Ukraine: bogus ‘anti-imperialism’ serves the Kremlin

September 28, 2022

I gave a talk at an on-line event on the war in Ukraine, arranged by the Future of the Left group on Monday. The meeting was shorter than planned, due to technical problems. Only two of the advertised speakers made it: Richard Sakwa, emeritus professor of Russian and European politics at Kent university, and me. Sakwa focused on the western powers’ failure to uphold principles of sovereign internationalism in the post-cold-war period, and concluded by opposing military aid to Ukraine. Against that, I put the case for supporting Ukrainian resistance as a matter of internationalist principle. I said that I think such discussions should continue. Here’s a recording of the session. Simon Pirani.

Here is a text, based on my talk. It is aimed mainly at the bogus “anti imperialism” widespread in the left, and among Future of the Left’s supporters, rather than at anything Sakwa said.

Thanks for inviting me to join the panel. It’s worth reflecting on what good panels like this, or gatherings like this, can possibly do. As a socialist, I believe that effective change is caused by the labour movement and social movements acting independently of the state. So I will say what I think the labour movement could or should do, and what people here could or should do, rather than declaiming principles with no reference to implementation. 

My main point is that we should build solidarity with Ukrainian resistance to Russian aggression. That is rejected by some people in the labour movement, and I think we have to find ways of discussing these differences on life and death issues.

Character of the Russian war  

Russia is a weakened empire desperately trying to restore its imperial status. It emerged from the break-up of the Soviet Union as an economically subordinate power, supplying the world capitalist economy with raw materials and pumping oligarchs’ wealth into the world financial system. Under Putin, since 2000, it has sought to make up for economic weakness by military means.

In the second Chechen war, Russia pulverised Chechnya and its population, rather than allow aspirations for national autonomy or independence to take root. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, and intervened in Syria in 2015, to support a dictator who drowned citizens in blood rather than allow them any democratic freedoms.

The strongest imperialist powers tolerated all of this. Despite all their denials, they essentially had Russia act as the gendarme of capital in its sphere of influence.

Russia’s pretensions to imperial status have been most evident in its interventions in Ukraine. Ukraine is one of Russia’s oldest colonies; denying Ukrainian national rights was always integral to Russian imperial thinking; and of course before the invasion in February Putin made a speech claiming that historically Ukraine is not a nation.

The imperialist character of Russia’s war on Ukraine is evident from the military methods used. This is an imperialist force seeking to subjugate an enemy population.

Putin said Russian soldiers would be greeted with flowers, and there is not a single recorded case of that. There are plenty of examples of Ukrainians trying to resist the Russian army with their bare hands.

There have been massacres of civilians; rape used as a weapon; torture; forcible conscription; forcible deportation – all methods perfected by the British empire in the 18th and 19th centuries. As was the method of forcing into the army men from the poorest regions, disproportionately from ethnic minorities.

The targeting of politicians, journalists and activists in occupied areas seems more like the US empire in the 20th century.

I recommend the two reports on violations of international human rights law by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (here and here). They spare no detail on alleged war crimes by Ukrainian soldiers, particularly against Ukrainians accused of collaborating with Russia. But they also conclude that the vast majority of war crimes have been committed by the Russian side. The vast majority.

An investigation team set up by the UN last week gave an initial report to the Human Rights Council that reached similar conclusions.

All this makes nonsense of the claims made by some people in the labour movement, that it is a war between two equal sides.

A rally on Friday in Snihurivka, which is occupied by Russian forces. See “About the photos” below

Why in February did Ukrainians, whatever their dissatisfaction with their own government – and I can assure you, there was plenty of that – volunteer in huge numbers? Why the contrast between that, and the situation in Russia, where last week’s mobilisation announcement is ripping at the social fabric?  

Ukrainians are resisting an imperialist assault, and so the labour movement should provide practical, material solidarity to the working class communities bearing the brunt of this invasion.

Trade unionists from the UK, from France and from Austria, have organised convoys of aid to workers in the front line areas. My question to people here is: do you support such initiatives?

Do you agree that Ukrainians have the right to defend themselves with arms? I do, in the same way as I believe that Palestinians faced with the apartheid Israeli occupation have that right. 

Role of NATO

Obviously, NATO has supplied Ukraine with substantial quantities of weapons in the last six months and this will surely continue. In their view, their gendarme has gone rogue and needs to be brought back under control.

