Ukraine is in crisis, and each month brings new developments. The
corrupt and hated President, Viktor Yanukovych, was deposed from office
on February 22 after three months of mass protests called Euromaidan.
The protests began when Yanukovych, under pressure from the Russian
government, backed off from an economic agreement he was negotiating
with the European Union. When the government met these protests with
violence, they turned into something broader than a protest over an
economic plan; it became a widespread rising of the people against
corruption, repression, poverty, and Russian interference. Yanukovych
fled Ukraine on Feb. 21, was replaced by Acting President Olexsandr
Torchynov on Feb. 22, and then by Petro Poroshenko, who was elected on
The fall of Yanukovych was only a partial victory. The movement that overthrew him was not led by representatives of the masses, but by a faction from the same privileged elite which has ruled Ukraine since independence in 1991. The majority of protesters remained skeptical of whether the new government would bring substantial change; they are not satisfied with simply dismantling a few of the repressive agencies from the Yanukovych years. Another section of the masses, while upset with Yanukovych, had stayed aloof from the protest movement because they didn't want the deal with the EU or were concerned about how the movement's leaders would treat the specific concerns of the Russian-ethnic population of Ukraine. Meanwhile the government moved immediately to implement austerity measures as part of a deal with the European Union, and some protests against this have already taken place.
By itself, this situation would have been complicated and difficult enough. But, in addition, the Russian government began a brutal intervention into Ukrainian affairs. It would not accept that the Ukrainian people themselves would decide whether to move closer economically to the EU or Russia. It has demanded the right to determine Ukrainian affairs; and it is trying to dismember the country. It has flooded the airwaves of eastern Ukraine with wild denunciations of the Ukrainian government as illegitimate, fascist, and committing genocide against Russian-ethnic Ukrainians; for three months it declared that Yanukovych was still the legitimate president of Ukraine; it has annexed Crimea; it has threatened Ukraine with a troop buildup on the border; it has encouraged and supplied Russian separatists in eastern and southern Ukraine, who have declared independent regimes in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts (provinces); and it has treated the independence of Ukraine as a joke. These Russian actions aren't the sole cause of the current divisions among the Ukrainian people, but they are the main reason why these differences have led to armed conflict in eastern Ukraine.
The US government and the EU have imposed some sanctions against Russia for the annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine. But the interests of the Western capitalist governments aren't the same as those of the workers of Ukraine. If Ukrainian workers rise up en masse against austerity, the western governments will oppose them more harshly than they oppose Russian intervention. Indeed, the EU and IMF have already imposed the same brutal program for squeezing Ukrainian working people as has been made against the workers of other countries.
Ukrainian workers face a difficult situation. They have to deal with Russian intervention, the austerity that the new government is implementing, the threat of ultra-nationalist and far right groups, and differences among themselves. But how can they handle these things? The Ukrainian left is just as split over the path forward as the left-wing is anywhere in the world. (1) It was not able to form an influential section of its own within the anti-Yanukovych movement. The progressive and class-conscious activists in Ukraine still face the task of developing a mass political movement which will appear to the masses as a serious working class alternative. Without that, the masses will again and again be presented only with the alternatives of the different bourgeois factions.
But this doesn't mean that it was wrong for the people to rise in struggle today. If the Ukrainian people hadn't stood up against the corruption and authoritarianism of the Yanukovych government, they would have been reduced to the level of pawns in the hands of whoever sought to trample upon them. If the Ukrainian people don't resist the efforts of the Russian government to dominate their affairs, they will lose the fruits of independence. The years since independence in 1991 may have been economically hard ones, combined with incessant political and nationalist squabbling, but there also has been a revival of political life among the Ukrainian people. Ukrainian workers are also facing a long and hard struggle against austerity, but this may also bring a new opportunity to form a militant class movement and reconstruct their unions and political organizations so that they are really independent of their own bourgeoisie, as well as that of the West, and that of Russia.
The economic misery of the masses is the background to the present crisis. The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 saw Ukraine and over a dozen other republics becoming independent countries, separate from Russia. But Ukraine, Russia, and the rest of the former USSR fell into a deep economic slump. The replacement of state-capitalism by market capitalism didn't result in the promised prosperity, but greater inequality. In Ukraine as in Russia, the sell-off of state enterprises to individual owners resulted in the fabulous enrichment of a handful of privileged exploiters; the richer these new "oligarchs" grew, the more insecure the mass of workers. The major politicians either represented the oligarchs, or used their positions to loot the country and become oligarchs themselves.
In the 1990s, the Ukrainian economy contracted by more than half,
workers' wages, pensions, and savings were devastated by
hyperinflation. Ukraine resumed economic growth in 2000, but before the
economy could even recover its highest former level, it was hit hard by
the world financial crisis of 2008. The different presidencies wanted
to impose austerity measures: both the Yushchenko administration from
the "Orange" movement that had opposed Yanukovych in 2004 and for a
time raised wages and pensions, and the Yanukovych administration that
came to power again in 2010. But, because of mass outrage, they
couldn't go far with austerity. Nor was there progress on any more
appropriate way to deal with the economy's problems. Corruption
remained rampant; industry concentrated in eastern Ukraine continued to
stagnate; small-scale agriculture in western Ukraine bogged down;and
the government's financial problems festered.
This economic privation has profoundly affected politics. Ukraine gained independence in the midst of an upsurge of worker militancy, including strikes by miners in east Ukraine. There was major hope for change and progress; an overwhelming majority of the Ukrainian people looked forward with anticipation towards Ukrainian independence, including Russian ethnic workers in east Ukraine; and working people believed that, after years of enforced silence, they would exert a real influence on the country. Then came the long years of crisis in the 1990s, the continuing corruption, and the domination of the country by a handful of rich oligarchs. It has left the working people without a clear path forward, and with many influenced by bourgeois nationalist trends, whether Ukrainian or Russian.
In this situation, the paths being considered were the alternatives set forward by the Ukrainian bourgeoisie: to forge closer economic relations with the European Union, or to join with Russia and its planned "Eurasian Union" of former constituents of the USSR. Both plans involved closer political as well as economic ties. Time was running out before a looming Ukrainian default on its debts, and the Yanukovych government was desperately looking for a large loan from somewhere, anywhere.
It might seem strange that anyone would want to move closer to the EU, given how austerity is racking Greece, Spain, and other countries. Ukraine lacks for jobs, and many young Ukrainians go abroad for work. They see much higher wages and better social conditions in neighboring EU countries. They see that one doesn't have to hand out a bribe in every situation: to the traffic cop, to get into the proper school, or to get a job. Many Ukrainians expect association with the EU to bring progress in cleaning up corruption and modernizing the country. They see the EU not as it is increasingly becoming, the arena of a bitter class struggle, but as they hope it will be.
The alternative was to join the Eurasian Union which Russia was building. In Russia, too, wages are higher than in Ukraine, although the corruption is similar. Aside from that, a sixth of Ukrainians are of Russian background, even more speak Russian as their native language, and Ukrainian industry has close ties with Russian markets. But there was less hope that a deal with the Eurasian Union, as opposed to one with the EU, would bring modernization; and many feared deepening interference by Russia in Ukrainian affairs. The Yanukovych government sought votes on the basis of Russian nationalism and represented the rich oligarchs of eastern Ukraine, such as the so-called Donetsk clan, so it might have been expected to back joining the Eurasian Union. But many oligarchs feared being eaten up by the more powerful Russian oligarchs; they thought a deal with the EU was safer; and they believed that Ukraine could continue to balance between east and west while making this deal. So the Yanukovych government itself took to exploring the EU deal.
In reality, neither the EU nor the Eurasian Union can solve Ukraine's problems; and certainly neither deal would be on terms favorable to the working class. The EU's neo-liberalism will squeeze Ukrainian workers as it has squeezed other European workers, while the Eurasian Union centers on Russia, whose economy depends largely on exports of gas, oil, and weapons to stay afloat and whose politics are authoritarian, definitely worse than those of Ukraine. The EU's economic liberalization will squeeze Ukrainian firms, but such squeezes in Ukraine, and in Russia's industrial sector too, too have been seen since 1991.
But what about Ukraine simply staying out of either economic group and refusing loans from east or west? The bourgeoisie wouldn't consider this, but it is a natural question. However, by itself, if nothing further were done, if the oligarchs were allowed to continue to squeeze the life out of the Ukrainian economy for their own private profit, staying free of both blocs wouldn't avoid catastrophe either. The Ukrainian government was facing bankruptcy; it had fallen well behind in paying for Russian gas; it had no idea what to do about it except beg for aid from the outside; and the oligarchs were keeping things under their control.
