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“Zelenskyy Naive in Confidence to Reach Peace With Russia” – Ex-Political Prisoner Mykola Karpiuk
1 April, 2020
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Mykola Karpiuk is the first political prisoner in the recent history of Ukraine. He was detained by the FSB officers at the Ukrainian-Russian border when he was traveling to Russia to negotiate – as he himself says – with the Kremlin when Ukraine was on the verge of war. 

This happened six years ago, on March 17, 2014, after the Euromaidan protesters won, and the day before the "referendum" was held in Crimea, with which Russia’s illegal annexation of the peninsula had started.

Karpiuk was the deputy head of the popular Right Sector organization at the time. In Russia, he was sentenced to a record 22.5 years in prison on a completely fabricated charge of involvement in the first Chechen war on the side of troops of the Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev. Karpiuk himself had never been to Russia before 2014. He spent five and a half years in Russian prisons.

Hromadske asked Karpiuk why he went to Russia, whether anyone betrayed him, how the Right Sector broke apart, and if it is possible to negotiate peace with Russia.

You are free for almost half a year now. What has changed in Ukraine while you were imprisoned?

Ukraine has changed significantly. I really like that Ukraine is becoming, and has already become in many ways, a country of free people.

Were they not free before 2014, when you were captured at the Ukrainian-Russian border?

When I joined the national liberation movement in the late 1980s, and then, when the [nationalist political organization] Ukrainian National Assembly – Ukrainian People's Self-Defence (UNA-UNSO) began to form, we had a big dream to teach Ukrainians to struggle, to give them an impulse to gain personal freedom, to teach them that rights are not given but taken. Now Ukrainians know how to fight and have a taste for freedom. They realize that no one will give them their rights.

They still need to learn responsibility, to realize that Ukraine is a republic and republic means the power of the people. It is not about being "faithful to the king" as defined in Russia, no. A citizen is a co-owner of his country. There is still a need to learn responsibility for your choices, to give them a clear assessment. And, if necessary, convene a Maidan protest.

READ MORE: Oleksandr Kolchenko on Crimea, Arrest and Life in Kyiv

You were captured by Russia when [ex-President Viktor] Yanukovych had just fled, there was no new president yet. And you have returned when there is the next president Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He helped set you and 34 other political prisoners free. 70% of Ukrainians voted for Zelenskyy who is not committed to some ideology but is simply a new face, not from politics.

Now, both in politics and in power, generations are changing. Instead of the people of my generation and slightly older people who have ruled this country for almost 30 years and brought it to its present state, the younger generation of the ‘80s and ‘90s is coming. I see them as of very high quality, I believe that they have tremendous energy and prospects.

Of course, it is bad that in Ukraine there are no institutions for creating a political elite. Look at countries with established democracies where two or three parties that have existed for decades have developed a coherent system, their own institutions, and the education of political personnel. And our political parties are a kind of association of some stakeholders for 5-10 years. This is a major problem that needs to be solved.

These newcomers are enlightened, gifted, they have seen the world, many of them went to study abroad. They have already got some bumps and will get many more. Now the task of all progressive, reasonable forces of Ukraine is to channel this youthful energy and the new dynamics in a constructive way.

Former political prisoner Mykola Karpiuk during a press conference in Kyiv, September 17, 2019. Photo: Ratynski Vyacheslav / UNIAN

During the Euromaidan protests, you were a deputy of Dmytro Yarosh in the Right Sector, leading the political wing of the brand new organization, quite radical, that the international media reported about. The Euromaidan won, and Yanukovych fled. What happened after the shootings on the Maidan, after Yanukovych fled and before the annexation of Crimea? What did the Right Sector do then?

The Right Sector was one of the most effective groups on the Maidan, and young people, who were intelligent and educated, were joining us. The Right Sector was emerging across Ukraine as a natural phenomenon. We needed to get acquainted with many people, those young people who joined the Right Sector in the regions and to structure a single system.

As the UNA was a registered political party and had the right to participate in election campaigns, we called a UNA convention where it was to be reformatted and renamed to the Right Sector. Actually, I, as the head of the political bloc of the Right Sector, was in charge of that.

At that moment, the Right Sector had enormous potential. We had both financial, human and intellectual resources.

Who gave the financial ones?

Both Ukrainian businesses and ordinary people. Why? Because there was great trust back then. And we wanted to transform this trust into a new political force, a national political force.

But a nationalist one? 

A Ukrainian one. And at this point, Moscow felt a colossal threat of the creation of this force. Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service developed a project to eliminate it.

How do you know about this?

