Where is Ukraine going?
The dramatic events in Ukraine have led to the fall of Yanukovych. But in reality this is not the end of the drama but only the possible end of its second act. In the moment of truth nobody was prepared to risk their lives to defend a regime that had completely rotted from the inside to the point where one energetic shove sufficed to bring it crashing to the ground. Power fell into the hands of the opposition like an overripe apple falling from a tree. The question is: what will they do with it?
Photo by Sasha Maksymenko
Amidst scenes of wild rejoicing, Ukraine's parliament voted on Saturday to remove President Yanukovych and hold a presidential election on May 25. But the people of Ukraine have seen all this before. It is like a replay of a bad film that has already been seen once and which one has no desire to watch all over again. Now, as in 2004-5, a corrupt regime has been overthrown. Now, just as then, people talk excitedly about a new dawn for Ukraine, about freedom, justice and democracy. “We won!” The word is on everybody’s lips. But who precisely has won? That is the question now – just as it was then.
The last twenty years in Ukraine show that the breakup of the Soviet Union and the establishment of “national independence” on a capitalist basis have solved nothing for the Ukrainian people. On the contrary, two decades after the establishment of formal independence, a potentially rich and prosperous country has been plunged into an abyss of suffering and economic collapse.
Behind the demagogic lie of “independence” lies the rule of a criminal, degenerate and reactionary oligarchy, a corrupt and repressive Mafia regime even worse than the one that sits on the back of the Russian working class. The fall from grace is even bitterer for Ukrainians who preserve memories of an ancient and once glorious past.
Ukraine’s historical destinies have been shaped by geography. With an area of 603,628 square kilometres (233,062 square miles) it is the largest European country. Yet it is caught between East and West. With the powerful Russian Federation to the east and northeast, Belarus to the northwest, Poland, Slovakia and Hungary to the west, Romania and Moldova to the southwest, and the Black Sea and Sea of Azov to the south and southeast, respectively. The very name of the country Ukraine signifies a borderland.
The Ukrainian language is a member of the East Slav linguistic family, which also includes Byelorussian and Russian itself. The Ukrainian national consciousness has been conditioned by an awareness of a long and rich history. In the Middle Ages Kiev was a great trading and cultural centre when Moscow was an insignificant village. Indeed, it was the acknowledged centre of East Slavic culture and the historic capital of the ancient Rus. Kiev was the centre of a flourishing cultural life, of beautiful art, fine literature, poetry and music. But this promising beginning was wiped out by the Mongol invasions and it never fully recovered.
The centre of gravity of the East Slavic world passed to Muscovy. A Cossack republic flowered for a century in the early modern period, but Ukraine remained divided between Russia and Poland. It became a kind of buffer state dependant on its big brother to the North, which regarded it with disdain as “Little Russia”. The 19th century witnessed the beginnings of a Ukrainian cultural revival with such writers as Taras Shevchenko and Panteleimon Kulish. An independent Ukraine was briefly proclaimed in 1918, following the October Revolution, but in practice this was only a cover for the rule of the German jackboot. This was always the case with Ukraine where “independence” has always turned out in the end to be a mere fig-leaf for foreign domination in one form or another. This fact has not significantly altered in our own times.
After a brief Civil War in which the Red Army defeated the Whites and their Ukrainian nationalist allies, Ukraine was incorporated into the Soviet Union as an autonomous Soviet Republic. Lenin had always insisted on the need to treat all nationalities with respect and warned against injuring their national susceptibilities and feelings. But Stalin and the Great Russian bureaucracy trampled Ukraine and other nationalities underfoot.
The Ukrainian peasantry suffered a catastrophe as the result of forced collectivisation when millions perished from starvation, whilst other millions were exiled to Siberia and other remote regions, from which many never returned. In the 1930s, during Stalin’s bloody Purges, the Ukrainian Communist Party was decimated, along with many leading Ukrainian intellectuals, accused of “bourgeois nationalism”. All these crimes of Stalinism destroyed Lenin’s internationalist policy on the national question, undermined the sense of solidarity among Soviet peoples and fatally weakened the USSR in the face of Hitler’s aggression. In the Second World War the people of Ukraine suffered a new and even more terrible nightmare under German occupation.
Rule by oligarchy
In the USSR the Ukraine was under the control of the central Moscow Bureaucracy. But, as in every other Republic, there was a nationalist Ukrainian bureaucracy, formed in the image of its Big Brother in Moscow. The collapse of the Stalinist bureaucratic system therefore led swiftly to the breakup of the USSR into its component parts. Under the cover of fighting for “national independence”, the greedy and corrupt bureaucrats took advantage of the prevailing chaos and confusion to plunder the nationalised economy, transforming themselves into private capitalists.