So one way or another, no matter whether in one or the other bloc or no bloc, a deeper crisis was on the agenda. The Ukrainian economy is going to face major changes fairly soon. Some major industries are likely to suffer badly, and agriculture was likely to face changes too. How could Ukraine retain its social benefits throughout this crisis, including free higher education, pensions, and an indexed minimum wage? How could it do better in providing relief and jobs for the unemployed? What would happen to the Ukrainian coal industry, which only survives on huge subsidies and is likely to be devastated in the next few years? (2) For that matter, how could it pay attention to environmental concerns, including the need to eventually eliminate coal mining and other dirty energy? There would need to be major changes, not only in taxation policy, but in how the economy was run and how economic decisions were made.
So dealing with the deepening economic crisis is not just a technical problem of tinkering at the edge of the economy: it is a class issue. Powerful interests like things in Ukraine as they are. The oligarchs have looted Ukraine and become rich, and they insist any change should preserve their wealth, not eliminate their status as ultra-rich exploiters. The foreign capitalists, from the EU or Russia, also only want change that serves their interest. Until the Ukrainian workers form a powerful political trend truly of their own; until they acquire a consciousness of their true interests and of the real nature of the different bourgeois trends, the economic alternatives will be restricted to those offered by the oligarchs. Only the class struggle can put some limits on what the capitalists will be trying to do. But the development of this new consciousness among the workers won't drop from the skies: it will only develop gradually as the masses try repeatedly to influence political life. Hence the importance of the people rising up, even in their present political disarray and despite the petty-bourgeois character to their actions, against the governments that disappoint them.
Indeed, despite the economic hardships since separation from the
Soviet Union in 1991, independence has gradually fostered a certain
political life among the Ukrainian people. The political freeze that
characterized life under Stalinist state-capitalism has slowly broken
up. Ukrainians have chafed at the rampant corruption and the political
disappointments, and there have been continual squabbles between the
two main ethnic groups, Ukrainian and Russian, and yet a certain common
life has developed and a certain passion for change and modernization,
especially among younger people formed by the years since 1991.
In the course of this, there have been two major attempts at change since the economic doldrums of the 1990s. They were not movements of the united working people against all of the privileged elite. Instead the elite itself was divided, and one section of the elite began a struggle against the other. But this gave an opening for a large section of the masses to express their discontent. (3)
The first of these attempts was the "Orange Revolution", which
was the wave of protest from November 2004 to January 2005 which
prevented then Prime Minister Yanukovych from stealing the 2004
presidential election. The protesters hoped that this movement would
bring something new, free up the political system which had until then
centered on a national president with vast powers, and lead to economic
progress. But the Orange administration that came to power did not
accomplish much. There was no major economic change. And it did not end
corruption. Being a government of the oligarchs, it didn't infringe on
their interests. It did raise wages and pensions, but the Orange
leaders fell into corrupt squabbling among themselves. This opened the
way for Yanukovych to win the presidential elections of 2010 and return
to power. This ushered in another bleak period of quasi-authoritarian
In power again, Yanukovych knew how to fabulously enrich himself, but he didn't know how to deal with Ukraine's economic problems. He vacillated between associating with the Eurasian Union or the European Union. In 2010 he was already demanding major cuts in social programs. By 2013 he was close to a deal with the European Union, and then, for no better reason than Russian intimidation, broke off the talks. This abrupt reversal triggered the outbreak of "Euromaidan", a protest movement centered on the central squares ("Maidan" means square in Ukrainian) of the capital city Kyiv (or Kiev).
At first the movement wasn't anywhere near as large as during the
former "Orange Revolution" of 2004. But from the start, Yanukovych used
force against the protesters, and harsher and harsher anti-protest laws
were passed. On the night of November 30, the brutal Berkut special
police dispersed demonstrators from Independence Square in a
particularly savage attack; and there was worse to come. This
bloodletting infuriated larger and larger numbers of people; it was the
trigger for the outpouring of pent-up discontent with the Yanukovych
The movement was not restricted to Independence Square or the
city of Kyiv. It was popular throughout western and central Ukraine,
and had some, if much less, support in eastern Ukraine. It was another
attempt by the masses to have some say over what happened to Ukraine,
and not simply to accept whatever officials or politicians said.
Thus Euromaidan, based on demanding an agreement with the EU, turned into what some just call "Maidan", a generalized protest. Everyone had their own grievance: against corruption, against the oligarchs, against the politicians, against the savage repression, or against Russian bullying of Ukraine. There was a widespread demand for what was regarded as "European" values and rights, but the common denominator among all protesters was the demand that Yanukovych must go. It embraced people from across the economic spectrum, but while workers participated, they didn't do so in large numbers or put forward a distinct political standpoint. (4) On the whole, it had a petty-bourgeois character.
Maidan had many glaring deficiencies. There was the failure in the
general consciousness to recognize the simmering class struggle in the
EU, or the class basis of Ukrainian politics. And there was the
dominant nationalist rhetoric. Hence, despite the almost universal
distrust of demonstrators for all the major politicians and factions,
and the hatred for the oligarchs, the bourgeois nationalist opposition
parties were its political leadership anyway. The biggest opposition
parties were Batkivshchyna (the All-Ukrainian Union "Fatherland"),
which had been a major participant in the "Orange" revolution, and UDAR
(the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform), led by the former boxer
Vitali Klitschko, the standpoint of which is close to the parties of
European Christian democracy, such as the present ruling party in
Germany. So there was no new political trend being built. Once again, a
mass outpouring was fighting old abuses, but unable to do much more
than back one ruling class faction with another.
Worse yet, the two main opposition parties, Batkivshchyna and UDAR, were in a coalition with a far right or fascist party, Svoboda ("Freedom"). Svoboda and some other far right elements, such as the even more obnoxious Pravyi Sektor ("Right Sector"), were only a tiny part of Maidan numerically, but they had a major role in the self-defense units that fought the police and in the organizational arrangements for the square occupation.
Clearly Maidan was a movement with many different aspects, with the bourgeois leadership seeking to reap the benefit of the struggle. In Ukraine today, without a left capable of being a major factor in the protests, it was unlikely that the movement would start out as anything else.
Shocking as this mixture is, many social movements around the world
have a similar disparate character. Different class trends have always
tried to make use of popular movements and issues. But today there is a
particular offensive by far right trends. Far right and fascist groups
like the infamous National Front in France and the bloody Golden Dawn
in Greece, dripping with the blood of the immigrants it murders in the
streets of Athens, seek votes as a supposed alternative to austerity.
Yet the working class and left-wing movements can't abandon
anti-austerity slogans because the fascists have learned to parody them
and turn them into ugly, anti-immigrant monstrosities; they have to
learn how to isolate and defeat the fascists. On the pain of utter
irrelevance, the left can't postpone taking part in mass uprisings
against political oppression or austerity till some later time when
there aren't any fascists in Europe; the fight against both austerity
and the fascists are immediate necessities. (5)
In Ukraine, the far right nationalists don't like the idea of association with the EU, but Svoboda and Pravyi Sektor were willing to join Euromaidan anyway, in an attempt to gain influence among the masses. They also used physical attacks and their position in Euromaidan to keep left-wing and trade-union forces from speakers' platforms and certain other prominent positions in the movement. (6) If pro-working class and left forces would boycott the struggle against hated corrupt leaders like Yanukovych because groups like Svoboda take part, they would isolate themselves from the mass of people and hand Svoboda, Pravyi Sektor, and other ultra-nationalist groups a tremendous victory.
The immediate result of Maidan was that Yanukovych fled Ukraine
for Russia, but this was but part of what the demonstrators wanted.
They wanted major changes in Ukraine, not just a change of faces, and
were skeptical of the new government that came into power. Indeed, what
happened was that once again a mass movement composed largely of
working people had brought to power a government connected to the
This is similar to what has happened elsewhere in a number of
struggles that have brought down hated regimes. Still, in Ukraine, as
elsewhere, the significance of the mass struggle goes beyond the fact
that another bourgeois government has come into office. Maidan is not
the same as the government that resulted, and it will have an effect
that goes beyond the question of who heads what ministry. How much
effect depends on what happens among the people, and especially on
whether the working people of Ukraine are able to develop a class
struggle against the austerity policies that the new government is
Thus the new government being another bourgeois government doesn't show that the mass protests were wasted, or that Maidan was a bourgeois conspiracy. In the present situation, it would have been impossible for the working masses to have brought a radical government to power. They weren't sufficiently organized or class-conscious for this; nor, for that matter, do the Ukrainian workers or the left presently have a reasonably clear idea of what such a government should do, if it were formed.
