Ukraine – No side but that of the working class

Ukraine – No side but that of the working class

As we go to publication, military conflict continues in eastern Ukraine, following a decision by newly elected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to end the ten-day ceasefire. Pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Lugansk have refused to implement the ceasefire, despite it being backed publicly by Russia’s President Putin. It is to be hoped that the ceasefire can be re-established and that the prospect of civil war recedes. Hopefully, it can be removed from the agenda for a long time.

Workers and their families in the Ukraine and beyond and all those who rightly fear the barbarity of war could then breathe a sigh of relief – a sigh that we hope can lead to a more normal rhythm of breathing. The working class has nothing to gain from an outbreak of serious fighting in the Ukraine. The only winners will be the oligarchs and their backers and the arms manufacturers. Socialists must oppose the drive to war and do everything possible to prevent it.

Full circle

Poroshenko has just signed an agreement with the European Union, bringing events in the country full circle. Just over seven months ago, the former, now-deposed, President Yanukovich was on the verge of signing the agreement, which would have drawn the Ukraine closer to the European Union and loosened ties with Russia, when he dramatically changed his mind and pulled out of the deal. Whether this was out of genuine concern for the effects on the Ukrainian economy and its electorate or under pressure from Russia, which wanted Ukraine to become a partner in its own Eurasian customs union, or a combination of both, the consequences were dramatic and far-reaching, bringing the prospect of civil war and the involvement of Russian and American forces into conflict – at least by proxy, if not directly – and even raising the possibility of Ukraine being divided in two.

Socialists should view events in the Ukraine, as elsewhere, from the standpoint of the interests of the working class. Socialists should not see the need to back one side or another in what is essentially a tug of war (almost literally) between rival capitalist powers over geo-political, strategic interests and economic resources.

The working class in Ukraine should not be duped into backing one side or the other in this fight. It is a battle between the oligarchs – those billionaires who made their money from bargain-basement sell off of the previously state-owned economy at the expense of the working class. It is a battle between the expansionist capitalist objectives of the USA and the EU and its military alliance NATO on the one hand, and the expansionist capitalist objectives of Russia on the other. The fact that the USA-EU side is stronger and more dominant should not lead any socialist to take the side of Russia or of its agents inside the Ukraine. Russia offers no answer to the economic and national questions facing the working class in Ukraine.

It should also be self-evident that no socialist should take the side of the US-EU and its new ally in the Ukrainian government. It is a government of the Oligarchs and their hangers-on. With this new alliance with the EU comes the further liberalisation of the Ukrainian economy – privatisation, wage cuts, cuts in public spending, a lowering of living standards. The government has appointed oligarchs to head up various provincial governments. These unelected billionaires now use their positions to guarantee their interests are protected at the expense of the majority of the population.

Far right

One further factor that should make any progressive observer stop and think twice before backing the new ‘Maidan’ government and President Poroshenko is the significant part played in its assumption of power by extreme far-right, nationalist, anti-Semitic and fascist organisations such as the Svoboda and the Right Sector. If neo-liberals are the enemy of the working class for their anti-working class policies, the Right Sector and Svoboda are its enemies because these paramilitary forces back up those policies with physical force – bats, poles, hammers, knuckle-dusters but also – more dangerously – access to automatic weapons and heavier artillery.

Whilst Russia and its supporters exaggerate the role of the fascists – wrongly categorising the new government as fascist – to play on memories of the Great Patriotic War against the Nazis and stir up opposition to the Kiev regime, it would be completely wrong to dismiss the fascist and far-right presence as insignificant. These forces have been incorporated into the new government’s militia giving them licence to attack opponents of the government under the guise of ‘anti-terrorism’. This means not only pro-Russian separatists but any left-wing opponents too. Leading members of Svoboda were appointed to four significant positions in the new government including the new Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Sych and Svoboda’s leader Oleh Tyanbok, who was Minister of Defence until his resignation in March over his perceived indecision by the new government over the Crimea. In the 2010 Presidential election, Svoboda’s Tyanbok won 352,282 votes (1.43%), although in local elections in the same year in the western Ukrainian region of Eastern Galicia it won between 20-30% of the votes and became a main force in local government. In the 2012 parliamentary elections Svoboda received 2,129,906 votes (10.44%) and gaining 38 members of the Rada (parliament), where they previously had none. However, to put things into perspective, in the recent 2014 Presidential election, Tyanbok won only 210,723 votes (1.51% ) and Dmytro Yarosh, the Right Sector candidate, won only 127,772 (0.7%).

