Barricades, bonfires, Molotov cocktails and clashes with the special police forces (Berkut) over the past few days in Kiev have revealed a deeply divided country on the brink of civil war. What is at stake is no longer membership of the EU, but the future of the Ukraine as a whole.
All the rhetoric about peaceful, non-violent, pro-EU mass mobilisations, which has been aired on European and American mass media for propaganda purposes, deliberately conceals the repeated acts of violence on the part of the ‘Pravy Sektor’ (‘Right Sector’ – an extreme right-wing group that has been gaining ground within the opposition) against left-wing activists, trade unionists and LGBT activists. The fires have caused extensive damage in Kiev and now events are accelerating. We are entering a new and convulsive stage in the Ukrainian crisis.
The new turn of events in the Ukraine came on 16 January, after the Rada (the Ukrainian parliament) introduced anti-protest laws aimed at criminalising protesters. These laws – which were supported by president Viktor Yanukovych and his Party of Regions, as well as by the Communist Party of the Ukraine – were passed without any debate, with a quick show of hands by MPs loyal to the president, rather than the usual system of electronic voting.
As well as criminalising “extremist activities” (defined in very broad terms), the laws also included a ban on putting up unauthorised tents in public areas, criminal responsibility for “defamation” (i.e. the slandering of government officials), control over the internet and the mass media, the categorisation of NGO’s as “foreign agents” and so on. The fact that parliamentary procedure was by-passed during the vote on these laws had the effect of further provoking the protesters. The restriction of the freedom of assembly and freedom of speech was not only directed against the EuroMaidan movement [as the present movement has become known] and the Nationalists, but could be extended to every layer of society, de facto introducing a permanent state of emergency.
The Radical Right and EuroMaidan
On 19 January, a mass demonstration was organised against these “dictatorial laws”. Around 200,000 people took to the streets in central Kiev, chanting “Glory to the Ukraine!” and demanding the fall of the government as well as the withdrawal of the laws. Violent clashes broke out in Hrushevskoho Street, when thousands of demonstrators tried to reach the Parliament. The clashes continued until 21 January, when two people were shot dead by the infamous Berkut and another during the riots. The police came down brutally on the protesters, beating and threatening them throughout the country. In some places people who had been arrested were left naked in the snow and injured activists were denied medical aid.
The demand for the Ukraine to join the EU is in fact a distorted reflection of a desire for change amongst the masses – a desire to escape the desperate conditions faced by the masses in the last 20-year rule of the oligarchs (just to give one example, GDP fell by 1.1% in 2013). The lack of any left-wing alternative, with the Ukrainian Communist Party (CPU) heavily compromised with Yanukovich, prepared the ground for the rise of the reactionary elements inside the EuroMaidan movement.
The presence of different nationalist, Fascist and reactionary groups within the EuroMaidan movement set the tone from the very beginning. The Right Sector organises the military confrontations with the police and has a coordinating role in the movement.
The question is not whether all the Ukrainians taking part in Maidan are Fascists or not, but who currently dominates the movement. It is clear that anti-left wing slogans and hostility to Left and social activists have been growing in the last few weeks. Red flags are not welcome in these gatherings, not only because of the role of the CPU, that voted in favour of the laws, but also because of years of anti-communist propaganda, of glorification of the UPA (the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, formed by the SS and collaborationist units during World War Two) and articles and speeches inciting hatred, which have all been factors in the current political situation.
Already in December, there were attacks against the Ukrainian Confederation of Free Trade Union, with the pulling down of their tent in the Maidan and the stealing of a generator. Nazis attacked feminists and anarchists, and Nazi graffiti is everywhere. Violent actions were organised even before the beginning of the protests, when Fascist thugs attacked a presentation of Trotsky's writings on Ukraine, calling the great revolutionary a “Satanist and homosexual” and, of course, a “Bolshevik Jew” ("Свободівцям" не сподобався "Троцький і незалежна Україна", istpravda.com.ua)
The National Revolution advocated by the Ukrainian Radical Right has attracted the interest of all the Neo-fascist groups in Europe. As reported by the Searchlight website, John Morgan, the director of the extreme right-wing publishing house Arktos, gave a speech in Kiev on 15 January. An interview with Anton Volyshin of the Svoboda party has been published on the Italian neofascist Forza Nuova website, where the future of the Ukraine is depicted as the “core-state of Orthodox civilization” (“Intervista a Svodoba”, Forza Nuova). Radical Right organisations are united in a front with liberals and a few left-wingers against the government, but their aim is to build their National Revolution once the Liberal stage is exhausted. This is a bizarre caricature of the Stalinist Two-Stage theory, which is even adhered to by some left activists who believe that a shift to the left is possible after the fall of Yanukovich. It will be interesting to see how the Right Sector, the UNA-UNSO corps and other Nationalist parties will give the left such a possibility!
