Nobel Peace prize Oleksandra Matviichuk: ‘In Ukraine, unpunished evil grows’

On 21 September – coincidentally the International Day of Peace – we had the opportunity to talk to Oleksandra Matviichuk about the main issues surrounding the war in Ukraine and what will come next. Like most of the Ukrainians we met, she displayed a mixture of determination and serenity, refusing to indulge in self-pity for herself and her fellow citizens. She reminds us that for Ukrainians their attitude to Russia and the war is self-evident.

Voxeurop: Do women have a special role in Ukraine today?

Oleksandra Matviichuk: When I’m asked about the role of women in the war, I can’t answer very quickly, because I know thousands of fantastic women in different areas of society: women fighting in the Ukrainian armed forces, women making important political decisions, women documenting, women coordinating civil initiatives. Women are at the forefront of this fight for freedom and democracy, because courage has no gender. When the full-scale invasion began, Ukrainian people joined the territorial defence and the Ukrainian armed forces, and nobody was surprised that a man joined the Ukrainian armed forces, so why should we be surprised that more than 60,000 women joined the Ukrainian armed forces? There is no gender division in many things, such as bravery.

Today women can play any role they see fit in modern society, and that’s what makes Ukraine different from Russia: in Russia, women only play assigned roles in family and society, and men are dominant. Such cultural norms are a basis for an authoritarian regime, because it’s always this relationship between people that expresses how power can behave towards people. In Russia even domestic violence has been decriminalised. We as women have such an additional task in this war – which is not just a war between states, but a war between two systems – between authoritarianism and democracy: Authoritarianism versus democracy. We are fighting with Russia so that our daughters will never be in a situation where they have to prove to someone that they are also human beings. 

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The Centre for Civil Liberties  which you head, is a co-nominee for the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, along with Belarusian dissident Ales Bialiatski and Russian human rights NGO Memorial. How do you work for peace in the context of war, and what does peace mean for Ukrainians today?

Peace means a lot: Ukrainians want peace more than anyone else. But you can’t advocate peace. Peace will not come if the invaded country stops fighting: It won’t be peace, but occupation, and occupation is just another form of war. I know what I’m talking about because I’ve been documenting war crimes for nine years and I know that people living under occupation live in a grey zone. They have no means to defend their rights, their freedom, their property, their lives and their loved ones. Occupation is not just replacing one flag with another; when we talk about Russian occupation, it means forced disappearances, rape, torture, murder, denial of identity, forced deportations of Ukrainian children for adoption with the aim of re-educating them as Russians, filtration camps, forced mobilisation into the Russian army and mass graves. This is occupation; it’s not peace.

We have no moral right to abandon the Ukrainan people to torture and death under Russian occupation. They are our families, our friends, our colleagues, our fellow citizens and, above all, they are human beings. Their lives cannot be the subject of a political compromise.

Is it even possible to reach a peaceful settlement with Russia, as many, especially in the West, are suggesting that the Ukrainians should accept?

It’s wishful thinking with the current Russian government. Do the people who suggest this have any idea how to stop Vladimir Putin? Russia will not give up its desire to conquer the whole of Ukraine: as Putin himself has said, the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century, and these people respect only force. They see civilised dialogue as a sign of weakness. Russia is an empire, and as such it has no borders. When an empire has energy, it expands; when it does not, it waits for the moment when it has energy again to expand. We Ukrainians want lasting peace. That means living without fear of violence and having a long-term perspective. For eight years we have had the so-called Minsk agreements, and people were still dying on a regular basis. How has Russia used this time? It built up an army in the occupied Ukrainian territories. Russia withdrew, regrouped, then planned and launched its large-scale invasion. So we need a peace that is not just a temporary pause.

‘We Ukrainians want lasting peace. That means living without fear of violence and having a long-term perspective’

What would victory mean to you?

Remember that this war did not start on 22 February 2022, but in February 2014, when Ukraine had a chance for a rapid democratic transformation after the collapse of Viktor Yanukovych’s regime following the Revolution of Dignity. To stop this process, Putin launched this war of aggression, occupying Crimea and part of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, and finally last year he expanded the war into a full-scale invasion. Putin is obviously not afraid of NATO: he is afraid of the idea of freedom, and that is why victory for Ukraine does not just mean driving Russian troops out of Ukrainian territory, restoring our sovereignty, restoring international order and freeing the people who live in Crimea and the other Ukrainian occupied territories. Victory also means succeeding in the democratic transition, carrying out our reforms and getting out of the zone of turbulence we’ve been stuck in for decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union – this never-ending transition from totalitarianism to a well-developed democracy.

