What lies behind the Ukraine crisis?
Rob Jones, from Socialism Today (March edition, No.176)
Massive protests are rocking Ukraine once again. President Yanukovich’s riot police have violently clashed with protesters in Kiev’s Independence Square. To date, 29 are reported dead and hundreds injured. A rotten political system lies exposed. In article written just before these events, Rob Jones looks at the different forces behind the Ukraine crisis.
Passions have run as high as the weather has been cold in Ukraine. Demonstrators have seized ministry and city administration buildings in the capital Kiev and throughout the country, particularly in the western regions. In the East, where president Viktor Yanukovich has his main base of support, local authorities have blockaded their own offices using huge blocks of concrete to prevent their occupation. Protestors have used whatever materials they can to build their barricades. In some places, piles of old tyres are used. In others, sandbags full of snow and ice have been heaped up.
Ten years ago, a massive protest, the ‘Orange revolution’, against the fraudulent conduct of Ukrainian presidential elections, saw Yanukovich replaced as president by Viktor Yushenko. Yushenko kept his grip on power for one term before Yanukovich was elected back to office. Now, once again, Kiev’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) has been filled for over two months with protesters, tents and barricades as thousands of protesters hold out in their campaign to bring Yanukovich down again. The word ‘Maidan’ has entered the political lexicon as symbolising protest, this time in the form of ‘Euromaidan’.
The spark was the unexpected decision by the Supreme Rada (parliament) on 21 November to suspend the signing of the ‘association agreement’ with the European Union, scheduled to take place at the EU summit in Lithuania at the end of November. This was not a proposal for Ukraine to join the EU. In the current economic climate the EU can maybe integrate one or two of the smaller states in eastern Europe, but it would not be able to handle Ukraine, the third poorest country in Europe with a GDP per head of €5,600, yet the largest by area and the fifth largest by population (excluding Russia). The association agreement was intended to encourage Ukraine to adopt EU ‘values of democracy and justice’ and, most importantly, enable a free-trade agreement to be reached.
According to the then premier, Mykola Azarov, who was sacked in January as part of Yanukovich’s concessions to the protesters, the decision to delay the association agreement was taken following the receipt of a letter from the IMF on 29 November. This outlined the conditions for the refinancing of the rescue loans taken out in 2008 and 2010. Azarov said: “The terms were an increase of gas and heating tariffs for the population by approximately 40%, a commitment to freezing basic, minimal and net salaries at the current level, a significant reduction of budget expenditures, the lowering of energy subsidies, and the gradual curtailment of VAT exemption benefits for agriculture and other sectors”. He complained that, although the EU was making promises about future economic benefits, it was not prepared to offer immediate help to the country.
Since the start of the global crisis, Ukraine has been in a dire economic situation. Between 2008 and 2009 the economy dropped by 15% and has not yet recovered. Unemployment jumped from 3% to 9%, a figure that vastly underestimates the real situation. GDP per head is the third lowest in Europe, beating only that of impoverished Moldova and Kosovo.
The desperate situation in which many Ukrainians live explains why the movement took on such a pro-EU colouring, at least in the early stages. Many, particularly youth, look on the EU as a haven of relative wealth and freedom, especially when compared to the alternative – Russia. One figure alone is enough to explain why: the average wage in Ukraine is €250 a month, and this tends to be lower in the western part. The average wage in neighbouring Poland, which is in the EU, is twice as much. As news came out that the signing of the agreement had been cancelled under Russian pressure, students flooded onto the streets in the west of the country. In Lviv, capital of West Ukraine, the demands were wide-ranging: from demands that the government sign the association agreement to those on university administrations to allow students to come and go from their hostels whenever they like.
Underlying the original Orange revolution, and playing as significant a role in Euromaidan, is the national question. There are sharp divisions between the Ukrainian-speaking west and the Russian-speaking east of the country, where most heavy industry is located. But exacerbating the language division has been a no-holds-barred struggle by the different imperialist powers to reap economic gain from the exploitation of Ukraine and achieve geopolitical advantage. The western powers were prepared to go further in making concessions to the Ukrainian government before the outbreak of Euromaidan solely because they wanted to use the country as a bulwark restricting Russia’s influence. Russia in its turn wants to maintain its influence and uses any aid it offers as a lever to strengthen its position.