The Ukrainian social nightmare and the Russian intervention
The dramatic situation the Ukrainian people find themselves in is the consequence of 25 years of different bands of oligarchs, bosses, ex-bureaucrats and criminals running the country. They have pillaged the country, closed factories, sold public utilities to the EU, the US and Russia, and have achieved a near monopoly of the media and control over “public opinion”. Mass emigration has also had a great impact on the social structure, leaving entire regions inhabited only by teenagers and old people. 1,342,276 Ukrainians are currently working in the Russian Federation, where a visa is not required for 90 days, and a further 600,000 are in Italy, of whom only 153,000 are legally employed. Remittances by Ukrainians working abroad represent 25% of Ukrainian GDP, of which 9% comes from Russia and 6,5% from Italy. Today’s so-called “National Revolution” is directed against Russian imperialism. However, the ties between the two countries are strong, as are the ties that have developed with the European Union.
Is the Ukraine on the road to Balkanization? Reading an article by the right-wing British historian Orlando Figes in the Foreign Affairs magazine one would deduce that the supposed “inherent fragility” of the country’s identity is at the root of all the troubles. Reality is indeed very different. Protests have also affected some eastern Ukrainian regions, while in the Transcarpathian region - in the West - there isn’t much enthusiasm for the EuroMaidan movement. The idea of a fracture between the East and West of the country is very much hyped up in the European and US media, and is a convenient idea for all the forces of reaction involved, western Ukraine-based Fascists, Russian interests, and even for Yanukovich himself. The break up of the Ukraine would be a criminal, reactionary move, and would have as an effect a further collapse in the living standards of the masses.
Is a civil war really possible? Marxists develop perspectives; they don’t gaze into crystal balls. The economic crisis in Ukraine can worsen further, following the negative trends in the EU and Russia. We are already well acquainted with the situation as far as the EU is concerned, but we should take a closer look at Russia’s economy. In the period October 2013 to January 2014 there was a devaluation of the ruble. The Euro to Ruble and US Dollar to Ruble exchange rates have been reaching new records. Until June 2013 there there had been a stable exchange rate of 40 rubles to the euro and 31 rubles to the dollar. Now one euro is worth 48 rubles and one dollar 35 rubles, with an effective devaluation of around 8% year-on-year. Russians have lost in the last few months something like 20-30% of their purchasing power, with inevitable consequences on Russia’s internal market in the forthcoming period, and this is all directly linked to the austerity measures and privatisations dictated by the WTO’s and and implemented by the Russian government.
Vladimir Putin has granted the Ukraine a huge loan of around 15 billions dollars, which could have big repercussions inside Russia itself, where the process of privatisation is continuing. Healthcare, education and workers' rights are constantly under attack by the so-called “anti-imperialist” Putin regime, that is dismantling all that remains of the social gains of the Soviet era. A journalist close to the Kremlin, the infamous Mikhail Leontev, a fan of General Kornilov and Pinochet, is calling for the breakup of the Ukraine, claiming that it “is not a state”. Moscow’s support for Yanukovich is counterbalanced by US aid for the opposition, as demonstrated by the presence of John McCain in Maidan. EU officials have also been to Kiev, issuing statements against police abuses.
The hypocrisy of the European bourgeoisie never ceases to astonish. They were trying to reach a deal with Yanukovich and his premier Azarov when the Ukrainian government refused to subscribe to the Partnership Treaty, and now they show sympathy for the protests. But are the EU leaders really prepared to break with the Kremlin and with Gazprom? Germany’s dependence on Russian raw materials is significant. One should ask why these so-called “champions of democracy” are not prepared to give free visas on demand to Ukrainians? The European capitalists want Russian gas and oil, access to the Ukrainian market and Ukrainian workers to exploit, while Russia wants to take control of the Ukraine as a whole.
