Marxists and the conflict in the Ukraine: Both sides are reactionary! Fight for workers' alternative

This article was written at the time of the "Orange Revolution" ten years ago. It explained all the contradictions already present in the situation which led to the present impasse.

The conflict in the Ukraine is being presented by the Western media as one of democracy versus authoritarianism. In reality it is a struggle between two capitalist camps, one that favours closer links to Russia, the other that wants closer links with Western imperialism. Neither of them offer a solution to the problems of the Ukrainian workers.

The situation in the Ukraine is extremely tense. Viktor Yanukovich was declared the winner in Sunday’s presidential second round elections. He is seen by all as the pro-Moscow man. Viktor Yushchenko, the openly pro-Western candidate, has challenged the results. It seems clear that significant levels of fraud may have taken place in the elections.

It is an indication of the position that the Ukraine occupies that the major candidates in the presidential elections are seen as either pro-Russian or pro-Western. As the BBC has reported “it is seen as an east-west showdown”. This reveals the weakness of the ruling elite in the Ukraine. It cannot follow an independent road of development and becomes a mere pawn in the struggle between stronger powers. Thus within the ruling circles there is a conflict over which way the country should turn: either build closer links with Russia or openly espouse the West. This is also reflected in the geographic spread of support for the two candidates, with the East leaning towards Russia and the West towards the European Union and the USA.

We have to say clearly that neither Russia nor the West can offer a solution to the problems of the Ukrainian workers. The choice is between two forms of capitalism, neither of which can offer long-term solutions to the people of the Ukraine. Both sides are trying to get control over the Ukraine’s economy. But there is more to it than mere economics. The Ukraine is extremely important from a strategic point of view.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Ukraine broke away and declared independence. At that time Russia was extremely weakened by those events, but since then it has been trying to rebuild its spheres of influence. That is why Putin gave his full support to Viktor Yanukovych against the opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko.

Since 1991 the European Union and NATO have absorbed new members, such as the former Soviet Republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, bringing their sphere of influence right up to Russia’s borders. Another – Georgia – now has a pro-American government. Further east, Kyrgyzstan, now hosts a US military base. In this situation Russia feels encircled and vulnerable. The Kremlin is desperately trying to roll back this process.

The Ukraine is a key element in Putin’s plans to widen and strengthen Russia’s international position. The Joint Economic Space Treaty signed by Belarus, Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine is part of this project. According to the treaty national governments would delegate some of their powers to a body somewhat like the European Commission. Yanukovych backs this plan to the hilt, while Yushchenko would resists this as it implies clearly supporting a wing of the Ukraine bourgeoisie which has close links to the Russian oligarchs and to the Russian regime. For Russia to lose its influence over the Ukraine would have serious political consequence for Putin.

At the moment Yushchenko is being presented by the media as the man who defends genuine democracy and who would lead the people of the Ukraine to wealth and prosperity. But if we look at his track record a different picture emerges. In the past he was far from being an audacious leader of the masses. He was very careful in his moves and was seen as a loyal technocrat. He trained as an accountant, and in 1993 he became head of the national bank of the Ukraine.

Leonid Kuchma became president of the Ukraine in 1994 and was re-elected in November 1999. Kuchma was seen in the west as an obstacle to the “liberalisation” of the economy. They were constantly complaining that the process was too slow and were demanding that the process be speeded up.

Yushchenko loyally served in President Kuchma’s government and in 1998 Yushchenko was appointed Ukrainian prime minister. In that period he gained popularity among western capitalist circles for his efforts to speed up the process of privatisation of Ukraine’s state owned assets. In this he was in constant conflict with other members of the government.

We have to remember that the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the consequent return to capitalism was an absolute disaster for the Ukraine, as for most of the former Soviet Republics. After Russia, the Ukraine was the second most important Republic in economic terms. It provided more than one quarter of Soviet agricultural production. Its heavy industry and raw materials were a key component in the overall development of the former USSR. Now, however, the Ukraine depends heavily on imports of energy, especially natural gas.

After 1991, the Ukrainian Government introduced a legal framework for privatisation, but the process was slow as there was strong resistance among important layers of the bureaucracy. By 1999 production levels had fallen to less than 40% of what they had been in 1991. There was hyperinflation in late 1993.

There was also a growing economic polarisation of society. By 2003 the percentage of the population living below the poverty line had reached 29%. But a minority at the other end of the spectrum was enriching itself. The poorest 10% of the population only consumes 3.7% of national wealth, while the richest 10% consumes 23.2%. Many workers were receiving their wages with long delays. The same was true of the pensioners. The Ukraine experienced desperate poverty and this led to constant emigration. Across Europe Ukrainians are to be found doing many of the jobs at the bottom of the social ladder, jobs that no one else wants to do.

But after almost a decade of economic decline, the Ukrainian economy started to revive in 2000 with an annual growth rate of 6%. This was the first growth since 1991! In 2001 there was a further growth of 9%, and it has continued to grow since then. Salaries and pensions started to be paid on time. This year growth is expected to be around 12.5%.

