Ukraine: The unfinished revolution (2005)

Submitted by AWL on 21 July, 2005 - 12:38

“The role played by the young Ukrainian socialist movement is most significant. This movement has connected the national liberation question to all the problems of the liberation of the working class: it has raised this question to the level of those political problems which can be solved by no other means but democratic struggle, by the development of class conflict in Ukrainian society. Thus has progressed Ukrainian socialism always following the same route, confirmed by the undoubted truth that in all present day liberation movements, political or national, both being the result of the same evolution which has transformed feudal states into modern capitalist states, the working class appears as the sole revolutionary and democratic power. “
Lev Yurkevych, Ukraine and The War 1916

Over the 2004-5 winter months the dynamics of politics were displaced by the dynamics revolution as thousands took to the streets of Ukraine to carry through the “Orange Revolution”. At the culmination of the revolution the new President Viktor Yushchenko declared: “We are free. The old era is over. We are a new country now.” As if to emphasise this closure of the revolution, it was placed in a “museum of the Orange Revolution” during the Eurovision song contest.

Before we assess whether or not the revolution is complete, it is necessary to define the meaning of Ukrainian Revolution. Volodymyr Vynnychenko, one of the most well known Ukrainian leaders in the 20th century coined the phrase “omnilateral liberation” to describe the logic of the Ukrainian Revolution. By this he meant the striving of the workers and peasants for universal (social, national, political, moral cultural etc) liberation. To get to grips with these key questions it is necessary to take the “Orange revolution” as a new vantage point from which to investigate the history of the revolutionary struggle in Ukraine.

For over nearly 350 years Ukraine was oppressed as a colony of Russia. It was re-branded “little Russia” and oppressed by Tsarist policies of Russification. The historic conjuncture of modern Ukraine in the 1917 revolution was expressed in a bloc of the middle-class, the peasantry and the Ukrainian section of the working class centred in the Central Rada [Council].

Nationalist historiography presents the demise of the Rada as a Russian invasion, but this is not the lesson for today or the historical truth. Vynnychenko, a former leader of the Rada and a Marxist, stated that it had “changed nothing of substance” and “in place of the blue, white and red tsarist tricolour we substituted our yellow and azure banner”.

Support evaporated when it “failed to liberate its toiling masses from social oppression which was inimical to the nation and the toiling class”.

With the rise of Stalinism the last vestiges of national equality were destroyed. The intensity of the struggle was such that over seven million died in the artificial famine in 1932-33 caused by collectivisation; another million were deported to Siberia. The aftermath of the famine created in the name of “socialism” saw a generation turn to revolutionary nationalism.

The Ukrainian Revolution saw a fresh resurgence in the course of the Second World War. A partisan movement coalesced into the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) which grew to half a million. The UPA fought “against the German and Russian imperialistic invaders”. In 1950 UPA leader Petro Poltava responded to the broadcasts of Voice of America by writing: “The Soviet people in the absolute majority are clearly against the restoration of capitalism…We, the participants in the liberation struggle in Ukraine, who are inside the Soviet Union and have connections with the broad Soviet masses, know only too well that they have no admiration for capitalism — neither the old European kind nor the modern American kind”.

Turning point of the 20th century

In the two periods of revolutionary resurgence in 20th century Ukraine, 1917-20 and 1942-47, we can see that the goals shared similar characteristics, a vision of a free Ukraine that was anti-capitalist and egalitarian. The defeat of the insurgency and consolidation of the Stalinist system sealed off the mass liberation struggle for over forty years under the totalitarian monolith. Throughout the 1970s and 80s there was increased Russification and repression. Well into the period of Gorbachev’s glasnost, Ukraine was a bastion of hard-line Stalinist conservatism.

Led by veteran dissidents like Chornovil, a new movement the People’s Movement of Ukraine, Rukh, appeared in 1988. This resurgence was both continuity and a break from the best traditions of the liberation struggle. Why did this happen?

Throughout the 1980s neo-liberal ideas, permeated swathes of the official economists, planners, advisers and academics of the Eastern Bloc. From their vulgar defence of the state-capitalist tyranny as “actually existing socialism”, they moved to “market socialism”, to outright neo-liberalism. These ideas cascaded through the very dissident intellectuals and opposition movements the regimes had persecuted.

