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Power struggle in Ukraine

By Martin Suchanek, Gruppe Arbeitermacht
The power struggle in Ukraine appears to be entering a decisive phase. The situation of the Yanukovich government is becoming precarious.

After the first mass protests against the decision not to sign the Association Agreement with the EU for the time being, they hoped they could just “sit out” the movement. At that point, it seemed as if the demonstrations were declining in numbers and losing strength. The “democratic ” opposition to the “pro-European” forces, Udar and the “Fatherland Party” and the fascist Svoboda were unable to maintain the momentum of the first days. Their call for a “general strike” did not meet the expected response and a number of major demonstrations even had to be postponed.

However, the Yanukovich government then miscalculated. They tightened up the already extremely limited right to protest in mid-January 2014 and began to take action against the demonstrators who were occupying the central Maidan Square in Kiev. The brutal attempts at eviction failed and misfired completely. Although the feared special unit “Berkut” certainly left masses injured, abused detainees inhumanely and killed at least three, possibly even six, demonstrators, they were not able to break the protest movement simply by repression. That had consequences; when a state power has to rely on an intensification of oppression but fails, it not only loses legitimacy in the eyes of the people but it is also no longer feared.

Since then, Yanukovych has been on the defensive politically. He offered the opposition leaders Klitscho, Yatsenyuk and Tjagnoibok the withdrawal of the tighter laws from January, the release of hundreds of prisoners and even the post of Prime Minister. In the parliamentary session on 28 January, the Prime Minister, Azarov, resigned. After two weeks, the limitations on the right to demonstrate were repealed. He offered to release the arrested activists but this was conditional on ending the occupation of the ministries and other office buildings and calling off the protest movement from the streets. None of this was acceptable to the opposition, it would have meant relinquishing their only real strength; the mobilisation and occupation of the streets.

Whether or not these manoeuvres will save Yanukovych is more than questionable. What might have been sufficient to pacify the situation a few weeks ago, is no longer enough, because the movement has enhanced the influence of the most reactionary and fascist forces. Also, the majority of the provinces are no longer under the control or, at least, no longer clearly under the control, of the state apparatus and government agencies.

This development has also meant that the actual backers of Yanukovich and his “Party of the Regions”, the oligarchs in eastern Ukraine, are starting to move away from him. If he loses the support of this part of the ruling class, the great business leaders from eastern Ukraine, his days are numbered. What is clear already is that the oligarchs do not want a civil war, so would be prepared to make a settlement with the leaders of the opposition, providing it secured their own interests. But they are also willing to sacrifice Yanukovych. Certainly he will not be saved by the newly established “Government Camp”, an occupation in his support that attracted just a few hundreds from the regions and which, when compared to the opposition occupations, looks more like an unintentional sign of weakness.

What this all shows is that with Yanukovych we are dealing with a reactionary presidential regime that is increasingly dictatorial but whose social base is disintegrating on all sides and whose supporters are deserting him. The result is a zig- zag course combining offers of “power-sharing” to the bourgeois opposition on the one hand with the threat of repression on the other. It is difficult to predict how the next few days will develop. An explosive escalation to a popular uprising seems possible. Equally, a brutal crackdown on the opposition and the establishment of an open presidential dictatorship cannot be ruled out, even if the necessary allegiance of the army is extremely doubtful.

Finally, and this is the most likely scenario, it may be that the current “unsustainable” situation will actually continue for some time with an unstable balance of forces between government and opposition, including the obligatory Western and Russian “mediators” pressing for “non-interference”, preferably by the other side.

And the bourgeois opposition?

A few weeks ago, the “compromise deals” now on offer, would have been seen as a “landslide victory”, a compromise the opposition would have accepted enthusiastically. Today, the opposition leaders prefer to reject them. Neither accept nor reject, this was the first helpless response from Klitschko after the first talks with the government. The heroes of the opposition have shown themselves to be driven by events. In the first few weeks, the “face” of the movement appeared to be the politically undefined boxer, Klitschko, whose “pro-European” Urda has little more for a programme than a few banal phrases and close relations with the conservative parties in the EU. It was precisely his political naivete and lack of colour that made ​​him appear as a “game changer” who from his “own strength” had achieved something; an apparently selfless screen on which could be projected all the highly divergent objectives and interests of the opposition.

With anyone else it would not have been accepted that he really believed in all the “western” talk of liberty and “honesty” and “the fight against corruption” that he uses all the time. Of course, Klitschko is in reality not as “blank” and “selfless” as he likes to make out, in fact, he and “his” party Urda are closely linked to the Adenauer Foundation of the German Christian Democrats, without whose financial aid and political “advice” it would probably not exist.

