Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

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.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny

Universal credit isn’t about saving money – it’s about disciplining unemployed people
The scheme has cost a fortune and done nothing but cause suffering. So why does it exist at all? Tom Walker digs into universal credit’s origins in Tory ideology

Meet the digital feminists
We're building new online tools to create a new feminist community and tackle sexism wherever we find it, writes Franziska Grobke

The Marikana women’s fight for justice, five years on
Marienna Pope-Weidemann meets Sikhala Sonke, a grassroots social justice group led by the women of Marikana

Forget ‘Columbus Day’ – this is the Day of Indigenous Resistance
By Leyli Horna, Marcela Terán and Sebastián Ordonez for Wretched of the Earth

Uber and the corporate capture of e-petitions
Steve Andrews looks at a profit-making petition platform's questionable relationship with the cab company

You might be a centrist if…
What does 'centrist' mean? Tom Walker identifies the key markers to help you spot centrism in the wild

Black Journalism Fund Open Editorial Meeting in Leeds
Friday 13th October, 5pm to 7pm, meeting inside the Laidlaw Library, Leeds University

This leadership contest can transform Scottish Labour
Martyn Cook argues that with a new left-wing leader the Scottish Labour Party can make a comeback

Review: No Is Not Enough
Samir Dathi reviews No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics, by Naomi Klein

Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South
Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

Five things to know about the independence movement in Catalonia
James O'Nions looks at the underlying dynamics of the Catalan independence movement

‘This building will be a library!’ From referendum to general strike in Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte report from the Catalan general strike, as the movements prepare to build a new republic

Chlorine chickens are just the start: Liam Fox’s Brexit trade free-for-all
A hard-right free marketer is now in charge of our trade policy. We urgently need to develop an alternative vision, writes Nick Dearden

There is no ‘cult of Corbyn’ – this is a movement preparing for power
The pundits still don’t understand that Labour’s new energy is about ‘we’ not ‘me’, writes Hilary Wainwright

Debt relief for the hurricane-hit islands is the least we should do
As the devastation from recent hurricanes in the Caribbean becomes clearer, the calls for debt relief for affected countries grow stronger, writes Tim Jones

‘Your credit score is not sufficient to enter this location’: the risks of the ‘smart city’
Jathan Sadowski explains techno-political trends of exclusion and enforcement in our cities, and how to overcome this new type of digital oppression

Why I’m standing with pregnant women and resisting NHS passport checks
Dr Joanna Dobbin says the government is making migrant women afraid to seek healthcare, increasing their chances of complications or even death

‘Committees in Defence of the Referendum’: update from Catalonia
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte on developments as the Catalan people resist the Spanish state's crackdown on their independence referendum

The rights and safety of LGBTQ+ people are not guaranteed – we must continue to fight for them
Kennedy Walker looks at the growth in hate attacks at a time when the Tory government is being propped up by homophobes

Naomi Klein: the Corbyn movement is part of a global phenomenon
What radical writer Naomi Klein said in her guest speech to Labour Party conference

Waiting for the future to begin: refugees’ everyday lives in Greece
Solidarity volunteer Karolina Partyga on what she has learned from refugees in Thessaloniki

Don’t let Uber take you for a ride
Uber is no friend of passengers or workers, writes Lewis Norton – the firm has put riders at risk and exploited its drivers

Acid Corbynism’s next steps: building a socialist dance culture
Matt Phull and Will Stronge share more thoughts about the postcapitalist potential of the Acid Corbynist project

Flooding the cradle of civilisation: A 12,000 year old town in Kurdistan battles for survival
It’s one of the oldest continually inhabited places on earth, but a new dam has put Hasankeyf under threat, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

New model activism: Putting Labour in office and the people in power
Hilary Wainwright examines how the ‘new politics’ needs to be about both winning electoral power and building transformative power

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going


207