Rob Jones (Moscow) and Alexandr Shurman (Kyiv), reposted from socialistworld.net

Ukraine has become one of the most crisis ridden states in Europe. Now a new round of elections is looming in which workers, the youth and all those who want a democratic and free society, in which economic and social needs are guaranteed, will be left without a voice.

In 2013, mass protests in “Euromaidan” led to the overthrow of the Yanukovich government, but because of the lack of a left alternative, a pro-EU neoliberal government supported by the far right came to power. Now the Ukrainian working class and youth are paying the price. The military conflict in East Ukraine has consumed massive financial resources, and most importantly caused huge human suffering and the loss of thousands of lives. And now, Ukraine once one of the richest parts of the Soviet Union has, according to the IMF, fallen behind Albania and Moldovia to become the poorest country in Europe.

Before Euromaidan, many had illusions that by aligning Ukraine with the European Union, life would become better with less corruption, improved living standards and, certainly in comparison to the increasingly authoritarian Russia, more social and political freedoms. Since 2013, the reality of the EU’s position has become clear. It, together with the IMF, has provided about 10 billion euros not of direct financial help but of credit, barely enough to make a difference. In return, it demands major attacks on living standards, including huge price increases for gas and housing and the privatisation of twenty of the largest state corporations. At the same time, in 2016, alone, Ukraine lost more than 50 billion euros due to the war.

Of course, the EU is unlikely to significantly step up support because it does not want such a large crisis-ridden country in its block at a time when it has a whole number of other problems to deal with – the budget crisis, Brexit, the immigration crisis and the growth of right populism.

Despite the current global economic crisis, the world’s economy has tripled in size since the collapse of the USSR, yet Ukraine has barely managed to expand by 10% in the same period. According to official statistics, the “average” salary has more than doubled since 2013 From 3619 hryvnia to 9042. But their actual worth has plummeted from $443 to $321. This nominal growth has to an extent given an impression of improving living conditions, but, in reality, prices have sky-rocketed to eat up the gain. Electricity is now four times more expensive, rent twice, gas seven times, water four times, heating 16 times and hot water five times more expensive. Food prices are no better. So bad is the situation that even the usually inert trade unions have started to mobilise against price rises and for an increase in the minimum wage up to the average wage. Thousands participated in the demonstration in Kiev in October in support of this demand.

Effects of pro-EU economic polices

Supporters of the pro-western neoliberal economic policies of President Poroshenko claim the Ukrainian economy is now growing at a modest rate due to the reforms pushed through by the EU and IMF. But the reality is much more complex.

Since Euromaidan, GDP has fallen by 16% in part, not wholly due to the crisis in Donetsk and Lugansk – two of the most industrialised regions of Ukraine. The result of the EU/IMF reforms was to push up the cost of everyday necessities thus reducing domestic consumption. Corruption continued to flourish and more of the country’s wealth was transferred to the oligarchs.

The modest, practically insignificant growth since 2015 is mainly due to a more favorable position on global commodities markets, a drop in energy costs and the weather, which has allowed increased grain exports. In addition, a strong market in IT services has developed, exports of which easily exceed the value of exports from the whole industrial sector.

But the re-orientation towards the EU is creating other tensions. Heavy industry in the east, which in the past has driven the Ukrainian economy, is declining. In part this is because it relies on close links with Russia, while new export orientated factories are being established closer to the EU. These factories have small work-forces usually working at low wage rates taking advantage of relaxed border controls. Thus EU companies benefit from lower labour costs. This change in the economic balance of forces is only likely to further exacerbate tensions between the regions.

War continues to wage

If the masses are united in suffering from the economic crisis, they are divided by the war. The human cost of the war in East Ukraine, according to the latest UN report, now exceeds 13,000 lives, with 1.7 million people internally displaced in Ukraine and another million have fled abroad mainly to Russia. Unbelievably, in the 21st century, trenches for waging war are being dug. One economic analysis suggests that up to 20% of the country’s GDP is eaten up by the conflict. 

The negotiations in Minsk, the Normandy group and other initiatives have all failed to resolve the conflict. Over twenty ceasefires have been declared and quickly broken. Both sides deflate the numbers of their own casualties and inflate those of their opponents but whatever the true figures, every week there are reports of multiple breaches of the nominal ceasefire and casualties.

