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Ukraine: What’s Going On, And What Does It Mean?

ukraine protests

Some thoughts on the protests happening in Ukraine. Things are not completely what they may seem.

The mass protests unfolding in Ukraine are raising a few eyebrows here and there, as well as the usual hyped-up talk of people’s revolt and even revolution. The eyebrows are justified. Mass demonstrations of many hundreds of thousands in the winter cold, people blockading government buildings, attacking a presidential palace and occupying the city government office, calls for president and government to resign, talk of a general strike…all in support of closer ties to the EU? It all seems a bit odd. Add to the strange brew a strong element of extreme nationalism, and the picture of a movement that is right wing, reactionary and unsupportable from a radical, libertarian communist point of view becomes even clearer. What has been going on? I think there are at least three elements to all this.

First, there is a cleavage among the political elites of Ukraine. Yanukovych, the current president and his government are based in the East of the country, where the big but ecomomically obsolete factories and mining areas are. People in this area generally speak Russian, not Ukrainian (Yanukovych himself only learned Ukrainian as an adult, for career reasons). The business class in these areas is oriented to Russia, politicians like Yanukovych see the Ukrainian-Russian relationship as vital. In the West, where people speak Ukrainian, elites are much more oriented towards the EU. They hope for investment opportunities and business ties. The Ukrainian state balances between these two options, with the current regime generally leaning more to Russia, but not entirely closing off the road to Brussels.

Now, there was a trade deal being prepared between Ukraine and the EU. At the last moment, Yanukovych rejected the bill. Because of Russian pressure, partly, but also because in Yanukovych’s eyes, the price was not right: he is haggling for more financial support. The treaty itself, according to a cheerful explanation on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, was mainly about trade liberalization and making Ukrainian law conform to EU regulations. The trade liberalization consisted of skipping EU import duties for Ukrainian exports within seven years, and skipping Ukrainian import duties for EU exports within ten years. This would mean trade opportunities for Ukrainian business oriented to the West. Here lies a likely reason for the anger among right wing politicians rooted in pro-western business circles when Yanukovych skipped the deal: they may well have felt robbed of lucrative opportunities. According to some research, Ukrainian GDP was supposed to grow “more than six per cent over the next decade”, because of this trade liberalization. Better still: “increased competition would bring prices down, fuelling an increase in household consumption percent over 10 years”. Of course, this leaves out another effect of increased competition. As soon as EU companies can freely export to Ukraine, many Ukrainian companies will become outdated and be forced to close or raise productivity, laying off workers. What will rise may not be household consumption, but wholesale unemployment. That is not mentioned in the RFE/ RL piece.

The treaty can be seen as a part of a broader pattern of EU-Ukraine economic relations. The deal itself did not promise enormous credits. But earlier agreements did. Ukraine received a EY grant of 1 billion euro in 2011, and may get another grant of 600 million, “if Kiev strikes a deal on a $ 15 billion loan with the International Monetary Fund (IMF)”, according to the already-mentioned RFE/RL article. I don t’know what the conditions of that loan will be, but I can guess. With these kind of deals, austerity, Greek-style, will come to Ukraine, already a land of poverty. And there is more. “If Ukraine throws its lot with the EU, it will have to pay the full market price for gas, losing the concessionary rate enjoyed at present.” (Marina Lewycka, Guardian, 1 December). That concessionary rate – meaning a lower gas price – is a product of the Russian-Ukrainian ties, for Russia is Ukraine’s source of gas. Losing that advantage means higher gas bills, for both households and enterprises. So much for boosting household consumption.

Yanukovych and his pals probably wanted the deal off until they get a better deal, because they see their proteced business interests threatened by competition from the EU, by higher energy prices and maybe also by mass anger against EU-style austerity when it comes. And he and his pals have something to defend. “Yanukovych has led the country to the brink of financial collapse as his coterie and his financial backers grow insanely and obscenely rich” (Ian Traynor, Guardian, 1 December 2013, ) The man himself is a “very wealthy man with a a large estate outside of Kiev”, according to another Guardian piece by the same writer. Where did his wealth come from? Not from heritage, for he was from a rather poor background. Politics-as-business, also known as corruption, may be the name of the game. He and his friends have much to lose, and beyond this, they feel pressurized by Russia, the big gas exporter, former imperial overlord and strong neighbour. The Yakunovych wing of the ruling class, with its entrenched interests and geopolitical ties, and with their armies of riot cops, are no pushovers.