The role of these thuggish auxiliaries in the near future will depend on how events unfold. Should a ceasefire hold and a period of ‘normality’ return it is more likely that attempts will be made by Poroshenko to reign in the street-fighting far-right. Whether this is achievable is another question. Should the prospect of war become a reality, they will be unleashed on opponents on both sides of the combat zone. It should be a cause for concern for all democrats and socialists that these fascist and far right forces have gained such significance in the course of these events, mirroring – in different circumstances – the rise of Golden Dawn in Greece, which has also been prepared to use physical force against its opponents.

The dangerous and reactionary poison of nationalism on both sides – Ukrainian and Russian – has been given encouragement and gained confidence from recent events. Ultimately, the only force capable of preventing its continued growth is a politically conscious working class.

Pulled in two directions

The Ukraine sits between the bulk of Europe, now combined into the EU, and Russia. It is a buffer between Europe and Russia and therefore of great strategic importance to both the EU (and behind that the USA) and Russia. European capital sees its importance and wants it incorporated into its bloc. The USA sees it as a necessary accession, to corral and contain Russia. Beyond Russia, the USA fears the rise of China as a competing super power and the growing economic relationship between Russia and China as a threat to its own global capitalist interests.

Russia in turn regards the Ukraine as a natural geographical part of its area of interest and sees the danger of allowing the EU and the USA having such close proximity to its western border. The western capitalist military alliance NATO has encouraged Ukraine to become a member, posing the threat of missile bases in yet another country bordering Russia. While NATO and its main backers have retreated from this position in recent years the expansion of the EU eastwards into the Ukraine poses an obvious military as well as economic threat to Russia, which it is determined to thwart.

There can be no doubt that the main responsibility for the recent crisis and possible outbreak of full-blown war lies with the United States and its European partners.


The Ukraine is a potentially rich country. In the former Soviet Union it was the most important component, after Russia, producing four times the output of the next ranking republic. Its fertile black soil produced a quarter of Soviet agricultural output. In 2011 it was the world’s third largest grain exporter. Now, its land is seen as a lucrative investment by capitalists internationally, placing it in the world’s top ten destinations for investors in farm and agricultural land. Yet the country is almost bankrupt. A quarter of the population live below the poverty line. Following the dissolution of the former Soviet Union in 1991 the Ukraine government attempted to liberalise the economy. By 1999 economic output was 40% of its 1991 level, that is, output fell by well over half. More recently, there was another collapse in the economy when it contracted by 15% in 2009, amongst the worst in the world. Ukraine was heavily dependent on Russia for oil and gas, a situation which Russia has exploited to gain influence and to cultivate a sense of dependency on Russia for economic survival.

In 2010 the Ukraine negotiated a discount on the price of Russian gas imports in exchange for extending the lease on its Crimean naval base. Of course, now that Ukraine has turned to the EU and away from Russia, its favourable gas and oil prices are no longer available and it has lost the revenue from the Crimean bases. As Europe is seeking to secure its gas and oil supplies from elsewhere than Russia due to the uncertainty of delivery and prices, Russia is also looking elsewhere for new business partners. Russia has recently agreed a $400 billion deal for the supply of gas to China for the next 30 years[i] and is now also looking to China to help finance construction of a bridge between the Crimea and southern Russia’s Krasnodar region[ii].

The Ukrainian economy has been in recession since mid-2012. In the search for a solution to the economic crisis the Ukraine government looked to Russia and to the EU. Former president Yanukovich was a pro-Russian politician, whose main base of support was in the southern and eastern regions of Ukraine which favour closer links with Russia.  But he was ready to sign a preferential trade agreement with the EU, giving the EU access to the Ukraine. At the last minute, in November 2013, he withheld his signature and instead entered into an agreement with Putin that included $15bn loans and lower gas prices. It was this last-minute change of mind that set off the anti-Yanukovich protests in the Maidan square.

