Why you’re wrong about Ukraine

Gabriel Levy on Putin’s war, the Maidan movement and the new Ukrainian government

April 6, 2014
17 min read

The Russian military action in Crimea is dividing working people and inciting the worst type of reactionary war frenzy in Russia. The threat of war will exacerbate Ukraine’s economic crisis – which is already driving the new neoliberal government in Kyiv to attack living standards.

Putin is absolutely right on one point: the western powers’ protests at the Russian action in Crimea are completely hypocritical. Putin said at his 4 March press conference that, when western leaders told him the action was ‘illegitimate’, ‘I have to recall the action of the US in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.’

But some commentators suggest that if European social and labour movements have to choose a side, they should choose Russia’s. This assumes that the removal of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich was largely the work of right-wing actors supported by the US, and ignores the complex character of the movement that brought him down (see below). It exaggerates the role of western powers, who are divided over what to do. And it ignores Putin’s real motives.

Western sanctions have so far comprised travel bans and the freezing of assets of individual politicians and their friends, and the suspension of visa liberalisation and trade talks. The western governments are only talking about serious sanctions – restrictions on Russia’s participation in financial markets or on purchases of Russian exports – if a ‘red line’ is crossed, that is, presumably, if Russia takes military action in eastern Ukraine outside of Crimea. And it is no wonder that the ‘light touch’ is being adopted. The capitalist powers care more about these economic relationships with Russia than they do about Ukrainian sovereignty.

Putin sees war as a way of boosting his support among Russians, and forestalling social protest in Russia itself, which reached a peak in 2011-12 prior to his return to the presidency. The war is also mobilising the Russian nationalist right, most of whom fervently support the attack on Ukraine. Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the ultra nationalist deputy speaker of the Russian parliament, whose Liberal Democratic Party received 12.5 per cent of the votes in the 2011 parliamentary elections, called on 20 March for Ukraine to be dismembered.

Putin’s claim that he ordered a ‘humanitarian mission’ in Crimea is just not credible. True, the Ukrainian parliament on 2 March idiotically proposed the repeal of a law allowing local governments to use Russian as an official language where appropriate – although acting president Oleksandr Turchynov has so far desisted from approving the repeal.

But the aggressive actions of an estimated 20,000 Russian troops in Crimea have done 100 times more than the Ukrainian parliament to stoke tension between Russians and Ukrainians who have historically lived together peacefully in eastern Ukraine. The Crimean Tatar community, whose forebears were deported by Stalin and who collectively returned to Crimea in the 1990s, are reported to be filled with alarm about the future.

For socialists, Crimea’s status as part of Ukraine is surely not an inviolable principle for all time. After all, it only became part of Ukraine in 1954, when it was presented to the Ukrainian Communist Party by the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. But Crimea in the early 1990s remained part of Ukraine, with a considerable degree of autonomy. The call for separation has been raised only in recent weeks, after the departure of Yanukovich. It is part of the Russian offensive against the new Ukrainian government. The referendum of 16 March was conducted in the presence of a large army of occupation, and in the context of the Russian policy of reinstating Yanukovich.

Warmongering is central to power in Russia, no less than in the US. It was the murderous onslaught on Chechnya – which for sheer brutality and criminality, if not scale, surely rivalled the Iraq war – that defined and consolidated Putin’s presidency.

The level of anti-war protest in Russia itself is much greater than it was during the short Russo-Georgian war of 2008 – probably because of the eruption of the new anti-Putin protest movement over the last couple of years. Social and labour movements in Europe should be supporting these actions.

On 2 March, the day the Crimea action began, about 300 protesters were arrested in Moscow, protesting against the war. An anti-war demonstration on 15 March, organised by the liberal Russian opposition and supported by the anti-Stalinist left, attracted a crowd of 50,000.

Pressure is mounting on anyone who publicly opposes the war. On 24 March, professor Andrei Zubov of the prestigious Moscow Institute of International Relations was instantly sacked, after publishing a newspaper article comparing the annexation of Crimea to Nazi Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938. Students and staff are urging his release; this campaign against the bullying of a public intellectual for speaking out against war should be taken up in European universities too.

The Maidan movement

Putin claims Yanukovich was deposed by an ‘illegal, unconstitutional’ right wing takeover. While the right wing character of the new government, and the prominence of right wing nationalism in the Maidan movement, are undeniable, Putin is ignoring the movement’s broad social character.