So there we have it. Entrenched power-holders, filthy rich and well-connected with Russia, and with armed force available, on the one hand, and strong EU-oriented business and political interestst interests on the other. Modernized austerity as an alternative to traditional corrupt business as usual. Not much to choose there. This is an intra-business conflict, in which the pro-EU wing of the ruling class succeeds in raising an impressive stage army of protesters. There is no reason whatsoever for the taking of sides here.

But then, the riddle begins. One can imagine opposition politicians mobilizing their supporters, in their thousands and in their tens of thousands. But in the last few days, we hear about hundreds of thousands in the capital Kiev alone. Half a million people in the cold streets, confronting riot cops and cold winds and snow, just because they would rather be exploited from Brussel-oriented business than from Moscow-oriented business? People barricading streets, blockading and occupying buildings becuase the prefer EU austerity above old-school corruption? It does not sound plausible. It does not make sense. There are more factors at play.

The current protests are divided into two separate rallies – one by young nonpartisan activists inspired by the Occupy movement, the second, concentrated on another Kiev square, by political parties.

Not the whole movement consists of of supporters of the traditional opposition parties. There is a strong, student-based movement that tries to keep all politicians at a distance. Here is how Marina Lewycka, already quoted, describes it: “For the young people in the square, this whole game of political tit-for-tat is what they reject.” One of the places this wing of the movement apparently gets inspiration from is the Occupy movement, according to Claire Biggs who explains on 25 November: “Unlike the Orange Revolution, the current protests are divided into two separate rallies – one by young nonpartisan activists inspired by the Occupy movement, the second, concentrated on another Kiev square, by political parties.” Now, the Occupy movement, whatever its failings, was not a very pro-EU movement, as people may recall. It was not a very pro-business movement either. Claire Biggs, 27 November on RFE/ RL : “The demonstrations have brought to the forefront a new generation of protesters that grew up in an independent Ukraine and have few – if any – memories of the Soviet Union. They see themselves as Europeans, they are disillusioned with politics-as-usual, and they feel increasingly at odds with establishment opposition figures.”

Here, the story gets interesting. These young people may function – ‘objectively speaking’, to use some old-fashioned jargon – as a stage army for the opposition. But they don ‘t see themselves that way, and there is no guarantee that they will behave that way. People assembled in mass protests day after day – for whatever reason – tend to gain in self-confidence, may start to develop ideas of their own, and may get into the habit of acting upon them. And there is tension between these kind of protesters and the more traditional political opposition. “So far, most of the opposition leaders have refused to heed students’ requests to get rid of party symbols.” One side demands, another side does not comply. This is a recipe for people taking a direction that opposition politicians do not like.

As we already saw, there are not one, but two centres of assembly, one for the traditional parties, one for the younger, Occupy-style protesters. On the latter, we read interesting things: “Coordinating committees have been set up, with volunteers distributing blankets, food, and warm clothes donated by supporters. In Kiev, the coordinating committee also organizes private accomodation for demonstrators travelling from other cities.” This is in no sense an anti-capitalist movement, and I have not seen any signs of workers in action for demands of their own. Yes, there have been a calls for a general strike. But one such call was put forward by “the regional authorities” in and around Lviv, according to Shaun Walker in the the Guardian on 1 December. Now, Lviv is a city in the West of the country where the opposition is strong. So this is probably a call by the party political opposition. This means that the action may be general, but not an workers’ strike in an serious sense. So, no, no independent workers’ role to be seen. But there is that odd bit of horizontal practice, that do-it-yourself-attitude, that characterizes radical movements, combined with the most un-radical political ideas. It is a weird mixture. But clearly, the domination of pro-business, pro-EU right wing politicians is not at all complete.

