Two days from the May 11 referendum in Donetsk and Luhansk, the Kiev authorities, unable to crush the uprising in the Donbas, are stepping up the war hysteria, curtailing democratic rights and incorporating fascist paramilitaries into the state apparatus. Meanwhile there are signs of growing working class activity in the areas under the control of the rebels.
Kiev is unable to recover control of the Donbas. It is now one week into the third wave of the “Anti Terror Operation” launched and it has been unable to achieve any of its aims. None of the major urban centres under the control of the Peoples’ Republic have been retaken (Sloviansk, Kramatorsk, Lugansk, Donetsk). From the point of view of Kiev the situation has worsened, with more urban centres being taken over by the rebels in both provinces.
Once again, on Friday 2 May, we saw Ukrainian troops (from the Ministry of the Interior, National Guard and the Army) surrounded by unarmed civilians in the outskirts of Sloviansk and refusing to advance. Journalists witnessed an officer confessing to the locals that he “had been sent to fight separatists, but what I have found are the people - and I will not fire against the people.” To add to the humiliation, two Army helicopters were downed by the rebels in Sloviansk.
Nearby Kramatorsk also witnessed similar scenes. Unarmed civilians met the advancing APCs with shouts of “fascists” and “shame” and forced them to retreat. A top government spokesperson clearly described the reason for the inability of Kiev to recover control of the Donbas when he said that the army was being treated as “enemy forces” and that they were operating, in effect, in “enemy territory”.
This is a correct assessment, and one which contradicts the propaganda spewed from Kiev to the effect that these towns and cities are under the control of Russian special forces and their paid agents and provocateurs. If it was a question of a few Russian agents, then it would be relatively simple for Kiev to recover control. The truth is that the uprising in the Donbas is not the result of the machinations in the Kremlin and is not under its direct control (though of course, Russian agents are undoubtedly present). The uprising has deep social roots as we have explained in previous articles.
You can see that just by glancing at the program of the Donetsk Republic. A leaflet which was given out on April 25 in Sloviansk contained a list of demands combining democratic issues (language rights, democratic election of governors, banning extreme right wing organisations) with economic demands centered around the idea of local control over resources. This leaflet ended up with a rallying cry for the self organisation of the masses in the struggle for a better life: “Stop waiting! Let’s act! Only we can improve our lives!”
In the last few days we have seen the movement’s anti-oligarch character emerge more clearly. In Donetsk, Mariupol, Enakievo, etc,demonstrators have attacked prominent symbols of the economic power of the oligarchs: offices belonging to oligarch Kolomoisky (appointed by the new Kiev government as governor of Dnepopretosk); the Donbas Industrial Union, in which local oligarch and Kiev appointed governor of Donetsk, Serhiy Taruta, has important interests; and now in the industrial and mining city of Enakievo, miners and steelworkers occupied a major steel mill owned by the region’s most important oligarch and former supporter of Yanukovich, Rinat Akhmetov (See video below).
Since the end of April there has been a growing participation of different groups of workers in the movement. The strike of Kranodonugol miners was defeated with the collaboration of the trade union bureaucracy, but not before the company, Akhmetov-controlled Metinvest, was forced to promise 20% wage increases, a promise which it has made extensive to other workers employed by the same conglomerate.
On Wednesday, miners from Makeevka, Ugledar and Skochinski marched to Donetsk to express their support for the people’s Republic. Some of them took the day off, while others took illegal strike action. Similar scenes were seen in Luhansk, where miners from Krasnyi Luch have travelled to the regional capital and declared that they want to join the armed self-defence groups.
In Enakievo thousands of miners and steelworkers demanded to be allowed to join the Donbass Peoples’ Militia without fear of reprisals. In Krasnodonugol a strike was sparked by the threat of dismissal of workers who participated in pro-referendum rallies. In all of these cases, the big companies have attempted to keep politics at bay, threatening workers with dismissal if they participate in political meetings and banning any assemblies in the factories.
It seems that slowly but surely, the working class is starting to enter the scene. Workers in these areas have much to lose if Ukraine signs the treaty with the EU, and the strings attached to the IMF bailout are a direct threat to their livelihoods.
They also have a strong feeling of their own power. They remember how the Donbas miners’ strikes played a key role in the past. During the uprising in Enakievo a miner was quoted as saying:
“How much can we put up with? We aren’t trash, as the self-proclaimed Kiev regime calls us. We’re simple working people. But the time has now come for us to act, not to sit around at home hoping someone will do everything for us. Our whole brigade is here, we came after the end of our shift. We’re going to defend the city. And if anyone is scared of getting the sack, let them remember that our strength is in our unity. Just let them try to touch a single rank-and-file mineworker!"
