The crisis that erupted in the Ukraine at the end of last month has had liberals of all sorts slathering at the mouth. Here, they declared, was a new people’s uprising, a display of popular power inaugurating a ‘velvet revolution’ like that in eastern Europe in 1989.
In fact, what occurred was a fight between rival groups inside a corrupt ruling class, each side of which has been happy at various points to preside over a government given to muzzling opposition and fixing ballots.
The outgoing president, Kuchma, and his would-be heir, prime minister Viktor Yanukovych, stand for the heads of heavy industry in the mainly Russian-speaking east and south of the country. They are people who used to embody the Brezhnev era and now see the old state-owned complexes as their own, claiming in a paternalist fashion that they can protect the region’s workers, especially the miners, against the rigours of the market at the same time as forging their own links with the market and the west – witness the troops that they sent to help out the US in Iraq. There clearly are many ordinary workers in the Ukraine who will bear bitter feelings against the way they have been happy to preside over declining living standards since at least the mid-1980s.
But the leaders of the rival camp, with their presidential nominee, Viktor Yushchenko, are no better. As Sergei Markov has written in Izvestia in Moscow, ‘the opposition present the election as a fight between a government candidate and a people’s candidate. But the whole of the Yushchenko team are bosses: Yushchenko and Kinakh are ex prime ministers; Tymoshenko and Poroshenko are oligarchs. There are lots of former ministers there.’
Tymoshenko, with her fur coat and neatly parted hair, has come across in much of the western media as the face of youthful enthusiasm for democracy after eight decades of oppression. In fact, she has thrived under the existing system using close connections with the former prime minister Pavlo Lazarenko (since convicted of money laundering and extortion in California) to build up a business empire that grabbed 20 percent of Ukrainian gross national product in the mid-1990s. She may pretend to be a simple woman on the streets of Kiev. In fact, she normally moves around protected by a crew of ex Soviet Special Forces bodyguards.
Now people like her think the best way to build on their existing riches is to form deeper connections with the west. The rivals are not averse to this, but do want to keep more of their old ties with their traditional friends and markets in Putin’s Russia.
The added ingredient is the unveiled attempts of Russia and the US to grab the Ukraine for their own spheres of influence. For the complex of business and bureaucratic interests associated with Putin, this is part of a general attempt to use the country’s economic recovery of the last six years – and America’s problems in Iraq – as a way of reasserting their influence over the industrial structures and material resources of many of the former Soviet republics. For the US it is a question of trying to use the Ukraine, like Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic as a force both to prevent any Russian reassertion and to curtail any efforts by France and Germany to develop the European Union as a political-economic bloc acting in its own right, asserting certain interests damaging to the US.
Hence the way in which Putin openly attempted to influence the Ukraine elections. Hence too the use by the US of millions of dollars at the disposal of various foundations to pay for the supposed ‘independent’, ‘civil society’ mobilisations of the Yushchenko supporters.
What we are witnessing on both sides are the manoeuvres of capitalist forces to further their own interests through use of the state.
The US is following one of the oldest imperialist tricks in the book: using funds and agents to win over activists suffering from oppressive governments. It had some successes at this in the last years before the fall of the old Eastern Bloc in 1989. It provided some of the resources for impoverished dissidents to make their voices heard and then made them pay the price of living under new regimes dominated by their old masters but with a liberal veneer. It clearly did its best to infiltrate the Otpor student and youth opposition to Milosevic in Yugoslavia in the same way, and now it seems to have bribed some former Otpor activists into trying to direct genuine discontent in the Ukraine to the benefit of Yushchenko, in the hope that it will gain an ally and put Putin back in his place.
Sometimes such tricks work. So throughout the 19th century the ultra-oppressive Tsarist regime in Russia was able to pose as the liberator of the southern Slavs and use their struggles for its ends. Similarly, the British exploited Arab discontent with Turkish rule to extend their own empire in the Middle East during the First World War.
But there are limits to what can be achieved in this way. There is always the danger that a popular movement fomented by one set of ruling class or imperialist interests to damage their rivals can take on a life of its own and damn them both. As rulers pour abuse on each other, exposing each other’s crimes, there can, on occasions, be an opening for independent forces to emerge to oppose both. That is why you cannot simply write off every movement against a regime the US dislikes as operating at the behest of the CIA. After all, even in Serbia the US did not get everything its own way – the Kostunica government established by the uprising does not bow to every US demand.
But in the Ukrainian case the evidence seems clear. The mass of people will be no better off under those who carried out mass murder in Fallujah than under those who did so in Grozny. Nor will they benefit by being ruled by oligarchs from the western Ukraine rather than from the eastern Ukraine.
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