Ukrainian election conflict sets masses into the streets

by Gerry Foley

In the wake of the second round of the Ukrainian presidential elections on Nov. 21, the contradictions that have marked the independent Ukrainian state since its origins in 1991 reached the brink of civil war. The conflict threatened not only open war in Ukraine but the first major clash between the Western capitalist powers and the post-Stalinist rulers of Russia.

Viktor Yanukovych, the candidate of the outgoing president, Leonid Kuchma, was supported by the Russian government. His opponent, Viktor Yushchenko, was backed by the West. Yanukovych’s main base is among the Russian and Russified population of the eastern Ukraine. Yushchenko’s is among the Ukrainian nationalist areas in the west.

The official election returns gave Yanukovych a 3 percent lead. Yushchenko’s supporters claim the results were rigged, pointing in particular to improbably high scores for Yanukovych in two eastern provinces, 93 percent in Donetsk and 90 percent in Luhansk.

Kuchma’s election represented a compromise between the post-Stalinists and the nationalists. It broke down over the election of his successor. He is a fairly typical post-Stalinist politician. But in the context of the breakdown of the Soviet Union, he made concessions to Ukrainian nationalism.

Since the nationalists, being based mainly in the smaller and less populous part of the country, did not have the strength to impose their rule on the Ukraine bequeathed by the breakdown of the Soviet Union, most of them reluctantly backed him, while he also retained the support of most of the post-Stalinists.

Nationalism predominates in the western part of the country, the part that was incorporated first into the Austro-Hungarian empire and later into Poland, in which the burgeoning Ukrainian nationalist movement was not so effectively repressed as it was in the eastern part ruled by the Russian empire. Moreover, in the first phase of industrialization of the Russian empire, large numbers of ethnic Russians were attracted into the developing industrial centers of the eastern Ukraine.

According to Ukrainian census figures, about 17 percent of the total population, concentrated in the east, identifies as Russian. Russian is undoubtedly the main language of at least half of the total population of Ukraine. But in the context of the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian was adopted as the sole official language of the independent Ukraine. One of Yanukovych’s most important campaign promises was to make Russian an official language alongside Ukrainian.

At the time of the Russian civil war of the 1920s, Ukrainian was spoken only by the peasants and Russian by the industrial workers in the Ukraine. A wing of the Bolshevik Party there even considered forming a separate republic in the eastern Ukraine. The Bolshevik leadership, however, came to the conclusion that it was necessary to try to win the support of the masses throughout the Ukraine on the basis of supporting the national self-determination of Ukraine as a whole.

In an attempt to overcome the past national oppression of the Ukrainians, the Bolshevik leaders adopted a policy of Ukrainianization. That remained the policy of the allegedly sovereign Ukrainian state within the Soviet Union. But after the rise of Stalin and the imposition of bureaucratic rule, it was no longer honored in practice. Russification resumed.

As in the other formally sovereign republics of the Soviet Union, with the weakening of Stalinist rule, a movement arose demanding national rights for Ukraine. But it was still in an early stage of its development when the Soviet bureaucracy under Yeltsin hastily granted independence to Ukraine, as to all the other formally sovereign Soviet Socialist Republics. The Soviet boss did this in a situation in which the Stalinist system was collapsing and in which he desperately wanted to avoid conflicts with any rising mass movements.

Aside from the nationalist movement in Ukraine, there was also a movement of miners in the Donetz Basin, who waged militant strike in 1989, which was an important factor in the breakdown of rule by the Stalinist bureaucracy. The relations between the two movements had their ups and downs, but ultimately the miners’ movement did not lead to any permanent new organization, either political or trade union, while the nationalist movement persisted and grew in the form of a spectrum of parties, although none of them had any program for completing the national revolution.

Both the national revolution and the rising social revolution were headed off by the bureaucracy’s sudden surrender on the question of formal independence for Ukraine and then its decision to openly embrace capitalist restoration. The latter choice was designed to atomize and demoralize the growing working-class movement.

For the time being it has succeeded in doing that. But at the same time the moves toward restoring capitalism have increased corruption and more and more divided the old Stalinist bureaucracy itself, as it tries to convert itself into a capitalist class.

In the process, the gap between the eastern Ukraine and the west has widened. There has been less political change in the east than in the west. The almost total control of the media maintained by the Stalinist bureaucracy and its avatars has stunted political debate.

One expression of the contradiction is that in Lviv, the major city in the west, streets are named for nationalist leaders of the interwar period who are still commonly regarded as fascists in the east. This has prompted Russian TV and Ukrainian media associated with the Russian-backed candidate for president, Viktor Yanukovych, to try to pillory the nationalist-backed candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, as a fascist.

In its Nov. 30 issue, an article in the Paris daily Liberation noted: “‘Yushchenko is a fascistoid.’ ‘All his collaborators are savage beasts.’ On Russian TV, which is under tight Kremlin control, the battle is almost as fierce as on the streets of Kiev.”

