. If you are exchanging people for money or for somebody else, this is going to create costs. So it’s best to say, “No, we’re not exchanging anything for him.” That was my point. They said, “the Ukrainians won’t exchange anything for you. They don’t want you.” I said, “Guys, I am not insisting on any exchange. But let me go. You don’t have any reason to keep me here. I am, first, a nonviolence expert. Second, I have publicly said that I believe it would be good for both Ukraine and Donetsk to be independent from each other. So why do you keep me? Moreover, lots of people support me—not necessarily my ideas, not necessarily the independence of Donbass, but they are campaigning for my freedom.” Most of the people who were exchanged were military. With them it’s a different logic.
SPENCER: Let’s talk about your own life. How did you become a pro-democracy activist?
POTEKHIN: I grew up in a family of anthropologists in Kyiv. My father is a historian of the United States who did research at the Library of Congress. I studied in Kyiv and then at the Central European University in Budapest. Then I came back to Kyiv and worked one year for the Embassy of Japan as a political analyst, explaining events to the diplomats and the defence attaché. There were protests then leading to Kuchmagate.
SPENCER: You call it Kuchmagate! I hadn’t heard that expression before.
POTEKHIN: About the killing of the journalist whose name had been mentioned in Kuchma’s office. I spent a lot of time on the street, which was more interesting, so I left the embassy. The protests against Kuchma did not produce any change. However, several years later I started reading Gene Sharp about nonviolent resistance. Before 2004 I had started planning and talking to people.
I visited Washington and started working with US-Ukraine Foundation, a Ukrainian diaspora NGO that was getting ready for the elections. After I returned to Kyiv they called and hired me as a coordinator for the project.
That’s when I started building a coalition from different movements. The US-Ukraine Foundation got USAID funding—about $900,000 for three rounds of elections. We were independent from the political campaigns. The strategy was to make the elections fair and show people how to protect their votes if they were stolen. We trained people and got advice from Otpor in Serbia. I invited them to join our campaign so people could learn how to bring down dictators nonviolently. We had a media campaign and a toll-free hotline for people to call to learn about their rights and what they can do if they see falsification. We arranged street actions. I was reaching out to ordinary people. I could not understand why activists in Ukraine were not addressing ordinary citizens.
SPENCER: Which activists? And what were they doing?
POTEKHIN: While I was in the embassy I could see the same people holding street protests all the time. It was a limited number of people, talking to themselves, not to ordinary people. So when I was planning the 2004 campaign I tried to mobilize two groups of people—the activists and the voters. That’s how we built our campaign. They were asking us for more and more leaflets. We tested all those materials professionally. We were translating legal texts into readable texts. I was testing this toll-free line and acting more as a devil’s advocate than as a democracy activist. We were one reason why the Orange Revolution was nonviolent and successful. When Yanukovych tried to assume power, millions of people went onto the streets and stopped him.
Lots of people now think the Orange Revolution was a failure. They identify it with the next Orange administration, which failed to reform the country. So it’s important to keep these two things separate: the prevention of the Yanukovych gang to usurp power in 2004 is separate from the next Yushchenko administration and its attempts to reform the country. They got their chance because we helped make fair elections, but then they mostly failed to consolidate democracy. That’s why Yanukovych was successful in usurping power in 2010 when he was elected president. He tried to change the constitution illegitimately.
SPENCER: Please explain. People here don’t know that.
POTEKHIN: He was elected president because of the failures of the Orange team here. He got a chance, and then he changed the constitution. He controlled the constitutional court, which ruled that the previous constitution was not in effect and set up a presidential system. When he was elected we had a parliamentary system. So he got more power and with his corrupt practices he could control even more. It was not done through a parliamentary vote nor through referendum. Any expert knows that constitutions cannot be established that way. Constitutional courts are not for designing constitutions. The Commission for Democracy Through Rule of Law stated that this was not the proper way to change constitutions. But the international community, and even we Ukrainians ourselves, did not pay enough attention to the change. They missed the moment when power was usurped in Ukraine.
My attempts to bring attention to this issue were not successful. I wrote about it. I blogged. I warned that this would upset democracy, the rule of law, and even the stability of the country.
When you are trying to bring back a rule of law, you need to be able to show the people why the current regime is not legitimate. It’s important that the law enforcement agencies—the special services, the military, and the police—know that the guys sitting in the buildings are not legitimate rulers and have no right to order them to shoot protesters. So I kept writing, saying that Yanukovych is not the legitimate president anymore and we must stop calling him the president because that’s how we actually help legitimize him.
Our discussions did not get into the mainstream media. Even sober independent observers for some reason kept legitimizing Yanukovych. Even when criticizing him, even when showing his corrupt practices, they kept recognizing him as president. That was one reason why we got massacred early this year in the Maidan.
