By James Fearon, in Socialist Democracy (Ireland), November 3, 2014
A complex struggle, largely ignored by the Western media, has continued in the Ukraine. Sections of the working class in the east of the country have mobilized against a harsh austerity programme advanced by Europe and the IMF, against the intervention of NATO and against the open use of fascist groups to impose the capitalist programme. They have received military support from Russia, but this is often used to smother the demands of the workers and protect local oligarchs. Some on the left (the pro Maidan left) have failed to understand the importance of sections of the working class moving into action. They have downplayed the role of the fascists and have mobilized around a opposition to “Russian imperialism.”
The imperialist plans for Ukraine have been partially stalled. The encirclement and dramatic defeat of the fascist Azov battalion south of Llovaysk by the Donbass militias was a decisive blow against the Kiev regime and its imperialist backers’ military assault. The defeat caused a rapid retreat westwards by Kiev’s forces leading to a ceasefire and eventually a peace deal which was signed in Minsk, Belarus.
The Minsk agreement, between Putin and Poroshenko, and overseen by the The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), left Moscow and the leading militia commanders making all the important decisions but the deal is unpopular on the ground. Resistance to the deal which was made on their behalf is typified by the rebel republics’ decision to hold elections on terms that are independent of those agreed with Kiev. This independence, and the apparent about-face by some of the militia leaders, highlights the fact that the uprising is not as easily ‘controllable’ by Putin as the imperialists might hope.
Moscow has struggled to maintain credibility with both the rebels and at home while at the same time attempting to contain and control the uprising. This has resulted in changes among the rebels’ military leadership. The right populist Strelkov, previously considered by the pro Maidan left as Moscow’s bogy-man, lost his position following his opposition to the concessions made to Kiev during the Geneva talks of April 16th and was eventually replaced by Alexander Zakharchenko. Zakharchenko initially appeared to be more compliant with the requirements of the deal with imperialism worked out in Minsk and which he signed, but he has recently moved away from its terms, describing it as a “betrayal”.
The growing resistance to the terms of the Minsk deal at grass roots level within the rebel republics has provoked a strong reaction among the imperialists. Cameron has demanded that Putin “needs to take the actions to put in place all that’s been agreed”, this means “only recognising one legitimate set of Ukrainian elections.” Pressure has also been applied by Hollande, Merkel and Poroshenko to ensure Putin “puts the necessary pressure on the seperatists”.
This is not going down well. In Donetsk and Lugansk there has been open talk of “treachery” and sections of the militia are very dissatisfied with the Minsk deal, the most objectionable part of which would cede territory to Kiev and relinquish control of the border with Russia and which also includes clauses to protect the property of the oligarchs. Unsurprisingly many impoverished workers and fighters consider it a ‘sellout’.
The pressure which western leaders want Putin to exercise in order to control of the popular uprising was already being applied by means of the establishment of a new military headquarters which used its control over the flow of arms and munitions from the “Military Surplus Stores” to impose the command centre’s political position. This was not a complete success as a lot of military equipment had been captured by relatively minor but self organised and more independent militias. An uneasy relationship continues between some of the volunteer militias and the command and control centre and there is reported resistance in some quarters to the establishment of a new Novorussia army which is designed to formalise the volunteer army, impose military discipline and strengthen the control of those sympathetic to Moscow’s capitalist perspective.
The militias which recruited heavily from the working class represent working class discontent and a nostalgia for the property relations and social conditions of the Soviet era expressed through the demands for nationalisation of the mines, railways and steelworks, largely the property of Rinat Akhmetov. Their perspective appears generally to be confined to the liberated areas however and lacks any demands for the liberation of Kiev from the rule of the oligarchs and the fascist militias.
As the nationalists, under pressure to comply with Minsk, attempted to tenuously tighten their grip all talk at leadership level of nationalisation in rebel held areas had been dropped but pressure from both below and from the destruction caused by the war has resulted in the demands resurfacing. Akhmetov, whose class interests are the same as Putin’s and whose empire is shrinking according to Forbes magazine, has also reappeared, supplying humanitarian aid, desperately vying to have his commercial interests protected and to stave off a threatened workers’ takeover of two of his industrial plants.
