By MICHAEL SCHREIBER
While fighting rages in Ukraine’s eastern provinces, the Kiev government, which came to power in a U.S.-backed coup in February, has made an attempt to shore up its shaky claims to legitimacy. This was achieved to a certain extent with the May 25 national elections, in which billionaire Petro Poroshenko, the “chocolate king,” triumphed over the other capitalist candidates, snagging 54 percent of the vote.
According to the official Central Election Commission, a meager 60 percent of those eligible went to the polls nationwide. The percentage included votes of over 400,000 Ukrainian citizens living in the United States and other countries but excluded the rebellious Donetsk region, where only about 15 percent voted. But the outcome was enough for the White House and the Western big-business media to term the election a victory for “democracy” and to hail the new executive in chief.
Obama met with Poroshenko in Warsaw on June 4, while pledging up to $1 billion in expenditures to beef up the U.S. military presence in Poland and other NATO countries bordering Russia.
Poroshenko had an advantage over the other presidential candidates in that many see him as having gained his immense fortune though the “normal” channels of capitalist enterprise, unlike most other Ukrainian oligarchs, who acquired their assets through outright theft of state property during the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. He is also a rather adept political chameleon, having switched his allegiances several times by serving in office for competing governing regimes.
Poroshenko was an occasional speaker at the initial Maidan (Independence Square) protests, which devolved into fascist-controlled mobilizations that became central to the February coup, in which armed militias led by the pro-Hitler Svoboda Party and the even more virulent Right Sector stormed the Ukrainian parliament (Rada).
Poroshenko says that he hopes to sign an economic association pact with the European Union soon after his June 7 inauguration. The major task for Poroshenko’s government will be to enforce the EU’s demands for austerity measures that will further cut living standards of the country’s working class.
At the same time that Western European governments are pressing for austerity, they have nudged Kiev to mend its relations with Moscow; the Europeans are fearful of a possible cutoff of gas supplies from Russia since the pipelines run through Ukraine.
Following the overthrow of President Victor Yanukovych, Russia suspended the broad discounts on gas shipments it had given Ukraine. The EU, Ukraine, and Russia are now about to open talks concerning future supplies and prices. As a condition of the negotiations, Ukraine has promised Russia that it will pay $786 million as a first installment on its back debt.
Russia has given many indications that it is seeking an accommodation with the Kiev government. President Vladimir Putin said that he would “respect” the outcome of the May 25 elections, and that his government had no intention of heeding the calls of the breakaway Donetsk Peoples Republic (DPR) for Russia to annex the eastern region. And Russia has withdrawn most of the troops that it had stationed on the Ukraine border—a fact that was confirmed by the U.S. State Department on May 30.
But despite the Kiev government’s talks with Russia, any notion that it will employ a soft hand in dealing with oppositionists must be put aside. Kiev troops are turning the country’s rebellious east into a battleground. Casualties have steadily mounted as Ukrainian government forces advance on cities that have been held by supporters of the Donetsk Peoples Republic.
To be sure, the Ukrainian army draftees have shown little motivation in pursuing their military campaign against people in the east. In earlier confrontations, Kiev troops deserted to the rebels, bringing their armored vehicles and heavy weapons with them. More recently, anger has begun to swell in some districts of western Ukraine as young men are brought back in coffins. In several locations around the country, relatives of soldiers have picketed and blockaded military bases; in at least one instance, parents marched onto a base to reclaim their conscripted sons.
The army’s poor record of dependability has caused the Kiev government to bolster its ranks with units of the newly formed National Guard—which includes members of the Right Sector and other fascist or ultra-right bands—as well as with semi-private armies financed by various capitalist oligarchs.
The city of Slovansk has become a military focal point. The Kiev government has used jets, helicopters, and artillery to fire on residential neighborhoods, hospitals, and schools. According to the Kyiv Post, some refugees from the fighting in the east have started to arrive in Russia-annexed Crimea.
