Ukraine and the national question

March 11, 2014

Sean Larson and Lee Sustar explain how the imperial relationship with Russia has affected Ukraine's economic and political developments, past and present.

NATIONALISM IN different forms lurks around every corner among the complex conflicts and contradictions playing out in Ukraine today.

In Crimea, for example, the region's parliament set an early date of this Sunday for a referendum vote on leaving Ukraine and annexation to Russia. This follows the Russian military takeover of Crimea, with the support of local political leaders, at the end of February, as a counter-move to a pro-Western government coming to power in Ukraine's capital of Kiev following the downfall of ex-President Viktor Yanukovych.

Using rhetoric reminiscent of the "humanitarian" justifications for U.S. military interventions, Russian leaders defended the takeover of Crimea as necessary to protect ethnic Russians, a majority in the region, from repressive measures imposed by the new government in Kiev, which is dominated by Ukrainian nationalists.

Yet Crimea's population is also 20 percent ethnic Ukrainian and 15 percent Crimean Tatars, a Turkic Muslim people who inhabited the peninsula before their mass deportation to Central Asia on the orders of the ex-USSR's tyrant Joseph Stalin during the Second World War. The Tatars, who were only allowed to return to Crimea in the 1980s, have especially good reason to fear becoming second-class citizens in a Russian-annexed territory.

Protesters clashing with police in Kiev during the final days of the Yanukovych regime
Protesters clashing with police in Kiev during the final days of the Yanukovych regime

Meanwhile, in Kiev, the new government of Ukraine, dominated by center-right and far-right parties, is indeed appealing to nationalism to solidify a base of support, chiefly in the western and northern parts of the country. One of the first acts of parliament after Yanukovych's government fell was the repeal of a law allowing languages other than Ukrainian to be used locally as official languages (the measure was vetoed by the acting president).

This despite the fact that many of the best-known opposition leaders--such as front-running presidential candidates Vitali Klitschko and Yulia Tymoshenko, and the newly installed Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk--speak Russian as their first languge. In the western part of the country, where the nationalist parties are strongest, significant minorities speak Polish and Romanian. And to add to the complexity, language preferences aren't a simple guide to political allegiances, either.

Understanding the national question in Ukraine today requires knowing the country's history--particularly its imperial subjugation by Russia, first in the form of the Tsar's empire and later, after the victory of Stalinist counterrevolution in Russia, domination by the ex-USSR. As Russian socialist Ilya Budraitskis said in an interview with the German magazine Marx21, the prominence of nationalism in Ukraine is:

bound up with the way that Ukraine was founded as an independent nation--through the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. That's why nationalism is such a popular ideological persuasion. The mentality is like that of a former colony. Most Ukrainians think that the most important thing is not to be dominated by a foreign power.

RUSSIA'S DOMINANCE in Ukraine dates from the latter half of the 17th century, when the conclusion of 30 years of war amongst Russia, Poland, Turks and Cossacks gave Russia's Tsars control over most of the country.

The Tsarist empire's grip on Ukraine was shaken by the Russian Revolution of 1917. There was a flowering of Ukrainian language and culture--supported by the Bolshevik-led government in Moscow--as the culmination of a spreading movement within Ukraine for national liberation.

In 1918, a German-backed monarch seized power in Ukraine, and the counterrevolutionary White armies--armed and supported by Western governments to make war on the Reds of the Russian workers' state--attempted to remove peasants from land they had seized from landlords during 1917. The mass of people in Ukraine moved decisively in favor of federation with Russia in the soon-to-be-formed workers' state--the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

But the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the 1920s began to undermine the national rights of Ukraine and other former colonial possessions of the Tsar. Though incapacitated by deteriorating health in the years before his death, the Russian revolutionary leader Lenin nevertheless attempted to organize against Stalin, with a particular focus on defending self-determination for Ukraine and neighboring Georgia.

Within a few years, however, the Stalinist counterrevolution was victorious. The new rulers of the USSR, though they continued to use the rhetoric of socialism, reversed every gain of the 1917 revolution, including the right of oppressed nations to self-determination.