I analyzed the situation and spoke to certain people involved in counter-intelligence here in Ukraine. The Russians had developed a very smart plan. They lured me to Moscow, where I was imprisoned and put in prison. A week later, Sashko Bilyi, the most heroic figure in the Right Sector, was killed (one of Right Sector’s leaders Oleksandr Muzychko, known as Sashko Bilyi, was murdered on March 27, 2014, during an attempt to arrest him in western Ukraine – ed.). And Yarosh was blamed for allegedly organizing that. Of course, it was very difficult for Yarosh to respond at the time.

They created internal discord. Moreover, Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service did so with the help of some representatives of the Ukrainian authorities which temporarily governed before the presidential election.

Who do you mean?

I won’t mention names. I know them, I understand everything perfectly. But in order to make clear allegations, you need to have hard evidence. And where special services work, there can’t be any.

So you are saying that Russia, with the help of the provisional government, destroyed the Right Sector?

They implemented the plan with the help of representatives of the provisional government. The disinformation was disseminated within the organization that Yarosh and [then head of Security Service of Ukraine Valentyn] Nalyvaichenko had organized [my] kidnapping and the murder of Sashko Bilyi.

An internal brawl started. One has to understand that the two quite big organizations were going to unite: Yarosh’s "Stepan Bandera Trident" NGO and UNA-UNSO. These are two organizations that have long existed as coherent systems, and merging them into one was a very difficult thing. And a great number of new people saw the discord – this also led to a breakup, a split.

Former political prisoner Mykola Karpiuk, right, with the Right Sector flag during a rally on Independence Square in Kyiv, September 19, 2019. Photo: Pryadko Denis / UNIAN

But there were also people around you who were doing some strange things later. For example, Andriy Artemenko, whom you brought to the Right Sector. You’ve been in jail together: you for the “Ukraine without Kuchma” protests (Karpiuk, a member of the UNA-UNSO and one of the organizers of the protests in 2001, was imprisoned in a pre-trial detention center for two years – ed.) and he for financial fraud. He also wrote some strange plans with regard to occupied Crimea and Donbas. A criminal case was opened against him for treason when he was an MP [from The Radical Party of Oleh Lyashko in the parliament of the eighth convocation]. And also Vyacheslav Fursa, who headed the Right Sector in Kyiv. You also brought him to the Right Sector. Later he organized some strange protests. ( Fursa was one of the organizers of the so-called "Third Maidan" in 2016. – ed.). He was detained with you in March 2014. Can you tell a little more about these people? Why was Fursa detained with you but released?

They needed me. He was released, so one could think there is something fishy here. You see, everything was done and instigated so cleverly. Although I was told negative things about Fursa after I was freed, I do not believe that he deliberately took me to Moscow. They just used him.

As for Artemenko. he was in the Batkivshchyna party, then in the Party of Regions, then he quarreled with them and left for Canada, where he received Canadian citizenship. But he helped us a lot.

How did he help?

He assisted with his contacts, helped to establish relations with European embassies and consulates, and much more. Material things, human resources.

It is difficult to determine the motivation of a person from the beginning of the formation of an organization. And the situation was that we were on the verge of war with Russia, it was necessary to reformat the Right Sector into a political party, it was necessary to form some force to defend our state, to repel Russian aggression, to resolve the issue of Crimea.

We were overworked and did not have enough time for all of this. It wasn’t even possible to properly analyze this ridiculous trip to Moscow.

READ MORE: Political Prisoner Pavlo Gryb Shares Story of His Kidnapping by FSB

Whose idea was it that you go to Russia? And why did you have to go there? It looks very strange to everyone. You are the person who was with the nationalist political organization UNA-UNSO, who was well-known in these circles, and the UNA-UNSO was hated in Russia. The Euromaidan protests are taking place, soon there will be the annexation of Crimea, and you are also the deputy head of the Right Sector, which is also hated and demonized by all the Russian TV channels. And for some reason, you are going to Russia. This is a totally strange and absurd story.

At that time, the Right Sector was of great interest to the world. At the end of February 2014, the first meeting with a representative of a foreign state, the Ambassador of Israel, took place. There was a pressing issue of anti-Semitism and xenophobia. And Yarosh and I found common ground with the ambassador in just 10 minutes. And at the same meeting, they prepared a statement, which was then posted on the website of the Israeli Embassy in Ukraine that the Right Sector has no xenophobia or anti-Semitism, that it is a normal political force in the process of formation.

After that, we had 3-5 meetings every day with ambassadors from different countries, not only from Europe but from all over the world.

Were they also worried about your organization?