On May 29, DPR fighters shot down a helicopter that had been ferrying National Guard troops to their battle station on the outskirts of Slovansk. Reports stated that 14 men had been killed on board, including General Serhiy Kulchytiskiy, the top officer in charge of training the National Guard.
Meanwhile, in Donetsk, the largest city in the region, Kiev troops and airborne units were able to reclaim the airport, which rebels had briefly captured on May 26. Many DPR partisans were killed when a truck carrying their men away from the battle was hit by helicopter fire.
As warplanes screamed over Donetsk, Western press dispatches claimed that disorder, even “anarchy,” had overtaken this city of one million. An Agence France Presse (AFP) report of May 30 stated that the city had become “lawless.” Police were “nowhere to be seen” since many police officers have switched sides to support the insurgents.
One resident told an AFP reporter: “A few days ago, armed men in hooded tops arrived at two car showrooms. They demanded a dozen cars ‘for the revolution.’” The article stated that while many attacks have apparent criminal motivations, others “have a more political edge, such as the looting of a warehouse belonging to chocolate tycoon and newly elected Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko in the nearby town of Makiivka.”
The AFP dispatch commented that “one incident of criminality,” the looting of a supermarket near the city’s airport, “seems to have driven a wedge between rebel factions.” Whether that is true is open to debate, however, since the structure and political goals of the rebel groups are not completely clear. Apparently, the thefts stirred armed members of the Vostok Batallion (“East” Batallion), one of the major armed units fighting in the Donbas region, to take over the regional administration building in Donetsk, which the DPR had been using as its headquarters. On May 29, bulldozers were employed to clear the barricades surrounding the building.
People’s Republic leader Denis Pushilin later admitted that some of the stolen merchandise from the market had been found in the DPR offices. “We’ve begun a cleanup of our ranks—we want to stop looting so this doesn’t happen any more,” Alexander Maltsev, a spokesman for Pushilin, told Bloomberg News on May 30. “We detained 12 people yesterday and set up checkpoints around the city.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has charged that there is “evidence of Russians crossing over, trained personnel from Chechnya trained in Russia, who’ve come across to stir things up, to engage in fighting.” The Kiev government and the Western media have made similar allegations, and point to the Vostok Battalion as proof. And indeed, a few Vostok members have said in media interviews that they come from the Russian side of the border—but they emphasize that they are “volunteers.” Evidence of organized and direct Russian military intervention remains elusive, no matter how much the White House and the Kiev government scream about it.
On June 1, Reuters printed an interview with the commander of the Vostok Battalion, Alexander Khodakovsky, a Donetsk native who formerly had been the head of an elite unit of the Ukrainian state security service. Khodakovsky told Reuters that he had gradually shifted his political outlook, from rejection of the Kiev coup in February to now embracing the cause of complete independence from Ukraine.
“The split of the country is final. There is nothing uniting us with them (the Kiev leadership) now,” Khodakovsky said. He told Reuters that he had no illusions in Russia’s immediate goals for the region: “I think Russia uses us to pursue its geo-political interests, have a buffer between itself and the West. We do not deceive ourselves about that. But even knowing this, we stick to Russia because it is our culture.”
Addressing the question of non-Ukrainian volunteers, he said, “there are no Chechens now. There were. They left yesterday [May 29] with their injured and killed.“
The Donetsk Peoples Republic was reinforced by a May 11 referendum; it was announced that 96 percent of voters in Luhansk province had endorsed self-rule for the DPR and almost 90 percent in Donetsk province. Since then, support for the DPR appears to have remained strong in the region. If anything, according to reporters on the ground, bloodshed caused by the Ukrainian military offensive has hardened popular opinion against the Kiev regime.
Striking coalminers marched and rallied in Donetsk’s Lenin Square on May 28 in support of the DPR and in protest of the attack by the Kiev army. Many spoke out against the presence of fascists in the Kiev government. The miners, on strike in at least six mines, were members of the Union of Mineworkers, which apparently has had links to ousted President Victor Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions.
