Socialist Alternative

Ukraine: Descending Into Bloody Conflict

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Only united working class action can stop the catastrophe

Rob Jones, Moscow

Ukraine_Fire_ThumbnailEvents in Ukraine have taken a tragic turn as the country has degenerated into violent conflict. The Ukrainian army is moving in, with western powers’ backing, to violently disarm the mainly pro-Russian activists who have occupied key buildings throughout the East Ukraine, particularly in the Donetsk region, with the death toll steadily rising. Yesterday at least five people died in fighting in the southern city of Mariupol. In the traditionally multinational Black Sea city of Odessa, over forty people were killed when the trade union building in which they were taking refuge was set alight. Now President Putin in an apparent back-down has advised the Donetsk and Kharkhov regions not to go ahead with referendums on Sunday. His advice has been rebuffed by local activists.

Truth – the first victim of war

A no-holds barred propaganda war about events in Odessa and Ukraine is being waged, on the one side by the Kiev government and its EU and US backers and on the other by the East Ukrainian protestors and the Russian government’s media. Each side seems to outdo each other in the heights of cynicism they display.

The initial Ukrainian police investigation into the Odessa tragedy said that “anti-Maidan protesters broke into the trade union building and barricaded themselves inside. They then from the roof started throwing Molotov cocktails. Some of the incendiary devices hit the building which may have caused the fire that eventually killed more than 40 people.” The English language paper Kyiv Post on May 3rd reported this changing “anti-maidan” protestors into “pro-Russian separatists”, added that they had been “shooting with firearms at “peaceful citizens”” and removed the cautious “may be”.

Russian TV in its turn is full of blood-curdling reports of the battle against fascists and ‘Banderaists’ (second world war Ukrainian Nazi collaborators) in Ukraine. It described the Odessa tragedy as a new “Katyn”, when thousands of Polish officers were taken into the woods and executed by the Stalinist regime.

Tragedy in Odessa

Local eye-witnesses give a better picture of what happened. According to the Odessa journalist, Sergiy Dibrov, the conflict began following a march by football fans who were in the city to watch a game between Odessa’s “Chernomoretz” and East Ukrainian Kharkhov’s “Metallist”. They marched through the city in support of Ukrainian unity singing the country’s national anthem and anti -Putin songs. Part of the march included a large contingent from the Euromaidan’s “self-defence squads” armed with stave’s, shields and helmets.

All accounts however agree that as the march moved through the city it met resistance from “anti-maidan protesters”, a combination of those who are against what they call the “fascist junta” in Kiev, supporters of federalisation or unification with Russia. What started as a fight with the throwing of bricks, stun-grenades and Molotov cocktails led to shots being fired, some say from the anti-Maidan camp, others from provocateurs. One video shows shots being fired from behind police lines by someone using a Kalashnikov automatic weapon. Eye-witnesses report that at this stage ordinary fans, particularly from Odessa, left the pro-Ukraine march, not wanting to get involved in fighting.

A street battle raged for four hours, leaving four dead and over one hundred wounded. Angered by the shooting of their supporters, about 2000 members of the “Euromaidan self defence squads” reportedly backed by fighters from the “Right sector” moved down to the city’s tented protest camp. The camp, occupied at the time by about 200 people ,was destroyed with tents torched. Those in the camp were forced to flee into the nearby trade union building, to seek safe refuge.

Molotov cocktails were thrown into the entrance of the building starting fierce fires, trapping many of those seeking refuge inside. With no way out through the main entrance, those inside found other exits blocked by far-right and right sector thugs. In desperation, many climbed onto window ledges and jumped, sometimes being met at the bottom by thugs who beat them. Russian TV showed a right-winger attempting to shoot people as they stood on the ledges.

One of those who suffered in this brutal attack was Aleksei Albu, leader of the left group “Borotba”. He explains what happened: “As we left the burning building, we were attacked by a crowd of nationalists. I think about a hundred suffered. People jumped from windows, everything was in smoke. They kicked those lying on the ground. I, and one of our activists were beaten around the head. … The Right Sector, who attacked the trade union building were fully armed and loaded with ammunition, they were well prepared. These neo-nazi fighters brutally dealt with the defenders of Odessa”.