According to the Ukrainian Prime Minister Azarov, the terms of the International Monetary Fund loan were extremely harsh and ensured that the signing of the EU accord would not go ahead.

“The IMF position presented in the letter dated November 20 was the last straw,” Azarov said. “The terms are an increase of gas and heating tariffs for the population by approximately 40%, a commitment of freezing basic, minimal and net salaries on the current level, a significant reduction of budget expenditures, the lowering of energy subsidies, and the gradual curtailment of VAT exemption benefits for agriculture and other sectors.”[iii]

The first caualty

Everything that we read about events in the Ukraine has to be carefully considered. Both contending sides have an interest in distorting reality, to present events as they would like the world to see them. It would be naïve to believe otherwise. Each side has an interest in presenting the other as the aggressor, the instigator, the villain. No statement or news report can be taken for granted. Government leaders and their spokespeople can say one thing, while doing another behind the scenes, sometimes with the connivance of their opponents. Without inside access to the government offices or the international negotiations it is impossible to be sure exactly what is taking place. Observations and assessments in this article about events are made with that caveat.  The working class must try to see through this forest of obfuscation and propaganda. It matters less who threw the first punch, or fired the first shot, in this battle between rival capitalist protagonists than trying to identify the differing class interests behind the facts. The main point is how the working class can assert its own independent interests.

It appears that the protests that developed in November 2013 were, initially at least, primarily made up of sections of the middle class and students, genuinely concerned with their future given the direction in which Yanukovich was taking the country. Faced with low wages, a falling standard of living and a seemingly intractable economic crisis it is not surprising that many would look to the west – to the European Union – as a route to a better life.

Notwithstanding the austerity programme of the EU leaders and its catastrophic effects, particularly in Greece, many in Ukraine would see higher living standards, better jobs and better social services in the EU. In 2005, Ukrainian wages were less than 10% of the EU average. They may also consider that the EU provides a more open democracy than they see in Russia, with the imprisonment of critical journalists and even the assassination of political opponents. In these circumstances the protests at Yanukovich turning his back on Europe are entirely understandable. At the same time, can there be any doubt that the protests were assisted, fomented and orchestrated by the rich and powerful oligarchs and, behind them, by the USA and EU? It would be remarkable if the USA and EU did not have their own people involved, giving advice and assistance, as well as finance (as was the case in the so-called ‘Orange’ revolution of 2004), to those leaders of the protest movement who were open to pushing a western agenda.

In similar vein, it would be remarkable if Russia did not have its own people advising Yanukovich and his supporters and later, as things developed, advising, financing and arming forces who would act in Russia’s interest in the eastern provinces of Ukraine and in the Crimea.

Maidan and repression

Yanukovich’s response to the protests was to use repression. In turn, government buildings were occupied. A government bill to curtail the right to protest was proposed. This only fuelled the protests further. Again, how much of this was a genuine, spontaneous reaction to the repression and how much was driven by those who with their own political agenda is difficult to assess. Probably, there were elements of both. All democrats would oppose the anti-protest legislation. Hundreds of thousands came onto the streets. Yanukovich wobbled, suggesting that the legislation may be withdrawn. His Prime Minister Azarov became a scapegoat and resigned. But it was not enough. The protests continued and escalated.

From the beginning of the protests the absence of any significant organised working-class presence was notable. Into the vacuum, to give direction to the protests, stepped the oligarchs and the far right. Svoboda and the Right Sector had a huge advantage. They were organised, disciplined (in their own fashion), assertive and directed. Early in the protest they violently ensured that the left would fear to express its presence. The pro-Russian Communist Party of the Ukraine, which had 32 seats in the Rada, offered worse than nothing. It backed Yanukovich’s repressive anti-protest legislation. Its support for Ukraine joining the Russian led customs union, rather than the EU, enabled the right to portray the left as acting only in the interest of Russia.

The physical presence and confidence of the far right enabled it to gather a new level of support, leading to its entry into the new government created when Yanukovich fled on 22 February this year. When that new parliament met, it called for the laws that protected the right to speak Russian in various parts of the country to be removed, reflecting the dominance of right-wing Ukrainian nationalism within it. The CP was actually barred from a parliamentary session on at least one occasion[iv] and its leader was physically assaulted by Svoboda deputies on another.[v] In May the acting president Oleksandr Turchynov proposed that the Communist Party should be banned[vi]. Several oligarchs were appointed regional governors. The new government’s democratic veneer was very thin.

