Sunday, January 26, 2014

Ukraine: Partition, Suppression or Concessions?

By Stephen Morgan, Brussels.

The situation in the Ukraine has now moved from a protest into a full-blown revolutionary crisis. The government has lost control and even the leaders of the opposition  have dwindling influence over events. The movement is coming to resemble a severed high voltage cable flailing wildly about under the power of its own energy. The sparks have ignited uprisings in towns across the whole of the western and central Ukraine. The only thing which could now cut the power is the resignation of the President Yanukovych. The deaths of protesters, the humiliation and brutalization of another by police, broadcast online, and the clear moves towards authoritarianism encompassed in the draconian laws put forward in parliament last week have raised the anger of the masses to boiling point.
A situation of dual power is emerging in which effective power lies in the hands of the masses on the streets and the official power of the state and government institutions has lost its ability to govern.

The crisis now poses the question of who rules the Ukraine; the masses or the government?
Not only in the capital Kiev, but throughout the western region, governmental authority has broken down as protesters storm government buildings and force local officials to resign. Virtual uprisings have erupted in Khmelnitsky, Zhytomyr, Cherkasy, Lviv, Ternopil, Sumy, Vinnytsia, Ivano-Frankivsk, Lutsk, Rivne and Chernivtsi. Protesters in Vinnytsia occupied the building of state regional administration demanding the resignation of the governor and Yanukovych's “Party of Regions” deputies. In Lviv, near the Polish border hundreds of activists stormed the office of the regional governor, shouting "Revolution!" It was a similar scene in Rivne, where protesters occupied government building shouting "Down with the gang!" - a reference to the ruling clique around Yanukovych.
In an attempt to placate the protesters, Yanukovych promised on Friday to reshuffle his cabinet and modify the new authoritarian laws against demonstrations. On the weekend he offered the positions of Prime Minister and deputy Prime Minister to opposition leaders. It clearly smacked of a poisoned chalice designed to shift responsibility for the crisis to the opposition leaders. Such was the anger of the protesters that they were forced to turn down the offer.
President Yanukovych has called an emergency session of parliament for Tuesday, which opposition leaders have termed “the day of judgement. However, it appears that opposition calls for immediate parliamentary and presidential elections are not up for discussion and nor are their demands for the signing of a free trade agreement with the EU.

The revolutionary crisis is causing splits in the ruling class. MPs in the governing Party of the Regions are jumping ship at a national level and in the areas outside the capital where they are dissolving the local party groups and closing down its offices. Now the bourgeoisie is also showing that it is withdrawing its support from the Yanukovych clique. Ukraine's richest oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, a former supporter of Yanukovych and billionaire businessman Petro Poroshenko have issued public statements cautioning against repression Fearing for his profits Akhmetov warned that, “The political crisis could trigger an economic crisis,” and insisted that only a peaceful resolution of the crisis was possible.

More importantly, there are clear signs of divisions in the state machine itself. A hard line and pro-Russian clique in the ruling elite centred on Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and the head of the Interior Ministry, Vitaly Zakharchenko appears ready to use violence to suppress the revolt,. Three days ago, Azarov warned that the government could use force to suppress the protests if clashes with the police continued. Talking to Vesti 24 state news, he said that "If the provocateurs do not stop, then the authorities will have no other choice but to use force under the law to protect our people."
Vitaly Zakharchenko, responsible for the security services, has just warned that “our attempts to peacefully resolve the conflict without resorting to military confrontation are of no effect” and threatened that there would be “consequences” if the government fails to take steps to scale down the confrontation. In an effort to play up the situation and justify an intervention, he has now accused the opposition of stockpiling arms in their headquarters.

Ominously, the opposition says it has leaked documents stating that the Interior Ministry has asked for extra ammunition. They say the request came in a letter from Lt. Gen. Stanislav Shuliak, who, demanded the supply of 4,000,000 pieces of 1. 9 mm gun ammunition.

