Russian and Ukrainian socialists speak out

Submitted by AWL on 11 March, 2014 - 12:24

In a statement issued on 1 March, the Russian Socialist Movement denounced Putin's invasion of Crimea.

"War has begun. With the aim of protecting and increasing the assets of the oligarchs in Russia and in Yanukovich's coterie, Russia's leadership has undertaken an invasion of Ukraine...

"It goes without saying that the peoples of Ukraine have a right of self-determination, of full autonomy and independence. But what we are seeing today has nothing to do with the democratic will of the masses. It is a brazen and cynical act of Russian imperialism, aimed at annexing foreign territory and converting Ukraine into part of Russia's protectorate..."

Today, the struggle for freedom in Russia is a struggle against the foreign policy adventurism of the current regime, which seeks collusion in forestalling its own end. The RSM calls on all sincere left and democratic forces to organize anti-war protests. Our demands:

NO RUSSIAN-UKRAINIAN WAR! NO PROVOCATIONS TO BLOODSHED IN UKRAINE!

NO PITTING AGAINST ONE ANOTHER OF THE PEOPLES OF UKRAINE AND RUSSIA!

NO INTERVENTION BY THE ARMIES OF RUSSIA OR ANY OTHER COUNTRIES IN THE AFFAIRS OF CRIMEA!

FREEDOM FROM DICTATORIAL ACTS AND PEACEABLE SELF-DETERMINATION FOR THE PENINSULA'S RESIDENTS!

YES TO THE UKRAINIAN WORKERS' STRUGGLE AGAINST OLIGARCHS AND CORRUPT OFFICIALS! NO TO ETHNIC CONFLICTS!

[The Russian Socialist Movement is the result of the merger of the Russian section of the Fourth International and the former affiliate of the Committee for a Workers International. From Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal]

The "Left Opposition" group of Ukrainian socialists has declared:

"We are for the self determination of Crimea only after the withdrawal of the Russian armies that are carrying out this flagrant intervention. We are for the self determination of the people, and not of the mercenary elite who “self determine” so as to protect themselves from Crimeans with the muzzles of Russian automatic weapons. The outcome of separatism in Crimea will become the rebirth of the Russian empire, which threatens a world war.

"Down with Russian imperialism! Down with the Ukrainian chauvinists! Long live the workers’ independent Ukraine!"

Two Ukrainian socialists spoke in London on 10 March: Volodymyr Ishchenko, an editor of Commons: Journal for Social Criticism, and Zakhar Popovych, a leading member of the "Left Opposition" group.

Both speakers rejected the idea that the ousting of Yanukovych was a "coup". The "change of elites" was the result of a popular rebellion – pressure from below. EU foreign ministers or opposition politicians did not drive the movement against Yanukovych. They were willing to do a deal to keep him in power.

Ishchenko and Popovych said that the role of fascists, or the far right more generally, has been at different times overplayed and underplayed. The Maidan (Independence Square) movement was not a fascist movement, but neither was it a peaceful, democratic movement. In 2004, the Social-National Party of Ukraine was rebranded as Svoboda (Freedom). It gained over 10% of the votes in the last elections and has ministers in the new government.

Zakhar Popovych spoke about his experience on the Maidan protests. He had with him his red flag (with an EU-style circle of stars – representing "Socialist Europe"). He showed photos of leftists on the protests, raising their slogans "For EU - For a socialist Europe."

Popovych and his comrades were physically attacked by the far right. However, despite the influence of the far right, the Maidan protests were a popular, grassroots movement, not manufactured.

The far right gained ground by piggy-backing a popular movement. They have been calling their own rallies for years, getting only a few thousand people. The first of the Maidan rallies had 50,000 people.

Popovych describe the anger of the protestors: against an economic and political system shaped and controlled by oligarchs; against a normalised tax-dodging by oligarchs (there is effectively regressive income tax – the rich paying less of their income in tax than the poor do); against employers disregarding workers' rights (for example, the miners' union wanting "the courts to act" against employers). The protests raised the demand – sign the EU association agreement but without a free trade agreement.

