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Ukraine’s Brutal History

This article is over 19 years, 2 months old
The recent explosion of popular anger comes after centuries of misrule, says Mike Haynes
Issue 1930

Ukraine means “borderland”. It suggests a country far away from the heart of Europe. But many Ukrainians believe they live in the middle of Europe—and they have a point. The Ukraine may have a huge border with Russia, but it also touches Belarus, Poland, the Slovak Republic, Hungary and Romania, as well as Moldova.

The Ukraine, a country of nearly 50 million, matters to the great powers. For Russia the Ukraine is its “near abroad”, while for the US and EU, influence over the Ukraine pushes Russia back into a smaller corner.

Who are the Ukrainians?

Ukrainian nationalists tell stories of a once-great people subject to centuries of repression by empires—a Polish one, an Austro-Hungarian one and the Russian one. But all nationalism is built around romantic myths. That’s why Scottish nationalists loved Mel Gibson’s fairytale Braveheart. A lot of Ukrainian nationalism depends on the same kind of fairytales.

The Ukrainian state and most strains of Ukrainian nationalism are a product of the last 100 years. In the 19th century capitalism developed rapidly in Western Europe.

Intellectuals in Eastern Europe realised that they were trapped within an increasingly backward area. Some responded by developing a critique of capitalism and joining the growing socialist movement. Others, admiring the achievements of Western European capitalism, wanted their own version. They analysed their problems simply in terms of national oppression.

But the prospects for independent capitalist development were weak, and so too were the political prospects of the nationalists in such societies. Much of the population still focused on their local village lives, others saw themselves as much as workers as Ukrainians or Russians.

It was in the wake of the 1917 Russian Revolution that an opportunity arose for the Ukrainian nationalists. The Bolsheviks recognised the independence of the Ukraine, hoping to break Russian chauvinism, encourage the process of revolution and lay the basis for a voluntary socialist federation.

They got a positive response in some parts of the Ukraine. But most Ukrainian nationalists leaned towards counter-revolution and many were deeply anti-Semitic.

They struck deals with the great powers of Europe and created a succession of short-lived puppet regimes. In the 1920s, when the civil war in Russia ended, an attempt was made to create a genuine socialist federation.

But the rise of Stalin in the late 1920s undercut this. Under Stalin the Ukraine had an important role as “the Second Soviet Republic” after Russia. Its huge agricultural lands became a breadbasket for the USSR. Large coal and iron deposits allowed the development of coal and steel complexes in the Donbas. The people were squeezed by Stalin in the interests of rapid development.

Ukrainian nationalists claim that Ukrainians suffered deliberately and genocidally under Stalin. It is not clear that this was so. Famines in 1932-3 and 1946-7 killed millions. But the famines were not restricted to the Ukraine and a minority of Ukrainians lived well while others starved.

What happened when the USSR ended?

The reform process known as perestroika and glasnost took off slowly in the Ukraine. But, eventually, the most farsighted part of the Ukrainian leadership, led by Leonid Kravchuk, realised that they had to bend with the mood or be outflanked.

In the wake of the attempted coup in Russia in 1991, this group declared the Ukraine independent, despite deep popular ambiguity as to whether an independent Ukraine made any sense.

The new state tried to balance between Russia, the US and Europe. The Ukraine was Russia’s own backyard—the two countries’ economies are closely linked.

To the US the Ukraine was a promising strategic asset. Influence there could increase pressure on Russia and allow it greater influence over central Asian gas and oil.

The European Union also has an interest in a pro-Western Ukraine and talks of allowing it to join the union. But digesting big states like Poland, Turkey and the Ukraine is much more difficult and costly than enlarging to bring in small states.

The Ukrainian leadership has tilted this way and that. In 1994 Leonid Kuchma became president on what seemed a pro-Russian policy. But in office he also bent towards the US. In 1999 he supported NATO’s war on Serbia despite massive opposition.

The recent tilt towards Russia partly reflects the recovery of a degree of Russian power under Putin, but also growing disillusion with the West. The expansion of the EU, for example, means that Ukrainians now have a much more difficult relationship with Poland with trade and visa restrictions. In 2003 Kuchma signed an agreement with Russia, Byelorussia and Kazakhstan to create a “common economic space”.