By the early 1930s, Stalin's policy of forced collectivization of agricultural property and a crash five-year industrialization program had catastrophic consequences in Ukraine. Following a 1931 campaign of "Russification" in schools and workplaces that effectively outlawed use of the Ukrainian language, Kremlin economic policies led to a massive famine in 1932-33 that claimed the lives of at least 3.3 million Ukrainians. In the devastation of the Second World War to come, Ukraine suffered more than any other part of the USSR.

This was the context in which the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN)--revered today by the ultra-nationalists represented in the new government--arose. The OUN was committed to a violent struggle to achieve an ethnically homogenous Ukraine. With parts of Ukraine under the control of Russia in the east and Poland in the west, the OUN directed its attacks against ethnic Russians and Poles.

The OUN was also explicitly committed to the ethnically cleansing of Jews from Ukraine. In 1938, the group split into two wings--one was led by Stepan Bandera and went on to ally itself with Nazi Germany. In the latter years of the Second World War, the OUN under Bandera's command, along with its armed wing, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, carried out large-scale ethnic cleansing that killed more than 90,000 Jews and Poles.

The Stalinist elite in Russia had attempted to make a deal with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis to carve up Eastern Europe between them, but after Hitler's invasion of Russia, Moscow fought on the side of the Allies. After the Allied victory over Germany, Soviet authorities carried out a protracted war against the OUN, eventually destroying the organization by 1953.

UKRAINIAN NATIONALISM underwent a revival in the 1980s in the waning years of the ex-USSR.

The nationalist sentiments that developed at this time were not simply a revival of the far-right OUN and its fascist ideology. Under the "glasnost" (or openness) policy of USSR leader Mikhail Gorbachev, it was possible to discuss the devastation of the 1930s famine inflicted on Ukraine and the following decades spent under the jackboot of Stalinism. A cultural revival in Ukraine engendered hope for a free, independent and democratic country--both in the Ukrainian-speaking and predominantly agricultural West, and in the East, with its industrial economy more closely integrated into the USSR's.

In 1989, a mass strike wave by Ukrainian miners, though carried out mostly by Russian-speaking workers in the East, both reflected this sentiment and reinforced it. As a New York Times reporter on the scene put it, "Worker militancy in...Ukraine, the second-largest Soviet republic, would pose a serious concern for the conservative leaders of this industrial heartland, who are already coping with a rising tide of Ukrainian nationalism."

Russian nationalists trying to salvage an empire out of the collapsing USSR appealed to Russian speakers throughout the country. But as author Mark Beissinger wrote, they "failed to find a mass base for themselves within Russia. Their attempts to court the coal miners of Ukraine, Siberia and northern Kazakhstan also came to nought."

With the Stalinist system clearly in a fatal decline, the more far-sighted apparatchiks in Ukraine began criticizing the Communist Party in the late 1980s and openly sympathizing the nationalist cultural revival--despite having spent their whole life in the service of the Kremlin. In the wake of a failed coup against Gorbachev in Moscow, one of these apparatchiks, Leonid Kravchuk, by then the chair of Ukraine's parliament, declared independence from the USSR and became the new head of state.

In December 1991, some 90 percent of Ukrainians voted for independence from Russia. Support ran deep even in the most Russified areas of Eastern Ukraine. As journalist Bohdan Nahaylo wrote then:

What appears to have happened is that swiftly and almost imperceptibly...a revolution occurred in the minds of Ukraine's inhabitants. Somehow, during a remarkably short period, the idea of Ukrainian independence, for so long depicted in the Soviet press as the hopeless cause of diehard nationalists in Western Ukraine, took hold throughout the republic.

After independence, however, Ukrainian nationalism became a political vehicle for rival politicians fronting for various business interests. Many a former Communist Party boss used their insider connections to take advantage of privatization deals and become superrich oligarchs--the opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, though jailed under Yanukovych, became one of the richest people in Ukraine thanks to her savvy business deals with Ukraine and Russian oligarchs alike.

