Once more, Orange and Blue political blocs clash

Rob Jones, Moscow

That the Ukraine is still far from being a stable parliamentary democracy is demonstrated by the events of the last few days. Last Monday evening, after days of rumours, which were mainly spread by the fiery former leader of the “Orange revolution” Yulia Timoshenko, President Victor Yushenko, who came to power as a result of that revolution, in 2004, signed a decree disbanding the government and announced parliamentary elections at the end of May.

Prime Minister Victor Yanukovich, forced out as president by the orange revolution, but who became Premier after winning parliamentary elections, in 2006, convened a cabinet meeting which declared the President’s decree unconstitutional and declared the government would continue to rule the country.

During the cabinet meeting, the Defence Minister declared the army would obey the president and resigned. The Interior Minister, responsible for the police and secret services, may side with Yanukovich. Both Yanukovich and Timoshenko started to mobilize their supporters on the streets of Kiev. In neighbouring Russia, the mass media is full of reports that Ukraine is repeating events seen in Moscow in 1993, when the ex-President Boris Yeltsin disbanded the Russian parliament and ended up sending in the tanks to put down the Parliament’s opposition. Representatives of Yanukovich’s ‘Party of the Regions’ talk of the situation running out of control and predicting rioting on the streets.

Now tension is being levered up – both sides are accusing each other of acting unconstitutionally and the government declared the current electoral commission is invalid and reinstated the commission sacked by Yushenko, two years ago. Yushenko, as President, appears to be on thin constitutional ice – even his decree was not properly published in the official journal. The Justice Ministry has come out to explain how the President breached the rules.

Elections and referendums

Yanukovich stated that if there are parliamentary elections in May, he will try and ensure that there is a presidential election held on the same day and a referendum on whether the Ukraine should join NATO or not. Yanukovich, of course, is not keen on NATO and knows that probably the majority of the electorate agrees with him on this question.

What is the conflict all about? It is barely two and a half years since the “orange revolution”. This exploded after the last presidential election, during which Yanukovich (using the blue election colour) narrowly beat Yushenko (in the orange, according to official counts. Yushenko and his supporters complained about the rigging of the elections and mobilized thousands of people onto Kiev streets, eventually forcing the Yanukovich camp to back down. The latter was widely perceived to be corrupt; a representative of the former incompetent bureaucratic layer that made sure that the previous President Kuchma’s regime was able to cash in on the rigged privatization process. There was, however, another difference – Yushenko was seen as pro-Western, pro-NATO, pro-EU (and thus “democratic”) while Yanukovich, a former industrial chief from the East Ukraine, was seen as a representative of new Russian capitalism, which had begun to seriously flex its muscles throughout the former Soviet Union. In reality, the conflict boiled down to a simple conflict – whether the companies being privatized in the Ukraine would end up in the hands of the Western or Russian capitalists.

Of course, the masses that spilled onto Kiev’s main street, the Kreshatik, at the end of 2004, did not see it in those terms. Workers, youth, Ukrainian nationalists from the west Ukraine and Russian-speaking intellectuals all had their own reasons for supporting the “orange revolution”. For many, it was a protest against corruption, against the rigging of the election, against “Russia”, against low pay and the cuts in services. Those who took part saw Yushenko not as a savior of the Ukraine, but as someone who at least temporarily represented their interests against the old regime of Kuchma and Yanukovich. But workers who participated in the orange events in 2004 commented, “What is important is not that we support Yushenko, but that we have learnt how to struggle. If Yushenko turns against us, we will mobilize again!”