But these arms supplies, like the applications by Sweden and Finland to join NATO, are more results of the invasion of Ukraine than causes.

To conclude from this that NATO expansion was the cause of the invasion is one-sided, false logic.

An honest assessment of Russia’s relationship with the NATO powers would show that NATO expansion into eastern Europe belongs to the 1990s. Russia was weak, and was being economically integrated into the world capitalist economy. The last big group of eastern European countries applied to join NATO in 1999 and actually joined in 2004. 

What has happened since then? The Russian state, buoyed by the oil boom of the 2000s, has sought to control its sphere of influence with little interference by the NATO powers.

Just look at their limited reaction to Russia’s intervention in Ukraine in 2014. There were economic sanctions, which were very painful for Russian businesses. But these were linked only to the annexation of Crimea, not to Russian support for the separatists in the Donbas.

Clearly Germany and France, which both had substantial investments in, and trade with, Russia, were anxious to find a compromise. NATO continued after 2014, as it had before, to refuse to start a membership action plan for Ukraine. Germany only changed its Russia policy in February, a day before the invasion, with the cancellation of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.

Analytically, I would define Putin’s Russia as a creature of those powers, a creature of world capitalism, not an opposite to them.

“Proxy war”

The false claim that NATO expansion caused Russia to invade Ukraine is linked to the false political proposition that Ukrainians are fighting a “proxy war” for NATO, and that the labour movement can not therefore support Ukrainian resistance.

The Future of the Left web site says: “Putin is no friend of the working class – but neither are Zelensky or NATO. […] Although the direct fighting in Ukraine is between the Russian and Ukrainian states, [no mention here of Ukrainian people, only the state, SP …] many see this war, in effect, as a proxy war between Putin and the US.”

This false logic could be applied to any number of situations.

Spain in 1936. Here’s how the argument looks: “Franco is no friend of the working class – but neither are the Republican government or the Allied powers. […] Although the direct fighting is between nationalists and Republicans, many see this war as one between the Axis and the Allies.” No room for the International Brigades there.

Vietnam in 1972. Here’s how the argument looks: “The US is no friend of the working class – but neither are the Soviet and Chinese leaders. […] Although the direct fighting is by the Vietnamese people, many see this as a proxy war between Moscow and Washington.” Not much room there for supporting Vietnamese resistance. (Both quotes are invented by me, to make my point.)

In my view, many wars – all these included – have combined elements of resistance to imperialism or fascism, and clashes between imperialist powers. The only difference in Ukraine in 2022 is that we are dealing with Russian imperialism, not German, American or British imperialism.

And in the labour movement we now see a bogus, western-centred form of “anti imperialism”: people who believe, crudely, that the main enemy is US imperialism and my enemy’s enemy is my friend.

This thinking just serves the Kremlin. It is ruinous to international solidarity, just as ruinous as the support given by elements in the labour movement to Tony Blair’s imperialist adventure in Iraq.

The so-called “republics” in the Donbass  

A key claim of Kremlin propaganda is that the invasion in February was motivated by a desire to defend Russian-speaking Ukrainians from Ukrainian nationalism.

Just how sincere the Kremlin is about this can be judged by the number of Russian-speaking Ukrainians who the Russian army have killed, raped and driven from their homes.

Nevertheless, the claim is still made, and we hear echoes of it in the labour movement.

We need to look back at least to 2014. The Maidan uprising, a truly mass movement, was politically confused and complex but was directed above all against the government of Viktor Yanukovich, and the Party of Regions that represented eastern Ukrainian capital – the owners of mines, steelworks and other industries.

That party spared no effort to sow division between Ukrainians on the basis of language.

An anti-mobilisation rally in Yakutia, Russia. See “about the photos”, below

In response to the Maidan uprising, that party encouraged the anti-Maidan movement that sought autonomy for eastern regions, and that had support from substantial numbers of working class people. Note that at that time, when sociologists could still make reasonable guesses about what people in Donbas wanted, it was autonomy, not separation, that was supported by a significant minority.

Right-wing Ukrainian nationalism stoked up these divisions from the other side.

But these tensions were turned into military conflict by the Russian army, fighting alongside extreme Russian nationalist and fascist volunteers. They put in place the two “republics”, under which the economy of those areas was trashed and half the population left. Tinpot dictatorships were established without the most elementary observance of civil, democratic or labour rights.

To select from this complexity the fact that working-class people supported the anti-Maidan movement, and offer this as a reason to deny Ukrainians the right to resist aggression, is beyond absurd.