These politicians were nationalists only when it suited their personal and political interests. Kravchuk, the supposed nationalist, was defeated in the 1994 presidential election by fellow former apparatchik, Leonid Kuchma, who leaned more toward ties with Russia. Kuchma was every bit as corrupt and thuggish as his opponents--though tagged as stooge of Moscow, he in fact turned to the International Monetary Fund for financial help and increased Ukraine's military cooperation with the U.S.-led NATO alliance.

In the 2004 presidential election, Kravchuk backed another politician seen as pro-Moscow--none other than Viktor Yanukovych. But obvious election fraud sparked off mass protests that came to be known as the "Orange Revolution." Yanukovych was forced to submit to a re-run election that his opponent, Viktor Yushchenko, won.

Yushchenko relied on nationalism in his attempt to cement his power. State institutions began to disseminate an alternate history of the nationalist movement of the 1930s and after, mostly sanitized of its anti-Semitism and fascist ideology, and instead represented as a heroic Ukrainian national liberation movement.

But because he did nothing to address the basic economic grievances that underlay the Orange Revolution, Yushchenko lost support rapidly. In 2010, Yanukovych easily won the presidential election--though this time, the one-time ally of Russia promised to increase Ukraine's economic and political ties with Europe, including further cooperation with NATO.

TODAY, ALMOST the entire political spectrum in Kiev lies firmly within the limits of nationalisms of various types.

Both Svoboda and Trident--one of the driving organizations within the Right Sector, which rose to prominence for its role in defending the occupation of the Maidan (Independence Square) in Kiev from police attacks ordered by Yanukovych--claim to be the heirs of Stepan Bandera's OUN.

Since 2004, Svoboda has been mirroring the strategies of its Western European counterparts like the National Front in France by trying to widen its base through addressing social issues not directly related to far right ideology. Thus, Svoboda's combination of ultra-nationalism and racism in its daily activities are largely covered over in official documents. But they are by no means a secret--Svoboda's leader Oleh Tyahnybok, for example, claimed in parliament that the Yanukovych government was dominated by a "Muscovite-Jewish mafia."

This is the historical and ideological atmosphere in which socialists and the left must operate in Ukraine.

Ukraine's history has made the development of independent socialist political organization quite difficult--as in other countries dominated by the former USSR, the ideas of Marxism and the socialist tradition have been stained by their association with Stalinist tyrants. Ukraine's historic subjugation to Russian imperialism has meant that class-based revolutionary politics in Ukraine have frequently had to contend with a vulgar anti-Russianism put forward by the reactionary nationalist groupings.

The aim must be to shift mass popular anger away from nationalist expressions and channel it against the oligarchs of Ukraine, who are truly responsible for the misery of working people. This has been made significantly more difficult by the Russian intervention in Crimea, which has put Ukraine's inter-ethnic conflict in the spotlight and feeds into the reactionary nationalism of the far-right parties.

The claims of Russian leaders that they are confronting the fascists and the far right in Ukraine are lies. In reality, the threat of all-out war caused by Russia's intervention only gives the nationalists the basis to whip up more support, as the determined defenders of Ukraine against foreign domination.

This is why it remains imperative to struggle against all sides in the imperialist conflict being fought out in Ukraine. Russian imperialism has made its move to retain political and economic domination over the country with its takeover of Crimea--this should be unconditionally condemned by all revolutionaries claiming to be anti-imperialists.

But it should be obvious that condemning Russian imperialism does not by any means amount to a defense of Western interests or the newly installed government in Kiev. Intervention by the U.S. and European Union (EU)--whether in the form of diplomatic or economic pressure or actual military operations--won't be carried out because of concerns for democracy or the conditions of ordinary people in Ukraine. On the contrary, Western governments want to gain in Ukraine at the expense of Russia.

THE PERSISTANCE of nationalism in Ukraine, especially in western regions, can't be entirely explained by contemporary economic ties to Russia, but these do provide some context. A hefty segment of the Ukrainian economy is still dependent on its neighbor to the east.

As Sławomir Matuszak's shows in an extensive study, Ukraine is distinguished by having probably the highest level of direct oligarch control over the government. Among the oligarchs who reign in the west, one of the driving forces behind their aversion to the association with Russia is the prospect of Putin's direct involvement in the country's politics.

Putin's consolidation of state power in Russia involved stripping Russian oligarchs of their political power. With his support of Yanukovych, Putin was trying to secure as much control as possible over crucial gas pipelines linking Russia's energy producers to their customers in Europe--among other things, through a consolidated state under the control of Yanukovych and his allies. This obviously represented a threat to sections of the oligarchy.

In this regard, the difference between the anti-Russian oligarchs concentrated in western Ukraine and the grouping that remained mostly loyal to Yanukovych is that the pro-Russia grouping needed Putin's financial and political backing to keep their power, while the anti-Russia faction had recently begun to rely more on channeling existing popular discontent in a nationalist direction.

These divisions aren't set in stone, however. Both the "eastern"- and "western"-based oligarchs have proven quite willing to change political associations whenever it was beneficial to them. The recent political conversion of the richest man in Ukraine, Rinat Akhmetov, from a strong supporter of Yanukovych to the side of the Kiev government is a case in point.

While the domestic market in Ukraine remains important for the less powerful oligarchs, the wealthier and more influential among them rely just as much on exports and, thus, access to foreign markets. Looking at Ukraine's exports on the whole, there is not a clear tendency towards East or West: 38 percent of goods are sold to former Soviet states grouped in the Commonwealth of Independent States, 26 percent go to the EU, and 36 percent go to other countries.

However, Ukraine does remain in a relationship of dependence on Russia in many respects, including its massive trade debt of $10 billion, which Moscow is currently calling in. Almost a third of Ukraine's exports go to Russia, including more sophisticated industrial products that aren't competitive on the EU market.

On the other end, about 36 percent of Ukraine's imports come from Russia, including about 60 percent of its natural gas. The advantageous prices Ukraine has enjoyed from Russia are largely in return for the low transit fees paid to Ukraine to get gas to the European markets. Eighty percent of Russia's gas still flows to the EU via Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Russian state oil company Rosneft--the largest in the world--already owns Ukraine's second-biggest oil refinery and is in the process of acquiring the biggest.

THIS RELATIONSHIP--especially Ukraine's energy dependence--is obviously beneficial to Russian business, including those under state control. Thus, the Russian state has intervened to maintain Ukraine's subordinate position--for example, by shutting off gas supplies in January 2006 amid Ukraine government moves toward extending relations with the EU, and again in 2009. Likewise, today, Russia is preparing to cancel, beginning in April, the steep discount Ukraine receives for natural gas imports.

This is the economic counterpart to the military takeover of Crimea, and one just as likely to embitter ordinary people in Ukraine. For that reason, it has been seized on to fuel the nationalist appeals of conservative political parties, backed by their sections of the ruling elite.

The oligarchs themselves--though they benefit, both east and west, from their ties with Russian businesses--chafe under the Russian state's periodic interventions to block any tilt toward Europe. Thus, the new government in Kiev recently appointed two of the most prominent eastern oligarchs in Ukraine to governorships in Donetsk and Dnipropetrovsk--their swift establishment of authority shows the central government is trying to secure a stable economic environment as soon as possible.

At the same time, another oligarch, Dmytro Firtash, was simultaneously enlisted to appeal to Russian business circles to exert their influence in favor of peace, on the grounds that any escalation of the conflict would be mutually bad for business.

The appointment of two billionaires to take political command in important eastern regions of Ukraine shows that the government is attempting to use the threat posed by Russian intervention to try to consolidate support in Eastern Ukraine around a concept of national unity--but one specifically centered on pursuing the interests of the ruling class.

This corresponds with the government's wider agenda--using the conflict with Russia as a means to divert popular discontent, while carrying through neoliberal measures very familiar to ordinary people in Ukraine from Yanukovich's time in power, not to mention the people of Greece, Spain and other European countries bearing the brunt of the debt crisis.

