May 21, 2014 1 Comment
Maidan protests and the overthrow of Yanukovich
a) What were the causes behind this ?
The Maidan protests between January to February this year was a high point of class struggle in the post-soviet history of Ukraine. If there was ever needed a proof that the working class was still a living force, despite over 70 years of Stalinist counter-revolution, it was there on the Maidan square.
The protests were aimed at the pro-Russian oligarch Yanukovich. Upon taking power he went about shaping Ukraine in the image of modern Russia, a bonapartist run gangster state which zealously (and more often than not violently) guards the interests of its corrupt leadership. While this was not new to Ukraine, which has only seen the transfer of power from one bonapartist ruler to another . The only difference was one had a pro-russia another had a pro-EU outlook.
Upon taking power Yanukovich started a series of unpopular policy measures aimed at placating both foreign power blocs (Russia and the EU).The natural gas tariffs were growing; the government launched medical reform which will eventually lead to closure of many medical institutions and to introducing the universal medical insurance instead of the unconditional coverage; they pushed through extremely unpopular pension reform (raising pension age for women) against the will of more than 90% of population; there was an attempt at passing the new Labour Code which would seriously affect workers’ rights; the railway is being corporatized; finally, they passed a new Tax Code which hit small business. Most of these measures failed only because of the pressure of the masses prevented it.
It was nearly 5 years of this corrupt and autocratic rule that proved to be the last straw for the people. The sheer force of the popular mobilization in the Maidan square and other cities around Ukraine brought down the corrupt and incompetent rule of Yanukovich. This was achieved despite some of the worst repressive measures like ordering snipers to fire on protestors, killing dozens.
However, what was and still stands as a progressive process has been hijacked and turned against the interests of the people, by right wing reactionary forces, backed openly by the likes of US imperialism.
b) What were the social and political forces at play ?
The protests at the Maidan began with its occupation by a relatively small crowd of 400 students who came out in protest against Yanukovich’s failure to sign the agreement with the EU at Brussels. However, this did not draw mass sympathy nor did it prove to affect the regime. What changed the scene was Yanukovich’s violent reaction. The attacks by the police on the Maidan proved to be his undoing as it incited the populace across the country against him. The centre of the mobilizations of course was Kiev itself.
The composition of the protests right from the beginning was overwhelmingly petty-bourgeois with significant participation from the youth. Overall, the perspectives raised were oriented towards Ukrainian nationalism and anti-Russian sentiments. Under the guidance of reactionary leaderships like the far-right Svoboda Party, this expressed itself through the language of nationalism rather than socialist class struggle. The people had very real and legitimate grievances against the regime in power.
Ultimately however, the reactionary elements held sway over the power of the popular democratic mobilizations. This was the reason why after the removal of Yanukovich, the new regime was unable to build a progressive democratic structure. Not only did it incorporate Ukrainian chauvinist forces in the government, one of the first steps that the new government took was to declare Ukrainian as the only official language in Ukraine. This was an extremely provocative measure deliberately attacking the Russian-speaking population. It is not the kind of measure any government takes if it is serious about running a unified state.
The developments after Yanukovich’s ouster showed clearly what were the worst weaknesses of the Ukrainian movement. Firstly, it was started as a ‘leaderless’ movement with multiple nationalistic political forces involved in it. This is a feature typical among most petty-bourgeois uprisings be it the anti-corruption movement in India or the mass protests in Turkey against Erdogan. Secondly, the movement failed to overcome the ethnic and cultural division within Ukraine between the Russian-speaking East and South, which are the industrial centres of Ukraine, and the Ukrainian speaking West and Central regions, which are the agrarian centres of the country.
This in particular was to have devastating consequences for the whole democratic movement which emerged around the Maidan square.
c) Conclusion of the Maidan protests – What is the character of the regime now in place
The Maidan protests achieved their first overarching objective, the ouster of president Yanukovich. This was a high mark of the movement. Thereafter, the movement was tasked with reconstructing a new regime which ought to have been founded on the democratic aspirations of the people. However, the new regime composed of a hodge-podge of pro-EU liberals and far right chauvinists was patently incapable of achieving this.
Among the first measures taken by the new government was the enforcing of Ukrainian as the only national language in Ukraine. This together with a fear among Russian speakers of possible victimization (like the long-time resident Russian nationals in Latvia, Estonia and other post-soviet states had to face) led to counter-protests in the South and East. Some provinces with a Russian majority started separatist movements, chief among them was Crimea. Seeing the opportunity in the ensuing chaos Russia decided to intervene to defend its strategic interests in Ukraine. The result was the successful secession of Crimea and joining the Russian federation after a referendum.