There is an analogy with Ireland. Working-class Protestants long formed the support base not only for Orange political parties but for armed loyalist paramilitaries. Traditionally, socialists understood that the power underpinning all this was British imperialism. We did not parrot calls for a Unionist six-county state, or pretend that working-class attitudes to that state weakened the case for a united Ireland. We called for the withdrawal of British troops.

Conclusion

As things stand, in the labour movement, bogus “anti imperialism” is undermining the internationalist principles on which the Chartists supported Irish liberation in the 1840s and which many of us here supported Vietnamese liberation in the 1970s. These principles should guide our actions now with regard to Ukraine.

More about Ukraine

The Ukraine Information Group, set up by a small group of labour movement activists in the UK (including me), is now distributing a weekly email bulletin, with links to sources of reliable information and informed comment on Ukraine in English. Please subscribe!

The Ukraine Solidarity Campaign, which coordinated trade union efforts for a motion at the Labour party conference

What’s the future of Russia’s Ukraine war – Volodya Artiukh on OpenDemocracy

Positions of the global left over the abyss of imperialist escalation – Vitold Vasiletskyi on Commons.com.ua

Taras Bilous, Ukrainian socialist, commented on twitter last week about the causes of the Russian invasion in February

On the fantastic tale that the Ukrainian army killed 14,000 Russians in Donbas – Michael Karadjis on Syrian Revolution Commentary and Analysis

Putin’s little helpers undermine solidarity – People & Nature, 29 December 2021

About the photos

The first photo is of a rally at the weekend in Snihurivka, Mykolaiv region, that was occupied by Russian forces in March. A declaration was read out condemning the occupation. It stated that those present would not take part in the fake “referendum”, did not want to accede to the Russian Federation, and considered themselves Ukrainians. This is a still from a short film broadcast on the Telegram channel of Denis Kazansky, a journalist based in the area. He commented: “That’s the real position of residents of the occupied areas of Ukraine. Just compare that video with the disgraceful methods used by the occupiers to try to get people to vote.”

The second photo is of a demonstration in Yakutia, in Siberia, against the Kremlin’s mobilisation order. Women performed a traditional round dance, the Osuohai, surrounding a group of policemen and shouting “no to genocide!” and “no to war”. The police were repeatedly obstructed but in the end left and made several arrests. The Public Chamber of Yakutia, in a 1984-style revision of reality, stated that there had been no anti-war protest, only a “blessing by mothers for the return of their husbands and sons alive”. This is a still from a film shared by Feminist Antiwar Resistance.


Ukraine: the ‘Russian world’ is militarising children

July 12, 2022

Thousands of children, some as young as eight, are being recruited to “military-patriotic clubs” in the Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, a report published this month shows.

“The Kremlin intends to bring up a generation hostile to Ukraine and its people, making it always possible to provoke social-political conflicts, that can grown over into military ones”, concludes the report by the Eastern Human Rights Group.

Children at Yunarmia oath ceremony in Sevastopol, Crimea, 25 October 2019. Photo from sevzakon.ru

The report, “Militarisation of Children in Occupied Donbass”,[1] details the clubs’ activity in the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics”, in the year leading up to Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine in February.

The Young Guard Youth Army (Molodaya gvardiya Yunarmiya) is the largest such club, with 5000 members in Luhansk. The Donetsk Youth Army claims a membership of 2500, between the ages of 8 and 35, grouped in more than 100 local organisations.

The Youth Army’s activities include: survival training in extreme conditions; field exercises including orienteering; physical training; arms training; and military tactics.

In both Donetsk and Luhansk, the Youth Army and other clubs were set up on the authorities’ initiative. In Luhansk, they are supplemented by cadet classes and corps in schools, in which more than 1600 children were registered as of December last year. Their curriculum includes physical and military training.

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Russia: a new wave of anti-war protest

May 20, 2022

Three months into Russia’s assault on Ukraine, PAVEL LISYANSKY reports that anti-war protesters, pushed back in March by a fierce legal clampdown, are finding ways to make their voices heard

While the Russian media claims wholesale popular approval of the Kremlin’s military aggression, Russians are being arrested for protesting peacefully in the country’s urban centres.

Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine has now entered its third month. The level of protest among the local population in Russian regions is increasing, due to several factors.