What would be possible is for the working class and left-wing activists to continually put pressure on this government and contest its policies, and those of the capitalists which it represents. The widespread skepticism in Maidan towards the government is already an advance from the more passive mass attitude at the time of the Orange revolution. This might provide some room for a protracted struggle in the course of which the left-wing movement could seek to clarify its own stands, rally the masses around definite policies, and build a mass, radical working class movement.
An alternate view of the situation was put forward by the supporters of the ousted president Yanukovych and by the Russian government. According to them, with the overthrow of Yanukovych there was no longer a legitimate or elected government in Ukraine. There supposedly had been a fascist coup; Euromaidan was a fascist movement; and the only way to make things right would either be to reinstate Yanukovych or to dismember Ukraine.
But the Maidan uprising was neither fascist nor a coup. It was not the act of a small group taking over the government, but the entirely proper and legitimate protest of the Ukrainian people against the corrupt and repressive administration of Yanukovych. Moreover, he was deposed by an almost three-quarters vote of the elected Ukrainian national parliament, the Verhovna Rada (literally: Supreme Council). If the Rada wasn't a gang of unelected fascist adventurers during the period when it was backing Yanukovych and approving his demands to eliminate the right to protest, it's hard to see how it became unelected fascist adventurers when the same Rada deposed Yanukovych, reinstated the right to protest, appointed an interim government, and set early elections for a new president for May 25. These elections have taken place, and Petro Peroshenko was elected. Yet the claim is still made that this is an "unelected" or "unconstitutional" government. Meanwhile, there will probably new parliamentary elections later this year, rather than waiting for the parliamentary term to end in 2017. (7)
Overall, the Ukrainian political system has been only partially democratic since independence in 1991(and not democratic at all prior to independence), excessive powers being concentrated in the president, and the new government is only slightly changed from the previous one. But one of the first things done by the Rada as Yanukovych fell was to restore the 2004 Constitution, which meant somewhat reducing presidential powers in favor of the parliament. (8) A few days later, on February 26, the Rada abolished the Berkut, or special riot police that were used by Yanukovych to savagely attack demonstrators. The government also began criminal investigation of the system of titushky used by Yanukovych, titushky being government-paid thugs who were used to attack opponents in an anonymous manner. The government, as part of austerity, is also cutting personnel in law enforcement agencies. And, with respect to the issue of federalism, the government has indicated willingness to replace the appointment of governors by the president with their election. This is not the building up of a fascist state.
The government is also proceeding with the Association Agreement
the European Union, as a majority of Ukrainians probably desire, but a
quite sizeable minority oppose. It will come with a price that hurts
people, although much of this price was going to be paid in any case.
The government is firmly neo-liberal and is immediately implementing
the austerity measures demanded by the EU and the IMF. These measures
will squeeze the masses and have already been opposed by some workers'
actions. They involve raising energy prices, cutting government
services, instituting various taxes, floating the foreign exchange
rate, and freezing the minimum wage (which otherwise would be adjusted
each year) despite the fact that the cost of living will sharply
increase this year. 12,000 social workers were among the first to see
their jobs eliminated, and perhaps 80,000 law enforcement personnel
will be eliminated too. Of course, if the Ukrainian government is
forced to pay higher prices for Russian gas, as Putin has been
demanding, it will add to the pressure on the Ukrainian economy:
Russian-imposed austerity and repaying Russian loans is as painful as
Western-imposed austerity. Meanwhile, at the end of May it was
announced that 38 of the state-owned coal mines (the state sector
presently comprises about 50% of the Ukrainian coal industry) will be
As well, the Orange politicians of Batkivshchyna have committed the serious crime of taking on the fascist Svoboda party as a junior partner in the government. Several ministers are from Svoboda, and a post had also been offered to Pravyi Sektor, but was declined. The Baktivshchyna ministers probably believe that they have kept Svoboda in line, and the post-Yanukovych government has not been a fascist administration, but a center-right one. But including the far right in the government legitimizes them, as well as being a sword hanging over the heads of the masses. And this has been going on for a long time: the Orange politicians have been making agreements with Svoboda for ten years. This is another illustration of why the masses need a movement separate from and opposed to the bourgeois political parties. (9)
So, adding it all up, the Kyiv government is legitimate, but it is one which represents the Ukrainian capitalists and is led by an oligarch, Petro Petroshenko. It does not satisfy the demands of the Ukrainian masses, and like all Ukrainian governments, it is only partially democratic. (10) But not all opposition to this government is opposition from the left. What is needed is opposition that helps the working class organize, and opposition that is based on serious alternatives to government policies. Defense of the previous Yanukovych government is opposition from the right, and it is essentially a demand to take Ukraine backward and reinstitute a more repressive state.
One of the deficiencies of the movement against Yanukovych was that it only had weak support in eastern and south-eastern Ukraine, which were strongholds of Yanukovych's Party of Regions. In those areas most people had come to have a low opinion of Yanukovych, but especially among the Russian ethnic population there was widespread skepticism about the political forces in the rest of Ukraine. As well, people in these areas tended to favor joining the Eurasian Union while those elsewhere tended to favor associating with the European Union. Some people, especially younger people, in the east and southeast took part in Maidan, but on the whole the population was passive.
The Party of Regions made an attempt to organize counterdemonstrations against Euromaidan: this was the beginning of the so-called Antimaidan. The main part of this was a series of four rallies held in Kyiv between last November 2013 through January 2014. These actions were much smaller than those of Maidan, and sometimes people were paid, or received school credit, for attendance. Aside from the rallies in Kyiv, a few more were held in east Ukraine or Crimea, but even fewer people attended.
These events petered out at the end of January, while Yanukovych was still in office and Maidan was still active. But after Yanukovych fled, Antimaidan revived in a new form. It gained more support from below, but not on the basis of backing Yanukovych. The movement had several different motivations. (11)
For one thing, the new government immediately enacted austerity measures, and this gave rise to discontent and protests. The cuts in the government workforce affect all Ukraine, but presumably particularly affect areas such as east Ukraine, which had been the recipient of patronage from the Party of Regions. Indeed, the disbandment of Yanukovych's brutal riot police, the Berkut, itself left many east Ukrainians unemployed, and formations of uniformed ex-Berkut took part in Antimaidan actions. Economic protests were not restricted to Antimaidan, however, but also took place among Maidan supporters. And there are also purely economic strikes of miners in east Ukraine. For example, the miners on strike at Kryvyi Rih are fighting about solely economic demands, and their union, the Independent Union of Miners, supports Maidan and has repeatedly been attacked by Russian separatists. (12)
Another motivation for Antimaidan is the view that the rest of the
country had been living off east Ukrainian industry. This idea,
encouraged by the Party of Regions, downplays the extent of the crisis
of east Ukrainian industry and the size of the subsidies that it had
been receiving from the national Ukrainian government. Such viewpoints
have fueled the demand for federalism. The extensive powers of the
Ukrainian president had included appointing the governors of oblasts
(provinces); it would indeed be more democratic for them to be elected.
But federalism can have a number of different meanings.
Finally, there was also the separatist section of Antimaidan. A
minority of the population in eastern and southeastern Ukraine support
joining Russia. Earlier polls indicated that far more people in this
area are opposed to secession. (13)
They may be upset with the policies
of the Kyiv government or suspicious of the Ukrainian army; they may be
of Russian background; but they regard themselves as Ukrainians.
However, what is very widespread in these regions is passivity and the
feeling that one is being put upon by all the political forces, even
those one favors. As well, time will tell whether people's sentiments
have changed as a result of the several months of fighting in the
The oligarchs who had been associated with the Party of Regions
benefitted from Antimaidan. The need to find support in east Ukraine
encouraged the Kyiv government to turn to them as people with influence
and/or positions in that region; it gave them bargaining power with
Kyiv. But they didn't want east Ukraine to be actually detached from
Ukraine, and they didn't want to see their businesses damaged by armed
gangs. People still argue over what position the oligarch Rinat
Akhmetov took towards the secessionists. But when his companies were
threatened, he organized steelworkers and others from his employees to
go on joint patrols with the police in Mariupol and several other
cities taken over by the secessionists. They worked to ensure order,
but did not challenge the overall secessionist control of the cities.