But, true to form, he also supported the US in Iraq—sending troops that at one stage were the fourth largest component of Bush’s coalition.

In the recent election Viktor Yanukovich received backing from Russia, and Viktor Yushchenko was backed by the US. Both are guilty of electoral corruption, although, as prime minister, Yanukovich has more power to use the system against his opponent.

But neither candidate is simply a pawn of the great powers that back them. Rather they reflect different sections of the ruling class manoeuvring with foreign help against each other.

Who are the Ukrainian ruling class?

The old Ukraine, like Russia, was run by a ruling class that kept a tight collective control over the factories, mines and farms. Since 1991 they have tried to privatise this control—and pocket the proceeds. These new private capitalists developed into oligarchic clans to protect their members and compete with the others.

This explains the rapid turnover of governments as different factions have either been alienated or incorporated into ruling alliances.

These elite groups grew rich while most Ukrainians grew poor. By 1998 industrial output was only 40 percent of the 1989 level. There has been a catastrophic fall in the standard of living of the mass of the population. Many survive only through the informal economy or on their own food grown on allotments.

But no one at the top of Ukrainian society has any real interest in stopping the decline.

Reform would be painful—risking splitting the country apart. The Ukraine is already divided between a more pro-Western, Catholic and Ukrainian speaking west and a more Moscow oriented, Orthodox and Russian speaking east.

And the ruling elite is happy to share in the spoils as ordinary people suffer. Their corruption is so deep it would take a book to describe—in fact there have been several and some have paid with their lives for trying to describe it.

But we can simplify the process into three stages. The first was to plunder the economy, state and people. At one point, for example, United Energy Systems of the Ukraine was buying gas at $80 at unit from a Russian company whose real cost was $40-45. The difference was split between the Russian and Ukrainian sides.

The second step was to spend and enjoy the money. This has involved buying on a palatial scale and also getting your private army to protect you.

The third step was to get most of the money out of the Ukraine and into safe havens as quickly as possible. In the 1990s this “capital flight” amounted to three times the level of foreign debt.

The corruption has been so pervasive that it is difficult to see who has clean hands. Yushchenko first emerged politically as a pro-Western, pro-reform prime minister from December 1999 to April 2001. Almost immediately stories emerged of suspicious movements of funds by the Ukrainian central bank while he was in charge.

What has changed in 2004?

Since 1998 there has been the beginnings of an economic recovery closely tied to the Russian recovery. At the same time Putin has begun to develop a “soft imperialism” to restore Russian influence. The ruling group around Kuchma and Yanukovich have seen this as reason to tilt more to Russia.

But, for the rival Yushchenko group, economic growth is an opportunity to bring some order and reform to the system, and no reason to tie the Ukraine to a still weak Russia. Better, they argue, to continue to tilt to Western benefactors.

Yushchenko has no intention of challenging the whole corrupt edifice. After all he got rich from it. The limits of his campaign are evident also in his desire to stitch together a deal to get power by compromise.

This is not simply an altruistic desire to avoid violence. Neither side wants the Ukraine to split apart. This is the Doomsday scenario—with the Ukraine either peacefully splitting like Czechoslovakia or violently disintegrating like Yugoslavia.

The huge crowds demonstrating in the Ukraine do not yet have the capacity to act independently. So long as the conflict appears to be between the two rival candidates it will be a faction fight with mass participation.

Victory for the Yanukovich side will not be in the interest of workers because it will confirm the most corrupt parts of the oligarchy in power. But victory for the Yushchenko side, even if it produces cleaner politics, holds out little prospect by itself for improving the situation of the mass of Ukrainians.

To do that, the crowds on the streets need to begin to make demands of their own. These must include genuine political democracy, but they must also involve an attack on those on all sides who have plundered the Ukrainian economy.

We can be sure that, while the groups in the ruling class glower at each other over the elections, they will also be agreed that they have to avoid this happening.

Mike Haynes is the author of several books on Russian history, including Russia: Class and Power 1917-2000 (£12) and, with Rumy Husan, A Century of State Murder? (£15.99). Available from Bookmarks—phone 020 7637 1848

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