The movement in Ukraine that brought down the former president, Viktor Yanukovich, at the weekend has not fitted into some stereotypes used by people in western Europe, including socialists and left wingers. Having spent the last few days in Kyiv, I offer the following answers to questions that friends in western Europe frequently ask.
Question: Has there been a right-wing coup?
Gabriel: No, there has not. The new government will include some nasty right-wing people. How nasty they can get, only time will tell. But it’s difficult to imagine that they could take repressive measures more
monstrous than those Yanukovich and co. used in the last few months (sniper fire into crowds, other types of murder, torture of activists, unbridled use of paid thugs, and so on).
In any case, the government’s potentially dangerous right-wing colouring is one thing; the character of the movement that paved the way for it is another. Two important points, to my mind, are (1) this was a mass movement embracing wide swathes of the population; and (2) the strength of right-wing populism, and the presence of fascists, is due mainly to the crisis of the left – which is an international problem, not a Ukrainian one.
The occupation at Maidan (= Maidan Nezalezhnosti, = Independence Square) mushroomed into a mass movement not so much in response to Yanukovich’s failure to sign an association agreement with the European Commission as in response to police brutality.
Oleksandr Turchinov, speaker of parliament and acting president, said on Monday 24 February that “the priority is to return to the path of European integration, the struggle for which Maidan was started”. That’s rewriting history – already! Yanukovich’s failure to sign the agreement with Brussels brought on to Maidan only about 400 students. What enraged much of Kyiv was the brutality with which those 400 were attacked by the Berkut riot police late on 30 November last year. The next day, Maidan (also the venue for mass demonstrations during the so-called “Orange revolution” of 2004) was filled with tens of thousands of people. A middle-aged, middle-class acquaintance, whose own children are at university, said to me this week: “If they [Yanukovich and co.] hadn’t attacked those kids, the whole thing would never have got going. It was their own stupid fault.”
The make-up and motivation of the crowd on Maidan was complicated. I wasn’t there so I can only relay impressions from friends and comrades. Almost everyone I talked to seemed to agree that a gigantic proportion of Kyiv’s population (the young and the old, the rich, the middle-class and the workers) was there at one time or another; that motivations varied widely, but removal of Yanukovich became an all-embracing theme, especially after 16 January when he tried to push through laws to limit drastically the right to protest; and that putting an end to corruption in politics – which means different things to different people – was an issue. Various kinds of patriotism and nationalism, including the most reactionary, were there in abundance; social issues seemed not to be at the forefront. Among analyses published by Ukrainian leftists in English, this interview with a member of the Autonomous Workers Union considers Maidan’s politics in the most detail. LINK
The crowd was independent of its “leaders”, and that was crucial in Yanukovich’s final days.
►On bloody Thursday, 20 February, snipers opened fire on Maidan and, unbelievably – despite dozens of deaths – the crowd stayed firm. (A well-off acquaintance of mine, who had never been on a demonstration in his life before November, said: “Many people in Kyiv, me included, who couldn’t spend all our time on the square, would go there whenever Maidan was under attack. That happened on Thursday.”)
►On Friday 21 February, the three opposition leaders – Vitalii Klitschko (boxer turned leader of the Udar (= Punch) party), Arseny Yatseniuk (neo-liberal economist, of former prime minister Yulia Timoshenko’s Batkyvshchina party) and Oleh Tiahnybok (leader of the right wing populist Svoboda party) – negotiated a compromise with Yanukovich: presidential elections in December and return of the 2004 constitution (i.e. less power for the president and more for parliament). The talks also involved European foreign ministers, including Pavel Sikorski of Poland who was caught on camera warning Klitschko: “If you don’t support this, you’ll have martial law, the army, you’ll all be dead.”
