Right wing politicians and imperialist powers stir up ethnic tensions. A fierce power struggle between different factions of the Ukrainian ruling class – using the masses as pawns – threatens to slide the country into conflict and possibly even civil war.

Niall Mulholland, CWI, 25 November 2004.

The crisis erupted after the pro-Russian presidential candidate, Viktor Yanukovich, was deemed the winner of last week’s presidential elections by the official electoral committee. This, it was claimed, gave him 49.46% of the vote, compared to the 46.61% received by the opposition and pro-Western candidate, Viktor Yushchenko. He refused to recognise the official result and claimed the elections were rigged. In a symbolic act of defiance, Yushchenko was sworn in as the new president by his own parliamentary deputies, last Monday.

To try to force an outcome in his favour, Yushchenko has mobilised over four days many people onto the streets of the capital city, Kiev. The numbers turning out in sub zero temperatures are estimated at anywhere between 200,000 and 500,000. Kiev City authorities and city councils across western Ukraine also back Yushchenko’s claim to be president. The challenger has subsequently called for a campaign of civil disobedience to overturn the official election result and appealed for a “general strike”.

The official winner, Yanukovich, has also brought out his supporters in the capital city, although on a much smaller scale. Reports that miners from the largely Russian speaking eastern part of the country have arrived in Kiev have so far not transpired.

The Western media has presented the crisis as a struggle between the forces of authoritarianism and democracy. They compare it to the “Rose Revolution” in Georgia, which last year saw a mass movement overthrow the regime of Edvard Shevardnadze, and to the popular uprising that removed the authoritarian Serbian regime of Slobodan Milosevic, in 2000.

The US and EU powers, especially Germany, backs the pro-Western candidate Yushchenko. They call for him to speed up ‘reforms’ of the economy (i.e more privatisations and opening up of the domestic market to predatory multi-national companies and imperialism). For the US, the Ukraine is an extremely important country because of its geo-strategic importance, in a region rich with oil, gas, and other natural resources. With a population of around 48 million, the Ukraine is seen as an important future market. If Yushchenko is brought to power, the West promises to quicken the process of bringing the country into Nato and dangles the prospect of eventual EU membership (although for the EU states this is a controversial process).

The regime of Vladimir Putin, in Russia, also sees the Ukraine as a vital area of its growing imperialist interests. Putin resents the eastwards expansion of Nato and the growing number of US military bases in Central Asia. The Russian president refers to the former Soviet Union countries as its “near border”. Putin uses Russia’s oil and gas exports as a political tool, especially in relation to energy-dependent countries like Ukraine. Discussions have taken place about forming an ‘economic union’ of Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

Powers behind Yushchenko and Yunukovich

Therefore, behind the two presidential candidates’ bids for power, lie the interests of the competing imperialist powers. Yanukovich and Yushchenko represent a split in the Ukrainian ruling class over which way to turn to safeguard and to enhance their profits, prestige, and class interests- to the West or to Russia?

These gangsters cannot publicly say this is their motivation, of course, and so they play on the genuine fears and grievances of the masses.

On the one hand, Yushchenko plays on the genuine anger of many Kiev protesters that democratic rights are being eroded. On the other hand, Yanukovich leans on the masses in eastern Ukraine, which is the main industrial area and where living standards are poorer, presenting himself as a ‘defender’ of jobs in industry.

Yanukovich also plays on the fears of the minority Russian-speakers, pledging he will make Russian an official second language. Many Russian-speakers are worried that under Yushchenko they will face become a discriminated against minority, like the Russian-speaking minorities in various Baltic countries. The oligarchs in eastern Ukraine are also backers of Yanukovich because they oppose more Western competition.

But, as representatives of different factions of the ruling elite, both Yanukovich and Yuschenko will only pursue anti-working class politics. During the 1990s, Yushchenko was the head of the Central Bank and prime minister. In these roles this supposed ‘friend of the people’, carried out vicious neo-liberal policies that have left the Ukrainian people one of the poorest in Eastern Europe. Gross National Product per capita stands at only US $970 (World Bank, 2003).

