Our men in Kiev and Donetsk
The far right are enemies, not friends, says Eddie Ford
As highlighted by the recent presidential elections, Ukraine continues to fracture along ethnic-linguistic lines. Petro Poroshenko, the billionaire ‘chocolate king’, was declared outright winner on May 25 with 54.7%, making a second round of elections unnecessary. His closest competitor, Yulia Tymoshenko, the disgraced former prime minister imprisoned in 2011, trailed far behind on 12.8%. As for the candidates representing the far-right Svoboda and Right Sector, they had a bad night - getting only 1.2% and 0.7% respectively, beaten by the Communist Party of Ukraine on 1.5%.
Inevitably though, the picture was different in the eastern part of the country. Though the official turnout may have been 60.2%, millions of citizens in the turbulent east did not vote at all - whether due to separatist/pro-Russian sympathies or a fear of intimidation by militias. In the Donbas region, which covers the Donetsk and Luhansk districts, only 20% of the ballot stations were open. For example, in Donetsk - a city of close to one million people - there was nowhere to vote at all. Unsurprisingly, the regions which previously had majority support for the ousted Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of the Kremlin, had the lowest turnout since independence in 1991.
In reality, Poroshenko is yet another oligarch - it as though his type has a divine right to rule. In the chaos of the 1990s, he snapped up several state-owned confectionery firms on the cheap, and now has a vast business empire that includes car plants, a shipyard and - very handily - his own private TV station. In Poroshenko’s own words, Channel Five played a “tremendously important role” during the Maidan demonstrations for “freedom and democracy” (though it is worth noting that in 2012 he was Yanukovych’s trade minister).
During his election campaign, Poroshenko promised to steer Ukraine firmly out of Moscow’s orbit and into the western sphere of influence - something he says should have happened decades ago. He has also called for new “security guarantees” from the west, wanting a new treaty to replace the 1994 Budapest Memorandum - that in theory saw the United States, Britain and Russia all pledging to safeguard Ukraine’s territorial integrity. For Poroshenko, the original treaty has been rendered null and void by Moscow’s “invasion” and “annexation” of Crimea. Hardly coincidentally, Poroshenko made a flying visit to London on March 25 - where he and other opposition leaders met with the foreign secretary William Hague. Just a bit of friendly advice for our men in Kiev.
Meanwhile, on May 29 we saw a coup in the Donetsk People’s Republic. Established on April 27, a month later it formed a confederation with the neighbouring Lugansk People’s Republic - both declaring that they were now part of the ‘Federal State of New Russia’ (Novorossiya), which is so far unrecognised by any state in the world, including Russia.
Anyway, the old regime - insofar as you can call it that - was contemptuously swept aside by heavily armed paramilitaries, some using rocket-propelled grenades and other relatively sophisticated military hardware. Pavel Gubarev, who had served as the republic’s first ‘people’s governor’ and had been an architect of the local separatist movement, vanished without trace - so too did his close associates. The new prime minister of the Donetsk Peoples Republic is Alexander Borodai, a former adviser to the prime minister of Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov. More significantly, he is a long-term resident of Moscow and in the 1990s he helped edit the far-right newspaper, Zavtra - which in the past has argued that “Jews are the cause of Russia’s misery”, and that Russian nationalists should “answer them with a fist”.1
Even more significant is the fact that the armed personnel responsible for the takeover are Russian-speakers from South Ossetia and Chechnya. By all accounts, they are primarily drawn from the Vostok battalion - which has its roots in an erstwhile Chechen unit that fought in the 2008 Georgian war, and now includes combatants recruited from Crimea and other parts of the Russian Federation. The Financial Times quotes one of the fighters as saying: “Our president [Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov] gave the order. They called us and we came”.2 The immediate response is to ask, who ordered Kadyrov to give the orders to fight in Donetsk? The answer, of course, is obvious - the Kremlin.
The coup has to be viewed in the context of recent military escalation. On May 25 Poroshenko fancifully vowed to end armed insurgency in the east within “hours”, Kiev’s forces launching air strikes on separatist positions during an intense battle to regain control of Donetsk airport. Up to 35 militiamen died in the fighting. However, showing the general direction in which things are going, a helicopter was shot down, killing 14 soldiers - including General Serhiy Kulchytskiy, head of combat and special training for Ukraine’s national guard. A setback for the Kiev government. Clearly, you do not normally shoot down a helicopter with a hand gun or even an AK47 - that requires the use of missiles in trained hands. But fighters from the Vostok battalion have taken the lead role in the battle for the airport, and in general have brought a higher degree of order to the militia movement.