Leyla Sayfutdinova mounted a one-person picket against the war with her mouth sewn shut. See also “About the photo”, below

Because of the sanctions policy, global brands are leaving Russia and, at the same time, large employers are closing production facilities, thereby reducing jobs in the regions and draining tax revenues to regional budgets.

The regions of Russia have already received Cargo 200 [military code for the transportation of soldiers’ dead bodies] from Ukraine, which increases local people’s urge to protest. But the main political point is that these events sharpen the confrontation between regional elites and the federal centre of the Russian Federation. [Note. The Russian Federation is made up of 85 administrative units (regions, republics and autonomous territories), which are constantly in battle with the central government over shares of budgets, degree of local autonomy, etc.]

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Russian soldiers killed that family, just … because

April 7, 2022

By ANATOLY DUBOVIK in Dnipro, eastern Ukraine

On social media people are arguing about the reasons for the massacres at Bucha, Irpen and other places in Kyiv region. They are not asking why, so much as “for what reason”, with what aim? I have my opinion, as follows.

At the beginning of March, I heard a woman, who had been able to get out of occupied Melitopol with her family, talk about it. I’ll tell the story, as I remember it – so it’s not a documented record, of course, but my re-telling, albeit directly from the witness. As far as I understood, she lived somewhere in the suburbs of the city, in a private house.

The Russian army arrived in Melitopol on 26 February. There was no battle for the city. For several days we sat at home and watched an endless stream of Russian military vehicles. It was too frightening to go out – and there was no reason to: the Russians had looted all the shops on the first day.

And then [so, on 1 or 2 March, AD] our neighbours for some reason set out for their allotment, to plant something. One of the military vehicles stopped. Two Russian soldiers got out and killed the whole family, our neighbours. Husband, wife and two children. Then the soldiers got back into their vehicle and left.

After this we had no doubt. We collected all the things we could, and half an hour later left the city in our car. It took 24 hours to get to Zaporozhya [it is a 133 kilometre journey, AD]. There were Russian checkpoints all along the way. We were constantly stopped, they examined the car, and searched us. But all the same, we made it.

What are the explanations? Why, for what reason, was that family killed?

This was right at the start. The Russians who killed that family had only been on Ukrainian territory for a day or two. Melitopol was already in the rear, from their standpoint. So it’s highly unlikely that these soldiers had been in a firefight or lost close colleagues. Furthermore, there was practically no battle for Melitopol: the Ukrainian army had left the city. So it was not revenge.

Refugees in Lviv

And it did not seem like they were carrying out orders, either. In the case of an order to “kill civilians”, even “under such-and-such circumstances”, things would not have been limited to killing one family, who happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. This was not carrying out an order; it was the “living creativity of the Russian masses”.

The murdered parents, of course, could have had pro-Ukrainian views. Or they could even have been signed up to a territorial defence unit. But none of this was known to the Russians who shot them. It was not even known to their neighbours. What’s more: underaged children, murdered together with their parents, could not possibly have been in a territorial defence unit.

Moreover, this was not the result of a breach of curfew rules or anything of that kind. These people were literally in front of their home, in their own country, in broad daylight, no kind of threat to anyone at all.

But they were killed.

Isn’t it really obvious, that these murders had no purpose whatever? That the Russians killed that family not “for a reason”, but just … because.

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UK trade unions make ‘solidarity with Ukraine’ call

April 7, 2022

UK trade unions will demonstrate in London on Saturday, calling for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine.

“We send solidarity to the trade unionists of Ukraine who have been engaged in humanitarian assistance and resistance to the invasion”, the organisers say. “We will support in whatever way we can the brave people demonstrating in Russia for an end to the war.

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“We call on the UK government to welcome refugees seeking to come to the UK without imposing any restrictions.”

The demonstration, which assembles at Parliament Square in London at 12.0 noon, is backed by the GMB general union, one of the UK’s largest, as well as unions representing civil servants (PCS), rail workers (ASLEF), communication workers (CWU), bakers and food workers (BFAWU) and mine workers (NUM).

The three main Ukrainian union federations, and two rail workers’ unions, have also declared support for the event.

The Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine has appealed to trades unionists internationally to call on governments to send military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

“The bombing of hospitals and homes, executions, atrocities and rapes are part of Russian inhumane tactics”, Mykhailo Volynets, the confederation’s chair, wrote. “Russian forces continue to purposefully destroy the people of Ukraine and do not stop even at the time of the negotiation talks.

