Which way are the Ukraine protests headed?

Alan Maass and Lee Sustar look at the background to the mass anti-government demonstrations in Ukraine--and what the U.S. and its European allies hope to gain.

Protesters filling Kiev's Independence Square in late November (Ryan Anderson)Protesters filling Kiev's Independence Square in late November (Ryan Anderson)

THE MASS demonstrations in the Ukraine capital of Kiev are the product of an economic crisis, popular discontent with a heavy-handed government and a widespread desire to escape Russia's imperial clutches, once and for all.

But the parties and individuals seen as leaders of the anti-government protests are mostly center-right conservatives and even the far-right Svoboda--and the leaders of the U.S. and other governments are attempting to exploit the upsurge to pursue their imperial rivalries with Russia for control and influence in Eastern Europe and beyond.

The demonstrations against Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych and his government could not have reached their huge size nor sustained a weeks-long encampment in Kiev's Independence Square, despite the violence of police, if they hadn't mobilized genuine anger against the regime and the widespread desire for a break with Russia, which has long dominated Ukraine.

But subordination to European economic interests, rather than Russian ones, won't deliver prosperity to the people of the Ukraine--as the populations of Greece, Spain and other countries suffering the brunt of the Eurozone crisis know well.

And the Western leaders declaring their support for the protest movement don't care about democracy in Ukraine. They are angling for the most effective way of drawing another country in Eastern Europe into a closer economic, political and military relationship with them, at the expense of Vladimir Putin's Russia.

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THE PROTESTS began in November after Yanukovych reversed course on a proposed "association agreement" with the European Union (EU) and instead suggested Ukraine would join the Russian-led Eurasian Customs Union, along with other countries that were once part of the ex-USSR.

Putin's Russian government has been ratcheting up the pressure on Yanukovych for some time. In August, it imposed a trade embargo on Ukrainian exports. Analysts estimated the ban would affect one-quarter of Ukraine's total exports, at a cost of $2.5 billion for the rest of the year.

The protests in Kiev have since spread to other parts of the country, including industrial cities in the east, where economic ties to Russia are the strongest. The grievances expressed by demonstrators are more wide-ranging than the U.S. media generally reports.

But for the world's most powerful governments, the question of which direction, east or west, Ukraine will look is the core of the conflict--and Yanukovych and his government are caught in the middle. Since the late November announcement about the EU trade deal, the government has wavered between tolerating the protests and cracking down--and between reopening negotiations with the EU and expanding its agreements with Russia.

The government sent in riot police against student demonstrators in late November, which sparked an angry response at the brutality they inflicted. This month, police have alternated between staying out of central Kiev and heavy-handed shows of force--with occasional assaults on the protesters' encampment, before again withdrawing when it became clear the demonstrators were determined to stay on the barricades.

Likewise, Yanukovych declared that Ukraine's future was with Russia, then hinted through his staff that he would sign a deal with the EU--eventually. Last weekend, EU officials announced they were pulling out of renewed talks on a trade deal because of a "lack of commitment" from the government--while Prime Minister Mykola Azarov appeared on state television Sunday night to describe an agreement with Russia not only on trade, but on talks over desperately needed energy imports from Russia. Yanukovych and Putin are scheduled to meet on Tuesday, December 17.

The vacillations reflect not only the pressures from the mass protests and the maneuvers of outside governments, but the contradictions that have faced Ukraine's ruling class since it became independent from Russia following the 1991 collapse of the USSR.

On the one hand, an opening to the EU seems to carry the promise of greater access to Western capital and markets. Yet the association deal has no guarantee of future EU membership or economic support from European powerhouse Germany, which has been squeezing countries like Greece, Spain and Portugal to pay for the Eurozone economic crisis.

The Ukraine government is already facing its own debt crisis and has asked for $27 billion in aid in return for signing the deal with the EU. Naturally, the EU and its partner-in-economic-crime, the International Monetary Fund, are demanding harsh austerity measures as a condition of releasing any aid.