“Revolution of fraudulent hopes”

The orange alliance of Yushenko and Timoshenko, which came to power early in 2005, lasted less than a year. It broke into an open conflict after a public row over corruption, and the attempts by Timoshenko to re-privatise Ukraine’s largest steelworks. Former participants in the orange events commemorated the first anniversary by talking bitterly of the “revolution of fraudulent hopes”. Having sacked Timoshenko as premier, Timoshenko went into open opposition. Yushenko formed an unstable alliance with Yanukovich in an attempt to maintain control of the Supreme Rada – the Ukraine’s parliament. This was seen by many as the height of cynicism. After all, just one year before, Yushenko led the masses on the streets in opposition to Yanukovich, who he claimed was the personification of all that was corrupt and undemocratic in the Ukraine. Yushenko’s popularity begins to plummet. In the 2006 parliamentary election, his party was pushed into third place. Yanukovich took a majority and Timoshenko’s block came second.

The struggle for power between the two Viktors became a conflict between the President and Parliament. The deal between Yushenko and Yanukovich, in 2004, left the former in the presidential seat but was concluded only after he agreed that the powers of the president would be watered down and those of the parliament increased.

The latest crisis appears to have exploded after deputies in the parliament defected from the orange camp to the blue – thus bringing Yanukovich closer to having the two thirds majority necessary to change the constitution under the 2004 agreement.

That the clash is within the ruling elite and is about the division of power and wealth is graphically seen on the streets of Kiev. While working people are participating in the protests on both sides, the motorcades rushing down Kiev’s central street with flags are BMWs, on the orange side, and jeeps and Mercedes on the blue! These are hardly the cars driven by working Ukrainians.

Many bystanders worry that the conflict will spill over into bloodshed.

International interests

Another factor feeding the constant conflict in the Ukraine is the struggle by international interests for power and influence in the country. Yushenko is seen as the representative of Western interests. He came to power speaking of the Ukraine joining NATO and the EU in the near future. The moves by the orange camp to redistribute the fruits of privatization was little more than a futile attempt to let Western interests, and their own millionaire supporters, gain a larger share of Ukraine’s assets. Yanukovich was seen as the direct representative of Russian interests, and it was Russian capital that made the biggest gains during the privatization process.

Of course, in politics things are never ‘black and white’, or even orange and blue. Yushenko’s open pro-Western stance was somewhat tempered by the coolness of the EU to accept the Ukraine as a member. Yuschenko’s attempts to form a solid alliance with NATO not only alienated the Russian ruling elite but were also unpopular with the Ukrainian population. The Russian regime was pragmatic enough to continue attempting to keep Yushenko on friendly terms. Indeed, this week, Yushenko was due to have been in Moscow to sign agreements with the Russian government. This visit has now been put off until May.

At the same time, Yanokovich, although a natural ally of Russia, has not proved to be completely malleable. The dispute over oil and gas supplies in the winter of 2006, when Russia switched of the energy supplies to the Ukraine, forced Yanokovich to fight hard for Ukrainian interests against Russia. This latest dispute between Yushenko and Yanukovich has, nevertheless, already raised national tensions. Leonid Grach, leader of the hard-line, pro-Russian communist party in the Crimea openly warned Yushenko that if he insists of disbanding the parliament, he will be left with not one but two ’Ukraines’. In previous conflicts, the ruling elite and their international allies, on both sides, showed their cynical willingness to whip up nationalistic moods (the orange side is strong in traditionally Ukrainian nationalist west Ukraine, while the blue side has its main support in the Russian-speaking industrial east). These attempts were only checked by an almost instinctive mood amongst working people that such a division would lead to an absolute disaster.

At the time of writing, a four and a half hour meeting between Yushenko and Yanukovich failed to find a compromise. The former continues to push for elections on 27 May. The latter calls the decision illegal and says the government will not release the funds for the election. Yanukovich said he is referring the issue to the Constitutional Court.

If elections were to take place, according to opinion polls, only four parties would definitely get back into the parliament. Yanokovich’s ‘Regions’ would get 34% – no change on the previous election – Timoshenko’s block would go up 2% to 25%, Yushenko’s Our Ukraine will drop from 14 to 10% and the Communist Party would remain at 5%. The problem is that electoral arithmetic makes it difficult to predict who would come out on top. Currently, parties such as the ‘Socialist Party’ support Yanukovich, and they could quite well be left without seats after new polls, thus making it more difficult to form a coalition.