National question remains an open wound

As long as the war continues, the raw wound that has opened up between the Ukrainian and Russian peoples will remain.

The Kremlin, while cutting resources for health, education and pensions, assures the population that it is defending Russian interests abroad. Any weaknesses in the economy it blames on international sanctions, although the wealth of the Russian oligarchs continues to grow.

Following Euromaidan, the Kremlin and its oligarch backers used the new Kiev regime’s anti-Russian rhetoric and involvement of the far right in the government to provoke fear among the ethnic Russian and Russian speaking populations of Crimea and East Ukraine, many of whom believed that their language and national rights were under attack. The Crimean peninsula became the focal point of the conflict between European/US imperialism and Russia, which intervened to defend their ‘near abroad’ geo-strategic interests.

The Kremlin’s more ambitious aim, voiced at one time by Putin himself, to create Novorossiya – a new Russian region stretching from Odessa to Transdniestria was checked, in part, because the costs and political difficulties of integrating Ukraine’s large Russian speaking regions into Russia would be dramatically higher than those for the Crimea. Moreover they cannot justify all-out war for Donetsk and Lugansk to the Russian people, particularly now that opposition to corruption, economic stagnation and the authoritarian policies of the regime is emerging. Instead the Kremlin channels enough resources to the two republics to maintain their mainly military, but also economic survival, and use them as leverage against Kiev.

Socialists support the right of the people of Crimea to freely and without any hint of coercion decide their future, be it enhanced autonomy within Ukraine, independence or as part of Russia. But as the experience of joining the authoritarian and capitalist Russia has shown, simply changing allegiance from one capitalist power to another changes little. Although Russia promised much higher living standards, not only now is the Crimea one of the poorest regions in Russia but it also has high prices. Infrastructure problems with water and electricity have not been solved. Many Ukrainians have either left or been coerced to adopt Russian citizenship, whilst the Tatar population suffers consistent harassment. Crimeans who have lived all their life on the peninsula find that the better jobs and places in government bodies are taken by Russians drafted in by the Kremlin.

Ukrainian elite have no solution to end war

The war-mongering of the Ukrainian elite continues. With elections looming, Poroshenko makes hawkish speeches to international forums demanding an end to Russian aggression and for domestic audiences, aggressively promoting his election slogan “Faith [religious], Army, Language”. He equates the importance of the recent schism between the Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox Church with the struggle to join the European Union and NATO. The expansion of NATO – created during the cold war as an alliance of western imperialist powers – across Eastern Europe, as far, in places, as Russia’s border, in itself provokes reaction from the Russian hawks. While the European Union – a backbone of the neo liberal project – is quite happy to exploit Ukrainian cheap labour whilst demanding that housing and gas prices are increased.

The various political parties vying for power in the coming elections have all, in recent years, hidden their lack of economic and social solutions behind patriotic rhetoric. This remains the case. The leader of the Batkivschyna party, Yulia Tymoshenko, a leading contender in the Presidential race, has announced the “formation of a war cabinet”, and that she will refuse to recognise the establishment of a federal Ukraine, a demand first raised by the Russian foreign ministry supposedly to give the Donetsk and Lugansk regions a measure of autonomy and transform the army into a professional army. “Russia” she says, “will pay for the aggression”. Parties such as the “Opposition block” and “For life” that have been formed from the remnants of Yanukovich’s “Party of Regions”, although positioning themselves as pro-Ukraine and “for a peaceful resolution”, generally merely echo Russian foreign policy interests.

War weariness grows

Given the lack of a genuine left alternative prepared to speak up in defence of the economic, social, democratic and national rights of all working people and able to cut across the chauvinistic and warmongering rhetoric on both sides, it is hardly surprising that there has been a polarisation of attitudes between the population of the two countries. Russians are told that the country is under threat from US/NATO forces and need to rally behind their leader while Ukrainians believe that their only way out is to rely on the EU and NATO. The working class is thus divided along national lines rather than united in a joint struggle against corrupt capitalism, while the oligarchs and their corrupt hangers-on continue to enrich themselves.