Of course, the pro-European attitude of even the Occupy-style activists is weird and misplaced. The EU is not the paradise of liberty and modernity that demonstrators may believe it to be. Roma persecuted in France and elsewhere, refugees detained and deported or being left to drown in the Mediterranean, anti-austerity protestors and antifascists being beaten back by riot police in city after city… all these people could tell a story or two of liberty, EU style. If Ukraine ever becomes a EU country, it will not look like Germany. It may look like Spain, or Greece.. Or like Slovenia, where there has been a strong movement against austerity already. ‘Europe’, for the Ukraine protesters, functions as a kind of myth, just like the Soviet Union functioned as a myth for too many radicals in the Nineteen Thirties, just like Cuba and China functioned as myths in the Sixties and Nicaragua in the Eighties. We should expose the lies behind the myth; but we should also be able to notice what is behind the attraction of the myth: a desire for freedom, a rejection of politics-Yanukovych-style. The desire and the rejection itself are fully justified; but the political expression in a pro-EU-direction is reactionary.

What makes the developments more negative is the role of Ukrainian nationalism. For behind the pro-European expressions lies not only a desire for freedom. It is also a way of saying no to anything that smacks of Russia. ‘We belong to Europe’ is a way of saying ‘We refuse to belong to Russia, its sphere of influence, its tradition’. Now, Russia has been the imperial overlord of Ukraine, both under the Czar and in the time of the Soviet Union. People have not forgotten the hunger in the Nineteen Thirties, in which people felt that Stalin let people starve both because they were peasants standing in the way of collectivization and because they were Ukrainians standing in the way of Russian domination. People have good reasons to remember Russia’s role as a destructive, oppressive force.

But Ukrainian nationalists exploit this feeling to turn it into anti-Russian chauvinism. As if Russian-language people in Ukraine are the problem. This anti-Russian chauvinism is part of an Ukrainian nationalist tradition with a very ugly past, with episodes like a proto-Nazi regime in 1919 led by pogromist Petlyura, and like the extensive collaboration in Ukraine with the actual Nazis during the Second World War as examples. This nationalism is not dead.

Extreme right wing forces play a prominent part in the protests in recent weeks. There has been the effort to storm the presidential palace, using a bulldozer. Before we gasp too much in admiration, some information on participants may be useful. A certain Dmytro Korchinsky has been seen among the crowd, according to several people. Korchinsky heads a group called Brastvo (Brotherhood), “a political organization that describes its ideology as ‘Christian Orthodox national-anarchism”. There is nothing truly anarchist, of course, about a mixture of power-abiding Orthodoxy and extreme nationalism. This is clearly a fascist group, and it may have played a role in the effort to storm the building. The occupation of the city government building has been done by the Svoboda (Freedom) party, a nationalist organization led by Oleh Tyahnbok. This person “has called for a visa regime with Russia and argued against the introduction of Russian as a second state language”. I use for this information an overview by Daisy Sindelar of the main protagonists in the protest movement on the RFE/RL website, a Cold War, pro-Western information source that nevertheless is very informative, if used with care. By the way, Tyahnbok is also accused of anti-Semitism, another reactionary tradition that is not exactly dead in Ukraine.

So there we have it: a combination of three things. An inter-elite struggle between an pro-Russioan faction and an pro-EU faction, the latter bringing out its supporters on the street, the former mainly – but not exclusively: there have been pro-Yanuchevych demonstrations) supporting itself by repression and bureuacratic rule. A youth revolt, expressing its anger and desires through a pro-European discourse; but with bits of horizontal and radical practices that point in an entirely different direction. An extremely reactionary eruption of anti-Russian chauvinism and generally nationalist poliotics, with bits of fascism clearly apparent. On the whole, a rather right wing revolt against a reactionary regime. But within the revolt, there are contradictions. It would not be the first time that an elite struggle, a manipulated, stage-managed power struggle, escaped elite control. Things may get out of hand, and there is no telling yet which way.

Originally published on tahriricn.wordpress.com.

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