What’s at stake in Ukraine?

February 5, 2014

Sean Larson analyzes the latest developments in the anti-government protests--and the politics of the different forces involved in the Maidan movement.

THE MASS protests centered in the main square of Ukraine's capital of Kiev survived another government attempt to quell them through violence in January, and both sides are maneuvering at the start of the month as further confrontations approach.

The demonstrations erupted in November, largely as a response to President Viktor Yanukovych's rejection of a free trade agreement with the European Union and suggestion that the country would join the Eurasian Customs Union led by Russia, which has dominated Ukraine for centuries in different forms.

But the conflict in Ukraine has long since transcended the choice between a trade deal with the EU, sanctioned by the International Monetary Fund, versus a similar arrangement with Russia.

The social conditions that underlaid the protests from the start and that have inspired Ukrainians to remain camped out in Kiev's Maidan (Independence Square) in spite of the bitter cold and police assaults include government corruption, state repression and lack of democracy, declining living standards and lack of social opportunities for the vast majority of Ukrainians.

Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovich
Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovich (Igor Kruglenko)

The demonstrators are not united by an ideology per se, but a shared frustration with the regime and with their lack of control, political or economic, over their lives. These grievances are the product of enduring years of corruption in a state machine structured to serve the interests of the oligarchs grouped both around Yanukovych's ruling Party of Regions--and also within the major opposition parties represented in parliament.

THE STRUGGLE over the country's future reached a new stage in mid-January when the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine's parliament, passed a series of draconian laws limiting freedom of speech and assembly, and imposing steep fines and prison sentences for minor offences.

The explosive response of protesters in Kiev three days later led to pitched battles in the streets--and qualitatively changed the dynamics of the movement. Now, while the goals of the movement are still typically articulated in terms of the rule of law, opposition to corruption and guarantees of human rights, there has been a shift away from a focus on integration with the EU and toward anti-government demands, such as the call for Yanukovych's resignation and for new elections.

This political shift has been matched by more dramatic action on the ground, such as the occupation of several government buildings. Worrisomely, a far-right organization composed mainly of street forces is accused of having led the mid-January street battles in Kiev. Meanwhile, three opposition parties, ranging from conventional center-right to the far right Svoboda, continue to claim leadership over the movement.

Meanwhile, the government has been raising the stakes this year, inflicting greater police violence, including the kidnapping of activists, some from their hospital beds, and torture of detainees. Hundreds of people have been injured and several killed in street clashes. Add to this the announcement of a pro-government "Ukrainian Front" on Saturday, which claims it will "clear the land of those who came to occupy it"--a not-so-veiled charge referring to the Maidan occupiers as agents of Europe.

The Yanukovych government is also facing pressure from Russia--Vladimir Putin has indicated that he will withhold the distribution of loans to Ukraine until a stable government emerges from the present situation.

To remain in office, Yanukovych must maintain the allegiance of a critical balance of Ukrainian oligarchs, and this depends upon his ability to secure a favorable business climate for them--low taxes on the rich, minimal regulations on industry, capital mobility, a stable and passive population ensured by a strong police apparatus.

To this end, Yanukovych has reduced the size of the armed forces considerably while gradually building up the Berkut (special riot police) and regular police. He has vacillated between looking to Russia and the EU, depending on which seems to be the safest bet for crucial loans and trade deals.

The fact that some oligarchs are defecting from Yanukovych is a sign of their decreasing confidence in the regime to secure their interests. These oligarchs will look to whatever other political force may suit their needs--which right now could be one or all of the opposition parties riding on the wave of the protests.

THOSE OPPOSITION parties and their leading political figures are: the Fatherland Party and Arseniy Yatsenyuk; Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR) and Vitali Klitschko; and Svoboda and Oleg Tyagnibok.

The opposition parties occupy a contradictory position in the current situation. On the one hand, their perceived legitimacy and their claim to provide a genuine alternative toe regime are rooted in the Maidan protest movement. On the other, they seek to control the movement and funnel it in a "safe" direction that doesn't threaten the basic structures of the economy and state necessary for the oligarchs to rule.