However, the most influential Polish daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, which, like the rest of the Polish press and government has taken a keen interest in the Ukrainian conflict and weighed in on the side of Yushchenko, pointed out in an article its Nov. 26 issue that there is really very little difference between the social bases of the two candidates. Both are supporters of capitalist restoration and both are backed by tycoons who have benefited from it.

Gazeta Wyborcza described Yanukovych’s base as follows: “Yanukovych is the Donetz clan’s man. This is an influential group in the eastern Ukraine. It is made up of people who, using money made already in the Soviet period in gambling and currency traffic, in the independent Ukraine started privatizing industry. Gradually they took power in all the eastern provinces….

“Yanukovych was governor there for five years, and he ruled with an iron hand. He eliminated the opposition. His people control business and the media. … The informal leader of the Donetsk clan is Rinat Akhmetov, the richest man in the Ukraine.” Other big businessmen support Yushchenko. “Yushchenko’s right hand is Julia Tymoshenko. In the 1990s, she was one of the biggest oligarchs in the country. She made a fortune in energy transactions with Russia….

“Aleksander Zinchenko is the deputy marshal of the parliament and Yushchenko’s chief of staff. For years he supported Kuchma. … The deputy Petro Poroshenko is Yushchenko’s main sponsor. He is the sugar and chocolate king. He has a chain of candy factories in Ukraine and in Russia. Poroshenko is the connection between Yushchenko and Russian business.”

The actual difference between the two camps seems to be essentially the degree to which the new capitalists supporting them are linked to be the big capitalist trusts in Russia. But both groups have such ties; the group linked to Yushchenko could not break them, even if it tilted more toward the West.

One of the factors that destabilized the Kuchma government and led to the breakdown of the compromise he represented was that his regime came to be seen as exceptionally corrupt even for the ex-Soviet Union. It is likely that the stalemate that marked Kuchma’s rule facilitated corruption.

Yushchenko made his reputation as an opposition by trying to trim the corruption. Undoubtedly, one of the factors that makes him more popular with the West than Yanukovych is that he appeared to be trying to curb the worst excesses of gangsterism among the pirates who made their fortunes by robbing state property. That also made him the hero of Ukrainians who resented being robbed and intimidated by the Kuchma regime, which is charged, among other things, with murdering an investigative journalist.

Yushchenko served as premier for a period under Kuchma, but was forced out about two years ago apparently because he was treading too much on the tails of some of the worst pirates. He has even accused his political opponents of trying to poison him.

It is obvious that this history has made Yushchenko a popular figure, whose following goes beyond the nationalist sector of the population. Even by the official figures, the two candidates were almost evenly matched. And the population in the nationalist-dominated part of the country is far less than 50 percent. Moreover, Yushchenko has been able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of enthusiastic supporters in the streets.

The major counterdemonstration that the Yanukovych camp has been able to stage was the vote of delegates from provincial councils on Nov. 28 to begin moves to create an autonomous republic incorporating their jurisdictions if Yushchenko became president. But this was a collection of medium and lower level politicians, undoubtedly corrupt and certainly little reconstructed from the times of totalitarian Stalinist rule.

Most experts quoted in the press, both East and West, doubted that these politicians had any serious intention to split Ukraine. The move was generally interpreted as a bluff.

Nonetheless, the tensions have reached the point when there are moves on both sides to create parallel administrations. That implicitly raises the threat of revolution and civil war, as the leaders of both sides have recognized.

A dizzying parliamentary chess game has been going on over the specifics of annulling the second round of the presidential elections, holding a new one, or holding entirely new elections. The parliament first voted to disavow the results of the presidential elections, which according to the Ukrainian constitution, it does not have the right to do. Then it voted to disavow that vote. Then it voted no confidence in the Yanukovych government, which also, according to some parliamentarians, it does not have the right to do.

One thing the conflict in the Ukraine has shown is the basically undemocratic nature of bourgeois-type elections, especially when a country is almost equally divided between contending political forces. It is an argument for a return to the system of soviets, as it was seen at the beginning of the Russian Revolution, in which the mobilized working people voted for representatives in their work places, who could be recalled at any time.

Whatever the immediate outcome of the present conflict, it is hardly likely to meet the aspirations of the many hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who have mobilized to demand democracy and “truth.” Thus, one way or another, the Ukrainian people do not have much to gain or lose. Some of the pirates may lose a lot, their ill-gotten gains or their freedom. But it is not going to have much effect on the pirates as a group.

The best thing that can come out of the present crisis is if sections of the Ukrainian people begin to overcome the hopelessness into which the Stalinist bureaucracy’s attempt to restore capitalism has plunged them, and that they gain confidence in their ability to organize and thereby to change the society that they live in.

*This article first appeared in the December 2004 issue of Socialist Action newspaper.