In Ukraine early efforts by more socialist tendencies were too weak for their ideas to gain hegemony. As soon as the intellectuals emblazoned capitalism on the banner of the democratic movement, their actual rulers could sleep more easily. Far from being the introduction of an alien social system as the national-democrats believed, the restoration of private-capitalism brought no threat to that 20% of the population who made up the class of exploiters.

Restoration and decomposition of the ruling class

The root of the current complexities can be found in the “Grand Bargain”, an unspoken deal between the opposition and ruling bureaucracy made possible when a part of the bureaucracy began to fracture. A reformist wing, led by Kravchuk, took up the demand for sovereignty of the republic. They realised they could only retain power if they controlled the passage from the command state-capitalist economy to a privatised “free-market” economy.

The ex-socialist Yuri Badzio epitomised the disorientation when he said it was “historical good fortune” that when the “imperial-totalitarian system collapsed” it was “completely natural” for power to fall into the hands of the “nomenklatura”.

Justified he said by the fact that there was no other “political milieu which sufficiently capable of building a state.

The “third camp” Ukrainian Marxists long ago predicted what emerged to haunt Ukraine — the recomposed Stalinist ruling class. Theoreticians such as Vsevelod Holubnychy and Ivan Maistrenko of the émigré Ukrainian Revolutionary Democratic Party, from the 1940s to the 60s, opposed both the right wing of the Ukrainian diaspora and Western capitalism. They considered the USSR as a form of state-capitalism, a view held by a number of the
Ukrainian Marxists from Vynnychenko to dissidents like Plyushch. In response to the debates in American ruling circles on returning the USSR to capitalism, Holubnychy pointed out the flaw in their program:

“The domestic forces that would deliberately support such a program are, however, misjudged by the Americans. Or rather, they are looking for them where they are not to be found. The emigrants and the rest of the demolished ruling classes are really too pitifully weak to be of service to them. But there is a force that could be enlisted to support this American program. This force is in the Stalinist bureaucracy itself.” (‘The Future of the Soviet Union’, Fourth International No.3 1951.)

The bureaucracy he argued were the main source of internal support for this program. In the throes of a crisis and a possible internal struggle the upper echelons of the state could well see a shake up and in response:

“When it sees the current system about to collapse, the ruling bureaucracy would be quite willing to maintain its social and political privileges in that way. The restoration of private property would as a matter of fact be greeted with great joy by the bureaucracy, provided that this form of private property assures its continued rule...”

After 1991 the exploitative class remained intact. There was no sweeping clean of the
Augean stables of the old order.

Independent Ukraine — “crony capitalism”

At the very point when Ukraine moved towards a private capitalist economy it was hit by the global economic crisis of the early 1990s. The response of the new government of Leonid Kuchma was an austerity program including privatisation, popularly referred to as “prykhvatyzatsiya” [grab-it-isation].

The old elite, organised into mafia styled “clans”, accumulated vast amounts of capital in the 1990s. The clans grew up on the basis of their domestic trade, and then Russian oil and gas became the conduit for Russia to reassert itself, buying up some 40% of privatised assets.

Increasingly the democratic breakthrough of 1991 was eroded, in politics and the growing domination of the media by the authorities and their businesses allies. It was from the erosion of this freedom that the crisis arose that was a watershed, the murder of journalist Georgiy Gongadze in 2000.

From this event a new phase in the struggle arose, and most active were the socialists of the Socialist Party of Ukraine against a government that included Yushchenko. With around 40,000 members the SPU is a mixture of social democratic and Marxian politics, and considers that:

“the attempt to impose the capitalist way of development to Ukraine, as well as return to the previously existing state-bureaucratic system of governance, is not a way out of today’s challenging condition.” “Not retreat to socialism, but advance to socialism! — is the main idea of Ukraine’s renaissance, is the one that history suggests”. (Program of the SPU, 2000)

The fulfillment of their minimum-program presupposes the “removal of the clan regime” and the extension of democracy as the first step to then “changing the capitalist orientation of Ukraine’s development to democratic socialism”.