This same feeling was reflected in a leaflet distributed in Sloviansk and other cities which is worth quoting at length, because it is indicative of the mood amongst a section of the working class in the region:
“An appeal to students, miners, and workers:
Fellow citizens, we stand for the rights to be a free people, for the right to think and speak our mother tongue, the right to a decent life, and not just survival from payday to payday.
Remember how we stood in a united front at the time of the miners' strikes in 1989 and 1993, then we forced them to hear our voices, but did not take things to their conclusion.
We are those who were banging their miners helmets [miners in Ukraine banged their helmets on the pavement expressing protest]. We and our children remember the past. How long are you going to wait for a better life? Maybe it's time to take power into our own hands, instead of listening to sell-out politicians?
We have the opportunity to change our life for the better. Not all enterprises have been pillaged yet, not all industry has been destroyed, and we are a hard-working people, and next to us there is a neighbour - a great country which is lending its hand to help.
It is exactly against this that the new slave-owners are against, they who have tried to scare us, for in the new republic [i.e. Donetsk People’s republic], there is no place for them.” English translation of a leaflet distributed on April 25 in Sloviansk (Our emphasis)
The most important idea contained in these lines is correct: only the workers themselves, through collective action have the power to make their lives better. The leaflet expresses a deep rooted hatred of the oligarchs and politicians which have ruined the country. Of course, these advanced ideas are mixed with a naïve believe that somehow Russia will come to their help! Well, anyone who thinks that the mass of ordinary workers will come into political activity without any prejudices and even reactionary ideas will never see a revolutionary movement. Let us not forget that the 1905 revolution (in which, of course, Odessa played a key role) started on Bloody Sunday, with a demonstration of workers carrying icons and portraits of the Czar, led by a priest who was also a police agent.
That there should be confusion and a mix of progressive and reactionary ideas is not only understandable but also inevitable in the absence of any genuine left wing organisation rooted amongst the mass of workers in the region. However, illusions in Russia, as strong as there might be, can also dissipate very quickly under the hammer blows of events. When Putin announced that he recommended for the regional referendums to be postponed, the reaction of ordinary people in Sloviansk (under siege for a week) and Donetsk was furious. A Spanish journalist in Sloviansk asked people in the city’s central market (which has now been renationalised) about this and the rejection of Putin’s advice was unanimous. “Whatever Putin says we will vote for our independence. Our people have not died in vain,” said one of them. Sasha added: “Putin is the president of Russia, we are the Peoples Republic of Donetsk. I don’t care about his statements.”
Of course, there was an element of diplomatic maneuvering on Putin’s part: he advised that the referendums be postponed, but also that Kiev must withdraw its troops and give guarantees to the people in the region. This is something which Kiev was bound to reject straight away, as it did, thus giving Putin the moral high ground of being able to say: “I attempted to get ‘my’ side to make concessions, but Kiev wouldn’t play ball.” Furthermore this allows Putin to drive an even bigger wedge between the US and its European allies, who have much to lose by imposing sanctions on Russia.
However Putin’s proposal also reflects his real intentions. For all the propaganda of the Kiev authorities, the truth is that the Kremlin has no interest in taking over the east of Ukraine. It is one thing to take over Crimea, where it has an important naval base, tens of thousands of troops and an overwhelming majority of the population in favour of annexation. It is a very different proposition to take over a large territory, with powerful industries to maintain, a population where a section might mount armed resistance, while at the same time provoking real economic sanctions from the US which could hit the Russian economy.
What would be an ideal situation from Putin’s point of view, is a united Ukraine in which he wields de facto veto powers on all important decisions. A federalised country would be one way of achieving such a status. Above all Russia cannot allow a Ukraine ruled by the current gang of oligarchs and gangsters who are prepared to go all the way in joining the EU and NATO as well. The previous gang of thieves, under Yanukovitch, proved more amenable to Russian pressure and money.
It was in the middle of the latest offensive by Kiev against Sloviansk that the Odessa massacre took place. According to official figures, probably an underestimation, a total of 46 people were killed and hundreds injured. The authorities have refused to publish a full list of those who were killed.
The official version of events, and that which the Western media has mostly repeated, is that a peaceful demonstration of football supporters for Ukraine’s national unity was attacked by armed “pro-Russians”. The enraged football fans then moved to the Kulikovo field where they destroyed a “pro-Russian” camp. The “pro-Russians” then barricaded themselves inside the Trade Union house which they “accidentally” set on fire, leading to dozens being killed by smoke inhalation, fire or jumping out of windows. Not only this, but prominent government figures originally spread the lie that inside the building there were Russian and Transnistrian citizens. These lying statements were never rectified even after the police announced that all the victims whose bodies had been identified were Odessa residents.
These are the statements of the same Interior Ministry which said that neonazi Right Sector leader Muzhichko had shot himself in the heart, when initial police reports said he had been arrested alive.