Once Yanukovich had fled and Russian influence over the Kiev government was ended and Ukraine looked likely to sign the accord with the EU it was apparent that the strategy of Russian President Putin was to ensure that Russian interests were protected by other means. He cleverly manipulated fears about the new government, Russian nationalism and anti-fascist sentiment, to destabilise the eastern provinces of the Ukraine. Crimea, in particular, was a key strategic situation as the base for the Russian fleet, guaranteeing access to the Mediterranean. Whether Putin wanted an all-out war to secure the east of Ukraine is unlikely. Perhaps he was prepared to see Ukraine cut in two, if necessary. More likely is that he wanted to ensure that there was a degree of autonomy for the pro-Russian provinces in eastern Ukraine. He wanted sympathetic regional governments in those provinces on his western border, limiting the ability of the Kiev government to act as they wish against Russian interests and to ensure that the Ukraine continued to be a buffer between Russia and the rest of Europe.

Crimea and the east

Almost immediately following the fall of Yanukovich, pro-Russian militia seized government buildings in the Crimean peninsular. It was clear that Russian forces were operating in the Crimea. While there was clearly a reaction against the overthrow of Yanukovich from large sections of the Crimean population it was also clear that Russia was pulling the strings when the Crimean parliament voted to join Russia and called a referendum on the issue for 16 March. That referendum was held in conditions unsuitable for any democratic vote. There were armed forces on the ground – no doubt Russian troops as well as civilian recruited auxiliaries. There was no possibility of free and open debate.

The result was never in doubt and 97% are claimed to have voted in favour of joining Russia. Without independent observers to verify the result it is impossible to know how accurate that figure is. But it does appear that there was a clear and widespread popular support within the Crimea for union with Russia. It was not a satisfactory manner in which to decide the fate of the Crimea, to put it mildly. But it is now an established fact, which should be accepted unless there develops a clear movement in the Crimea that puts the referendum result in doubt, which is unlikely.

Putin has cynically both encouraged and held back pro-Russian separatist forces in eastern Ukraine. Whilst it is clear that there was some genuine support there for following the Crimea into a union with Russia, there is no evidence that this was a mass movement, certainly there is  no evidence that it was the majority view. In early April pro-Russian protestors occupied government buildings in Donetsk, Lugansk and Kharkiv, calling for a referendum on independence. There appeared to be no mass support for this call. Putin manipulated the situation in order to pressure the new government and the incoming President (elections were to be held on 25 May) into conceding a more federal constitution, one that would weaken Kiev’s grip on the eastern provinces.

At the beginning of May, dozens of pro-Russian demonstrators were murdered in Odessa by Kiev government supporters, including members of the far right groups, when the trade union building in which they had taken refuge was set alight. Such acts only fuelled the fear of the Russian speakers and those in the east, no doubt pushing many more towards support for the idea of separation. But on 7 May Putin called for the referendums in eastern Ukraine to be postponed, seeking to engage in negotiations with Kiev. The referendums in Donetsk and Lugansk went ahead anyway and declared independence. There is no way of knowing if this was with the agreement of Putin or not. Was he saying one thing publicly, while encouraging his people privately to keep up the pressure? It seems unlikely that the pro-independent forces are completely independent from Russian influence. Again, there is no way of confirming how many voted or what the result was. It must be said that little faith can be placed in any vote that is organised by a relatively small, unelected, self-appointed group in the midst of military conflict when masked armed men are patrolling the streets. Indeed, it seems that some of the characters involved in the separatist ‘people’s republics’ are crooks and charlatans, with little if any local base in the community they proclaim to represent. Some are clearly paid agents of the Russian government.

New oligarch in charge

On 25 May 2014 Poroshenko was elected President with 56% of the vote and took office on 7 June.  Millions did not vote in the eastern part of Ukraine. Whether this was a conscious abstention or not can not be assessed but it is difficult to cast your vote if polling stations are not open and armed men are preventing the ballot from taking place, as was the case in various parts of the eastern regions. Workers should have no truck with such ‘representatives’.