The make-up and motivation of the crowd on Maidan was complicated. I visited Kyiv in the week after Yanukovich fled; almost everyone I talked to seemed to agree that a large proportion of Kyiv’s population (the young and the old, the rich, the middle-class and the workers) was on Maidan at one time or another. Motivations varied widely, but removal of Yanukovich became an all-embracing theme, especially after 16 January when he tried to push through laws to limit drastically the right to protest. Putting an end to corruption in politics – which means different things to different people – was also an issue for the vast majority. Various kinds of patriotism and nationalism, including the most reactionary, were there in abundance; social issues seemed not to be at the forefront. Among analyses published by Ukrainian leftists in English, this interview with a member of the Autonomous Workers Union considers Maidan’s politics in the most detail.

It was the intransigence of the crowd at Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kyiv – the occupation of which involved hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life over the course of three months – that forced Yanukovich out. The politics of the crowd were multi-faceted, but four key points are:

• Maidan became a mass movement not only in response to Yanukovich’s failure on 29 November to sign the association agreement between Ukraine and the European Union, but also in response to police violence. When Yanukovich returned from Vilnius without signing the agreement, his cronies ordered the violent dispersal of about 400 pro-European protesters. It was this callous attack that brought tens of thousands out the next day.

• Europe is an issue, but not for the reasons some European leftists think. While sections of Ukrainian capital would certainly prefer to play by European rules, that does not explain popular support for closer links with Europe. That is generated partly by the personal experience of millions of Ukrainians who work in EU countries, often temporarily and/or illegally, and believe such links would open up labour markets.

• Corruption was a theme at Maidan, and the new government has established a commission for the filtration of all state officials. For sure, this is a demand of Ukrainian business that wants to play by ‘normal’ market rules, rather than with the system still widespread in former Soviet states, under which state officials and oligarchs share out power and money. But it is also a demand of ordinary people, who are sick of paying off traffic cops, medical staff, university admission commissions and other officials.

• Economic and social rights were not at the forefront of the protest. Although universities and the education ministry were occupied by students, independent trade union attempts to organise pro-Maidan strike action failed badly. While socialists participated widely, eg. in the Maidan medical service, the organised participation of left wingers and trade unionists was sometimes met with fascist and right-wing nationalist violence. (These arguments are made at greater length here.)

Maidan’s extraordinary stubbornness in the face of violence was a key factor in the Yanukovich regime’s collapse. On 20 February, snipers fired into the crowd, killing dozens of people. The crowd did not disperse; it swelled. On 21 February, the opposition leaders negotiated a deal – a presidential election in December and amendments to the constitution – but when they proposed it to the square it was rejected outright. Meanwhile security and army commanders had pledged not to move against Ukrainian people, and parliamentary deputies quit Yanukovich’s Party of Regions in droves.

This was a mass movement, not a coup; it had right wingers in it, but was not launched for right wing ends.

If ‘legitimacy’ is the issue, Yanukovich’s claim is spurious. No-one knows who ordered sniper fire into the crowds on 20 November but a mass of evidence that Yanukovich sanctioned it, as well as other forms of state violence – and in particular statements by former and serving interior ministry officers about the planning – has been published in Ukraine’s leading newspapers. And for months before that, Maidan was subject to arbitrary and criminal attacks, including kidnappings and killings of activists. Yanukovich’s attempt to rush through dictatorial powers against demonstrations on 16 January boosted the movement. His plans to use the army against civilians were found in his vulgar, corruptly-acquired mansion after he fled.

The left and the unions

It does not mean much to talk about a parliamentary ‘left’ in Ukraine. The Communist Party of Ukraine, which when the Soviet Union broke up inherited the apparatus and much of the politics of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, formally supported Yanukovich’s government (although without joining it in coalition). On 16 January, when Yanukovich tried to rush through parliament a law curbing the right to demonstrate and free speech, the CPU voted for it. And when on 21-22 February Yanukovich’s Party of Regions collapsed and the opposition formed a majority, the CPU announced that it was going into opposition. Many, including myself, would argue that describing this party as ‘left’ empties the word ‘left’ of any meaning.