The smooth and bloodless secession of Crimea from Ukraine showed just how precarious the hold of the Kiev-based government was over the Russian-speaking provinces. After Crimea, other provinces with a Russian majority witnessed mass mobilizations as well. Among the most striking features of the mobilizations was the utter impotence of the government’s repressive machinery. The police and the military found themselves outgunned and surrounded every time. Reports still come out of desertions from the Ukrainian army and of garrisons being overrun, most recently in the city of Mariupol.
Meanwhile in Odessa, a Russian-speaking city in the south-west of Ukraine on the Black Sea coast, pro-Ukraine demonstrators torched the trade union building in which both pro-Russia demonstrators and “non-combatants” had taken shelter, killing dozens of people. This show of murderous violence alienated the people of Odessa from the Kiev government and its militant (often extreme rightists or active Nazis) supporters in the same way as Yanukovich’s snipers created revulsion in Kiev.
Not only has the new regime failed to win over the broad masses of Ukraine, but in the Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine it now stares at the collapse of its state power in the face of overwhelming pressure from within and without. From within from the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine and from without from the sub-imperialist great power of Russia, its military economic and political machinery at work.
Imperialist interests and their impact
a) The interests of Russian sub-imperialism (Putin’s plan)
The most dominant foreign power in Ukraine is undoubtedly Russia. Russia has multiple strategic interests in Ukraine, not in the least its massive naval base in the Crimea. First, is its geo-strategic importance owing to its access to the Black Sea and its standing as the second largest European country. Thus, for Russia, a pliable and subservient Ukraine can provide open access to the Black Sea and the European heartland. Second is its economic importance as a transit country. Several of Russia’s oil pipelines to Europe pass through Ukraine. Ukraine as such is dependent on Russian oil and gas for its energy needs. Likewise it also serves as a transit country for the supply of oil and gas to the rest of mainland Europe. Thus, Ukraine is surrounded by Russia militarily in the East at the border and in the South in the Crimea, and it is dominated economically by Russian capital. This was shown very clearly when Russia didn’t hesitate to cut off the supply of oil and gas during the winter to pressurize the then Tymoshenko government to pay its debts to the Russians.
This domination must be seen in the context of Ukraine’s history which has since the time of the Tsarist empire been treated as a strategic province of the Russian Empire. The conquest of Crimea in the late 18th century from the Ottomans increased the importance of the region for the Russians that much more, due to the access to warm water ports on the Black Sea. Russian ambitions in the Ukraine culminated in the Crimean war of 1854 which brought in the leading powers of Europe to intervene on the side of the Turks against the Russians. As a result Russia lost the major strategic holding of Sevastopol. In the long run however, Russia continued its hold of Ukraine and deepened its influence in Eastern Europe. After the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, Ukraine along with other former colonies of the Russian empire joined the Soviet Union.
After the collapse of the USSR, Ukraine was affected in much the same ways as other former Soviet republics. There was rampant corruption, deindustrialization, the annihilation of life-time savings and a general collapse of living standards. Among other things, one of the consequences was the formation of a highly bureaucratized oligarchy, formed from members of the old ruling bureaucratic clique which has since dominated Ukrainian politics. However, Ukraine’s ethnic diversity and social complexity made it impossible for this bureaucracy to develop the same level of bonapartism as in Russia or Belarus. The oligarchy in Ukraine thus became divided between a more “conservative” pro-Russia clique and a pro-EU clique with support from the Central and Western regions.
Another important element of Soviet society carried over to the post-Soviet republics after 1991 along with the bureaucratic elite (the Nomenklatura) was the pulverization of working class consciousness and organization that had been accomplished by Stalinism’s murderous bureaucratic counter-revolution. No independent workers’ parties or socialist movements were able to arise like some red Phoenix from the ashes of anti-communist “Communist” Russia. First the working class would need to raise its political and social consciousness from zero, and take the first halting steps of self-organization. None of the legacy “communist” “pro-Soviet” parties or movements did any of this. In fact they did just the opposite, prolonging the anti-Bolshevik, anti-Marxist traditions of the Stalinist regime, often attempting to use the same thuggery and arrogance in the process.
With Russia re-emerging as an imperialist power, old historic trajectories of contest between a hegemonic Russia and the established powers of European imperialism seem to be returning. Russia is zealously protecting its strategic interests in Crimea while manipulating the downfall of its anti-Russian rivals. Here what is most to the advantage of Russia is the substantial Russian-speaking and ethnically Russian population within Ukraine (a legacy of the prolonged domination of the Russian empire and thereafter, of the forced russification policies under Stalin and his successors). This gives Russian sub-imperialism a powerful lever to influence the affairs of Ukraine.
