A power vacuum has been created and some very frightening forces could fill it writes Alastair Stephens
It is interesting, in passing, that our rulers want us to think of the event in Ukraine as a “people’s revolution”, but the Arab revolutions had to be immediately rebranded as the more innocuous “spring”.
The spark: the EU deal
The path to Yanukovich’s overthrow began in November when his government suspended negotiations with the EU over an Association Agreement. Some confusion has been introduced by the reporting, so for clarity: negotiations were suspended, not cancelled; and the agreement was only for Association, not to become an EU member. The details of the agreement, and their possible effects on Ukraine, were barely discussed in the media either.
It was, nonetheless, a bad deal. It would commit Ukraine to removing all trade barriers and tariffs against European goods and services, and to bring Ukrainian business laws and regulation in line with the EU’s. This would have the effect of devastating industry, concentrated in the Eastern part of the country.
The money offered by the EU was also comparatively small, some €620m, to be paind in instalments conditional on complete “structural reforms”: in other words, a program of austerity and cuts the same as has been applied to southern Europe.
In return Ukraine gets pretty much nothing. Though many Ukrainians want visa free travel into the European Union, this simply wasn’t on offer, and neither (as the EU was at pains to point out) was membership of the EU itself.
Still, many Ukrainian’s have illusions in Europe, and in the Ukrainian-speaking west of the country Europe is seen as protection against Russia. Russia is the historical oppressor of Ukrainians and though much weakened it is now attempting to reassert itself in the states of the former Soviet Union, including the Ukraine and the Caucasus.
A country divided
Ukrainian speakers are concentrated in the West and North of the country and Russia speakers concentrated in the East and South. The EU has less support in the Russian-speaking east of the country, which is heavily industrialised and closely integrated into the Russian economy over the border. The categories of Ukrainian (speaker) and Russian (speaker) are more fluid than at first seem. The languages are quite close to each other. Many speakers of Ukrainian use Russian in their everyday lives, although the reverse is not generally the case. Kiev is in the North, but is mostly Russian speaking.
Under the Tsarist Empire the Ukrainian language was suppressed, but was encouraged under the early Soviet regime. Language discrimination was once again applied when Stalin came to power in the late 1920s. Ukrainian eventually became the sole national language after Ukraine became independent in 1991, leaving many Russian speakers feeling discriminated against.
In practice, Ukraine (the country) has almost equal numbers of speakers of both languages. It is history that tends to set the two language groups apart, Ukrainian speakers looking back to centuries of Russian oppression and Stalin’s famines of the thirties, during which millions died. Russian speakers tend to remember the “Great Patriotic War” in which Ukrainian nationalists collaborated with the Nazis.
Starting small in Kiev on 21 November 2013, the demonstrations continued for three months. The first escalation was at the end of November, on the 30th, when police tried to clear demonstrators out of Independence Square, brutally beating people. This provoked a massive public reaction that brought hundreds of thousands onto the streets, and saw the establishment of a massive camp in central Kiev. It also saw the large scale intervention of the three opposition parties into the movement and the large scale Western interest.
The next peak came after the government did a deal with Russia to get $15 billion dollars in aid and for cheap gas, which the opposition saw as moving closer to Russia.
Then on 16 January the government passed a set of new laws in an effort to try and stop the protests which caused a new wave of demonstrations, with increasingly violent clashes, and the emergence of the Right Sector, an assortment of far right street fighters who were increasingly instigating and leading street battles with the police.
The government, pushed onto the back foot, started to retreat and look for compromise, whilst also allegedly planning a crackdown, as documents discovered since Yanukovich’s overthrow appear to show.
Then a week ago the most violent clashes up until then erupted when 20,000 led by the Right Sector marched on parliament. In the violence that followed, 26 people died, including 10 policemen. The following days were more violent still, as the police began to use live ammunition. There was an immediate intensification of the crisis, with cities in the west of the Ukraine declaring their independence from Kiev, and western powers talking openly about sanctions. At least 67 have been confirmed killed to date.
An agreement for a cease fire was signed on 20 February, and for new elections to be held. However the deal collapsed almost immediately as demonstrators started to storm more key public buildings. Parliament voted to impeach Yanukvoich who had by then disappeared from the capital. The police and army disappeared from the streets.
The government had fallen, Kiev was in the hands of the demonstrators, and a revolution proclaimed. The Western powers declared their immediate backing for the new government.
Yanukovich fled to the Russian speaking east of the country, which had never significantly supported the demonstrations, and had started to declare its own autonomy from Kiev. Talk of resistance to the new regime petered out, however, as both ordinary people and the oligarchs who dominate Ukrainian politics realised that this would mean civil war. The local leaders decided to wait and see what will happen in Kiev.
The opposition triumphant
The obvious winners are the three opposition leaders. Yulia Tymoshenko, Vitali Klitschko and Oleh Tyahnybok.