These oligarchs have benefited from the corruption and political chaos in Ukraine over the past two decades. A tiny handful of wealthy robber barons enjoy obscene wealth from the property they have stolen from the people through so-called privatisation. About half a dozen oligarchs in Ukraine have concentrated fabulous wealth since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Rinat Akhmetov has an estimated fortune worth $15.4bn and is 47th on Forbes' list of billionaires. Ukraine's richest man, Akhmetov is the most powerful of the oligarchs. He is the owner of Shakhtar Donetsk football club and is the biggest player in the mining industry in the Donbas, heartland of the president in east Ukraine. In 2011, he paid £136.4m for a penthouse at One Hyde Park in London, the most expensive property ever bought in Britain. He has long been considered to be the power behind the throne and was instrumental in securing Yanukovych's rise to power.
Viktor Pinchuk also built up a huge fortune while his father-in-law, Leonid Kuchma, was president. Yanukovych’s son Oleksandr, a dentist, has built up a huge fortune in the past three years, which would require the extraction of a very large number of teeth. An unknown 28-year-old named Sergey Kurchenko suddenly appears to control around $800m (£480m) of assets, but nobody knows where from.
These, and others like them, are the real rulers of Ukraine. They control members of parliament and political parties, they own television stations, and have the political leaders in their pockets. Such men and their families live in luxury, as if on a different planet to their countrymen and women. At the other extreme, millions of Ukrainians live in extreme poverty, some on the verge of beggary, others forced to emigrate. Such is the balance sheet of two decades of bourgeois “independence” in Ukraine.
That is how things go in Ukraine nowadays. Those at the top have their snouts firmly inserted in the pig’s trough, while those at the bottom sink ever lower. This has given rise to a seething discontent, anger and frustration among broad layers of the population. Nine years ago people expressed their discontent in what became known as the Orange Revolution. [See Marxists and the conflict in the Ukraine: Both sides are reactionary! Fight for workers' alternative, by Fred Weston, 24 November 2004]. In 2004-2005 the mass protests lasted for two months. Viktor Yanukovych was also President then. He was defeated by the pro-Western Viktor Yushchenko and his then ally Yulia Tymoshenko. But that merely led to the transfer of political power from one faction of the oligarchy to another. Nothing changed except the faces of the exploiters.
On the basis of massive disillusionment Yanukovych took his revenge and was elected president in 2010. The unfortunate Tymoshenko ended up behind bars, accused of “abuse of power” (did they not all abuse power?). Again, nothing changed. Now Ukrainians are back on the streets. Another government has fallen. And something has changed – but not necessarily for the better.
The spark that triggered off the latest wave of mass demonstrations was the Yanukovych government decision not to sign a wide-ranging association agreement with the European Union under pressure from Russia. But the roots of discontent lay far deeper.
In the recent period Ukraine's chronic economic crisis has turned into a freefall of terrifying dimensions. The national currency, the hryvnia, has plunged to its lowest official level against the US dollar since its inception nearly 18 years ago. After desperate attempts of the Ukrainian Central Bank to keep the currency stable by intervention on the currency markets it was finally forced to cut the exchange rate and impose capital controls including a limit on private transfers abroad and a ban on foreign currency purchases for overseas investment.
This attempt to prop up the hryvnia was ruinous for the country’s reserves. According to official data, in January alone the central bank spent $1.7bn (£1.04bn; 1.25bn euros) propping up the exchange rate, leaving current currency reserves at just $17.8bn. That is less than Ukraine needs to cover two months of imports. Foreign investors are getting out.
Ukrainian officials blame the 10% devaluation on the mass protests since November. But the hryvnia's fall is a natural consequence of years of economic decline, corruption, swindling and chaos which is expressed in a gaping trade and budget deficit, 18 months of recession and mounting foreign debt. The Ukrainian economy suffers from a fatal combination of all the worst features of the old bureaucratic state and all the worst features of gangster capitalism. The Ukrainian people literally have the worst of all worlds.
A large number of people have been compelled to leave Ukraine, particularly from the more rural and western part of the country, in search of work and money to support their families. According to the World Bank, Ukraine is among the top 10 recipients of remittances from abroad, with transactions reaching $9.3bn in 2013. It estimates the total number of Ukrainians working abroad at close to five million. In 2012 they sent home $7.5bn (4% of Ukraine's GDP) through bank transfers.
The oligarchy continues to loot the people, especially through its hold over the banks that charge exorbitant rates of interest. "In Poland you can take a loan for 7%, in Germany you'll pay 3%," says Lviv businessman Zenoviy Berms. "In Ukraine, it will cost you 25-30% to borrow from the bank." While the oligarchs fight over the division of the plunder, small businesses are being ruined. Between 2010 and 2012 the number of businesses shrank by 600,000, according to the state statistics committee of Ukraine.
Many self-employed and professional people and small businessmen joined the protests on the streets of the capital and in other cities. They are increasingly desperate and tired of massive corruption and pressure on their business from tax, customs or bribe-seeking government inspectors. The middle class, especially in the traditionally nationalist, Ukrainian-speaking West, can easily fall prey to right-wing and nationalist demagogues.
