There are sketchy and misleading reports in mainstream press that steelworkers in eastern Ukraine have mobilized, including into street patrols, to rebuff the political movement for autonomy in eastern Ukraine. On May 11, successful plebiscites were held in the southeast regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in which the big majority of those who cast ballots opted for political sovereignty from Ukraine.

The Guardian is one of the few English language media outlets to (finally) examine the rise of fascist and rightist militias in Ukraine. On May 15, it published a lengthy account by two of its journalists who are in the country. They interviewed leaders of the political parties and groupings of the far right and they attended a covert training camp of rightists in one of the eastern regions.

Truthout published on May 13 a comprehensive overview on Ukraine written by myself. Events continue to move at a rapid pace. This article is an effort to describe the meaning of the latest events and look at several of the political options for Ukraine’s future that are being debated.

Class divisions within the Maidan movement

I began to write on Ukraine in late February because of two concerns. I was disturbed by the interpretations published in many sources of the events surrounding the overthrow in late February of the Ukraine government led by President Victor Yanukovych. Many of these writings described the overthrow as a “fascist coup” rather easily orchestrated by the U.S. and its European allies. That is simplistic and factually wrong. The class forces engaged as well as their respective interests and historical backgrounds were and remain far more complex and conflicting than this interpretation describes.

Accompanying simplistic interpretations of the change of government was an absence of analysis of the multi-class and politically conflicted protest movement that reached its zenith in Maidan Square in Kyiv. (For example, we’re learning more and more of the little-analyzed but highly destructive role of NGO funding in Ukraine over the past several decades. This is one of the issues now being intensely debated by the left in Ukraine and Russia. Who would have guessed how relevant Haiti’s lessons could become for Ukraine!)

My first two articles, in February, were superficial and were mistaken in their interpretation of the Maidan movement. They downplayed or ignored the conflicting class interests involved, including the illusory beliefs of protesters that a hoped-for, closer economic association with Europe could improve the standard of living in Ukraine, which is significantly lower than in Russia and other neighbouring countries.

I pressed on with writing when eastern Ukraine exploded in early March. Again, too few articles of in depth analysis were being written for an audience in North America. We were newly told that the protest movement in the east was in response to the ‘fascist coup’ in Kyiv. But the social and class content of the movement in the east was little-analyzed. As well, too little, or flat out mistakes, were being written in answer to the sharp rise of imperialist hysteria that followed their ‘loss’ of Crimea in March.

A working class rebellion in eastern Ukraine

Several readers of my latest article in Truthout question the assertion that a deepening working class and popular revolution is unfolding in Eastern Ukraine. That’s a fair argument that merits attention.

I based my assertion on four sources—the articles of Russian writer and socialist Boris Kagarlitsky; the statements and other materials on the website of the left wing political party in Ukraine, Borotba Union; a few, translated statements by trade unions in the east; and anecdotal reporting in a wide variety of news sources.

I found Kagarlitsky’s article “Ukraine: The logic of a revolt” written in April, translated by Australian socialist Renfrey Clarke and published on May 1 on Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal to be particularly insightful. I quoted from it in my May 13 Truthout article. Here is a paragraph from it, an example of the rich insight he provides:

The main trigger for the revolt [in eastern Ukraine], however, was not the pro-Russian sympathies of the local population, or even the declared intention of the Kiev rulers of repealing the law that had given Russian the status of a “regional language.” Discontent had long been building up in the south-east, and the final drop that caused the cup to spill over was the dramatic worsening of the economic crisis that followed the change of government in Kiev [late February 2014]. After signing their agreement with the International Monetary Fund, the authorities decreed steep rises in the charges for gas and medicines, and a social explosion became inevitable. In the west of the country and in the capital, growing indignation was restrained for a time through the use of nationalist rhetoric and anti-Russian propaganda. But when applied to the inhabitants of the east, this method had the reverse effect. Trying to douse the fire in the west, the authorities poured oil on the flames in the east.

I have purposely stayed away from offering predictions or suggestions of how the protest movements should proceed, except insofar as I cite knowledgeable sources near to the action. My various selections of news quotations of people in eastern Ukraine were intended to provide the reader with some understanding of the depth and complexity of feelings there, not to indicate agreement, necessarily. Thus, there is the woman who wishes Ukraine to become the Switzerland of the east but as a result of the regime’s attacks now firmly believes that to be impossible. Others who are cited want close association with Russia, undoubtedly a widely-held sentiment. (As in Crimea, such sentiments have material foundation–association with Russia would improve pensions and other social benefits for the people of eastern Ukraine and could avoid the wholesale destruction of their economy and social life that Europe-style austerity has in store for them.)