Is EU membership part of this victory?

Of course it is! The revolution of dignity showed the direction to the whole of Ukrainian society. Russia likes to say that Ukraine is divided in two: East and West, by religion, economy and other criteria, but the 2014 revolution proved that the majority of Ukrainian people chose the European Union as a model of development. For ordinary people, the EU is not just an intergovernmental organisation – they don’t know how the European Council or the European Parliament work – but a choice of values. When people explained why they were protesting during the Revolution of Dignity, when our government refused to sign the Association Agreement with the EU because of Russian pressure, they mentioned values: we want to have a chance to build a society where everyone’s rights are protected, where the government is accountable, where the judiciary is independent and where the police don’t beat up students for demonstrating peacefully. We are now paying a very high price – perhaps the highest price – for just having the chance to join the European Union and to return to a European civilised dimension. We feel European.

During your recent visit to the EU institutions, did you get the impression that the Union you are dealing with is the one that Ukrainians are striving for?

There is no such thing as an ideal EU. The EU and its member states have many internal problems to deal with, but we believe that Ukrainian democracy will bring new resources: this commitment to fight for freedom, the rule of law and human rights will provide a unique energy that can help find solutions to the complex problems it faces. We were the first nation in the world whose people died under the European flag, waving it along with the Ukrainian flag as a symbol of hope during the Revolution of Dignity. At that time, our authorities shot over a hundred unarmed people. Now we are fighting for our European dream. Many people who live in well-developed democracies within the European Union take this for granted: they never fought for it, they inherited democracy, the rule of law and human rights from their parents, and that’s why they very often don’t understand the real value of these things. I believe that Ukraine will not only be a net beneficiary, but we will contribute to the importance of these values, which are a kind of trademark of the EU.

Victory for Ukraine does not just mean driving Russian troops out of Ukrainian territory, restoring our sovereignty, restoring international order and freeing the people who live in the occupied territories. Victory also means succeeding in the democratic transition

What did not work to prevent a full-scale invasion?

I am sure that historians of the future will answer this better, but I think that we were faced with a lack of honesty, courage and historical responsibility: we had the so-called Minsk process, but even then Russia occupied part of Ukraine; Russia liquidated its own civil society, imprisoned journalists, killed activists and dispersed all opposition demonstrations; it committed terrible war crimes in other countries like Syria, Libya or Mali. The developed democracies turned a blind eye. They imposed some sanctions after 2014, but at the same time they continued to shake hands with Putin, continued business as usual and even built gas pipelines.

In this way, they made Putin realise that human rights and democracy were false values, not only for him, but for them too. That’s why he launched the full-scale invasion. The civilised world failed the test. Evil grows unpunished. When Russia destroyed Grozny, a city of half a million people, nobody reacted; then Russia bombed Aleppo and helped Assad use chemical weapons against civilians in Syria, and nobody reacted. It’s no surprise that Russia burnt Mariupol to ashes.

Do you think Russia’s threat of nuclear strikes is credible?

Nuclear weapons are certainly dangerous, but it’s much more dangerous to give in to nuclear blackmail. What Russia is trying to convince people is that if you have nuclear weapons, you can destroy the international order. You can dictate the rules of the game to the entire international community, and you can even change internationally recognised borders by force. If we are not able to prove Russia wrong in the near future, we will find ourselves in a world where many other countries will produce nuclear weapons and repeat the same pattern. Such a world will be dangerous for everyone without exception. That is why I believe that doing nothing is worse than taking action.

In many Western European countries, and especially in Italy, there is a strong pacifist movement that advocates ending the war at any cost to save Ukrainian and Russian lives. What do you think about this?

It’s very easy to sacrifice other people’s lives. But in this way they are condemning the Ukrainian people, who will live under occupation, to a terrible death. I have interviewed hundreds of people who have survived Russian captivity in the occupied territories: they told me how they were beaten, raped, had their fingers cut off or their nails torn off, had their knees drilled, were crushed in wooden boxes or tortured with electricity. Russia imposes terror on civilians in the occupied territories: is this what Western pacifists want us to go through? I think not. You have to put pressure on Russia to stop the war: if Russia stops fighting, the war will stop; if Ukraine stops fighting, Ukraine will be occupied. So real pacifists have to put pressure on Russia to stop this war.