The EU and Ukraine
Like a drowning man clutching at a straw, some people in Ukraine saw the EU Association agreement as a way out of the crisis. Such is the desperate situation of the Ukrainian economy that many people have the illusion that closer ties with the EU will mean they would enjoy the kind of living standards they have seen in Germany. That is a hopeless illusion of course, as any citizen of Greece or Spain could soon tell them. But in a hopeless situation one lives on illusions, since there is nothing else to hold onto.
The EU’s offer of a trade deal was popular in the western Ukraine because it promised to ease the conditions for immigration. For obvious reasons the movement has mass support among migrant workers working in Germany and in the West of the country. Since many citizens of the western Ukraine work in the EU, this was a very tempting offer. In reality, it was a cynical manoeuvre to draw Ukraine away from the Russian orbit and towards the sphere of influence of the EU and the USA.
Initially, it seemed that Yanukovych was prepared to accept the offer. But then he suddenly changed his mind. The heavy industry bosses in the eastern part of Ukraine, with only Russia to sell their products to, protested that the price for European integration was too high. The more successful steel industry bosses, with export markets in the EU and Asia, maintained their silence. This represented a split within the oligarchy. A phone call from the Kremlin was probably enough to give Yanukovych second thoughts.
It is not difficult to understand the volte face. Ukraine has huge and mounting debts. The question as always is: who pays? Western officials are reluctant to be caught up in a bidding war with the Russians over aid to Ukraine. Frau Merkel has big ambitions, but her ambition is tempered with penny-pinching stinginess. Having squeezed the life out of the Greek people and gained a reputation as the foremost champion of steely austerity, she could hardly be seen to throw large amounts of taxpayers’ money at Yanukovych.
The EU’s offer was stingy in the extreme. Until now, the reported European package is less than $1 billion. That was almost an insult. Mr. Yanukovych is a man of honour and therefore is only prepared to sell himself at a very high price. This was simply not enough. On the other hand his old friend Vladimir was brandishing both a very juicy carrot and a very large stick: 15 billion if you accept, and the cutting off of your gas and oil supplies if you don’t. It was really an open and shut case for the beleaguered Ukrainian president.
The government's refusal to sign the EU-Ukraine Association agreement came as a shock. It became the spark that ignited a wave of protests that shook the regime to its foundations.
What kind of protests?
Photo by streetwrks.com
It is the duty of Marxists to analyse the nature of a movement, to determine its class nature, to expose what interests lay behind the slogans, and to separate what is progressive from what is reactionary. Not every mass movement is revolutionary or progressive in character. And even when the people succeed by revolutionary means in overthrowing a tyrannical and oppressive regime, it is by no means inevitable that what replaces it will be any better. The results of the actions of men and women may be very different from what they intended.
In November 2013 protesters took to the streets to try and force the president to reverse his decision. Initially the protests – which were peaceful – may have been looked at with sympathy by many ordinary Ukrainians. The overwhelming majority of people in Ukraine are angry at the pitiful state to which a potentially prosperous country has been reduced by its rulers. Hatred of the corrupt oligarchs is no less in the eastern part of the country than it is in the West. Ukrainian and Russian speakers alike curse the rich parasites who drain the nation’s wealth away and hoard it in foreign banks while they live the life of playboys in expensive homes in London.
A mass of people took to the streets of Kiev. This time people did not wait for the city administration to open its doors voluntarily. Instead, they stormed the building, broke a few windows and occupied the ground floor. Seemingly panicked by the demonstrations, Yanukovych resorted to repression. But this was badly handled. The riot police waded in with batons and subjected people to savage beatings. At least five people were killed. But far from intimidating the protesters, this brutal display of violence only infuriated them.
The president alternated between attempting forcibly to clear the protesters and offering concessions. But the concessions were too small to satisfy the protesters and the repression was too weak to cow them. Within a few weeks the protests swept Ukraine and quickly grew into a frontal attack on Yanukovych, with demonstrators demanding the removal of the president and the group around him. The upheavals continued throughout December and January, growing in size and turning increasingly violent. Government buildings across the country were occupied.
It would appear that the real numbers on Independence Square oscillates between 2,000 and 20,000 people. The “shock troops” were recruited from the ranks of Dynamo Kiev football fans. Most people in Kiev were simply trying to maintain their everyday routines. Foreign observers have noted that only a relatively small number of activists are involved in the fighting, and that “normal life” continues in the rest of the capital. However, this figure does not give a true idea of the extent of the potential opposition. Its principal reserves are to be found among the residents of Western Ukraine.
The so-called Euromaidan movement in Kiev had the support of the middle class: not just the intellectuals but the traditional petty bourgeoisie. Its main social base is the ruined small and middle businessmen (very numerous in Ukraine) and also the lumpen proletariat – the declassed layers who live on the margins of society: the beggars, thieves and other demoralised elements always ready to riot, loot and burn. They are the army of rioters who always appear in the midst of any sizeable mass movement and serve to push it over the edge. But the working class has remained largely passive.
Despite several clashes with police, which left dozens of people injured, the general mood of the protesters was rather peaceful at the start.