The other “bourgeois” opposition leader, Yatsenyuk, could not play this role. His “Fatherland Party” openly stands for a section of the Ukrainian oligarchs, a layer of multi-billion dollar “business leaders” who enriched themselves mercilessly after independence and the restoration of capitalism. They determine the economic and political events in the country. While some of the oligarchs, above all those from the Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, control the “Party of Regions” of the incumbent President Yanukovych, the others gathered behind the “Fatherland Party” and, to a lesser extent, around Udar.

It goes without saying that the leader of the fascist “freedom movement”, Svoboda, whose undisguised racism and anti-Semitism and murders of antifascists was even criticised a few months ago by the EU Commission as “alarming”, could simply never be presented as a “guardian of human rights”.

Klitschko and Yatsenyuk never intended to let Svoboda take the leadership of the opposition. They expected to use the apparatus and the organisational strength of the Right for their own purposes. The same applies to Western imperialists from the EU, especially Germany, but also the United States, who stand behind the opposition.

The developments in recent days and weeks have shifted the balance of forces within the opposition camp. In the fighting against the special units of the Interior Ministry, Svoboda, the “force for the rough” and other even more “radical” fascist groups have proved themselves to be the “vanguard” of the opposition. Certainly, they are (still) far from being the majority on the mass demonstrations of hundreds of thousands, but their weight is much greater among the regular attendees at the Maidan and they also act as a megaphone for ” intransigence” with the government of Yanukovych.

At the same time, the expansion of the movement into many regions of Ukraine and the occupation of government buildings has meant that the state power has been pushed back, at least temporarily, and this has expanded the movement and thus the demands on its leadership. Now that the fall of Yanukovych seems within reach, it is hard to agree a “compromise” without alienating the masses and not just the extreme right.

Inner contradictions

This shows the emergence, more or less openly, of the internal contradictions of the “opposition movement”. Udar and the Fatherland Party are closely linked to European imperialism and a number of oligarchs, together with their “clans”. Their goal is to bring about a political change of power in favour of the wing of the ruling class in Ukraine that is oriented towards the EU. They want to use the current weakness of Yanukovich, the Party of the Regions, and the eastern and southern Ukrainian, Russian-speaking, group of oligarchs, to enforce as much of their objectives and to get as large a part of the state apparatus under their control as possible. In addition to the “noble” objectives of the EU connection and access to Western markets, the functionaries of these parties, of course, expect to use the posts and offices in the state apparatus for their own rapid personal enrichment.

From the beginning, European imperialism, especially the German political apparatus, including a number of parties and foundations (especially the Konrad Adenauer Foundation of the CDU, that supervised the building of Urda) has pushed for the establishment of a government that would lead Ukraine closer to the EU and sign the Association Agreement, which strengthens the role of the German and European economy in Ukraine, with no ifs and no buts.

Just like Klitschko and Yatsenyuk they have no interest in matters getting out of control in the country. Therefore, the Western politicians are now pushing for a “reasonable balance” and “a compromise” that integrates the “Party of the Regions” and the eastern oligarchs into a future power-sharing in order to keep the country “stable”. They want a “controlled” transition of power, now that both the president and the ability of Russia to enforce its own imperial interests, are weakened.

While it looked a few months ago as if Putin was the winner in the battle for Ukraine, now Russian imperialism seems to be losing out. Putin tried to stop the planned Association Agreement with the EU by means of carrot and stick. The stick took the form of arbitrary interference with trade in 2013, an unequivocal threat to the Ukrainian government to cut off the trade routes of the eastern Ukrainian economy. The carrot was loans, to defend the country, which is beset with extreme debt and inflation, from bankruptcy.

In order to proceed against the Yanukovich government and overturn the success of Russia, the bourgeois-liberal opposition, but also the EU, tried in January to take advantage of an increasingly radical movement as a battering ram against Yanukovych. But this is now threatening to slip out of their control because it is leading to local riots, armed battles with the police and even a struggle for power.

To harness the masses to their carts, Klitschko and Yatsenyuk cannot openly express their actual social objectives, they must disguise them with talk of “freedom” and “democracy” and also take up, at least superficially, the real despair of the masses after two decades of economic and social decline. The ubiquitous despotism, of course, went on unabated even during the reign of the “Fatherland Party “, but now they take up the issues of corruption and the intimidation of political activists.