And on May 25, several thousand people demonstrated in Donetsk against the coup government in Kiev and the Ukrainian presidential election held the same day. Later, a large portion of the crowd marched to the residence of Rinat Akhmetov, an industrialist who is supposedly the richest man in Ukraine.
The protesters were angered by the fact that several days earlier Akhmetov had ordered thousands of his workers to march in daily rallies against the “separatists.” The workers were reportedly given time off from work for the rallies, and threatened with reprisals if they refused. In retaliation, some of the May 25 protesters demanded nationalization of Akhmetov’s properties, which include mines, metal works, banks, insurance, power generation, media, and real estate.
Demands for nationalization of the property of the oligarchs, which have been made in several instances, show that a degree of working-class consciousness underlies the protest activity in Ukraine—especially in the major industrial belt in the country’s east. With little doubt, many working people realize that yoking their country to the big imperialist powers, the United States and the European Union, will provide few rewards for Ukraine. They are fearful that the economic measures stipulated by the EU will send their already low living standards tumbling.
Unfortunately, a mass-based leadership that can speak to the interests of working people is as gravely lacking in the Donetsk Peoples Republic as it is in the rest of Ukraine. This is readily reflected in the provisions of the DPR’s constitution—which is a profoundly conservative document.
The constitution, adopted on May 16, proclaims the DPR as a parliamentary state, with Russian and Ukrainian as its official languages. It is evident that the document’s framers believe the new state must remain capitalist. For example: “The right of private property is protected by law.”
The constitution enshrines the Russian Orthodox Church as the “leading and dominant belief” in the new republic and as the “backbone” of the “Russian World.” Rights are granted to citizens of the DPR “from the moment of conception,” a phrase that indicates there will be restrictions on the right of women to choose to terminate pregnancies. And gay and lesbian relationships are outlawed: “Any forms of perverted unions between people of the same sex are not acknowledged, not allowed, and will be prosecuted.”
The constitution also raises the prospect of the new state’s becoming part of “Greater Russia,” although Moscow has so far given a cold shoulder to this. Annexation to Russia, however, would provide little relief for Ukrainian workers. Working people in Russia are held down by their own exploitative capitalist class, and oppressed by the autocratic Putin regime.
Indeed, the myriad of secret negotiations between the new U.S./EU-advised Ukrainian government, Russia, and the U.S. appear to be centered on critical economic matters that include who will control Ukraine’s massive shale gas reserves, the fourth largest in the world, and whether Russia’s annexation of Crimea will be eventually formally recognized.
The future exploitation of oil, gas, and other fossil-fuel resources are at stake in all these matters. Crimea’s offshore fossil fuel resources, estimated to be worth over $1 trillion, are currently under Russian hegemony, while U.S. oil cartels, before and after the February coup, have been signing contracts to frack Ukraine’s massive reserves.
In all these instances, the pursuit of profit for the capitalist elite trumps the needs of the Ukrainian people, not to mention the interests of all humanity. Today, diplomatically conducted and increasingly military-backed “oil wars” over the very resource whose continued use spells doom for humankind are in full swing in the events surrounding the struggle for power in Ukraine.
Working people in Ukraine need a revolutionary party and program that can transcend national and cultural differences and unite the country in a broad movement to sweep away the capitalist oligarchs and their fascist shock troops. Instead of the current Kiev government of billionaires and thieves, Ukraine needs a government that is led by working people and serves their interests. That is a socialist government.
In the meantime, the Kiev government is escalating its war against people in the east who are seeking self-rule or autonomy. Once the conflict widens, the danger increases of direct U.S. military intervention.
With U.S. troops taking part in ongoing maneuvers in Poland and the Baltic states, and U.S.-backed mercenaries from Blackwater already on the ground, this is no small threat. This danger must be answered in the United States by building a powerful and united antiwar movement that stands in uncompromising opposition to all U.S. intervention in Ukraine.
Photo: New Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko.