Perspectives for the People’s Republics: The external and domestic struggle of the left and progressive forces

Just a few weeks after signing the ceasefire with the rebel republics on September 5th, Poroshenko could be seen on CSPAN, asking a session of the US Congress for more lethal military equipment. It is becoming clearer every day that the ceasefire was a way of creating some domestic calm during the elections last month.

The Phony Peace

The Ukrainian army has continued to bombard the republics during this time, causing over 1000 deaths in the region since the ceasefire, with particularly heavy fighting still ongoing near the Donetsk airport. It has even been reported by Western media and human rights organisations that Ukraine has been using banned cluster bombs in the heart of Donetsk[1].

To add to the suffering, the government is cutting off pensions (since the summer), child benefits, rail, gas and electricity, the delivery of goods and services[2] to the region, affecting around 7 million people. As renowned Ukrainian lawyer Tetiana Montian pointed out: “it is quite absurd for Kiev to on one hand scream ‘United Country!’[3], while at the same time leaving the people in the republics to freeze and starve”[4]. The Ukrainian oligarchy, it seems, is ready to cut off basic services to Donbas residents, but is not ready to seriously negotiate with the representatives of the republics; in fact  it has been much more willing to hold talks with the Russian government.

There are many parts of the republics facing shortages in food, medicine, electricity and other basic necessities. A significant amount of industry has been destroyed by the bombardment of the Ukrainian army, and 15% of coal mines are estimated to be impossible to restore[5], as they would need constant maintenance for the shafts not to collapse. This has exacerbated the problems with unemployment. It is said that the most well off are those with relatives now working in Russia or other parts, as there are now over a million refugees from the conflict. It is also times like these that speculators and bandits will try to profit as much as they can from the situation.

A calm in the storm

Although the Ukrainian army has continued to attack Donbas, and the people continue to face daily shelling with shortages of basic necessities as the winter approaches, the “ceasefire” has brought a certain amount of room for the breakaway republics to stabilize, and even to hold elections November 2nd. The elections in the Donetsk (DPR) and Lughansk Peoples’ Republics reportedly had turnout rates of more than 60%, eclipsing the rate for the previous weeks’ Ukrainian elections of 52%.

Even opponents of the republics had to admit that not only was the turnout in the elections quite high with long queues, but that in general, the citizens of the republics were making demands to the new authorities, being at best apathetic, and at worst holding deep resentment for the Kiev authorities. This is in stark contrast to the regular Ukrainian media reports of the Donbas residents demanding the Ukrainian army to come and “save them” from the “terrorists”. Kiev still denounced the elections as shams, while in their naturally hypocritical fashion, announcing that any election observers to the republics would be declared “persona non grata” in Ukraine.

The current leaders of DPR and LPR, Aleksandr Zakharchenko and Igor Plotnitsky, both won overwhelming majorities, with 79% and 68%, respectively.

High levels of participation reflected genuine popular support for the republics and widespread opposition to the Ukrainian authorities. The so-called “anti terrorist operations”, including indiscriminate shelling of the civilian population, have had the effect of pushing many who were neutral at the beginning into outright opposition. At the same time there are also worrying developments in the republics.

On the nature of the rebel movement

Relative to the Euromaidan movement, the Anti-Maidan movement – the source of popular support for the rebels – had a distinctly more working-class character. Many Euromaidan supporters from the left still attempt to argue its progressive elements citing “anti-corruption”, as if the country ias become less corrupt since. The fact remains that whatever the hopes of some activists for Euromaidan may have been, the movement was left with no progressive or social content. Those that raised progressive demands were either completely marginalized or even assaulted. As we have explained, this is largely due to the class nature of the Euromaidan movement being middle-class/petit bourgeois[6], as well as the weakness of the left and workers’ organizations in the country in general, particularly in Western Ukraine.