Yanukovich is usually seen as pro-Russian but, since his return to power in 2010, he has been pragmatic in his relations between the powers. His first visit was to Brussels, where he confirmed that Ukraine would remain as part of Nato’s outreach programme. Shortly after, he visited Moscow, where he promised to restore previous good relations. He resisted, however, any attempts by Vladimir Putin to recruit Ukraine to the Eurasian customs union of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Until December’s shock decision, it seemed that Yanukovich was enthusiastic about the EU’s association agreement.
As the date for signing it came closer, Russia stepped up its restrictions on trade. Trade volume between the two countries fell by 11% in 2012 ($45bn) and by a further 15% in 2013. The trade volume between Ukraine and the EU is about the same but, given the state of the EU economy, it has not been able to increase its trade to make up for the loss from Russia. The €1.8 billion aid over ten years offered by the EU to compensate for such losses was clearly nowhere near adequate. In addition, Russia uses the gas pipelines crossing Ukraine as a further lever.
It now seems difficult to believe, but the first few days of Euromaidan were held in a holiday atmosphere. Many students seemed to treat it as one large picnic, commenting that they had not come to support any particular political idea. At the big rally on 24 November the speeches from the main opposition parties went down like damp squibs. The crowd chanted ‘down with the gang’ referring to Yanukovich’s clique. Some nationalist speakers who attempted to whip up division by chanting against the ‘Moskali’ (an offensive term for Russians) were also met with indifference. This was to change quite quickly. By early December, when a speaker from the Svoboda (freedom) party called for a stall set up by independent trade unions in the square to be removed, a crowd of far-right thugs attacked the trade unionists, leaving one with broken ribs.
The political ‘opposition’
From the beginning three figures, representing the coalition of opposition parties in the parliament, have been the political face of the protest. Arseniy Yatseniuk represents the party of the jailed former premier Yulia Timoshenko, once known as the ‘gas princess’ from the time when she controlled most of the gas imports from Russia. She was one of the leaders of the Orange revolution. In power, her government followed an economic course based on a dish of pro-Europeanism and neo-liberalism served with a mild populist sauce. Vitaly Klitschko, a world boxing champion, leads his party Udar (punch or blow), which argues for European integration and is linked to the European People’s Party, the Christian Democratic bloc in the European parliament.
The third leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, represents the Svoboda party, which has 37 seats in parliament and controls local government in three regions. This party is ultra-right-wing and, according to some, neo-fascist. Until 2004 it used a Ukrainianised swastika as its party symbol. Tyahnybok himself virulently hates anything left wing and justifies those who collaborated with Hitler as fighting “Moskali, Germans, Jews and other unclean elements”. For electoral reasons Svoboda has attempted to moderate its image but has, together with the even nastier union of ultra-right-wing parties and football hooligans (the Right Sector), played an increasingly dangerous role in Euromaidan.
Following the refusal to sign the association agreement, Yanukovich was forced to travel the world searching for funds. Although agreeing to $8 billion-worth of trade deals in China, Beijing proved unwilling to give direct aid to Ukraine. Russia, however, agreed to a loan of $15 billion and to cut the price of natural gas by 33%, although this deal is subject to Yanukovich remaining in power. While helping Ukraine to avoid defaulting on its debts immediately, the economy, after three months of street protests, is still in a desperate state.
Increased state violence
By the time this deal was made, Euromaidan had already developed out of control. An attempt by state forces, and particularly the Verkuta riot police, to break up the protest by clearing Maidan Nezalizhimosti at 4am on 30 November, supposedly to allow for the New Year tree to be erected, left many badly wounded. In response, hundreds of thousands turned out to demonstrate on 1 December, with an even bigger demo a week later. The nature of demands changed. Demands to sign the association agreement became less important, those for the resignation of the president and government with early elections became more dominant. Various groups started to occupy government buildings. Even the presidential administration building was under siege. The ultra-right groups began to set up militia and defence squads.
The stepping up of protests in this way caused a catastrophic crisis in the regime. By retreating to repression, the government had merely provoked more anger. Unable to calm the protesters, the government passed a series of twelve laws on 16 January that became known as the ‘laws on dictatorship’. These would have brought Ukraine into line with the more authoritarian regimes of Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. ‘Extremist’ activity, although undefined, could lead to a three-year prison sentence, occupying government buildings could earn five years. Organisations receiving money from aboard would be treated as ‘foreign agents’, the wearing of masks was banned, and restrictions were placed on the internet. Police and other state agents would be granted immunity for any crimes carried out while dealing with protestors.