Some are legal parties that stand on the right wing of the political spectrum, such as Udar (The Punch) the Party of Vitali Klitschko, a former heavyweight boxing champion who has been living in Germany for years. This centre-right party, which is present in parliament (the Rada) was set up in Berlin around the idea of European integration. Klitschko himself is a puppet of Merkel and slavishly follows the dictates of his bosses in Berlin.
Then there is Batykivshchina ("Fatherland" in the Ukrainian language). This is the party of Yulia Tymoshenko who, together with Viktor Yushchenko, played a leading role in the 2004 “Orange Revolution” but was in prison until she was released the other day. The EU was demanding her release as part of the deal with Yanukovych, but this was refused. She was replaced as leader of Batkivshchyna by Arseniy Yatsenyuk.
The West apparently likes Yatsenyuk. He speaks English quite well and is ready to repeat all the phrases that are pleasing to Western ears. The notorious telephone conversation between US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt suggests that the Batkivshchyna leader was indeed the man Washington is betting on, whereas the less experienced Klitshko seems to be Merkel’s favourite...
None of the moderate opposition parties seems to enjoy the full trust of the demonstrators.
Fascism in Ukraine
These are the “respectable” faces of the Ukrainian Opposition, the ones that are favoured by Washington and Berlin. But behind the legal right-wing parties far more sinister forces are lurking. The comically named Svoboda ("Freedom") party led by Oleg Tyagnybok is an ultra-right, neo- Nazi party that tries to pose as the “moderate” kind of fascism. As opposed to the “extreme” fascists and openly Nazi elements, who are also present in significant numbers. Among the latter there is the “Right Sector" (UNA-UNSO) led by Dmitry Jaros.
The presence among the demonstrators of nationalist extremists was conspicuous: extreme right-wing and nationalist parties and out-and-out fascists blatantly displaying Nazis insignia from the War years. The BBC News reported: “On the streets of Kiev, far-right youths in black balaclavas instruct volunteers to resist the riot police, and organise security shifts in the barricaded Independence Square”. The Nazi groups have sprung up like poisonous toadstools after a thunderstorm: "Patriots of Ukraine”, the “White Hammer” and "Trident", a movement that follows the ideas of the Ukrainian war-time fascist Stepan Bandera.
These are extreme Nazis whose hatred of Russia reaches the point of advocating war with Russia as a key element of their ideology. When Hitler attacked the Soviet Union in 1941 a small minority of Ukrainians were prepared to collaborate with the Nazis, in particular the above-mentioned Ukrainian nationalist movement led by Stepan Bandera. He tried to win German support for his independent Ukraine. The openly fascist and racist nature of his programme was very clear and explicit. In the subsection of "Minority Policy" of Bandera's organisation, the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists we read the following:
"Moskali (Russians), Poles, Jews are hostile to us and must be exterminated in this struggle, especially those who would resist our regime: deport them to their own lands, importantly: destroy their intelligentsia that may be in the positions of power... Jews must be isolated, removed from governmental positions in order to prevent sabotage, those who are deemed necessary may only work with an overseer... Jewish assimilation is not possible."
These words were translated into deeds. In late 1942 the OUN-B carried out a campaign of ethnic cleansing of Volhynia, and in early 1944, these campaigns began to include Eastern Galicia. It is estimated that nearly 70,000 Poles, mostly women and children along with unarmed men, were slaughtered during the spring and summer campaign of 1943 in Volhyniaby the OUN-Bandera which bears primary responsibility for the massacres.
The Nazis used the Banderites to conquer Ukraine but later crushed them. Naturally! For Hitler there could only be one Master Race, and all Slav peoples (including the Ukrainians) were for him an inferior race fit only to serve their Aryan masters. The Nazis treated the Ukrainians as slaves and their country as a gigantic breadbasket to satisfy Germany’s need for agricultural produce. The nightmare was finally ended when the Red Army liberated Ukraine from fascist barbarity.
Nowadays some try to deny the historical truth and even make fascist criminal Bandera into some kind of national hero. In 2010, the so-called democrat and darling of the West Viktor Yushchenko posthumously awarded to Bandera the title of Hero of Ukraine. That shameful award was condemned by Russian, Polish and Jewish organisations and was officially annulled in January 201l. Now Bandera’s portraits are carried brazenly in Independence Square, an eloquent comment on the nature of at least a significant part of the activists who are striving for power in Ukraine.
The reactionary nature of these “activists” was underlined by the destruction of the Lenin monument in Kiev and the savage beatings meted out to left-wing and trade union activists. In the beginning the QSPA (Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine) adopted a position of uncritical support for the Maidan protest. Here there was no trace of left-wing or communist content at all. Yet when Miroshnichenko, an MP from the extreme right-wing "Svoboda" party took a leaflet he immediately declared that they were “leftist activists” and it was announced from the podium that they should be kicked out. Trade union activists were attacked and one of them had his face smashed in. This counterrevolutionary violence is never shown on western television screens, which concentrate exclusively on the violence (also undeniable) of the state forces.