Moreover, officials say there are up to 4,000 elite, riot police Berkut and 9,000 Interior Ministry troops now deployed across the country and there are reports that Berkut units from anti-oppostion towns in the pro-Russian east have been seen to Kiev. According to the BBC, the Berkut are notorious for their brutality and were formed out of the ruthless Soviet "special-purpose police," the Omon. They are equipped with machine guns and armed personnel carriers, as well as the use of snipers.

In an indication that many are expecting a showdown with the state forces, Ukrainian pop star, Ruslana, spoke to the protesters saying she hopes the Ukrainian army realizes which side they should be on. Yesterday, the Headquarters of the National Resistance Headquarters called on President Viktor Yanukovcyh to stop forceful scenarios in the country. A statement issues said;
“The National Resistance Headquarters has reliable information that the Presidential Administration has prepared the decision to impose a state of emergency and disperse Maidan protesters. If Viktor Yanukovych signs the decree – what will follow is the government’s war against people. The state of emergency may result into deaths of thousands of people, it split the country and destroy Ukraine as an independent and sovereign state.”

Oligarch Petro Poroshenko  has also warned that "In all the years of independence, Ukraine has never faced such a big threat. In Ukraine it's no longer a political crisis. It's a crisis of statehood. In danger are the lives of our fellow citizens, civil peace and territorial integrity” - hinting at the break up of the country and possible military intervention by Russia.

But any attempt now by Yanukovych to use force to crush the rebellion would lead to full scale armed insurrection and possible civil war and any hint of Russian intervention would turn the Ukraine into an armed camp of mass popular resistance. It looks increasing unlikely that the internal security forces have sufficient e power to stop the movement even if they wanted.

The Kyiv Post reports that several hundred Berkut police officers who were patrolling the administration's building have actually joined the protesters today. There have already been other reports that police units in the West of the country have declared their support for the protesters and refused to be re-stationed to Kiev. The developments could indicate that the national security forces would split in the face of an attempt at a bloody clampdown.

Talk of the possibility of a partition of the Ukraine is becoming more widespread. In the heat of the situation and given the impasse the country is facing, it is not at all ruled out if things continue to escalate then the Ukraine could split in two.  Most of the East and south of the country is made up of Russian speakers, who support cooperation with Russia and are culturally more linked to Russia than are the populations of the capital and western Ukraine.

In many ways this crisis boils down to a crisis of self-identity for the Ukraine. It has a sort of a split personality in regard to its dealings with both Russia and the West. The Ukraine has hardly ever had a prolonged and consistent period of independence as a unified state. The greatest part of its history has been a story of partition, dismemberment and reassembly under the rule by foreign powers including the Mongol Empire, Russia, Poland, Lithuanian, Austria and Hungary.

The gnawing problem remains of just where does the Ukraine begin and where does it end?
The country's relations with Russia are complex and contradictory. The two share close bonds and a common history, which both pulls them together and pushes them apart. In many ways, the Ukraine actually gave birth to Russia when the first Slav state of Kievan Rus' established its capital in Kiev and united all the East Slav peoples for the first time. But with the rise of Russian Imperialism, the Ukraine has become something of an estranged child. Throughout its history parts of the Ukraine have come under Russian rule and both the Tzarist and Stalinist regimes have exploited it and suppressed the Ukrainian language and culture subjecting it to policies of Russification. Most of today's Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine are Russified, ethnic Ukrainians.

Nevertheless, at the same time, Ukrainians have also played key in the making of Russia. It has produced great cultural figures like Gogol and Tchaikovsky, as well as prominent political figures who have shaped Russian history. The co-leader of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky, was a Ukrainian and came from a family who spoke both Ukrainian and Russian at home. Ukrainians occupied leading positions in the Soviet Union, such as Prezsidents Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev. Conversely, in the Ukraine, Russian speakers are elected to top positions. The current President Yanukovych is a native Russian speaker and even the key opposition leader, Klitschko grew up in a Russian-speaking family and only recently learned Ukrainian.