► Klitschko went to the square to ask the crowd to endorse the deal. An activist from the self-defence force grabbed the microphone and said no. If Yanukovich did not leave by the morning, the crowd should go and get him. The crowd roared its approval – and at that point Yanukovich lost his nerve. By Saturday morning 22 February he had abandoned the presidential administration and his obscene dacha at Mezhigorye. By Sunday 23 February Aleksandr Efremov, leader of the Party of Regions (Yanukovich’s party) in parliament, was declaring him a “traitor”. Among Yanukovich’s piles of riches were found documents showing that he had considered an “anti-terrorist operation” using 2500 troops, which could have multiplied the number of victims many times over.
What did for Yanukovich was the crowd’s refusal to move.
Q. Was this a revolution, then?
G. I heard different views on this from Ukrainian friends and comrades. Of course, it depends what is meant by “revolution”. To my mind a revolution involves a collapse or radical overhaul, not just of government but of state structures – the bureaucratic apparatus, armed forces, and the rest. In Ukraine, these structures are holding together, but only just. A decisive element in Yanukovich’s downfall was the declarations at various times last week by various police, army and security services chiefs that they would not move against the protesters. On Friday-Saturday 21-22 February, parliament played fast and loose with the constitution: it effectively usurped the president’s powers, deciding e.g. to free Yulia Timoshenko from jail and to call new elections. Structures were strained, but not destroyed.
Another element in revolution is surely a successful challenge to state power, by a mass movement, outside the usual political processes. This certainly happened – although the state’s armed forces surrendered after the cowardly murders on the square, rather than being defeated in battle.
On the other hand, the Marxist understanding of revolution assumes change not only to the political system, but to the social and economic order. That, clearly, has not happened.
So I suppose my answer is more “no” than “yes”. But the important thing is to understand the substance, not to try fitting it to pre-conceived definitions.
Q. What part have right wing populists and fascists played?
G. The right wing and fascists are, numerically, a small minority in a broad popular movement. But they can not be ignored. And for Ukraine’s left wing, their threatening presence is a problem that will not go away.
The populist right wing party Svoboda (= Freedom) – which is aggressively nationalist, homophobic, and received about 10.5% of the vote in the parliamentary elections of 2012 – was prominent on Maidan. So was the Right Sector, an alliance of nationalists, including the most prominent organisation, Trizub (= Trident, the group of Dmitry Yarosh, Right Sector’s leader), racists such as Belyi Molot (= White Hammer), UNA-UNSO (Ukrainian National Assembly-Ukrainian National Self Defence) and other extreme right and fascist groups.
Right Sector took shape on Maidan as a fighting force, and formed branches in western Ukraine. As soon as its leaders started talking about turning it into a political party, tension grew been them and Svoboda’s leaders, since they could appeal to the same voters. Some Ukrainian comrades describe all these groups as “Nazis”, and I don’t think that’s an adequate term of analysis; it obscures significant differences between them. (Some more details in an interview with an a left wing activist here and an interview with anti-fascists who were on the square here.)
The Right Sector, and/or gangs associated with them, have assaulted and threatened leftists and trades unionists in the Maidan crowd. A tent put up by the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine, the main independent union federation, was attacked by a gang carrying knives. Such violence is the contination of a series of attacks on left-wing gatherings in Ukraine that has run parallel with Svoboda’s growth over the past couple of years.
This highlights another issue – that although hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of leftists (including socialists, anarchists and others, and trade union activists) participated in Maidan, attempts to do so in a high-profile or organised way mostly failed. Some socialists were heavily involved in initiatives such as medical support, and in anti-Yanukovich student strikes. But attempts to form a Left Sector, and to form an anarchist fighting group on the square, were both abandoned due to threats from the right.
For those active in the workers’ movement and left wing groups in Ukraine, this is an urgent practical problem. Rather than trying to gauge the strength of fascist or right-wing organisations according to prejudices about Ukrainian nationalism, let’s focus on concrete incidents, and make sure that we support our friends and comrades. My practical proposal would be that attacks are systematically monitored, so that our discussions can be informed by good information.
