While Western and Russian mainstream media outlets fail to offer a clear analysis of recent events in Ukraine, we must take a look at history and class interests to truly understand what is happening.
23 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia is once again a capitalist country with imperialist ambitions. Tied to a global system driven by profit and subject to its booms and busts, Russia’s economy is based on a corrupt “lootocracy” which has privatised most of the formerly collective wealth of the country. Moscow, for example, has the highest number of billionaires of any city in the world.
But investment is declining and capital is fleeing the country, and not just because of events in Crimea and Ukraine. Russian officials themselves are predicting another recession – one that never really ended for the majority of working people.
Industrial production has drastically declined, and jobs have disappeared as a result. In some regions, more than half the working population is unemployed. And one quarter of those who are in employment have jobs with no benefits or legal rights, and receive miserable wages. Migrants who worked for the Sochi Olympics, for example, were abused and, in some cases, even cheated out of their wages.
Meanwhile, with the system of free, universal public healthcare demolished, the nation’s health has deteriorated. And forest fires rage uncontrolled because forests are now privatised and equipment used to monitor and fight fires no longer exists.
The repressive nature of Putin’s government is necessary to enforce the acute social inequality that had been fostered under capitalism. Popular opposition, which includes left-wingers, feminists, trade unionists, environmentalists, and LGBT activists, hit a high point in 2012, when there were mass protests against Putin’s allegedly fraudulent re-election.
But he does have popular support, and it is based on his appeals to Russian nationalism and promises to return Russia to its former glory as a great world power. But such nationalism has always been based on the subjugation of smaller nations and national minorities.
Lenin, Trotsky, and others championed the democratic rights of small nations and national minorities oppressed by tsars and imperialists, creating a freely federated Soviet Union. Under Stalin, however, Great Russian chauvinism returned, with whole ethnic groups being deported to Siberia, including Crimean Tatars, Chechens, Latvians, Lithuanians, and Estonians. Western Ukraine, meanwhile, suffered bloody purges, and millions of Ukrainians died in the famines of 1932 and 1933. In World War II, many Ukrainian nationalists fought alongside Nazi troops precisely because of their opposition to Stalinist abuses.
The Ukrainian Crisis
Ukraine is one of the poorest countries in Eastern Europe, and anger towards both Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs runs high. Also, the nation has struggled to pay off its massive debt, mostly owed to the supplier of almost half of its natural gas – Russia. On top of this, fifty-six percent of Ukrainians live in poverty, and many children live and die in the streets.
The recent Maidan movement began when several hundred university students camped out in the cold to protest Yanukovych’s refusal to sign a “free trade” and IMF loan agreement with the EU. Such deals were pushed by the opposition as the only alternative to the status quo. But when these demonstrators were attacked by the police, more violent sectors of the opposition exploited the protests. Anger over poverty, inequality, and repression was justified, but the right-wing opposition offers no alternative.
Seeing a chance to encourage Western-friendly regime change, both the USA and EU sought to direct these protests, using the NGO “CANVAS” to agitate just as it has recently been doing in Venezuela. The fact that the leader handpicked by the White House, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, is now the country’s acting prime minister is evidence that the USA’s tactics worked.
The Svoboda (Freedom) Party, involved in both the opposition movement and the current ‘government’, may have toned down its Nazi image, but it remains both anti-Semitic and right-wing in nature. Its paramilitary ‘Right Sector’, now running the Ukrainian National Security Council, beat up left-wingers who participated in the protests against Yanukovych, and possibly even carried out the sniper attack that eventually led to the toppling of the government. It has also carried out attacks against feminists demanding equal pay and more nurseries.
The genuine discontent in Ukraine has, for the moment, been exploited by the right-wing opposition. The future of Ukrainian politics, though, will also depend on events in Russia. For example, Putin knows that he needs to deal with both Europe’s expanding trade with former Soviet states and NATO’s buildup of military bases on Russia’s borders. However, if his occupation of Crimea continues, his financial and political problems could render him unable to act.
Ukrainians, meanwhile, seem to have a difficult choice, between Russia, the imperialist West, and homemade right-wingers – none of whom will truly bring freedom and social justice to Ukraine. Until a democratic, multi-ethnic, and socialist alternative is proposed, little will change for working class Ukrainians.
Adapted from an article written by Megan Cornish for Freedom Socialist April-May 2014 – Volume 35, No. 2