The class struggle continues and the large industrial working class is now beginning to make its voice heard politically. Workers have been taking the initiative and are making moves towards placing some previously privatised branches of industry under workers’ control. There continues to be demands to nationalise Akhmetov’s steelworks and the workers at the huge Zuevsky engineering works, supported by the local authority in the town of Zugres where the plant is situated, have approached the DPR Supreme council with a plan for a workers collective. At the same time the left in the new republics have formed a “Red Resistance Coordinating Council” and has called for the building of soviets in both the military and the workplaces. Borotba has issued a call to support this initiative with the slogan “No to Fascism! No capitalism! For organization and power to the Soviets! Moscow, Lugansk Donetsk Stakhanov-Alchevs’k”
The ‘Peace’ in Western Ukraine
Unpopular as the Minsk deal is in the Donbass region, the far Right who are incensed at it being struck at all. The austerity programme that originally was to include the entire territory of Ukraine is now only to include the area still in the hands of the State forces, albeit with control of the Russian border. The agreement, which is only a temporary stopgap being valid for three years, was verified simultaneously in the Ukrainian Rada and the European Parliament on September 16th and falls far short of what the EU/ US wanted. The vote on the categorisation of the areas of Donbas controlled by the rebels as a ‘special status area’ was different though. This vote was held in secret, journalists were excluded from the proceedings and voting records were concealed ‘to avoid accusations of treachery’.
Parliament acted in secret to conceal the details of their dealings from the Right forces who rule by violence in the streets. Even the conservative Party of Regions parliamentarians who speak out of turn are beaten in the streets with the habit being to assault them and deposit them in a dustbin. Society is fragmenting in Western Ukraine, the deal that tried to cover its defeat in the East by giving increased powers in all regions has resulted in an exacerbation of that fragmentation. The different regions that are conscripting soldiers to the military are allowing their service only on the basis that they will serve in their own region as guards and will not be sent to the East.
The major cities fall under the control of the different oligarchs, Kiev is the fiefdom of Poroshenko and Odessa is controlled by Kolomoiski but both of them rely largely on the Right Sector which is the only force organised across all of Western Ukraine with the kind of muscle it takes to enforce the right wing agenda. It is these volunteer foot soldiers that intimidate and assault newspaper editors , public representatives that step out of line or civil servants that served in the Yanukovich administration. There has been a continuing ‘ Social Lustration’ a ‘cleansing’ of the administration, which is limited to anyone that served more than a year in the previous administration, chiefly because Poroshenko served just under a year in the same administration. This ‘cleansing’, usually described as “anti corruption” activities, is at the behest of the IMF/ECB and is designed to prevent foot dragging among the bureaucracy on the implementation of economic ‘reforms’ according to ‘Newsweek’.
The fascists are again proving their worth as tools of finance capital and are effectively crushing any attempt at resisting austerity in government held regions of the country. The CP, which had 32 members of parliament, has had members tortured or murdered and has been suppressed to the extent that it failed to get elected to the Rada. Borotba Union who also have had members killed or imprisoned for conspiracy have been driven into exile. Any attempt to express public opposition to austerity in Kharkov, Ukraine’s second largest city, is attacked by fascist gangs and the latest episode has been the symbolic destruction of a famous statue of Lenin. The real power lies in the streets or with the volunteer battalions, the regular army is demoralised and is fragmented on regional lines and, as happened during the Odessa massacre, the police stand by as the right wing thugs do their work.
The illusory potential which the pro Maidan left saw in the wage request by the miners at Kryvyi Rih was diffused by a 20% wage increase for some employees and fascist gangs have attacked trade union conferences while the urban petit bourgeoisie have participated in public burnings of Leninist literature. In Kiev the fascists besieged the Rada and paraded openly, with ten time more participants this year, including the fascist battalions, than at the same time last year, successfully demanding that official recognition is granted to the Nazi Ukrainian Insurgent Army’s (UPA) role in WW2. At the same time some of the less ideologically driven sections of the military locked up their officers and marched to demand to be discharged from duty. Ukrainian society is sinking deeper in to crisis in the West of the country and the Right are emerging as an increasingly cohesive power.