Poroshenko is a billionaire, known as the ‘Chocolate King’ due to the millions he has made from his confectionary and other businesses, which include several car and bus factories, a shipyard and a TV channel. No doubt with the help of advice received from John Brennan, the director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, who had visited Kiev for talks in early April[vii], Poroshenko began to take firmer military action to re-establish Kiev control over the eastern provinces, while making concessions to Putin. He also issued a 15-point peace plan on 20 June, to which Putin responded positively. It included proposals for a decentralised Ukraine with more power being granted to the regions. At the same time Poroshenko declared a week-long cease fire, which was later extended. On 25 June the Russian parliament cancelled a resolution authorising the use of Russian troops in the Ukraine.

Whilst there are still some separatist forces that are standing their ground and refusing to recognise the ceasefire, others have observed it. It is unlikely that the conflict will come to a nice tidy end but without the backing of Putin and his advisors and finance it may not expand to other areas. We can but hope so. It appears that both sides have stepped back from the brink.

Of course, any attempt by the government or by fascist forces to clamp down on protest or restrict democratic rights, including the right to speak the Russian language, should be resisted. Vigilance against the intrusion of fascist elements into the communities of the east – or elsewhere, for that matter – is required. Political organisation and military organisation to defend the communities against fascist threats necessitates widespread debate and the involvement of the whole community, which cannot rely on the unaccountable acts of self-appointed gangs.

Working class power

The discovery of Yanukovich’s lavish mansion and a lifestyle far removed from that of ordinary Ukrainians could only heighten hostility to the now departed President. But his life style is no different from those who have replaced him. The king is dead, long live the king. The masses who were enraged at what they discovered about Yanukovich’s riches will come to experience the same rage against the oligarchs who have replaced him.

The main reason for the ability of the oligarchs to lead this movement unchallenged and for the far right to carve out the position they have achieved is the complete absence of any significant independent working class force. With a labour force of 22 million out of a population of 44 million there is a potentially powerful working class. 57% of the population are between the ages of 15 and 54 while 32% are 55 or older. A quarter works in industry and 68% in services. There are 500,000 miners, mainly in the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine. But this force has not stamped its presence on events.

After 70 years of Soviet rule, all but a very short initial period under one form of Stalinism or another, followed by twenty years of shock doctrine in which living standards dropped through the floor, the working class is politically disorientated. The Soviet Union, including the regime the Ukraine was not socialist and was not a workers’ state. As proved by events, it was not a transition to socialism either. The working class had no say in how that society was run. It was run primarily in the interests of the bureaucratic elite in the Communist Party.

The legacy of Stalinism is complicated. Many of the older generation will look back with some nostalgia at a period when everyone had a job and an affordable place to live, access to health care and education. Struggling to make ends meet now, the nostalgia can obscure the more unpalatable aspects of Stalinism from the memory. For others, the experience of Stalinism lives on, whether directly or passed down the generations.  That experience includes the political repression and purges, the suppression of dissident opinion. Millions died in the forced collectivisation under Stalin at the end of the 1920s and early 1930s and the ensuing famine. In these circumstances it is not surprising that some look to Russia and some in the opposite direction. Neither signpost points to an answer.

The conflicted histories of the Ukraine, with its antagonistic Ukrainian and Russian nationalisms, in which some sections of Ukrainian society fought on the side of the Nazis in the Second World War, fuels current divisions. The more the situation in the Ukraine deteriorates the greater will become the nationalist tensions, reflected in inter-ethnic and language violence. Socialists must argue against the pernicious influence of nationalism both within the workers’ movement and more generally in society. It must emphasise always the need for unity of the working class.

If the working class is to assert itself and play its role in determining the direction of the Ukraine, it must break free from looking east to Russia or west to the European Union and the USA. It must break free from backing this oligarch against that one. It cannot hope to find answers by looking back to life in the Soviet Union or by looking forward to life under some form of liberal capitalist democracy.