It must be said however that all this is also leading to inflationary pressures. It already stands at around 11%, and the National Bank of Ukraine has had to raise interest rates from 8% to 9% and whoever takes over now will be forced to introduce even tighter monetary policies. This, combined with economic slowdown on a world scale, will have an impact on the Ukrainian economy and will dash the hopes of many that finally the country is facing economic prosperity. This will have an effect on the political scenario as well, as millions of Ukrainians will lose any illusions they may now have in the present opposition.

As The Economist recently said, “Regardless of the electoral outcome, economic and political reforms are likely to proceed more quickly with the departure of the president, Leonid Kuchma.” This shows the cynicism of the western bourgeois, but it also reveals how thin the line is that divides the opposition from the Kuchma regime. As we have said, it is a question of tempo, of the speed of the process – notv the direction. Whoever will govern will carry out fundamentally similar policies. Yushchenko is also promising the impossible. In a country of just under 50 million he has promised to create five million jobs. Thus he continues the illusion. But he will not be able to do this. Capitalist Ukraine cannot provide these jobs. But this is the music of the future.

For now Yushchenko has benefited from this economic revival. He was seen as being partly responsible for it when he served as prime minister under President Kuchma. The more western inclined liberal opposition wanted him as their leader but he refused. Eventually he came into conflict with Kuchma and in 2001 he was dismissed as prime minister. Yushchenko had linked up with Western business interests. But Kuchma had his power base in the industrial groups of eastern Ukraine, and Western interests were losing out to the Russian and local oligarchs. The main trading partner of the Ukraine is still Russia, with 33% of its imports coming from its neighbour and over 17% of its exports going there. Although, it is also true that a large part of its imports now come from the European Union, something which is reflected in the present conflict.

That explains why Yushchenko moved into opposition. It has nothing to do with democracy. It is about who is to get the spoils from the process of privatisation that started after 1991. It is a conflict between two different capitalist camps. It was in this scenario that Yushchenko decided to accept the offer to become leader of the opposition and thus he became head of the “Our Ukraine” bloc.

Kuchma presided over a long period of economic decline. He is associated with the old nomenklatura and is seen as representing those who have robbed the wealth of the Ukrainian people. Yushchenko is seen as the man who played an important in the economic revival of the Ukraine. In this sense he is an accidental figure. After such a long and deep decline in the economy a revival at some point was inevitable. Yushchenko was simply at the right place at the right time.

He is now the man the West is backing, and they are doing it for a very concrete reason. Through him they hope to break the power of the Russian backed oligarchs, to get greater control over the economy and to pull the Ukraine under their sphere of influence.

Yushchenko says he is pro-western and for the free-market and he would also seek membership of the EU and NATO. But it is a myth that the people he is fighting are totally opposed to this. Let us remember that the Ukraine has taken part in Nato’s “Partnership for Peace” programme and has also declared membership of the EU to be a strategic objective. As far back as 2002 it declared that its intention was to abandon neutrality and apply for NATO membership. Thus Kuchma also has been pushing in this direction. The difference is one of tempo, not of direction.

However, the reaction of NATO was interesting. Although it welcomed this turn, it added that further political, economic and military reforms were needed before any such process could go ahead. This shows that they are not yet convinced that Russia’s hold on the Ukraine has been broken. They want total submission of the Ukrainian ruling elite to the whims of western imperialism. And yet the Ukrainian authorities have already shown their willingness to help the imperialists, in particular the US imperialists. They have sent over 1500 troops to Iraq as part of the force led by Poland, a NATO member. They have also sent troops to Kosovo and Afghanistan. But it isn’t quite enough! The imperialists want total control over the Ukraine and to further isolate Russia.

This brings us to the present situation. In the first round of the recent elections Yushchenko received 39.87% of the votes, slightly more than Yanukovich’s 39.32%. All opinion polls indicated that Yushchenko would win in the second round. But the country’s electoral commission announced that Yanukovich had won by a margin of three percentage points, with 49.4% to Mr Yushchenko’s 46.7%.

This immediately led to mass protests reminiscent of what we have seen in Eastern European countries in the past years. According to some reports up to 200,000 Ukrainians have been protesting outside the parliament building and the number seems to be growing.

The capital, Kiev, is a strong base of support for Yuschenko. It reminds one of the events in Moscow in 1991. But Moscow did not represent the real mood of the whole of Russian society, as was revealed by later events. Today Kiev is probably one of the places that has benefited most from the introduction of capitalism. It will have a high concentration of the petit bourgeois elements, and these will be a significant part of those who are demonstrating now. They believe they have something to gain from a speed up in the process of privatisation and consolidation of capitalism.