That’s different from 2004 because at that time everybody could see that Yanukovych was not the legitimate president—that the law enforcement agencies were given orders by somebody who falsified the election. This time he even falsified the constitution, yet that was not on the agenda, even for those protesting after the association agreement with the European Union was not signed. When protesting on the Maidan, they were demanding the _resignation of Yanukovych. If somebody is not legitimate, you don’t ask him to resign. You ask, why is he sitting in that chair? Why is he riding in that limousine? So the strategy should have been completely different. It could have created opportunities to have fun and undermine the regime with humor._
SPENCER: But he was legitimately elected and then he became illegitimate by changing the constitution illegally?
POTEKHIN: Exactly. I wrote about that in 2010 in Ukrainian, in Russian, in English. It’s not surprising that it ended with violence. If you keep legitimizing usurpers, sooner or later there’s going to be violence. Many people with guns did not know that the legitimate constitution was a parliamentary system, not a presidential system.
SPENCER: Thanks. That’s important. Now let’s go back to your own career story.
POTEKHIN: I trained people in Ukraine and abroad. I went to Egypt and Iran. I worked with some people from the post-Soviet Union space. (Or I would say now, “neo-Soviet Union” space. It’s “Soviet-lite.”) I explained why the Crimea is a key for the Russian state. The Russian regime can provide citizens with nothing but the imperial myth. And for that, Putin and company needed Crimea and Sevastopol to show the state is strong. Holding a military parade in Sevastopol was a key thing. I published that article in 2008. Of course I did not know that the occupation was coming, but I noted that, for Putin, Sevastopol was an issue for internal politics in Russia.
SPENCER: Were you still employed by the US-Ukraine Foundation?
POTEKHIN: No, I was just hired by them for two campaigns—in 2004 and 2006. After that I started a small NGO and trained people in nonviolence. In 2011-12 we had dozens of public lectures, meetings, and trainings. I was again funded by American taxpayers. My attempt to teach nonviolence in Ukraine was not very successful.
It was a campaign to learn by doing. In 2012 I started a campaign to protect a historic Kyiv building. Yanukovych tried to take over that building but with a friend I removed the padlock and let activists into the yard as a joke and we voted to create an independent republic for that building. It was quite legitimate! (laughs) Later a construction company hired bandits to push us out of the yard. So they came, they beat us, and they pushed us out. But we managed to take over the building again for about eight months. We held events there—concerts, classes, language lessons. That was fun for some time, but then it turned violent. We split. About half of the activists wanted to use violence against the police. It was doomed, I guess. Unlike the 2004 campaign, we had no million bucks. I started just with ten bucks in my pocket.
SPENCER: Okay, tell me about this year’s campaign—2014.
POTEKHIN: This time I was involved only as a blogger and observer. I worked for Al Jazeera America. I took part in some nonviolent street things.
SPENCER: When I called you in early February, you said you had stopped going to the Maidan because it seemed too rough. That was just a couple of days before the day when 60 or 80 people were killed and Yanukovych fled.
POTEKHIN: Right. There was no culture of nonviolence.
SPENCER: Many of my peace activist friends who admire your commitment to nonviolence cannot condone spending government money to oust a foreign dictator. How do you defend the legitimacy of accepting US government money to help oust a dictator in your own country?
POTEKHIN: I don’t see any problem with that.
SPENCER: I don’t either, but many of my friends do. They think that the people themselves must win their own freedom from a dictator. If a foreign country tries to overthrow the regime in another country, they don’t consider that legitimate. You probably hear this argument a lot.
POTEKHIN: No, the problem is not about the source of the funding; it’s about the way it is used. In 2004, I was in charge and I made sure that the funding was properly used for a nonviolent campaign. In the Euromaidan in 2014, I would like to know why Ukrainian NGOs, journalists, and activists kept legitimizing the rule of Yanukovych and using Western taxpayers’ money for that.
SPENCER: Let’s compare the two revolutions: the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the revolution of 2014. To what extent were they funded and organized from abroad? Putin claims that it was entirely the result of the actions by Western governments. We heard a recording of the US official Victoria Nuland sounding as if she had been pulling the strings.
POTEKHIN: In both cases they were indigenous movements. And in both cases Western governments tried to help with funds. In 2004 it was successful and in 2014, in terms of nonviolence, it was unsuccessful. That’s the difference. In 2004 the money was given to people who arranged it nonviolently. In 2014 the money was given to the people who failed to arrange it nonviolently.
SPENCER: They failed because right wing extremists took over the movement?
POTEKHIN: Probably. The general perception of violence changed. I can only assume that a lot of people linked the methods that we used in 2004 to stop Yanukovych with the failure of the Orange team. There are two different things: one is mobilization to stop a usurper and the other thing is democratic consolidation after a dictator is removed. These two things are related but different.