Under the retiring president, Leonid Kuchma, the Ukraine balanced between the US and Russia. Kuchma said he wanted Ukraine to have eventual Nato and EU membership and sent 1500 troops to Iraq and other contingents to Kosovo and Afghanistan. But Kuchma also tried to keep good relations with Russia.

Increasingly Kuchma’s regime became more authoritarian, as his policies of privatisations led to widespread hardship and disgruntlement. Corruption was rife under Kuchma’s rule and he is held responsible by human rights organisations for the murder of critical journalists.

Now it is no longer possible for Ukraine to keep up this delicate balancing act between the powers, as the Ukraine becomes a focus of intense inter-imperialist rivalry. Only a few weeks ago, Putin was one of the first world leaders to congratulate George Bush on his election win.

But the overarching struggle for markets, resources, and regional influence is paramount for the powers and has reached a new ferocious level with the Ukrainian elections. Both the West and Russia crudely intervened in the election campaign. The US and the EU openly backed and helped to finance Yushchenko. They exploited the growing opposition to Kuchma’s authoritarian tendencies to call for a vote for the opposition. Yushchenko’s power base is in the west of the country, which is the heart of Ukrainian nationalism and which looks towards Western Europe.

Russia came in strongly behind Yanukovich in the election campaign, with Putin even making visits to Kiev to show support to Yanukovich.

Yushchenko’s claim that the election outcome was rigged is loudly echoed by the West. US and German officials call for a recount and sanctions are threatened unless the election result is overturned. Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, upped the ante, on 24 November; by saying the US does not recognise the result.

It appears very likely that there was election fraud to increase the vote for Yanukovich and certainly this type of activity is not past the regime or its backer, Putin. Claims of voter manipulation has understandably incensed many people in the Ukraine and helped fuel the large protests. (It is worth noting that as a former member of Kuchma’s authoritarian government, Yushchenko would also be capable of resorting to election rigging).

But the criticisms of the Ukraine polls by Western powers are extremely hypocritical. They say nothing about the terrible human rights record of despotic regimes in Central Asia and the Caucuses, as long as those countries remain pro-Western.

Only weeks ago, the US and EU accepted the outcome of the Afghan elections, which saw the pro-US stooge, Karzai, officially brought to power. In those elections, there were widespread allegations of vote fixing and also large parts of the country were unable to take part. A government – unstable as it is – was only formed through bribing warlords. Last year, the West accepted the blatantly rigged elections in Nigeria because it kept in power the pro-Western leader Obasanjo.

The US occupiers in Iraq have also said they intend to go ahead with elections there next January. But only those parties vetted by the imperialist power can stand. Like Afghanistan, big areas of Iraq will not be able to vote, even if they want to or if elections can actually take place.

Terrified of the consequences, Kuchma has offered himself up as a mediator between Yanukovich and Yushchenko camps. He warned of a slide to civil war and called for outside powers to stop meddling in the Ukraine’s affairs.

Danger of armed conflict

The slide to armed conflict is a real danger. The two ruling class camps have whipped up ethnic differences – between the majority Russian-speaking, Orthodox Christian east, and the mainly Ukrainian-speaking, Catholic west – to bolster their competing aims. This poses the danger of the situation sliding towards ethnic conflict and spiralling out of control into all-out civil war. The police and army have not yet been used against demonstrators. If this was attempted the state forces may split along ethnic lines.

A descent into conflict in the Ukraine would have a calamitous effect throughout the region. The pro-West regime in Georgia complains of Putin’s “soft imperialism”. Russian troops are stationed in Georgia’s breakaway republic of Abkhazia and fighting could flare up as a repercussion of the situation in Ukraine. Similarly, Russian troops are in Transdniestria, a separatist region of Moldova, resulting in a dispute with Nato. The regime in Belarus is pro-Russian, as is the government of Vojislav Kostunica, in Serbia.

Poland and other pro-West East European states want a more robust attitude towards Russia and a group of ten Scandinavian and east European states recently formed an alliance to push for this line.

