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.
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.
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.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play!
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill