Ukraine: Regime fall followed by fresh chaos

Protesters clash with police on January 19.
February 28, 2014

After failing to violently crush mass protests in Kiev’s Independence Square, which have been raging since November 21, the regime of Viktor Yanukovich collapsed on February 22.

The protests began in opposition to Yanukovich’s decision to back out of a Free Trade Agreement and Association Agreement with the European Union. But in the face of police brutality, the protests evolved into a general expression of anti-regime discontent. The movement was initially known as Euromaidan (“Eurosquare”) but later just Maidan, reflecting this evolution.

The movement also has an anti-Russian character, fuelled by the likelihood that in place of the proposed agreements with EU, Yanukovich was planning to take Ukraine into a Customs Union with Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

On February 27, parliament elected a new government of opposition politicians and defectors from Yanukovich’s party. Before the parliamentary vote, acting-president Oleksandr Turchynov presented the new government, headed by Arseniy Yatsenyuk, in the square on February 26. They received a hostile reception.

The corruption and anti-people economic policies of the politicians elected after the “Orange Revolution” ― protests that brought down the government in 2004 ― has created scepticism about establishment politicians of all parties. The protesters have announced they will remain in the square.

Divisions

Tensions with the Maidan are the least of the new government’s problems. Like the Orange Revolution, support for the anti-Yanukovich movement has come mainly from the west of the country and the capital, Kiev.

While Yanukovich’s fall in popularity was spread throughout the country, in the east the Maidan protest movement has been greeted with suspicion and indifference.

In the autonomous region of Crimea, in the south, mass protests by people from the Russian-speaking majority have raised the possibility of separating Crimea from Ukraine and rejoining Russia (which Crimea was part of until 1954).

On February 27, armed men, possibly members of the just-disbanded Berkut police special forces, took over the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol.

Unfazed, parliament passed a law for a referendum on greater autonomy to be held on May 25, the same date the Kiev parliament has set for new presidential elections. However, both the Crimean and Russian governments have denied having any intention to transfer Crimea to Russia.

The Crimean and eastern Ukrainian opposition to regime change in Kiev, along with the Russian media, label Maidan and the new government as fascist.

The basis for this is more than just that the deposed president had been democratically elected. The fascistic Svoboda party is present in the new government. There is the increasingly visible role of more hard-line fascist groups, such as the Right Sector, in the Maidan.

The Russian media portrays the Maidan uprising as a fascist putsch planned by the West. It is certainly true that since the uprising began the West has been fishing in troubled waters.

On February 6, a YouTube video appeared featuring a conversation, apparently bugged by Russian intelligence, between US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt.

What this conversation shows, however, is not only that the US had a preference for Yatsenyuk over Svoboda leader Oleh Tyahnybok, but that the West seemed caught unaware by the uprising.

The protests may have begun with calling for Ukrainian integration into the EU, but the EU was surprised by Yanukovich’s sudden rejection of the agreement they had been negotiating for seven years.

The EU was also less gung-ho about interfering in the Ukraine than the US, leading to Nuland’s comment in the leaked conversation: “Fuck the EU.”

Yanukovich’s about-face on EU integration was just the catalyst. In an interview published on February 19 in Pratele komunizace, Denis, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian revolutionary syndicalist Autonomous Workers Union, explained: “From the very beginning people had a very peculiar understanding of ‘Europe’.

“They pictured a very utopian ideal ― society without corruption, with high wages, social security, rule of law, honest politicians, smiling faces, clean streets ― and called it ‘EU’ …

“But ‘Europe’ was never actually the main aim of the protesters. Anti-government and anti-Russian sentiments were much stronger, so they naturally overtook the pro-EU rhetoric after the police crackdown of December 1, and now most people hardly even remember what the initial cause of the demonstrations was.”

The context of this idealisation of the EU is the desperate poverty of the Ukraine, where GDP per capita is eighth that of Ireland's.

However, the growing fascist presence in the movement is not the figment of the Russian-speaking Crimean population’s imagination.

Background

One reason for this is the lack of any significant working class-based or leftist political currents. Mass consciousness is ideologically hostile to progressive ideas. Another reason is the promotion of right-wing historical narratives since Ukraine became independent in 1991. The causes of both are historical.

The first attempt at creating a Ukrainian nation-state came after the 1917 Russian Revolution. Most of Ukraine was previously part of the Russian Empire. Some of west Ukraine (Galicia) was part of the Hapsburg Empire, which collapsed in 1918.