In order to cover up what really happened, the Ukrainian government has resorted to a combination of lies and half truths. To start with the demonstration was not as harmless as the official story claims. It had been called by groups of football hooligans who are known for their extreme right-wing views, and also by a number of Right Sector neo-nazi political organisations (Sotni 14, the Social-Nationalist Assembly) and the extreme right wing Maidan Self-Defence. Far from being a peaceful crowd, there were large numbers who had come with the intention of teaching the “moskals” (Russians) a lesson and raze the “pro-Russian” camp at Kulikovo. A section of the crowd were chanting “Glory to Ukraine - Death to the Enemy” from the beginning.
This happened a few days after events in Kharkov on 27 April, where fascists and football ultras chased and beat up civilians and anti-Maidan activists (See video below). Similar scenes occurred in Donetsk. All of these were fascist provocations carried out under the guise of football supporters marching for the unity of Ukraine.
In the Odessa incident the operation was more advanced. The fascists and football hooligans were attacked by a number of people wearing red arm bands, some of them carrying handguns and even one submachine gun. Some of the police present were also wearing the red arm bands and the civilians shooting at the Ukraine unity crowd did so from within police lines without being disturbed. This suggests that it was a provocation and a set up. By firing on the Ukraine nationalists supporters and killing some of them, they were enraged and directed towards the Kulikovo field where anti-government supporters had camped. In this way the police used the fascists to achieve their aim of destroying the camp.
When the right wing crowd reached Kulikovo shouting “Glory to Ukraine, death to the enemy”, those at the camp, who had nothing to do with the earlier attack, sought refuge inside the Trade Union building behind it. The camp was destroyed and burnt and molotov cocktails were thrown into the building. Where was the peaceful “march for unity”? One does not throw molotov cocktails at a building, while shouting “death to the enemy” with the aim of having a peaceful chat with those inside!
One of the Maidan Self Defence chiefs was captured in video shooting at the windows as people were trying to escape the fire and fumes (See video).
Some who were trapped inside died because of the toxic fumes, others were burnt alive, but there are clear indications that some were shot or beaten to death and in one case even strangled by a group of fascist thugs that had gained access to the building, through a side entrance.
Finally, when some of those inside the building managed to come out, they were kicked and punched, and, in one case at least, a person who had survived jumping off a third floor window was then beaten with a stick by a fascist. According to the left wing organisation Borotba, this is the way in which one of their members, Andrei Brazhevskogo, was killed. The police has not been able to produce any evidence that any of those killed were armed. Survivors were then taken into police vans and arrested. None of those responsible for attacking the building were detained.
What happened here was a massacre of unarmed civilians by fascist thugs. Some of these fascist murderers belong to organisations which are part of the current government, others are being recruited by the government into the newly established National Guard in order to “combat separatism”.
Two days later an angry anti-government crowd of about 1,000 people marched on the Interior Ministry buildings in Odessa and forced the release of a large section of the detained survivors. Part of the police guarding the building threw away their shields and refused to defend it (See video below).
This was answered by a mobilisation of about 2,000 fascists, dominated by the Right Sector, who marched to the police station. The newly appointed police chief of Odessa, Katerinchuk, came out and spoke to the reactionary thugs saying, “we are against those who are promoting separatism and the splitting of Ukraine. I think that is where we are united (VIDEO).” Amongst the fascist thugs present was the Self-Defence chief who had fired at the windows of the Trade Union house (see video below at 0 minutes and 53 seconds ). Of course, he was not arrested.
Immediately after the Odessa massacre, Kiev moved to regain full control of the state apparatus in the province. A new governor was swiftly appointed, Igor Palitsa, who is a close associate of oligarch Komoloisky, the governor of Dnipropetrovsk, who has offered a $10,000 reward for any separatist captured. Clearly the police which allowed anti-government protesters to release those arrested from the jail could not be trusted and so the special battalion Kiev-1 of the National Guard has been sent to take over policing in the city.
Cleansing of the state apparatus
We must bear in mind that the National Guard has recently been reformed as a way of incorporating the fascist paramilitary thugs of the Right Sector, Svoboda and others into the state apparatus. This serves several purposes: on the one hand it keeps the fascist mad dogs busy and prevents them from turning against the government (as they threatened to do after the state murder of Muzhichko), on the other hand it gives Kiev reliable shock troops which will not fraternise with the population or defect to the rebels. This is a preparation for massacres against the civilian population.
A taste of what is to come was seen in Mariupol on 8 May: national guard troops who had taken over the local council building from the rebels then proceeded to open fire against the unarmed civilians who were challenging them. This time they fired warning shots, next time there will be a massacre.
In fact, the new authorities in Kiev, having come to power with the crucial help of the fascist thugs and basing themselves on whipping up the patriotic fervour of just one section of the population, do not really command the loyalty of the state apparatus. In city after city in Donetsk and Lugansk the police and ministry of interior forces either joined the rebels or posed no resistance. In Sloviansk and Krematorsk army troops have fraternised with civilians.