Yes. At the time, we had quite a big authority and influence. Back then, Ukraine was in a state of transition to the formation of a new government. Of course, we had a lot of interest because we were influencing the political situation, the government. But at that moment, we are having a conflict in Crimea, the Russians are seizing Crimea, and large forces of the Russian army are at our eastern borders.

And then Fursa says his acquaintance had served with Putin for a long time, they still remain in contact, and it is in the Kremlin's interest to meet and negotiate with the Right Sector. It was not surprising to us.

My problem is that since the late 1990s, I have been completely uninterested in Russia and I did not know to what extent this was a territory of lawlessness. When I was traveling to Russia, I asked myself as a normal person living in the XXI century: what are the threats? There are no criminal cases against me because I have not been to Russia. How can someone take a citizen of another state and fabricate a criminal case against him – for me it was savagery, I could not even believe that it was possible.

READ MORE: Political Prisoner Mykola Karpiuk Gives Interview Behind Russian Bars

Yes, there were no such cases before, you were the first.

So I thought the only thing that could threaten me is that I would be expelled from this country or not allowed in, and that's it. I only anticipated those threats.

Former political prisoner Mykola Karpiuk during a press conference in Kyiv, September 17, 2019. Photo: Ratynski Vyacheslav / UNIAN

Were you told who this person close to Putin was?

According to Fursa, he was a retired FSB lieutenant general who was quite active in helping him to solve many business issues through the Ukrainian government. I do not know if he lives in Kyiv now.

What did you have to see eye to eye on?

I don’t know all the details. In the situation when we were on the verge of war, of course, we saw this as a chance to stop the aggression. If a dialogue begins, it is a chance to stop the aggression.

Whose idea was it that it was you who should go?

Since I voiced this topic, since I was the initiator… 

We also bought into the fact that it was supposed to be the first meeting, an extremely important and relevant one because it could lead to the next meeting between Putin and Yarosh, which was to take place somewhere in the territory of Europe.

Did you believe that such a meeting between Putin and Yarosh was possible?

Yes.

And you thought you were such a serious force that it was possible?

Yes.

What plans did the Right Sector have back then?

We had a chance to form a political force. A political party is formed while in action. After the convention, we should have formed a party structure across Ukraine. We had a chance to implement everything, as the presidential elections were approaching. We were interested not in the post of president but in using the presidential campaign to become a political force.

I told Yarosh and everyone around me that the name “Right Sector” was temporary. A few years later, we should have got rid of it.

Why? Because the word "right" is bad?

“Sector” means limitation. And the "right" means honest.

Did the Right Sector have an idea to create a provisional government, to take all the power into its own hands, or just a plan to go the normal way of developing a party that gets some interest in the elections and goes to parliament?

We were ready for any means of asserting Ukrainian authority, but we were clearly aware that any government should be legitimate. We are a republic, and it’s the people who give power to one force or another. First of all, we were developing a system of coming to power through elections.

You have been a revolutionary, public figure and politician for 30 or 40 years now…

For 30 years.

First, you ended up in jail after the unsuccessful “Ukraine without Kuchma” protests...

Why unsuccessful? It was successful.

Successful, but you were put in jail!

So what? Going back to the late 1990s, when Kuchma became president for the second time. The ideologist of that government and the mastermind behind the new legal system was Viktor Medvedchuk, who led the country back into the Soviet-like “bright future”, exactly where Russia is going now. We stopped this process after the "Ukraine without Kuchma" protests. Yes, some have gone to prison, including me for two years. But without this there would be no first Maidan protests and everything else. Ukraine is gradually making very precise steps to establishing its own statehood. And the fact that the Russians started the war [against Ukraine] has very much matured the Ukrainians.

And is the fact that Ukrainians elected Zelenskyy who now wants to reconcile with Russia in this war a part of this way forward?

I feel for President Zelenskyy in his certainty that he and the Kremlin will be able to find common ground and achieve peace. That is naivety, and I think it will pass in the near future. But I sympathize with him in this naivety.

Ukraine does not need peace at any cost. Ukraine should have a clear goal: the development of the Ukrainian state, the development of Ukraine as such. 

We will not reach peace with today’s Moscow. Anything that happens – all the agreements, conferences, all this fiction – can only end with a long-term or short-term truce. One has to understand that the war ends with either victory or defeat.

Can we defeat Russia?

Of course.

READ MORE: 3 Years Without Loved Ones: Stories From Families of Imprisoned Crimean Tatars

You are an eternal optimist.

