Tomasz Pierscionek looks at the background and development of the events in Ukraine, where the situation has progressed rapidly with a complex interplay of forces, including competing imperialist powers. Socialists cannot support either the US or Russian backed “solutions”. Only a movement of the working class, in Ukraine and internationally, can provide a real solution to the people in the Ukraine.
Small protests, triggered by seemingly trivial or unrelated events, may rapidly gather pace to become mass movements. The course they follow subsequently depends on pressures exerted upon the movement both from within as well as from external factors, such as antagonistic forces and social-economic conditions.
The past few years have borne witness to mass unrest in a number of countries across the globe, sparked by events that might otherwise have been relegated to a historical footnote. Turkey and Egypt, two medium sized countries on the peripheries of the European Union that both possess a sizeable working class, saw the eruption of mass unrest triggered respectively by the loss of an urban park and a suicide in a neighbouring country.
In the latter case a 30 year long autocracy, propped up by military force, was overthrown. Ex-President of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, found himself imprisoned, paving the way for the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Morsi, to step into his shoes. A short while later, following additional and larger protests, Morsi himself was deposed and imprisoned. The Egyptian military regained control, under the guise of supporting the protesting masses and re-establishing order, bringing about a re-branded version of the old regime sans Mubarak. The above events took place over the course of little more than a year.
Social upheavals akin to that recently witnessed in Ukraine, can emerge from the spark of a single event that sets alight a powder keg of long mounting contradictions in society, such as increasing wealth differentials and feelings of alienation amongst the working class. Once class conflicts reach a critical point, they can quickly manifest in the overthrow of traditional power structures.
In nature, earthquakes occur following an unseen build up of pressure caused by two separate sections of the earth’s crust rubbing against each other until energy built up by years of friction is unleashed in a surge of natural and violent force. So too do social movements and revolutions begin when contradictions inherent in capitalist society, often unseen at a cursory glance, become grave enough to unleash an explosion of public anger.
It must however be noted that not all mass movements have a progressive character or result in improving conditions for the working class. In the case of Egypt, an autocracy was replaced by a theocratic organisation representing a mixture of religious and petty bourgeois business interests. Little changed for ordinary Egyptians who remained removed from the decision making process and alienated from exercising control over their daily lives.
The initially peaceful and middle class led protests in Kiev, which later gave way to fascist orchestrated violence, did not begin solely because of President Victor Yanukovich’s refusal to accept a paltry, some might say insultingly small, offer of aid from the EU in exchange for opening up Ukraine’s markets for plunder by a cash strapped and desperate EU. Such an act would have almost inevitably led to the collapse of industry in the east of Ukraine alongside a westward exsanguination of the country’s wealth and Yanukovich was undoubtedly aware of what EU loans have meant for Greece. Other factors also likely played a role in his reticence to be strong armed by EU forces. Ukrainian oligarchs, who control much of the industry in east of Ukraine, may have pressured Yanukovich not to accept any deal as they would have lost out to competition from the wealthier and more organised capitalist forces of the EU. Additionally, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s offer of €15 billion, compared to the EU’s €1 billion, and Putin’s power to cut off gas supplies to Ukraine could have played a role in Yanukovich’s decision making.
In regards to the early days of protests in Kiev, the challenge to the Ukrainian old order followed two decades of falling living standards. Ordinary Ukrainian citizens were finding it harder to survive as wealth inequalities grew, leading to an increasingly impoverished majority alongside an ever wealthier elite. Some in the latter group had been members of the Communist Party of Ukraine pre 1991, having joined to advance their career prospects rather than through confidence in the scientific method of Marxism-Leninism and a genuine desire to improve the lot of the majority, found the transition from party bureaucracy to bourgeoisie democracy relatively straight forward.
Yanukovich and his cronies represent a faction of the Ukrainian ruling class that faces towards Moscow in contrast to the pro-EU faction led by darlings of the West Yulia Tymoshenko, Arseniy Yatseniuk and Vitali Klitschko. Klitschko himself has lived in Germany for many years yet manages to be head of the UDAR (Punch) party in the Ukraine. In the final analysis, neither wing of the Ukrainian elites had anything of substance to offer the impoverished and demoralised majority.
The role of the USA
The Obama regime, undoubtedly still seething at Putin’s role in forcing the US to suspend plans for the bombing of Syria coupled with Russia’s sheltering of NSA truth teller Edward Snowden, seized the opportunity to wade in and spread ‘democracy’. NATO (read US) has long harboured plans to expand its influence eastwards into former Soviet territory, and tried to do so during the Ukrainian Orange revolution of 2004 and the 2003 Georgia Rose revolution. A NATO backed puppet government installed in Ukraine could lead to the loss of one of Russia’s most strategically important naval bases, the headquarters of the Black Sea fleet at Sevastopol in the Crimea.
In the early days of the demonstration, top level politicians from the United States, including former Presidential candidate and Republican Party senator John McCain and Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland, travelled to Kiev to hand out cookies and give the protests a stamp of approval. For those with any understanding of history and politics, alarm bells must have started to sound.