The most important of these is Yulia Tymoshenko, who lost the Presidential election to Viktr Yanukovich in 2010, in a vote agreed by international monitors to be free and fair. Her later imprisonment on corruption charges made her something of a martyr, until she was freed last weekend. Tymoshenko leads the pro-Western nationalist Fatherland party, support for which is concentrated in the Ukrainian speaking west of the country. Former boxer Vitali Klitschko, another opposition leader, whose populist party is the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (or more commonly, Vitali Klitschko's Punch) has also emerged strengthened from the demonstrations.
Both are likely to run for President. However, this will remind many of Yulia Tymoshenko’s partnership with Vikto Yushenko in the Orange Revolution of 2004. They fell out almost immediately after coming to power paralysing the government, and allowing Yanukovich to win the next election.
The far right grows
The third winner in the opposition is the leader of the rapidly growing Svoboda (“Freedom”) party, which is a fascist organisation linked to the BNP in Britain and neo-nazis elsewhere in Europe. He has had equal billing with the other opposition leaders throughout the protests and his party has undoubtedly grown out of it. Its activists have also participated in a higher level of violence than any other European fascist party has managed in recent years, with streetfighting an important feature of real mass fascist parties.
Svoboda is also stridently Russophobic (and more quietly racist and antisemitic, though it denies this). Its leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, is on record as denouncing the ”Moscovite-Jewish Mafia that runs Ukraine”, claiming that “Muscovites, Germans and Jews and other scum” want to destroy Ukraine, and calling Ukrainian-born actor Mila Kunis a “dirty Jewess”.
Svoboda has faced competition on its right as an even more violent grouping has emerged as competition: the Right Sector, led by longstanding fascist Dmytro Yarosh. This is a grouping of fascist thugs who have led most of the street fighting against the police, made up of fringe fascist groups and far-right football hooligans. The extent of the influence is debateable, but they are now acting as a pole of attraction. In the latter days of the movement they increasingly forced the pace of the situation and, in storming buildings during talks, may well have prevented the three opposition leaders from reaching a compromise with Yanukovich.
The other group of people who have come out of this well, or at least undamaged, are the oligarchs, the real source of the country’s woes.
Whilst the western television may have loved the pictures of people climbing all over Yanukovich’s country house (does Cameron not have Chequers? Obama not have Camp David?), if they wanted to see real obscene wealth stolen from the Ukrainian people they need not have gone so far. They could have knocked on the door of (one of the many homes of) Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man, at his Chelsea flat. He bought it last year, the most expensive private residence ever sold in Britain, for £136 million.
Unlike Russia, the oligarchs in Ukraine have never been brought under control. They, instead, control the politicians. Yanukovich was the creature of Akhmetov, was raised up by him, and mostly probably fell when his powerful backer withdraw his support.
Akhmetov and the other oligarchs have only one priority - protecting their wealth.
A people's revolution?
There was undoubtedly a large degree of popular support and mobilisation, in Kiev and the west of the country. Polls of Maidan participants suggested that most came from the West of the country. The conditions for the mobilisations are social, created by the poverty of the people, the economic crisis, the corruption of government, and the brutality of the police.
This does not, however, explain everything. If social factors were all that applied, why did the not the movement become nationwide? It is also very clear that half the population, specifically Russian speakers in the east (though most were also against the police violence) did not support a "revolution".
The more the demonstrations went on, the more alienating they became to Russians. The movement started to be suffused with slogans of the Banderites, a wartime fascist movement that collaborated with the Nazis. Reports all agree that the greeting “Glory to Ukraine” “Glory to the heroes” along with slogans like “death to the enemies” have become common in the speech of the demonstrators. The fighters’ shields and helmets are covered with neo-fascist symbols. The television liked to show pictures of women breaking up rocks for the fighters. But this is more problematic if you think that the fighters are the Right Sector.
There do not seem to have been many other forms of protests. Some calls for a general strike amounted to nothing, and workers’ protests were notable by their absence. This is probably unsurprising, as most of the country’s industry is in the Russian-speaking east.
Whether ordinary people now feel empowered by events to challenge the authorities in defence of their own interests remain to be seen, but the right wing leaders of the movement and the fascists will be trying to ensure this does not happen.
The immediate prospects do not look good. A power vacuum has been created and some very frightening forces could fill it.
Already there are reports that members of the Right Sector are moving into positions in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which controls the Police and its own small army, the Internal Troops. The level of right-wing violence on the streets was already rising last year, even before the recent events.
The new government, whoever leads it, is likely to be stridently neo-liberal, determined to finish off the job started in 1991 in destroying the last vestiges of a welfare state. That’s if they don’t all fall out in the bickering, as they did after the Orange Revolution.
The country is dangerously divided, and though the immediate prospect of break up has been avoided, there are powerful tensions pulling at the country. The EU and Nato push to surround Russia is long standing and these events have been seized on this to advance the neo-con strategy of using such mobilisation to achieve regime change, as a later Counterfire essay will argue.
Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.