On 22 February, three months of protest in Ukraine culminated with the parliament unseating president Viktor Yanukovych.
Yanukovych fled from the capital, Kiev, and from his luxury estate nearby. Parliament installed a member of the opposition as acting president and called for new elections soon. On 24 February the new government issued a warrant of Yanukovych’s arrest on charges of responsibility for the killing of protesters.
Joy at the fall of the corrupt and authoritarian Yanukovych may sour very soon, though.
Our solidarity should be with left-wing and working-class forces in Ukraine which will fight to open up democracy, to push back the far right, and to help working people in Ukraine defend themselves against the neo-liberal “reforms” now demanded by the EU and the IMF in return for loans to enable Ukraine to manage payment deadlines.
The left and the elements of an independent workers’ movement are, however, weak in Ukraine.
The three months of upheaval in Ukraine which culminated on 22 February with the fall of president Viktor Yanukovych started on 21 November with protests against Yanukovych’s withdrawal from a planned deal with the European Union and his choice instead to seek closer ties with Russia.
According to many accounts, though, the EU issue fell into the background as the protests developed, being overshadowed by the demand for Yanukovych to go because of his corruption and brutality.
A Ukrainian anarchist, interviewed, says that people “pictured a very utopian ideal — society without corruption, with high wages, social security, rule of law, honest politicians, smiling faces, clean streets, etc. — and called it ‘EU’. And when one tried to tell them that the actual EU has nothing to do with this pretty picture... they retorted: ‘So you would better live in Russia then?’”
Ukraine was under foreign domination, first Polish, then Tsarist Russian, then Stalinist Russian, for many centuries. There was only a brief period, in the time of Lenin and Trotsky, when the new workers’ state created by the 1917 revolution deliberately sought to promote “Ukrainisation”, and to counter forced Russification.
Ukraine suffered especially under Stalin’s Terror. Millions died in a deliberately intensified famine in 1932-3. After Stalin’s death in 1953 and the subsequent “thaw”, bureaucratically imposed Russification continued.
Despite its natural resources, Ukraine also suffered economically. Today its average income is much lower even than Russia’s or Belarus’s, let alone Poland’s.
Nationalist feeling was and is strongest in western Ukraine, which did not come under Stalinist rule under 1939-40; but when the old regime in Russia broke up, in 1991, Ukrainians voted 90% for independence.
There was a majority for independence even among Russian-speakers, many of whom identify as “Ukrainian”. Even in the Crimea, an area incorporated into Ukraine only in 1954, there was a 56% majority. According to the Financial Times (24 November), even today, when many Russian-speakers in Crimea oppose the 22 February “coup”, most Crimean Tatars are in the anti-Yanukovych camp.
In short, there are deep historical reasons why national feeling is strong in Ukraine, and why Ukrainians resent and fear Russian domination.
That feeling could express itself in a vague leaning towards the EU, partly idealised, and partly also seen realistically as more liberal and offering greater economic openings than Putin’s Russia.
Some components of the anti-Yanukovych movement, such as the fascistic far-right party Svoboda, have never been particularly pro-EU.
The movement of the last three months has had undeniable weight and popular support, maintaining an occupation of Kiev’s main square despite periodic violent attempts to oust it, taking over local administrations in western Ukraine, and eventually toppling Yanukovych.
The immediate background to the fall of Yanukovych was the killing of many protesters in an attempt by the regime to reassert control; the promulgation of a compromise deal hastily devised by EU politicians, in which there would be new presidential elections in December; and the rejection by the people on the street of another ten months for Yanukovych.
But the dominant political shape of the movement has been right wing. Little good can be expected from the new regime.
One of its first measures has been to withdraw the status of Russian as a minority official language in Ukraine.
According to the Ukrainian anarchist quoted above: “Svoboda and other fascists are similar to the Egyptian Muslim Brothers and other Islamists in many ways. They are ‘the’ opposition to the hated regime... they cannot (hopefully) unite all protesters under their banner [but] the protesting people... lack their own language to express themselves...
“[In the occupied main square of Kiev] there haven’t appeared any assemblies or other instruments of collective decision-making... The opposition parties... are considered to be opportunists... but still they are indeed managing the infrastructure of [the occupation] and are the ones who make actual decisions”.
Reports of the weight of the far right within the movement vary. All agree that it is substantial.
The Ukrainian anarchist quoted above says: “The actual number of the ultra-right activists is not that big... But, first of all, their ideas are welcome among the apolitical crowd; second of all, they are very well organised, and also people love their ‘radicalism’”, i.e. their readiness to confront the forces of the old regime on the streets.
Other opposition parties are neo-liberal and work with the far right. Although distrust and dislike of those parties is reported from the street protests, the protests have generated no autonomous political alternative.
Left groups which attempted to establish a profile in the occupation of the main square were violently attacked by rightists. So was the Confederation of Trade Unions, which sides with the opposition, but without any clear independent voice. (There are other trade union organisations which have been more aligned with Yanukovych. All are weak).
Part of the drive behind the protests, initially mostly student and middle-class, later including more workers, was protest against the confiscation of so much of Ukraine’s wealth by a few oligarchs around Yanukovych. That also means that other oligarchs, out of favour with Yanukovych, supported the opposition.
In the first days after the fall of Yanukovych, the scene is dominated by efforts by the EU to get a stable new government in Kiev, to stop Ukraine falling apart, and to make sure the new government enforces neo-liberal measures “in return” for emergency loans.
The EU and the new Kiev government will try to do a deal with Putin. Putin’s interests lie with making a deal. He may well be able to do so. Ukraine’s oligarchs’ interests also lie with a deal which combines some orientation to Russia and some to the EU. Whether a stable balance can be found and maintained may be a different matter.
It would be wrong to urge a united front with Yanukovych’s people on the grounds of opposing “a counter-revolutionary coup”, which is the line the Morning Star, No2EU, and the Workers’ Power group all suggest, in very different idioms. (The SWP, in its standard cod “anti-imperialist” mode of post-1987, should logically side with Yanukovych. It has not done so. It has expressed sympathy with the protests without backing their leaders).
It would be wrong to ignore the democratic content of nationalist feeling in Ukraine, directed against Russian domination or threats of Russian domination. That seems to be the drift of the coverage by the Socialist Party, which (perhaps to sustain its position vis-a-vis No2EU without openly contradicting it) has chiefly argued that a socialist revolution would be better than the victory of either Yanukovych or the opposition (which is true, but not much help for orientation in current events).
It would also be wrong to expect any good from the new government.
Florin Poenaru, a graduate student at the Central European University in Budapest, on the LeftEast website, calls for “the third position [opposed to both Yanukovych and the new regime]... namely a class perspective”. An open letter to the Ukrainian left on the same website appeals to them:
“These post-revolutionary conditions are now ripe for you to form a third pole, distinct from today’s Tweedledums and Tweedledees... You are the only ones who can give meaning to the deaths and wounds of the [occupied square in Kiev]”.