The following article which we publish here, was translated from the monthly of our French comrades of Lutte Ouvrière ("Lutte de Classe" #158 - March 2014). Written on February 21st, it describes the process which led to the Ukrainian crisis and the ousting of the country's president, Yanukovych.
Since then, events have been moving fast. After Yanukovych's "disappearance", on February 22nd - before reappearing safely in Moscow - a self-appointed provisional government was formed by the political forces which had been active all along behind the protests against the regime, supposedly to organise new elections on May 25th. However, describing itself as a "kamikaze" government, it immediately announced a drastic austerity programme designed to make the majority of the population foot the bill of the country's catastrophic economic situation, without affecting the considerable wealth of its "oligarchs".
In addition to being dominated by a right-wing party which has ruled in the past and displayed the same kind of corruption as Yanukovych himself, this government includes four representatives of neo-fascist organisations, including its deputy prime minister. Meanwhile, taking opportunity of the power vacuum created by Yanukovych's hurried departure and by the illegitimacy of this government, the armed thugs of the neo-fascist groups have been openly parading in the streets of western Ukraine, taking over control of police stations and establishing road blocks to enforce their own "order".
Within days of Yanukovitch's ousting, the western media unleashed a hysterical anti-Russian campaign - particularly the British tabloids. There were endless reports about a "Russian invasion" of the Crimean province. This was hypocritically ignoring the facts. Indeed, the Russian army did not have to "invade" Crimea since it is permanently stationed there. Moreover, it enjoyed the sympathy of a large part of the Crimean population which, being ethnic Russians, had every reason to fear a backlash from neo-fascist groups whose hateful demagogy targets all minorities - including the Russian-speaking one.
Likewise, the western media portrayed the large pro-Russian demonstrations taking place in the industrial Donetz region, in eastern Ukraine, as yet more evidence of Russian "interference in Ukrainian domestic affairs" - regardless of the fact that, in this region too, the majority of the population is Russian-speaking. Who cares in the imperialist West if the break-up of the Soviet Union, which the imperialist governments hailed as such a major step forward at the time, has littered Central Europe with all kinds of artificial divisions?
As this issue of our journal goes to press, events have developed even further, following the overwhelming vote of the Crimean electorate, on 16 March, in favour of joining Russia. Immediately, the Crimean parliament - which was previously the elected parliament of the autonomous republic of Crimea - when it was still part of the Ukrainian federation, decided on the nationalisation of the oil and gas sectors and the adoption of the Russian ruble as its legal currency. Meanwhile the Ukrainian self-proclaimed government in Kiev was declaring a partial mobilisation of its population - which probably means, arming the far-right gangs, in particular. At the same time, it was calling on the US and Britain to defend its "territorial integrity" in accordance with the 1991 treaty in which they had underwritten the formation of the new independent Ukrainee - together with the integration of Crimea's ethnic Russians into the new state, without any consultation.
The western governments' reactions to these events have been reminiscent of the Cold War - but they are both hypocritical and farcical. Given the role that these governments have played in instigating and pouring oil on the Ukrainian crisis, the threats of sanctions against Russia made by Obama and the European Union have been no less hypocritical than their condemnation of the Russian "intervention".
As to the so-called sanctions themselves, they belong to the realm of posturing anyway. For instance, who can take seriously Foreign Secretary William Hague's suggestion, on March 9th, that the EU should reduce its natural gas imports from Russia by importing more gas from the US - if only because the cost of importing gas from the US would be so high, that British business would be dead against it. And Hague will certainly not do anything to harm the interests of British capital, judging from his own insistence that the British government will never allow EU sanctions to include the relationship between Britain's financial services industry and Russia: sanctions or not, the City must retain its very profitable role as the Russian oligarchs' favourite tax haven! Predictably, therefore, the sanctions will be confined to refusing visas to a few dozen Russian and Crimean politicians who are unlikely to want to travel to the US or the EU, anyway.
Meanwhile, the EU will definitely apply "sanctions" - but only against the Ukrainian population itself, in the form of brutal austerity measures, similar to those imposed on the Greek population in recent years, in return for a paltry EU "bailout" designed to preserve the interests of the big European banks and companies which are operating in Ukraine. Once again, the so-called "international community", its power games, rival interests and hypocrisy, are being exposed by the test of events.
16 March 2014
On 18 February, the power struggle which started at the end of November last year, between Ukrainian president Yanukovych and the country's opposition forces, turned into a bloody confrontation. On that day, the parliamentary opposition announced a "peaceful offensive" in support of its representatives in the Rada (the Ukrainian parliament), who were meant to engage in negotiations with the authorities over constitutional reform and the setting up of a government that would be acceptable to both sides.
By now, however, the US and European governments began to worry that the conflict might turn into a civil war, at the heart of Central Europe. Having given their political and material backing to the regime's opponents, right from the start, they strongly advised the main opposition leaders to make concessions.
On the eve of the 18th February demonstration, these leaders had gone to great pains in order to convince hundreds of far-right activists to evacuate the capital's town hall which they had occupied since December 1st. Not that, so far, the parliamentary opposition had ever had much influence over the far-right groups. For weeks, these groups' well-trained, armed gangs had, on their own initiative, been protecting the barricades set up on the Maïdan (Kiev's central square, where most of the protests took place) and policing the demonstrations. But this time, the far-right chose to yield to one of the preconditions posed by the authorities, in return for an amnesty which cleared thousands of protesters of the charges they faced and freed over two hundred others from jail.
So what led to the 18th February confrontation? Was it the fact that the far-right groups - the Svoboda party ("Freedom" party) which won 10% of the votes and 37 seats in the 2012 Rada elections and, even more so, the Pravyi Sektor ("Right Sector"), a coalition of neo-fascist groups which came once again to police the demonstration equipped with helmets, metal shields, clubs and Molotov cocktail - wanted to show that, regardless of the main opposition parties' "peaceful offensive", they remained determined to confront the regime? Or was it because the regime's self-confidence was reinforced when the main opposition leaders finally agreed to negotiate, under pressure from their western mentors? Or could it have been that the riot police wanted to show that they were the ones in control of streets, despite the regime's attempted appeasement?
Whatever the case, a violent, tit-for-tat confrontation took place. After the headquarters of the ruling Party of Regions (PoR) was burnt down, the tents of the Maïdan protesters were set alight. Protesters responded to police bullets with Molotov cocktails and to the destruction of their barricades with the re-occupation of Kiev's town hall. Dozens were killed and hundreds were injured. As is always the case in mass protests, there were many youth among the protesters. But in the main, the protesters were just ordinary people from all walks of life who had come to express their rejection of the regime, without necessarily identifying with any of the right-wing - let alone far-right - organisers.
The western governments had hoped for a negotiated settlement of the crisis and their Foreign ministers planned to meet president Yanukovych on the next day. Taken unawares by this explosion of violence, they responded by stating, like the UN general secretary, that "the use of such measures [of violence] by both sides is unacceptable". For these governments which had so actively supported the Ukrainian opposition, including its far-right wing (something that, of course, neither western ministers nor the media ever acknowledged), the problem was to try to push the steam back into the pressure cooker that they had, themselves, helped to bring to explosion point.
Although Yanukovych announced a "truce" on 20th February, the confrontation carried on. There were dozens of casualties again. It was clear that both Yanukovych and the main opposition parties had lost control of the situation. As to the western sorcerers' apprentices, they could see the emerging threat of a civil war - even if it was not openly declared yet - which could only destabilise a country more than twice as large as Britain and two-thirds as populated, if not lead to its partition. Moreover, the odds were, that if such a conflagration did happen, it would not be confined to Ukraine, since Russia was unlikely to accept having its links broken with what it considers as being a part of itself.