I share the views of the writers Renfrey Clarke and Boris Kagarlitsky that a political or military intervention into eastern Ukraine by Russia would be harmful, disastrous even, for the movement in the east. Clarke, who has translated a series of articles by Kagarlitsky from Russian and has lived in Moscow, has written recently, “Both Boris and I argue explicitly that the only way forward for the uprising is to embrace class-struggle demands that can forge links with workers elsewhere in Ukraine.”

I hinted as much in one of the quotations I selected from Kagarlitsky for my article, from an earlier article, mid April, ‘From the Maidan to the revolution‘:

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.

We are hearing news (New York Times, CBC Radio, etc) of the Ukrainian tycoon Rinat Akhmetov mobilizing his workers into the streets of cities in the Donetsk region to disperse the pro-autonomy movement (termed by many in the east as a movement for “federalization,” or decentralization, of Ukraine’s governing structures). The inaccurate or misleading reporting that this development is receiving urgently obviously requires some serious attention and interpretation.

Here is a brief comment by email from Boris Kagarlitsky on May 17:

This is yet another lie. I’m really impressed by the level of disinformation even in the “serious” Western press on the Ukrainian crisis. It is more than anything we ever had in the USSR, more than George Orwell imagined.

Akhmetov’s workers were sacked for taking part in pro-federalization demonstrations which led to strikes and now there are a few mines and factories of Akhmetov taken over by workers and opolcheniye (people’s militia).

This is why now Akhmetov is trying to form his own paramilitary formations to prevent further takeovers by Donetsk Republic and workers.

A brief report, dated May 5, from the Russian-language website journal that Boris helps to publish, Rabkor (“Worker Correspondent”) explains there is a growing wave of protest and calls for nationalization of the properties of precisely such figures as Rinat Akhmetov.

Renfrey Clarke has provided me with his views of the recent, reported mobilizations of steelworkers:

Trying to work out what’s happening in places like Ukraine from articles in the New York Times has overtones of Plato’s cave.

This assertion in the Times article is plain wrong: “Russia itself exports steel, so it has never been a significant market for the output of the Donetsk region”.

What we can say is that the miners and steelworkers have entered the political picture in a massive and organised (though not yet independent) way. The Times has tried to spin this as a blow against the autonomy movement. But it seems that in the cities where the steelworkers have come into the streets, they are clearing out police as well as the Donetsk People’s Republic. It’s quite obvious that the Kiev regime has no sway in the region.

Rinat Akhmetov has tried to act as a conduit between the Kiev authorities and the autonomist movement. He also seems to have played some kind of role in this latest development. But the notion that he exercises any kind of control over the political responses and actions of the worker masses of the region is far-fetched.

Akhmetov couldn’t possibly have called thousands of workers into action (if, indeed, these are the numbers that have appeared) if the workers were not already inclined in their own minds to taking over their cities. A mass mobilisation of workers is a tiger that oligarchs like Akhmetov have small chances of riding.

The suggestion that the miners and steelworkers were necessarily at cross purposes with the Donetsk People’s Republic is speculative. My reading of the situation is that the workers of the Ukrainian Donbass hate the Kiev regime and have a deep fear of its austerity plans. They want as little to do with it as possible, even though there seems to be no broad sentiment for incorporation into Russia. If the May 11 referendums in Donetsk and Luhansk were an unscientific opinion poll, they at least established that the desire for autonomy is powerful and widespread.

There is an historical resonance of these latest events that goes back to the huge Donbass miners’ strikes against Gorbachev* in 1989. That period also saw the Donbass miners move into political action in a big way, though it served the political goals of the pro-capitalist elements in the Soviet bureaucracy of the time.

Now the rulers in Kiev, and the neo-cons in Washington, could be faced with a phenomenon of similar scope. Historical justice! Needless to say, their chances of successfully imposing an austerity program in the Ukrainian Donbass at present are negligible.

* Mikhail Gorbachev was the seventh and last head of state of the Soviet Union, 1988 to 1991. He tried but failed to lead the Soviet Union through a stage of reform of its political and economic institutions that would permit accelerated capitalist investment but retain a heavy overseer role by the Soviet state, similar to what has evolved in China.

Here is what the editors of the New York Times think about the situation in the east, from a May 12 editorial:

But the gathering rumble of violence accompanying the [autonomy] votes is serious and is driving the Ukrainian crisis in a direction that before long no one — not President Vladimir Putin of Russia, not authorities in Kiev, not the West — will be able to control. . . . The fact that the referendums were held despite Mr. Putin’s urging last week that they be postponed suggests that events are already developing a momentum of their own.