In the Ukraine the imperialist powers are making a move which is part of a much bigger game. The Obama administration has stated quite categorically that its strategic interests are centred elsewhere in the world, and it has made Bush’s planned Eastern European missile defence system less of a priority. At the same time Putin’s Russia is aiming to play a bigger role, taking advantage of the decline in US influence and the divisions that have emerged within the West European powers. In this game, there is no side that Marxists can support.
We have to remember that only a few months ago Yanukovich’ s Party of Regions was ready to sign a partnership deal with the EU. He is a representatives of the oligarchs of the East, the owners of the coal mines in the Donbass. He is looking for the best offer and the problem now is that the EU has very little to offer.
At the same time, when the “pro-Western" leaders took office after 2004 the economic policy they implemented was not very different from that of the Party of Regions. There are no questions of principle involved here, only different interests. That is why a compromise between Yanukovich and the more “reasonable” opposition leaders is still a possibility, which would leave the extreme reactionary right-wingers freezing on the streets. However, it would remain a fragile agreement as the Ukraine would still be a battleground where different powers are fighting each other for influence.
It is amazing to observe how some on the left, in particular among the Stalinist sects, would be ready to give “support” to the Kremlin should Russia “invade” the Ukraine, a political science fiction scenario that only exists in the deluded minds of these people. These Stalinists are the mirror image of those so-called “democratic” socialists who support the EuroMaidan “youth”, while conveniently closing their eyes to the Fascist symbols and actions. The absence of any class analysis is what both have in common. They are behaving like fans at a football match, the Stalinists seeing in Putin a “communist”, while some who even claim to be Trotskyists have come out in defence of European “democracy", of that same Europe of the Troika with its permanent austerity!
For a genuine workers' alternative in a democratic socialist Ukraine
There is one protagonist that is clearly missing from the Ukrainian events: the working class as an independent political force. There is no mention of the role of the working class in any of the speeches of Yanukovich, of Klitschko, of Yatsenyuk (leader of “Fatherland”, Timoshenko's party) or of Tyagnibok (leader of “Svoboda”). This is no mere oversight on their part. Ukrainian workers are in a state of permanent poverty and destitution, with the only escape being emigration to another country. Wages are in a free fall, and the industrial crisis is spreading to the Eastern regions. Agriculture has practically been destroyed in the provinces of Galicia and Volhynia, and a deal with the EU would destroy the internal market of the country, with German and Polish goods flooding into it, while a Customs Union with Russia would promote Russian goods.
The masses have already experienced the disastrous effects of close economic ties with Russia. A Ukraine inside the European Union would equally be a nightmare for the masses, as the current situation in Romania, Poland and all the other countries of the former Soviet bloc clearly demonstrates.
Given the lack of a class alternative in the Ukraine, the working class and youth will be forced to learn the real nature of the reactionary leaders of the opposition through painful and bitter experience.
This is a struggle for survival of the Ukrainian working class, reduced to abject poverty by the gangsters that have governed the country in recent years. Any so-called “National Revolution” would mean the coming to power of a ruthless and brutal regime, as the present stance of the opposition against the “dictatorial laws” does not imply in any way a conversion to “democracy” on the part of the Fascists and Nationalists.
On the other hand, the Ukrainian Communist Party leaders, who have collaborated in the crimes of Yanukovich over the years, have done an immense disservice to the working class by identifying “communism” as a political force that has no alternative to pose to the present regime and simply backs what one wing of the bourgeois elite wishes to impose on the country. The working class will learn through experience that it must pose itself the task of emerging as an independent political force and struggle against the capitalist regime that now has control in Ukraine.
This task begins with the building of a genuine Marxist tendency within the Ukrainian labour movement.
- Defend the Free Trade Unions against Fascist and Police attacks!
- No to the EU, no to the Customs Union with Russia!
- For the nationalisation of Ukrainian companies under workers' control!
- Defend the right to free speech and assembly and democratic rights!
- Organise self-defence groups against the reactionaries!
- For a Workers' Alternative!
- For a democratic socialist Ukraine in a democratic socialist World!