The origins of a major crisis in the heart of Europe
So, how did the situation reach its present state? It all started just before the Vilnius EU summit, scheduled for 28-29 November 2013. Yanukovych's last minute refusal to sign an "Association Agreement" with the EU, after five years of negotiation, sparked off an explosion. In scenes which were reminiscent of the 2004 "Orange Revolution", the centre of the capital was shaken by a wave of demonstrations. Independence Square (Maïdan in Ukrainian) was occupied and renamed "Euromaïdan". Protesters also occupied a number of buildings, including some normally used by the political institutions of the regime.
The authorities replied brutally. Some protesters were shot dead, hundreds were injured and, by mid-February, hundreds of protesters had been arrested and jailed, while over 2,000 were facing charges incurring sentences of up to 15 years in jail.
One of the main demands of the movement was a full amnesty. Among the other demands - but on these, there were differences between its different components - were: the immediate organisation of elections, the president's resignation (by that time, the government had already resigned), the drafting of a new constitution and, of course, the resumption of negotiations over the "Association Agreement" with the EU.
Legislation passed by the Rada in mid-January, to criminalize any form of dissent, had not contained the unrest. Unable to find an exit to this large-scale crisis, the regime attempted appeasement. It used the mayor of Kiev as a scapegoat, blaming him for all police violence and forced him to resign. It then entered into negotiations with the parliamentary opposition. Yanukovych offered the posts of prime minister and deputy prime minister to the two main leaders of the opposition, Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Vitaly Klitschko. But they turned down the offer, for fear of being accused of colluding with the regime by the far-right, but also by a section among the protesters who felt represented neither by the right-wing opposition, nor by the neo-fascist groups.
By early February, having eased off its repression, the regime seemed to be hoping that the movement would lose its momentum or even that it would collapse due to the narrow margin for manoeuvre and lack of political perspective of the parliamentary opposition, which had little influence over those who were organising the Maïdan occupation.
Since neither side seemed to be able to win, the EU and US were now busying themselves both publicly and in the background in an attempt to cobble up some sort of compromise. They were feverishly holding meetings both with the opposition leaders and with Yanukovych, while seeking to gain Putin's co-operation to convince the Ukrainian president.
Being both allies and rivals in these circumstances, the EU and US were competing to be seen as the "crisis fixer". Never mind that they had both helped to cause this crisis in the first place and that, in addition, their policies had a whiff of the old Cold War, in so far as, among other things, the EU was really targeting the huge territory of the pre-1991 Soviet Union, through what it called its "Oriental Partnership".
The great powers' manoeuvres
In fact, since 1991, the imperialist powers have gone out of their way to try to attract into their own spheres of influence the states which came out of the collapse of the Soviet Union. First, the three Baltic republics were integrated both into NATO and into the EU - and, by now, two of them have also joined the euro zone. Then Georgia took steps in the same direction, in particular by signing up to the "Association Agreement" turned down by president Yanukovych.
The US was at the forefront of the drive to reduce Russia's influence over the states left over from the former Soviet Union. As to the EU, due to the conflicting interests and ambitions of Germany, France and Britain, it has some difficulty in reaching a united position over Ukraine. Poland, for instance, was in favour of developing close links between the EU and Ukraine, because it sees Ukraine as a potential pool of very cheap skilled labour and as a potential ally against Russia. The three leading EU powers, on the other hand, are reluctant to do anything which might generate tensions with Russia - if only because they hope that, due to its influence in Ukraine, it will be able to find an exit from this crisis and that, as a result, it will share the discredit caused by the unpopular measures that whatever future Ukrainian government will take against the population.
For the Ukrainian opposition, Germany, as the largest European power, may appear capable of developing real influence in Central and Eastern Europe, which, historically, has been its backyard. But France also defends its own vested interests, in particular those of its financial groups, which have build a dominant position in the Ukrainian banking system, those of its retail giants (like the supermarket chain Auchan), those of its food industry or those of its capitalists who have bought large tracts of Ukraine's rich black land, which used to be the czar's granary.