The separatists and ultranationalists had only limited support in east Ukraine, and yet they obtained the leadership of Antimaidan. It is now associated with them, and it revolves around what they do. They allow no opposition in the areas they control, while elsewhere their scare stories about the horrible Ukrainian masses out to drink Russian blood dominate the viewpoint of Antimaidan. The ascendancy of the separatists is in large part due to Russian government backing for secession: this is a material backing, including weapons and personnel, and not just sympathy. And it is also due to the people of east and southeastern Ukraine being betrayed by the political forces that have spoken in their name, such as the Party of Regions and the Communist Party of Ukraine; these forces have traded mainly in distrust of non-Russian working people. (14)
Left to itself, the complicated relations between Maidan, the new government, and Antimaidan would have resulted in some sort of accommodation. That is how things often have been since independence. And in the first days after the fall of Yanukovych, a move in this direction began. At first, in a spasm of bourgeois nationalism, the Rada irritated the Russian ethnic population by voting to repeal a language law from 2012, but the government immediately reconsidered, and then-Acting President Alexandr Turchynov vetoed the repeal. The government at first considered pushing aside those oligarchs based in east Ukraine who had backed the Party of Regions, but in a few days -- realizing the weakness of its support in that part of the country -- it reversed itself and sought deals with them. That's not a very glorious accommodation, and it reinforced the character of the new government as another government of the oligarchs. But at the same time, it was a concession to Antimaidan. (15) And attempts at accommodation are still taking place, such as the consideration of changing the Constitution to allow for popular election of governors.
But Russian intervention has upset the balance in Ukraine. It's responsible for Antimaidan turning into a secession movement, and this not only threatens to dismember Ukraine, but to embitter relations between the Ukrainian and Russian peoples.
Why has the Russian government done this? Ukraine posed no threat to Russia. It doesn't have the military strength to be a threat, nor the desire; millions of Ukrainians have family ties in Russia; and Ukraine as a whole mainly seeks relations with both east and west. Ukraine's main worries with respect to Russia still remain ensuring that its borders are respected, continuing commercial relations, and maintaining the flow of Russian natural gas.
Russia intervened in Ukraine not out of self-defense, but because
Russia is an imperialist power. It is ruled by the Russian bourgeoisie,
and like the bourgeoisie of all great powers, like the American
bourgeoisie, it seeks to dominate, bully, and exploit other countries.
The Russian bourgeoisie, military officialdom, and bureaucrats remember
the days of the Soviet Union when American and Russian imperialism were
the two superpowers that sat on top of everyone else. It regards it as
unfair that it no longer can intervene in the affairs of other
countries around the world in the same way as before. Putin complains
that the Russian government's interests in Syria, Libya, Iraq, Kosovo,
etc. have not been respected by other imperialists. This is not a
defense of the peoples of these countries, who have suffered from many
of Putin's friends, such as the bloody Assad dictatorship in Syria, but
a demand for Russia to be recognized as an equal partner at the
To help achieve this, the Russian bourgeoisie has been looking
for ways to reestablish its influence over all the republics that
became independent when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. It regards
these countries as part of its natural and legitimate sphere of
influence. It isn't doing this in order to reestablish the social and
political system of the USSR. The Russian bourgeoisie is quite happy
with the tremendous wealth it has gained since the fall of the
Stalinist state-capitalist system in the USSR. What Putin and the
Russian bourgeoisie want to restore is Russian dominance over its
neighbors. So when then President Yanukovych seemed about to sign an
agreement with the European Union, Putin stepped up pressure on
Ukraine. Then when Yanukovych was overthrown, which Putin did not want,
Russia intervened without hesitation, and unmarked military personnel
were sent into Crimea.
Historically, the Ukrainian nationality was an oppressed
nationality for several centuries, and Ukraine was ruled by several
countries, mostly Russia. During this period, the Tsarist government
sought to "Russify" the Ukrainian people, replacing the Ukrainian
language with Russian, and Ukrainians were regarded as "little
Russians". Tsarist Russia was a notorious "prison house of nations",
and the Ukrainians were only one of many oppressed nationalities. The
Bolshevik revolution, however, resulted in a major change in national
policy. The Ukraine and various other republics in the Soviet Union
were declared to have the right to self-determination, and for a period
of time a policy of "indigenization" (including "Ukrainianization") was
followed -- there was promotion of the language and culture of formerly
oppressed nationalities. But as the revolution died out and was
replaced by Stalinist state-capitalism, the Ukrainian people were again
subject to Russification. This is why today far more Ukrainians speak
Russian than are ethnically Russian. It's not that there's anything
wrong with Ukrainians speaking Russian today: the mixture of languages
and ethnic backgrounds in Ukraine is a positive feature of present
Ukrainian culture. But this is how the Russian language achieved its
current position in Ukraine.
The achievement of independence in 1991 was an important event for the Ukrainian people. But the Russian bourgeoisie isn't reconciled to this, and regards that Ukrainian policy should be subject to its approval. This is the only way in which it can understand friendly relations between Russia and Ukraine. With true colonialist mentality, it doesn't see that hostility between countries is created by the demand for domination. It doesn't see that the more that Russia abandoned the colonial policy of the past, the more the ties of friendship between the Russian and Ukrainian peoples would grow. But if the Russian government should succeed in slicing off east and southeastern Ukraine as well as Crimea, then whatever remained of Ukraine might well nurse an abiding fear and hatred of Russia for years and years.
The first act of Russian military intervention in Ukraine was the annexation of Crimea. Immediately after Yanukovych fled Ukraine, pro-Yanukovych armed "self-defence squads", set up in previous weeks in order to oppose Maidan, now put pressure upon the Crimean government. Demonstrations for and against the new government broke out in Crimea. Within a few days, the Russian government sent unmarked military personnel throughout Crimea. These were the so-called "Martians" or "little green men", people allegedly from nowhere.
The little green men occupied Crimea, blocked Ukrainian military
installations, seized the Crimean Verkhovna Rada (parliament), and
suppressed opposition throughout Crimea. Men from the Berkut riot
police, disbanded by the new government in Kyiv, took part in this.
Sergey Aksyonov was installed as Prime Minister: he was from a Party,
Russian Unity, that had obtained a mere 4% of the votes in the last
Crimean election. (16) A
referendum on the status of Crimea was set for
May 25, but then moved forward to the earlier date of March 16.
Meanwhile more unmarked Russian military personnel arrived.
The referendum was held under oppressive conditions. Journalists, supporters of Maidan, and anyone but secessionist enthusiasts, were intimidated. Ukrainian TV stations had been taken off the air, and replaced by broadcasts from Russia. It was repeated over and over that Russians were under imminent threat in Ukraine. The referendum question was odd, and did not allow one to vote for the status quo. (17) And unlikely vote tallies were announced: given that the Crimean Tatars, comprising 12% of the population, were adamantly against Russian annexation, the vote tallies could only have been true if both the Russian andUkrainian ethnic populations voted almost unanimously for annexation.
True, the referendum was overseen by observers who gave it a
clean bill of health. But these were from far-right parties. They
included, for example, Bela Kovacs from the Hungarian fascist party
Jobbik; Enrique Ravello who was originally from the Spanish neo-Nazi
CEDADE but moved over to the racist, far-right Plataforma per
Catalunya; Luc Michel, who was at one time in the French neo-Nazi
Fédération d'action nationaliste et européenne, but is now a leader of
the Belgium-Based Parti Communautaire National-Européen, which, as
"National Bolsheviks", pretends fascism is communism.
This process of annexation violated Russian and Ukrainian law, to
say nothing of any reasonable procedure. But bourgeois law is not the
highest authority for the working class movement, so the question
arises of whether the annexation implemented the right to
self-determination of oppressed nationalities.
First of all, what was the oppressed nationality in Crimea? This
has to be, first and foremost, the Crimean Tatars. This was originally
their homeland, not that of the Russians or Ukrainians. But several
centuries of Russian occupation have reduced them to a minority in
Crimea. There was a resurgence of the Tatars during "indigenization"
and "Tatarization" in 1923-28, but later on Stalinist state-capitalism
brought renewed and intense tragedy to the Tatars, culminating in the
removal of all of them from Crimea on May 18, 1944; they were deported
to distant locations in the Soviet Union, and those in the Red Army
were mainly demobilized and sent to labor camps. This was an immense
crime against them, and an attempt to eliminate their nationality. For
years even after Stalin's death, they still couldn't return to Crimea.
