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Between imperialisms: Ukraine, Crimea and the Tatar Question

By Kady Tait

On 16 March, the population of Crimea voted overwhelmingly for federation with Russia. The results of the referendum were immediately rejected by all the major western imperialist powers, which have now barred Russia from G8 meetings and applied sanctions to figures in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s entourage.

In response to manoeuvres by Russian troops, Nato has severed its relations with Russia, increased its air forces in the Baltic, and a US warship has passed through the Bosporus into the Black Sea. Nato has escalated its military encirclement of Russia by announcing war games with Azerbaijan and Armenia.

The belligerent tone of the Obama administration contrasts sharply with its silence over the bloody repression of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. That crackdown has seen thousands killed in the wake of the US-backed military coup led by general Abdul Fattah al-Sisi.

Imperial rivals
The crisis in Ukraine and the Crimean referendum vote to secede were not instigated by Russian imperialism. Its military manoeuvres and annexation of the Crimea are a response to the putsch in Kyiv, sponsored and funded by the USA to the tune of $5bn [1], which installed a pro-Nato, West Ukrainian chauvinist regime, backed by openly fascist elements.

Confronted with an attempt by a hostile imperialist bloc to extend its military perimeter and to draw Ukraine into the orbit of the EU and USA, Russia acted to defend its own interests; interests which are antagonistic to those of the EU-USA.

It is not the job of socialists to join in the blame game manufactured by the capitalist media. We should explain the crisis in Ukraine as the consequence of inter-imperialist rivalry, sharpened by the economic crisis. The Russian annexation of Crimea is a response to the policy of the US and the European Union to seize the national resources of Ukraine, exploit the “cheap labour” of its workers and to use the country strategically to outflank Russia.

In short, the western imperialists want Ukraine as their exclusive semi-colony and ultimately military base. They have accomplished this by brazenly encouraging the overthrow of Ukraine’s elected President, Viktor Yanukovych, the purging of his supporters from parliament and the installation of a prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, handpicked by the US envoy, Victoria Nuland [2]. This government has made it clear it will sign a treaty with the European Union that will subject the country to the kind of reform programme whose effects have already been seen in Greece. The putsch itself was spearheaded by an armed fascist militia whose backbone was the neo-Nazi Right Sector. It has installed several ministers from the political front of the fascists, Svoboda.

The EU and United States’ adventure in Ukraine marks a dramatic tearing up of the non-aggression pact struck with Gorbachev and Yeltsin in the early 1990s. Very much of the nature of an agreement among thieves, this compromise saw both great power blocs agree to guarantee Ukraine’s borders and not to try to draw the country into hostile military alliances. Needless to say, while imperialist investment in Ukraine was concentrated respectively in the East and West, both Russia and the EU-USA bloc tried to promote their own allies and draw Ukraine closer into their orbit.

That Ukraine’s status as a buffer zone could not last indefinitely was shown by the 2004 “Orange revolution”, the USA’s first attempt to decisively alter the balance of influence in favour of the west. Although it was without doubt a phony revolution, it nevertheless did have a major element of a mass movement with sincere democratic aspirations by its participants, characteristics that the Maidan movement almost completely lacked.

The huge political and material support provided to the Maidan leaders was the price western imperialism paid to replace a corrupt, pro-Russian but constitutionally elected, president, with neoliberal nationalists ready to subordinate Ukraine to the demands of the IMF, the European Union and the White House.

No such support was provided to the movement in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a movement which is fighting a regime every bit as corrupt, venal and in league with a foreign imperialist power as that of Viktor Yanukovych. The difference? Bosnia-Herzegovina was long ago subordinated as a semi-colony of the EU and USA through the Dayton Agreement in the mid-1990s.

The scale of US military manoeuvres and the reinstatement of a Cold War-style isolation of Russia are designed to protect the gains the western imperialists have made in this coup. Their intervention represented far more of an “interference in the affairs of a sovereign state” in international law than did the referendum in the Crimea, and they lacked, and lack, the slightest democratic mandate for their actions.