On the other hand, Ukraine remains economically integrated with Russia and other former states of the former USSR, especially in the heavily industrialized eastern part of the country. The pressure is intense from Russia--which has used its control of natural gas resources to bully Ukraine into line throughout the last two decades after the collapse of the USSR.

While the EU is promising prosperity someday to Ukraine, Russia can credibly threaten to cause a crisis now by ramping up the price of heat and electricity as winter descends.

Yanukovych is backed by some of the super-rich oligarchs who have controlled the Ukrainian economy since independence. This economic elite has close ties to Russia--but would also benefit from a trade arrangement with the EU.

Last week, Rinat Akhmetov, the richest man in Ukraine and a major supporter of Yanukovych, issued a statement supporting the protest movement--"the clearest sign yet that the oligarchs are worried about the continuing instability as well as the country's deepening financial crisis, and that they might back some changes at the highest levels of government," reported the New York Times.

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PREDICTABLY, THE U.S. government is taking advantage of the conflict in Ukraine to maneuver against Russia--one of its chief imperial rivals, along with China, in world politics.

Last week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned his Ukraine counterpart against using troops to break up the protests in Kiev, and Secretary of State John Kerry issued a statement expressing "disgust with the decision of Ukrainian authorities to meet the peaceful protest...with riot police, bulldozers and batons."

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland delivered the message in person, along with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. Nuland said she told Yanukovych in a face-to-face meeting that a police crackdown against a peaceful protest camp is "absolutely impermissible" in a democratic society--unless, of course, the police are in the U.S., violently clearing the Occupy movement's encampments.

Within Washington, the administration is under pressure from conservatives to take an even harder line. Over the weekend, as rival large protests by pro- and anti-government demonstrators took place, Republican Sen. John McCain traveled to Kiev to drop in on the anti-government rally.

Afterward, McCain met with three leaders of opposition parties in parliament--including Oleg Tyagnibok of Svoboda, the far-right party with open connections to fascist political parties in Western Europe, such as the British National Party and France's National Front.

Looming behind the battle over competing trade arrangements is another form of conflict: military.

Former Democratic congressman Dennis Kucinich described the proposed EU deal with Ukraine as a "Trojan horse" for expansion of the U.S.-led NATO military alliance. As Kucinich wrote at Huffington Post:

While NATO is not specifically mentioned in the draft of the "Association Agreement"...[t]he draft of the Agreement's preamble links Ukraine to "ever closer convergence of positions on bilateral, regional and international issues of mutual interest," including the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) of the European Union and the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP)--which underscores the military nature of the agreement.

Since 22 of 28 members of the EU have NATO membership, there is little doubt that Ukraine is being drawn into the broad military arrangement with EU nations.

Thus, the U.S. politicians' pious denunciations of Putin for blackmailing Ukraine are rank hypocrisy. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall a quarter century ago, the U.S. government has attempted to draw more and more of the ex-USSR's Eastern European empire under its economic and military umbrella.

Russia's hardball opposition to Ukraine's deal with the EU is based on the recognition that the U.S. and its European allies are trying to gain new ground in a country whose economy is intricately tied to it--and to potentially bring the NATO military alliance to its very borders.

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THE UKRAINE protests are the biggest in that country since November 2004 and the so-called "Orange Revolution."

As the presidential candidate of the ruling party then, Yanukovych was forced by mass demonstrations to concede a disputed election after initially claiming victory. This put Viktor Yushchenko, who was widely seen as pro-Western, in power. According to the Guardian, Yushchenko's operation was "funded and organized by the U.S. government, deploying U.S. consultancies, pollsters, diplomats, the two big American parties and U.S. non-government organizations."

Like Yanukovych, Yushchenko had been prime minister under Leonid Kuchma, Ukraine's second president after independence in 1991. Yushchenko was pushed out of the inner circle dominated by appartchiks and oligarchs. He then tapped into sentiment for democracy and political reform. He claimed that the Ukraine security services, the successor to the KGB, were responsible for a disease that badly disfigured his face.

