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The mass movement in Eastern Ukraine: an eyewitness report

By Franz Ickstatt, Gruppe Arbeitermacht, German section of the League for a Fifth International

In the German media, the protest movement in the south and east of Ukraine is presented only as disturbances manipulated by Moscow as an excuse for the Russian aggressor to put more pressure on the struggle for an independent Ukraine and perhaps to prepare for new annexations. Like all the propaganda in the media, this picture is painfully cheap and tendentious. Questions are raised about Putin sending agitators to Ukraine – but Germany and the USA do that all the time. What is the difference between waving Russian flags in Kharkov and waving EU flags in Kiev’s Maidan Square?

All the same, just as it is not enough to see the Maidan movement as only the plaything of Western imperialists and their paid politicians, boxers and NGOs, so the same goes for the protest movement in the south and east of Ukraine. For communists, there are always two questions that are important: first, what issues are mobilising the people and, secondly, who is leading and controlling the movement? The League for the Fifth International sent comrades from its German section to Ukraine to get a clearer picture of what is happening, and to give solidarity and support to the comrades of the organisation “Borotba” (Struggle). Here is their first report.

Kharkov

Kharkov is the second largest city in the country, it is an industrial city based on engineering. Russian is the most widely spoken language but that does not mean that people see themselves as Russians.

The situation changed there only after the overthrow of the government in Kiev. On March 1, supporters of the new government seized the buildings of the regional administration in the centre of Kharkov. Tens of thousands of citizens opposed this. They stormed the building and themselves through the occupiers out, amongst them fascists from the “Right Sector”.

Since then, there have been demonstrations and meetings every weekend although, since 15 March, these have been forbidden. The “Democrats” of Kiev not only removed the local Governor but also arrested the Mayor. They were accused of separatism after they organised a conference in support of greater autonomy for the eastern regions. The new Governor has now criminalised all protests.

That, of course, did nothing to reduce the fears of the population about the fascists in Kiev, quite the contrary. There are many grounds for the rejection of the “junta of oligarchs and fascists”, as Borotba describes it. Prices are to be raised while wages and pensions are frozen; the right to speak your own language is to be reduced, the Nazi party “Svoboda” is in the government and the storm troops of the “Right Sector” seem to have been given a free hand.

These are all real facts even if it would be an exaggeration to liken the situation to the invasion by the Nazis. The government is anything but stable and the fascists have the upper hand, but they are a long way yet from having won. Nonetheless, they are already murdering people.

Fascist attacks

In Kharkov, as well as the demonstrations and meetings, there is a permanent guard around the Lenin Memorial that stands directly opposite the regional administration building, the other side of a big square which is also called Maidan, “Independence Square”. On March 8, after the public meeting, this guard was attacked by a group of Nazis who arrived in the square in a VW bus with dark tinted windows and out-of-town registration plates. Although baseball bats and guns were used, the skirmish did not last long.

However, when the same thing happened on Friday, 14 March, the attackers were chased away and followed to their office by young members of the “Defence Committee” which had been formed after March 1. From there, the Nazis opened fire with handguns and automatic weapons. Two young people were killed and several others, including passers-by and a policeman, were injured.

At last the new Governor had to react; the members of the Right Sector were arrested and transported to Kiev. It seems unlikely that they will face any punishment, however, as the new Governor explained the situation as an incident in which “nationally minded citizens were attacked by pro-Russian thugs”.

Mass meetings

On March 15, “Borotba” and the “People’s Unity” an alliance of “Borotba”, several “committees for the defence of Kharkov” and other groups of activists, called a public meeting. Some groups called for a referendum and began collecting signatures. Their goal was not separation but greater autonomy and the right to use their mother tongue. However, it remained unclear who was intended to hold this referendum.

At the meeting, “Borotba” emphasised the struggle against the oligarchs and capitalism, their red flags dominated the assembly and their newspaper, “Front” was read by everyone, with many people offering to help with its distribution. Apart from a few little paper pennants, there were no Russian flags to see, a Ukrainian flag was unfurled and there were also the brown and yellow striped flags of the antifascist resistance. However, there was a constant chanting for “Russia, Russia”.