A satellite state

Of course, for the hundreds of thousands mobilised by the opposition, the obvious question now arises, why carry on negotiating with a regime that is clearly reeling? Why do we still need a compromise with the Minister of the Interior, when the Ministry itself is occupied?

The answer is simple. The oligarchs and the EU (and ultimately Russia) want “controlled and orderly” conditions. They want a Ukraine that serves their purposes, not permanent chaos. Their fears were expressed by Günther Nonnenmacher, editor of the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in a comment on 28 January, “What if the protests against Yanukovych are successful and the opposition takes over the helm? An accelerated process to bring Ukraine closer to the EU would be extremely risky”. A coup from the streets could not only awaken “false hopes”, but also present a “wrong” model for the future.

Svoboda, by contrast, wants a “national Ukraine”, a fascist transformation of relationships. The EU is not ultimately a central concern for the Right, they prefer to indulge in the fantasy of a “Great Ukraine”, which will be free of Jews and other “inferiors” and at the same time become a major European power . Like so many utopias, this programme is as reactionary as it is a fantasy. An “independent Ukraine” or even a “Great Ukraine” is impossible because Ukrainian capitalism is simply too feeble.

The spheres of influence between, on the one hand, Germany and other leading imperialist EU member states and, on the other hand, Russia are to be redrawn. The US and, perhaps, China, will also have something to say. The only role foreseen for Ukraine is to be a satellite state of one or another imperialist power.

Whatever their other differences, this is understood by all factions of the Ukrainian oligarchs as well as the parties in the government and the bourgeois opposition. They also know that the government of a capitalist Ukraine could only manoeuvre for the foreseeable future between the EU and Russia. No matter who is in power in Kiev, the energy supply of the country depends on Russian gas and oil. Russia, alongside the EU is the largest trading partner. Already, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians work as cheap labourers in Russia or Poland.

Social causes of protests

The tenacity and bitterness of the confrontations is clear enough evidence that the opposition movement that is led by reactionary and bourgeois forces is giving expression to very real and deep-seated problems within Ukrainian society. If it were only about an Association Agreement or a struggle between competing cliques of oligarchs, this would not explain the development of such a mass movement that the Right now hopes to exploit.

After Ukraine gained its independence in 1991, the restoration of capitalism was accompanied by the enforcement of the IMF’s “shock therapy”. This led to a slump in gross domestic product of 60 percent in the years 1992-95! Only on this basis, could the economy then “stabilise” itself. In the wake of the stabilisation of the Russian economy, at the turn of the millennium, it achieved relatively high annual growth rates averaging 7 percent.

Then Ukraine was hit particularly hard by the global crisis. In 2009 alone, economic output decreased by 18 percent. Industry collapsed and the national currency, the hryvnia, was massively devalued. The national debt increased dramatically, and with that came the permanent problem of making payments to meet the conditions of the IMF.

The living conditions of the masses have been at rock bottom for practically two decades. The unemployment rate in 2012 was 8.05 percent and for 2013 it is estimated to have been 8.24 percent, which does not seem particularly high at first glance. However, a look at the incomes in industry, trade and agriculture, gives a far more accurate picture. The average wage is just €300 per month, the minimum wage is €110.

By comparison, the average wage in Poland is about three times as high, in Russia or Belarus about 2.5 times. No wonder that hundreds of thousands work as cheap labourers in these countries. On top of that, workers are frequently hit by non-payment of their wages, not only in the private sector but also government employees. Because the unions play virtually no role, there is no chance of successfully suing for back pay through the courts.

Nor is it only the working class living in deplorable conditions. Agriculture also lies prostrate. Especially in the west of the country, it is extremely unproductive; the individual peasant farms are sufficient for little more than subsistence. It is therefore no wonder that the levels of poverty are even higher and the average incomes much lower in western Ukraine than in the more industrialised East.

Since the restoration of capitalism, the Ukrainian economy has not only been firmly embedded in a global capitalist division of labour, it is internally dominated by a few “oligarchs”, big capitalists who ripped off the former state owned industries and built huge economic empires. The main political parties are dominated by groups of such oligarchs and their “clans”. Thus we find, on the one hand, the “Western” block around the “Fatherland Party” and “Udar” and, on the other, the “Party of the Regions” along with their auxiliary troops in the so-called “Communist Party”.

The oligarchs have not only more or less divided the land among themselves. They have also succeeded in ensuring that their class interests are “respected” by each government. So, not only is their private property sacrosanct, but none of the parties represented in parliament, including Svoboda and the Communist Party, has ever questioned the de facto tax exemption of these multi- billionaires.