Moroz exposed secretly taped recordings which implicated Kuchma in Gongadze’s murder. In so doing it detonated the opposition to the oligarchic regime. The authorities responded, banning all protest. What followed over the next four years was a dual process. On the one hand the system of “crony capitalism” became increasingly decadent, and on the other there was a process of crystallisation of a bloc of democratic forces.

Politics of the social classes

By the time of the 2004 election there had been a major realignment, with a fraction of the capitalist class moving into opposition to Kuchma.

The haemorrhage accelerated in the months prior to the 2004 elections. Approximately a third of the Committee that headed the Yushchenko movement consisted of business people; who provided, at least $100 million.

In the last decade Ukrainian society has witnessed the rise of a significant middle class. The oligarchs put the squeeze on those outside their layer and for the nascent middle class this was an unbearable existence.

The mass of working class people remain mired in poverty and insecurity. Whilst commentators talk of an economic recovery, it is only relative. In Eastern Ukraine, where average wages tripled, it was to a mere $150 a month by 2004. The western Ukrainian provinces in the same period produced little more than a massive wave of migrants to Western Europe. Here, monthly wages languished around $50.

The main trade union bodies are the old state Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine (FTUU) with twelve million members and the Confederation of Free Trade Unions, (CFTUU) with three million members. The CFTUU has been more active; in turn it has been subjected to harassment, intimidation, and violent attacks against its members and leadership.

All the opposition currents crystallised during the 2004 presidential elections. Kuchma nominated Yanukovich, who headed the Regions of Ukraine party, the political “roof” of the Donetsk clan. As prime minister, Yanukovich had played the role of a neutral umpire standing above the three large rival clans (Donetsk, Dniproptrovsk, and Kyiv). Under a Yanukovich presidency, there would be no such neutral umpire but the consolidation of an oligarchic autocracy.

Yushchenko campaigned on a platform of ending what he called “the clan oligarchic system”, bringing the economy out of the shadows, the defence of civil rights, and accession to the European Union.

The Yanukovich team resorted to massive fraud. At least 2.8 million ballots were rigged.

The opposition refused to recognise the legality of the election. Yushchenko declared himself president and called for a general strike and for the state organs to transfer their allegiance.

So began 16 days of mobilisation in all cities and regional centers that led to Yushchenko’s victory.

Was this a revolution? The former president Kravchuk says: “This wasn’t a revolution… It was a change of team.” A view echoed by John Laughland of the Guardian — the “mythology of people power” and “glamour of street protests should not blind us to the reality of US-backed coups in the former USSR”.

The US State Department said it spent $65 million in Ukraine over the last two years. The George Soros foundation, allocated $1,201,904 to NGOs. But there were large sums poured into Yanukovych’s campaign by Russian sources, which have been estimated in the Russian press to amount to some $300 million. If we are to view the Ukrainian people as mere objects of great power politics, then why did they not dance to the higher bidder — Russia? The reality is that all these domestic forces already existed. Money merely enhanced what already existed.

Was it a revolution?

Let’s take Lenin’s classic definition of revolution: “Only when the masses do not want the old regime, and when the rulers are unable to govern them as of old, then only can the revolution succeed. This truth may be expressed in other words, revolution is impossible without an all-national crisis, affecting both the exploited and the exploiters.”

Kuchma warned “Revolution will not be tolerated!” However he found he could not govern as of old. Instead support from the state organs collapsed around him.

The head of the secret police; the SBU, Smeshko, defected, exposing the electoral fraud, and undermining the repressive use of Ministry of Interior troops and Special Forces. In Kyiv the mayor, the local police and the city administration, all backed the protestors.

At the very beginning of the protests throughout the country, the CFTUU mobilised it members to the demonstrations in Ukraine’s major cities.

In industry wages were still paid for those on strike who went off to join the demonstrations and monitor polling stations.

The scale of the crisis can be measured by the vast swathes of the population who mobilised en-masse, but also by the futility of the efforts by Yanukovich to mobilise.

The oblasts of Donetsk and Luhansk, Yanukovich’s home base, are not reflective of the entire eastern and southern region. In Kharkiv up to 40,000 people demonstrated for democracy.