After some of the most brutal fighting in the wars that followed the Russian Revolution, a Bolshevik government was established in formerly Russian Ukraine. It joined with other Bolshevik-led states in the former Russian Empire to form the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922.

The totalitarian bureaucratic dictatorship that developed under Joseph Stalin was a disaster for the Ukraine. Stripped of democracy, the USSR became a federation only on paper. The national and cultural rights that flourished in the 1920s were curtailed.

Because the Ukraine was the USSR’s most important agricultural region, it suffered disproportionately from Stalin’s forced collectivisation of agriculture in the early 1930s and the famines it caused. Millions of Ukrainians died.

The industrialisation of eastern Ukraine under Stalin altered the country’s demographics, creating a large Russian and Russified population.

The second attempt at creating a Ukrainian nation-state was during World War II. Ironically, Ukraine was reunited, under Soviet rule, by the Stalin-Hitler pact of 1939 that carved up Poland.

After Nazi Germany invaded the USSR in 1941, right-wing Ukrainian nationalists allied with Germany to try to win independence from the Russian-dominated USSR. One of these groups was the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and its military wing, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), based in Galicia.

Nazi occupation was as brutal and destructive in the Ukraine as anywhere. Until the collapse of the USSR, the OUN-UPA were remembered as Nazi collaborators.

Independence

When the USSR disintegrated in 1991, the Ukraine finally became an independent nation-state. Until 2004, the regime was the direct successor of the last government of Soviet Ukraine. Even today, most politicians on both sides were part of the Soviet bureaucracy.

The oligarchs who control Ukraine’s economy, and finance most of the parliamentary parties, also began their careers as Stalinist bureaucrats. They used their positions to privatise state-owned industry ― selling them to themselves. Living standards dropped dramatically in the 1990s.

Ukraine’s post-Soviet rulers have rehabilitated the OUN-UPA as part of the process of creating a new nationalist mythology to replace the discredited Stalinist version of socialism.

Denis from the Autonomous Workers Union told Pratele komunizace: “The crash of the ‘real socialism’ also brought about the crash of the progressive values which had been officially promoted in that society (atheism, feminism, internationalism).

“The gap has been promptly filled by the wild mixture of nationalism and conservatism (and New Age charlatan philosophy, for that matter). This shift was eagerly supported by the state ideological apparatus.”

The combination of left-wing ideas being discredited, far right ideas spreading, 1940s Nazi collaborators becoming celebrated and disenchantment with the parliamentary opposition has led to the growing influence of the fascists.

Svoboda, who gained 10% of the vote in the 2012 general elections, have been partially tainted in the eyes of Maidan protesters because of their involvement in parliamentary politics.

At the grassroots they are being eclipsed by the Right Sector. This highly militaristic alliance of violent Nazi gangs has won support for its willingness to take on the brutal Berkut riot police in physical confrontations.

Excluding the corrupt pro-capitalist Communist Party, the Ukrainian left is small. In Kiev, it consists of small anarchist and Trotskyist groups.

Adding to their difficulties in obtaining a hearing from the crowds is violence from the Right Sector and Svoboda, which have targeted leftists and trade unionists in the square. The Right Sector and Svoboda have also attacked each other.

However, most of these small groups remain in the square. Ilya Budraitskis, a Russian socialist participating in the Maidan told marx21: “Plainly speaking, if you say at Maidan Square that you are a Marxist, you run the risk of getting bashed. But the program and the character of the movement are to a large extent being developed.

“The people taking part in the struggle change politically enormously fast and they are very open to politics … The majority of the people at Maidan Square want to organise. They want direct democracy and no negotiations behind closed doors.”

Military dangers

By February 27, Russia had put its forces on the Ukrainian border on alert, drawing hypocritical condemnation from the West.

Western media hysteria notwithstanding, Russia is showing no evidence of intending to militarily intervene to separate Crimea or the eastern regions from the Ukraine and has no reason to.

However, with the new Kiev government threatening to crack down on the Russian-leaning Crimean autonomous government, there is a danger that a clash could emerge over the Russian naval base at Sevastopol.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian state is bankrupt. The new regime has begun talks with the IMF, who previously made clear that any new loans would be dependent on implementing austerity measures ― such as a 40% energy price hike ― that Yanukovich had been deferring.


Issue