Ukraine protests: What’s at stake?

By NICK KEYS

 — UPDATED JAN. 30 — The protests that have rocked Ukraine are making worldwide headlines. The largest protests began in December and were attended by anywhere between 250,000 and 300,000 people.

The initial protests were much smaller and were a response to Ukraine’s unexpected refusal to sign an association agreement with the European Union. The EU and the Ukraine had been negotiating the terms of their agreement for nearly a decade, so it came as a bit of a shock to those in the Ukrainian bourgeoisie whose interests are, for the moment, more closely aligned with the EU. Since the initial protests, the manifestations have had ebbs and flows, and the demands have changed with time.

The catalyst to the movement was when the very first and small protests were met with police brutality. This gave the movement a decided jolt. It illustrates again that the agents of capitalism fail to learn that brutality against peaceful protesters always inflames the passion of a people’s cause. In this case, it helped ignite the biggest protests since the “Orange Revolution” of 2004. However, instead of protesting electoral fraud, the Ukrainian people were voicing their rejection of police brutality and the continued economic relationship with Russia.

The Ukrainian government was acting well within its power by rejecting the agreement. After all, the EU had demanded a number of changes in Ukrainian economic and political policy, and the Yanukovich government righteously refused.

The most odious part of the agreement was a loan from the EU, contingent upon meeting various demands of the International Monetary Fund. Among its demands was a restructuring of its economy by currency devaluation, government austerity, the freezing of wages, and a rise in oil and natural gas prices.

In short, it was more “bitter medicine” to a country that is already experiencing economic and social contraction. This economic issue was to temporarily take the back seat as the government continued to make missteps.

The latest round of protests is a response to “anti-protest” laws that were passed on Jan. 16. These laws place a ban on putting up structures, making amplified speeches, and “slandering” public officials. This round was perhaps the most militant. Protesters briefly occupied the Ministry of Justice, although they left after the government threatened to impose a state of emergency. Also, whereas early protests were focused in Kiev, newer protests have been reported in regional capitals as well.

In a stunning about-face, the Ukrainian government agreed to repeal the new “anti-protest” laws and offer amnesty to protesters who had occupied the Ministry of Justice. The government of Viktor Yanukovich even went so far as to offer the opposition leader, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the position of Prime Minister, which he promptly rejected. In a final concession, the Ukrainian prime minister has resigned, and with him the parliament. It is a testament once again to the power of mass movements and people mobilizing in the streets!

But one must ask the crucial question for any protest movement: who are its actors and principal instigators? And who is actually attending these protests?

While it is impossible to know the exact class composition of these protests, we can make an educated guess given the attendance of certain parties. Oil and gas magnate and billionaire Evgenia Tymoshenko, father of jailed former Prime Minister Yulya Tymoshenko, far-right groups, patriarchs of the Orthodox church, and Ukraine’s neo-Nazi Svodoba (Freedom) Party were present.

In later protests, John McCain, that rejected and forgotten pariah of the Republican Party, was present to deliver his message, “We are here to support your just cause, the sovereign right of Ukraine to determine its own destiny freely and independently.” Never mind that the Yanukovich government was elected in free elections, and determining its economic policy is well within its mandate; such hypocrisies clearly don’t bother the agents of imperialism. Cameo appearances aside, the leading political groups in the protest movement clearly point to a reactionary character.

However, we can also assume that given the sheer amount of protesters, the working class is certainly represented. The right wing is exploiting working-class anger, which is often the case in economically depressed areas. The Ukraine is one of Europe’s poorest countries and has all the accompanying social indices, such as high infant mortality rate.

Furthermore, due to ongoing budget crises, the Ukrainian government canceled unemployment benefits in June 2013. The resulting social morass is definitely a cause for concern and well worth protesting. Moreover, the history of fascism teaches us that when there is a lack of revolutionary leadership during social upheaval, reactionary groups happily fill the void and exploit the working class.

Although the Ukrainian government initially accepted an economic lifeline from Russia to the tune of $15 billion and an agreement to cut the price of natural gas, the Russian government has since suspended their agreement until the Ukraine is able to convene a new parliament. In other words, it wants to make sure it has a government that will continue to be preferential to the Kremlin.

Whether the pro-EU or pro-Russian wings of the bourgeois class come to the fore in Ukraine, the subjugation of the working class will continue. The choice at this point essentially boils down to either a government that will sell out to Russian oligarchs or one that will sell out to EU oligarchs; both are worthless for the working class. The Ukrainian working class needs organizations that represent it independently of its own national bourgeoisie and EU and Russian influence.

‘Russification’ in Ukraine

 The Ukrainian people have long suffered under what Lenin referred to as the “Great Chauvinism” of Russia. They were subjected to centuries of “Russification” policies by the Romanov Tsars. Lenin and the Bolsheviks, on the other hand, offered the right to full self-determination to all oppressed nationalities within the Empire—including separation and independence if they chose.

The October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution quickly spread to the working class of the Ukraine. A long struggle ensued with the reactionary bourgeois government, which invited the German army to occupy the region and put down the revolution. Following the defeat of Germany, civil war raged in the Ukraine for four more years, as the Red Army fought French, Polish, and various White reactionary armies.

After the Soviet victory in 1921, Lenin pushed for a policy that would promote Ukrainian national rights, culture, and language. However, Stalin brought Ukraine firmly back into the Russian “sphere of influence” shortly thereafter, and there it has remained.

Ukraine suffered some of the worst depravity of those years, including the “Holodomor” famine, which claimed the lives of millions of Ukrainians. This storied history helps contextualize why an economic pact with Russia is unsavory to so many Ukrainian people.

Photo: Protesters with clubs battle cops in attempted march on Ukrainian parliament building, Jan. 19. Alexie Furman / European Pressphoto Agency