Fascist parties and demagogues thrive on a situation of social and economic chaos that has driven large numbers of petty bourgeois mad. These desperate elements, driven in equal measure by feelings of contempt for the working class and an all-consuming envy of the rich, are sometimes capable of acts of desperate bravery, but have no clear programme or perspective other than a burning hatred of authority and a desire to tear down the existing order that they see as the source of all their problems. Such people are easily manipulated by fascist demagogy that tells them that they are in reality a superior breed fighting for a Noble Cause, which is the Salvation of the Ukrainian Nation from Jewish oligarchs, Communists and Russians. The noxious fumes of chauvinism are blended with the intoxicating odours of incense and the chanting of fanatical priests.
What the people on the street least of all suspect is that behind this thick smokescreen of pseudo-patriotic demagogy lies the hidden hand of precisely those privileged oligarchs against whom they are supposed to be revolting but who are still pulling the strings. And behind all the appeals to restore Ukraine’s historical greatness lies a deadly threat to destroy Ukraine as a united nation, to tear it apart and to hand two bleeding chunks over to German imperialism on the one hand and the rapacious Kremlin clique on the other. As always, the ordinary people will be the losers.
The EU and the USA
Now, as much as the EU would like to entice Ukraine into its sphere of interest, the politicians in Brussels and Berlin have no interest in allowing the violent upheavals in that country to spiral out of control, ending up God knows where. The Americans can afford to be sanguine, but the German Chancellor has enough trouble dealing with deficits in Greece and Spain and would not be enthusiastic about paying bills for the government in Kiev. Nor would she be very pleased at the prospect of a flood of refugees knocking at her door.
On the other hand, Germany has excellent relations with Russia and its President Vladimir Putin who supplies large quantities of gas to keep German homes and factories warm and well lit. Alarmed at these unexpected developments, Angela Merkel phoned President Putin asking him to defuse the crisis and press for a "constructive dialogue" between the opposition and government. Following a telephone call with Mr Putin, she said that "all parties must accept their responsibility to stabilise the country".
This excessively reasonable conduct clearly caused some irritation in Washington, which expected a more robust response to events in Kiev. The White House immediately pointed the finger at Moscow after leaked recordings of its top diplomats discussing Ukraine emerged. The conflicts and contradictions between the imperialists can often have a funny side, as the following incident shows.
In an audio clip posted on YouTube, US assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt, US ambassador to Ukraine, could be heard talking by telephone, suggesting the perfect recipe for solving the problems of Ukraine (perfect, that is, from Washington’s point of view): Arseny Yatseniuk, an opposition leader and former foreign minister, should be in a new government in Kiev. But Vitali Klitschko, a former heavyweight boxer known to be favoured by Merkel, is described as inexperienced and needing to “do his political homework”.
Ms Nuland refers to the two men as “Yats” and “Klitsch”. The two voices bemoan how the EU is seen by the US as “soft” on Ukraine, which it very clearly does. At one point, expressing frustration with the EU and its failure to join the US in threatening sanctions against Ukraine’s leaders, Ms Nuland exclaims “Fuck the EU”. A state department spokeswoman, said the US would not comment on the authenticity of the recording, but said Ms Nuland had apologised to EU officials for the reported comments.
It is impossible to make head or tail of this. If the voices concerned were not of two US diplomats but of two actors or some other accidental persons, why should Ms. Nuland apologise about anything? But such are the Byzantine subtleties of bourgeois diplomacy.
For our part, we have not the slightest doubt that the voice in question was indeed that of Ms Nuland, and that such unladylike language expresses with exquisite clarity the real attitude of Washington to its friends and allies across the Atlantic.
The fact is that both Berlin and Washington would like to install a puppet government in Ukraine, though their choice of puppets is different. Merkel wishes to avoid a full-scale bloodbath, which would provoke a flood of refugees to the EU. Now that it feels it has strengthened its hold on Ukraine, it publicly speaks of a “compromise”— that is to say a compromise that leaves the EU and the Americans in control and relegates Russia to a position of insignificance. That is the real meaning of a transitional coalition government, a “government of national unity”. But this is easier said than done.
Having bungled the repression, the Ukrainian regime then proceeded to bungle concessions. During two months of upheavals, Ukraine's president refused to make concessions to opposition politicians. The turning point was on February 20 when the Ukrainian parliament voted a ceasefire. Following a meeting of the heads of Ukraine with the EU, Yanukovych declared his readiness to hold early presidential and parliamentary elections, the establishment of a Government of National Unity and to change the constitution.
Moscow called for three-way talks on future trade and economic relations with Ukraine, an invitation that the EU declined. On Friday 21 February, seeing his support ebbing away, the president reluctantly put his signature to a compromise deal with opposition leaders. Having excluded Russia, the deal was brokered by the foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland. It offered a new national unity government, constitutional changes to hand powers back to parliament and early elections, to be held by December. The Polish minister declared that this was “the best deal on offer”.