These laws led to another upsurge in protest. Not only was the weekend demonstration following the passing of the laws attended by over 200,000, but the more extreme, mainly far-right protesters stepped up the occupation of government buildings. The far-right UNA-UNSO issued a call for all Ukrainians to take up arms against the government. Rumours were rife throughout the country that tanks were being moved. The wife of a riot police officer told the press that the riot police were being ordered to evacuate their families from the city. The riot police were given permission to use water cannon in temperatures of -10C.
But Yanukovich was first to blink. On 24 January he hinted that the dictatorship laws would be amended. Four days later, prime minister Azarov offered his resignation and the government fell. The promise to repeal the dictatorship laws was used as a lever to end the occupation of government buildings. Yanukovich offered to form a coalition government, including Yatseniuk and Klitschko. Undoubtedly the two would have been prepared to serve but, under pressure from the more radical protesters, they have initially rejected the offer, saying that the only possible option is for a ‘government of the Maidan’ to be formed and Yanukovich to resign, paving the way for new elections.
Left political confusion
If an election were held today, the parties of Yatseniuk and Klitschko would get good votes. But their willingness to work with Svoboda could well mean this far-right party getting places in government too. The bourgeois opposition leaders have created a trap for themselves by being prepared to work with the ultra-right. In particular Klitschko, who positions himself as the natural European and actually lives in Germany, has bowed to the pressure of the far-right. He now begins his speeches on the Maidan with the ultra-right slogan ‘Glory to the Ukraine’, to which the crowd respond, ‘Glory to its heroes’.
These events have led to an apparent strengthening of support for Svoboda and the Right Sector. The reasons for this should be understood, however, and to a large degree the left has to take responsibility. Nominally, the largest ‘left’ party in the country is the Communist Party with 32 seats in parliament. Unbelievably, as soon as the protests began, its parliamentary fraction announced it would stop calling for the government’s resignation. It fully supported the passing of the dictatorship laws and complained when they were partially withdrawn.
The CP bases its policies not on what serves the interests of the working class in Ukraine but on what serves the geopolitical interests of Russia. While CP leader Petr Simonenko criticises the EU and US for their outrageous and direct intervention in the Maidan, he argues that Ukraine should join Russia’s customs union. Regional branches of his party have even tried to organise demonstrations with this demand. This position, of course, gives the far-right ammunition to attack the left in general for just wanting to abandon Ukrainian independence in the interests of Russian imperialism.
The ‘non-system’ left – those not represented in parliament – have not been much better. There is no doubt that, from the beginning of the Orange revolution, the main feature has been a clash between the interests of different sections of the Ukrainian bourgeois. This time is no exception. Those oligarchs in favour of going west are those in general whose business interests are related to light industry and services, while those who look east are from heavy industry.
However, as has happened with sections of the state and security forces, there have been signs that some of the oligarchs are hedging their bets. Even Ukraine’s richest oligarch, Rinat Akmetov, who originally proposed Yanukovich for president, condemned the violence against the protesters, although he has since ‘returned’ to Yanukovich’s side. The third richest, Dmitry Firtash, who made his wealth through his links with Russia, is reportedly the main sponsor of Klitschko’s Udar party. Petr Poroshenko, in fourth place, addressed the demonstrations in Maidan demanding that the association agreement be signed immediately. His interest is clear. When Russia introduced trade sanctions against Ukraine in 2013, his Roshin chocolate factory was the main victim.
A section of the non-system left draws the conclusion from this that the whole Maidan experience is simply a struggle for the interests of the oligarchs, without sufficiently understanding that the anger of those who participate is fuelled by economic desperation and hatred of the increasingly autocratic government. Those from a ‘communist’ tradition tend to argue that this is not our struggle. In particular, they see no other factors involved other than the influence of the far-right. An example is the Borotba group, which on many questions has a good position. In Odessa, overwhelmingly a Russian-speaking city, it occupied the administration building to prevent it being taken over by the small but vocal local Svoboda organisation. In essence, its actions were understandable, but it failed to give an alternative, apart from general phrases, either to the Maidan or Yanukovich’s forces. To do otherwise would have required addressing the national question.
Another section of the non-system left depicts Yanukovich as a fascist. It argues that to refuse to struggle on the grounds that it is impossible to work with the right-wing forces will lead to the victory of the fascist junta, which would mean that any form of self-organisation, independent trade unions, or political parties, will be impossible. Its intervention in the protests fails to provide a clear alternative and it ends up tail-ending the pro-capitalist opposition leaders.