Note: apart from attacks on anti-Yanukovich leftists, there have also been widespread attacks on members of, and property of, the Communist Party of Ukraine. But this post-Stalinist organisation was on the other side of the barricades. It notoriously voted in favour of the anti-protest laws of 16 January, the introduction of which produced a big upsurge in the movement. It has long supported Yanukovich in parliament on a range of issues, and on Monday announced that it was moving into opposition together with the Party of Regions. (See also this appeal to the European left.)
Q: The fascists and extreme nationalists are not the only ones organising self-defence groups, are they?
G. Certainly not. The Right Sector was substantially outnumbered by the Maidan self-defence units that owed allegiance to the “Civic Council of Maidan”, formed as the would-be voice of the demonstrations by human rights activists, NGOs and aspiring politicians (real, current politicians were not welcome). The Maidan self-defence units and Right Sector fought side by side against the riot police. While the state forces had most of the armed force, but not a monopoly. Of an estimated 82 killed last week, 10 were policemen. In the middle of last week there were about 250 policemen in hospital with gunshot wounds, in addition to 350 protesters.
In the days after Yanukovich’s downfall, the police largely disappeared from the streets of Kyiv and other cities. An agreement was reached in Kyiv that police and Maidan self-defence groups would patrol jointly. Self-defence groups sprang up across the country, most armed with sticks, baseball bats and ski masks, some with firearms. Some are coordinated by Maidan or the Right Sector; some organised by local residents in response to fears of the breakdown of law and order; some are little more than self-appointed gangs of young men, playing by their own rules.
It is not clear how this will play out. One friend told me that a newly-formed neighbourhood defence group in the huge housing estate in which he lives, on the edge of Kyiv, is disciplined and expertly coordinated with internet-based technology. At the height of the conflict it erected a block on the main road to Kyiv to obstruct pro-Yanukovich forces; over the weekend, it patrolled police-free streets. My friend described a reasonable level of community coherence. But I heard and read reports of other armed groups apparently not underpinned by such collectivity.
On Monday 24 February, a small picket – of about 20 people, mostly radical leftists – was held outside the Russian embassy, to support the 6 May prisoners who were that day sentenced to terms of between two-and-a-half and four years for their part in anti-Putin demonstrations in Moscow. (See more about them here.) It was interesting to see the response from Maidan.
A self-defence unit of about ten men stayed throughout. Their representative addressed the pickets, and said they wanted to protect the embassy from provocation. My leftist friends thought such a danger – that, in response to Russian government support for Yanukovich, Ukrainian protesters might use the picket as a pretext to attack the embassy – was real, and that the self-defence units’ reasoning was logical. Half-way through the hour-long picket, a less friendly-looking group –Svoboda supporters, apparently – arrived. The self-defence group talked to them, and they remained passive onlookers. I wondered what was going on in their minds: one of their perceived enemies, the left, was up against another, Russia.
Q. And how might things evolve politically, from here?
G. The opposition is putting together a government that will head a weak state at a time of mounting economic crisis. It’s hard to see how the political forces in the opposition will be able to work together. Even within the largest party, Batkyvshchina, there are deep differences: Yatseniuk, proposed on Wednesday 26 February as prime minister, has bought into the neo-liberal agenda that implies opening up Ukraine’s economy to a heavy pounding (“making it competitive internationally”). Timoshenko’s modus operandi, by contrast, is to cut deals with Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs (politically powerful businessmen); she is one of them, having accumulated a huge fortune in the gas sector in the 1990s.
Even if neo-liberal dogmatists and oligarchical interest groups can reach compromises, they still have to deal with Ukraine’s working-class people. The impact of the 2008-09 economic crisis, in terms of unemployment and inflation, has been partly cushioned by public sector wages and pensions, that have risen in line with inflation, and relatively cheap municipal services (housing, gas, electricity, etc) and welfare, that no Ukrainian government – neither Yanukovich and his allies (2004-05, 2006-07 and since 2010) nor Timoshenko and co (2005 and 2007-10) – have dared to cut. Udar and Svoboda, Batkyvshchina’s likely partners in government, have both won votes by railing against cuts, as well as against corruption in government.