The regime needs to rebuild the state apparatus and this is already happening. Ten battalions of the National Guard have already been formed and some are active in the “Anti Terrorist Operation” in the east. The recruitment drive, published on the Ministry of the Interior website, insists on patriotism as a main requisite for joining. The Right Sector nazis have actually declared that they suspended their presidential campaign and moved their national headquarters to Dnipropetrovsk “to be closer to the action”. On April 29, members of Right Sector organisation C14 marched in Maidan, with nazi symbols and torches to mark their “leaving for the eastern front” (See video below). When asked by Maidan Self Defence - whose leader is Andreyi Parubyi, currently secretary of the National Defence and Security Council - to take off their balaclavas, a fight broke out in which both groups of right wing hooligans used bats and guns. The reason why they refused to take their masks off was precisely because they were going to the east and they feared being recognised.
A new elite unit of the police has been formed - the black men - who carried out “anti-terrorist” operations killing anti-government civilians at checkpoints, etc. Many of these are Right Sector nazis. This is the unit which captured the Donetsk Republic minister of defence on May 7, and paraded him naked in front of TV cameras. The maverick extreme right wing MP Oleg Lyashko in black military fatigues, was directly involved in the operation and interrogated the prisoner (see video).
The day before, this same MP had moved a motion in Parliament to expel the Communist Party faction from a closed door meeting on the anti-terrorist operation. The vote was passed. The increased patriotic and chauvinist rhetoric that the government has adopted, leads inevitably towards severe curtailing of the democratic freedoms of anyone who disagrees with the government, as they are immediately branded as the enemy. The Communist Party - which as we have explained before is not Communist at all - is in fact not “separatist”, and has said so publicly. But this does not matter, they are the enemy and must be banned and driven out.
In many cities in the west, Communist Party offices have been torched or closed down by neo-nazi militants. On May 8, in Volyn, the Right Sector and the authorities decided to close down the headquarters of the Communist Party and banned anyone from using “provocative symbols” - such as the red flag and the St George ribbon - on Victory Day which marks the capitulation of Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union.
On the same day, the Kharkov offices of the left wing organisation Borotba were raided by unidentified armed police officers, who did not even bother to show a search warrant. The flat of the chief editor of left wing website Liva.com.ua Andryi Manchuk was also raided on the same day.
This is the kind of regime which is being supported by Washington. Any idea that the more extreme and unpalatable elements within it were going to be curtailed or disarmed has now changed into its opposite: the more extreme elements are being brought directly into the state apparatus. All the talk of “the democratic gains of Maidan” and regime change bringing democracy to Ukraine has evaporated like a drop of water on a hot stove. What we have in the Ukraine are all the elements of white terror directed mainly against the working class.
According to the Western media, the new government in Kiev was supposed to be a transitional government, carrying out the painful preparatory measures for an IMF-EU bailout and then stepping down in favour of a more legitimate government coming out of the presidential election on May 25. Instead, by its provocative actions, the Kiev government is dragging Ukraine towards the abyss of civil war. However, the reactionary chauvinist fervour is only very superficial. The uprising in the east cut across these plans.
The situation is going from bad to worse. The main responsibility lies squarely with imperialism, which deliberately set out to destabilise Ukraine and draw it away from Russian influence. The result has been an unmitigated disaster for all the people in the Ukraine. The political, social and military instability has turned what was already an economic mess into a catastrophe. The consequences for all Ukrainians, whether Russian or Ukrainian speakers, will be severe.
The IMF forecasts a 5% collapse of GDP in 2014, on top of an already frightful economic decline. Sooner or later the government will be faced with a double problem: 1) the inability to win the war - which is a serious blow to a government sustained on chauvinist hysteria, 2) the impact of the collapse of the economy on the population of the centre and west of the country.
In the east as well, Russian nationalism sooner or later will be undercut by the fact that Putin is not really interested in absorbing the Donbas. In the first place, he does not want to pay the bill for restructuring outdated industrial plants and subsidising an empoverish population. More importantly, he does not want to face a restless population and an increasingly assertive working class. However, the situation is explosive and unpredictable.
Neither Kiev nor Moscow are fully in control of events and Washington has even less control than either of them. Between them they have conjured up forces which they cannot control. Despite Putin’s evident reluctance, a massacre of civilians in Sloviansk or Mariupol could force him to invade.
The position of revolutionary Marxists in this situation needs to be clear:
- against imperialist intervention - neither Washington, Berlin nor Moscow will solve the problems of working people in the Ukraine
- down with the murderous Kiev government which is waging a war on its own people
- for the self organisation and self rule of Ukrainian workers, united above language and national barriers.