An EU-Russia summit, set to begin on 25 November, at The Hague, is likely to see a sharp disagreement on the outcome of the Ukrainian elections

The disintegration of the Ukraine would be a disaster of the working people of the country and the region. Civil war would lead to many deaths and possibly a huge refugee crisis.

Fearing the huge destabilising effect another Bosnia-type conflict could have, some EU powers are now trying to find a negotiated way out of the Ukraine stand-off. There are reports that behind all the bluster coming from Yanuckovich and Yushchenko talks are taking place. The Polish and Lithuanian presidents “have been asked to mediate”, according to the BBC (25/11/04).

Putin has already stepped back from this initial welcome of the election result. The Bush administration will also have to consider the consequences of deepening conflict in Ukraine and a worsening of relations with Russia.

So far, the protests and counter-protests in Kiev, and other cities, have been largely peaceful. But the situation is extremely tense and can explode. The different factions of the ruling class are riding the tiger of ethnic politics, which can spiral out of their control, threatening conflict like the disastrous wars in the Balkans in the last decade. Yushchenko’s call for a ‘general strike’, if it is heeded, will in all likelihood effect around half the country, and, once again, dangerously raise the political and ethnic temperature. Russian’s Itar-Tass news agency reported on 25 November major traffic jams on Ukraine’s western border, as main roads were blocked with fallen trees and barricades. But coal miners in the east have vowed to carry on working.

Strike action and the working class

Industrial action is traditionally a powerful method of struggle of the working class. Usually the bosses and politicians foam at the mouth if strikes are threatened or used by workers to further their class interests. But, on this occasion, many pro-capitalist politicians in the West back Yushchenko’s strike call. Although many workers in west Ukraine may respond to the demand for industrial action out of a genuine wish to fight for democratic rights, and in the forlorn hope that a change of government will mean better living standards, in the hands of a pro-capitalist politician, like Yushchenko, the ‘general strike’ call is politically reactionary. It will be used as a weapon to further the interests of the pro-West section of the ruling class and to divide the working class along ethnic lines.

The key missing factor in the situation – and the only factor that can show a way out, in the long term, from poverty, exploitation, and ethnic divisions – is the organised working class.

The so-called ‘Communist Party’ follows a pro-Russian regime and pro-market line, largely basing itself on one section of the population. Throughout the whole of Ukraine there are, unfortunately, few genuinely independent unions.

A mass workers’ party would intervene in the present crisis with an independent class programme. This would include fighting against election manipulation and for democratic rights. But, in no way, do socialists support the fake ‘democrat’ Yushchenko, any more than they would support Yanuckovich. Both these representatives of the ruling class must be opposed, as must Western and Russian imperialism be opposed by the working class movement.

The CWI in the CIS and Ukraine call for mass protests, including strike action, in opposition to both the authoritarian regime and the arch-neo-liberal, Yushchenko. Under the direction of a working class and socialist leadership, strikes are a powerful way to militantly oppose right wing policies and to unite the working class. A mass militant struggle could unite the working people of the east and west of Ukraine, with a programme calling for jobs for all, a living wage, and a fully funded education, healthcare and welfare system. Socialists also support the rights of all minorities, including language rights.

The Ukrainian working class and youth need a party of their own to fight elections and to win genuine democratic rights. The parliament and president’s office, and other capitalist institutions, have shown they are corrupt and rotten, and favour the interests of big business.

A workers’ government would allow the introduction of a programme in the interests of the majority in society. This means taking the economy into the hands of the working class, under democratic control and management. It also entails spreading the struggle for a genuinely socialist society to Russia and throughout the region. A socialist confederation of voluntary and equal states would see an end to capitalist exploitation and ethnic, national, and religious conflicts. Even if the current post-election crisis is “resolved” it will only be done so on the basis of capitalism. This means a continuation of poverty, joblessness and discrimination – all the factors that will lead to new upsurges in ethnic tensions and the possible eventual violent break-up of the country.

More reports from the CWI in Russia and Ukraine will follow.

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