Public mobilization and civil resistance were run by one group of people, while the administration of the next government was run by another group of people. The mobilization to stop the usurpation succeeded but the consolidation of democracy failed in 2004. After the Orange government failed, lots of people thought: “If the Orange team (the Yushchenko government) failed, then why would we again use the methods that were used during the Orange Revolution? Why should we remain nonviolent? We have to fight!” But this is just my assumption; I don’t know.
SPENCER: You think it’s okay for one country to try to help people get rid of a dictator elsewhere. Does that mean that you think it’s okay for Americans or Canadians to try to influence which politicians will take over afterward? Should we be helping political parties in another country? This principle needs to be clarified. How much can people in one country legitimately try to influence the politics in another country? As a Canadian, I do want some of my tax money to be spent to help people elsewhere oust their dictators. On the other hand, if I want them to have a democracy, my tax money shouldn’t help a politician or party win the election in another country.
POTEKHIN: But after you bring down one dictator you usually do have elections and there’ll be somebody else in the administration. Not as a result of the funding but as a result of elections.
SPENCER: I think it’s important to make this principle clear—that it’s legitimate to help people oust a dictator, but that foreigners should not try to pick the party or the politician who follows.
POTEKHIN: They can’t do that anyway. It up to the people to vote and to make sure that the elections are not rigged. Actually, nobody can do that. Only the people can install someone. To be sure, if the local voters are badly educated or corrupt, then lots of things happen. But can other governments control the outcome of elections? No. They can bring their armies, like Putin is doing now in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, but they can’t control the situation. They can pay their militants and place them there, but if local people resist and disobey the regime, it will not last long.
SPENCER: So if you have a democracy, the outcome of an election will actually reflect the wishes of the people. That’s what you’re saying?
POTEKHIN: Yes. I was interviewed by Russian propagandists in Donetsk. When I told them the story about the usurper Yanukovych, they said, “Poroshenko came to power in Ukraine as the result of a coup.” And I said, “No, guys, let’s make it clear. Poroshenko became president of Ukraine as the result of an election. And the election became possible after the protests in Kyiv. And although I was not happy about the way these protests were organized, they opened the way for elections. So Poroshenko is the legitimate president, because he became president by election. He was not put here by Americans as the result of a military campaign. That’s what you Russians are doing in Donetsk. You are installing your people as the result of military occupation. And that’s what you did in the Crimea.”
SPENCER: The Russians would say that it was a mob who ousted the legitimate president of Ukraine, Yanukovych.
POTEKHIN: (laughs). Yeah, that’s what I heard from Russian propagandists in Donetsk. That’s why it’s important to see the usurpation of power by Yanukovych in 2010. He was a usurper for the last four years of his rule. But because Ukrainian civil society and Ukrainian opposition politicians recognized him as the president even after he had changed the constitution and usurped power, most people missed the point—even people in the democratic, pro-Western camp. That’s why some can argue now that Yanukovych was legitimate but was removed by a mob. That’s just not true.
Poroshenko is not the best president but he is the legitimate president. In Donetsk when the right wingers came to the cell and started telling me about the regime in Kyiv. I said, “Guys, I am not necessarily happy with all of the people in Kyiv, but you were brought here by your own local junta—and mostly without any reason. And you are still claiming that there was something wrong with Kyiv, not in Donetsk.”
SPENCER: We hear about right wing extremists from Western Ukraine, but you’re suggesting that people in Lugansk and Donetsk provinces are also fascists?
POTEKHIN: Yes, they are Nazis. Some people in Western Ukraine and Kyiv have radical views, but they are just part of a wide spectrum of ideas. They were not in control of the government. Some of them were lately invited to the government so there is a bad trend here. But in Donetsk the whole government is made of such people. They are anti-Ukrainian, and anti-Western.
SPENCER: I had assumed that the rebels in the East are simply people who want a closer relationship with Russia but who would otherwise be no different from other Ukrainians. But you’re saying that they are pro-Nazi?
POTEKHIN:They are not pro-Nazi. They are Nazis. They are Russian chauvinists. Pro-Russian neo-imperialists, pro-Moscow, pro-Putin. They run the military machine in this people’s republic of Donetsk.
SPENCER: What do the ordinary Donetsk people want?
POTEKHIN: Most people there just want to get rid of both sides of fighters. But everything there looks pro-Russian. It’s a big mistake to call them separatists. Separatists want their own state. These guys want to separate from Ukraine but join Russia.
SPENCER: When they released you, what were the conditions?
POTEKHIN: After one month in prison I went on a hunger strike. Most other people were released and I could send messages through them to my parents. My sister began a campaign demanding my release. That, plus my refusal to cooperate, made the admin- istration want to get rid of me.
SPENCER: Was anyone there sympathetic or friendly toward you?