The opposition leaders must therefore balance between maintaining the demonstrators' waning faith in their ability to win real changes for ordinary Ukrainians and garnering the support of oligarchs with assurances that the wealth and power of the elite will be better secured through an opposition government.

To this end, Yatsenyuk of the Fatherland Party last Saturday proposed a four-step plan for the opposition parties to take over governing responsibility. Predictably, Yatsenyuk's plan begins with the de-escalation of the protests and culminates in a return to a parliamentary-presidential republic, with minor changes made in the constitution. The plan also calls for a $15 billion economic package, backed by the IMF, EU and "other financial institutions"--which Yatsenyuk states is the "minimum amount necessary to calm the situation in Ukraine."

This proposal, along with other attempts by leaders of the three main opposition parties to de-escalate or contain the activity of the Maidan follows a significant blow to the parties' claims to be leaders of the movement.

During the furious 100,000-strong demonstration on January 19 against the repressive laws against protest passed three days earlier, thousands of people--many of them frustrated with the tame speeches of opposition leaders--began to head to the Rada building, despite the warnings of their supposed leaders.

According to an eyewitness account from William Risch, a professor of history at Georgia College and State University, police buses and trucks blocked the road at Hrushevskoho Street, and riot police were stationed to prevent the protesters from moving further.

In a similarly tense situation last December 1, Vitali Klitschko still had enough influence among protesters to restrain them from taking more radical action. Not so this time. A battle broke out, with riot police using tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets, and blasting protesters with water cannons in the freezing weather.

Numerous reports have charged that the far-right extremists of the "Right Sector" instigated the violence on January 19. Risch's narrative says the Right Sector began pelting the riot police with pavement stones and Molotov cocktails, and the police then responded.

But other accounts stress the role of "Automaidan," a group that emerged since November and is known for using its cars in protests at the homes of government officials, in leading people away from the main rally toward the Rada, with the Right Sector arriving later. Others claim the violence was begun by provocateurs in an attempt to smear the peaceful image of the Maidan and justify the imposition of martial law.

Regardless of who instigated the battle at Hrushevkoho Street, however, the fact remains that it quickly became a full-fledged confrontation between armed riot police and an unprecedented number of protesters. The conflict continued in various forms over the next three days and, far from alienating participants, mobilized thousands of Ukrainians unwilling to tolerate Yanukovych's dictatorial laws, but also frustrated with the impotence of the main opposition leaders in the face of the escalating crackdown.

THE LONGER-term consequence of these battles has been a developing, though uneven, rift between the demonstrators of the Maidan and the opposition party leaders who have dominated the protests politically.

The protests are largely composed of people who went through the experience of the so-called "Orange Revolution" at the end of 2004. Mass protests overturned the results of a rigged run-off election--but a new government under Viktor Yushchenko failed to bring any meaningful change to Ukrainian society. The obvious conclusion is that more radical change is needed than shuffling political elites within an endemically corrupt political system institutionally dominated by oligarchs.

The success of the Maidan demonstrations will hinge on the extent to which the mass of people involved can act independently of opposition party leaders. But the developing rift is far from a definite break--most participants still allow themselves to be represented in negotiations with the government by these so-called "leaders."

The movement has achieved some concessions from the government already, such as the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov along with his entire cabinet in late January.

Other moves by the government that have been depicted by the media as concessions aren't that at all. For example, Yanukovych pushed a law through the parliament that would grant amnesty for all but the most serious crimes, but on the condition that protesters relinquish control of government buildings they have occupied within 15 days. Were the movement to comply with this demand, it would not only implicitly legitimate the crackdown and mass arrests the government has already carried out, but significantly weaken the standing of the demonstrators and their physical control of Independence Square itself.