The uprising in the Donbas was based largely on the working people of the region. This is shown for instance in the protests of the miners in May[7] which later led to the formation of the Miners Division[8]. The class character of a movement is not the only factor which determines its outcome. The working class composition of the anti-Maidan movement on its own – without a revolutionary leadership – is far from a socialist revolution. This is reflected in the large amount of confused, adventurist, and Russian nationalist elements in the movement. In times of war, it is military expertise that is valued above political ideas, and this was reflected in the selection of those who rose to power. These were always associated with one or other military formatio, ranging from far right Russian nationalists Gubarev and Borodai, to reactionary Russian monarchist Strelkov, to former Party of Regions[9] deputy Tsarev.

Boris Litvinov at founding of DPR Communist Party PIC Konstantin Sazonchik copyBoris Litvinov at founding of DPR Communist Party - Photo: Konstantin Sazonchik copyOn the other hand, there are also a number of commanders, activists and citizens that could be described as “Soviet nostalgic”, “anti-oligarchic” and communist in different degrees, such as rebel commander Mozgovoy and Dremov in LPR, deputy Smekalin and Communist Party leader Litvinov in DPR, among others who have advocated the establishment of a social welfare state and the nationalization of key enterprises.

The presence of the latter can be reflected firstly in the nomenclature of republics themselves as “People’s Republics” and “Soviets”, including the coat of arms of LPR which is clearly based on those of the old Soviet Republics[10]. Of course the history of the USSR includes different periods, from the early one of relatively healthy workers’ democracy to the Stalinist one in which the planned economy and the advances it made possible were combined with the dictatorial rule of the bureaucracy with an ideology which included reactionary ideas drawing heavily from Great Russian nationalism (including anti-Semitism). However, the nostalgia for the Soviet Union found in Donbas has nothing to do with affection for show-trials, gulags, starvation or Molotov-Ribbentrop pacts.

There are very concrete reasons why a large part of the population in these regions looks back to the Soviet Union as something positive. The fact is, unlike in much of Western Ukraine[11], the major part of the industry stayed in Donbas, even after the many criminal privatizations of the 1990s. The people of Donbas have very real memories of their lives before and after the fall of the USSR. These memories include full employment, free quality education, free quality healthcare - all conquests of the working class.

There was a sense of dignity that has been clearly lost in Ukraine’s plunge into market capitalism. The return of capitalism brought mafia leaders to power, loss of employment and purchasing power; severe degradation of the rural infrastructure, urban infrastructure, the health system, education system; degradation of workers’ rights, deaths of thousands of miners through the bosses’ negligence and profit making; millions were forced to migrate and others plunged into the depths of alcohol and drug abuse. And after all of this the restoration of capitalism now brings war.

Those who profited the most from the misery of the post-USSR debacles, even those from the Donbas area, including Ukraine’s richest man Rinat Akhmetov and Serhiy Taruta – who was appointed the new governor of the Donetsk oblast by Kiev – among others, have openly come out against the rebellion. Only a few local oligarchs are left, so one can imagine how the anti-oligarch sentiment is bound to be quite significant, even relative to the anti-oligarch sentiment that already exists throughout Ukraine.

The internal challenges for the region

Prior to the election, DPR premier Aleksandr Zakharchenko had announced[12] the nationalization of several large factories owned by oligarchs including Rinat Akhmetov. Along with this announcement came the declaration supporting workers’ control at the Zugres plant from DPR deputy Aleksandr Smekalin[13]. Nevertheless, the idea of nationalisation was soon announced to be conditional on “Akhmetov not paying taxes to DPR” by Zakharchenko’s deputy Alexander Kofman, and never really put into practice. 

In addition to this, Roman Manekin, an advisor to the DPR, recently stated that the only way to deal with the announcement of the withdrawal of all Ukrainian state institutions was by establishing a national bank and nationalising key sections of the economy indispensable for day to day living[14].

Even under these conditions, there is still evidence of lingering oligarch influence. According to recent reports, the nationalization of the Zugres plant has been called off or reversed due to pressure from some local authorities loyal to their old masters. This seems to have also been the case when a private guard detail took back control of Rinat Akhmetov’s old estate.