POTEKHIN: Not really, but some guys started behaving differently. They learned that I had protested against Yanukovych in 2010, and many of them have questions about him now. Some people started shaking my hand after I went on hunger strike. I tried to joke a lot. That’s the only way to stay normal. And I guess it was interesting to them to talk to somebody from the other side. I did not necessarily discuss everything with them. When they were released, some of them moved to Kyiv, where they feel safer.
SPENCER: What do you think Putin is trying to do? And what solutions do you favor?
POTEKHIN: He needs the Crimea. As for Donetsk, I don’t know what his plan may be. But I would use this opportunity for Ukraine to get rid of the Donbass.
SPENCER: You want Ukraine to let Lugansk and Donetsk secede?
POTEKHIN: Actually, I think Ukraine should secede from them. No kidding. Even the results of this recent parliamentary election show that we don’t have a 100 percent democratic parliament, but at least we have a majority of pro-Western people here, unlike the people in the East of Ukraine. So this is a chance for Ukraine to become independent of those people and their elites.
I will not be happy if those territories join Russia or have dictatorial regimes. So after letting them go we should help people there bring down those authoritarian regimes. We can meet those republics someday in the European Union, if they would like to go there and if they succeed in bringing down their own military usurpers.
SPENCER: They would be an independent country—Novorossia?
POTEKHIN: No. Novorossia would include southern Ukraine and the Crimea. They can’t expand, come on! They hate each other. We had several armed clashes between different groups there. They will kill each other. There is no economy. They don’t have money to control this territory. They can’t take control of more territory. So Novorossia is impossible.
SPENCER: Then you’re talking about two independent separate republics, Donetsk and Lugansk?
POTEKHIN: Personally, I would go for that, yes.
SPENCER: How do you feel about the Poroshenko regime and the new parliament as a government in Kyiv?
POTEKHIN: They are losing. If they keep going this way democracy will fail again. I am frustrated both with Poroshenko and the Europeans. They should have told Poroshenko that if he announces the technical default of Ukraine they will provide assistance and advice. He should say that this country is ungovernable and ask the European Union for funding and expertise for a new government. I proposed it when Yatsenuk became the prime minister, even before the presidential elections. But the first opportunity was missed when Yanukovych left the country.
The next day, when the speaker was elected and Yatsenuk was appointed prime minister, he could have said, “Guys, I came here and saw nothing. Everything has been stolen and we are at war with Russia. So we will not repay the debt to Russia and will not buy energy from Russia. We need an efficient government to make this country livable for the people in all parts of Ukraine—Crimea, Lugansk, Donetsk. We want all these people to be willing to stay in Ukraine.” The EU would have sent experts. It is doing it anyway now.
SPENCER: I see. They just should have done it earlier. How worried are you about Putin’s aggressiveness?
POTEKHIN: I think we overestimate Putin and his power. We assume that most things in this world happen because of Putin, so he uses this misperception in international politics.
SPENCER: When I talk to Russians now, they seem extremely anti-Western— especially anti-American. Putin is sullen because he feels he has been insulted, and that Russian civilization has been humiliated. Evidently he is speaking for millions of people who resent the West. I don’t know how to solve that kind of problem. If someone resents me for considering them inferior, I don’t know how to fix that. Or when I envy another person who is more successful, I don’t think he or she can help me get over it. That is the problem in Russia and the Muslim world now. Many Arabs nowadays have wounded pride, which also was what motivated Hitler. He wanted to prove the superiority of German civilization. Such resentment causes many major conflicts. And in truth, we really don’t respect Russian civilization the way they want us too. I can’t respect their low concern for human rights or democracy. And I can’t hide that fact, so they are angry. What can we do?
POTEKHIN: Ah! Nothing. (laughs) There can be a time to engage. That’s what my friend Mike McFaul tried to do as ambassador to Moscow. It did not work, so now it’s time to forget about Putin and the Russians. Eighty percent support the annexation of Crimea—this is something! It’s not a surprise; after the war against Georgia the level of support for Putin also went up. You’re quite right. There is nothing to be proud about this part of Russian culture. So I don’t think that the West and Ukrainians must keep saying, “Oh, you have such a huge culture!” That huge culture is a wrong culture if this many people support violence in general. (We laugh.)
SPENCER: Well, I am interested in resolving conflicts. But the Russians now see us as arrogant.
POTEKHIN: Oh, maybe they’ll send troops to occupy part of your territory? That’s what is happening with my country. And you’re afraid to show your true feelings? Come on! Forget about their feelings about you! Simple. Why are you legitimizing Putin? Why is he accepted? Why do people keep talking to him? There are all these meetings. For the Russians this is a sign of the West’s respect for Putin. Whatever is said during the meeting, the Russian media will show pictures of Putin with Westerners listening to him. Let him sit at home. Let him go to Siberia. Let him go to talk to his own voters.
SPENCER: (Laughs). That’s a refreshing idea.
Metta Spencer is editor of Peace.