By KD Tait
On 5 September, six months of fighting between the ultra-nationalist regime in Kiev and the militias of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics was brought to an end by a ceasefire signed in Minsk, Belarus.
On 16 September, the EU and Ukrainian parliaments voted simultaneously to endorse the EU Association Agreement. This free trade deal is the latest step in the social war waged against the people of Ukraine by the IMF and, behind it, European and US capital.
The regime installed by the “Euromaidan” coup in February has plunged Ukraine into barbarism on all fronts; to the East, civil war and ethnic cleansing, to the West, the surrender of Ukraine to EU free marketeers and IMF austerity mongers.
The assault on its own citizens by the Kiev government, using fascist paramilitaries, allowed Russian imperialism to gain a powerful influence over the local resistance forces in the Donetsk and Luhansk republics. With the onset of winter, Ukrainians, East and West alike, face a political, social and economic catastrophe.
Yet, far from the counterrevolution having triumphed, it is in a crisis. This is not only a result of the military resistance of the Donbas. In the West, widespread opposition to military conscription and austerity have frustrated its plans for a quick victory.
The working class of Ukraine faces two imperialist enemies with counter-revolutionary objectives: the USA-EU bloc and Russia. However, their bitter rivalry and unwillingness to negotiate a solution has allowed many local forces, with different political agendas, to emerge on both sides.
The Kiev regime itself is split between war and peace parties. Similarly, the forces in the East are split between those willing to back a Putin agreed settlement and those determined to press on to defeat the Kiev forces. We have also received encouraging reports from leftists involved in opposition to the Kiev regime of moves to reconstitute an independent working class and communist political movement drawn from the thousands of workers radicalised by the struggle against fascism and against any attempts by the imperialist powers to dismember Ukraine.
Kiev talks peace, prepares for war
Poroshenko was obliged to sign the Minsk ceasefire deal from a position of weakness because his forces besieging Donetsk were defeated and were about to lose control of Mariupol. While the ceasefire prevented a total rout, he had to concede many of the demands of the anti-Maidan resistance. These included autonomy for all Ukraine’s regions, a military buffer zone, and the recognition of local self-defence forces. Although the deal only grants federalisation for three years, these are essentially the issues over which the ultra-nationalists and fascists who seized power in February started a civil war. Moreover, fighting continues in certain highly contested areas.
To date, some 3,000 people have been killed and more than 6,000 wounded. The Kiev regime is refusing to recognise 260,000 internally displaced citizens as refugees, so they have no access to welfare or housing etc. Nearly one million have fled to Russia.
Those leftists, who insisted that the Euromaidan was an anti-oligarchic, democratic revolution, have been refuted in the most undeniable fashion. The neoliberal-fascist government of Yatsenyuk-Turchynov, far from carrying through a “bourgeois-democratic” revolution, has brought Ukraine decisively into the orbit of western imperialism.
The IMF’s “bold economic programme” for Ukraine was elaborated before the start of the “anti-terrorist operation”, though the prior restoration of order in the East was demanded by its framers. In exchange for a $17billion bailout, the Ukrainian government is implementing a violent shock therapy surpassed only by that imposed on Russia during the restoration of capitalism. This includes the destruction of the remnants of social security and welfare that is the legacy of the overthrow of capitalism in 1917-21.
The IMF measures are designed to reduce the government’s “fiscal deficit”, that is, the difference between revenue and expenditure. However, quite apart from the added burden of the war, Ukraine’s economy was never in any state to bear this burden. The IMF now forecasts a decline of at least 6.5 per cent in GDP, and possibly as much as 10 per cent.
According to Poroshenko, the war is costing $6million per day. He used the occasion of the military parade on Independence Day to announce a further $3billion in additional military spending. The IMF now predicts that Ukraine will need an additional $19 billion in emergency support over the next 16 months.
The Kiev government has already slashed the value of pensions and public sector pay and frozen the minimum wage. Retail sales have plummeted by nearly 20 per cent since January, while inflation, now running at 14 per cent, is set to reach 20 per cent by January.
As a result of its forced decoupling from the dollar, the national currency, the hryvnia, has lost 43 per cent of its value, leading to a massive hike in the cost of repayments of dollar-denominated debts, both consumer and commercial.
The central plank of the IMF program is “reform” of the energy sector, including the privatisation of the national grid. This will directly benefit the owners of the industries who looted them following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Natural gas tariffs are to be hiked by 56 per cent and heating by 40 per cent in 2014. Annual rises of between 20 and 40 per cent are mandated from 2015 to 2017.