The original objective of integrating Ukraine into the EU, and financing it through the IMF deal with all the attached austerity measures is still only in the early stages of its imposition but the task can only be completed at great risk of an uprising. Ukraine’s indebtedness is multiplying. More subsidies are being requested to keep the country afloat as its currency crashes, inflation grows and exports collapse. The cuts, including what ‘The Economist’ calls ‘removal of wasteful energy subsidies’ is central to the demands of the IMF for a complete restructuring of the economy. The drive to push up the charge for gas by up to 400%, close unprofitable industries, cut pensions, and pay off civil servants is still under way, but not to the satisfaction of the EU and IMF who want the process accelerated and completed in the next three years. The defeat in Donetsk and Lugansk have left the official state forces required for enforcing these cuts depleted and facing resistance in all the different regions of the country hence the provision of a further $53m in ‘aid’ from the US exclusively for military use.
Repression of the left and the rise of the right
The elections of October 26th were prepared under conditions of repression of the left or even liberal opposition and Borotba had called for a boycott. In the areas of the South East controlled by the Kiev forces the turn out was very low with only around 30% turning out in Odessa. The electoral competition that took place was between the different right wing factions increasingly attached to fascist organisations and military commanders whose political intention is to rubberstamp everything demanded by the IMF/EU.
The election exit polls have shown the parties which include open fascists; the People’s Front, Lyasko’s Radical Party, Samopomich (Self Help) which has the leader of the fascist Donbass battalion as second in command and Svoboda collectively garnering 49% of the vote while the combined tally for Poroshenko, Timoshenko and the neo liberal right adds up to 36%. Talks already started indicate that the likely outcome will be a coalition between the Peoples’ Front which has gained the largest share of the vote and Poroshenko’s Bloc, with the Samopomich party also possibly included.
The fascists have greatly expanded their influence, not just in the Rada but through the leadership roles they play in the organisations they have allied with. Yatsenyuk, who has consistently had the excuse made for him that he is merely a ‘nationalist’ is part of the Peoples’ Front whose leading representatives include Parubiy and Andrey Biletsky, who are open fascists. Biletsky, a member of the Azov battalion, is formally an ‘independent’ but Yatsenyuk had withdrawn the original candidate in his favour.
The electoral success of the People’s Front, a merger of a splinter of Timoshenko’s Fatherland Party and both political and military branches of fascism, shows that a significant section of the neo liberal bourgeoisie have moved to the hard right. The Peoples Front is the most coherent organisation on the ground with the support of the street gangs and with a public “Military Council” which is headed by Biletsky of the Azov battalion and other members of the Volunteer battalions. Yatsenyuk, originally the clear choice of US imperialism, is in a greatly enhanced position to dictate terms to government partners who are divided only on which oligarch they are financed by rather than on the necessity of the imposition of austerity on the impoverished Ukrainian masses. It is this division among the agents of finance capital that inhibits the development of a single fascist entity more than anything else.
Poroshenko has also moved further to the right but he is unable to impose the terms of the austerity without the far right’s enforcers and is weakened by his inability to win the war in the east. His rhetoric is increasingly borrowed from the fascists and he has recently taken to wearing battle fatigues and echoing their admiration for the WW2 Ukrainian fascist Stepan Bandera while at the same time Stepan Poltorak, fascist leader of the National Guard, has been appointed as Minister of Defence. Poltorak’s appointment is no accident and signifies that the Kiev regime is determined to push ahead with plans to realise all aspects of the Minsk deal. John McCain has long since announced his discontent with the ceasefire, and NATO’s strategy of encroaching on Russia has not receded. The Kiev military have been re-equipped, reorganised and retrained by NATO and are now in possession of ballistic missiles, which have been used against Militia and civilian targets in the past week as Donetsk and Lugansk militia commanders warn of the increased threat of a major attack. Such a push, with the political terms of Minsk behind it, could lead to a wider even more destructive conflagration.