Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Ukraine: On the road to nowhere

Protesters "militarizing" for clashes with cops
-->by Stephen Morgan

Over the weekend there was a serious escalation in the continuing protests in the Ukraine. It had appeared that the opposition movement was beginning to ebb, but hundreds of activists have remained in central Kiev and yesterday violent clashes broke out with the police. As news spread, thousands of more demonstrators arrived during a pitch battle with police in which sides exchanged a hail of rocks, stun grenades and tear gas.

The spike in unrest has been caused by President Yanukovych’s introduction of new draconian laws against demonstrations involving massive fines and imprisonment and giving greater power to the security services and judiciary. Yanukovych has recently signed an economic pact with Russia and these political measures are rightly seen as almost identical to those used by Putin to curb protests in Russia.

Protesters in the capital and the West of the country have instead demanded greater ties with the EU whom they misguidedly see as some guarantor of economic prosperity and democracy, while workers in the Russian-speaking East of the country look to closer ties with Russia to guarantee jobs. On Sunday, pro-Western demonstrators besieged the EU offices in Kiev chanting "We need your help!" However, they are likely to see little more than some hand-slapping and tut-tutting by the West, which is more worried about the unrest boiling over into a civil war, which could jeopardize economic relations with Russia and further destabilize the neighbouring East European states in the European Union.

Opposition leader Vitali Klitschko said he didn't “rule out the possibility of a civil war.” However, while full-scale civil war is unlikely at this moment, the country could slip into anarchy thus forcing the hand of the West to get involved in a situation, which it would prefer to keep out of.
The situation is very volatile. An accidental factor such as the death of a protester could see the things spiral out of control and Yanukovych might turn to a brutal clampdown and wide scale repression as a means to put an end to the turmoil. He may also mobilize people from the Russian east of the country to try to give his clampdown the air of popularity or as an excuse to introduce martial law.

At the same time, sections of the protesters, especially the youth, are becoming increasingly angry and disillusioned with the opposition leaders and are ignoring calls for non-violence. A 28 year old protester told the media, "We are tired of waiting, we must push the changes ourselves, we must change the leaders" and the crowds shouted “Leader, leader!” in desperation. Unfortunately, this is an expression of the blind alley which the Ukraine faces and the confusion in the minds of the protesters, who don't know where to turn.
Below is an article written during the height of the protests a few weeks ago arguing that despite many good intentions by the pro-EU demonstrators and the legitimate worries expressed by the pro-Russian population, neither a turn to Russia or the EU will offer a way out of the economic and political crisis for the country.

Ukraine: On the road to nowhere.

The uprising in the Ukraine is turning into an extremely complex and paradoxical affair, which could open up a Pandora's Box of political scenarios. At the moment, it is unclear whether there will be an attempt at a fierce clampdown and what would result. There are questions over whether the President and Prime Minister can survive or whether the opposition can be crushed and whether the Ukraine will disintegrate into anarchy or even break up into two different states based on the Ukrainian speaking West and the Russian speaking East.

In a crisis like this events can take sharp and unexpected turns depending on the interplay of internal and external forces. What appeared likely or unlikely today can juxtaposition swiftly. Moreover, it poses enormous risks and a dangerously unstable situation for both Western and Russian Imperialism and a potential nightmare for workers from both linguistic and ethnic groups.

The roots of the crisis are not just those of democracy and culture, but are based in economic problems which, in the absence of any other alternative, have resulted in hopes that either Europe or Russia can provide a solution. The country is in dire crisis and the unrest reflects the growing concern verging on panic about what to do. Reuters reports that:

Kiev is due to pay just under $4 billion in debt repayments and Russian gas bills in the first three months of 2014. Its foreign reserves have been eroded to prop up the local hryvnia currency. Central Bank figures on Friday revealed only enough foreign currency on hand for less than two months of imports. It now costs more than $1 million a year to insure exposure to $10 million of Ukrainian debt over a five-year period, costs that have risen as the crisis deepened.”

In order to find a way out of the crisis, President Viktor Yanukovych has attempted to balance between Russian and Western Imperialism. However, he has come under enormous pressure and economic blackmail by Russia to break ties to the EU and pursue greater integration with the Russian economy, as part of Putin's plans for an “Eurasia Union” between former states of the USSR, principally Russia, Belarus, Kazakstan and other countries like Armenia, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which would further the interests of the Russian bourgeoisie. Putin sees such a union as an economic counterweight to the European Union, and the United States, which would also serve to strengthen Russian Imperialism's geopolitical and military interests against those of NATO, which has been attempting to increase its influence in the region. Ukraine finds itself in the middle of a battle between Western and Russian interests on all fronts.

