Worlds of Education

Guy Bell  / Shutterstock / Isopix
Guy Bell / Shutterstock / Isopix

War in Europe: Unions must stand together to defend democracy

published 11 March 2022 updated 23 March 2022
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" We know that they lie;

They know that they lie;

They know that we know that they lie;

We know that they know that we know that they lie;

And yet they persist lying."

Aleksandr Isajevitsj Solzhenitsyn (1918-2008)

A crime of aggression

Vladimir Putin could not have done more justice to Solzhenitsyn’s cynical observation. On 24 February he justified his “military operation” by falsely claiming that in the past eight years the regime in Kyiv had committed genocide against the ethnic Russians in the Donbas, and that the Ukraine was to be demilitarized and de-nazified.

Two days earlier, on 22 February, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) had posted on their websites a statement about the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. They called “for an immediate end to hostilities and conflict in eastern Ukraine, and (for) good-faith negotiations to resolve the crisis in the interests of the people”. Calling upon the two countries to immediately end hostilities was as misplaced as such a call would have been to Germany and Poland on 31 August 1939 one day prior to Hitler’s invasion of Poland. On 22 February, our friends from the ITUC and ETUC could have already ascertained that Mr. Putin would, once again, invade Ukraine. The only question was whether he would go for the occupation of the two Ukraine rebel regions Donetsk and Luhansk or head directly to Kyiv to subdue the entire country. As we now know, he chose the latter.

One explanation for their inappropriate statement could be that ITUC and ETUC leaders did not want to offend the largest ITUC Russian member organization, the FNPR, but it is more likely that they shared the naiveté, real or feigned, of some Western politicians concerning Mr. Putin’s intentions - despite his invasion of Georgia in 2008, the annexation of the Crimea in 2014, and the serious deterioration of civic rights in Russia during his tenure.

Fortunately, on 25 February, ITUC and ETUC posted a second statement clearly condemning Mr. Putin’s crime of aggression.

That is exactly what millions of people around the world have been witnessing in the past two weeks. Not a war between the peoples of Russia and Ukraine, but a crime of aggression committed by Mr. Putin, the autocrat who appears to be living in a reality that exists only in his mind, and who seems to believe that he can, with impunity, redraw the map of Europe and shake up the world order.

War is cruel and ugly by itself. But when civilians and civilian infrastructure are targeted and when cluster munitions and other banned means of destruction are deployed to create havoc and terror, war becomes a crime against humanity. The hundreds and thousands of people, mainly women and children, trying to escape their homes, bear witness of the ruthlessness of Mr. Putin’s war machine. Education International has expressed its solidarity with the Ukrainian education unions and is providing support to these organizations. The Trade Union of Education and Science Workers of Ukraine (TUESWU) have asked their global union to persuade NATO to close the skies over their country. They have reported that in the first ten days of the war more than three thousand civilians, including children, have lost their lives, while residential areas, hospitals, and schools in many parts of the country have been bombed. According to the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA) over 210 educational facilities have been damaged or destroyed, since the invasion of the Ukraine began on February 24. The nationwide closure of schools and education institutions has affected the entire school-aged population – 5.7 million students between 3 and 17 years old, and more than 1.5 million enrolled in higher education institutions.

The no-fly zone dilemma

The response of the international community has been loud and clear. On 2 March, a special session of the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution - with 141 countries in favor, 5 countries against and 35 abstentions - demanding that the Russian Federation immediately end its illegal use of force in Ukraine and withdraw all troops. An astounding unity shown by NATO and EU member states resulted in stiff sanctions imposed on Mr. Putin and his entourage with the purpose of hurting the Russian war chest. Never has a UN member state been hit with such severe sanctions. However, pleas made by the Ukrainian government to NATO to impose a no-fly zone over their territory, were rejected. This rejection raises the question of what line must be crossed by Mr. Putin before Western democracies intervene directly and with force? The explanation given is that Ukraine lies beyond NATO borders and that a war with Mr. Putin is to be avoided at all costs. This weak and unsatisfactory response may strengthen Mr. Putin in his view that he can defy international law and walk right over Ukraine causing death and destruction without the risk of a military response beyond the valiant, if lonely, struggle of brave Ukrainian soldiers and civilian volunteers.

It should be recalled that in 1999, when Serbian and Yugoslav armed forces terrorized the Albanian speaking population of Kosovo forcing them to flee their country to neighboring Macedonia and Albania, NATO did take action outside its borders. It carried out an aerial bombing campaign over Belgrade forcing the Serbian President Milošević to withdraw his troops from the autonomous Serbian province. While there are some remarkable similarities between the Russian-Ukrainian war and the Kosovo conflict (Milosevic’s pretext for taking military action was to protect the Serbian speaking minority living in Kosovo against the Albanian--speaking Kosovars), there is, of course, an important difference. Mr. Milošević had no nuclear arms to bully the world.

Eruption of solidarity

Public opinion in western countries, fed by images of war, of brave Ukrainians resisting Mr. Putin’s war machine, of indiscriminate shelling of civilians, and of an estimated two million refugees, almost instantly turned against Russia. Large demonstrations all over Europe and North America showed an eruption of solidarity with the Ukrainian people.

Europe opened its borders to take in large numbers of refugees. Countries such as Poland and Hungary which were always reluctant or even refused EU calls to open their borders for refugees from Syria and other places of war, are now hosting the bulk of Ukrainian refugees.