Despite the relatively high turnout rate, the elections revealed some serious anti-democratic measures, even taking into account the prevailing conditions of civil war. It seems that everything was done to ensure that the incumbent leaders and winners ran relatively unopposed, and furthermore, to ensure that as little opposition from both the left and the right get into parliament. Many of the people who could potentially run for parliament or vote are still in the battle field, and there was no means for them to participate in the process.

The Communist Party became the first party to be officially established[15] in the DPR on October 8th. However, under the excuse of “document irregularities”, they were prevented from running in the recent elections. In the end, they were left with the alternative of support for Zakharchenko or nothing. Thus, Zakharchenko ended up running against relative no-names including his aforementioned deputy. The CP leader in the DPR, Litvinov, has voiced serious concerns about the situation the party was put in. It is clear from previous elections that the party enjoys serious support in the region and could have provided a counterbalance to the current leaders in both DPR and LPR.

The Russian nationalist Gubarev, who could be seen as the right reactionary side of the political coin, was not permitted to run either. He is considered by some to have popularity similar to Zakharchenko’s and was likely seen as someone beyond the control of the Kremlin and local elites. There was even an assassination attempt on him in the run-up to the elections.

Moscow seems to prefer the republics to remain a “buffer zone” to NATO expansion, and another chip in the bartering with Kiev and NATO. The Kremlin allows a significant flow of aid and ammunition to the republics. The social and military supplies are crucial to the survival of the republics. The Ukrainian army was reportedly readying to renew the assault on the rebels before the rebels managed to bring a large amount of equipment to the front. The medical aid and food is also crucial, although like the arms, the distribution is controlled by people more favorable to the Kremlin, exacerbating the shortages described previously, as the people with these supplies are able to wield significant political power.

Russian socialist Boris Kagarlitsky considers that it is, in fact, the preservation of the Ukrainian regime that is Moscow’s preference; Poroshenko and his oligarchs being a quantity that can be predictable.[16] This has been shown by Moscow’s willingness the talk to the Kiev government and its recognition of the legitimacy of the new Ukrainian regime and the two the elections in 2014. It has also been speculated that the Donbas rebels were forced by the Russians to stop a few kilometers from Mariupol – the region’s largest port – during the August offensive, as its control by the rebels could give them some measure of economic independence from Russia.

Does Donbas have a viable left revolutionary movement?

Red Squad 404 of the Prizrak Brigade PIC Ibai Trebino Lur GiRed Squad 404 of the Prizrak Brigade - Photo: Ibai Trebino Lur GiThere have been left wing battalion commanders, including of the “Ghost” and “Makhno” brigades, coming out openly in favour of a struggle against the oligarchs, the former even beginning to receive foreign anti-fascist volunteers which have now organised a Communist Platoon. Some commanders have even come out for the need for international struggle against capitalism. Mozgovoy – the leader of the “Ghost” battalion in Alchevsk – has held discussions with some anti-oligarch elements in Kiev at the beginning of November.

There have also been the beginnings of an initiative to unite the left forces in Donbas with the establishment of a “Labour Front”, including elements of some left-wing brigades, the communist party, Borotba and others. Nevertheless, it is difficult to get an accurate picture of their influence at the present time; their political influence is limited as long as many of them are still out in the battlefield.

Despite the massive need, the reconstruction of the regions decimated infrastructure will not be performed by benevolent oligarchs or NGOs. This can only be completed by the workers of Donbas. As with post-war Europe, this will require an extensive amount of planification of the economy and infrastructure, as the free market has little interest or competence in post-disaster reconstruction. There is also the need for price controls in order to fight speculators and ensure that the population will not go hungry in the winter. Although the people in Donbas are willing to tolerate a certain level of hardship in order to see through separation from the Ukrainian state, their patience will be worn out if conditions do not eventually improve.