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Solidarity appeal for Ukrainian victims of Russian army abductions

April 4, 2022

Local councillors in the UK have launched an appeal demanding “an end to the use of kidnapping, arbitrary imprisonment and other violence” against elected officials, journalists, civic activists and others in the Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine.

The statement condemns “attempts by the Russian army and security services to destroy elected local government structures and replace them with their own appointees”.

Demonstration against the Russian occupation in Kherson, Sunday 3 April

The appeal was drafted after mayors and elected officials in Enerhodar, Melitopol, Kherson, Berdyansk and other towns in south-eastern Ukraine were abducted, often in the course of Russian army attempts to force local administrations to collaborate.

The abductions in the occupied areas are part of the same terror campaign whose cutting edge – summary executions, mass graves and wholesale terror against civilians – has been exposed in Bucha, Irpin and other areas near Kyiv from which the Russian forces withdrew last week.

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Ukraine: filtration in Russian-occupied areas is “a way of terrorising civil society”

April 4, 2022

Some insights into the situation in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine, where “people’s republics” were set up by Russian-supported armed militia in 2014, are provided in these excerpts from an interview with PAVEL LISYANSKY of the Eastern Human Rights Group. It was published on 25 March by Tribun, a Luhansk-based news group

Q: Do you think that the Kremlin’s aims have changed in the month since the invasion started?

PL: I am convinced that Putin’s aims remain the same. He wants to destroy Ukraine, having split it into pieces. Now, for example, he is trying to set up a “Kherson people’s republic”, which he would then recognise in future. Then, I reckon, they will try to set up something like a “union of people’s republics”. Putin will not touch the territories that border Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, for the simple reason that the Russian federation needs an external enemy in the shape of the regions that stay within Ukraine. Putin’s main aim is that the Ukraine of 2014-2022 – the free and independent Ukraine – should disappear.

Q: You have spoken before about the danger of the Russian federation issuing passports to Ukrainians. How actively is this policy being pursued now?

PL: It’s more operational than ever. Now that the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics” have been recognised by Russia, no-one now has to travel to Rostov region [of southern Russia, to apply for a passport]. “Migration departments” have been set up in the occupied territories for passports to be issued. And now they [the Russian authorities] are increasing the numbers on account of the areas of Luhansk and Donetsk they have recently seized [i.e. areas that remained under Ukrainian government control between 2014 and 2022].

Demonstrators gathering in Enerhodar. Zaporizhiya region, on Saturday 2 April to protest at the Russian occupation. After this photo was taken they were violently dispersed by the occupation forces

And the approach has changed. Now those who refuse [a passport] are intimidated on account of it being war time, and threatened with legal cases for “collaboration with Ukraine”. A little more than a million such passports have now been issued.

Q: Now the Russians are “evacuating” citizens of towns they have occupied in Starobelsk and Svatovo. What are their aims?

PL: They need to create a “picture” for domestic consumption in the Russian federation, showing that “our brave army is saving peaceful civilians”. Unfortunately there are cases where they have evacuated people from Rubezhny and Svatovo to Rostov region. Where they go from there, we don’t know. Communication breaks down.

I suspect that our citizens could be sent, for example, to Vorkuta [a mining town north of the Arctic circle] or to the Far East [of Russia]. Remember that the Russian federation has a big problem of a great deal of territory that is sparsely populated. This is one way of trying to address it, where the “fellow countryman” programme of the Russian foreign affairs ministry failed. No-one really wants to move to those places voluntarily.

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Russians revolt against Putin’s war

February 28, 2022

The stream of protest against Russia’s war on Ukraine has turned into a river. Demonstrations in every major Russian city have been broken up by the police, with more than 4000 arrests, but people have returned to the streets again and again. There were anti-war demonstrations in the Belarussian capital, Minsk, yesterday, the first street actions since the 2020 crackdown.

Trafalgar Square, London, Sunday: “Russians against war” at a demonstration called by the Ukrainian community

Tens of thousands of Russians have signed letters against the war by professional and civic associations – that’s what this post focuses on. There is a list, summarised from an article yesterday on The Insider, and the texts of letters by medical staff, teachers and local government officials.

The Insider’s introduction stated: “Professional associations in Russia, and also representatives of civil society – municipal deputies, NGOs, human rights defenders – are publishing open letters and petitions against the war in Ukraine. Some of them have been signed by dozens of people, some by thousands.