Nevertheless, in Russia, support for the ruling party and president has dropped to levels last seen ten years ago. In Ukraine, over 70% of the population, if opinion polls are to be believed, want to see an end to the war. There are clear signs that war-weariness is growing. The time is coming when both Russians and Ukrainians will begin to see through the propaganda of their ruling elites and draw their own independent conclusions. A strong political left force arguing for a clear alternative to the policies of the Ukrainian and Russian elites would speed this process up.

Weakness of the Ukrainian elite

Although Ukraine under Poroshenko has become more authoritarian it has not reached the level of Russia. Since Maidan, Russian propaganda has presented Ukraine as a “fascist” country, yet in striving to draw closer to the EU, the Poroshenko regime has been forced to observe some of the more democratic norms. It is still at least has a veneer of a “parliamentary democracy” in which different political forces can present their programme and gain support of the electorate in elections.

But the bourgeoisie has not been able to consolidate a political force capable of attracting the support of a significant section of Ukrainian voters. Poroshenko’s party now attracts less than 10% of voters, if opinion polls are to be believed, and he resorts to undemocratic methods to side-line potential opponents. This situation has led one commentator, Zenon Zewada, to bemoan the lack of a real opposition, which is “related to the moral bankruptcy of Ukraine’s elite, which has failed to produce a single political party that is trusted and supported by the public in 25 years of Ukrainian independence”.

The tragedy of the situation is that there is a force, the working class, that is strong enough to present a genuine alternative to the horrors of Ukrainian capitalism but that, as yet, no political trend has emerged that can unite and mobilise it to lead it in the struggle for political power. This leaves a real political vacuum in society and political life is dominated by the squabbles between the different clan and business interests, alienating working people even further from politics.

The growth of populism

With elections looming, opinion polls show that no one political force has the support of more than 20%. Up to eight different parties could win places in parliament – tragically, not one of them offers any sort of programme that would begin to resolve the desperate situation of the Ukrainian masses.

Significantly they all spend more time addressing economic and social issues than on the war in the east. Even neoliberal figures, such as Yulia Tymoshenko, recognise the depths of the economic crisis facing electors reflected in her programme “New course”. It rejects increasing prices on electricity and rents, opposes the IMF’s demand to privatise farmland and even defends nationalisation – or rather opposes further privatisations. She consciously presents herself as a “social-democrat” although is still remembered from her time as Deputy Prime Minister for Fuel and energy and then as Premier, when she lobbied for business interests. 

Reflecting widespread despair, support for Hrytsenko’s Civic Position Party was for a period growing. A former army colonel, who trained in the US, he also attacks the oligarchs and promises to send Poroshenko to jail. But his real position is outlined in a recent interview: “Ukrainians should not fear authoritarianism. It is not a dictatorship which suppresses human dignity and human rights. The word ‘authoritarianism’ comes from ‘authority.'” “Enlightened authoritarianism, he argues “takes a country to a new, higher level of economic development and democracy.” Unfortunately for him he has been dealt a taste of his own medicine with the opening of a criminal case against him for corruption during his time as Minister of Defence.

The resurrected forces of Yanukovich’s, Party of Regions – the For Life Party, and the Opposition Bloc, offer little new. It was the Party of Region’s policies representing the interests of Russian oligarchic capitalism that led to Euromaidan in the first place. Russian interests will attempt to intervene in the coming elections using their well-practiced methods of “hybrid war” – maybe even cynically stepping up military activities in the east hoping this will push a section of the war weary population to support appeasement with Russia.

The far-right

Many workers and youth throughout the world were shocked, when during Euromaidan, the far right “Svoboda” and “Right Sector” gained significant support during and after Euromaidan. Some described Ukraine as a “fascist state”. The Kremlin used this to justify its intervention to organise the referendum in the Crimea, accompanied by massive propaganda about the “fascist” coup in Kiev.

Poroshenko, like his anti-hero in the Kremlin, has moved to the right, stealing many of the far-right’s policies. His attacks on the rights of Hungarians to use their language, which mirror similar attacks on minority languages in Russia, are just one example.