Compared to the US, the world's main imperialist power, whose objectives are on quite another scale - although it also promotes the interests of the likes of Chevron which is into gaz-fracking in Ukraine - the EU, with the contradictory interests of its partners, does not carry much weight. This is nothing new. Already the Ukrainian leaders who had been brought to the fore by the "Orange Revolution" were far more attracted by the US than by the European powers, which did not have much to offer. The same is true today. Full-page interviews with the US ambassador have been published by Ukrainian dailies supporting the opposition in which, after having expressed his support for the protesters, he tells them in no uncertain terms what they should be doing: stop their violent occupation of public buildings, refrain from fanning the flames of the crisis, leave it to parliamentarians to debate the "reforms" required, accept Yanukovych's appeasement - in short they should only adopt a policy which has the endorsement of the US.
While the EU sent representatives to meetings which were meant to discuss security issues regarding Ukraine, the US sent a top-level envoy - namely Secretary of State John Kerry in person and his deputy, Victoria Nuland. A video was posted on YouTube showing a discussion - apparently intercepted by the Russian secret services - between Nuland and the US ambassador in Ukraine. This video caused a scandal in diplomatic circles. But, above all, it showed how the two US diplomats "groomed" the Ukrainian politicians they considered capable of making it to office. They discussed the capability of this or that politicians to run the country, what they expected from them and what they asked them to do. Yatsenyuk, Yulia Tymoshenko's right-hand man and current leader of the Batkyvschyna party (the right-wing "Fatherland" party), obviously had their backing: having met him many times, they said that they "valued his economic and governmental experience". They considered that Klitschko (the leader of the Udar party - which means both Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform and "punch" in Ukrainian) "still had to prove himself" and demonstrate that his preoccupations are broader in scope that just Germany's interests. As to the leader of the neo-fascist Svoboda party, Tyahnybok, he was invited to several meetings with Nuland, despite calling for "an end of the criminal activities.. of the organised Jewery". She described him as one of the three great leaders of the opposition and would like him and Klitschko to support from the outside a future government led by Yatsenyuk, which would run the country with the US backing.
And what about the EU? "F.. them", the US vice-president was reported saying. When her words were made public, she had to issue an apology. But the fact was that the EU wasn't putting its money where its ambitions were. In any case it was neither willing nor capable of providing Ukraine with the funding it was demanding and the Ukrainian opposition considered that the EU's support was rather mean. Besides, whatever the EU did, it could not conceal the fact that over the previous two decades, it had always refused to do Ukraine any favours - that is, unless one considers its funding of retention centres for "illegal" migrants on Ukrainian soil as a favour!
A pro-Russian policy by default - but not only
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine, which had been the second most important soviet republics in economic and demographic terms, applied to join various imperialist institutions - such as the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (an international bank which was originally set up to fund the development of the private sector in the countries originating from the Soviet block) and then, the EU. To back up this approach, Ukraine made countless gestures to demonstrate its independence from Russia. It supported military ventures that Russia had opposed (like the invasion of Afghanistan). It took part in joint navy exercises with the US on the Black Sea. It threatened Russia with ending its lease of the military harbour of Sevastopol, in the Crimean peninsula. It argued with Russia over the two countries' common border across the Sea of Azov, etc. And, of course, it had repeated conflicts with Russia over the natural gas pipelines built in the days of the USSR, to bring its gas to Central Europe - with Ukraine threatening to shut down gas supplies to Russia's customers and, by the same token, the flow of foreign currencies which Russia gets from them.
Beyond various mishaps, the policy of all Ukrainian governments has been constantly orientated towards the West for over two decades, regardless of their political label. But just as constant was the refusal of the EU to open its doors to Ukraine, at least until the bogus "Association Agreement" it offered in 2013.