“The examples included here have been signed by more than 60,000 people – and that does not include the anti-war petition started by the human rights defender Lev Ponomarev on Change.org, which was signed by 880,000 people in three days.” [English text of petition here.]

If you are reading this in the UK, or wherever, and you believe in building international solidarity against war, and you work in any of the professions mentioned – you know what to do. Get in touch with your Russian colleagues today.

Professional associations

Animators. “We are convinced, that war can bring nothing but death, hurt and destruction.” Signed by more than 390.

Architects and town planners. “War can not be an instrument of politics in the 21st century.” Signed by more than 5000.

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COP26 politicians give thumbs up to oil and gas

January 11, 2022

No sooner had politicians signed the Glasgow Climate Pact in November, than the US government paved the way for new oil and gas output, by selling $191 million of new drilling licences.

ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Shell and 29 other companies bid at an auction for blocks in the Gulf of Mexico, in an area twice the size of Florida.

The sale came after the Joe Biden administration’s moratorium on new drilling was overturned in the courts. Earthjustice said the sale was a “climate bombshell”: if all that production goes ahead, an extra 600 million tonnes of carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere.

On the plus side, the UK’s biggest new oil project, Cambo, suffered a blow, as Shell pulled out, after forceful mobilisation by climate campaigners. Siccar Point Energy, which owns 70% of the project, then said it is pausing work.

Extinction Rebellion in London, September 2020. Photo by Steve Eason

Cambo could still go ahead, though, and if it does, that will be thanks in part to the UK’s lavish tax breaks for North Sea producers. Siccar Point says the project is “not forecasted to pay taxes for many years”.

The company-friendly tax regime means that in 2020 the treasury collected a paltry £255 million from oil and gas producers, while handing rebates of £39 million to BP and £110 million to Shell. 

These tax breaks are just one part of a multi-billion-dollar mountain of subsidies for fossil fuel producers from rich countries’ governments.

And those subsidies form the background to COP26’s failure to tackle global heating, and to the decisions made there, which Climate Action Tracker estimates will lead to 2.1-2.7 degrees of warming, far above the 1.5 degree target.  

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Revolt and repression in Kazakhstan

January 9, 2022

The Kazakh government has unleashed ferocious repression against the uprising that exploded last week.

Security forces opened fire on demonstrators. “Dozens” died, according to media reports, but on 7 January president Kasym-Jomart Tokaev let slip that “hundreds” had been killed. Tokaev also said he gave the order to “shoot to kill without warning” to suppress protests.

There are no accurate figures, because the government has cut off internet access for almost the whole country and imposed an information blockade.

The internal affairs ministry has said that more than 4400 people have been arrested, and warned that sentences of between eight years and life will be imposed. The Kazakh regime has used torture against worker activists before: its forces may be emboldened by the 3000 Russian and other troops flown in to support them.

From social media via The Insider. The security services facing demonstrators in Almaty

It’s difficult, in the midst of this nightmare, to try to analyse the wave of protest and its consequences. Anyway, here are four points, based on what I can see from a distance.

1. The uprising began as a working-class revolt against inequality and political repression.

The protests started in Zhanaozen in western Kazakhstan, an oil-producing city with a long history of struggle for union organisation. They were sparked by a doubling of the price of liquefied petroleum gas, used for home heating and transport, to 120 tenge (about £0.21) per litre from 60 tenge. (See note.)

But this economic demand was very rapidly joined to political demands.

On Tuesday 4 January, before the internet was blocked, the human rights activist Galym Ageleuov wrote on social media:

The Zhanaozen people’s demands, that could well be taken up in Aktau [the largest city in the Mangystau region] tomorrow, are:

1. Gas for 50 tenge.

2. The resignation of the government.

3. [Former president Nursultan] Nazarbayev to get out of political life.

4. The release of political prisoners (Erzhan Elshibayev and others).

5. The return of the stolen money. [Surely a reference to the Kazakh elite’s ill-gotten gains.]

In making these demands, working people in Zhanaozen no doubt had in mind their own recent history. In 2011, the city was the scene of the most significant workers’ struggle of the post-Soviet period – an eight-month strike by oil workers, that ended with a police massacre in which at least 16 died and 60 were wounded.

After that strike, the state used repression on the one hand, and substantial regional investment and pay rises in the state-owned oil companies on the other, to fashion a new social compromise. But the effect of the pandemic on the oil industry has effectively wrecked that arrangement.

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