If the Kiev protest movement had been truly represented the interests of the working people of Ukraine, top neo-conservative politicians would not have been seen fraternising with protestors.
Whilst its politicians were interfering in Ukrainian affairs, the United States warned Russia that any intervention in Ukraine would be a “grave mistake”. One can only speculate on the US State Department’s reaction if a member of Victor Yanukovich’s party, or indeed a Russian politician, had travelled to New York at the height of the Occupy Movement to express public support for the 99%.
The far right
Despite sporadic fighting between protesters and police, violence rapidly intensified around the weekend of the 22nd-23rd February. A day before the escalation, President Yanukovich had signed a compromise deal with opposition leaders. Shortly after the agreement, remarkably well organised and armed far right street gangs sprang into action attacking police, occupying government buildings and easily wresting control from the protest leaders. In the absence of a genuine working class alternative, the most organised and fanatical forces in Ukrainian society sprang forth to fill the vacuum. Leaders of far right paramilitary organisations such as Oleg Tyagnibok, leader of the neo-Nazi Svoboda movement who has a history of fighting alongside Chechen militants against Russian forces, installed themselves in key government positions. Several Svoboda leaders were appointed to the cabinet, three of whom were declared to be ministers of Education, Culture and Justice. Other cabinet members hail from the centre right Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) and UDAR (punch) parties.
The Svoboda movement (until 2004 called the Socialist-Nationalist Party of Ukraine) is descended from Stepan Bandera’s Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists which fought alongside Hitler’s forces after the invasion of the USSR in 1941 and was responsible for mass exterminations of civilians. At that time, Bandera issued a manifesto which stated “Moskali [Ukrainian slang for Russians], Poles, and Jews are hostile to us and must be exterminated in this struggle.” Many of Svoboda’s current members had fathers and grandfathers who fought in Bandera’s organisation.
The next several days saw far right protesters in Ukraine wielding flags of the German led EU as they marched through the streets suppressing democracy, intimidating supposed rivals and openly making threats to Jews, Russians and other ethnic minorities. Yet, EU and US officials still claimed that the protest movement spearheaded by the far right was somehow a move towards democracy and for the most part did not condemn the actions of these far right groups. If even a fraction of the violence seen during the weekend of the 22nd-23rd February had occurred on the streets of the the UK or the US, there can be little doubt that live rounds would have been used (in the US martial law might even have been declared) and the state serving media would have likened the protestors to the spawn of Satan.
In the US, even a peaceful movement such as Occupy Wall Street was met with massive brutality. An example of this, caught on camera and broadcast around the world, was the sight of NYPD officers assaulting and spraying seated and handcuffed protestors in the face with pepper spray. In the UK, the Occupy Movement was listed alongside violent organisations, such as FARC in Columbia’s and Al-Qaeda in Pakistan, in a document produced by the City of London police.
A few days ago, leaders of the Jewish community leaders in Ukraine issued a warning to their 200,000 community advising them to leave the area in the wake of increasing threats from far right groups. Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman of Kiev stated “I told my congregation to leave the city centre or the city all together and if possible the country too.”
There were also calls from the far right to ban Russian as a second language in Ukraine alongside other threats to other minority groups.
Russia and Putin
Last weekend, the Russian Parliament voted to approve a request by President Putin to utilise military forces to protect ethnic Russians living in the east of Ukraine should they come under attack from fascist paramilitary forces making good their threats.
Earlier, the lower house of Russia’s Parliament had requested that President Putin “take measures to stabilise the situation in Crimea and use all available means to protect the people of Crimea from tyranny and violence”.
Without hesitation, British and American media went into overdrive talking of Putin’s desire for a new cold war. In the mainstream media little mention was made of the role the US and EU played in instigating the crisis and no mention was made of the invasions of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya undertaken by Western forces.
With Crimean citizens forming their own self defence committees to protect against any aggression from paramilitary forces in Kiev, one has to ask whether Ukraine could go the way of Yugoslavia and descend into internecine conflict. Ukraine is also on the verge of a economic collapse (that word “default” here again) and the IMF is only too ready to ratchet up the poverty level with offers of ‘aid’ in exchange for various ‘concessions’ (see Greece).
One positive piece of news is that sections of the Ukrainian armed forces have refused to follows orders given by the unelected cabal in Kiev, leaving open the possibility of the isolation of the Kiev based politicians and paramilitaries (if they don’t receive a shot in the arm from the West that is).
Workers of the world unite!
As increasingly desperate imperialist powers find themselves devoured by an economic crisis that is inherent in the structure of capitalism, it is likely we may see further sabre rattling between the major powers. It is worth bearing this in mind on the eve of the 100th anniversary of World War One, which very few expected to break out until it actually did. One century on, however, and the working class on a world scale is far stronger: the perspective today, therefore, is not for another world war, but for an intesification of the class war.
It is true that we will see small wars and proxy wars, akin to that in Syria, which may be fought on behalf of larger powers, with the people living in those nations suffering greatly. It is up to the working classes of all nations to demand an end to this system and refuse to be taken in by nationalist or scaremongering rhetoric. The threat is at home and not abroad.