The slogan ‘For an independent and socialist Ukraine’

A very good statement has been recently issued by writers, activists and academics in Europe and (a few) in North America (including Greg Albo in Toronto). It’s called, “Odessa: The last warning/Call for international solidarity.”

The statement concludes with a demand for an “independent, socialist Ukraine.” This slogan seems disconnected from the current situation in the east of Ukraine. Yes, the popular will there is anti-capitalist. But it is also strongly in favour of autonom. It seems more appropriate for progressives to be advocating a “socialist federation of Ukraine.”

The demand for an “independent” Ukraine dates back to the many decades in which Ukraine was not the least independent. During Stalin’s rule in the Soviet Union, Ukraine lived a very harsh dictatorial regime in which millions died from forced collectivizations of land during the 1930s, millions more died due to political and military blunders by Stalin and his leadership entourage leading up to the invasion by Germany in 1941, and Ukrainian language and culture was at best tolerated. A restrictive autonomy evolved within the Soviet Union following the death of Stalin in 1953.

I’m not convinced of the relevance of a slogan (political outlook) for ‘independence’ in today’s Ukraine when the country won formal independence 20-plus years ago and right-wing ideology is the dominant trend in Ukrainian nationalism.

Ukraine remains a country subject to national oppression by virtue of its subordinate economic and political status in Europe. It has a complex and diverse national and linguistic makeup. Taken together, these factors will make it a difficult challenge to eliminate the last vestiges of national oppression.

The real threat to Ukraine political independence today comes as much, or more, from the west as from the east, especially via the threat of economic subordination to an aggressive, Europe-inspired austerity. I think the inclusion of the notion of ‘federation’, instead of ‘independence’, in a political outlook or slogan helps direct attention to this, immediate challenge.

There is a great deal to learn about the complex, social, cultural and historical reality of Ukraine. I had the good fortune of receiving a very informative report from a correspondent in Ukraine just a few days ago. I enclosed it below. I have titled it, “The external powers have only fueled this latent conflict”: Report from Ukraine, May 13, 2014. I have edited it very slightly for language, and the one highlight in the text is by me.

Fascist militias organizing

The Guardian is one of the few English language media outlets to (finally) examine the rise of fascist and rightist militias in Ukraine. On May 15, it published a lengthy account by two of its journalists who are in the country. They interviewed leaders of the political parties and groupings of the far right and they attended a covert training camp of rightists in one of the eastern regions.

A leader of the training camp explains that the Ukraine army has proven unreliable in the shooting of civilians: “It is hard to trust the army and the national guard,” said Semenchenko. “There are cases when they have just given up their weapons and fled. I don’t understand it at all, how can you give an oath to a country and then not stick to it?”

The Guardian writers explain that the consequences can be very grave when untrained and fanatical militias insert themselves in tense political situations. My May 13 Truthout article explained what happened in the Black Sea port city of Mariupol on May 9. The army and rightist militias entered the city during Victory Day ceremonies to seize the police building. They were repulsed, but eight people were killed. This new Guardian article reports that the dead included unarmed civilian whom the militias fired upon as they were retreating.

The Guardian explains the background of Andriy Paruiby, a leading fascist in Ukraine and head of Ukraine’s national security and defence council (that is, a minister in the governing regime in Kyiv):

Parubiy himself has an extremely dubious [sic] past, having set up the neo-fascist Social National party of Ukraine together with the current leader of far-right Svoboda, Oleh Tyahnybok, in the early 1990s. While there has been little evidence that the militias have been motivated by any kind of far-right ideology when fighting in east Ukraine, there is no doubt that radicals have been the people most willing to fight, and this has led to a number of situations which appear to be well beyond the bounds of normal military behaviour.

As I have reported, the leaders of all of Ukraine’s main political parties are calling for the formation of militias. One fascist candidate in the presidential election, Oleh Liashko (Lyashko), has plastered the country with election posters saying, “Death to the occupiers!”

Liashko has become infamous of late because of the wide circulation of a video over the internet showing him interrogating Igor Kakidzyanov, the captured defence minister of the Donetsk People’s Republic. Kakidzyanov is shown in his underwear with his hands bound.

Liashko has been promoting the video. He told the Guardian, “For 23 years nobody has paid any attention to our army, and now when we need to fight for the borders of our country today, we can’t”.

