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Ukraine’s uncertain future

Having completed its transition from protest to power, Ukraine’s #Euromaidan encapsulates the problems of revolution in a post-socialist world, writes Luke Cooper

February 27, 2014
10 min read

ukraine

Ukraine’s protest movement has taken power – but only after several days of brutal gun battles with elite police force units that, it seems, had been sanctioned to use lethal force by Viktor Yanukovych in the dying days of his regime. As the police lost control of central Kiev, and with the army having already declared its neutrality, the EU-brokered agreement to establish a national unity government was left in tatters.

Yanukovych fled Kiev and Ukraine suddenly found itself in the history books as one of the only parliamentary democracies to have experienced a successful urban insurrection. Certainly, in living memory at least, there are no examples of a similar movement. The challenges, however, for progressive activists confronting this situation recall many of the problems that have beset the Arab Revolutions. The authoritarian regimes they challenged shared the kleptocratic qualities of Ukraine’s political elite and, in the place of a socialist subject, the revolutionary movements of this century have proven amenable to a variety of populist and right wing politics.

With Yanukovych having fled, protesters entered his palatial residence, exposing its extraordinary opulence – from a private zoo to a Disneyland-style ‘galleon’ bar – to the world’s media. Once an official presidential building but transferred to Yanukovych’s private ownership in the last few years, it symbolised the corruption that had driven the huge mass movement onto Ukraine’s streets. Indeed, a group around the premier known as ‘the family’ had accumulated vast amounts of wealth and power during the last administration. So much so they even isolated previously loyal oligarchs who have tended, with some exceptions, to support the ‘Party of the Regions’, whose power base is in the heavy industrial cities in eastern Ukraine.

A liberal impetus

Too often in left commentary on events ‘from afar’ there is failure to empathise with those progressive activists on the ground trying to make sense of their circumstances and push their country’s politics in a positive direction. These observers have been keen to point out how the movement was initially sparked by Ukraine backing away from a free trade agreement with the EU, which would have left the country’s industrial sector vulnerable to competition, with workers inevitably asked to pay the price. But the causes of the protests were always more complex than this suggests.

The activists that launched the #Euromaidan movement did not see themselves as a vanguard for the kind of austerity the EU has imposed on the southern European economies. Instead they argued in a ‘lesser evil’ manner that, as one early report put it, ‘abandoning the “Euro-choice” in Ukraine means remaining in the territory of lawlessness and tyranny, ignorance and kleptocracy’. During my brief visit to the country at the beginning of December, the protesters I spoke to expressed similar sentiments to these. They emphasised it was, above all else, opposition to political corruption, hostility to Russian overlordship, and a desire for a more substantive democracy that had motivated them to protest in the streets. The EU, and the wider liberal ‘international community’, were largely treated as the least bad option.

All of this expressed an acceptance, however grudgingly or implicitly, of a faulty narrative of European values, associating them with democracy, clean politics, and human rights, that ignores the reality of Europe and its relationship to the rest of the world. Neither was EU membership, with its undoubtedly progressive freedom of movement rights, on offer to Ukraine’s people, who were essentially being asked to accept the free market elements of integration with no progressive sweeteners.

Rise of the right on the streets

What is not, however, altogether clear is how a movement initially dominated by this liberal outlook could provide fertile ground for the growth of the far right, who came to play an increasingly prominent role as street fighting intensified over the last two months. The Freedom Party, and the more extremist still Right Sector, have been key to the turn to establish the organised militias that were ultimately able to force elite police units from Kiev’s streets last week, and thus remove Yanukovych from power.

Several factors combined to create favourable conditions for the rise of these far right groupings. Firstly, the appallingly corrupt record of Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party in office led many to draw the conclusion that the Orange Revolution of 2004 had been a failure. This provided the opportunity that Yanukovych and his Party of the Regions seized, seeking to entrench a position as the dominant statist ruling party. As people abandoned Tymoshenko’s party the opposition was left fragmented, meaning that no single force was able to dominate the #Euromaidan street movement.