The Ukrainian governments' attitude was partly - but not only - determined by the EU's locked door policy. How could it break easily with Russia after three-quarters of a century in which both countries had developed and operated within a common state-controlled, planned economy - that of the Soviet Union - resulting in close dependencies between their industrial infrastructure? It takes the lack of imagination - or the stupidity - of some western commentators to claim that if one third of Ukraine's foreign trade is still with Russia (compared, for instance, with only 6% of Ukraine's exports going to Turkey or 9% of its imports coming from Germany), it is due to the fact that the Ukrainian leaders have a pro-Russian policy. The Ukrainian bureaucrats and privileged layers are neither pro-Russian, nor pro-European. They are just defending their predatory interests against other Ukrainian ruling cliques, including against their own state apparatus, and, of course, against their "partners", whether former colleagues belonging to the Russian bureaucracy or western capitalists who are seeking to do business in Ukraine.
This explains Ukraine's procrastination and refusal to sign the "Association Agreement" with the EU, despite five years of negotiations, only days before the Vilnius summit where the EU's new "Oriental Partnership" was meant to have been launched with great ceremony - meaning, the integration of five former Soviet Republics (Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan) into the orbit of the European imperialist powers. In the end, in fact, this ceremony turned into a flop since, in addition to Ukraine, both Armenia and Azerbaijan refused the "associate" status on offer.
Economic crisis and "Association Agreement"
When announcing his decision, Yanukovych stressed that since his refusal was motived only by economic considerations, it was not final. And he added: "I know I may not be understood". And he wasn't. However, his decision only expresses the contradictions facing a country like Ukraine, whose economy is the result of a historical process in which it was intertwined with the Russian economy. As to the American and European imperialist powers, they were never able to offer Ukraine an alternative which would allow it to retain its status as an industrialised country. And how could it have been otherwise at a time when the whole capitalist system is going through a permanent economic crisis?
In its discussions with the EU, Ukraine had argued that since the somersaults of the 2007-8 financial crisis had bankrupted the country, it immediately needed 20 billion euros in loans (£16.5bn). The EU's response was to offer a 700 million euros loan (£580m)! And even then, Ukraine would have had to submit to draconian conditions, similar to those demanded from Greece, or to those "offered" by the IMF at the turn of the millennium, at the time when the Ukrainian economy was just beginning to recover, after a decade of total collapse resulting from the implosion of the Soviet Union. Today, the Ukrainian economy is going through a recession, the state coffers are empty and the country's credit rating has just been downgraded once again by international agencies, which consider that it is on the verge of defaulting on its debt. As a result, the government can no longer borrow on the international money market, even by offering a ridiculously high rate of interest. Today, everyone considers a devaluation of the national currency, the hryvnia, unavoidable.
It was against this background that the European leaders were expecting Ukraine to carry out "reforms, reforms and reforms", to quote one of the EU commissioners, in order to acquire its status as "associate" of the EU! Without being more specific, the western European leaders hinted that these "reforms" would be "painful". Of course, they wouldn't have been for the big financial, industrial and commercial companies - especially European ones - which operate in Ukraine and are demanding ever more freedom for their profiteering. Most of the burden would have been for the Ukrainian working class - this, at a time when it is already facing a high level of unemployment (especially in the western part of the country, where this has contributed to the rise of the ultra-nationalist party Svoboda), while its standards of living, which is already low (the average monthly wage of a skilled worker in Kiev is around £580), is shrinking even further due to inflation. What the EU was proposing was, effectively, to severely cut workers' standards of living - as it already happened at the time of the IMF "aid" plan mentioned earlier, when the value had lost half of its value over the first four years of its implementation.
The oligarchs - having their cake and eating it
The demands imposed by the EU "Agreement", regarding economic restructuring and the opening up of markets, would have been very unfavourable to large sectors of the Ukrainian economy - especially its manufacturing industry, which accounts for one third of the country's GDP. But those who were in control of some industries - energy, agriculture, etc.. - could have gained some advantages from this "Agreement", despite its very unequal terms. The same was true of those among the country's bureaucrats and businessmen who were willing to act as intermediaries in the looting of its resources by big western companies. But how many more, especially among the local privileged layers, would have had more to lose than to gain in the process? Apparently the answer was so unclear that the issue split the top spheres, both among the rich and the powerful.