As a result, Ukrainian society is riven with splits from top to bottom. Yanukovych stills holds onto a slim majority in Parliament, but his power base in society has been fundamentally and permanently undermined. At best, he can count on support from about a third of the population mostly made up of Russian-speakers from his home base in the Eastern Ukraine. Behind him stands a section of the Ukrainian oligarchs, whose interests are linked to economic ties to Russia and its satellite states, while other sections of the capitalists look to relations with the EU as a more lucrative market for enriching themselves.

Alongside the Eastern-leaning Ukrainian oligarchs stand the country's authoritarian bureaucrats personified by Yanukovych, whose power and financial interests derive from their control of the state and who mirror their counterparts in Putin's Russia, with its “Power vertical” regime. Opposed to them are the law-makers (often no less corrupt) who reflect the Western-orientated capitalists and the petit-bourgeoisie, who hope to profit from economic relations with Western capitalism, together with a reduction of state control, reduced corruption and the rich pickings of further privatization.

These divisions are also mirrored in a split in Ukrainian society as a whole. According to recent polls, around half of the population support greater ties to Europe, while over a third are pro-Russian, with the rest undecided. Broadly speaking this split overlaps with the Russia speakers in the East and the Ukrainian speakers in the centre and west of the country. It also reflects the worries of workers in the heavily industrialized Eastern region, who depend on Russian gas and trade with its neighbour and other ex-Soviet nations for their jobs, as well as being more closely tied to Russia in cultural, historical and linguistic relations. But many of them also see the dispute as a confrontation between the working class and the middle classes and some have hinted at mobilizing their numbers to descend on Kiev for a confrontation with the pro-European protesters. 

On the other hand, workers in the West of the country also face economic worries and hope that closer ties to the EU will bring new industry, greater investment, higher living standards and job security. With the idea of modernization of production, there is a hope that the Ukraine could benefit from more exports to Europe and this will revive the economy. So while the Russian-speaking workers are hanging onto the coattails of the pro-Russian bureaucrats and oligarchs, the Ukrainian-speaking workers have been partly hoodwinked by the propaganda of the pro-European bourgeoisie and middle class activists. But they are still suspicious and, if not, in favour of closer ties with Moscow, they are (rightly) cautious about greater links to Brussels.

However, those involved in the mass protests are not at all a homogeneous group. There is some truth to the accusations of the Russian-speaking workers that the protests are middle class in composition, but it would be wrong to imagine that there are not many workers from the West who are involved in this movement or, at least, sympathize with the demonstrators. But they are more part of the protests in an individualistic sense up until now, since it is probably not really clear to them what is in their best interests and quite correctly many are suspicious of both Russian and European influence. This may be the reason why opposition calls for a general strike have so far failed to materialize even in the West of the country.

The middle classes and the students involved in the unrest tend to be more concerned with democratic issues than the economic worries of the workers, although they also do have illusions that closer economic links to the EU will bring more prosperity. Unfortunately, alongside more progressive people, there is also a hodgepodge of reactionary groups like nationalists and the Orthodox clergy visible on the streets and playing significant roles. Their participation also reflects the complexity of historical and cultural issues tied to the demonstrator’s demands. Ukraine suffered greatly under the autocratic rule of Tzarism and the brutal dictatorship of Stalinism. Its culture and language were suppressed and its agriculture and industry were exploited in the interests of the Russian ruling class and the caste of Soviet bureaucrats. Therefore closer relations to democratic Europe have become intertwined with desires for what is seen as an end to an “oriental” despotism, bureaucratic corruption and national oppression. In this context, the current leaders of the Ukraine are seen as nothing more than lackeys of Russian Imperialism, whom the protesters want removed from power.

Conversely, many workers, especially in the East, feel closer cultural ties to Russia and, among the older workers and pensioners particularly, there is also a certain nostalgia for the old Soviet times when state intervention guaranteed jobs and gave a dependable source of income, even if it didn't mean very high living standards. Because of the continuing large scale intervention of the state in the economics of contemporary Russian capitalism, by which much of Russia's older heavy industry still receives massive government investment to keep them alive, there are illusions that this still represents some form of socialistic policy, from which the old industries of the Eastern Ukraine could also benefit should economic ties be strengthened.

In many ways, this revolution (if it can be called a revolution) is a “revolution of illusions.” The truth is that neither European capitalism nor Russian capitalism can offer a solution to the economic problems facing the people of the Ukraine. Once booming Russia has now entered recession and workers' living standards are beginning to fall, services are being cut and it will not be long before cuts government spending lead to wide scale closures of traditional Russian industries.