Russia and Crimea
Russia, as an imperialist power, mobilised to defend its strategic interests in the Crimea and to send the message that it would not tolerate destabilisation on its border. That Putin will do this by threatening military invasion, promoting racist Great Russian chauvinism and boosting all sorts of reactionary and corrupt local proxies does not alter the fact that he is responding to a hostile expansion by western imperialism.

Revolutionary socialists are under no illusions about Putin’s professed democratic or humanitarian concern for the Russian speakers in Ukraine and Crimea. His real interests are those of Russia as a great power and himself as a despotic leader able to crush the civil rights of Russians and continue the cruel and genocidal occupation of Chechnya. But the perpetrators of Western interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans, who themselves supported Putin’s bloodbath in Grozny, cannot adopt the moral high ground. All of them are repulsive war criminals.

Nevertheless, we reject both the knee jerk anti-imperialism which says that the actions of imperialist states cannot also coincide temporarily with the interests of the working class and the Third Campism which relates only to an imaginary working class rather than the class and the conditions which prevail.

The surrounding of Ukrainian military bases in Crimea and the sealing of the border with Ukraine did prevent pro-Kyiv forces from behaving as they have done in the West and East, banning demonstrations and violently attacking anti-regime forces [3]. It enabled the referendum to take place.

The referendum itself was demanded by Crimeans in response to the new regime in Kyiv, which threatened to “punish secessionists”. Other towns in the East and South of Ukraine have also demanded autonomy as a measure of self-defence against the new regime, which has appointed pro-regime oligarchs as governors to enforce its writ.

No one has seriously claimed that the referendum did not reflect the desire of a substantial majority of the people of Crimea to join the Russian Federation, at least whilst the present neoliberal-fascist coalition rules in Kyiv.

Those “revolutionaries”, taken in by Ukrainian nationalism, who denounced the referendum as just a Russian imperialist plot, or a vote by “Russian settlers” who have no right to live in the Crimea and no right to decide the future of the peninsula, lack not only an understanding of history but also the basic principles of working class internationalism.

While the referendum was far from meeting democratic standards (a very short campaign, no access to media for its opponents etc.), the pro-Kyiv forces declared in advance that any vote which challenged the unity of Ukraine would be invalid. In short, the opponents of the referendum denied the democratic right of the Crimean population to determine their own future. As such, their claim to represent democracy is plainly a fraud.

While revolutionaries should condemn the mobilisation of Russian troops, as well as instances of pro-Kyiv activists being detained and even “disappeared” by Russian security forces, as actions purely designed to defend the strategic interests of Russian imperialism, it is clear that the overwhelming majority of Crimeans, including many ethnic Ukrainians and Tatars too, voted for federation with Russia.

The high turnout and overwhelming vote plainly represents a vote by the population against being subjected to the nationalist-fascist coalition in Kyiv. This is not only, and not mainly, the result of “Kremlin propaganda”, but a reflection of the undeniable fact that the Kyiv government was installed by a putsch, led by fascists and nationalists, who are extreme Russophobes.

For evidence of this, one does not need to turn to the fascists of the Right Sector, but to the bourgeois leader, Yulia Tymoshenko, lionised in the western media as a martyr persecuted by pro-Russian forces in Ukraine, who said in an intercepted phone call: “One has to take up arms and go wipe out these damn ‘katsaps’ [a derogatory term for Russians] together with their leader.” [4]

The Crimean secession was not the result of a Russian “invasion”, as many claim, but started with the rejection of the illegitimate, fascist-backed government in Kyiv by the mass of ordinary people in the East and, especially, in Crimea. This government, installed with the full material and political backing of western imperialism, was a provocation which in its first actions posed and continues to pose a serious threat to the Russian and Russophone population.

Seeing that the western imperialists would impose no serious limits on the terror mobilised to secure the new regime, the Russophone population, lacking significant working class organisation or self defence capacity, naturally looked to Russia to defend them.

The Tatar Question
The integration of the Crimea into the Russian Federation raises the question of the democratic rights of the Tatar minority, some 12 per cent of the peninsula’s population or 243,000 people. They justifiably fear that the repression at the hands of the Great Russian chauvinist Stalinist bureaucracy stands to be repeated under Putin’s regime, which has itself mobilised reactionary Great Russian chauvinism in its own interests.