Ruling elite incapable of stable democracy

Responsibility for this continuing crisis lies on the shoulders of the ruling elite, who in the new capitalist Ukraine, prove incapable of even establishing a stable democratic system, let alone guaranteeing the mass of the population with a decent standard of living and quality of life.

However, it also has to be said that the left in the Ukraine abandoned their responsibility to provide an alternative. The official parliamentary ‘left’, mainly the Communist and Socialist parties, restricted their actions to parliamentary manoeuvres. The former, because of its traditional links to Russia, was a main point of support for the Yanukovich government. The Socialist Party, which has Blairite-type policies, originally supported the orange coalition, before witching to support Yanukovich. Their leader, Olexander Moroz, Speaker of the Parliament, is amongst the most vociferous in opposition to the proposed elections, for the simple reason his party would probably lose its seats.

The extra-parliamentary left is little better. Weak and isolated, the small left groups that exist failed to intervene in the original orange events with a clear programme that represented independent, working class interests. Several of these groups ignored independent politics completely, preferring instead to act as agents of different sections of the ruling elite. Instead, they took money to establish trade unions in the factories of competitors or organized pickets outside the premises of transnational companies in defense of Russian interests. An initiative taken, last year, by a youth split from the CP, to form the ‘Che Guevara’ movement, which for a period appeared capable of organizing a wider layer of youth in part by leaning on the authority of leaders such as Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro (and incidentally financed by the Cuban embassy) has run aground with the attempt to form the so-called ‘Union of Marxists’.

The founding conference of this organization, led by an unprincipled combination of former Stalinists and former Trotskyists, met in Kiev, last week, and did not even discuss the political crisis shaking the Ukraine. With an undemocratic structure (even factions are not allowed), a programme based on late Soviet-period Stalinist ideas, a sectarian love of debating how many angels can sit on a pin head (or as in the case of last week’s conference – what is the definition of a ‘worker’) and surrounded by rumors of being financed by various capitalist interests, this organization has little chance of developing into a serious force, although it may attract some genuine youth, in the first instance.

In today’s Ukraine, workers as an organized force have still not made their mark on events. But the recent events – a time of heightened political awareness and interest – offer socialists the opportunity to put forward the ideas of creating a genuine left alternative, based on strong working class organizations, capable of fighting privatisations and other boss’s attacks, and to fight for real change. In answer to the current crisis, we say:

  • No support for Yanukovich or Yushenko. The President and government should go!
  • Against presidential rule; for genuine representative government. For a constituent assembly in which the working class and its allies, the overwhelming majority of society, can decide what government structures are best for the Ukraine
  • For the working class to organize; to form independent trade unions, to establish a democratic mass workers’ party, with a socialist programme

Only such an approach will end the current situation, in which political life is dominated by the struggle for power between different wings of the ruling elite and allow for the establishment of a majority workers’ government to carry out the following programme:

  • Free education and healthcare
  • A decent level of wages, pensions and student grants
  • Elected consumer committees control of prices
  • Full democratic rights. For the mass media to come under social control. Freedom of access to the mass media for all political and social organizations – excluding fascists – in proportion to their support in society
  • The abolition of bureaucratic state structures. For the development of genuine regional self-management by the working class
  • An independent Ukraine, with the right of regional autonomy
  • The nationalisation of all privatised enterprises. Transfer control and management of these industries to elected workers’ committees
  • The rejection of the capitalist market economy; for a planned economy, under the democratic control and management of workers’
  • No to Ukraine joining NATO, the EC, WTO or the Euro-Asia Economic Area. Ukrainian troops out of Iraq!
  • An independent, democratic socialist Ukraine, as part of a voluntary socialist federation of Europe and Euro-Asia.
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