Ukraine: another complex revolution

Luke Cooper traces the Ukrainian movement's origins in the 'city square' movements – and looks at its potential to go from protest to power
5 February 2014


Protesters on the edge of Kiev's central square, Maidan. Photo: Sasha Maksymenko/Flickr

It is easily forgotten that the inspiration for the wave of 'city square' movements that swept southern Europe and North America back in 2011 lay in the revolutions of the Middle East and North Africa. Egypt especially was a conscious symbol for the activists who put out the call to 'take the squares' and mirror in their own countries the Tahrir occupation that had forced Mubarak from power.

Each one of these protest movements reflected the specific circumstances of their own national terrain, but there was also a convergence of causes and influences that could be traced to the cultural and political fallout from the financial crisis.

That we are still talking, some three years later, of the Egyptian Revolution illustrates starkly how Tahrir Square went beyond protest and constituted a bona fide challenge to the country’s traditional ruling establishment. Indeed, the extraordinary problems facing grassroots activists in the country are, it should be remembered, ultimately a feature of this success. Authoritarianism had to find ways of adjusting, manipulating and rendering impotent the power of the streets.

Recent events in Ukraine suggest that the movement that erupted at the end of November last year may be undergoing the transition from protest to power. In doing so, it has also given rise to all of the complexity and pitfalls that this inevitably involves. Even more so than in Egypt, Ukraine’s #Euromaidan (literally 'Euro-square') movement exhibits little in the way of socialist consciousness, let alone goals – a trend, indeed, hardly unique to these countries either. Yet, like in Egypt, the crippling poverty and levels of inequality that are characteristic of modern capitalism have driven the aspiration for democratic change in Ukraine.

Scale and momentum

It is the sheer scale of the movement and its extraordinary determination that has led ineluctably to a deep crisis in the Ukrainian political establishment. A chain of events over the last week has shifted momentum in favour of the square.

Just like in November last year when attempts to use heavy police repression led the movement to grow rapidly in size and support, so too have recent tactics badly backfired on the government of president Viktor Yanukovych. Moves to curtail freedom of assembly led to several days of rioting and the occupation of scores of government buildings all over the country. It was clear at this stage that the movement had created a new power on the streets and the state was left either unwilling or unable to mobilise the overwhelming force needed to crush it.

That it might have gone the way of violent coercion on a much greater scale could be seen in the use of snatch squads, which were accused of using torture and beating opposition activists to the very point of death. As the situation escalated further, Leonid Kravchuk, Ukraine’s first post-independence president warned that the country 'was on the brink of civil war' and called for national compromise.

As the government climbed down, the laws curtailing the right to protest were withdrawn. An amnesty for protestors has been suggested but can only be plausibly realised, and its sincerity tested, once the overall conflict has come to a resolution. The opposition rejected attempts to form a government of national unity and instead demanded new parliamentary and presidential elections. In response the government, but not the president, has resigned, and the country’s crisis is encapsulated by this breakdown in the normal structures of governance.

A controversial movement

Two elements of the Ukrainian movement have made it controversial as a symbol of the kind of resistance we have seen since the financial crisis. Firstly, the movement’s original concern lay in the country’s relationship to the European Union. The Ukrainian government backed away from signing a free trade agreement with the regional bloc back in November. Forming barricades for the EU is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine from a British perspective and may seem equally strange for those economies in southern Europe that have experienced the hardships of austerity imposed by EU memorandums. Yet this aspiration for European integration has to be seen in the context of Ukraine’s own balance of payments crisis that has deepened its dependency on Russian credit. For the left in Greece and Spain, Ukraine’s plight illustrates that even in conditions of nominal sovereign independence, states can and will remain at the mercy of global capital markets in the absence of radical incursions on capitalism.

It is also widely accepted that the movement has now moved beyond this trigger issue and raised a whole series of questions about corruption, oligarchy and democracy. These could potentially provide fertile ground for an anticapitalist – and not merely anti-Russian and pro-EU – form of critique and strategic outlook.