It was pro-Kyiv Tatar demonstrations under the nationalist slogan ‘Glory to Ukraine’ [5] – a historic slogan of Stepan Bandera’s ultra-nationalist UIA – that unleashed developments on the streets that led to the independence movement. Just as the Tatars do not regard the prospect of submission to Great Russian chauvinism with enthusiasm, neither did the Russophone majority regard the Tatars demands for subordination to the West Ukrainian chauvinist regime in Kyiv as holding any benefit for them.

Nevertheless, the Tatars’ preference for Ukrainian “protection” is very understandable, given the genocidal treatment they experienced under Stalin in 1944; the deportation of 238,000 to Central Asia in which as many as 100,000 (48 per cent) died. 150,000 descendants of the 1944 deportation still remain in Uzbekistan.  Socialists should stand for the right of all those who wish to return to do so.

On March 18, the Crimean government announced it would require Tatars to abandon land they occupied without legal documents of ownership. The USSR, and post-independence Ukraine, both failed to return land that the Tatars had inhabited before deportation. As a consequence, Crimean Tatars squatted vacant land.

Expulsion from this land would clearly be a tyrannical, racist and oppressive act that should be condemned internationally. On March 29, the Crimean Tatar parliament, the Kurultai, voted for “ethnic and territorial autonomy” by “political and legal” means. However, there was disagreement about whether to seek this autonomy within the Russian Federation or within the Ukrainian state. [6]

How feasible territorial separation would be, given the minority character of Tatars in all districts of the Crimea, is open to debate but, clearly, the fullest right to self-government, use of their language and culture and equality of all other political and social rights is not only democratically justified for them, but is in the interest of Russian and Ukrainian speaking citizens, too. All progressive forces in Crimea, Ukraine and Russia should defend the rights of the Crimean Tatars against all and any form of racism or oppression, wherever it comes from.

Internationalism
Ukrainian revolutionaries should resist all moves to set Ukrainian and Russian speaking citizens at one another’s throats. Working class international solidarity is the only solid foundation for this. Unity can be preserved or restored by opposing all attempts to impose a single ethnic or linguistic “national identity” as the basis of citizenship and all its associated rights. This means rejecting both Great Russian and (West) Ukrainian nationalism.

Socialists should stand resolutely against any dismemberment of Ukraine as a state unless secession is the democratically expressed will of the majority of the population in a given area. It is the right wing nationalists and, even more, the fascists, who will, if they are not checked and defeated, pull Ukraine apart and make it a semi-colony of the West. Many western Ukrainians who have the illusion that life within the EU will be much better than what they experience now, will soon be disillusioned by the savage austerity the Maidan government and its masters in Berlin and Washington are planning for them.

Meanwhile, the Russophone populations of the East and South have every right to resist the imposition of the illegitimate decrees and imposed governors or mayors from Kyiv over their regions and to seek and install de facto autonomy. For this, they will have to build, or extend, self-defence militias and to create democratically elected councils, rooted in the factories and communities.

They should also reject the elections planned for May 25 and counterpose to them the call for elections to a pan-Ukrainian sovereign Constituent Assembly. Elections to this should be under the democratic control of workers and community organisations and defence guards and with the media taken out of the hands of the oligarchs or the state and open to all points of view, apart from those fomenting racism and ethnic hatred.

The elected representatives should be answerable to, and if need be, replaceable by, mass assemblies of their electors. One burning question will be the austerity and privatisation programme being foisted on Ukraine by the EU. Socialists should argue for the re-socialisation of the factories, land and businesses plundered by the oligarchs and the creation of a democratically planned economy. They should also seek links with working class and socialist organisations in Europe and Russia to oppose military escalation and the economic attacks being prepared by IMF bureaucrats. They should call for a Socialist United States of Europe and a socialist federation of central Asian states currently subordinated to Russia.

Notes

[1] Counterpunch; Nuland speech (Youtube)

[2] Victoria Nuland leaked phonecall

[3] Borotba statement on fascist attacks

[4] Yulia Tymoshenko leaked phonecall

[5] Tatar nationalist protests

[6] Tatar parliament votes for autonomy

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