At the same time, others who had been on the original march, seeing the horrors facing those in the trade union building gathered into a small crowd to carry scaffolding across the square to allow some of those trapped to escape.

Kiev’s anti-terror operation

Elsewhere in East Ukraine there has been a serious deterioration of the situation, particularly in the Donetsk region, the industrial heartland of the country. Ukrainian troops are attempting to seize back government buildings in as many as ten cities which have been taken over by supporters of the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ (DPR).

Now that the war of words has degenerated into shooting, the death toll is rising rapidly. Reportedly, at least three Ukrainian army helicopters have been shot down. Russian TV reports that the Ukrainian army is often reluctant to fight and claims that as soon as action against civilians is required, the army pulls back so that the newly formed “National guard” steps in. The “National guard” consists to a large degree of those who were in the right wing militias during the Maidan protests. Reports are now appearing that support for those opposing the Ukrainian army in Slavyansk are soon to get reinforcements from other towns, including from the now Russian Crimea.

An opinion poll carried out in Donetsk at the end of March, reports that 50% of the city’s population are in favour of maintaining a unified Ukraine, but over half of those think that the region should have more authority over economic and taxation issues. Only 16% think the region should have federal status within Ukraine. The remainder were divided between whether the region should join Russia or for Ukraine to re-join a formation similar to the USSR. Of course, all opinion polls need to be treated with great caution, particularly when events are changing so quickly.

This underlines the situation faced by the Ukrainian elite. It is far from clear that the Ukrainian state has the forces to restore order in the East while the population are suffering more and more from the economic crisis. While currently only a minority look towards Russia to resolve their problems, most people are afraid that military intervention will only lead to civil war. But if disorder and chaos continue to grow and there are repeats of such tragedies as Odessa, the mood could quickly develop to demand more separation from Kiev and a “strong hand” steps in, thus leading to a growth in support for Russian “assistance” to restore stability.

The mood of the miners

Donetsk is at the heart of Ukraine’s coal-industry which still employs 500,000. This mighty section of the working class still maintains its traditions from the struggles in the late eighties and early nineties.

Thousands of miners in the neighboring Lugansk region went on strike for a couple of days last week over wages. Earning less than 400 euro a month, they were angry that the Kiev government was threatening to impose another charge on their wages to finance the restoration of the area around Maidan. Although the Russian media and pro-Russian activists have claimed that the miners are now firmly on their side, groups of miners have been seen both supporting the separatists and in the Maidan, but not in an organised or mass way.

The miners are concerned over the situation. Many want a unified Ukraine, but think a referendum is necessary to force the central government to concede more rights and a degree of autonomy, some support federalisation. Often they comment that they are more worried about the growth of instability in the region.

Putin’s announcement

With East Ukraine appearing to be on the verge of all-out conflict between rebels and armed forces of the Kiev government, the pro-Russian fighters were clearly hoping that this week-end’s “referendum” in Donetsk would see a huge “yes” vote in support of the self-proclaimed Donetsk Peoples’ Republic opening the way for it to appeal for “support” from nearby Russia.

However in an apparent about face, Putin announced on Wednesday that he thought the referendum should be postponed. He further said that Russian troops would be pulled back from the Ukrainian border and that he would conditionally approve May’s presidential election as a step towards resolving the crisis.

Once again, it seems that Putin has caught the western powers by surprise. Although distrustful of his motives, they will find it difficult to go ahead quickly with the third round of sanctions or to dismiss Russia easily from any proposed settlement.

Putin’s motives are still under question. Russia’s economy is certainly feeling the effect of sanctions, on top of an already developing recession. The economic and social costs of deeper conflict in Ukraine and the perspective of an all-out military conflict worries even Russia’s war-mongers.