It wasn't until the mid-1980s that they could start to return. Although
so far about 250,000 have returned, they still face the question of
regaining their lands and status.
So it's not surprising that the Crimean Tatars are opposed to the
annexation of Crimea by Russia. The Russian government tried to win
them over with promises. But sure enough, following the annexation of
Crimea, just about the first thing done by the new Russian
administration was to announce that many Tatars would be required to
move again, although this time it was supposed to be to other areas in
Crimea. Their political leaders face harassment and repression. And
thousands of Tatars, despite the attachment to Crimea that brought them
back to the old homeland, have fled Crimea to Ukraine. Thus the
annexation of Crimea has been a brutal act against the national rights
of the Tatars.
What about the Russian ethnic population of Crimea? It was the
dominant nationality in Crimea, being 58.5% of the population and
powerful politically. There were certain guarantees for the Russian
language, as the Crimean Constitution states that "In the Autonomous
Republic of Crimea, Russian, being the language spoken by the majority
of population and the language acceptable for purposes of interethnic
communication, shall be used in all spheres of public life." (18) There
undoubtedly is a definite section of the population that would like to
join Russia, and this includes some Ukrainians as well as Russians. But
it's not clear if this is the majority of Crimeans.
In 1991 a majority of Crimeans voted, albeit only by a modest
margin, for Ukraine to be independent from Russia. In the following
years, there was haggling over autonomy. Moreover, since then, the
economic hardships and unsettled situation in Ukraine may have changed
minds, particularly in the older generation. On the other hand, it
seems that those who have grown up since Ukrainian independence seem to
identify with Ukraine. There have been a series of opinion polls over
the years on whether Crimeans would prefer union with Russia, and their
results varied. It seems that the answer to the question varies
according to the circumstances of the time.
This means that an attempt to deal with the national issue,
rather than simply grab a piece of Ukraine, would involve having a
serious process for Crimeans to consider the issues at stake, and for
the various groups to put forward their views. It would be important,
if the result was not to be oppressive, that the process was done in
close consultation with and respect for the Crimean Tatars. And it's
not clear what the outcome would be. Nor is it clear that it would be
the same as that of a referendum held in the midst of a political
crisis, with a new government just having taken power in Ukraine, with
rumors and passions waxing hot, and with the little green men calling
What happened was, instead, that the Russian government simply raped Ukraine: it was imperialism in action.
The Russian government has draped its intervention against
Ukraine in anti-fascist colors, but, as we have seen above, it was
various European far right and neo-Nazi groups that were eager to help
it annex Crimea. This was no accident. For some time Putin and the
Russian have been developing ties with a number of the most notorious
far right groups in Europe, such as the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn in Greece,
Jobbik in Hungary, and the National Front in France.
This friendship for the far right is reflected in Russian and pro-Russian news agencies fawning on groups like the National Front of France. ITAR-TASS, in a story about the friendly reception of Russian sailors in France and the French deal to sell warships to Russia, makes a point of saying that "France's National Front has welcomed the Russian sailors' visit." Indeed, it dwells at length on the pro-Russian views of the National Front and of its president, Marine Le Pen (the youngest daughter of its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen). (19) The Voice of Russia, Russia's international radio service, carried an exclusive interview of ITAR-TASS with Le Pen that promotes her views on the "total transformation of Europe, and consequently, the disassembling of the European Union" and her support for Russia's position on Ukraine. There is no criticism of Le Pen, but just praise. (20) The pro-Russian news agency RT (formerly known as Russia Today) has also carried favorable coverage of Le Pen, promoting the National Front as allegedly the force standing against austerity, fawning that "the human element retains special importance for Le Pen", and promoting her defense against the charge of being racist. (21)
Thus Russia is helping a section of the European far right
infiltrate the movement against austerity and come closer to taking
state power. In this partnership, Russia gets an ally in its efforts to
dismember Ukraine and, more generally, to be taken more seriously by
the other imperialists. For its part, the far right sees Russia as an
ally in the fight against the presently-dominant section of the
Eurobourgeoisie. And both sides share conservative values such as
contempt for democratic rights, rabid nationalism, chauvinism towards
immigrants, and hostility for gay people.
There is also a Russian far right movement, which is influential among Russian nationalists and the Russian government. Among the Russian nationalist and ultra-nationalist trends are the following:
* Vladimir Zhirinovsky's so-called Liberal Democratic Party, which is an ultra-nationalist party that has been accepted as legitimate in the Russian Duma (parliament). In the last Duma elections it received 11.67% of the vote, and it has had one of the vice chairman positions in the Duma ever since 1994. Among other things, it stands for expanding the borders of Russia to include Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, and in the present crisis Zhirinovsky has called for dividing up Ukraine among the neighboring countries. The LDP poses as a loud-mouthed opposition party, but Zhirinovsky is also regarded as an ally of Putin who says outrageous things that Putin couldn't. (22)
* The Communist Party of the Russian Federation, led by Gennady Zyuganov, which is the successor of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. It is nostalgic for the Stalinist system; it doesn't recognize the crimes of that system; and it regards that oppressive state-capitalist system as socialism. Nevertheless, it doesn't intend to go back to that system; rhetoric aside, it has come to terms with the present form of the capitalist system. It's communism is just a form of Russian nationalism, and it is the party of the "red-brown" alliance, that is, "red" alliance with the ultra-nationalists and the far right.
* The "National Bolshevism" of Edward Limonov and Alexsandr Dugin, which seeks to combine fascism with some communist symbolism, thus completely negating communism. While real communism is internationalist, for National Bolshevism it is Russian ultra-nationalism. Dugin is an influential theorist of neo-Eurasianism, which dreams of a vast Russian empire throughout Eurasia. One observer of the fascist movements comments that: "While Dugin is sometimes associated with Putin's regime, Dugin himself hates Putin as he considers Russian president too liberal. Dugin's plan is to exert ideological influence on Putin's authoritarian state and provide it with the fascist ideological underpinnings disguised as Eurasianism." (23)
The Russian far right may denounce the government in ringing tones, but it serves as non-official shock troops for Russian expansionism, doing what the Russian government can't officially do. In Ukraine, the threat of the far right comes from both pro-Russian as well as anti-Russian elements.
Encouraged by success in Crimea, the Russian government went after
and Southeastern Ukraine. This is the region Putin, imitating the
Tsarist colonialists of old, calls "Novorossiya" (New Russia), a name
then taken up by the secessionists. Whatever the equivocations in
Putin's public statements, designed to deter sanctions from Western
governments, he spurred on the separatists. Boris Kagarlitsky, a
prominent Russian leftist who dreams that the People's Republics of
Donetsk and Luhansk are carrying out the social revolution, writes that
"Representatives of the Donetsk republic and of the movements of the
Ukrainian south-east show up constantly in Moscow, where they are
received warmly and with goodwill. Meetings for them are organised with
journalists and Duma deputies." (24)
Kagarlitsky then laments that the
representatives supposedly return empty-handed; he ignores the stream
of Russian nationalists crossing the border to fight in Ukraine; the
provision of Russian weapons and supplies, including sophisticated
anti-aircraft systems; and the concerted campaign by Russian TV
streaming into east Ukraine.
The so-called People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk have a
notably repressive character. Having complained that the overthrow of
Yanukovych was a mere coup, the organizers of the Donetsk and Luhansk
republics apparently decided to do that themselves. These "governments"
were not established as the result of either elections or mass
demonstrations, but simply by armed groups seizing public buildings.
There were no elections of governors and other officials, and it might
not even be clear who was supposed to be in power. One armed gang or
the other might simply replace one group of secessionists who were
supposedly in charge with another: on May 29 the Vostok Battalion, a
group with many fighters from outside Ukraine, evicted the local
separatists from a government building in Donetsk, accusing them of
looting a nearby grocery.
he events in Slovyansk, a city within Donetsk Oblast, are also
notable. The secessionists took it over in mid-April, and held it until
early July. Vyacheslav Ponomarev, the owner of a soap factory, declared
himself mayor, while the elected mayor, Nelly Shtepa, was detained, and
it's still not known what's happened to her. Many other people were
arrested as well. Simon Ostrovsky, a correspondent for the
internationat news channel VICE News, was held for four days, accused
of being a spy, and beaten; he saw a dozen other prisoners in the same
basement with him. There was no formal procedure against detainees, who
just vanish, and may or may not turn up again. Even just speaking
Ukrainian could make one a suspect. Then on June 10, it was Ponomarev's
turn. On the orders of the secessionist "defense minister", Igor
Strelkov, Ponomarev himself was arrested, and it's still not known what
became of him.