Consequently, attitudes among the Ukrainians cover a wide spectrum from anti-Russian to pro-European with many taking varying positions somewhere in between. Therefore, even many Ukrainian speaking supporters of the pro-European opposition would oppose any partition of the country into two separate states based on language and would recoil from this option if it became a decisive issue.

Even so, if the situation continues to escalate and no other alternative seems to offer a solution, separatism could gain a mass base. In the city of Lviv, in the west, on the weekend, regional lawmakers voted to establish a parallel government. Although largely symbolic, it is a sign of what could arise. And separatist sentiments might not only develop in the west of the country, but also in the east. If Ukraine begins to disintegrate, the idea of an independent Eastern Ukraine with close ties to Russia could gain support among the local population.

However, the situation is now so volatile that it is difficult to predict anything more than a day ahead or even hours in advance. There is no way to say what is the most likely development with any certainty, because any number of unforeseeable factors can turn the situation in any number of different directions.

It is difficult to see what face-saving solution there could be these circumstances. The opposition seems more and more determined to not stop until Yanukovych resigns, new elections are agreed and the deal with Russia is ripped up and replaced by the signing of a free trade agreement with the EU.
The EU has rushed its Commissioner, Štefan Füle, to Kiev to try to calm things down and broker some agreement between the two sides. They are terrified of the spectre of a civil war between the borders of Europe and Russia, which could lead to trouble across the region, including in Russia and would put them in an impossible diplomatic situation.

But Russia doesn't want to back down and the EU also doesn't wish to take on the burden of the Ukraine or risk a great power dispute with Russia. The Russians don't want their agreements nullified because it would undermine their plans for the economic annexation of the country, weaken their territorial situation in relation to NATO and it would also be a major international embarrassment to Putin, especially during the Sochi Olympics.

They also fear that if the protesters are seen to win, it will encourage a revival of their own opposition movement at home and also provoke unrest in other countries of the former Soviet Union, which are currently involved in joining Putin's proposed free trade block. Copycat anti-Russian protests have already broken out in Armenia.

The Russians aren't likely to invade, unless a situation of all-out civil war breaks out and then they might go so far as annexing the eastern, Russian-speaking section of the country. But they will do everything to avoid this. There would be an international outcry and a Cuban-scale crisis between the Great Powers and Russia could ensue. Russia would face sanctions and economic penalties and the effects could create an oil crisis and major problems for the world economy. Both Russia and the West would like to avoid a major international dispute over the situation.

Both Russia and the EU would prefer the status quo. The EU doesn't want to pick up the pieces of a failed state and the financial costs it would incur. On the other hand, if partition became unavoidable, Russia might eventually back the idea of an independent Eastern Ukraine as the best of bad options and probably wouldn't be adverse to having the Crimea and the Black Sea ports of Odessa and Sevastopol back under its belt.

However,  the level of risk might push the superpowers to cobble together some face-saving proposal in their common interests, which would maintain the current economic agreement with Russia, but supplement with a plan for the EU and Russia to cooperate in the economic sphere, in order to help the Ukraine through its financial difficulties with a guarantee of democratic rights and national sovereignty. This could be put forward as a proposal which benefits all Ukrainians, both those in the old industrial heartlands of the east and the more European-orientated hi-tech, service-orientated west.

Whatever comes about, it will mean hardship for the majority of Ukrainians. In the EU, they will be forced to accept a recessionary, Greek-style economic plan to overcome the national debt and also comply with IMF policies of privatization and austerity. On the other hand, with the downturn in the Russian economy, it is doubtful that Russia can continue to underwrite the Ukraine in the long term or continue to subsidize its old industrial centres, while it is increasingly forced to shut down its own nationalized and state supported industries. Within this context, any extension of formal democratic rights they win will be undermined by the fact that their government policies will be dictated by decisions in the Kremlin or by the policies of EU commissioners in Brussels and the interests of lawmakers in Berlin.

Many of the background reasons for the present crisis have been dealt with in a previous article;  Ukraine; on the road to nowhere.” In the next article, I will discuss what position the left should take towards the events in the Ukraine.

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