Meanwhile, leaders of both the Fatherland Party and Svoboda are moderating their demands, now calling for a return to the constitution of 2004 as the goal of the movement.

It's clear that if the opposition parties were to be put in power under the current circumstances, they would be subject to the same international and domestic pressures that have led to Yanukovych's policies of austerity and repression, and ultimately to the crackdown on protests.

Thus, the proposal of Western political leaders for a transition to an opposition-led government is by no means certain to be more democratic--not given the deadly mix of the militarized state apparatus built up under Yanukovych, the harsh austerity measures attached to a potential IMF loan and the far-right politics that have gained a wide hearing in the protests to this point.

THE MAIDAN is a mass movement with significant internal contradictions and widely differing politics. The direction the protests take from here will largely be determined by the coherence and organization of different forces within the movement.

Disturbingly, the most organized and therefore most influential voices in the Maidan continue to be on the political right. This includes parties with representatives in parliament, such as the far-right Svoboda, which has ties to the British National Party and France's National Front--as well as the neo-fascists of the Right Sector.

Unlike other far-right groups in Europe, Svoboda--like the other two opposition parties in parliament, UDAR and Fatherland--is in favor of Ukraine joining the EU and strengthening the country's connections to Europe.

Right Sector, on the other hand, is a conglomeration of extreme right-wing nationalist street gangs and soccer fan clubs. It rejects the parliamentary tactics of Svoboda. Its main goal is the overthrow of the Yanukovych government, but it does not seek European integration.

The rhetoric of these far right groups, despite their differences, has attained such influence among demonstrators because the short-term goal of bringing down the Yanukovych government coincides with the demand of all other protesters, including those on the left.

The battle of Hrushevskoho Street even saw a temporary and uneasy truce between left-wing and right-wing militants in their mutual confrontation with Yanukovych's riot police forces. Such a de facto temporary alliance in action is obviously dangerous, and the continued ideological hegemony of the right over the protests must be challenged, or the authority of the movement could be used to justify the establishment of a right-wing government after Yanukovych's fall.

The role that the far right has played is not a reason for the left to dismiss the Maidan movement or refrain from participation. On the contrary, it must struggle to shift the political balance by getting involved and fighting alongside ordinary Ukrainians for their basic democratic rights in the face of an intensifying police state. Erecting a left pole within the movement--or, in the words of Ilya Budraitskis, a spokesperson for the Russian Socialist Movement, a "Left Sector"--must be a priority to counter the influence of the right.

To accomplish this, the small and scattered groups of the left in Ukraine must cohere around a common strategy and some basic demands. Beyond the resignation of the Yanukovych government and new elections, these must include, above all, dismantling the police state and stripping the oligarchs of their power. A socialist grouping in Kiev calling itself the Left Opposition has produced a 10-point plan which it hopes will be "first steps toward the formation of policies that could gather together all anti-oligarchic forces which don't consider an ultra-right fascist dictatorship to be any kind of solution."

Despite the relatively small size and disorganization of the revolutionary left in Ukraine--one estimate puts it at no more that a few hundred people--its involvement can be decisive for the future of the struggle. In addition to the pressing need to combat the right in the here and now, the Maidan movement will be a definitive reference point for generations of Ukrainians, so what the left does will resonate into the future, whatever the immediate outcome.

In the most likely scenario--the opposition parties come to power and inevitably fail to deliver what protesters are demanding--the presence of a strong left voice during turbulent times will be important in raising the possibility of a real alternative.

To achieve genuine change, the protesters of the Maidan will have to fight for their rights independently of the opposition parties, the far right, and the foreign governments, whether the EU or Russia, attempting to influence Ukraine's future direction. Political democracy is only the first step--from there, profound economic changes would be needed, including nationalization of major industries, a steep progressive tax and strong protections of labor rights.

In this way, the left can address the core issues that have given rise to the sustained mass struggle centered in the Maidan--and offer a strong voice for these and other progressive demands within the changing movement.

Further Reading

From the archives