Gas subsidies will be ended completely over the next two years. The impact of this on the country’s inefficient soviet-era mines and factories, particularly in the Donbas region, are as predictable as they will be devastating.
Quite apart from all the other measures, the single question of the ending of gas subsidies is effectively a death sentence for the heavy industries of the Donbas. While it may be a bitter pill for the oligarchs who invested there, it is completely unacceptable for the millions of workers whose livelihoods depend on them.
Given that around 42 per cent of Ukrainian electricity is derived from coal-powered plants, the government has prepared a disaster in a country where winter temperatures regularly plummet to -20°C. The currency collapse has led to a 19 per cent decline in the value of exports and contributed to a steep decline in production and rising prices.
The pursuit of EU integration has also forced the disruption of industrial production, which was oriented to Russia and the Eurasian Customs Union, by far Ukraine’s biggest trading partner. The year on year figures for August speak for themselves. Output has declined in coal mining by 60.4 per cent, in machine building by 31 per cent, in metallurgy by 30 per cent and in industrial production by 21.4 per cent. In the industrialised Donbas region, July’s year on year industrial output was down 29 per cent in Donetsk and 56 per cent in Luhansk.
Russia’s economic interests in Ukraine are no secret and run a close second to geo-strategic concerns in explaining its intervention in the conflict. The legacy of the Soviet plan left heavy, extractive and military-high tech industry linked to Russia by a thousand threads; threads that a resurgent imperialist Russia did not hesitate to exploit and is unwilling to surrender. Russian companies own significant sections of Ukraine’s communications, power, real estate and steel industries, along with around one seventh of the banking sector. It is certain that nothing on offer from the EU can possibly replace all this.
The closure or relocation of many of these enterprises, and the drying up of capital investment, is already provoking severe shocks. Kherson, one of the largest manufacturers, has entered bankruptcy proceedings. The high profile carmaker, ZAZ, has ceased operations. Even capital located in the West is not safe; the LAZ bus manufacturer, based in Lviv, has also stopped production. This follows the pattern set in Romania, Hungary and the Baltic States, which could not compete with European rivals after access to the Russian market was curtailed.
Yet the supposed “compensations”, free movement of labour into the EU and access to its regional redistributive funding, are not on offer to Ukraine, at least in the short term. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s economic independence, which might previously have enabled it to alleviate its economic problems, has been surrendered to the IMF. When the IMF commands, Kiev must obey. Not for nothing did Yatsenyuk claim his government would be a “government of political suicides”. Given the disastrous course embarked on, it is no surprise that the Free Trade aspects of the EU Association Agreement were postponed to the end of 2015 as a measure to protect Ukrainian economy.
Poroshenko’s regime is undermining itself by the dogged pursuit of the IMF’s economic programme and military conscription. Of the so-called “progressive Maidan” there is no sign. The regime is forced to rely ever more directly on the ultra-reactionary forces at the core of the anti-Yanukovych mobilisations in early 2014. This is expressed by the proposal for “social-lustration”, that is a purge of officials linked to the former regime, as demanded by the fascists.
Up to one million people will be subject to “screening”, including all those who worked under former president Yanukovych, former Communist Party and KGB officials and civil servants, as well as the staff of the prosecutor’s office, intelligence services, interior ministry and the cabinet of ministers. Generously, this does not include the President. Poroshenko himself not only served under Yanukovych but helped found his Party of the Regions.
Such a widespread purge is obviously unpopular amongst the wide layers of ordinary workers who will be affected. However, it also threatens to cut a swathe through the political class, all factions of which are thoroughly corrupt and stand to lose. Except, that is, those in the ruling wing. This unpopular law was blocked several times and was only passed after the Speaker of parliament, Oleksandr Turchynov, under pressure from the far right who mobbed MPs outside the parliament building, ruled that he would not prorogue the session until the law was passed.
The corollary to the integration of the fascists into the repressive apparatus of the state is the sharp rise in attacks on oppositionists across the country. The most high profile case has been the state repression of the Communist Party of Ukraine (KPU), which had 32 deputies representing 13 per cent of the vote. After its parliamentary fraction was dissolved on 24 July, the General Prosecutor of Ukraine found the party guilty of “financing terrorism”, that is, supporting the resistance movement in the Donbas and the secession of Crimea.