“We need a people’s war, like in the second world war when people rose up to fight fascism, that’s what we need to do now.”

In an understatement, an associate director at Human Rights Watch who is currently in eastern Ukraine, Anna Neistat, said, “This whole situation is completely out of control”. Alas, most Canadian and western media are keeping that a secret. Canada’s opposition party in Ottawa is complaining about loopholes in the sanctions the Harper government has imposed… against Russian businessmen. Sanctions against Ukrainian fascists? Whatever for?

Need for solidarity

I hope that many of those reading this commentary will be moved to organize in solidarity with the political left and the working class as a whole in Ukraine. My May 13 article was written before we learned the full extent of the rightist and fascist repression in Ukraine. Comrades of Borotba Union (Union of Struggle) have been forced underground by the regime and the fascist gangs it has embraced. Conditions are very difficult even in the eastern cities such as Kharkiv (second largest city in Ukraine) where uneasy standoffs prevail between the regime and the autonomy movements. (Here is a video report of rightist thugs attacking an anti-Nazi rally and march in Kharkiv on April 27, 2014.) One proposal on which we can move is to convince unions and university departments in our respective countries to invite on speaking tours writers, union leaders and other activists from Ukraine.

* * *


‘The external powers have only fueled this latent conflict’: Report from Ukraine, May 13, 2014

I have read the article of James Petras. I can say that it has one main flaw in the analysis (like most western kinds of analysis) – the conflict is being presented in geopolitical terms, West vs Russia, ignoring its internal dimension.

Internally, the conflict has several, simultaneous and intersecting dimensions: it’s a conflict between two regions (eastern and western Ukraine), and it’s a conflict between two clans of capitalists and officials. Maidan brought to power the officials of president Yuschenko (‘Orange revolution’) [Victor Yushchenko, president of Ukraine 2005-2010]. Many people in those times of crisis lost their jobs and, therefore, the support to Maidan of large parts of western-Ukrainian society was connected with expectations to find jobs with the support of ‘their’ clan in power — namely in police, army, state structure etc.

Moreover, there is a dimension of the conflict that is a conflict between industrial workers and middle class. The middle class expects improvements of their wealth after free-trade agreement with EU . Maidan also demanded to lower taxes. But industrial workers are mainly concentrated in the east and they potentially lose from a free-trade agreement with EU.

The crisis also has the dimension of the pro-Nazi and pro-soviet fight during WWII. The two main clans in power for 23 years effectively exploited this old line of division. One clan tried to associate itself with Soviets, while another one promoted different far-right groups as their main paramilitary units (and they served as the core of Maidan movement then).

Thus, the external powers (U.S. and Russia) only fueled this latent conflict.

As for the Maidan movement — it could be ‘switched on’ but it’s difficult to ‘switch it off’. Those pro-democracy forces (mainly NGO members) are usually only a cover of far-right groups. As far as I follow their activity for many years, I’d say that ‘pro-democracy’ are quite often the militants of far-right groups too. And the general hostility to lefts in general (not only communists) is one of the aspects of their uniting and consolidating of their forces. There are 500,000 followers alone in one group — Right Sector –and its core is openly nazi (‘Social-National Assembly’). At the same time — various pro-soviet groups have also almost the same number of followers.

Additionally, on the level of society it’s a conflict between ‘pure Ukrainians’ and ‘not pure’.

Moreover, both camps are not unanimous. Inside Maidan movement, there are constant brutal fighting between different far-right units since each of them tries to control the situation completely. There are far-right units that seek to join EU and ‘reclaim the Europe of the white man’, and those ones that are directed to have their own nationalist country without joining EU.

Their opponents (they can be called Anti-Maidan — but they started to gather on squares the same way as Maidan) are even more dispersed. The Slavjansk militia does not obey to Donetsk militia. There are units of Russian nationalists and ethnic Ukrainians from pro-capitalist but opposition parties; there are units of pro-soviet citizens with mainly red flags and own units of communists; there are federalists and independentists – since many people are motivated by the desire to have an autonomous region. There are movements of national minorities in the western Ukraine (Hungarians, Ruthenians) that are opposed to current authorities because of its nationalist agenda.

Since eastern rebels are very pro-soviet and demand nationalization, despite all the claims they are ‘pro-Russian’, Russia itself looks at them with suspicion.

Roger Annis

Roger Annis

Roger Annis is a coordinator of the Canada Haiti Action Network (CHAN) and its Vancouver affiliate, Haiti Solidarity BC. He has visited Haiti in August 2007 and June 2011. He is a frequent writer and...