The Socialist Party of Ukraine, which is affiliated to the Socialist International, is the other parliamentary force that calls itself left. Some extra-parliamentary leftists are now in talks with it about forming a joint slate in forthcoming elections. Trotskyist, post-Trotskyist, anarchist, eco-socialist and other groups are also active in Ukraine, particularly in student movements and unions. Some of them are grouped around the journal Spil’ne (Commons).

The largest union federation, the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine, is also a Soviet legacy; most of its structures remain closely linked to those of government and management, although there are workplace militants within its organisations. The main independent union federation, the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (CFTUU), is led by parliamentary deputy Mikhail Volynets, a former miner who has quit Batkivshchina, Yulia Timoshenko’s party, on whose list he was elected to parliament.

The CFTUU strongly supported Maidan, and Volynets was elected to the Council of Maidan. But attempts to call strike action against the Yanukovich government failed completely: workers simply did not respond to strike calls. Student strikes and occupations in support of Maidan were more successful, and left groups played a prominent role in them. Members of left organisations participated in the Maidan demonstrations just as Kyiv’s population as a whole did. Many joined the medical corps, for example.

The organised presence of left groups on Maidan frequently led to a hostile, and even violent, response by right-wing nationalists and fascists. Some left events organised as part of the demonstrations were successful, including a presentation of the Commons journal in an occupied government building. But the left was always outnumbered; an attempt to form a Left Sector of self-defence units was blocked by threats of violence from the Right Sector; other victims of right wing attacks included people distributing trade union leaflets and carrying red flags. A self-defence squad of proclaimed anarchists, Narodny Nabat, disavowed other left groups and those that attempted to raise left-wing slogans and coordinated its response to police violence with the Right Sector.

Struggles over social issues could be the starting-point for countering the effect of pro-Russian separatism on one side and extreme Ukrainian nationalism on the other. But radical socialists in Kyiv and in eastern Ukrainian cities emphasise that, in the immediate future, launching such struggles will not be easy.

The new government

The new government in Kyiv is neoliberal, but not fascist, as some European leftists claim. Ukraine’s economy is in crisis, its state finances are in trouble, and the new prime minister, neoliberal economist Arseniy Yatseniuk, is set to negotiate a loan package with the IMF.

An earlier package, arranged in 2008, had conditions attached – slashing the public sector wage bill, reforming the pension system and raising tariffs for gas, electricity and municipal services – that all previous governments failed to meet. Yatseniuk has said he will implement whatever the Fund demands, although such an attempt could easily bring down his weak coalition. Government assaults on living standards, and on welfare, education and social provision carried over from Soviet times, will present a challenge to social and labour movements.

Batkivshchina (Fatherland), the party led by Yatseniuk and former prime minister Yulia Timoshenko, is partnered in the coalition by Svoboda, the right-wing nationalist, populist party, whose leadership is full of antisemites. Svoboda has a deputy prime ministership, three ministries and control of the general prosecutor’s office; some other ministers are former radical rightists now in the parliamentary right.

The Right Sector coalition, that on Maidan brought together groups to the right of Svoboda, including fascists and neo-Nazis, has stayed out of the government. Its leader Dmitry Yarosh was offered the post of deputy head of the national security council but declined. On 25 March tension between the government and the Right Sector culminated in police raids on the fascists, during which one fascist leader, Oleksandr Muzychko, was shot dead.

The immediate danger from the right wing and fascists consists primarily not in Svoboda’s government positions, but in self-defence units, some armed, some of which are controlled by Svoboda and the Right Sector.

In the days after Yanukovich’s downfall, the police largely disappeared from the streets of Kyiv and other cities; newspapers carried interviews with officers who had retreated, demoralised and in many cases wounded, from Maidan. An agreement was reached in Kyiv that police and Maidan self-defence groups would patrol jointly. Self-defence groups sprang up across the country, most armed with sticks, baseball bats and ski masks, some with firearms. Some are coordinated by Maidan or the Right Sector; some organised by local residents in response to fears of the breakdown of law and order; some are little more than self-appointed gangs of young men, playing by their own rules.

Like the Maidan movement as a whole, the self-defence groups are heterogenous. While in Kyiv I heard an account of one group in a residential area set up by local residents, well coordinated, non-political, and very effective. It had blocked the main road at the height of the conflict with Yanukovich, to stop government forces reaching the city, and patrolled the local area to keep order after Yanukovich’s fall.