Only a break with the past and the present and acting to create a new society can offer any way forward. That break can only come when the massive force of the Ukrainian working class begins to act in its own interest and in unison with the working class throughout the region, to overthrow the corrupt, undemocratic rule of the oligarchs, the bureaucrats, the capitalists and their cheerleaders and to expropriate their wealth and ownership of the means of creating wealth, that is the factories, the mines, transport, technology, the natural resources and the land and, through democratic collective ownership, planning production to meet the needs of all.

The organised forces of socialism in the Ukraine are extremely small and weak. They have an immensely difficult job. It is the responsibility of socialists internationally to give support and encouragement to them. At the moment, socialists cannot hope to influence events in the short term. The task is to build up support for an alternative to that offered by Putin and Russia to the east and by Poroshenko and the USA/EU to the west. A mass socialist workers party is needed. Drawing all socialists together now would be a significant small step. A replication of the multitude of competing socialist sects that we have in the UK and elsewhere can only hold things back. A socialist party would oppose war and argue for workers in both parts of the Ukraine to mobilise against it. In the present conditions that may not result in action but the sentiment will find important support in pockets of the working class.

Socialists must explain that workers and their families have nothing to gain from the ethnic and language divisions that are being entrenched by the nationalist bigots on both sides. Ukrainians in the east or west have nothing to gain from the break up of the country. It doesn’t matter where you live, or what language you speak. Workers of all hues have a shared experience as the exploited of the earth. Socialists must emphasise the common interests of all workers in the Ukraine – Russian speakers and Ukrainian speakers, in the east and in the west – in opposing the oligarchs and their international backers.

Workers have to protect themselves and their communities from those forces who would seek to destroy them, to take away their rights and their ability to resist. That is why workers should organise to resist the thuggish fascist forces who would seek to break up their meetings and demonstrations. Any attempts to deny the right to protest or to strike or to vote must be resisted. Just as people mobilised against Yanukovich when he tried to curtail protest, the same must happen when Poroshenko or anyone else tries it.

Common interest, common struggle

Socialists should explain that workers have a common interest in opposing the Poroshenko government and should seek to replace it, not with a return to a pro-Russian government or with a more Ukrainian-nationalist one, but with a workers’ government – one that acts in the interests of, and under the direction of the working class.

To achieve this, the working class needs a democratic political space in which to freely move – to debate, argue, write and criticise. The trade unions and other workers’ organisations must be able to breathe and flex their muscles. It is to be hoped that a ceasefire can be sustained and working class people can begin to discuss the recent events openly and learn lessons and begin to organise for themselves. Keep the oligarchs out of working class politics.

This means explaining what the new agreements with the EU and the IMF mean. Very quickly it will become apparent. How workers react will depend not only on the effects they feel but whether they think there is an alternative to be achieved.

The IMF is insisting on extremely harsh measures in return for the latest $17bn loan to the new Ukraine government.[viii] These include a big devaluation of the currency, which will increase the price of imports, thus increasing the cost of living and big government spending cuts. In addition, it is insisting that energy prices should be increased by between 240% and 425% over the next four years. This ‘stabilisation’ programme will bring misery for the Ukrainian population but big dividends for the country’s creditors who will be paid back out of the pockets of the Ukrainian working class. Lower wages and rising prices, cuts in jobs and services and privatisations make up the IMF recipe. The IMF’s own prognosis is not encouraging. It anticipates that the economy will contract by 5% this year and that inflation will remain high for the next year. The required ‘re-structuring’ of the Ukrainian economy will be at the expense of working-class living standards.

It is to be hoped that this economic medicine will force the working class, or at least significant sections of it, to react, to resist and to organise in their own interests. They must refuse to pay for the crisis while the oligarchs go untouched.

Any resistance to the imposition of the IMF programme will be undermined by a divided working class. Every effort must be made to keep the Ukrainian working class united – Russian and Ukrainian speakers, west and east. Many will soon learn that the EU is not the panacea they thought. The danger is that they look instead back to Russia. That, too, would be a mistake. They have to look to their own power and to their working class allies abroad, both in Russia and in the EU. The international labour movement must do all in its power to support Ukrainian workers resist the atavistic nationalism at play and support all steps they take to resist the inevitable attacks they now face.

Together the working class has the power to change the world. But first it must become conscious of that power and learn what to do with it. That is the difficult task for socialists, whether in the Ukraine or elsewhere.













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