A contradictory revolt in Ukraine

Issue section: 
Issue: 
(389)

The situation in Ukraine is fast moving and complex and it is easy to misunderstand what's at play.

In the liberal press the talk is already of "post revolutionary" Ukraine -- "the storming of the citadels of power recalls the overthrow of Slobodan Milosev... the indiscriminate terror created by sniping from roofs and buildings is a reprise of the assault on protestors in Bucharest," wrote Misha Glenny, omitting the role of fascist forces in the events.

In a letter published in the Guardian in January, prominent academics, including Slavoj Zizek, claimed that, "Ukrainian Maidan represents Europe at its best -- what many thinkers in the past and present assume to be fundamental European values" and called for a "European Marshall-like plan that would ensure its transformation into a full democracy and society with guaranteed civil rights."

This is nonsensical. Oleksandr Turkhynov, the interim president, is the right hand man of the corrupt oligarch Yulia Tymoshenko, who heads the right-wing populist Fatherland party. Oleg Mokhnytsky, the acting prosecutor general, is a member of the fascist party Svoboda.

While liberals can delude themselves that this is another "people's revolution", the other narrative is that the protests are simply a fascist movement, or at least one hijacked by the fascists. Neither is true.

Ukraine's Euromaidan protests illustrate the contradictory nature of movements, which in the context of a social crisis can either be pulled to the left or to what Leon Trotsky called the "counter revolutionary politics of despair."

The underlying cause behind the unrest is the contradictory position of Ukraine's ruling class.

Former president Viktor Yanukovich represented the section of Ukrainian capital in the industrial belt that remains tied to Russian markets, while the former opposition parties -- Tymoshenko's Fatherland and Vitali Klitschko's "Punch" -- represent the western oligarchs who see their future within the European Union.

In both instances the different sections of the ruling class have sought to align themselves with a social base. The western oligarchs pretend to represent workers' democratic aspirations and appeal to Ukrainian nationalism, while in the eastern belt oligarchs claim to be protecting both Russian minority interests and industrial workers from the "market".

This split at the top opened up the possibility for brewing anger to find an outlet. But the question was how would the nature of the split shape the movement on the streets?

It was not a simple rerun of the "Orange Revolution" of 2004. The global crisis has acutely shown the need for Ukrainian capitalism to modernise, meaning capitalists in the industrial belt are weighing up the advantages of European integration.

While the initial spark for the unrest was deposed president Yanukovich's decision to postpone indefinitely the signing of a European Union Association Agreement, what made it so explosive was workers' anger at plummeting living standards hit hard by the crisis.

When the unrest began last November there was a progressive element within the demonstrations with many workers and students joining. Kiev students threatened an indefinite strike and the cities of Lviv, Ternopil and Ivano-Frankivsk announced general strikes in solidarity with the protests.

But after the initial demonstration the opposition party leaders came in behind the protestors. This included Svoboda which was able to assume a prominent role in the movement and is now part of the new the interim government.

To break through the ruling class interests, workers would have to formulate independent demands. In order to forge a "third force" it would be crucial to win the organised working class and its leaders to break with the right-wing opposition. It was encouraging that protests, albeit small, did take place in the industrial belt and that the Confederation of Free Trade Unions (KVPU), originally born out of the miners' strike in 1989, supported the protests.

But when its president, Mikhail Volynets, addressed a Euromaidan rally he called for all to unite to show "our firm determination to become part of Europe" for "European values" which would prevent the regime "robbing us blind".

This is a problem on much of the Eastern European left, which has illusions in EU integration as a way of limiting free market reforms. But European values have not stopped the international Troika from robbing Greek workers. But the question was, "what does unity mean?" Unity with workers in the industrial belt or unity with the opposition oligarchs and Europe's ruling-class?

The KVPU passed a resolution in January that included a call for "organising a warning strike as a national movement of labour force resistance in order to ensure and preserve the working people's rights and freedoms" and "forming self-defence structures".

This could have opened up the space for independent demands to be formulated but does not seem to have come to anything. The KVPU is not a "yellow union" -- its activists were attacked by the fascists -- but its leadership is wedded to illusions in European integration and unwilling to openly break with the opposition.

The Ukrainian left is small and divided on how to respond to Euromaidan, but sections did attempt to intervene. The Left Opposition -- an orthodox Trotskyist group -- attempted to unite the "left Maidan" in the protest movement around a list of reformist demands.

The recent battles in Kiev were primarily between the fascists and the police. In the context of a weak left pole of attraction and the presence Ukrainian nationalism, the fascists as the best organised force with clear set of politics, were able to shape the movement and go largely unchallenged.

It will not be easy for the new government as Ukraine is in a profound crisis -- an economy in free fall and hostility from Russia, coupled protests in the Crimea that could develop into calls for autonomy or separatism. Moscow has frozen the 9 billion (GBP) in loans it promised Yanukovich's government and the interim leaders have said the country urgently needs a bailout. Whatever the final rescue package is, "structural adjustment" is bound to follow in some form which will hit workers hard.