Political opposition is not tolerated by the secessionists. On
April 28, about 2,000 opponents of secession held a peaceful
demonstration in the city of Donetsk in which they carried Ukrainian
flags and chanted slogans like "Donetsk is Ukraine". They were attacked
by thugs with baseball bats, truncheons, and iron rods (the police were
present but faded away and allowed the attack), and several were
kidnapped for a day in an attempt to make them confess falsely to being
members of Pravyi Sektor. (25)After
this, there were no more attempts
at pro-Ukrainian rallies.
The repression extends to unions as well. For example, coal miners and unions in east Ukraine are split in their views, with the Union of Coal Workers being close to Yanukovych and tjrdhe Party of Regions, while the Independent Trade Union of Coal Miners of Ukraine (NPGU) backed the movement against Yanukovych. On May 28 somewhere between several hundred and a thousand coal miners took part in a pro-secessionist demonstrated in Donetsk. But the NPGU opposes the secessionists, and reports attacks by them on its members and attempts by them to loot workplaces. (26) In mid-May steel workers in Mariupol and several other cities organized joint patrols with the police, and enforced order against the looting and bullying carried out by the secessionists (but left the secessionists in ypower). Meanwhile coal miners at Makiivka, which is near the city of Donetsk, refused to take down the Ukrainian flag, and organized a self-defense unit to protect their mine from retaliation from the secessionists. (27)
The one vote organized by the secessionists was a referendum on May
with the question "Do you support the declaration of state independence
of the Donetsk (Luhansk) People's Republic?" The method used was
similar to that in Crimea. The question was ambiguous, the actual
Russian word used in the referendum having the meaning of either full
independence or autonomy. There was no opposition allowed, and those
forces opposed to the vote carried out a silent boycott. The vote was
held in the midst of a major upheaval, so that people might be swept
away by their emotions, or vote based solely on their attitude to
immediate events. And it was timed to take place prior to the Ukrainian
presidential elections of May 25, which the secessionists refused to
allow to take place in their region. On May 25, the secessionists in
Donetsk stole the ballot boxes for the presidential election and
famously put them on the street, marked as trash receptacles: a better
symbol of their attitude towards people's rights could hardly have been
In late June, the secessionist regions merged into the "Union of
the People's Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk", and adopted a
constitution. If it is the same as the draft constitution that was made
known in May, it has the following features:
* establishes a state religion: the Russian Orthodox Church
(Moscow Patriarchate), which it recognizes as the "cornerstone of the
* says that nothing in the constitution should be taken to
the right to restrict other "religious sects";
* states that "any forms of perverted unions between people
the same sex are not acknowledged, not allowed, and will be prosecuted"
-- thus not only outlawing same-sex marriages, but repealing Ukraine's
decriminalization of gay and lesbian relationships;
* outlaws abortion from the moment of conception, with no
exceptions whatsoever; and
* repeatedly identifies itself as part of the "Russian
and states that public authorities "while exercising their powers and
performing of their duties, fully consider and respect traditional
religious, social, cultural and moral values of the 'Russian World'."
Kagarlitsky and various other apologists for the secessionists
pretend that they may well strike at the oligarchs and capitalism. But
the constitution endorses "private property" and the right to use one's
property in "entrepreneurial activity". Borotba, a would-be left-wing
organization which has taken part in the secessionist movement,
complained that the draft constitution put all forms of property,
private or state, on the same level, and listed private property first.
It said that such a constitution would mean that the secession regions
"will be merely a second edition of Ukraine as we have known it since
1991, except with Russian nationalism substituted for Ukrainian". (28)
But don't worry, Borotba is sure to find some reason to keep supporting
the secessionist movement anyway.
The "traditional" values promoted in the constitution were, manifested in how the secessionists appealed to the people of east Ukraine. Agreement with the EU was denounced as bringing same-sex marriage, and a number of gay people have fled from east Ukraine to safety elsewhere in Ukraine. Russian news reports repeatedly reminded people that such Ukrainian politicians as Yulia Tymoshenko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk are partially Jewish, while some anti-EU posters in eastern Ukraine portrayed caricatures of orthodox Jews. There was also reported to be harassment of Romani people in Slavyansk.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration and the EU are posing as
friends of the Ukrainian people. But all they have in mind is
supporting their own interests.
They are looking forward to extending Western
market-fundamentalism into Ukraine. They are extending the minimum of
loans necessary to entice Ukraine to enter into a program of austerity.
And they expect to extract every penny back from Ukraine.
But suppose these measures force more unemployment and poverty
through Ukraine. After all, Ukraine already is a poor country with low
wages: there isn't much to cut. Will the EU do anything to help Ukraine
support those who lose their jobs and income? Of course not -- they
haven't helped the workers of EU countries, and they aren't going to
help Ukrainians either. Ukraine is a country with ties both to Europe
and Russia, and the majority of the population would prefer to keep it
that way. Many Ukrainians, whether they supported a deal with EU or
Eurasian Union, did so in the belief that it wouldn't rule out ties
with the other side. But the EU doesn't aim to make this easy or
provide special arrangements for Ukraine to do this. If the West isn't
sure whether it wants Ukraine in NATO, it's not because it knows how
divisive this would be for the Ukrainian people, but simply because the
US and EU don't want to have the obligation to defend Ukrainian borders.
Both the US and Russia regard influence over Ukraine as part of a
geopolitical game. For Russia, a Eurasian Union, with Ukraine its crown
jewel, would be a base for projecting power around the world. Meanwhile
the West would like to block Russian maneuvers and shift Ukraine into
the Western sphere of influence.
But the Ukrainian crisis mainly affects the Ukraine. It needs to be judged on the basis of the rights and welfare of the Ukrainian people. The Russian intervention in Ukraine has called the independence of Ukraine into question, and the Ukrainian people have the right to maintain that independence. The real motives of Western powers needs to be borne in mind by Ukrainian workers, but they do not discredit the right to self-determination of the Ukrainian people.
Moreover, the Ukrainian crisis was not the result of a Western plot
destroy Russia. Imperialism is a vicious system which breeds conflicts
among countries which can break out rapidly, and there are continual
squabbles between the bourgeoisie of the big powers over spheres of
interest. But for some time the capitalist rulers of Russia and the
West have been working together in a number of ways. They have
collaborated in building new and more terrible weapons of destruction,
and even as the Ukraine crisis proceeds, French President Hollande
insists that France will honor its deal to sell Russia an advanced
warship, the amphibious assault ship (also called a helicopter carrier)
Vladivostok, in October. The EU now buys 30% of its natural gas from
Russia, even though this makes it dependent on Russia for essential
energy supplies. The major Western oil companies, Exxon and BP, have so
far shrugged at sanctions against Russia and have extended their
relations with Rosneft, the Russian state-owned oil company.
The Ukrainian crisis is upsetting this accommodation between the
great powers. For the imperialists, every conflict is a trial of
strength to see how the pecking order among big powers should be
readjusted. But the fundamental divide in the world isn't between the
Western capitalists and the Russian ones; it's between the capitalists
as a whole and the workers of the world, with inequality increasing in
both Russia and the West, and with the big powers of both east and west
seeking to bully the weaker countries. So the goals and preoccupations
of the imperialists, whether of the east or the west, are not the goals
and preoccupations of progressive people. Instead class-conscious
workers and activists need to support just causes no matter what minor
adjustments they cause in the imperialist pecking order.
In particular, it is not anti-imperialist to support one imperialist against the other. It is not anti-imperialist to either support Russian imperialism's claims to a historic sphere of influence, or Western imperialism's claims to be friends of democracy and freedom. It is fantasy to believe that if only the big powers respect each other's right to dominate the proper quota of smaller countries, then world peace will be preserved. Instead we should be concerned with building contact and support with Ukrainian workers and their struggle, and for supporting the Ukrainian right to self-determination. For both Western and Russian imperialism, workers are nothing, profits and geopolitical maneuvers are everything. For genuine anti-imperialists, the people's struggle is everything, and geopolitical "realistic politics" is nothing. The fight against imperialism doesn't mean sharing with the imperialists their exaggerated assessment of the significance of each minor change in geopolitical alignments, and becoming left-wing versions of Henry Kissinger. The fight against imperialism requires rejecting imperialist "realism" and having solidarity with progressive struggles and working class movements around the world.