Throughout the summer, members of the KPU have been subject to harassment, arrest, kidnapping and extra-judicial murder. Vyacheslav Mikhailovich Kovshun, secretary of the Luzhky village party organisation, was tortured to death at a National Guard checkpoint on 22 June.
Even parliamentary deputies are not immune from harassment. Opponents beat up the Communist Party leader, Petro Symonenko, in the parliamentary chamber. When Elena Bondarenko, a Party of Regions deputy, condemned the war and called for a minute’s silence to commemorate victims, the Speaker, Turchynov, turned off her microphone and demanded she “kneel before the Ukrainian Army”. Radical Party leader Oleh Lyashko then jumped up and demanded she be sent to the front and shot as a traitor.
On September 11, after a sustained campaign of intimidation, the Security Services of Ukraine (SBU) raided the offices of the oppositional Vesti newspaper and seized computers, files and records. On September 18, fascists violently broke up a demonstration against the war and price rises in Kharkov.
The communist organisation Borotba (Struggle) has been subject to a campaign of fascist and state intimidation with its offices in Kiev and Kharkov raided and closed down. Fascists murdered Andrey Brazhevskey, a 21-year-old Borotba member, during the Odessa Massacre on 2 May. Vlad Wojciechowski, from Odessa, is their latest member to be arrested. After being injured during the 2 May attack, he was arrested and spent several weeks in prison. During the night of 12 September, he was arrested along with two members of the KPU and Communist Youth by the SBU and Nazi paramilitaries who planted “evidence” in his home. After a confession extracted under torture, he faces 8 to 15 years in prison on charges of “terrorism”.
The Yatsenyuk government, formed on 27 February, was an unstable coalition of nationalists from the Fatherland Front, the neoliberal UDAR party and the fascist Svoboda party. The coalition collapsed on 24 July with the withdrawal of the UDAR and Svoboda factions. Although Yatsenyuk’s resignation was rejected, he denounced the collapse of the coalition as an act of opportunism by parties unwilling to take the blame for passing the austerity programme necessary to fund the war.
On 25 August, Poroshenko called a snap election for 26 October. The political manoeuvres have begun in earnest with the formation of the so-called “People’s Front”, headed by Yatsenyuk and Oleksandr Turchynov, an open alliance between nationalists and fascists.
The party’s liberal bourgeois-democratic façade is undermined by its “Military Council”, headed by leaders of various “volunteer battalions” currently conducting punitive pillaging across east Ukraine. It includes Andriy Parubiy, noted fascist and founder of the neo-Nazi Social National Party (now Svoboda), Andriy Biletskiy, commander of the openly fascist Azov battalion and leader of the neo-Nazi Patriots of Ukraine and the Social-National Assembly, as well as commanders of the fascist Aidar volunteer battalion and the Kyiv-1, Dnipro-1, and various other National Guard battalions. Its Political Council includes Tatyana Chornovol, former member of the neo-Nazi UNA-UNSO and widow of the fascist Nikolai Berezov, a platoon commander of the Azov battalion killed during the liberation of Ilovaisk by self-defence forces.
The People’s Front will challenge Poroshenko’s party at the October polls.
The rest of the political spectrum is dominated by such reactionaries as Yulia Tymoshenko, who suggested solving the “Eastern problem” by “nuking the katsaps”, the oligarch, Ihor Kolomoisky, who bankrolls his own private army the Dnipro-1 battalion and organised the attack on the Russian embassy in Kiev, or Oleh Lyashko, leader of the far-right Radical Party, who commanded his personal militia in the east and operated as a law unto himself, kidnapping people, interrogating them and recording it all on camera as part of his presidential election campaign in which he came third, with 8 per cent of the vote. Members of the neo-Nazi Social-National Assembly were elected to the Kiev city council on Lyashko’s Radical Party list.
The elections will be a parody of democracy. The banning of the Communist Party, and the imposition of a reign of terror by fascist paramilitaries occupying the eastern regions, will no doubt deliver the desired result. For these reasons we agree with the call by Ukrainian Marxist organisation Borotba to boycott the elections which “held in the midst of a bloody civil war and genuine right-wing dictatorship, will have no legitimacy for most people of Ukraine”.
The evolution of popular resistance to the Kiev regime’s attempt to seize control of the cities in the East into a civil war is a crucial factor determining the dynamic of future class struggle in Ukraine.
For six months, the people of East Ukraine defended Donetsk and Luhansk against the furious assault of pro-government forces, spearheaded by neo-Nazi storm troopers. The frontline has seen the largest military operations in Europe since the Second World War. The punitive operations and martial law imposed in the occupied areas have led to a rise in separatist sentiment, which was previously a minority current.
