Organising for peace in Ukraine: an interview with Nina Potarska

Why is a ceasefire and a move of the conflict into a peaceful phase an issue? Can we not hold negotiations? Is a ceasefire bad – do we need more fighting? No one is asking anyone to yield their ground. We’re not even talking about the fact that we want peace. Because the word “peace” is taboo, because as soon as you say it people start throwing stones at you. We deliberately avoid the word during our discussions, and talk instead about security and dialogue – although dialogue can be tricky as well.

Nevertheless, our petition is actively attracting signatures. If I’m being honest, I don’t even know who these people are. The interesting thing for me is seeing how the number will grow over a month, perhaps, without any deliberate promotion. People are also often afraid to spread it around. I imagined that signing a petition was in itself a way of creating a pool of people who would feel they weren’t alone in their opinions and would take at least a micro-step and demonstrate some activity. This is perhaps the safest form of activity you can have – a lot safer than taking to the streets.

One idea that you’ve been talking about for many years is the need to attract women to the peace process. Why do you see this as important? And how do women’s perspectives differ from those of men?

The simplest explanation is about socialisation and the different experiences that people carry with them. For example, there are no provisions for women’s hygiene needs at checkpoints, as if women stop having periods in wartime. If women were involved in decision-making, issues like this would immediately disappear. When we discuss peace with other women, we talk about medical issues and education, whereas when we talk about security with men, it’s all about arms and fighting. These are the two perspectives that we bring to the resolution of the conflict. And if we are to introduce some balance into the needs of the various factions, we need to include a “women’s” perspective at the conference table.

Women, of course, face a load of both challenges and opportunities working within the conflict. In my first two years in my job, I travelled around with a male friend, but then I realised that it was calmer and safer to work alone. He was just an extra headache: they made him undress at every checkpoint and then check for any sign of weapons on him and so on. They also kept asking him: “Why didn’t you serve in the army?” When you get into a difficult situation, with aggressive talk, they’ll yell at me, but if they engage a male colleague it always ends in a fight. Women can even pass through ordinary checkpoints without even showing their ID. These are stereotypes, but they work in our favour, so we may as well exploit the situation.

How does the government view the idea of women’s involvement?

We now have gender mainstreaming, which was supported by the previous government – it in fact made a lot of political capital from it. And it has been taken up by the current one as well. On the one hand, it’s a handy means of communication, but on the other it raises a lot of issues. UN Resolution 1325 “Women, peace and security” covers four main areas, but they are presented here in a warped perspective.

When people ask us at seminars whether we know Resolution 1325 and we say “Yes, of course”. But when they ask what it’s about, the only response is, “that we need more women in the army”. But that article only makes up a sixteenth of the agenda in general, and it’s all we know. So while perhaps it’s good that they have engaged with the issue, it’s bad that the focus was so unbalanced. The idea behind this agenda was to broaden the concept of security from state security to human security, but they just added a bit about women to the state security section.

This agenda really needs to be expanded. Now things seem to be swinging a little in our direction, and we are now more often on the guest list. It used to be that people with alternative ideas were either ignored or excluded from the discussion. And we are now trying to bring new factors to bear on Resolution 1325.

Resolution 1325 is a framework for basic human needs. Satisfying these needs in terms of comfort and socio-economic guarantees inevitably entails conflict: conflicts arise out of an unequal share of power and the fight for it. Putting Resolution 1325 into practice is a way of trying to equalise conflicting factors in order to remove contradictions.

The opportunity to incite conflict in a prosperous society is limited. In a milieu where representative institutions have an important function, it’s not easy to create conditions where a society will break down. It’s essential to have democracy and the opportunity to take part in decision-making, where the interests of different groups are taken into account and people feel they have a role in the creation of a society’s future. The people won’t vote with their feet or resort to ideas of external support. Why should they if they can influence situations, whether at governmental, village or city level?

What can you tell us about the mood in the uncontrolled territories?

People have their own opinions on that, and I can’t talk about percentages: it’s not my thing. I try to guess people’s needs from what they say to me. Words are, for me. just an attempt to demonstrate these needs.

A couple of weeks ago, I read a post in a Luhansk Facebook group where a woman had received a Russian passport. She was so happy that she had finally managed to be part of a structure, a government, and felt a belonging and protection. I didn’t see it as a desire to distance herself from Ukraine, but rather a confirmation of the fact that she had spent five years trying to be protected by some state structure and hadn’t found any in either Ukraine or the self-proclaimed “Luhansk People’s Republic”. But now she had the hope of finally acquiring civic status, with a passport that would allow her to move around freely and receive social security payments.

The problem is that in terms of recognising different opinions in the official agenda, we have crossed out a large group of the population. And they feel excluded and demeaned and the uncertainty of their lives has given them an imposed feeling of guilt. They also experience humiliation at a structural-state level when they have to pass through checkpoints in order to receive their pensions. This is a series of humiliations which they finally want to be rid of. I feel that the desire of that woman to have a Russian passport had nothing to do with love for Russia, but being able to stop feeling she was a second-class citizen.

How do you see the future? Can there be a de-escalation of the conflict?

For the moment, everything is moving towards de-escalation. Even at the level of official Ukrainian rhetoric. I feel we’re having conversations now that we never had before, even amongst human rights defenders. We have met, discussed, but said neutral things aloud. We have been trying to create some kind of agenda for five years now, but have only just begun to formulate it. I’m not 100% behind every point of the petition, but I would simply like to be able to discuss them all.

This interview with Nina Potarskaya took place under the auspices of the Memory Guides: Information Resources for Peaceful Conflict Transformation project at Berlin’s Centre for Independent Social Research with support from the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and is part of the Expanding Cooperation with Civil Society in the Eastern Partnership Countries and Russia programme.

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