You Ukrainians – I say "you", because at that time I was not in Ukraine – you do not realize how you defeated Moscow in 2014. You won a tremendous victory and you need to be aware of this. They expected that after "LPR" and "DPR," "people's republics" in Kharkiv, Odesa, Zaporizhzhya, and Dnipropetrovsk regions would follow. Separatist movements began in Bessarabia, in Transcarpathia. There was even development of the program for proclaiming the Western People's Republic in Lviv. An FSB general told me this in 2014. 

It was an acting FSB general who introduced himself as Roman Grigorovich. He had visited me in Vladikavkaz many times. He told me three times how they would divide Ukraine along the Dnipro river and will leave the Left Bank to themselves and the Right Bank to the Poles. And he said they just don’t know whose Kyiv should be: leave it for themselves or let Poland take it. When he met with me for the last time in September 2014, I was expecting him to stick with his story, but he was silent. Then I asked him what was happening in the Donbas. He told me: "We have decided to set a little armistice, there are too many losses, we need to do something, we are going to the Minsk talks." That's when I realized that the Kremlin had lost.

There is no need to fear them. Today, they do not have the tremendous power which they boast about. I told this general: “You can occupy Ukraine for a short period of time, but you cannot swallow it. You have been fighting with the Chechens for over 10 years, and I still cannot understand if Chechnya is yours or Kadyrov’s.” "So you think they will fight?", he asked. “They will fight so devotedly that the war with the Ukrainian Insurgent Army [during World War II and after] will seem like a cakewalk to you. Ukrainians feel free now and do not want to be your slaves again.”

Mykola Karpiuk, center, accompanied by doctors of the Feofaniya hospital in Kyiv, after released from Russian captivity, September 7, 2019. Photo: EPA-EFE / SERGEY DOLZHENKO

Do you communicate with Yarosh and the others now? Do you think about rebuilding the party, the organization? I also know that you and the Ombudsman Lyudmyla Denisova have signed a memorandum of cooperation to combat torture in Ukrainian prisons.

I was in a very good relationship with all my brethren. I keep in touch with everyone. We have attempted to unify UNSO but this hasn’t led to anything yet.

I have some experience with torture in Russia. In my first conversations with Denisova, I thanked her for doing so much to free our compatriots. Then I asked her if there still is torture in the Ukrainian system. She said, “Oh, plenty of.” As my good acquaintances Andriy Mamalyha and Ihor Mazur work in Denisova’s Secretariat, the idea came up that I and my freed brethren set up a human rights organization to fight with torture in Ukraine. We have created the Ukrainian Center for the Prevention of Torture. We have signed a memorandum with the Secretariat of the Commissioner for Human Rights within the framework of the national preventive mechanism which is also called "Ombudsman+" when public representatives are involved in monitoring.

Several monitoring activities have already been carried out. We started with the Lukyanivske pre-trial detention center in Kyiv. I had to go through many prisons in Russia. To the disgrace of Ukrainians, the Lukyanivske pre-trial detention partly has worse conditions than the pre-trial detention center in Izhevsk. The “Katka” building is the oldest one, built under [Empress of Russia] Catherine II. It is not suitable for the detention of people. The walls there are full of fungus, and it poses a threat not only to prisoners but also to the staff of the facility.

The main problem is that I do not see any steps from the Ministry of Justice to ensure a proper system of detention of prisoners.

Do you plan to create another patriotic organization or party in Ukraine, or maybe join one? Have you had offers? 

I am currently working on the creation of the Ukraine Development Center, which I worked on before the Euromaidan protests. We have already managed to do some things. In the future, a broad socio-political movement should be formed around this center.

It should form politicians and our national political elite, seek power, develop ideas.

Former political prisoner Mykola Karpiuk during a press conference in Kyiv, September 17, 2019. Photo: Ratynski Vyacheslav / UNIAN

The first thing the Ukraine Development Center should do is form a true Ukrainian system. We need to form our social Ukrainian system, on the basis of which the Ukrainian state will be reformed. I see a healthy family, dominated by love for each other, where everyone takes their place and benefits the family as a prototype of this social system. This family is run by parents who see the continued development of the family as a whole and each member of the family as the purpose of their lives.

Another prisoner transfer has been announced the President's chief-of-staff, at a press briefing on March 31. The transfer, with prisoners held by the so-called 'Luhansk' and 'Donetsk People's Republic', may occur in 10 days to two weeks, said the chief-of-staff, Andriy Yermak. While the transfer list has yet to be finalized, earlier reports have stated that Ukraine listed 200 names for future transfers.

/ Interview by Anastasia Stanko, translated by Vladyslav Kudryk