Secondly, the participation of the far right Freedom Party in the protests has naturally, and quite rightly, alarmed many left observers of these events. Their brand of neo-fascist ideology is fiercely hostile to the country’s Russian-speaking minority. In a fashion that reflects traditional far right sentiment they mix a pseudo-anticapitalist critique of Ukraine’s oligarchy with these dangerous ethnic sentiments. No one should be complacent about the dangers that the inchoate populism of the movement might be consolidated on deeply reactionary lines. But it should also be noted that these dangers were present in the 'beyond left and right' discourse that characterised the southern European city square movements, and which saw the actual involvement of the far right in Greece.

A wider problem exists that is equally familiar to the 'city square' movements. Politics famously abhors a vacuum and once protests begin to threaten and challenge power, then they are open to co-option by established parties of the official opposition that are themselves, in one way or another, part of a ruling elite. This is a feature of the current conjuncture that Egyptians know all too well.

This is all an argument for constructive engagement and participation without any illusions in the multiple guises that contemporary populism takes. A new manifesto of Ukrainian left activists stands in this mould. In a world where financial markets enjoy hegemony over the lives of us all, its call for popular participation and socialist democracy has become more urgent than ever.


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Will Podmore 10 February 2014, 13.44

In November 2013, Ukraine’s government decided not to sign a free trade agreement with the EU, whereby European companies would be allowed to clean Ukraine of its natural resources. So now the USA and the EU are deliberately fomenting civil war in Ukraine, arming and funding fascists to overthrow the elected government.
US Secretary of State John Kerry, US Senator John McCain, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs Catherine Ashton, President of Germany Joachim Gauck and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, have all backed the violent protests and occupations, and the attack on the presidential residence.
Victoria Nuland, the US Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, has admitted that the US government has spent five billion dollars interfering in Ukraine since 1991, funding at least 65 NGOs inside Ukraine through the ‘National Endowment for Democracy’.
But the USA and the EU are split. The USA is openly contemptuous of the EU’s efforts. Nuland said of her proposed deal, “That would be great to help glue this thing and to have the UN help glue it. And you know, f*** the EU.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov asked, “What does incitement of increasingly violent street protests have to do with promoting democracy? Why are there no voices condemning those who seize and hold government buildings, attack the police and use racist and anti-Semitic and Nazi slogans? Why do European leaders actually encourage such actions, when they would quickly move to punish them at home?” He asked, “What would be the reaction from the European Union, if members of the Russian government began to openly express support, including personal visits, to rioters in London, Paris or Hamburg?”
The Party of Regions won Ukraine’s October 2012 parliamentary elections, with 185 parliamentary seats out of 450. The pro-EU party, the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms, came third with just 40 seats. The fascist Svoboda party won 37: it is a member of the Alliance of European National Movements, along with France’s National Front, the British National Party and Hungary’s Jobbik. On 1 January, Svoboda supporters held a torch-lit procession in Kiev to mark the birthday of Stefan Bandera, who fought for the Nazis. Pravy Sektor leader Andrei Tarasenko threatened, “Guerrilla warfare will begin in Ukraine.” Their Manifesto says, “There can be no negotiations, no compromise with the ruling gang. We will carry high the fire of national revolution.”
In 2009, the Russian government began work on a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan. Its goal is to launch the Eurasian Economic Union in 2015. Two other ex-Soviet states, Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, have applied to join. The Russian government offered Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych much lower gas prices, large-scale industrial co-operation projects, and a $15 billion loan. Ukraine has a population of 46 million and is the second largest economy in the region (after Russia’s).
NATO and the EU are cynically using the issues of gay rights to attack and discredit Russia, not because of the merits of the issue, not because they care about gay rights, but because Russia, like the Latin American countries and China, is blocking their attempts to destroy independent countries all over the world.
We must demand an end to US and EU interference in the Ukraine.

Pål Steigan 12 February 2014, 18.35

I think you underestimate the role of US/EU-involvement and also the role of the nazis. Here is my comment on the situation:

prianikoff 23 February 2014, 13.38

Amongst the signatories to the abortive deal to form a Coalition Government in Ukraine was Oleh Tyahnybok from the far-right Svoboda Party.
In 2004, the same Tyahnybok was expelled from the “Our Ukraine” parliamentary faction, after giving an anti-Russian, anti-Semitic speech at the gravesite of a commander of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, a force that had a history of collaboration with Nazi Germany.*

The German, French and Polish foreign ministers showed no qualms about signing an agreement with Svoboda, although the Russian observer present declined.