Support for the far-right
Although support for the far-right groups appears to have grown during these protests, it has not been built on a firm base. Svoboda has only managed to gain by hiding its real nature from the masses. Not so long ago, Svoboda criticised the moves to integrate with the EU as an “acceptance of cosmopolitanism, the neoliberal empire which will lead to the complete loss of national identity with the legalisation of single-sex marriages and the integration of Afro-Asian migrants into a multi-cultured society”. Just three days after the start of Euromaidan, its Lviv organisation organised a torchlight march with white-power flags in solidarity with Greece’s Golden Dawn. But such was the distaste among others, that Svoboda has put such interventions on hold. The Right Sector, however, does not hide its position. The EU, it says, is an “anti-Christian, anti-national structure whose real face is gay parades, race riots, the legalisation of drugs and prostitution, single-sex marriages, the collapse of morality and spiritual decline”.
Some of those protesters who are following the nationalists argue that they are not doing so, primarily, because they support the nationalists’ ideas but because they are providing a lead. Such support will not last for long. Indeed, according to at least three opinion polls in January, support for Svoboda nationally has fallen significantly since the last election. Unfortunately, even the presence of the far-right gives the regime a powerful propaganda weapon for use in the eastern part of the country where the vast majority of the population still associate fascism with the horrors of the world war.
The clear weakness in the current movement, and indeed one that has existed since the first Orange revolution, is the lack of a clear left and working-class alternative that could give it a genuine revolutionary character. From its start in November many of the activists have expressed their opposition to the current political parties. Only in this vacuum has it been possible for the far-right to gain the position it has. If a serious left force had existed, and intervened decisively in these events, this would not have happened.
The role of the workers’ movement
This necessity for a left alternative is demonstrated by the continuing economic crisis. Ukraine has already been in recession for 18 months and, although Ukraine’s central bank supported the hryvnia (the Ukrainian currency) by nearly $2 billion in January, it has still fallen by 10% since November. Economists warn that the country is on the verge of another default. Neither the alliance with the EU nor agreement to join Russia’s customs union will provide a solution to Ukraine’s dire economic crisis.
Clearly a central part of the struggle should be over wages and conditions. While Yanukovich is touring the world searching for $15 billion to bail out the economy, his friend Akmetov has that precise sum in the bank. Ukraine’s industry and banks should be brought into public ownership so that the resources of the country can be used in the interests of all its citizens and not for the benefit of a few oligarchs. If that was to happen, Ukraine would not have to turn to the EU or Russia for help. It is necessary for genuine trade unions to be built to head the fight for decent living conditions.
The workers’ movement should place itself at the head of the struggle for democratic rights. The current movement is correctly calling for the resignation of Yanukovich and for new elections. But all that means today is the return of a new coalition government made up of the same parties that held power after the Orange revolution with the addition of the far-right Svoboda. It is necessary for the working class to organise to establish its own genuine and mass workers’ party that can defend the interests of all workers in the country and fight for political power. The current Rada is dominated by politicians who only represent the interests of the oligarchs. The workers’ movement should spearhead a struggle for the convening of a constitutional assembly at which representatives of Ukraine’s working people, students, unemployed and pensioners can decide how they want the country to be run in a democratic way.
Most importantly, the left and workers’ movement needs to take a clear and unequivocal position on the national question. The division of the country along national lines can only benefit the oligarchs, imperialist powers and big business. Decent wages and conditions, democratic rights and a workers’ government can only become reality if there is a united working-class struggle on these questions.
It is essential therefore that the working class rejects those politicians who seek to sell the country to either Russia or the EU, or attempt to establish a regime in the country that is based on the domination of one nationality against another. A united workers’ movement would give full support to the development of the Ukrainian language and culture but also defend the rights of those who speak Russian. While supporting the right to self-determination, the left needs to emphasise the need for the united struggle of the whole Ukrainian working class.
There is no solution to the problems faced by the Ukrainian population on the basis of the policies proposed by politicians such as Yanukovich or Klitschko, or by joining Russia’s customs union or the EU. A victory of the far-right around Svoboda or the Right Sector would lead Ukraine into dark days of ethnic conflict and reactionary dictatorship. The only way out is to fight for the establishment of a strong, united workers’ movement with its own mass workers’ party that can take political power. It would need to establish a socialist economy based on the public ownership of industry, banking and natural resources democratically planned by working people, in a united and independent socialist Ukraine as part of a wider federation of socialist states.