Therefore, many of these actions will be driven more by necessity than ideology. The major oligarchs of the Donbas – once the most powerful of the clans in Ukraine – have almost all supported the war against the republics. In essence, in order to survive and gain leverage in negotiations, the republics are forced adopt measures such as nationalizations.

In fact, we have argued from the beginning that the only way the anti-Maidan movement could be successful was by adopting a clear and uncompromising class standpoint, rather than a nationalist one. Much time has already been wasted. The republics are up against the NATO-backed Kiev oligarchs who are sending the air force, army and fascist battalions into the region, while cutting off essential services and pensions.

At the same time we have the local elites, Russian nationalists, and bureaucrats loyal to the Kiev oligarchy trying to control the regions from the top and the Kremlin and Russian oligarchs looking for their interests, while putting a damper on any actions (such as nationalizations) that could be an example to the Russian working class and therefore a threat to their interests.

The proclamation of the Republics was originally based on the illusion that, after the annexation of Crimea, all that was required was to hold a referendum, proclaim a republic and hey presto, Russia would come in to the rescue. Through their own bitter experience, the working people of the Donbas have learnt that Russia is not really interested in taking over Donetsk and Luhansk and that, at best, uses the republics for their own narrow interests.

This is the meaning of the recent spate of declarations by different forces within the republics, demanding a clear anti-oligarch program, open opposition to capitalism and a socialist orientation of the struggle. They represent the only hope for the republics: that of implementing bold measures of expropriation of the capitalists which could link up and inspire the inevitable movement against IMF imposed austerity in the rest of Ukraine.

As revolutionaries, we cannot remain neutral in this struggle. We cannot let these forces – both in Donbas and Ukraine – die and pretend like they never existed. We must support them to the best of our abilities. For in these times, when capitalism offers one crisis after another, each one more severe that the last: the future, can only be theirs.

December 1, 2014



[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/21/world/ukraine-used-cluster-bombs-report-charges.html

[2] http://svpressa.ru/society/article/105490/

[3] Nationalistic slogan used by nationalist forces and pro-government media in order to agitate for the war against the rebels. Also plastered on the side of a large building in the centre of Kiev.

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o4MzumlOSlw

[5] http://m.thenation.com/article/189137-eastern-ukraine-becoming-peoples-republic-or-puppet-state

[6] http://www.marxist.com/russia-ukraine-and-the-west-will-there-be-war.htm

[7] See http://ukraineantifascistsolidarity.wordpress.com/2014/06/19/donetsk-miners-give-kiev-48h-ultimatum-stop-war-or-we-will-take-up-arms/

[8] See: “Miners in the armies of the people’s republics of Donetsk and Lugansk: Why “Schakhtyorskaya Division” fight against the Kiev Junta” interview in Junge Welt. http://ukraineantifascistsolidarity.wordpress.com/2014/11/24/miners-in-the-armies-of-the-peoples-republics-of-donetsk-and-lugansk/

[9] Ruling party prior to Euromaidan. Unlike most PoR deputies who sided with the Kiev government, Oleg Tsarev was forced to side with the rebels due to strong pressure from the new governor in powerful pro-Kiev oligarch Ihor Kolomoiskyi in his native Dnipropetrovsk.

[10] See http://russian.rt.com/article/57003

[11] Much of the productive forces in Western Ukraine, were sold off for scrap metal during the privatizations of the 90s.

[12] http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/10/24/ukraine-crisis-election-akhmetov-pix-tv-idUSL6N0SI54D20141024

[13] http://dnr.today/news/rabochie-zemz-xotyat-ustanovit-kollektivnuyu-formu-sobstvennosti/

[14] http://112.ua/obshchestvo/v-dnr-kriticheskaya-situaciya-ne-oboytis-bez-nacionalizacii-predpriyatiy-i-vvedeniya-kvazivalyuty-147351.html

[15] http://en.tass.ru/world/753337

[16] http://links.org.au/node/4143