But events on the ground were moving faster than the clumsy wheels of diplomacy. This may have been sufficient to satisfy the moderate opposition and the EU, but for the extreme wing of the protesters it was only a sign of weakness, a green light to continue the uprising “until the final victory.” Protesters said they were not willing to wait for elections in December or to accept anything less than the immediate removal of Yanukovych.
Had the same offer been made two months earlier it may have succeeded in splitting the opposition and aborting the protests. But now it was correctly seen as a sign of weakness. The radicals immediately rejected the “fake” truce and stepped up their attacks with increasingly violent rioting in Kiev and the storming of administration buildings across the country.
Sporadic violence continued as if diplomacy did not exist. In western Ukraine protesters were occupying government buildings, refusing to recognise the Kiev government. The conflagration was spreading rapidly with rebels seizing power in western cities like Uzhgorod, Luchka and Lviv. From many places in western Ukraine came reports that the local police had gone over to the people and the authorities were collapsing. The state power was crumbling rapidly. The threat of open civil war loomed larger with every passing hour.
A squad of about 60 policemen arrived from the city of Sokal in the Lviv region of Ukraine. Police there went over to the Maidan together with priests and civilian volunteers armed with rifles. The commander of the Sokal police, speaking from the podium, said: “We also have weapons, and we know how to use them. And if at least one shot is fired in the direction of the Maidan we will reply.”
Sensing that the old regime was crumbling, the protesters seized control of the presidential administration buildings. There was no resistance. The police stopped guarding presidential buildings and protesters were able to enter the president’s sumptuous country residence outside Kiev and stare at the grotesquely ostentatious luxury paid for by the billions looted from the people by a voracious and parasitic oligarchy.
Events on the streets finally brought about a fundamental change of the balance of forces in parliament. An attempt at a compromise deal hammered out with EU participation failed to halt a process that had already reached tipping point. Fearing, if not for their lives, then for their jobs and privileges, members of Yanukovych’s party swiftly changed sides. In the end parliament voted to remove him from power and hold new elections on May 25.
The opposition had by now seized control of all the main levers of power in Kiev. MPs from the former governing party had been beaten, pelted with stones and intimidated into silence. One by one the opposition in parliament has sacked all the main ministers of the previous government and made new high-level appointments.
Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, after being released from prison, addressed crowds in Kiev's Independence Square and, between tearful outbursts, urged opposition supporters to continue their protests. "Until you finish this job... nobody has the right to leave," she said, without saying what “the job” consisted of. The US and the EU have enthusiastically greeted Ms Tymoshenko's release, calling it "essential for a democratic Ukraine". But many people in Ukraine do not share their enthusiasm. They remember how she and the other leaders of the so-called Orange Revolution let them down before. It is reported that many people walked away in disgust when she appeared on the stage.
Conflicts in the oligarchy
The national question is always full of contradictions, and nowhere more than in Ukraine. Even before the October Revolution the Ukrainian language was spoken mainly in the villages, while Russian was the dominant language of the towns and cities. Since Soviet times, eastern Ukraine has been the stronghold of Ukrainian industry, the homeland of most Ukrainian oligarchs and the electoral base of President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions.
There is now a serious danger that this complex and fragile country might break into its component parts with catastrophic consequences for the people of both the western and eastern Ukraine. Already it is reported that the rulers of the Crimea have flown to Moscow to ask that the Crimea should join Russia if the chaos in Ukraine continues. The Russian navy has an important base in Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula that Nikita Khrushchev transferred to Ukraine (while under the influence of vodka, some say). Russia will not hesitate to take it back if it sees the Americans taking over Ukraine. This will further exacerbate the growing tensions between Russia and the West.
As the situation on the streets worsened cracks began to appear in the ruling oligarchy. Akhmetov saw his fortune rise during the last three years under Yanukovych. But then sections of the oligarchy started considering whether Yanukovych had become a liability to their interests. On the website of the SCM group, owned by Akhmetov, a statement appeared calling for more dialogue. Akhmetov was careful to build up relations with the opposition to allow for all eventualities, say Fesenko. "The oligarchs keep good relations with the opposition as an insurance policy – it's like investing in futures."
The oligarchs also had their problems with Yanukovych and "the family", the privileged businessmen around the president who had been promoted and given access to juicy contracts since 2010. Ukrainians on both sides of the East-West divide have long known about corruption at the heart of government. But as protesters entered Mr Yanukovych's palatial residence on the outskirts of Kiev, they were staggered by the amount of gold and marble.
There were tennis courts, an underground boxing ring, ostriches, peacocks and grouse, an aviary and what seemed to be a zoo with deer and wild boar. In reality this was no zoo, but only the president’s private meat-larder. The spectacle was completed with a floating banqueting hall, adorned with vodka bottles with the president's face beaming from the label. People were heard to remark: "So this is where all the money went."
This sudden display of extravagant wealth has exposed to all the extent to which the president and his entourage had enriched themselves at the expense of the country. But the idea that it could prove a unifying factor will prove to be an illusion. People in the eastern Ukraine know as well as those in the west that the entire political class is corrupt. But although they may be disgusted with the sight of such blatant corruption, they do not believe that the men and women who will step into Yanukovych’s shoes will be any better.