This system of capitalist order is of course no home-grown Ukrainian invention, but rather the result of the character of the country as a semi-colony, fought over by Russia and the EU within the framework of an imperialist world order. In this situation, Ukrainian “big business” could only take on a “mafia-like” nature. Only this could be viable and capable of exports in particular sectors. Systematic nepotism is the only road to riches. Widespread corruption in the state administration and the bureaucracy is the result, not the cause, of what is the only possible form of capitalism for such a country. The EU policy, like that of Russia, can, and will, only strengthen it.

This is the central illusion of all bourgeois politics in Ukraine. One side promises that an even stronger integration into the West would bring the country forward but the examples of Bulgaria and Romania show, alongside the racist restrictions on free movement of workers in the EU area, what the real prospect would be for Ukrainians. While the EU is associated with illusory hopes of liberty and looks like a “safer” place in comparison to Ukraine and Russia, Russian imperialism can only offer threats in the event of unruly behaviour in Ukraine.

In addition, the situation in Ukraine is also complicated by an unresolved national antagonism. For centuries, the Ukrainians were an oppressed nation divided between the prison houses of Tsarist Russia and the Habsburg Empire. This was continued under Stalinism, under the Polish and even under the Nazi regime. Even today, the political parties in the country, even if they are formally “pan-Ukrainian”, are still set up along national lines. Thus, the current Yanukovich government and the Communist Party are based in the Russian-speaking east and south, while the bourgeois opposition and Svoboda are dominant in the Ukrainian-speaking west and north of the country.

It is an irony of the current development that the bourgeois forces, despite all their invocations of the “overall interests of the Ukrainian nation” inevitably exacerbate divisions within the country rather than pulling it together. The Right, for example, presents itself as the most consistent advocate of the movement and, above all, the impoverished farmers and workers of western Ukraine. In keeping with their racist and chauvinist views, they blame their poverty not on capitalism or the oligarchs but on Jews, Communists and Russians. Their reactionary nationalist politics is, contrary to all their claims, a policy that deepens the division of the country along national lines.

For a chauvinistic force like Svoboda, which presents itself as anti-Russian, it is virtually impossible to gain a mass base in the eastern and southern Ukraine. However, if it continues to strengthen itself, it could well lead to the formation of similar forces in the east of the country. The social breeding ground for it is there: the mass impoverishment of the rural petty-bourgeoisie as well as of the “middle class” in the cities and the majority of workers.

Although at the moment some kind of “transfer of power” or power-sharing between the parties of the oligarchs is the most likely development, whether that is in the form of a “transitional government” and, or, new elections, it is already clear that such a government could solve none of the fundamental problems of the country. On the contrary, the existence of any civil government in the country is inextricably linked to the maintenance of the causes of all its problems.

Crisis of the labour movement

The risk of the further strengthening of a reactionary, fascist mass movement is all the greater because the poverty goes alongside the great weakness, indeed the almost complete absence, of a labour movement. The “Communist Party” is a political and parliamentary appendage of the ruling “Party of the Regions”. It has supported the government since the last elections and is, of course, responsible for its policies. In addition, it is, above all, a “Russian” party that has little influence and few members in the Ukrainian-speaking parts of the country, a deserved consequence of its own chauvinist policy.

A break from political subordination to the bourgeois parties, whether pro-Russian or pro-Western, is a pre-condition for ever building an independent all-Ukrainian labour movement. At the same time, that has also to mean independence from both Western and Russian imperialisms. This goes not only for the political, but also for the trade union level, where large parts are still closely tied to “their” employers and “their” oligarchs and where unions are also usually split along national lines.

In this respect, the dominant FPU (Federation of Ukrainian Trades Unions) has a relatively high level of organisation, representing around three quarters of all unionised workers. However, its primary function is to distribute social benefits provided either by the state or the employers. As the successor union of the Stalinist state unions, it has no tradition of militant representation of workers’ interests, not only does it not organise strikes, it does not even organise disputes over wages. At the same time, workers are dependent on the medical care, the holiday pay and resorts provided by the union and this explains the high degree of organisation, higher than in Russia and almost twice as high as in Germany.

The second largest union in the country is called the “Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine” ( KVPU ) and is concentrated in the east of the country, because it was created there in the early 1990s from the miners’ protests. It organises fewer than 300,000 workers. There are also a number of new organisations, such as Sahyst Pratsi, that have gained a foothold in the labour force in the supermarkets of international distributors such as Metro and Auchan, but usually include only a few activists.