Ukrainian trade unions have recorded for years the scale of exploitation, injuries, corruption and brutality in areas such as Donetsk. Whilst Yanukovich’s electoral base was amongst the population of Eastern Ukraine, where the economic recovery has been most pronounced, who are in favour of maintaining ties with Russia it did not follow they were willing to go the barricades for the oligarchs or partition Ukraine.

Let us put the question of the overarching presence of Russia in context. Ukraine has been independent for just over a decade after three and half centuries of being a colony of Russia. Rossiskaia gazeta, a journal close to the Kremlin, wrote: “Russia cannot afford to allow defeat in the battle for Ukraine.” Russia has sought to reassert influence in the territory of its former Empire.

But EU integration is more popular than the prospect of less democracy with “Mother Russia”. It was clearly a miscalculation of the Yanukovich camp to play the Russian card. Alongside money and advisers, Putin intervened in the elections twice endorsing Yanukovich. Russian Special Forces were deployed inside the blockaded president’s administration. All acts which were widely resented as interference in the country’s affairs.

The attitude of Russia towards Ukraine has been that of a predatory former colonial ruler. A victory for Putin would be a blow to Bush, but in whose interests? It would not have been a step forward in the interests of the Ukrainian working class, but a step backwards in terms of freedoms and democracy.

The nature of the orange revolution

All talk of a “bourgeois revolution” akin to 1848 is simply absurd. Within the pattern of revolutions, Ukraine has witnessed a political revolution. We have seen a shift towards a more democratic state form under a changed government, headed by a different stratum within the ruling class, made possible by the social weight of the majority of the alienated middle and working classes. Whilst it is a manifestation of deep social unrest, we have not seen a social revolution in Ukraine.

Socialists are not indifferent to democracy under capitalism. The struggle for socialism can best be conducted under conditions most favorable to the working class, with the widest democratic rights, freedom to organise, to publish, to strike, to vote. These liberties are indispensable in the struggle for a workers government. Where they represent a step forward, socialists argue to extend and deepen democracy.

In that sense the attitude of the counterfeit left such as the Communist Party, who remained neutral, and the Progressive Socialist Party, which backed Yanukovich, is reactionary.

This political revolution was channeled within the parameters of the existing Parliamentary and state structures. It overturned a massive act of robbery but achieved constitutional reform. The system that underpins the oligarchs remains untouched by the “Orange Revolution”.

The new government placed in office reflects the composition and contradictions of the bloc of democratic forces which led the recent resurgence. The Tymoshenko and Yushchenko fractions dominate, with the likes of the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs alongside the Socialist Party.

On the one hand there has been a noticeable increase in civil liberties and concessions to the working class — an increase in average pensions by 23.1 percent and public sector salaries by 56.8 percent. All this is to the annoyance of the proponents of the neo-liberal agenda who moan: “We find it surprising and somewhat disappointing that the government is using the period when its popularity is at its highest not to launch reforms of the public sector, but to boost social spending.”

But the true measure of this government is its relationship to the oligarchs. In a move condemned by western pundits, newly-appointed SPU head of the State Property Fund Semenyuk said “What’s so bad about re-nationalization?” However there is no program to take into social ownership the property privatised by the oligarchs and redistribute the wealth.

Yushchenko has announced a mere 29 businesses to be judicially reviewed — leaving thousands of companies and enterprises in the hands of the oligarchs! Similarly the 38,000 strong SBU, the descendant of the KGB, remains off the agenda of reform. What kind of democracy requires such a body?

What the Ukrainian Marxist Mykola Porsh, said during the 1917 revolution could be equally applied to the current situation: “At first the Central Rada was a bloc of parties united around the slogan of autonomy and federation. When our party entered the Rada, it replaced its class orientation with a national one. Some of our comrades said quite plainly that until we achieve the goal of unity there can be no class struggle in the Central Rada. As far as I am concerned, Ukrainian social democrats had no right comp-romising on class interests in deference to general, national ones.” (Robitnycha Hazeta 1917)

The purpose of this article has been to place the Orange revolution against the mirror of history to assess whether the Ukrainian Revolution is complete. National independence in form is achieved, but it was always recognised by the best fighters of that cause that their goal encompassed emancipation of the people from all forms of national and social exploitation and oppression. To that end one must conclude that it remains an unfinished revolution.

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