Meaning that the Kremlin is increasingly pulling the strings in Donetsk and other parts of eastern Ukraine - a move by Moscow to “reverse the slide towards warlordism”, as one expert on the Russian security services put it, and “exert more control” over the uprising it has encouraged.3 Put an end to unruly conduct. That is something implicitly acknowledged by Borodai, the Kremlin’s man in Donetsk, declaring that “we are fighting against looting” and that the headquarters of the Donetsk People’s Republic had been “cleaned” - in every sense of the term. Such actions follow a trend of Russian commanders imposing order among the rebels in recent days. Specifically, two rebels were shot last week in Slavyansk for “looting”, “armed robbery”, “kidnapping” and “leaving battle positions” - time for military discipline.
For good or for bad, the Donetsk People’s Republic looks destined to go the way of other Russian enclaves and become an outpost of the Russian Federation. Whether it is joined by other regions of southern and eastern Ukraine is impossible to tell - almost anything can happen.
What we do know though is that the left in Britain, for the most part, has taken a disastrous approach - backing one or the other side in the conflict. Either Kiev or Moscow. One side looks enviously at the protests in Independence Square and imagines it is a progressive revolution, or uprising, against an oligarch - therefore we have to support it. After all, anything that draws a crowd must be progressive - right? Such comrades, like Socialist Resistance, believe that out of this spontaneity will come the royal road to socialism. All you need to do is nudge the masses in the right direction with your transitional programme, and everything will be fine - they will eventually flock to your leadership.
What a delusion, downplaying and ignoring the active role of far-right and fascist forces in the Maidan ‘revolution’ - including the ones who hold senior government posts. This is surely beyond question now, there being an abundance of material concerning the likes of Right Sector and Svoboda before, during and after the Independence Square protests. We in the CPGB would call such forces fascistic not mainly because of any professed ideological orientation - or that they like to carry portraits of Nazi collaborators - but rather because of what they actually do: ie, organise street gangs to attack minorities and the left.
Furthermore, there are obvious signs of US/CIA involvement in the Maidan ‘revolution’ right from the very beginning, even if they did not give it an ‘official’ colour designation this time round. But we communists have no problem in getting our colour book out and calling the Maidan protests an orange-brown ‘revolution’ - one that led to the creation of a dangerous government that is trying to integrate itself into the imperialist power structures, even if that means provoking an internal civil war or a wider regional conflict.
Similarly, but more odiously, you can adopt an explicitly social-imperialist position like the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty - crazily making out that the main enemy is “Russian imperialism”, or “expansionism”, and getting agitated about the Crimean “Anschluss”. Therefore in the event of any armed conflict between Moscow and Kiev, argues the AWL, we should be for the Ukrainian army against the Russians - as presumably a victory for the Kiev oligarchs (including their fascist ministers) would provide a ‘breathing space’ for the working class and their organisations. That was what the AWL said about the US intervention in Iraq - but instead we got barbarism, not a working class renaissance.
On the other hand, though equally as wrong, there are those on the left - such as Socialist Action - who look at the wretched Kiev government, with its close ties to US imperialism, and automatically side with Moscow as the ‘lesser evil’. Then there is the Russian Marxist, Boris Kagarlitsky, who detects proletarian forces in the Donetsk demonstrations - in contrast to the “liberal intelligentsia” and “middle class” that dominated those in Kiev.4 As evidence for this “real class struggle”, comrade Kagarlitsky holds up the fact that the dominant slogans in the Donetsk People’s Republic are demands for “social rights” accompanied by the singing of the Internationale. The good thing, he continues, is that “no-one is stopping people going to this crowd with red flags and socialist leaflets”, unlike the Maidan, where the flags were torn up and leftwing agitators were beaten and thrown off the square. In fact, he writes, in the DPR the masses have “risen up in genuine revolutionary protest”, formulating its agenda “from below” - it is, apparently, the “perfect embodiment of the anarchist concept of the revolutionary order”, even if it will “undoubtedly offend strict connoisseurs of proletarian ideology”.
The comrade has lost the plot, unfortunately. The Donetsk demonstrators may be overwhelmingly proletarian in terms of sociological background. But what should concern communists are the politics behind the DPR, not whether some people are waving red flags. From this perspective, the DPR and the LPR are ultimately products of a thoroughly backward and reactionary Russian/Slavic nationalism - which inevitably attracts individuals with far-right and fascistic inclinations, such as Alexander Borodai.
Instead, we need working class politics independent of both Kiev, along with its EU/US backers, and Moscow.
2. Financial Times May 30.
3. The Guardian May 29.