The Ukrainian people face many complex problems. The overthrow of
a corrupt and hated president, Viktor Yanukovych, has turned out to
usher in a period even more difficult than that of the struggle against
him. But the more difficult the movement, the more important it is to
give the workers and activists support, and to learn from what happens
Some people say we shouldn't support the Ukrainian working people because Western governments and NGOs have been involved with the "Orange Revolution" and then Euromaidan. But it's hard to find any major struggle in the world that the imperialists of east and west haven't tried to influence. By supporting the working people and their attempts to set forward their own aims, we concretely oppose the orientations set forward by the bourgeoisie of the east or the west.
Some people say that we shouldn't support the Ukrainian people because their struggles may upset the Russian imperialist sphere of influence or be utilized in its own interest by Western imperialism. But the key question isn't which imperialists might temporarily benefit from the struggle of the Ukrainian people. The important thing is the struggle of the Ukrainian working people. In the long run, it is only the development of the class struggle which will undermine the imperialisms of east and west.
Some say that we shouldn't support the Ukrainian people because they
are all fascists, while Russia holds tight to the anti-fascist banner.
But the Ukrainian people are not fascists, and far right and fascist
groups, no matter how much they try to insinuate themselves into the
people's struggle, are having a hard time gaining influence. Meanwhile
the Russian government is not anti-fascist, but allied with many of the
largest fascist parties in Europe. It has relations with the National
Front in France, Jobbik in Hungary, and Golden Dawn in Greece. It has
relations with various of the far right and ultra-nationalist groups in
Russia, and far right and militarist Russians have flocked into East
Ukraine and spearheaded the separatist movement.
Some claim that no progressive people should have supported the
struggle against Yanukovych because that would mean supporting the
bourgeois leadership of Maidan, or that opposing Russian interference
in Ukraine would mean that one supports all the actions of the central
government in Kyiv. But the only way to oppose the bourgeois forces
from the left is to create a specifically working class trend within
the important and legitimate mass struggles. Not just in Ukraine, but
throughout the world it is the task of class-conscious workers and left
political activists to learn how to build such independent trends.
At this time, the Ukrainian workers, like workers elsewhere,
aren't clear on the path forward. Like people elsewhere, they are
influenced by bourgeois nationalist ideas and the dominant capitalist
ideologies of the present-day. But since Ukraine became independent in
1991, the working people have done a lot more thinking for themselves,
rather than just accept what was handed to them, and they have won at
least a certain space for political life. They will not willingly
surrender this to the local oligarchs or to the pro-Russian
secessionists; nor are they likely to passively accept the austerity
championed by the EU. The Ukrainian workers will eventually find their
way to building a movement that truly speaks for them. Their struggle
deserves our support.
(1) When I refer to the Ukrainian left, I am not referring to the Communist Party of Ukraine (CPU). The CPU is the renamed Stalinist party from the old days; it still doesn't know if there were atrocities committed in the old state-capitalist days in the USSR; it postured against Yanukovych and the Party of Regions, but then backed every repressive measure they called for; it endorsed the slaughter of striking oil workers on December 16, 2011 at Janaozen in Kazakhstan (at least 17 killed and 100 wounded); and it represents not communism or Marxism-Leninism, but Russian nationalism. The radical left are those groups who are really on the side of the working class. (Return to text)
(2) The industry survives mainly through huge subsidies from the central government. But the EU is ruling out subsidies for coal mining in Europe by 2018; Russia apparently ended most subsidies for coal by 2005; and Ukraine may not have the money to pay for subsidies much longer anyway. (Text)
(3) It often happens that a national crisis is accompanied by a split in the ruling class, and one ruling class faction may seek to mobilize the masses against another faction. This is true even when there is a revolutionary situation (which there is not in Ukraine today). Lenin wrote that, "generally speaking", in a revolutionary situation, "there is a crisis, in one form or another, among the 'upper classes', a crisis in the policy of the ruling class, leading to a fissure through which the discontent and indignation of the oppressed classes burst forth." This is one of the factors leading to "turbulent times" where the masses "are drawn both by all the circumstances of the crisis and by the 'upper classes' themselves into independent historical action." ("The Collapse of the Second International", Section II, Collected Works, vol. 21, pp. 213-4, emphasis as in the original) In Ukraine, however, the masses have not yet succeeded in developing their own "independent historical action";this is the secret of the disappointing results of the major political struggles. (Text)
(4) Workers, of course, would have a hard time staying for days and weeks at the squares. Unless their plants were on strike, they would lose their jobs. But the main problem is that the Ukrainian working class movement suffers from the same organizational and political crisis as workers movements elsewhere. Far and away the largest union center is the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine (its Ukrainian acronym is FPU), with 8.5 million members. It is a carryover from the old Soviet trade unions, which were tools of the ruling Soviet bourgeoisie. It has neither a tradition of struggle, nor would it be able to stand up against concerted pressure from Russian nationalism. The Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KVPU) stems from the miners strikes in east Ukraine and elsewhere in the Soviet Union starting in 1989. It was spirited and militant, but didn't know what to demand as the replacement for the old Soviet system. It also suffered when the period of militant strikes came to an end several years later. Strikes might then take place as a brief token affair, carried out with agreement by local management, to pressure the central government in Kyiv to increase its subsidies for the particular industry. It is a relatively small union center (in 1997 it had 18 member unions with 148,000 workers total). It supported Maidan, and it made some attempts at organizing strikes as part of Maidan, but they didn't work out. It is still active in east Ukraine, among other places, and is opposed to the separatists.
However, the Trade Union Building in Kyiv was a center for protesters during Maidan. It was burned down by Yanukovych's police on the night of Feb. 18-19. But this didn't mean that an influential program of working class struggle had been formulated or spread inside Maidan. (Text)
(5) This is the opposite of the infamous "red-brown" alliance of the revisionist "communists" with fascists, or the various right-left alliances that are being proposed today, such as Ralph Nader's attempt to find common ground with the Tea Party. The point is not to unite with the far right but to steadfastly oppose their influence within the movement: to effectively fight the far right one has to be active in the mass struggle. (Text)
(6) The far right could and did make it unpleasant and dangerous for the left to use certain methods of agitation, but the left still had ways it could have used to address the masses.(Text)
(7) Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk announced on July 24 that he was resigning. This is part of a political process that may lead to new parliamentary election. On July 25 Volodymyr Groysman was appointed Acting Prime Minister. (Text)
(8) On the other hand, the 2004 Constitution also changed how parliamentarians were elected, and this change increased the power of the leadership or apparatus of the various parties. Previously, half of parliament consisted of candidates who had won election in their individual district (similar to American elections), and the other half were taken from the party lists for those parties which won at least 5% of the vote nationally (this half of parliament is thus elected according to proportional representation). The 2004 Constitution changes this to a system whereby all the seats are apportioned according to the party lists. Thus the people vote for the party, but not for the candidate, and don't even have a say in the order of candidates on the party list. This is a so-called "closed party list" system of proportional representation. (In theory, a party could also have its own internal election, or a primary, to select candidates for the party list or decide the order of the candidates on the party list, but I don't know if Ukrainian parties ever do this.) The Rada is currently debating whether to modify this for the coming parliamentary election. (Text)
(9) So far, Svoboda doesn't seem to have picked up support recently despite its participation in Maidan. The combined presidential vote on May 25 for the candidates of Svoboda and Pravyi Sektor was about 2%. This has been cited by a number of supporters of the Ukrainian working people, but it shouldn't be a signal for complacency: Svoboda's vote in local and parliamentary elections has been much larger than its presidential vote -- its high point was 10.44% in the 2012 parliamentary vote. Still, there are indications that voters in western Ukraine, who had elected Svoboda to a number of municipal positions, are starting to become disillusioned with it, regarding it as just another group of self-seeking politicians.
However, Oleh Lyashko, of the eponymous "Radical Party of Oleh Lyashko", picked up 8% of the presidential vote. The Radical Party is said to combine left-sounding demands with ultra-nationalism; it does not have fascist symbolism, yet it accepts far right elements as candidates. But even if one adds together the votes for the Radical Party, Svoboda, and Pravyi Sektor, the combined far right vote hasn't grown as of the May 25 election.