The deal was immediately rejected by the “Right Sector”, whose activists were involved in the subsequent takeover of the Presidential palace.
Elsewhere in the country, “Right Sector” activists have been busy tearing down statues of Lenin (ironically, one of the greatest defenders of Ukrainian self-determination)

Both Yanukovich and leading figures in the opposition, like Yulia Tymoshenko have a history of involvement in skimming state assets. The Yanukovich trail is examined in detail here:-

Such links made the Yanukovich regime very vulnerable to populist hostility.
They are an unstable basis upon which to build political support; many of the Oligarchs are now changing sides and following their money to London.

But the idea that the rightist opposition are really opposed to the Oligarchs is belied by this statement, made by Dmytro Yarosh, “leader” of the Right Sector, on February 20th.

Addressing the “Oligarchs”, he said:-
“ … you have an opportunity to change people’s attitude and stand by their side to avoid further bloodshed in Ukraine.
We all understand that you have the decisive economic leverage on Yanukovych, we understand that if he loses your support he will be forced to stop the bloodshed as financing is the only thing that today lets Yanukovych to fight the Ukrainian people.
We appeal to you to stop any support of those in power in Ukraine and to announce a total economic and psychological boycott with the next requirements to Yanukovych:”

Yarosh called for the:
“creation of a new government coordinated by an authoritative and not politicized person; the government should be formed of the best professionals that should not have political ambitions”

Nor does Yulia Tymoshenko represent any alternative.
Her imprisonment was seen by EU officials as a direct blow against the Ukraine-EU Association agreement.

Along with Arseniy Yatsenyuk of the Fatherland Party, she would be their favoured candidate for President.
But before she began her public campaigns against corruption, Tymoshenko was one of the richest people in the country and still has convictions for her dealings in imported Russian Gas.
When she was driven into Kiev yesterday, she received a lukewarm reception from the activists who had been at the forefront of street fighting, who feared that she might be used to hijack their uprising.

Their attitudes towards the EU Accession agreement have been the main difference between Yanukovich and the Opposition.

In fact, what the EU is offering Ukraine is worse than what the Russian government was promising – $15 billion in bonds and cheap natural gas supplies.

The EU has offered inadequate loans with strings attached:-

* that the EU would gain open entry into the Ukrainian market;
* that the government impose austerity on the Ukrainian workers;
* that Ukraine be incorporated into the NATO military alliance.

Ukraine wasn’t even being offered full EU membership in return.

But the entrepreneurs and officialdom in Western Ukraine, an area traditionally hostile to Russian influence, represent a solid basis of support for the pro-Europe, anti Russian elements. They have helped create a cross-class nationalist movement, including sections of the far right.

The Police in Lviv went over to the opposition en-masse and 50 of them travelled to Kiev to appear on the platform at Independence Square.
But there is no sign of involvement in the protests by the organised working class, many of whom live in the big industrial cities of Eastern Ukraine.

Besides the language question, they must be well aware of what EU austerity policies will mean for their jobs. The current situation in Bosnia (almost entirely un-reported in the Western media) shows where it’s all likely to lead.

What’s needed now is a genuine working class opposition, which stands for a unitary and independent Socialist Ukraine.

*Over 50% of the UPA were police officers from Western Ukraine, some of whom had infiltrated the German auxiliary police.
Their civilian wing in OUN-B, led by Stepan Bandera, collaborated with the Nazi occupation of the Ukraine.

In a statement issued in Lviv in June 1941, Bandera declared Ukrainian Independence promising to work:
” closely with the National-Socialist Greater Germany, under the leadership of its leader Adolf Hitler which is forming a new order in Europe and the world and is helping the Ukrainian People to free itself from Moscovite occupation”

Sections of OUN and the UPA assisted the SS ‘Einsatz’ groups, which rounded up Galician Jews for execution in the wake of the invading Wermacht forces.
The Nazis weren’t impressed with puppets who declared independence; Bandera was arrested and held as a pawn until the end of the war.

In 1943, as German forces began to disintegrate, the UPA launched a struggle for Ukrainian Independence.
They were responsible for the ethnic cleansing of over 50,000 Poles from Western Ukraine and carried out a protracted guerilla war against the returning Soviet administration.

After the war, Bandera continued to live in Munich, from where his supporters were dispatched to the Ukraine via CIA and MI6 networks.
He was assassinated by the KGB in 1959.

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