Russia has the edge where military power and political clout is concerned. The West, however, in particular the EU, has the edge where economic strength is concerned.
b) The interests of EU imperialism
European imperialism today is beleaguered. It is being challenged in its own turf with crisis threatening it all across Southern Europe. The European bourgeoisie is finding itself besieged by the working class as the continent witnesses an upsurge in class struggle. Be it Britain, France, Spain, Italy or Germany, all the major powers of Europe are faced with the ire of the working class on the move.
This is in addition to the situation of impending financial doom. The EU imperialists like blood-thirsty vampires need fresh new blood to feast on. This is why they have set their sights on the ‘untapped potential’ of Europe’s underdeveloped East. Ukraine here would be the juiciest slice of meat for the EU. Since the crisis set in, we have seen Europe becoming far more aggressive and belligerent than before worldwide. France in particular is focusing on increasing its otherwise diminishing military and political clout over Africa, while Germany shows its ruthlessness in dealing with Greece. However, the interests of the Europe’s imperialists are posed now against the resurgent might of Russia which is clawing back its influence over Eastern Europe.
Thus, the EU poses itself as the chief imperialist rival against Russian hegemony over Ukraine. This is reflected in the politics of the oligarchs of Ukraine with one segment vying openly for European and another vying for Russian favours. In course of the Maidan protests, it was the former wing of the oligarchical interests which triumphed over the interests of the people at large. The new regime has thus been hard at work begging to get the EU to intervene on its side, seeing the EU as its protector. The pact signed with the IMF which brings with it stringent austerity measures should be seen in this context.
However, this plan is proving itself to be a complete failure. European imperialism today is in truth a declining power. Its passivity over Russian actions in Ukraine has proven on the one hand its military incapability in facing a great power as well as its economic dependence on Russian oil and gas, without which most of Europe would come to a standstill. Gone are the days when France and Britain could send their navies to bombard Sevastopol and drive the Russians out. Europe meekly stands by as Russia eats Ukraine. This leaves only US imperialism with both the military might and political will to challenge Russia.
c) Role of US imperialism
The role of US imperialism in Ukraine, should be seen against the background of the fall of the Soviet Union. The US had given the Soviet Union an assurance that NATO would not expand. However, the US has progressively expanded NATO and its own military pressure in East Europe, the countries of the former Warsaw Pact, in an effort to surround Russia.
This trend is continuing with the US preparing to build a missile defence system over Russia, on the pretext of defending Europe against Iran. While the US is in no way the dominant economic force in the EU or even in Ukraine itself, its role as de facto protector of capitalist Europe after the second world war continues to give it tremendous influence over European affairs. Notably, US influence is deepest in Poland.
The forces of US imperialism were present and active in the course of the Maidan protests preparing well in advance all means to hijack the process and place parties favorable to its interests in a leading position. The notorious phone conversation between the US ambassador and the far right Svoboda party reveals the connections between the chauvinist forces and US imperialism.
When the Russians intervened in Crimea, the US was quick to move in with economic sanctions. However, these have proven themselves to be toothless. Russia is simply too well entrenched and too large an economy to successfully impose sanctions against. Most European powers would shudder at the thought of Russian reprisals should they commit to these US sanctions. The US has also refrained from taking any overt military action to dislodge the Russians from Ukraine, notwithstanding the sabre rattling from its crazed right wing loons.
The Crimean question and the situation of Russian speakers
a) The nature of the protests in South-East Ukraine – popular democratic mobilizations
We declare first of all that the movement to oust Yanukovich was a progressive movement. At the same time, we declare that the movement against the regime it created is also a democratic movement. The apparently contradictory movements are in fact fundamentally identical. The protests of the Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine are the result of the aggressively divisive policies of the new Kiev regime which is refusing to acknowledge the equal official status of the Russian language. This is a disturbing parallel to the right wing government in Sri Lanka which came to power after the expulsion of the British, which started pursuing chauvinist monopoly Sinhala policies and instituted an apartheid regime against the island’s Tamil minority.
The Russian population of Ukraine has the full right of self-determination against such a regime. They are currently mobilizing to defend their interests. In addition, we must consider the threat posed by the agreement with the IMF which seeks to impose vicious austerity measures. The more proletarian population of East and South Ukraine, who have already suffered considerably from the deindustrialization after the fall of the Soviet Union, are liable to be more affected than people in other regions.