Thus, so far the anti-Russian far right in Ukraine hasn't obtained the level of support of fascist parties in certain European countries or Russia. But dangerous times are coming for Ukraine. Moreover, there are Russian nationalist factions which should be counted as part of the far right or fascist forces, and they are active in the leadership of the secessionist "republics" in east Ukraine. Indeed, many of the largest and most obnoxious European fascist parties are pro-Russian. And whether pro- or anti-Russian, the far right forces will seek to make the most of the intensifying civil strife in Ukraine. (Text)
(10) Among other things, there has been consideration in the Rada of banning the Communist Party of Ukraine and/or the Party of Regions, and the government has referred the matter of the CP of Ukraine to the courts. Even if there should be legal grounds for this, based on connections to the secessionists, it would be a disastrous step and would be retaliation of Ukrainian bourgeois nationalists against Russian bourgeois nationalists. It isn't justified just because there are similar actions by the Russian nationalists and Stalinists against their opponents. Such bans retard the process of the working population learning how to politically assess and oppose the various bourgeois parties of different sorts, including the revisionist "communist" parties. (Text)
(11) I have taken the view that Antimaidan comprises three not entirely distinct movements from an article by the anti-fascist blogger Anton Shekhovtsov. See "Extremism in South-Eastern Ukraine", 7 May 2014, www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/anton-shekhovtsov/dangers-of-extremism-in-southeastern-ukraine-far-right-eurasianism-slavic-unity. He lists the sections as "(1) protest groups mobilised by social grievances, (2) supporters of Ukraine becoming a federal state, and (3) Russian ultranationalists pursuing separatist ideas." He points out that "the extremists now seem to have hijacked Anti-Maidan protests in the most problematic regions, and it is their extremism and ultranationalism that make Anti-Maidan in, for example, Donetsk Oblast so violent. Pro-Russian extremists take journalists and international observers hostage, abuse, torture and brutally kill people." (Text)
(12) But I would not assume that the union leadership having a certain political position means that all its members do. (Text)
(13) Certain cities like Donetsk have a substantially higher percentage of people supporting secession than in Donetsk Oblast or eastern Ukraine as a whole, although even there the secessionists are a minority. (Text)
(14) The Communist Party of Ukraine is descended from the local Ukrainian branch of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. The Bolsheviks Revolution was a historic event in world history, and it led to the development for a time of the most revolutionary and widespread movement of the world working class that had ever been seen. But over time, and certainly when the Stalinist system was consolidated in the Soviet Union, the CPSU lost its revolutionary and communist character. It became the ruling party of a state-capitalist system, the party of the bureaucrats and managers. It still bore the name "communist" and claimed the heritage of the revolutionary working class movement, but this was now a false flag. It had become the party of the new state-capitalist class.
The CP of Ukraine is nostalgic for the old system, doesn't recognize any of the crimes of Stalinism, and won't discuss the great purges or the famines or the mass deportations of entire nationalities. It also is still a capitalist party, as was the CPSU, but now includes private businessmen as well as those connected to state enterprises. Many of the parties descended from the CPSU in other former republics of the Soviet Union embraced local nationalism, but the CPU's 1995 program opposed the existence of Ukraine as an independent country. The CPU supported Russian nationalism instead, and looked to reuniting the countries that had separated after the collapse of the USSR. The Donbas and Crimean sections of the party seemed to be the most fervent Russian nationalist sections of the CPU. But in general, one of the ways this nationalism might be expressed was through talk of the unity of the Eastern Slavs, the traditions of whose civilization it holds to be expressed by the part of Ukrainian Orthodox Church that is loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate (as opposed to the Kyiv Patriarchate). So here are "communists" who back the Orthodox Church, so long as it is the supposed true Russian church. (See Andrew Wilson, "Reinventing the Ukrainian Left: Assessing Adaptability and Change, 1991-2000", in The Slavonic and East European Review, vol. 80, #1, Jan., 2002, pp. 29, 35, 52.) (Text)
(15) Antimaidan has had fierce rhetoric against the oligarchs, as probably most Ukrainian politicians, even those most tied to the oligarchs, engage in. But things aren't always what they seem on the surface. Antimaidan naturally isn't fond of those oligarchs who make deals with the new government, and the secessionists are opposed to those oligarchs who oppose annexation by Russia. But they explicitly restrict their bombast against the oligarchs to the "pro-Kyiv" ones. (Text)
(16) One presumes that a more popular politician, and one without Aksyonov's links to organized crime, could have been found in the secessionist ranks. Surely someone from the Party of Regions, which had obtained almost half of the votes in the last Crimean election, would have been eager to be Prime Minister. The selection, instead, of Aksyonov suggests how stage-managed the entire process was. (Text)
(17) There were two options, one for uniting with Russia, and the other for "the reinstatement of the 1992 Constitution of the Republic of Crimea and for the status of Crimea as part of Ukraine". But the 1992 Constitution, which had lasted a matter of days, might be taken as declaring Crimea independent of Ukraine. It was the 1998 Constitution of Crimea which was in force in 2014 when Russia moved in. (Text)
(18) 1998 Constitution, Ch. 3, Article 10.2. (http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Constitution_of_Crimea,_1998) This is one of several guarantees for Russian, including for its use in official business. The Constitution gives Ukrainian as the only official language, but also calls for "the application and development, use and protection of Russian, Crimean Tatar and other ethnic groups' languages" (Article 10.1). There are guarantees for Russian and other minority languages in the rest of Ukraine as well. Of course, one has to know what was done in practice, not just what was in the official declarations. (Text)
(19) "Mistral ship with Russian crew to sail off for test voyage shortly", ITAR-TASS, June 30, 2014, http://en.itar-tass.com/economy/738410. (Text)
(20) "EU acts like 'fireman-incendiary' in Ukraine's political crisis - Marine Le Pen", June 18, 2014, http://voiceofrussia.com/news/2014_06_18/EU-acts-like-fireman-incendiary-in-Ukraines-political-crisis-Marine-Le-Pen-3270/. (Text)
(21) "'France is plagued by bankruptcy and mass immigration' - Marine Le Pen", July 1, 2014, http://rt.com/news/marine-le-pen-interview-448/. Also see "EU lost its foreign policy sovereignty to US - Marine Le Pen to RT", RT, July 1, 2014, http://rt.com/news/164372-marine-le-pen-preview/. (Text)
(22) "Crimea crisis: Putin adviser proposes division of Ukraine along Nazi-Soviet lines and says it's 'never too late to correct historical errors' ", The Independent, March 24, 2014, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/crimea-crisis-putin-adviser-proposes-division-of-ukraine-along-nazisoviet-lines-and-says-its-never-too-late-to-correct-historical-errors-9212925.html. (Text)
(23) "Russian fascist Aleksandr Dugin's dreams of dictatorship in Russia", Anton Shekhovtsov's blog, February 27, 2014, http://anton-shekhovtsov.blogspot.com/2014/02/russian-fascist-aleksandr-dugin-is.html. (Text)
(24) Boris Kagarlitksy, "Fate of donetsk is being decided in Kharkov", May 3, 2014, http://links.org.au/node/3832. (Text)
(25) The major Russian news agency ITAR-TASS, however, reported this as Ukrainian nationalists attacking an anti-fascist demonstration where people were shouting "Fascism will not pass!" and singing "patriotic songs in Russian". See "ITAR-TASS lies: pro-Ukrainian radicals attacked an anti-fascist rally in Donetsk" (http://www.stopfake.org/en/itar-tass-lies-pro-ukrainian-radicals-attacked-an-anti-fascist-rally-in-donetsk/); and "Eight protesters arrested after clashes at anti-fascist rally in Donetsk" (http://en.itar-tass.com/world/729921). (Text)
(26) See http://kvpu.org.ua/en/ and http://kvpu.org.ua/en/news/6/3159/kvpu-statement-on-the-situation-in-the-eastern-ukraine. (Text)
(27) http://observerukraine.net/2014/05/09/makiivka-miners-confront-the-separatists/ (Text)
(28) Borotba's comments were cited in "Eastern Ukraine: Conservative draft constitution arouses left protests", http://www.rogerannis.com/eastern-ukraine-conservative-draft-constitution-arouses-left-protests/. Actually, the secessionist constitution is much worse than the Ukrainian constitution: there is no established church in Ukraine; while gays and lesbians still face mass disapproval, homosexuality was decriminalized twenty years ago; abortion is legal on request for the first 12 weeks, and for a wide range of reasons up to the 28th week; the Ukrainian constitution is not based on "traditional" or ethnic values but instead states "Social life in Ukraine shall be based on the principles of political, economic, and ideological diversity. No ideology shall be recognized as mandatory by the State." (Article 15); and so on. (Text)
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