We are not slaves. If you look at sociological surveys, freedom is the first value that Ukrainians are willing to fight for. We are fighting for freedom in all senses: freedom to be an independent country and not a Russian colony; freedom to preserve our Ukrainian identity and not be forced to educate our children as Russians; and freedom to make our democratic choice to build our country and develop it as a democracy. I know this is a bit annoying for some politicians and they would prefer us to give up and become a Russian colony and Russian slaves, but we are human beings and we choose to fight for freedom.

When Russia destroyed Grozny nobody reacted; then Russia bombed Aleppo and helped Assad use chemical weapons against civilians in Syria, and nobody reacted. It’s no surprise that Russia burnt Mariupol to ashes

In some of the countries currently supporting Ukraine, starting with the US, there are some influential voices calling for this support to be reduced and for Ukraine to focus on its own problems – inflation, poverty, education, pensions, healthcare… –  some even feel that this is not “their” war and would like to get back to business as usual. How do you feel about this?

We are very grateful to all the countries and people in those countries who are standing by Ukraine in this traumatic time, and history will never forget it. We all need to be very pragmatic: Ukrainians are fighting not just for themselves, but to preserve the international order established after the Second World War, which means that our struggle is helping to prevent World War III. This war has several dimensions in addition to the military one: economic, values, information. In this respect, this war is not just “ours”. If we don’t stop Putin in Ukraine, he will go on and attack other countries, even European ones. It’s the right thing to do to help Ukraine survive and resist Russian aggression.

You said that you and your colleagues are collecting hundreds of testimonies from people captured by the Russian occupiers. How do you deal with such suffering?

I still feel emotions. I think maybe that’s normal, because if I become indifferent, it means that something in my humanity is broken. We all have moments of discouragement, but my colleagues and I always find the energy and motivation to carry on. We do not have the luxury of being pessimistic.

As a human rights lawyer, how do you see the current situation of the rule of law and fundamental rights in Ukraine under Russian attack and martial law? How are dissenting voices being treated by the government and the military?

First of all, let’s look at who is in the military. Most of them are people like us, from various peaceful professions: former journalists, hairdressers, steel workers, teachers, civil activists who joined the armed forces. They are not professional soldiers who have been trained for years. They’re people who took up arms and sacrificed their lives to defend their families, their country and its democratic future. Even my organisation and I have never personally met President Zelensky in a private conversation because we always keep our distance from all political parties. As human rights defenders, we always criticise our government when it does something that may violate human rights. Today, when I or other representatives of Ukrainian civil society or Ukrainian officials intervene in an international arena, we tend to speak the same language. There is a kind of extraordinary unity that is very understandable and almost biological: when a group is under attack and about to be liquidated, it unites against the common enemy.

We are a big country where people have very different opinions, religions, social positions, political views, ideologies… You can divide us according to various criteria. But we all want to live in a peaceful and democratic Ukraine, and the vast majority of Ukrainians decided to fight for it in different ways. Some joined the armed forces, others formed volunteer corps to help equip the army, others helped rebuild destroyed villages and towns or the economy in local communities. So people are doing what they can in very dramatic circumstances where there’s no safe place to be and you don’t know if you’re going to be alive the next day because you could be killed by a Russian missile.

Do you also monitor human rights violations within Ukrainian society?

The war is a poison. It’s the opposite of democratisation. War needs centralisation, while democratisation needs decentralisation. War needs some restrictions on human rights and freedoms for security reasons, while democratisation needs to expand the space for human rights and freedoms. Certainly, this is a very difficult moment for Ukrainians and for our democracy: it’s a real challenge to secure democratic reforms under Russian missiles. It’s almost mission impossible, because we have to be successful if we want to achieve the goal of joining the European Union and meet the accession criteria: no other country in the EU has had to go through a democratisation process while being invaded and involved in a full-scale war. Most of them know how difficult it is to go through a democratic transition, even in peaceful times, and for some it has been a very long process. We have to do it while a full-scale war is raging and people are literally dying every day, so we have to succeed and I think we deserve support in this unprecedented effort.

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