Global union federations and national trade unions in Europe launched solidarity campaigns in support of their colleagues in Ukraine. Many other initiatives were taken. For example, on 28 February, the Lithuanian Education and Science Trade Union organized a national lesson for all schools in their country on the history of Ukraine to counter the historical falsehoods used by Mr. Putin to justify his invasion.

Little solidarity has been shown with the Russians who are or will also be victims of this conflict. Most Russians are against war but are afraid to dissent and are constantly misinformed by the state media. The few independent media in Russia which have published and broadcast more balanced and accurate information about the war have been shut down, leaving the Russian people at the mercy of Mr. Putin’s propaganda machine. Not only do the Russian people suffer from the financial sanctions, but they are also hit by private boycott initiatives, some of which are unwarranted. Individual athletes being banned from the Paralympics, football clubs being thrown out of UEFA, cancelation of Russian theatre groups, and interruption of student exchange programs. What good does that do? Russophobia is not the answer. This is an attack by Mr. Putin on the liberal democracy of the Ukraine and to some extent it is also an attack on what remains of Russian democracy.

There were demonstrations against the war in many Russian cities, which prompted thousands of arrests and a new law imposing 15-year sentences for spreading information that goes against the Russian government’s position on the “special military operation” in Ukraine. Among the Russians who came together to protest the war were five thousand teachers who signed an open letter addressed to Mr. Putin. They stressed that

The war with Ukraine is not our war. The invasion of Ukraine began on behalf of Russian citizens, but against our will. We are teachers, and violence is at odds with the very essence of our profession. In the heat of war, our students will perish. The war will inevitably lead to an aggravation of the social problems of our country. We support the anti-war protests and demand an immediate ceasefire.”

The initiators were to remove the open letter from their “Teachers Against War website” after Mr. Putin further curtailed freedom of speech on 4 March. These restrictions as well as the arrest of Russian protesters, not to mention the scanning by policemen of text messages on people’s smart phones in the streets of Moscow are the Orwellian signs of a police state.

A democratic future for Russia

Ordinary Russians need to be encouraged and assisted to protect their own democratic rights rather than to be pushed away, alienating them from the rest of Europe. This is also to be kept in mind by the trade union movement. Russian labor unions, like other trade unions in the former Soviet Union, joined the international free trade union movement in the early nineties of the last century. Although recognized as independent organizations, most were never entirely free from government interference. Their independence, to the extent that it existed, was often restricted to the industrial sector they represented. The Russian education union, for example, has been able to function independently as a professional union. With Putin’s autocratic traits gradually taking hold of Russia’s “guided democracy”, trade unions are walking on eggs. Worse, some feel pressured to support their President’s plans. On 24 February, the Russian trade union confederation FNPR, to the consternation of their European sister organizations, even published a statement endorsing Mr. Putin’s “military operation”. Ukrainian and other European members of ITUC/ETUC immediately demanded that the Russian organization be expelled from the global and European trade union movement. Although their anger and indignation are widely shared, these feelings should not lead to hasty expulsions. On the contrary, they should intensify dialogue with the Russian labor movement which represents a tremendous potential for democratic change. Asking them today to publicly speak out against their President’s war crimes is feeding them to the wolves. Turning our backs to them would be like giving up hope on a democratic future for Russia in Europe.

Democracy vs autocracy

Future generations of schoolchildren will be called on to memorize the date of 24 February 2022 as the day that a young and fragile democracy was raided by an authoritarian regime known for its contempt of western democracies, which, the regime believes, are “weak, chaotic and depraved”. In the past decade, Mr. Putin has tried to create division and undermine democracy in Europe and the Americas by supporting extreme right-wing parties, launching cyber-attacks, spreading fake news and manipulating elections. In an astonishingly chilling sermon given on 6 March the head of the Russian-Orthodox church, a Putin ally, supported the Russian invasion. Patriarch Kirill told his Moscow audience that the military operation was about no less than “the salvation of mankind”. He said that Ukraine wanted to belong to a club of countries that support gay rights, thus being forced to “sin” and deny “God and his Truth”.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine is of course not a religious conflict, but a clash between two political systems - democracy and autocracy - with the Ukrainian people in the forefront. Irrespective of its outcome – there will be serious geopolitical consequences.

Perhaps, the tragedy befalling the Ukrainian people today will create more awareness among people living in democracies around the world of the vulnerability of their political systems and of the imperative to uphold and protect the democratic values that they share. This awakening, however, should not only be expressed by boosting defense budgets but also by making life better and fairer for everyone. The danger of disinformation campaigns supported by Russian, Chinese and other autocratic rulers is that they may convince people that democracy does not and cannot work. Healthy skepticism is good. Destructive cynicism is dangerous. It leads to polarization, fans hatred, and incites people to drop out of democracy. Perhaps the courage of Ukrainians risking their lives to save their democracy will inspire those living in free countries to take the trouble to go vote and to become active citizens so that authoritarian forces will not steal their democracies without firing a shot.

Education and democracy

Teachers have a vital role to build understanding of democratic values, encourage critical thinking, and develop active citizens. The 8th World Congress of EI in Bangkok rang alarm bells about the erosion of democracy. For that occasion, we produced a book, based on experience of member organizations, “ Education & Democracy, 25 Lessons from the Teaching Profession.” In the preface to the book, the historian Timothy Snyder, succinctly describes education’s democracy mission:

Democracy depends upon a common world that we can all try to understand together. If the people are to rule, which is what democracy means, the people must see and grasp and share and improve the world around them.

All of this is possible, but none of it is automatic. Such a world can only be made by teachers and the schools and unions that support them.

If we want democracy, we have to demand it, and we have to be able to educate children who will make and remake it.”

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.