These demonstrations do not represent anything progressive, and even less do they represent the real interests of the Ukrainian workers. The country is in fact divided. A significant minority of the population are Russians or use Russian as their first language and are therefore more inclined to support closer links to Russia. Yanukovych in spite of everything still received significant support, especially in the east. Left-wing voters are in fact concentrated in the eastern Russian-speaking regions, where people fear the disruption of economic links and communication between Ukraine and Russia. In fact there have been reports of protests in the east against the opposition. Therefore it is not a clear-cut situation.

What happens next depends on many factors. How big will the movement become? That cannot be predicted. There have been some rumours of a possible general strike taking place. If this were true then it would be an important element in deciding the outcome of the present conflict. The end of Milosevic, after all, was sealed by the movement of the miners in particular. But so far we have not seen any of this in the Ukraine.

Another important factor is how the Ukraine’s security forces will move. On Monday, they seemed to be ready to put down the demonstrations “quickly and firmly”. Last year Shevardnadze in Georgia was hoping for similar help, but was then forced to concede defeat. After all, what is being posed here is not a fundamental change of regime. Whoever comes to power will follow the capitalist road.

Yushchenko has appealed to the police and the army to join the protest movement and not fire on their own people. For now, the reports are that significant numbers of troops are being sent into Kiev in preparation for a showdown. Contradictory messages have been coming from the different sections of the security forces, some even declaring neutrality. In such a scenario it would only need a small force to tip the balance, as occurred in Russia in 1991.

Russia is an important element in the equation. Putin’s first reaction to the election was to declare that it had been “fair”, a clear message to the West that Russia is going to defend its interests in the Ukraine. The last thing Putin wants is a Georgian scenario.

Meanwhile western imperialism is mounting big pressure for the opposition to be declared the winners. One example is that of Senator Richard Lugar, a Republican sent by President George Bush to monitor the Ukrainian elections. He has accused the Ukrainian authorities of supporting a “concerted and forceful programme of election-day fraud and abuse”. The White House is now talking of imposing punitive measures against the Ukraine if the abuses are not investigated. The Republicans should know a thing or two about this as they seem to be experts in it themselves. The hypocrisy of these people is limitless. No doubt Putin may have some of his own humorous comments to make about all this.

The outcome of the present situation in the Ukraine is not clear. Yesterday the opposition seemed to be prepared to “negotiate”, as President Kuchma had called for talks to try and resolve the crisis. But the latest statements of opposition leaders is that, “the only thing to negotiate with the authorities is the transfer of power.” Although the results have been made public, the final decision is to be made today by the election panel. Some opposition members have suggested that declaring the results final could trigger “swift and severe police action” to break up the demonstrations. We will see in the next few days, even next 24 hours, which way the situation will turn.

There are different ways in which the outgoing government could concede defeat. The Agrarian Party is allied with the outgoing government of Yanukovych, but some think it could decide to place its MPs at the disposal of Yushchenko. The courts could also intervene. How they swing depends on the real balance of forces on the ground.

In Georgia we know how things went. But in Azerbaijan and Armenia there were also similar situations last year. In Azerbaijan, there was rioting on the streets after similar election results, but the security forces simply moved in and violently crushed them. In Armenia, after other alleged electoral fraud the people simply saw no way out and accepted the situation.

In all these countries the choice was not one between pro-capitalists and genuine workers’ parties. The choice was always between different capitalist interests. Therefore what should be the position of genuine socialist in such a situation?

We must turn to the working class and explain that we cannot support either side in this conflict. Whichever of them comes out on top they will carry out policies against the working class. They will continue to dismantle the old welfare state; they will attack pensions, social security, healthcare, education and so on. They will work to enrich a minority on the backs of the working class.

The choice for Ukrainian workers cannot be between Russian imperialism and Western imperialism. There is nothing progressive in either side. They are both enemies of the working class. Today some layers of Ukrainian society may have illusions in Yushchenko and the opposition he leads. But if he comes to power they will learn a bitter lesson. As quickly as he has become popular he can become extremely unpopular. Real life experience will teach.

What the workers of the Ukraine need is a genuine political voice of their own. There are several parties that emanate from the old Soviet Communist Party, the main one being the Ukrainian Communist Party. This is one of the main opposition parties, but in the last few years it has lost significant support among its working class base in the industrial regions of the country. This is because it has not systematically opposed the government. In particular it has not put up a serious fight against the policies of privatisation. If it had steadfastly defended the programme of Lenin it would be growing and becoming the real “opposition” in the country today.

There must be many workers in the Ukraine who are asking themselves what can they do in this situation. The answer is to build up the organisations of the working class. Strengthen the unions, for they will be needed in the next period to fight whoever will be in power. Reclaim the Communist Party and all of the left forces to a genuine programme of defence of workers’ interests. If the Communist Party were genuinely Communist there would not be such levels of confusion among the Ukrainian workers.

The present situation will be merely one part in an overall process in which the Ukrainian workers will learn that they can trust none of these politicians and that they must take control of their own destiny.