The flagstaff of Popovych's red flag was broken by C14 militia in November as leftists were attacked by far-right militants. The end of November saw a police crackdown on protests and in response the protests grew and became more militant. The Left used opportunities to intervene in rallies and mass meetings.

The insurrection was a very mixed picture – the far right may have led the clashes with the police but then many others joined the struggle. Popovych's impressionistic description was of Ukrainian-speaking western Ukrainians in the tents, and "hipsters" from Kiev (mostly Russian-speaking) throwing Molotov cocktails.

But the overall picture was of a mass revolt of Ukrainians – of different nationalities and ethnicities – for democracy. As the movement gained confidence, it became more inclusive and diverse, less stratified by ethnic or national characteristics.

Compared with 2004, this revolution is "loud" – lots of public discussion in the open air and in occupied buildings. Left Opposition was able to intervene in a rally held by the leftist Student Assembly which had occupied Ukrainian House (the largest convention centre in Kiev). Popovych spoke and gained widespread support for "Social Restoration" (comprehensive social and economic justice including expropriating the oligarchs).

Popovych reported that there is a struggle to hold the ministry of education and science to a high level of accountability. Radical students occupied the ministry building and have banned Svoboda from entering. They interrogated the new Minister for Education on his programme before allowing him to start work.

Left Opposition is involved in an "Open Data" project for the Education Ministry (opening government data to public scrutiny) and they hope to extend this to the Ministry of Culture.

Popovych stressed that there is real support from workers' unions for the Maidan movement – citing the example of Kryvyi Rih (a city in the south-east of the country which is central to Ukraine's iron and steel industry) where the workers' union is overwhelmingly pro-Maidan (with 5,000 workers on pro-Maidan protests and only 100 on pro-Russian protests).

But there are still great dangers. The far right is agitating. The new government has forgotten the social slogans of the movement. It is not taxing the rich. It is agreeing to IMF demands.

Ishchenko said that Svoboda is a xenophobic, homophobic, anti-democratic party with an ethnically exclusive membership. It proposes that the government should be at least 80% ethnic Ukrainian. The far right was not numerically dominant on the Maidan protests (it couldn't be in a movement of hundreds of thousands) but it had political sway. Its slogans on the protests were:

Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!

Glory to the Nation! Death to our enemies!

Ukraine above everything!

Far-right activists engaged in very determined, proactive chanting – teaching their slogans to the crowds in Kiev. The far-right were also at the forefront of clashes with the Police and in controlling some of the occupied buildings.

Svodoba has gained greatly – ministers in the new government; increased visibility; now established as normal part of Ukrainian politics. Far right activists gained respect for their "heroic role" in the struggle. They have also captured weapons in the clashes with the state and have held onto them. They are a real danger – to trade unions, to democracy, to leftists etc.

Ishchenko argued that western military intervention would be an extremely bad idea – likely to accelerate a bloody break-up of Ukraine. Socialists in the West can make demands on their government to provide economic assistance to Ukraine (including writing off its foreign debt – about $75bn) without the neo-liberal/privatising/austerity conditions currently being imposed on Ukraine. Instead, the demand should be for democratic conditions – in particular, for new elections as soon as possible. He argued that economic support for the new Ukraine would give the people of Crimea a strong incentive to want to stay with Ukraine.

In a formulation that provoked some discussion from the floor, Popovych said that he "recognised this Ukrainian government as legitimate and revolutionary. We appeal to all other governments to recognise it as legitimate. But we don't support it politically." In particular, "We don't support its chauvinistic and anti-communist history." Ishchenko echoed these views after some questions and discussion, arguing that it was necessary for the new government to be recognised as just as legitimate as other governments in Europe (i.e. accepting its sovereignty and jurisdiction) but that doesn't mean supporting it politically.

The speakers were asked specifically about the creeping Russian invasion of Crimea and about the prospect of elections being free and fair. Popovych thought that elections would be open to scrutiny and would be fair everywhere except Crimea where people are very frightened.

Ishchenko said the reasons for Russia to invade Crimea could not be straightforward. It's a poor part of Ukraine, an economic burden, and it would be for Russia too. It would seem to reflect a longer-term strategy on Putin's part.