By Boris Kagarlitsky, translated by Renfrey Clarke, for Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, April 13, 2014
In Ukraine, a genuine revolution is unfolding. This may seem strange, but it is something very characteristic of the history of that country.
In Ukraine in 1918, workers’ protests by the “Reds” took place solely in response to actions by the nationalist authorities that had installed themselves in Kiev. The question of how progressive the regime established by the supporters of the Donetsk Peoples Republic and other movements in Ukraine’s south-east will prove remains unanswered for the present simply for the reason that the very survival of these movements is far from guaranteed. But it can already be said with assurance that there is no road back. The point of no return has been passed, not only in in the political but above all in the social sense.
The Kiev and Moscow intelligentsia are sincerely incapable of believing that workers and the lower orders of urban society could not only have emerged suddenly onto the streets, but also begun acting independently, organising themselves and making history. These are the people whom the intelligentsia describe contemptuously as “lumpens”, middle-aged family men and women who only yesterday were typical apolitical residents, Russian-speaking toilers who took no interest in the political intrigues of the capital. Behind the backs of the people who are seizing administration buildings and police stations, the intelligentsia as in the past are looking for political manipulators, hirelings of the oligarchs, and even foreign agents, including Russians. The intelligentsia are convinced that simple Donetsk citizens, even after watching on television as several dozen analogous seizures were carried out two months ago by chance-comers from the Right Sector, could never have contrived to do something of the sort themselves.
And it is true: until now, such people have not taken part in politics. This has been the case not just in south-eastern Ukraine, but also in Kiev, and of course in Russia. I suspect it is true of western Ukraine as well. A video from Donetsk shows very graphically the radically changing sociology and demography of the protest. In place of the young middle-class residents of the capital whom we grew used to seeing in earlier Maidan demonstrations, we are confronted with quite different people — people who a few weeks ago were preoccupied with earning money to support their families, and who would have considered participating in any kind of street protest a pointless waste of time. Now, these people have not just come onto the streets, but they are blockading trucks full of soldiers, organising themselves and taking decisions. A genuine revolutionary transformation is taking place in the consciousness of the masses. In the consciousness of the masses, not in the notorious “public opinion” that is shaped by the privileged intelligentsia, by those who have never got around to understanding the point and significance of the events now under way.
In their significance, the changes occurring in the Ukrainian south-east extend far across the borders of the neighbouring state. They directly affect Russia, providing us with images of our own potential future. It is no accident that our own ruling elites are becoming less and less enamoured of the famous “Russian spring”. Official Moscow has let it be understood, in no uncertain terms, that it makes no claim to Ukraine’s rebellious provinces. This is not a diplomatic move, and not a concession to the West; more correctly, it is a step dictated, among other causes, by a desire to avoid any escalation of a conflict that has far exceeded the bounds of anything the Kremlin finds convenient or manageable. Unlike Crimea, where everything was controlled and where, after two or three demonstrations, the transfer of power was carried out by the local elite, in Donetsk and Lugansk we are witnessing the elemental force of a popular movement, which it is simply impossible to manage from outside.
This movement is decentralised and thrusting forward its own leaders from among people who only yesterday were unknown, it is formulating and developing its agenda as events unfold. For our Russian authorities, accepting into the Russian Federation several provinces with such a population and with such mass organisations, at a time when there is a growing social crisis in our own country, would be like shooting themselves in the foot. It can thus be said with confidence that the activists of the Donetsk People’s Republic will have to rely solely on their own resources. No “polite people” are going to approach them, and no little green men are going to descend from a spacecraft. Official Russia has left the Ukrainian south-east to its own fate, and will try to fence itself off from the region as far as possible. This manoeuvre, meanwhile, is being rendered more difficult by the patriotic moods which our authorities have whipped up, and which in the course of events could turn against the Kremlin as well.
The developments of the past few days nevertheless show that the popular movements in Donetsk, Lugansk, Odessa and Kharkov have a chance of succeeding even without serious support from Russia. In such a case, the possibility will open up for them of expanding their influence into other regions, with the majority of whose population they have far more interests in common than with the leaderships in Moscow or Kiev.
The new Ukrainian authorities in turn are faced with an extremely unpleasant dilemma. The disturbances in the south-east can only be crushed with the help of the far-right Right Sector organisation, and only at the cost of large-scale bloodshed. The police and army are unreliable, and the rank and file of the forces of state repression, for perfectly natural social reasons, are more likely to identify with the rebels than with the people trying to issue orders. As a result, the authorities will have to bring the warriors of the radical right into play. The problem here is not with the ideology of the Right Sector fighters, or even with their psychological peculiarities. Police units are specially trained to disperse mass protests, while avoiding bloodshed as far as possible. The Right Sector thugs lack this training, and hence will immediately set about breaking bones and killing people. This is, unfortunately, a standard situation, and one well known from the experience of other countries. The bloodshed in turn will not only harm the reputation of the Kiev authorities (they are not too concerned at this, concluding rightly enough that the Western press and the liberal intelligentsia of Moscow and Kiev will approve any actions they undertake, even mass terror), but will also risk provoking a still more powerful wave of protests, and even mutinies within the army.
Understanding the dangers, the more reasonable members of the new government in Kiev are prepared to compromise with the protesters — and, we should surmise, more or less sincerely. Of course, this is not because they have suddenly become infused with respect for the insurgent populace. It is because they have witnessed the might of the people, and have realised that it is now useless to make agreements behind the backs of the protesters with one or another “serious player”, whether the Kremlin, the oligarch Rinat Akhmetov or the European Union. None of these controls the situation any longer.
But if official Kiev makes serious concessions and tries to pacify the south-east, accepting the demands for autonomy, a referendum, free election of governors and so forth, conflict will automatically erupt between the moderate wing of the government and the Right Sector. And while the fighters of the Right Sector have not shown themselves to be particularly effective in struggle against the rebellious masses of eastern Ukraine, in the capital they are a very real force. Amid the confusion and demoralisation of the forces of law and order, the Right Sector are capable of overthrowing the regime, or at least of causing it very serious difficulties. Here we find the real challenge before the Ukrainian revolution: the future of Kiev, and of the country as a whole, depends on whether the masses of ordinary citizens, the everyday folk who shortly before were alien to the passions and problems of the Maidan, are able to move into political action.
If the masses rise up, neither the Right Sector nor the political adventurers who rode to power on the preceding wave of street protests will stand a chance. This will mark the beginning of a new, democratic politics — not only in Ukraine, but in Russia as well.