But some of these armed groups are organised by right-wing political forces, and leftists – who have experienced a rise in attacks on meetings and activists over the last two years – fear this will now pose a greater threat. Svoboda deputies have proposed a law legalising these units. Given the collaboration between armed groups and the police since Yanukovich’s fall, leftists fear that fascists may have access to information on labour activists collected by the police. We on the European left should search for ways to work solidarity with Ukrainian leftists against these very real dangers.

Gabriel Levy is a socialist activist and edits the People & Nature website

Voices of the Ukrainian left

‘Putin’s war is directed first of all at the Russian population. It is designed to bolster Putin’s popularity and to weaken the Russian opposition,’ Volodymyr Ishchenko of the Commons journal, based in Kyiv, said in an interview. ‘What other conceivable reason can there be for attacking Crimea?’

Ishchenko said: ‘My impression is that, while in western and central Ukraine, the Russian invasion confirmed in people’s minds what they always suspected about Russia’s imperialist intentions, in the south and east the population is really polarised.

‘The “pro-Russian” rallies are not demanding that Yanukovich returns. He is politically dead. Some of the demonstrations are separatist; some simply want more autonomy for the regions. My hope is that actions around social issues can gain support from both sides, but this will not happen easily or soon.’

Activists in eastern Ukraine, contacted by email, underlined the complexity of local people’s attitudes. G., a trade union activist based in Dniprodzerzhinsk, said: ‘Most ordinary people are cautious or hostile to the [Ukrainian] nationalists, and so Euromaidan got very meagre support here. There have been many rallies here against the accession to power [in Ukraine] of “fascists” and “nationalists”.

‘But after Russia sent its forces into Crimea and threatened war – both sides appeared ready temporarily to drop their differences and defend Ukraine. The bottom line is that this conflict is starting to unite people. Those who openly support Russian intervention are not visible right now.

‘On the other hand there is the threat of the right radicals coming to power. Oligarchs [have been] appointed to the governerships of eastern regions.” (Among a string of new governors appointed on 2 March, Igor Kolomoisky, the oil-to-telecoms billionaire was made governor of Dnipropetrovsk region and Sergei Taruta, the steel magnate, governor of Donetsk region.)

Hostility to the new government in Kyiv does not automatically translate into support for Putin’s invasion, K., a university researcher from Zaporozhia, says. ‘If war starts in Ukraine, the limited contingent of Russian armed forces will come up against paradoxes that can hardly have been considered in Putin’s strategy of getting ready to fight “Banderites”. [A catch-all term for Ukrainian nationalists commonly used in Russia. Stepan Bandera was a Ukrainian nationalist leader whose armed forces fought the Soviet Red Army during the second world war.]

‘Let me explain about my own case. I am not a nationalist, I speak Russian [not Ukrainian], I served in the Soviet and Russian armed forces, I do not see Bandera as a Ukrainian hero, I did not support Maidan, I have a negative view of a whole lot of decisions taken by the Ukrainian parliament [since the ousting of Yanukovich], and I have many friends in Russia. But, all the same, I am a citizen of Ukraine, and I will defend Ukraine’s independence in a struggle with the whip-cracking Putinites and defend all the nationalities in my country.’

D. from Dnipropetrovsk, a radical left activist, quoted Pushkin: ‘The people were silent.’ (The famous last line of the poem Boris Godunov.) ‘That applies to workers whether young or old,’ he said. The events around the Maidan demonstrations had a polarising effect. Wide layers were seized by nationalism, Ukrainian or Russian. […] That’s a catastrophe that could be compared to August 1914 [the outbreak of the first world war].

‘Among socialists and anarchists there is a very pessimistic mood. Twenty five years of socialist propaganda from a wide range of left groups and ideas seems to have gone nowhere, disappeared like a puff of smoke. Of course, we didn’t have such great achievements before (in contrast to 1914). But what’s happening now gives the impression that all these decades of socialist work were for nothing, have produced no results.’

Despite his gloomy prognosis, D. added that, in respect of a possible incursion by the Russian army, wrote: ‘The indignation is overwhelming… since the beginning of the military activity in Crimea, I haven’t heard any other reaction.’

Some sources with material from Ukrainian socialists: LeftEast, Commons, avtonomia.net.

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