On the other hand, Europe remains in dire economic crisis with little hope of any real recovery for decades. Workers in the Eastern Ukraine fearing for their jobs could quite rightly point to the destruction of industry in EU countries like Britain, where, under the neo-liberal policies of Thatcher, the closure of 174 pits and the loss of over 100,000 mining jobs, now being repeated in the recent closure of the Spanish mining industry, as well as the crisis in Greece, Spain and Portugal, where youth unemployment is as high as 50-60%. Indeed, the budget crisis in the Ukraine and the problems of its debt servicing are almost exactly the same as many long standing members of the European Union.

Furthermore, the recession has plunged all the other countries of Eastern Europe in the EU into economic crisis and social unrest. Massive protests, sometimes as proportionately large as those in the Ukraine at the moment have broken out over economic and political issues in Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Even the showcase capitalist state of Poland has faced massive labour unrest this year due to the worsening economic situation and that is to say nothing about the recent total collapse of the Latvian economy in 2008. One can justifiably ask just how has European integration helped these countries, except for enriching the small capitalist class and some sections of the middle classes? The fact is that the Ukraine will become yet another poor man of Europe. It will only swap Russian domination for European exploitation and the EU will demand massive closures and privatization in return for loans and a freehand for its major players to exploit the Ukrainian market. The future for the Ukraine in Europe is Greek, not German.

Therefore, whether the Ukraine turns East or West, it is on a road to nowhere. Such a situation can have previously unimaginable consequences. The seriousness of the situation is underlined by the fact that both the European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and U.S. assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland rushed to Kiev  following discussions on the phone between U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and President Yanukovich. At the same time, Yanukovich remains in close contact with Putin, who has been putting pressure on him to take a tougher stand with the protesters.

The European bourgeoisie recognizes that a decent into chaos in the Ukraine could have a de-stabilizing effect throughout an already volatile Eastern Europe, while at the same time, Putin knows it could encourage the re-emergence of the pro-Western opposition in Russia centred on not far away St Petersburg. Furthermore, although not the most likely outcome at this stage, the break down of social order could at some time also pose the question of the break up of the Ukraine with the establishment of a Western Ukrainian-speaking nation and a Russian-speaking Ukraine to the East or its incorporation as a region back into Russia.

The break up of former Soviet states is not without precedent. Czechoslovakia split into two states, Yugoslavia disintegrated and the secession of Nagorno-Karabakh from Azerbaijan, the break away of Ingushetia from Chechnya and the detachment of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia, which have become Russian protectorates. Even so it would probably take the complete economic and social disintegration of the Ukraine before such a situation could arise there. If this were the case, it might be possible that Russia would covet the economically and strategically important East provinces and Crimea to the south.

At the moment, neither the EU nor Russia would favour such a scenario. For both of them, the 45 million-strong Ukrainian market is something they would like to remain one economic unit. On the one hand, therefore, the EU and Russia have a common interest on one level in stabilizing the country. But there remains a major collision of interests in terms of economic influence and Ukraine's military/strategic importance, which could widen if the situation worsens. Moscow doesn't want another potential NATO ally on its borders and, as a consequence, the crisis could escalate into a dangerous confrontation between the West and Russia.

But the Ukrainian revolt is also a crisis of leadership and alternatives. The mass of the people have no genuine representatives. The Party of the Regions headed by Yanukovych is essentially a party representing bureaucrats and oligarchs orientated to Russia, the Communist Party are ex-Stalinists and Russophiles and the opposition is made up of a conglomeration of pro-Western, pro-capitalist, liberals and nationalists, none of whom represent the interests of the working class who make up the majority of the nation. Without a Ukrainian Labour Party which appeals to the interests of all workers, regardless of ethnic or linguistic differences, then the working class will remain divided and weak.

At the moment, it is this lack of a unifying programme based on common interests between the Ukrainian and Russian-speaking masses, which is widening the division in the nation and allowing misguided sections of the middle classes, regardless of their best intentions, to play a role out of proportion to their weight in society. And this itself, in turn, adds to the confusion, divisions and animosity which is building up. Consequently, the Ukraine is coming to a crossroads and unless bridges are built between the Eastern and Western parts of the country, then the two increasingly divergent paths will both find themselves in a dead end from which they could choose to go off in completely separate directions.

Ironically, were the vast wealth of Europe and Russia combined into one economic plan of production, the problems of all its peoples could be solved. But that would take the overthrow of both the capitalist class in the West and the oligarchs and bureaucrats in the East. That would offer the possibility of a third road which has never been followed – a genuinely democratic socialist federation of the Euroasian continent from Brussels to Vladivostok.

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