The Ukrainian left is very weak. The anarchists and the anarcho-syndicalist organisations are part of the opposition movement against the threatened, or even established, “fascism” of the government. Others, groupings such as “Borotba”, campaign with the slogan “No to a civil war ! Against the impossible behaviour of the government and the Rights!” and are against joining any of the bourgeois factions. However, they themselves have no positive programme for the situation and further development.

Thus, the situation in Ukraine is characterised by important internal contradictions. The political power struggle reflects a deep social crisis. On the one hand, it cannot go on as before, on the other, there is no real solution in sight. The internal contradictions of the situation are remarkable in other ways, too. The demonstration movement, and the deep split in the ruling class, have brought the country to the point where even civil war and disintegration are possible. On the other hand, the working class, the vast majority of the population, has not appeared as an independent social force.
That, of course, would only be possible if no political concessions were made to the various bourgeois forces.

But the labor movement must also become the champion of the needs and concerns of the masses. This implies developing and presenting an action plan that can resolve the central democratic and economic problems of the workers and peasants. For this, the working class needs its own organisations of struggle. That means, first of all, independent, national unions organised on a democratic and class struggle basis. Secondly, it means creating a workers’ party whose programme gets to the roots of the most important problems and is based on a revolutionary action programme for the creation of a workers’ and peasants’ republic.

Such a political organisation should stand for the following demands:

  • Repeal all anti -democratic laws that restrict freedom of assembly and political rights! Remove all restrictions on the right to trade union activities and the right to strike ! Break all links between the unions and “their” companies!
  • No to any imposition of a state of emergency ! Disband the Berkut and all police special forces and the secret services ! Publish all commands and instructions to the security forces ! No to the use of the army – for the formation of soldiers’ committees !
  • Development of self-defence groups of workers of all nationalities against possible abuse by the police and also against fascist forces!
  • Publication of all agreements and connections between the bourgeois parties and the EU and Russia, open the files on all agreements and financial connections between government and opposition with their imperialist allies as well as with the various oligarchs!
  • For workers’ and peasants’ commissions of inquiry, elected from workplace or district assemblies!
  • Progressive taxation of wealth and income ! Expropriation without compensation of the oligarchs and the confiscation of their private wealth ! Expropriation of Ukrainian and foreign large enterprises and banks! Development and restructuring of these companies under workers’ control and according to the needs of the Ukrainian workers and peasant masses! Elaboration of an emergency plan based on those needs!
  • Cheap loans for farmers to increase productivity, and to encourage the formation of cooperatives, expropriation of large farms and agro-industry under workers’ control!
  • For a programme of socially useful public works to give jobs and wages to the unemployed and precarious workers! For a statutory minimum wage and minimum pension of 300 euros per month, protected against inflation by a workers’ cost of living index!
  • Cancellation of the external debt to the IMF, the EU and Russia ! Without that no escape from the dependence and backwardness of the country is possible. Creation of a state monopoly of foreign trade! The labour movement in the EU and Russia must demand that economic relations must be regulated on the basis of equality and that all restrictions on the free movement and all discrimination against Ukrainians in the labour market must be removed!
  • Organisation of workplace, trade union, district and village meetings, as well as meetings of the rank and file soldiers, to discuss the current crisis and to raise and develop demands that can unite all Ukrainian workers and peasants and overcome divisions inherited from the past that have been exploited by all reactionaries.
  • Formation of commissions and committees of action from those meetings and their coordination at local, regional and national levels

Such committees could be the basis for alternative organs of power for the working class. They could organise public life in the event of a collapse, and thus present an alternative to the police as well as the self-proclaimed “security forces” of the opposition. If a state of emergency is declared, they should answer it with a general strike. They could then form the basis for a workers’ and peasants’ government that would smash the corrupt state apparatus, disarm the various wings of the counter-revolution and introduce workers’ control and a democratic planned economy.

Such a programme should not be limited to the Ukraine. It would have to be placed in the context of a pan-European, or even global, revolution, the common class struggle with the workers in the EU and in Russia and the fight for the United Socialist States of Europe.

Certainly, in view of the political impotence of the working class at present, such a perspective appears to be very distant. But conversely, in our opinion, the establishment of a workers’ and peasants’ government is the only realistic solution to the current political crisis. That is the only way that the permanent decline of the country, which is a result of the dependence on imperialist powers and leads to a constant back and forth between different wings of the oligarchs and to ever more surveillance by the state and a strengthening fascism and nationalism, can be stopped.

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