By NICK KEYS
The astonishing outcome of the Ukrainian protests is an important testament to the power of mass action, although the professed goals of the protests do not offer benefits for the working class of that country.
The initial protests began in December 2013 as a response to the unexpected refusal by the government of Viktor Yanukovich to sign an association agreement with the European Union (EU). 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 the Ukrainian population. This refusal to sign any agreement with the EU was quickly followed by an economic lifeline from Russia; the government agreed to accept a loan from Russia, without committing itself to their emergent Customs Union.
As we entered 2014, the protest movement had dwindled, and the crisis appeared to be headed to a resolution. However, the government lacked patience and perhaps was overly eager to put the affair behind them.
On Jan. 22, police entered Independence Square in an effort to evict the camped protesters. The police were emboldened by “anti-protest” laws, which had been passed on Jan. 16. These laws placed a ban on putting up structures, making amplified speeches, and slandering public officials. The police were met with resistance, and in the ensuing conflagration two protesters were killed.
This incident marked a decided militant turn in the protest movement. In the course of the next few weeks, they occupied various government buildings and continued their occupation of Independence Square. On Jan. 24, Yanukovich’s prime minister resigned, and Parliament repealed the hastily passed “anti-protest” laws. The concessions were proof to the Ukrainian people that they had the upper hand.
On Feb. 16, protesters occupied City Hall and were able to negotiate the release of their jailed comrades. On Feb. 18, as Parliament was balking at the prospect of limiting Yanukovich’s presidential powers, street clashes erupted between the police and protesters, resulting in the death of at least 26 people, while hundreds more were injured. In the late hours of Feb. 19, it was announced that the Yanukovich government and leading opposition politicians had finally agreed to a truce. It appeared again that a political resolution was at hand.
Yet before the ink had dried, clashes re-ignited, this time with the casualties approaching 100, with many more injured. This final confrontation between the protesters and the police brought down the house of cards. With surprising speed, Yanukovich agreed to hold early elections, Parliament limited presidential powers, and they released the former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, considered a political prisoner and now a likely presidential candidate.
However, it was too little, too late. Unsatisfied, protesters seized control of Kiev, and Parliament voted Yanukovich out of office. Yanukovich called the action a “coup d’etat” and fled the capital. In an attempt to stay ahead of protester’s demands, the government has issued a warrant for his arrest for committing “mass murder.” It was a stunning descent for the embattled president and a telling story about the effectiveness of mass protest.
It has remained abundantly clear throughout this entire crisis that the traditional political machinery of Ukraine was completely unable to maneuver quickly enough to satisfy the demands of the protesters. They were forced to compromise on practically all of the issues that only months ago they had taken for granted. The impotence and weakness of the Ukrainian parliament allowed the protesters to continue urging demands and to remain the driving force for immediate change. The protests have exposed the pervasive corruption and contradictory policies of Ukraine’s political leadership.
While pro-EU sentiment dominated the initial protests, it was quickly displaced by a demands with a decidedly anti-government character. The anger displayed in the protests is a natural outcome of the general dysfunction of Ukrainian political parties. As a rule, all Ukrainian parties tend to have a populist flair, blending together forms of conservatism and nationalism. They have a right liberal and a left populist side, each issuing contradictory rhetoric and demands.
There are various parties that claim to represent the working-class, yet they do not embrace any progressive values. In fact, one of the sad casualties of the demise of socialism in Ukraine has been the retreat of progressive politics altogether. The result has been a very confusing political landscape and almost no leadership for the working-class.
The history of fascism teaches us that when there is a lack of revolutionary leadership during social upheaval, reactionary groups happily fill the void. This has been the case in the Ukraine, where the Svodoba (Freedom) Party and the opposition group Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) have dominated political life in the protest movement. Although both groups are right-wing and nationalist in character, Pravy Sektor is more explicitly fascist. They are also more openly militant. They armed themselves, engaged in skirmishes with the police and at times acted as provocateurs. They also monopolized parts of Independence Square and repelled attempts by anti-fascist groups to discuss their ideas with the public
Before the protests began, these groups rarely worked together. Their opposition to Yanukovich united the two groups and they formed a potent political counterbalance to Parliament. However, since they’ve achieved their common goal, it is doubtful that they will continue to work together, at least in the short term. Svodoba will return to the halls of Parliament and Pravy Sektor will use their victory to recruit new members. What is most troubling is that both groups walk away from the movement with their political stock increased.
The future of the Ukraine still hangs heavily in the balance. The divisiveness of Ukrainian politics is sure to continue. The collaboration of Ukraine’s most nationalistic parties certainly suggests a swing to the right. With Yanukovich out, Russia has lost an ally. If it wants to retaliate, it need only raise the price of Ukraine’s natural gas, which would be sufficient to bring the economically ailing country to its knees overnight. Also, Russia’s loan agreement is most assuredly off the table with Yanukovich’s exit.
Meanwhile, the Ukraine’s interim government will try its best to pursue integration with the EU, and with it the austerity demanded by the International Monetary Fund. Whether the pro-EU or pro-Russian wings of the bourgeois class come to the fore in the Ukraine, the subjugation of the working class will continue. The choices at this point essentially boil 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.
Photo: Ukrainian protesters carry material to build barricades against police.