Secondly, the imperial overlordship of Russia has combined with the complexity of Ukrainian national identity to produce a toxic mix. Last autumn, with the EU association agreement on the table, the Russian government engaged in an aggressive game of brinkmanship. One of Putin’s aides warned that signing the agreement would lead to Russian trade sanctions so severe Ukraine would default on its external obligations, that social and political unrest would sweep Russian-speaking areas, and that the treaty of friendship recognising the existing borders of the two countries would be considered void. Quite unashamedly, this ‘divide and rule’ tactic used Ukraine’s ethnic and linguistic divisions instrumentally to tie the polity to Russia.

Yet, at the same time, Ukraine is not along amongst Eastern European states in seeing a rise of nationalist sentiment in the independence era. New ruling elites have deliberately resuscitated nationalist traditions to a point where, as one of the most thoughtful contributions on the current crisis put it, a new generation has been cultivated ‘which doesn’t see any problem in phrases like “Ukraine for Ukrainians”.’

This provided the context for the far right being seen, first, as an acceptable ally in the movement, and then, some time later, as its most dependable fighting section.

Left forced out

Although initially spontaneous, the #Euromaidan protests quickly became dominated by the plurality of parties that constitute the opposition. This was in part a feature of their success; that they forced a social crisis which could only be resolved on a political terrain. The speed at which this occurred reflected the financial crisis that the country was, and still is, locked in. Indeed, yields on government bonds were last week at 35 per cent and, with Russia now having frozen its financial support, default or the IMF loom large. In this context, it was probably inevitable that established and credible parties would set the tone and narrative. The centrist nationalist parties were able to do so for the movement as a whole, negotiating on its behalf with Yanukovych and establishing their cultural hegemony. The far right, partly in the form of the Freedom Party but particularly so with the Right Sector, carved out a space as a militant, and physically confident, ‘radical’ opposition within the movement itself.

Activists on the radical left in Ukraine, recognising the scale of the movement and its significance for the country, attempted to influence its development. This saw one socialist group circulate thousands of copies of their ten-point manifesto and many other individuals threw themselves into the protests, especially after they were repressed. These important efforts deserve international solidarity. It is all too easy and common on the left that, when confronted with a mass movement which does not fit a pre-defined schema, we respond with abstention and a passive critique. It is much harder to address leftist ideas to a movement of working people that has no conception or identity of itself as such, and even accepts divisive national mythologies.

The limited space for doing this has receded dramatically with the turn to the formation of street fighting units dominated by the far right. One group of anarchists, for example, who had attempted to organise a leftist self-defence group, found themselves quickly closed down by far right-led militias. The troubling reality is that these extremist groups are now identified with the successful battle to clear the Kiev streets of police who were gunning down protestors. With their prestige having increased rapidly, the economic crisis worsening, and the political terrain highly unstable and uncertain, the dangers of a growing fascist threat are self-evident.

‘Welcome to hell’: revolution without a left

It would be tempting to over-state the novelty of the Ukrainian events, seeing it as a crisis with little meaning and few lessons beyond Eastern Europe. But in many respects the country’s revolution and uncertain future is as an almighty signifier of the basic problématique of radical politics today; that we live in an age of revolution without a strong left. Even where inchoate socialist ideas resonate, the left struggles to present itself as a credible force in today’s movements. The intellectual, political and cultural legacy of Stalinism’s bastardisation of socialist ideals is clearly not confined to the countries of the former Eastern bloc – they simply provide an acute expression of a situation many of us are familiar with. Ukraine’s warning is thus that when socialists are marginalised, the corruption of an individualistic elite can favour ‘collective’ responses that are rooted in a nationalist, and not a class, subjectivity.

Most important for those of us observing these events is to provide help and support for those activists on the ground trying to find a way forward. The recent call for the creation of a ‘second front’ with a broad coalition of anti-fascist and anti-austerity forces needs our solidarity. The need for such a coalition was brought home with the address of the new prime minister, Fatherland Party member Arseniy Yatsenyuk, to the Maidan Square. He said, ‘We are to undertake extremely unpopular steps as the previous government and previous president were so corrupted that the country is in a desperate financial plight.’ He added, with misplaced irony, ‘We are on the brink of a disaster and this is the government of political suiciders! So welcome to hell.’

So this bleak situation could still get much worse. The only silver lining is that it will expose the fragility of a movement that was ultimately united around only one objective: the overthrow of a government now removed from power. In this coming crisis, let us hope a radical left pole can emerge to provide a real alternative.

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