Many in Russia and Ukraine see Putin’s move as a tactical manoeuvre. Although he has called for Sunday’s referendum’s to be postponed, the pro-Russian activists in Donetsk have declared they will go ahead anyway and are frantically photocopying ballot papers for distribution. But whatever the case, the genie of chaos and ethnic conflict has already been released and it will be difficult to contain.

A left alternative

Unfortunately, the left is weak in the Ukraine. The main “left wing” party, the Communist party was the main coalition partner in Yanukovich’s government where it pursued a pro-Russian foreign policy arguing that Ukraine should join Russia’s customs union and a domestic policy tail-ending that of Yanukovich’s “Party of Regions”.

While the small non-parliamentary left uses radical phrases about the need to fight fascism, it has quickly divided into two camps. Leaders of the ‘Left opposition’ group openly call for the Kiev government to be treated as a legitimate government, established by “a genuine revolution that attacked the oligarchs” and support the signing of the ‘Association agreement’ with the EU with a “more fair austerity policy”. They brush aside the significance of the far right and right sector involvement in the Maidan movement.

The ‘Borotba’ group on the anti-Maidan side say they are against Russian intervention in Ukraine and use left wing phraseology and demands. However, they direct all their anger against what they call the “Kiev Junta” and work closely with pro-Russian groups. They explain that they are against intervention by Russia, but then carry uncritical reports on their site of pro-Russian actions. For example on 5 May, they carried a video film on their site headed “Two battalions of Crimean defenders come to help Slavyansk”. The leader of this clearly well trained military formation states in the video that “Our task is to take no prisoners. No-one. We are here to destroy. We are moving there (to Slavyansk) and will remove anything that stands in our way”.

The working class needs to act

The only way to avoid the looming catastrophe is for the working class from across Ukraine to break the national divide and intervene in a unified way by organising joint trans-ethnic defence and anti-war committees to mobilise mass opposition to the numerous far-right organisations and war-mongers on all sides, who are trying to divide working people in Ukraine and push the country into war.   A movement can unite all Ukrainian working people by leading a struggle against austerity, factory and mine closures and fighting for a decent living standard for all.  An effective workers’ movement would oppose the harsh austerity measures demanded by the EU and IMF as well as the attempts by Russian capital to take over industry for its own benefit, which would only lead to further “optimisation” and closures. The miners can clearly play a central role in this.

Such a united struggle could lay the basis for establishing a mass workers’ party based on democratic trade unions prepared to stand up for the rights of all Ukrainian working people whatever their ethnic background, which would insist on guarantees of the democratic and national rights for all ethnic groups across the whole of Ukraine including the election of regional leaders, the right to use Russian and other languages, and increased economic and political powers for those regions that want them. Rather than accept the current situation in which elections are held with no candidates or parties to represent the interests of working people, an effective workers’ party would fight for a constituent assembly, in which working people, represented through their trade unions, political parties and representatives elected in the workplaces and residential areas, could decide how Ukraine will be democratically governed.

The overwhelming majority of working people in Ukraine do not want to be dragged into deeper conflict. A mass workers’ party would oppose the attempts by the different imperialist forces and their oligarch friends to divide the Ukraine. Instead, the country’s wealth and natural resources should be taken into public ownership under democratic control and management to ensure all working people in Ukraine have decent living standards and pensions backed up with free quality health care and education as part of a democratically managed socialist planned economy.

Internationally, the capitalist system has still not recovered from the worst global crisis since the 1930s. The different imperialist powers whether the US, EU or Russia are fighting between themselves over who controls the world’s resources, and now Ukraine has found itself in the centre of this struggle. The only way out of this is for the Ukrainian working class to act, to establish a genuine working class party that would strive to unite the working class around a genuine socialist alternative to the pro-capitalist and oligarch forces that currently dominate Ukrainian politics. It would fight for a democratic socialist government that would establish a socialist Ukraine in which the rights of all minorities would be assured, as part of a wider alliance of democratic socialist states.

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