But now Svoboda and Right sector have became discredited in their own regions, in West Ukraine. Their calls for intensified military actions, as well as their own participation in the war, has alienated a section of the electorate. And these feelings have been intensified by general distaste at the torch-lit marches and the brutal attack on Roma by these far-right thugs.

Although they have lost electoral influence, the audience for far-right parties has not completely disappeared – their place has been taken by the Radical party and Samopomoch. They too lean on populist policies, opposing the sale of agricultural land and calling for increased health spending but, when elected to regional governments, they are proving as incompetent and anti-working class as the other parties. Their poisonous nationalism helps to divide Ukrainians and stoke the fires of war. And as the brutal attacks by members of the far-right “National corpus” on young anarchists in Lviv in September show, they remain extremely dangerous.

The joke candidate pulls ahead

While all the likely candidates for President have negative poll ratings (those not prepared to vote under any circumstances) larger than positive (those prepared to vote for them) and the number of electors who would like to see a new political force grows, a new figure has seized the lead in the latest poll – Vladimir Zelenskiy – star of a TV satire show – ‘Servant of the people”. It is rumoured he is attached to the oligarch Ihor Kolomoiski.

Is there a way out?

In the 1980s, it was the Soviet miners, to a large degree the Donbas miners, who organised in opposition and dealt a fatal blow to the misrule of the Stalinist bureaucracy, which had destroyed the planned economy and suppressed the rights of the different nationalities.

Ukraine became an independent state, but unfortunately led by a pro-capitalist leadership. At the start of the Euromaidan crisis, if the working class had intervened in a decisive way offering a programme to tackle the economic despair and guarantee democratic and social rights, it could have united the Ukrainian masses and prevented the division along nationalistic lines and the consequent war.

It is still only the working class, organised and politically conscious that can show a way out of the capitalist nightmare. But today’s working class is changing – it is younger, it works not just in traditional heavy industry, millions of young workers are exploited everyday in the services sector. Socialists need to seek links with these layers and help to organise and politicise this new young working class.

The national question and workers’ unity

But if socialist organisations do not have the correct approach to the national question they are doomed to failure. This is never more true than in Ukraine today. The country is being torn apart by the conflict between the different imperialist powers – the US/EU and NATO, one side, and Russia, on the other side. They, together with their local allies, in their struggle for markets, wealth and power, are prepared to whip up national differences. Working people, in particular, the working class, have different interests. They have the right to speak the language they want, to live in the country they wish and most of all, want to live in peace. 

A socialist organisation is needed to argue for a united working class struggle involving Ukrainian, Russian, Hungarian workers, not just on economic and social demands but also in defence of the rights of the different national groups. There should be no restriction on language rights. A genuinely independent Ukraine would not coerce national groupings to stay against their will. If genuine working-class organisations, uniting all nationalities existed, they could ensure the resolution of these problems by allowing regions or nationalities to democratically decide whether they want to stay in a unified or federal Ukraine, or even leave and live as an independent entity.

But as long as the country is being torn apart by the imperialist powers or by the struggle between domestic oligarchs for wealth and power there can be no genuinely independent Ukraine. Therefore the struggle for national rights needs to be conducted in parallel with the struggle to get rid of the system that causes poverty, authoritarianism and ethnic conflict – against capitalism. One recent opinion poll pointed out that nearly 60% of the population support an increase in state ownership. The key heights of the economy need to be taken back into state ownership, without compensation for the oligarchs, and managed by elected worker’s committees, as part of a democratically planned economy. This would allow for proper wages to be paid and for a free and quality health care and education system established.

These measures combined with the establishment of all democratic rights and freedoms, including free speech, the right to organise in trade unions and political parties with the guarantee of national, language rights and the right to self-determination, would mean the building of a genuinely independent, democratic socialist Ukraine.

But even a socialist Ukraine, if surrounded by capitalist states, will be subject to attempts to ruin the economy and undermine its existence as an independent country. Our struggle is therefore international. By building trade unions, youth organisations and a socialist political party in Ukraine itself, it is necessary to coordinate and cooperate with such organisations in neighboring and other European countries, to bring an end once and for all to imperialist intervention, capitalist exploitation and war and establish a genuine democratic and equal voluntary socialist federation of Europe and the wider world.

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