ULTIMATELY, THE use of nationalism to bolster a system that benefits the oligarchs will set the stage for conflicts and struggles to come.

The far-right Svoboda is participating alongside center-right parties in a government that will inevitably dash any hopes of economic progress for the majority of people in Ukraine. Prime Minister Yatsenyuk admitted that taking part in the new regime is to "commit political suicide"--because of the scale of austerity measures to come.

The government has begun negotiations for loans from the International Monetary Fund that will include strict conditions--including, according to one account, further cuts in retirement benefits, increased energy taxes on working people, privatization of state-owned industries and enterprises, the elimination of several government ministries in their entirety, and cuts in unemployment benefits and sick pay.

Implementing such measures will harm the popularity of the government, whose support is already dwindling. The political figures who claimed to "lead" the Maidan movement admitted before Yanukovych's fall that they didn't control the mass movement--as negotiators of even more severe austerity, they will only grow more suspect in the minds of working people.

As for upcoming presidential elections, the anti-Russian media oligarch and key financier of the "Orange Revolution" Petro Poroshenko was ahead of both Klitschko and Tymoshenko, even in a poll conducted shortly after Yanukovych was driven from power. And that same poll showed that 48.7 percent of respondents refuse to predict who will be elected in the May vote--and 29.6 percent were dissatisfied the existing options.

In the east of the country, where Yanukovych had his main base of support, much of the population has remained passive, although small pro-Russian and pro-Ukraine demonstrations garnered some media attention. Overall, there is little support for seceding and joining Russia, even in the main eastern cities--but neither is there much support for the newly installed government in Kiev, with its nakedly nationalist agenda.

For now, the flash point of the crisis will continue to be Crimea, where the local pro-Russia elite is pressing for the referendum on annexation to Russia to take place on March 16. The rushed-through vote can hardly be considered a fair reflection of the national aspirations of the people in Crimea--rather, it will reflect a snapshot in the vacillations of public opinion under a propaganda bombardment from all sides.

The elected Crimean parliament seems to be almost unanimously in favor of Russian annexation, but a public opinion survey from last December of last year showed only 35 percent of people in Crimea supporting independence from both Ukraine and Russia and 56 percent opposed separation from Ukraine.

Among the Tatar population of Crimea, there is discontent with the Ukraine government in Kiev, which previously refused to provide state funding for Tatar-language schools. Nevertheless, the Crimean Tatar community remains almost unanimously against annexation to Russia, and there has been a call to boycott the upcoming referendum.

As the Left Opposition in Ukraine explained in a statement, socialists should stand for the right of the people of Crimea to determine their own national status. But true self-determination can't be carried out under the guns of an imperialist power.

A genuine referendum on the attitude of people in Crimea would require the withdrawal of Russian troops and a delay of some months to allow for ample public discussion. This is the only way, too, that the 300,000 voices from the Crimean Tatar community will have an equal footing in the decision.

IF THE vote goes ahead, it will further contribute to the dynamic that has marginalized voices challenging nationalism and repression.

Russia's war threats have strengthened the hand of the nationalists and outright fascists who dominate in the new order in Kiev, if not in the mass Maidan movement that brought it to power. Meanwhile, the right-wing rhetoric and policies of the central government are driving ordinary people in the east and south of Ukraine to see Russian forces as their protectors against a regime that would take away their language and political rights.

Breaking this cycle will require an upsurge from below, based on a political alternative that can unite working people across the various divides that threaten to break Ukraine apart--one that can, for example, move the large numbers of mainly younger, Russian-speaking people in the east, who identify as people of Ukraine explicitly against assimilation with Russia, toward unity with the more politically active people in the west who are fed up with the oligarchs who dominate the system.

A movement that can mobilize working people against all the oligarchs holds out the possibility of breaking the binds on class struggle imposed by the ideology of national allegiances in Ukraine.

Alan Maass contributed to this article.

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