Their fear and distrust of the politicians in Kiev far outweighs any satisfaction they might feel for his fall from grace. In fact, if they criticise Yanukovych it is mainly because he failed to crack down harder on the protesters and allowed a chaotic situation to develop, and because he ran away instead of resisting. Here we have two Ukraines, not only speaking two different languages, but with two entirely different mindsets and two conflicting ways of interpreting the same events. This is a very dangerous situation, pregnant with the most serious consequences for the future of Ukraine.
Russia and Ukraine
American and EU diplomats are striving to pull Ukraine their way and increase their influence in Kiev. But the EU has just learned a useful lesson: if you play with fire sooner or later you tend to get your fingers burned. The continuing chaos in Ukraine threatens the economic and political stability of the EU itself.
The EU, worried about the implications of the Ukrainian crisis, is now striving for a compromise in Ukraine that would involve the setting up of a new technocratic government led by opposition figures, and constitutional changes reducing the president’s powers.
The idea that closer relations with the EU would be good for the Ukrainian people is contradicted by the facts. The EU is hardly likely to send large amounts of money to Ukraine, given its own severe financial problems. The Europeans are talking vaguely about giving financial assistance to Ukraine “once democracy is restored.” The very vagueness of the promises is proof of their insincerity. Merkel is not prepared to send money to Greece. Why should she be any more generous to the Ukraine?
The European bourgeois therefore look nervously to the USA to help them out – under the disguise of the IMF. A possible rescue package by the IMF would carry harsh conditions like the ones imposed on Greece or worse. There would have to be savage cuts in public spending, increased taxation and a reduction in subsidies. The IMF is demanding a substantial increase in energy prices of the order of 40 percent. In other words, it would mean even more poverty and misery than exists now. Furthermore, what would be left of the idea of Ukrainian national sovereignty when all important economic and social decisions would be taken by a cabal of European and American bankers?
Just as the EU and the USA are trying to pull Ukraine to the West, so Russia is exerting pressure to keep its neighbour firmly in its own camp. As a counterbalance to the EU, Putin is striving to form a kind of Eurasian Common Market. Without the presence of Ukraine, this would be a lame duck. The fall of Yanukovych by no means signifies that Russia is resigned to seeing Ukraine drift into the sphere of influence of the USA and EU. And it has very powerful levers with which to make its views felt.
Moscow has repeatedly accused the West of pulling the strings of the Ukraine protest movement – an allegation that Washington and Brussels have indignantly rejected, although their interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs is no less real than Moscow’s. Sergei Glaziev, an adviser to President Vladimir Putin, accused the US of “spending $20m a week” on financing Ukraine’s opposition, including providing weapons. Already Russia has recalled its ambassador from Kiev. More ominously, they are warning that they will defend the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine. The last time such language was used was when Russia invaded Georgia.
While such a development is not excluded, Putin has other weapons in his arsenal. The supply of cheap Russian gas and Russian money is the only thing that prevents a total collapse of Ukraine’s tottering economy. The idea that Moscow would be prepared to continue to underwrite the debts of a government in Kiev that is openly hostile to Russia belongs to the realm of fairy tale. Predictably, the Russians have already announced the suspension of its aid. They have warned that any rapprochement with the EU would be met by high tariffs against Ukrainian exports to Russia. They could also call in their outstanding debts. That would be enough to send the Ukrainian economy – already in a very bad state – into freefall with dire consequences.
There is yet another possibility that is looming larger by the day: the complete collapse of Ukraine as a unified country. Talk about a “new dawn” is premature, to say the least. Far from arriving at stability, the situation could yet get much worse. The fault lines in Ukrainian society have been deepened to the point that a breakup of the country can no longer be excluded. This could not be achieved without terrible violence and bloodshed.
Putin and his advisers will already be weighing up this possibility. If the alternative is to lose Ukraine altogether, they might consider it preferable to split off the eastern part, which contains most of the industry, important coal deposits and rich agricultural land. Such a development, which could not be accomplished peacefully, would be a catastrophe for the Ukrainian people. It would raise the ghastly spectre of Yugoslavia all over again.
What is the solution?
At the time I write these lines, Yanukovych, who fled from Kiev in a helicopter, is thought to be in the eastern Ukraine. The former president has denounced events in Kiev as a coup and said that he will not stand down. This is the first indication that nothing has been decisively resolved. Whether Yanukovych is able to survive is open to question. By now both Putin and the oligarchy might consider him a liability. But what is clear is that the authority of the new government in Kiev does not extend to Donetsk. The supposed government of national unity thus turns out in practice to be a government of national disunity.
Yanukovych's Party of Regions is the Party of the Eastern Ukrainian steel oligarchs with strong links to Russia. They rely heavily on the Russian market and are completely opposed to closer links to the EU, which would ruin them. This is also a powerful factor for workers in the eastern part to oppose the turn to the EU. Although they hate the oligarchs and do not love the President or his party, they fear that any alternative would be worse for them.