Russia undoubtedly exercised a significant influence over the People’s Republics through its control of the “military surplus store” and supply of humanitarian aid. Nevertheless, the character of the movement in the Donbas as a genuinely popular resistance has so far thwarted Russia’s attempts to negotiate a solution to the crisis that is acceptable to both Moscow and Kiev. Putin’s goal is not to annex “Novorissiya”, as he annexed Crimea, but rather to reach a deal with Poroschenko and the West, which will let him keep Crimea and prevent a total western takeover of Ukraine. Clearly, too, he wants to lift the economic blockade being built around his country.
The emergence of an armed civilian resistance movement, which, despite its contradictory character, expressed clearly anti-oligarchic, anti-fascist and democratic demands, was an unwanted and unpleasant headache for the Putin regime.
It was especially awkward because the people of Donbas, who have deep roots, not only culturally and historically but through family and economy in Russia, appealed to the Russian regime to aid them in their struggle. Putin, having cast himself in previous conflicts as the defender of Russians in the near-abroad could not abandon them without great cost to his own personal standing.
Equally, however, he had no intention of allowing the development of a militant and armed working class on his doorstep. That might act as an encouragement to popular opposition to the oligarchs in Russia. His first attempt to resolve this difficulty was to offer to surrender Donetsk in return for Russian control of Crimea. This was the purpose of the June ceasefire. Unfortunately, for him, both the self-defence forces and the fascist militias had other ideas. Led by Igor Strelkov, the Donbas militias retreated from Slavyansk and organised the defence of Donetsk, overthrowing those leaders who were preparing to surrender the city. Putin only managed to regain some control of the situation by using the threat to cut off the flow of supplies to Donetsk and Luhansk and to remove Strelkov and impose more compliant figures on the Novorussian leadership.
The Russian control of the People’s Republics, exercised through the “military surplus stores”, clearly had a decisive impact on limiting the ambitions of those sections of the separatist leadership who had ambitions grander than Putin’s. However, the resistance to the Kiev regime cannot be reduced to the political programme (such as it is) of the unstable constellation of separatists, opportunists, workers’ representatives and agents of Russian imperialism and Ukrainian oligarchs, who make up the leadership of the DPR and LPR.
Socialists’ support for the resistance is not based on its military leaders, whose contradictory statements are often coloured by Great Russian chauvinism and separatism. They are leaders because of their military skills and the resources they can bring, not because they express the objectives of the people defending the barricades of Luhansk, Donetsk, and dozens of towns and villages across the region. Their consciousness reflects far more the working class identification with their region as a population of immigrants from various parts of the former USSR and with nostalgia for its relative economic security and welfare, plus the legacy of the antifascist struggle against the Nazi occupation.
It was absolutely legitimate for the people to defend themselves against the attacks of the Kiev regime and the fascist gangs it sent into the cities of the East, however critical we might be of the symbols under which they first fought. The Russian flags were appeals to Russia to help them; when it refused to intervene decisively, these flags disappeared and were replaced by others.
Leadership within the “peoples’ republics”, however, was soon seized by a variety of nationalists, representatives of workers and sheer political opportunists. The opportunists were able to maintain their influence through their links to Moscow and to certain eastern oligarchs, particularly Rinat Akhmetov.
Because the working class has no sizeable political organisation of its own, independent of the oligarchs, it was not able to assert itself in the initial stages, although the mass demonstrations of workers against the war showed that it was no atomised social force or neutral observer. Nevertheless, the mobilisation of tens of thousands of local workers into popular militias has created its own dynamic. People are not only willing to fight to defend themselves against fascist attacks but equally to fight to prevent a return to the old conditions of economic misery and exploitation. They want radical change.
This is expressed in reports of the creation of a new communist organisation that includes former members of the KPU and of revolutionary organisations and communists radicalised in the course of the military and social struggle against the Kiev regime and the interference of Russian imperialism and Russian chauvinists.
The task for socialists in the imperialist countries is to organise against Nato’s new cold war and against the support of their governments for the Kiev regime’s military offensive and austerity programme. It is also their duty to give as much support as possible to the emergence of a political party, based on working class independence, appealing to workers right across Ukraine. By loyal criticism and discussion, we hope we can help it to develop a programme not for “people’s power” or a “people’s republic” but for workers’ power, workers’ council democracy and socialism.