Squaring this circle won’t be easy for the new government, my leftist friends in Kyiv said. Tensions could also open up between Svoboda and the extreme nationalists of the Right Sector. My own view is that Ukrainian governments can not for ever put off turning the screws on people’s living standards. Battles over this could open up spaces for working-class action and left activity, and not only for the right
Some leftists see a serious danger that right wing and fascist groups may merge with state structures. They fear that the radical right street fighters, who are today operating joint patrols with police, could tomorrow get uniforms and (legal) weapons. Proposed government appointments seem to justify such fears. On Wednesday 26 February, it was reported that Andrei Parubi, who headed the Maidan self-defence force, would take over Ukraine’s Council of National Defence, and that Yarosh of Right Sector would be one of his two deputies.
Parliament has appointed Arsen Avakov, former governor of Kharkiv, as internal affairs minister; Valentin Nalivaichenko of Udar to head the SBU security service; and Oleg Makhnitsky of Svoboda as general prosecutor. “Who’s he going to prosecute?” asked a socialist friend.
Q. Some people in the western left focus on the right wing and fascists; others seem to ignore them completely. Why?
A. This is more about the western left, and the stereotypes it is so often satisfied with, than about what is going on in Ukraine.
People who see the world in terms of a geopolitical battle between the USA and NATO on one side, and Russia, among others, on the other side, look at Ukraine as a chess piece in this conflict. To them, what is most important is not the development of social and labour movements – in Ukraine, Russia or anywhere else – but which side Ukraine takes in this battle (the west vs Russia). They can not get their heads round the idea of middle class or working class Ukrainians seeing positives in Europe, as opposed to Russia. The answer, they are convinced, must be that Maidan can not be a mass movement in which right wing populists and fascists have gained influence, and therefore it must be a movement inspired by the right, supported materially and ideologically by the USA.
An especially crude version of this view is here. (“In an attempt to pry Ukraine out of the Russian sphere of influence, the US-EU-NATO alliance has, not for the first time, allied itself with fascists”, etc.) Some of these presumptions were reflected, too, in Seumas Milne’s article in the Guardian here.
On the other side are social democratic supporters of the European ideal, whatever that means to them. They believe that their job is to help bring Ukraine into the European capitalist fold. This meant turning a blind eye to,
or playing down, the right wing and fascists’ violence, and emphasising that Maidan is pro-European and therefore inherently progressive. Variants of such views are effectively challenged by Volodymyr Ishchenko of the journal Spil’ne here and here.
There is a great deal of history running through these arguments. I was depressed to see, on Maidan, flags and symbols of the wartime Ukrainian Resistance Army (UPA), some of whose leaders collaborated with the Nazis, and some of whose detachments participated in ethnic cleansing against Jews, Poles and Russians. That symbolism sticks in my gullet; perhaps it’s my Jewish family background. (I felt even sicker in 2010, when the former Ukrainian president, Viktor Yushchenko, pinned a medal on the grandson of UPA leader Stepan Bandera, saying, in effect, “screw any discussion of history among Ukrainians, let’s appeal to the crudest nationalist sentiments”.)
Socialists need to get a historical handle on Ukrainian nationalism. But in order to do so, in my view, we need first to filter out the heavy legacy of Soviet ideology, which still corrodes the 21st century labour movement. That ideology cast the tyrannical Stalinist dictatorship, which in 1932-33 presided over a famine that killed millions of Ukrainians, as “socialist”, and all Ukrainian nationalists – whether or not they had any connection with UPA or sympathy for its wartime dealings with the Nazis – as “fascists”. All this is behind some of the stereotypes.
When Yanukovich said he was overthrown by a “fascist coup”, he might even have believed it. In terms of analysis, surely we can do better.