Once in office, Yushchenko tilted to the West, declaring an interest in joining NATO. But he did nothing to reverse Ukraine's economic inequality, nor to reform the political system. His prime minister for most of his term, Yulia Tymoshenko, was a charismatic populist speaker who played to nationalist sentiments in the Orange Revolution, but who had become one of the richest people in Ukraine by brokering insider deals in the energy industry.

Disaffection with Yushchenko paved the way for a comeback for Yanukovych, who defeated Tymoshenko in the 2010 presidential elections. Having been seen as pro-Russian in the past, Yuschenko this time campaigned on a theme of Ukraine's integration with Europe.

However, the weak economy that helped Yanukovych win the presidency the second time around has not changed. Real gross domestic product grew in 2012 by just 0.2 percent, and almost one-quarter of the country's population lives under the official poverty line.

Meanwhile, Yanukovych's attempt to sideline the opposition and cement his power--by, for example, imprisoning Tymoshenko on corruption charges--has only polarized the political establishment and set the stage for the current crisis.

As a result, establishment politicians are talking about "revolution." Some call for Yanukovych's immediate ouster; others for talks; still others for new elections. World heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko has emerged as Ukraine's leading opposition figure, urging peaceful protests to pressure the government.

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THIS SPLIT at the top opened the way for the mass protests--and also set the tone for the dominant pro-Europe, anti-Russia theme reported in the media. This is to be expected in Ukraine, where politics has been shaped for decades by the question of the relationship to Russia.

Ukraine was part of the Russian empire of the Tsars, and it was kept in Moscow's "prison house of nations" under the dictatorship of Joseph Stalin, whose counterrevolution not only buried workers' power in Russia, but rolled back the right of self-determination for oppressed nations established by the 1917 Russian Revolution.

During the 1930s, famine struck Ukraine the hardest as a consequence of Stalin's policy of forced collectivization of agriculture, killing millions of people. Thus, Ukraine welcomed independence when the USSR collapsed in 1991, and strong nationalist sentiments drove the Orange Revolution of 2004, as well as today's protests.

But the sentiments of demonstrators today can't be reduced simply to anti-Russian nationalism. Opposition to corruption and authoritarian rule--which have been endemic under whichever faction of the ruling class was in charge--are the defining features of the demonstrations. As Reuters journalist Matthew Rojansky reported:

[T]he pro-European demonstrations have spread beyond Kiev--including to majority Russian-speaking cities in the industrial East, such as Kharkiv, Chernihev and Dniepropetrovsk. Very few protesters, save a few ultra-nationalists, would define their aspirations as being anti-Russian--for the simple reason that tens of millions of Ukrainians have family, social or business ties with Russia, and follow Russian-language media.

However, the "ultra-nationalists" have played a role in the demonstrations. According to one report, the toppling of a statue of Lenin in Kiev earlier this month--which got big coverage in the U.S. media--was reportedly carried out by demonstrators holding the red and black flags of the far-right group Svoboda.

Svoboda is connected to fascist parties in Europe such as the British National Party. It scored an election breakthrough in 2012, winning 10.4 percent of the vote in parliamentary elections and 38 seats out of 450 in Ukraine's parliament. Svoboda has formed a parliamentary alliance with two other center-right parties: Yulia Tymoshenko's Fatherland party and Vitali Klitschko's Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform.

Like its more conventional conservative partners, Svoboda has fed off discontent with the stagnating economy. The prospect of greater ties to Europe has a popular appeal in Western Ukraine, just as the economic connections to Russia have a hold in the East. But neither side has a coherent way forward that would benefit working people--only their own political camps and its hangers-on.

What comes next is far from clear. If Yanukovych and his government tilt toward Russia, there will be a showdown with the demonstrations at some point. Behind-the-scenes negotiations with the EU could lead in the opposite direction. And different sections of the elite could try to patch up a deal between rival groups.

Working people need a different outcome altogether: A political alternative that looks not west to Europe, nor east to Russia, but to their own struggle for democracy and better conditions.