The questions facing the Russian-speaking population and ethnic Russians are posed most sharply in the Crimea, which is also home to a sizeable Tatar minority.
b) The historical background of the Crimean peninsula
The Crimean peninsula was annexed to the Russian empire in the 1780s from the Crimean khanate.
From then on Crimea was subjected to colonial policies at the hands of the Russian empire which saw Russian settlers coming in large numbers and the development of Crimea as a strategic military naval base for the Russian Empire with its warm water ports. In the Soviet Union after Stalin’s counter-revolutionary take-over in the mid-1920s, the Crimean Tatars were subjected to the oppressive policies of deportation. The mass deportations which had been initiated under the Tsar’s rule were revived. Hundreds of thousands were deported to Central Asia and many died. The Tatar population was practically wiped out after the second world war. Russian settlers had already come in their hundreds of thousands under the Russian empire, and kept coming in large numbers as part of a russification drive under the Stalinist bureaucracy.
The result was a demographic shift in the population of Crimea and in general of Ukraine with a very large Russian population and an even larger share of native Russian speakers. For generations this Russian population has lived in Ukraine and made it their home, and this is where the bulk of the present Russian population has its roots. Incidentally, this pattern is not exclusive to Russia but is common among most East European states which belonged to the Soviet Union before 1991.
When the republic of Ukraine was created after the fall of the USSR in 1991, Crimea became an autonomous region under its rule.
c) The dynamics of the Crimean referendum
The Crimean referendum has been explained by most western sources as an act of annexation. However, there are more complex dynamics at play which cannot be ignored. Firstly, the Crimean peninsula is a region with a Russian majority, where even the majority of Ukrainians speak Russian as their first language. The other major minority were the Tatars who largely speak their own language.
The protests in Crimea like elsewhere in Eastern and Southern Ukraine paralyzed the infant regime in Kiev with the armed forces of the state failing at every turn. Russia already had a sizeable naval military presence in Crimea which was mobilized in support of the Crimean protestors. The referendum which was conducted eventually was done so under Russian military protection. Thus, what was a democratic process took on the appearance of a military occupation.
This was sub-imperialist Russia’s move to hijack and ultimately undermine the democratic movement evolving in Ukraine’s East and South. It is the same story in Ukraine’s East which is seeing the most intense of the protests, and where the armed forces of the state are on the verge of a complete collapse reminiscent of the crisis in Albania in the late 1990s.
Here we must view Russia’s action in the context of a developing revolutionary situation where the masses are in full mobilization. The movement to oust Yanukovich which put the new regime in power was a democratic movement, as is the movement against its arbitrary and chauvinistic policies which favour Western imperialism. The nature of this movement is being seen in its relation to the state and the reaction it’s provoking in the armed forces. We have a people’s movement that is openly challenging the state forces to the point where they are deserting their barracks. Ukraine has been left with little or no power on its eastern and southern borders.
In response to this the fascistic elements in Kiev’s ruling regime has resorted to violent attacks on Communists and leftist activists exemplified in the burning of the trade union building in Odessa which killed nearly 50 activists.
The stand we must take
In Ukraine, the forces of revolutionary bolshevism are faced with a very contradictory situation. On the one hand there was the movement to oust Yanukovich, which was essentially progressive. On the other hand, the movement against the chauvinism of the new regime is also essentially progressive.
We do not have the luxury to pick and choose which democratic struggle to support and which not to. In the tradition of revolutionary bolshevism, we support every democratic struggle with the aim of clearing the way for the socialist struggle. This is the essence of tactics based on the theory of permanent revolution. Where the bourgeoisie is incapable of fulfilling the democratic aspirations of the masses it falls to the the proletariat to resolve the questions of the democratic revolution. The proletariat does not tackle these democratic tasks as separate from the socialist struggle, but as part of it.
Thus, we supported the movement to oust Yanukovich, and we also support the movement for autonomy for Russian-speaking regions of Ukraine.
We do this despite the persistent weakness of the consciousness and organization of the proletariat. Independent working-class political consciousness and organization are still hardly even embryonic, so crushingly effective was the annihilation of revolutionary socialism by the Stalinist counter-revolution. This means that the working class in its present condition is completely incapable of leading the people of Ukraine (or any other people in a similar situation) in resolving the contradictions of the democratic revolution in the direction of socialism. As in the Middle East and North Africa the proletariat will need to preserve and build on the democratic conquests that have been achieved in order to consign the bourgeois capitalist society – the root cause of all its problems – to the garbage dump of history once and for all.
Our slogans :
a) For the right of self-determination! No to chauvinist policies of any kind!
b) Unconditional support to struggles of the Russians in Ukraine!
c) No to imperialism! Neither Russia nor the West!