As we write on 27 January, the political flux in Ukraine has reached a level where a wide range of dramatic outcomes look possible.
Town halls in many areas in the west of the country, and some central ministries in Kiev, have been seized by anti-government protesters and barricaded. According to the BBC, the protests have now spread to the east of the country, previously thought to be the government’s main base of support.
On 22 January President Yanukovych introduced drastic laws to suppress the street protests. Then he offered to appoint opposition leaders as prime minister and deputy prime minister (the opposition leaders turned down the offer) and to amend, and then to scrap, the anti-protest laws.
The justice minister, angered by the opposition’s seizure of her ministry building, threatened the declaration of a state of emergency. The opposition activists then quit the building, but as of 27 January were still blockading it from outside.
The ferment started after 21 November, when the Yanukovych regime failed to sign a trade agreement with the European Union, and instead steered towards closer links with Russia.
Ukraine was dominated politically by Russia for centuries under the Tsars, and then was dominated again, even more cruelly, under Stalinism. In 1932-3 the Ukraine suffered a huge famine, killing maybe five million, as a result of dislocation caused by Stalin’s forced collectivisation. To some extent the Stalinist regime deliberately intensified the famine, or let it intensify, in order to break Ukrainian morale and resistance.
Decades later, under the Brezhnev regime, Ukraine was still subjected to attempts at forced Russification.
In 1939 Leon Trotsky made, on the Ukrainian question, one of his sharpest shifts towards advocating revolutionary struggle against the Stalinist bureaucracy, unrestrained by fears of “disrupting the planned economy” or “weakening the USSR against the West”. He called for the independence of eastern Ukraine, then ruled by Moscow, and its right to unite with the western part of Ukraine, then ruled by Poland.
Some anti-Stalinist socialists objected that “the separation of the Ukraine threatens to break down the plan and to lower the productive forces”. Trotsky replied: “This argument is not decisive. An economic plan is not the holy of holies. If national sections within the federation, despite the unified plan, are pulling in opposite directions, it means that the plan does not satisfy them...
“Moreover, it is impermissible to forget that the plunder and arbitrary rule of the bureaucracy constitute an important integral part of the current economic plan, and exact a heavy toll from the Ukraine”.
That background explains why masses of people in Ukraine see association with the EU as offering more national freedom, and greater chances of escaping their grinding poverty, than renewed subordination to Russia. Ukraine’s GDP per capita is only about $3,500, about half Bulgaria’s and maybe 40% of Romania’s.
Ukrainians will be aware of the cuts commandments of the EU authorities of southern Europe; however, the Ukrainian economy is already in deep trouble and debt problems, so they are unlikely to think that keeping distance from the EU is a protection from cuts and crises.
The opposition includes the far-right party Svoboda, linked to Jobbik in Hungary and the BNP in Britain. Other opposition leaders, less right-wing, accept Svoboda as a major ally.
Much depends on the growth of political forces able to champion Ukrainian freedom while intransigently combatting the far-right nationalists.