The attitude adopted by some oligarchs during the current crisis says a lot about the choices facing the privileged layers of the country. Like Russia, Ukraine has its own complement of oligarchs - members of the bureaucracy who built their fortunes by looting the state-controlled economy after the collapse of the USSR, under the auspices of a ruling caste whose protection was decisive to gain access to sources of enrichment. However, some of these oligarchs criticised the repressive measures of the regime as early as December 2013, when they weren't supporting the protesters - openly, on occasion.
Among the many Ukrainian oligarchs, only a dozen are publicly known, due to the fact that they own the main media companies. Thanks to their other assets in various industries on the margins of a public sector which remains very large, they have a significant economic weight. It is estimated that the three richest among them have a collective "weight" equivalent to 12% of the country's GDP - Rinat Akhmetov (metal, mining, energy, finance, telecommunications, media and real estate - the country's richest man with £9bn in personal assets), Victor Pinchuk (media, steel, metal engineering) and Igor Kolomoïski (metal and banking).
The source of most of the oligarchs' wealth is the eastern part of the country, with its mines, its steel industry, its petrochemical plants, etc.. Rinat Akhmetov built his wealth by becoming the "steel king" of the Donbass region. It is no coincidence that the Donbass is also Yanukovych's power basis and the origin of his political rise to the top. The support he enjoyed among the region's powerful bureaucracy allowed him to be appointed prime minister by president Kuchma at the end of the 1990s, while distributing multiple favours to his protégés.
Another oligarch, Dmytro Firtash, also owes his success as a magnate in the chemical and energy industries to the protection of Yanukovych's clique. Under the previous government, formed after the 2004 "Orange Revolution", Firtash did not enjoy the regime's favour. This was because prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, better known as the "gas princess", controlled the gas pipelines across Ukraine and did not want to share the huge profits they produce with anyone. Once the "Orange" leaders had been discredited, Yanukovych returned to the presidency (this time, without cheating), ended the monopoly of gas imports which had made Tymoshenko so rich and threw her in jail. Her downfall was Firtash's opportunity. With the government's support, he negotiated import contracts with the Russian giant Gazprom, on the basis of a preferential tariff, thereby allowing him to sign very profitable supply contracts with some EU countries, like Germany.
Petro Poroshenko was one of the men linked to the "Orange" cliques. He was a minister before 2010 and is a food industry magnate. His products were hit first by the economic sanctions that Russia introduced against Ukraine last summer, in order to show the Ukrainian government what price it would have to pay if it went too far in the direction of the EU. Since he has no ties with Yanukovych, Poroshenko has repeatedly offered his candidacy to form a coalition government.
Other oligarchs, while being indebted to Yanukovych, were careful to allow the opposition to express itself in the media they control, including by publishing statements condemning police brutality and calling on the regime to negotiate. After all, who knew what was in store? If Yanukovych failed to keep things under control, they needed to hedge their bets. Some went even further than that. Firtash provided his financial backing to the opposition Udar party and its leader, the former world boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko. This Klitschko is himself a wealthy businessman, the son-on-law of former "pro-Russian" president Kuchma and the favourite of Angela Merkel's German Christian Democratic Union. In a sense, Kitchmo puts into a nutshell the well-to-do's desire to keep all their options open! As to Kolomoïski, he is suspected to be a financial backer for the neo-fascist anti-Russian party Svoboda.
The post-soviet bureaucracy and its politicians-come-businessmen built up their wealth thanks to the support of the support of Yanukovych's clique, within the framework of the economic relationship between Ukraine and Russia. But they also diversified their activity in western Europe and in the US. They found it difficult to get rid of their reputation for gangsterism and they would rather ensure that their fragile, newly-found "respectability" will not be jeopardised by their links with Yanukovych or with Russia. Besides, they are unhappy with the disruption to the good operation of their business caused by the "troubles" of the past two months. As a result they sought to distance themselves from the regime and to increase the options available to protect themselves.
In most cases, this tends to involve gaining the favour of those who are out of power for the time being, but who might come into office as part of a coalition government, or as a result of the early presidential election that Yanukovych decided to call.
It is a well-known fact that in Ukraine, just as in Russia, no-one can become wealthy without a "krycha" (a "roof" i.e. a protection that one can buy from the ruling political circles). But it is not impermeable: in Russia, Khodorkovsky, once the country's richest man, was sent to a labour camp for ten years and deprived of part of his wealth under Putin's orders. Likewise, in Ukraine, Tymoshenko was kept in jail by Yanukovych who ignored the western governments' calls for her liberation, until the Rada ordered her release on 21st February. These cases are there to remind the oligarchs how precarious their situation really is, regardless of the "protection" they have. This may well have led some of them to ponder whether an EU-sponsored "Agreement" could protect them from their own state apparatus. Some may even want to believe that this would end the present generalised corruption among the Ukrainian authorities (in a survey of corruption in 177 countries published by Transparency International in 2013, Ukraine is ranked 144th, among the worst of the lot).
Moreover, a rapprochement with the EU could protect the Ukrainian oligarchs from the greed of their Russian counterparts - especially in a period when Ukraine's economy is considerably weakened and, therefore, Ukraine is in the worst possible bargaining position with its Russian partners.
By raising the stakes and playing the EU against Russia and vice-versa, Yanukovych managed to secure the promise of a £12.5bn loan and a cut in the price of the Russian natural gas bought by Ukraine. But, by securing this promise, Yanukovych sparked off the anger of a whole section of the population which, rightly or wrongly, was hoping for an agreement with the EU.
The petty bourgeoisie takes to the streets
By turning his back on the prospect of this agreement about which he had, himself, generated a lot of illusions, and by signing, instead, an agreement of economic co-operation with Russia, Yanukovych triggered a major crisis. At first, it seemed like a rehash of the so-called "Orange Revolution", in 2004. But since February 18th, the crisis has taken quite another direction, turning into a massive confrontation between the authorities and the opposition - even though the leaders of the parliamentary opposition seem to have lost control of a movement in which the far-right seems to be playing an important role.
Right from the beginning, last November, the focal point of the protests was the same as ten years before - the Maïdan. It was turned into a camp by protesters that the western media enthusiastically portrayed as European-minded youth, as opposed to the president and his party, the Party of Regions, which were portrayed as pro-Russian.
The protagonists at the forefront of the political scene were the same as during the 2004 crisis. First, of course, there was Yanukovych himself who, at the time, had just managed to be elected president thanks to a rigged election - it was the pressure of the street which forced him to resign. Already his opponents together with the western leaders described him as a puppet of Russia. On the opposition side, there was Yulia Tymoshenko, who is still there today. Leader of the right-wing Batkyvschyna party, she had been jailed for her role in financial trafficking on behalf of her clique when she was prime minister - a rather banal affair by Ukrainian standards. Ironically, though, for someone who vocally claims to be pro-European, she had been sentenced for signing a gas contract which was outrageously favourable to Russia!
Since 2004, other political forces have emerged, thanks to the recession and rising poverty: Klitschko's Udar party, the neo-fascist Svoboda party, the neo-fascist "Pravyi Sektor", etc. However, while both the protests and the regime's reactions are much more violent than ten years ago, the social forces which initiated the movement, dominate it and shaped its image, are identical.
The first protesters against the regime's turn away from the EU were students, particularly those from the capital's private universities - which depend most on funding provided by western governments and institutions. But the government's use of the riot police against the initial few hundreds protesters and the violence of the repression, brought many more recruits to the movement - both small businessmen from the outside the capital and petty bourgeois from Kiev, whose number is particularly large in a city dominated by white-collar activities. The protesters were outraged by the fact the opportunities offered by the EU - and many certainly had illusions as to what it could offer them - were being closed to them. For some - among the youth but not only - a rapprochement with the EU implied a wider opening to the rest of the world, the possibility to study abroad and to travel more freely. Others, who were more down to earth, hoped that this rapprochement would increase business opportunities for them and remove the need to bribe a multitude of parasites in order to avoid becoming the target of some greedy bureaucrat trying to pocket their profits - as is the case in Russia and in Ukraine.
These confused aspirations were packaged in different ways. Some spoke about "democracy", the nationalists about "independence from Russia", others about "European spirit". But, fundamentally, the Kiev protesters and their supporters had the same aspirations as most of those who demonstrated against Putin, in Moscow, in late 2011 and early 2012. Their dream is to consume, be free to do business, live the "American Dream" - in short the same motivations which mobilised millions of petty-bourgeois in the main cities of the Soviet Union, a quarter of a century ago, at the time of Gorbachev's perestroika.
There is a difference between these two periods, however, in that today, the Ukrainian (and Russian) petty-bourgeoisie is more or less convinced that it has been deprived of its dream by the "thieves and cheats who are in office" - to use one of the Kiev protesters' s slogans - and that instead of the "nice" capitalism they had hoped for, all they got was a gangster capitalism.
That the bureaucrats turned businessmen confiscated the resources of the Ukrainian economy to their own advantage, while pushing aside many people who considered themselves as honest small businessmen, is a fact. But that the European Union would restore any sort of free-market capitalism, is an illusion.
In fact, if the "European dream" hoped for by some came true, Ukraine's market would be opened even wider to western products, but the number of those who would be able to buy them would be even smaller than today. Indeed, the "reforms" promoted by the western leaders and the increasing invasion of Ukraine by foreign goods would bankrupt many Ukrainian companies and force their workers out of their jobs.
To force these workers to accept their fate, there would still be the "Berkut" (the "Golden Eagle", name of the riot police), but also the neo-fascist groups. During the events of the past weeks, especially since mid-February, it has become clear that these groups can rely on significant troops, drilled and well-equipped, and that they can rely on financial funding from both foreign sources and local magnates.
This far-right does not confine itself to displaying its abject reactionary ideology, which is both racist and anti-working class. Its xenophobic and nationalist rhetoric is designed to divide the ranks of the working class in order to weaken it. In the western Ukrainian-speaking part of the country, the nationalists blame the country's ills on the "moscovite" devil which, whether under the czar or under Stalin, always sought to "deprive Ukraine of its soul". But in the other regions, which are mostly Russian-speaking, Svoboda tries to capitalise on social frustrations and on the hatred for all parasites and wealthy, whom they always describe as Jews or Russian, but never as Ukrainian.
The worse aspect of this movement, just like ten years ago, was the fact that those who genuinely wanted to express their rejection of the existing regime, because of it brutality and corruption, could only turn to various right-wing forces, parliamentary or not. In fact, the self-confidence of these forces was such that in the absence of any alternative opposition to the regime, at one point, in early February, it went so far as to consider the calling of a general strike at the end of the month - although it didn't in the end.
The fact is that no-one, absolutely no-one, tried to address workers as such, let alone on the basis of their class interests. And, as far a one can assess from a distance, until mid-February at least, workers took no real part in the movement. Was it because workers lived on a planet which was different from that inhabited by the protesters, including those who did not support the right-wing forces? Was it because workers instinctively considered that the ideas promoted by the movement were foreign, if not hostile, to their interests?
In any case, to our knowledge, no party or group has tried to show how it was in the interests of the working class to oppose both the so-called "pro-Russian" ruling clique, together with its oligarchs and riot police, and the so-called "pro-Europeans", who are only bidding for positions and whose ideology is openly hostile to working class interests.
Caught between imperialism on one side and, on the other, Yanukovych's bureaucracy and Putin's Russia, the working class is confronted with the combined threat of the Berkut and Svoboda's thugs. The present crisis exposes the critical absence of revolutionary organisations which are prepared to, and capable of, addressing themselves to the country's entire working class, in all the languages it uses, in order to propose a class policy. Such a policy would clearly highlight the irreconcilable opposition between, on the one hand, the interests of the working class and, on the other, those of the exploiters and their political trustees, whatever ideology they claim to represent, and whatever language they use.
21 February 2014