If Putin had bussed in demonstrators, he could have saved himself the trouble, the chant was so popular. The comrades of “Borotba” did not join in but could not stop the chorus. What is behind this? From talking to people there seemed to be a mixture of nostalgia for the Soviet Union, often combined amongst older people with memories of the struggle against the Nazis, a sense of a Russian-speaking identity within Ukraine which also expressed itself in the emphasis on the “South-East”, that is, the Russian speaking part of the country, and, thirdly, the hope that the Russian heavyweight will deter those holding power in Kiev from attacking. Those in favour of unification with Russia were a tiny minority, when people emphasised the identity of the “South-East” they were talking of Ukraine.

How chauvinistic is this Russophile tendency, this emphasis on the South-East, the slogan “Kharkov, our city, our fortress” (a placard, in Ukrainian!) and “Kharkov ahead” (probably taken up from football fans)? I tested this by calling for international solidarity between peoples. The applause and support was phenomenal. If the labour movement and the left across Europe were in a better condition and could offer more concrete help to the working class of Ukraine, the hopes of the masses in Putin would be unnecessary, and probably marginal.

The former Mayor of Kiev, who was imprisoned and later freed by the new regime, also wanted to speak. Just three days before, thousands had demanded his release. In the meantime he had, apparently, made a deal with Kiev. An alleged criminal affair, with which the new interior minister had tried to put him under pressure, so it is said, will not now be pursued. Whatever the rumours, he now explained to the demonstrators that they should return to their homes and that demonstrating would serve no purpose. “Shame! Shame!” was the immediate response. He then had to leave the podium and make a hurried exit in his SUV.

On the Sunday, there were other forces at the meeting; the Communist Party, and a split from it, the “Workers’ Party”, whose flags are the same. Both limited themselves to nostalgia; “Our homeland is the Soviet Union!” and old flags. There were quite a few Russian flags to be seen and even aTsarist one. Two men distributed pan-Slavic propaganda. The former governing party, “the Party of the Regions” was nowhere to be seen and nor were any bourgeois parties. One old woman bravely held up a hand written placard, “Yanukovych save us!”- a hope that is about as realistic as those of many Lefts who think the new government in Kiev stands for democratisation and self-determination. The comrades of “Borotba” had a harder time than the day before. There were several thousands on the square and many loudspeakers competing with each other. Clearly, no party had the leadership.

Borotba

The left group has, nonetheless, done outstandingly well in Kharkov in the first two weeks of March, and it also seems to have done well in Odessa where an MP of the Communist party has joined them. The organisation has only existed for a few years, its members came from the Communist Youth organisation (Komsomol) as well as from anarchist and other groups. The basis for their unification was an emphasis on activism, solidarity with workers’ struggles and anti-fascism.

Borotba opposed the Maidan movement from the beginning and correctly saw it as under the control of the oligarchs and the bourgeois parties. They found it impossible to organise within the movement. Although they warned of the danger of fascism and civil war, they had no alternative at the level of action.

After their office in Kiev was ransacked, many of their members moved to towns in the east and south. In Kharkov, they were able to base themselves on the preparatory work already done there by the local branch. In the first two weeks of March, an “Action Alliance” that calls itself “People’s Unity” was formed around Borotba and now meets most evenings in its office. The lists of contact addresses are difficult to manage because of the number of new activists appearing every day.

That “the people are mobilising themselves” is a new experience for the group. This is also an important experience for a group like our own, which generally has to prioritise the preparation and distribution of propaganda. In certain situations, the emphasis has to be, and can be, placed on organisation and action because there are effectively no other political organisations to give a lead to the people. This is a hard test for any group in terms of their assessment of the situation, their political orientation and their political and organisational cohesiveness.

Perspectives

Ukraine in 2014 is no playground. The country is economically on its knees and politically divided. Can the new government stay in office? Is there a threat of civil war? How can the working class intervene in the developing situation, as a class and not just as individuals? Strikes, factory committees, workers’ councils? Could they not even take power, if they could overcome their passivity?

For its part, the bourgeoisie is divided and not at all strong, otherwise they would not have to depend on the fascists. The spontaneous formation of “defence committees” shows that sections of the class understand what is going on. They are putting into practice what many socialists in Germany do not even dare to write into their programmes. However, defence committees alone cannot win the struggle, for victory, a revolutionary party is necessary.

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