If the protest movement had been focused on an all-out attack on corruption, without any implications of Ukrainian nationalism and pro-West, anti-Russian sentiment, then it could have spread to the industrial working class in eastern Ukraine. The whole equation would have been swiftly transformed. But the Russian-speaking people of the Ukraine took one look at the fascist and Banderist banners in Independence Square and the destruction of Lenin’s statue, and naturally turned away in disgust.
The main weakness of the movement has been the absence of an independent movement of the working class. There have been several attempts to organise a national strike but none have succeeded. The overwhelming majority of the working class is bitterly hostile to the oligarchy and the corrupt political regime. But they do not see themselves represented by the protesters and have adopted a passive attitude. It is the absence of the independent movement of the Ukrainian proletariat that has driven the protests into a blind alley.
The attitude of the workers in the east is one of scepticism. When they are told that Yanukovych is corrupt, they will shrug their shoulders and say: “And who is not corrupt?” This scepticism is well founded. They have already had the experience of the “Orange Revolution” and they remember how that ended up. There was a reshuffle at the top. One gang of corrupt oligarchs took the place of another, and the masses were just as badly off as they were before – no, even worse off as the country slid even deeper into the mire of corruption and chaos.
On a capitalist basis, the outlook for the people of the Ukraine is bleak. Is there another way, which could preserve the unity and independence of Ukraine? Such a way exists in fact. There can be no doubt whatever that the great majority of ordinary Ukrainians are sick and tired of this situation and would like to end it. But the first question they would ask is: but what is the alternative?
There can be no short cuts or easy solutions. As long as politics in Ukraine signifies nothing but a constant tug-of-war between different wings of the same oligarchy, no real solution will ever be possible. The working class must place no trust whatever in any bourgeois politician or state. That will only lead to one betrayal after another.
The central problem is one of leadership. If the Communist Party were a genuine Communist Party, there would be no problem. But the so-called Communist Party has played a shameful role. The KPU has never conducted a struggle against the oligarchy and has abandoned all pretence to stand for socialism. It has therefore been condemned to irrelevance. In the heat of events the working class will come to understand the need for a genuine Communist Party – a party that stands for the programme and ideas of Lenin and the October Revolution: the only programme that can offer a future to Ukraine and its people.
The only real alternative to the rule of the oligarchs is a democratic Socialist Ukraine, in which the land, the banks and the industries would be in the hands of the working class and the wealth of the country would be used for the benefit of all. Such a programme could cut across all differences between East and West, uniting all the working people against the wealthy parasites. The first condition is the immediate arrest of the oligarchs – all of them – and the confiscation of all the wealth and property. A small idea of the quantity of this wealth can be seen by the images of Yanukovych’s private palace in Kiev. This loot should be returned to the people of Ukraine from who it was robbed. It should be used to finance the reconstruction of Ukraine on the basis of a democratically planned socialist economy.
The second step is the repudiation of all the debts contracted by the oligarchy and its political puppets. The Ukrainian people were never consulted about the shady deals of their rulers and cannot accept any responsibility for them. They must not permit the foreign robbers to suck any more of their blood! The wealth created by the Ukrainian workers must remain in Ukraine and be used for the benefit of the people who created it.
Better than any other people, Ukrainians understand that they cannot stand alone. The reactionary-utopian idea of “socialism in one country” is what led Russia and Ukraine into the blind alley in which they now find themselves. Ukraine needs to integrate its economy with neighbouring countries but that must be done on the basis of genuine equality, solidarity and friendship, not by one country bullying and dominating another.
A healthy relation between Ukraine and Russia is absolutely necessary and quite natural. The two peoples are connected by very long and powerful historical links. The problem arises when Ukrainians feel that they are dominated by their more powerful brother. That was never Lenin’s position. Bolshevism stood for genuine internationalism. The Soviet Union in its early days was founded on the idea of proletarian internationalism, friendship and absolute equality. It is necessary to return to those principles.
Russia, like Ukraine, is ruled by a privileged and corrupt oligarchy that is pursuing its own greedy and selfish interests. If the workers of the Ukraine were to take power, the Putin regime would not last one week. The programme of socialist internationalism – the programme of Lenin – would be a beacon for all the peoples of the former Soviet Union to break with capitalist slavery and join together in a genuinely free and equal Socialist Federation.
Once the working class has thrown the parasites off its back and taken control of the means of production, the sky would be the limit. By pooling the colossal resources of all these countries on the basis of a harmonious plan of production, it would be possible to raise living standards rapidly. Under those conditions, it would be the people of the EU and America that would cast envious glances to the East and come onto the streets to demand that Europe should join the Socialist Federation!
The prior condition is that the workers of Ukraine must take power into their own hands. Then they could begin to solve the problems. They should make an appeal to the Russian workers to follow their lead: In the name of Lenin! In the name of Socialism! In the name of the working class! That is the only way forward.