Will eastern Ukraine break away?

April 21, 2014

Revolts in eastern cities have pushed the crisis to a new stage, reports Alan Maass.

UKRAINE HAS come another step closer to breaking apart or collapsing into civil war with uprisings in eastern cities, carried out by pro-Russian armed groups demanding a referendum on greater local powers and threatening secession.

Pro-Russian militants took over in at least 10 towns and cities, seizing government buildings and establishing their authority in place of any local officials who remained loyal to the Ukraine federal government, based in the capital of Kiev. The newly declared Donetsk People's Republic is calling for a referendum on autonomy by May 11--two weeks before the central Ukraine government plans to hold a presidential election that it hoped would consolidate its rule.

At an international conference in Switzerland last week, representatives of the Ukraine, Russian, U.S. and European Union (EU) governments negotiated an agreement they claimed would de-escalate the conflict, provided the militants in the east ended their occupations and gave up their weapons. But there was no sign of any retreat by the insurgents over the weekend, and armed clashes continued despite talk of an Easter truce.

A pro-Russian demonstration in the eastern city of Donetsk
A pro-Russian demonstration in the eastern city of Donetsk (Kyryl Savin)

THE PRO-Russian revolt in eastern Ukraine is the latest stage in an upheaval that has turned the country upside down in the past six months--and sharpened the imperialist conflict pitting the U.S. and its European allies against Russia.

It began in November with a mass protest movement against former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych. The demonstrations, centered in the Maidan (Independence Square) in Kiev, were sparked by Yanukovych's rejection of an agreement with the EU for closer integration, in favor of new ties to Russia--but the protests came to represent a broader popular opposition to the regime's corruption and repression.

The Maidan movement survived a series of deadly crackdowns, and Yanukovych was ultimately toppled, fleeing Kiev in February. The new government that took power in his place, however, was dominated by the same center-right and far-right parties that claimed leadership over the mass protests. Backed by the U.S. and EU, these parties are committed to an ultra-nationalist agenda and readily admit they will impose new austerity measures as a condition of economic aid from the West.

Russia, which has dominated Ukraine dating back centuries, reacted to Yanukovych's downfall with a military takeover of Crimea, a peninsula in southern Ukraine that is home to a huge Russian naval base on the Black Sea. A hastily called referendum in Crimea supported secession, and local political leaders traveled to Moscow to agree to be annexed by Russia.

Now, the uprising in the eastern cities looks like a replay of the Crimea breakaway. But the dynamics of the situation are complicated.

The pro-Russian demonstrations in the east since Yanukovych's downfall, and now the armed takeovers, reflect real popular fears about the new regime in Kiev. For one, the ultra-nationalists in the new government attempted to overturn a law allowing the official use of languages other than Ukrainian--many people in the east, especially in cities, are Russian speakers.

Moreover, the government's plans for greater integration with Europe, conditional on adopting neoliberal measures set out by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), are a clear and present threat. Eastern Ukraine is the country's industrial heartland, but its economy is geared to exports to and imports from Russia. Living standards have declined in the east, as throughout Ukraine, for much of the period since independence from the ex-USSR in 1991, but there will be worse to come if the country comes under the thumb of the EU and the IMF.

As Nick Evans wrote at the Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century website, "The U.S. ambassador to the UN said there was nothing 'grassroots-seeming' about the uprising in eastern Ukraine. Exactly the same was said by the Russians and their supporters about the Euromaidan movement. Both are untrue."

On the other hand, the armed forces that took over the eastern cities haven't been unanimously welcomed by the population--and there is even deeper suspicions about union with Russia, the stated goal of the insurgents.

All parts of Ukraine suffered from Russia's imperial rule--first, for centuries under the Tsar; then, after a brief recognition of national self-determination following the 1917 Russian Revolution, under the tyranny of the Stalinist counter-revolution; and now, under Moscow's new empire re-established after the breakup of the ex-USSR. That history hasn't been forgotten--nor have the struggles of workers in eastern Ukraine, especially the coal miners of the Donbass region, whose mass strikes ignited resistance across the USSR as Stalinism was collapsing in the late 1980s.

Thus, as the confrontations play out in eastern Ukraine, there are signs of hostility toward both imperialisms--the U.S. and its EU allies to the west, Russia to the east--and of a desire for an alternative that defends the interests of the working class. But it is exactly this alternative that the imperial powers battling over Ukraine both wish to squelch.

THE TAKEOVER of Crimea that began at the end of February following Yanukovych's ouster was clearly orchestrated by the Russian military and carried out quickly because Russia already had tens of thousands of its own forces stationed on the peninsula.

The revolt in the eastern cities has taken place more slowly, and the Russian presence is less obvious. But there's no doubt that the forces that declared the "Donetsk People's Republic" are collaborating with Moscow.

Residents of the cities, whether they support or oppose the takeovers, say the insurgents are not from the area. Guardian journalist Luke Harding, reporting from Slavyansk, asked one of the armed men where he was from; the reply--"Simferopol," the capital of Crimea--came in Russian. Even if they aren't Russian military personnel, the insurgents "looked like professionals," according to Harding. "They had Kalashnikovs, flak jackets, ammunition. One even carried a tube-shaped green grenade-launcher."

Russia has support in Eastern Ukraine without relying on its own soldiers--from the former ruling Party of Regions led by Yanukovych, as well as the most pro-Russian political force in Ukraine, the Communist Party. The Communists proved just how devoted they are to democracy last January when their representatives in Ukraine's parliament provided the margin of victory for laws proposed by Yanukovych that essentially criminalized all protest.

The leaders of the takeovers in eastern cities openly state that they favor a union with Russia. In voicing their opposition to Ukraine's integration with the EU, they mimic the reactionary attitudes of Russia's Vladimir Putin, including his war on LGBT people. Thus, the Guardian's Harding described a poster he saw on a tour of a seized government building that serves as the headquarters of the Donetsk People's Republic--the flyer "contrasts a row of Russian soldiers with a European gay pride rally. It asks bluntly: 'In which parade would you want your son to take part?'"

Like Putin's own record of tyranny in Russia, this bigotry and worship of authoritarianism makes a mockery of any claim by such forces--echoed by some left-wing voices in the U.S. and Europe who champion Russian intervention in Ukraine--that they are defending democratic rights against the far-right nationalists in Kiev.

Not surprisingly, therefore, there are suspicions about the insurgents among people in the east. But they coexist with concerns about the new Ukraine government. "I'm not a radical or a separatist," Vladimir Ivanovich, a resident of Slavyansk, told the Guardian. "I'm actually more on the left. I didn't much like Viktor Yanukovych. I'm for peaceful coexistence. The problem is that when the nationalists seized power in Kiev, they didn't think about the consequences."

THIS FEAR of what the new government represents is why the pro-Russian demonstrations and takeovers can't be written off as the isolated act of Moscow stooges--any more than the Maidan movement in Kiev should be dismissed because the far right played a central role in it. Supporters of secession have gained a hearing because workers have legitimate grievances against the ultra-nationalists and the new regime in Kiev.

For one thing, the new government has attempted to reestablish authority in the east by wooing the filthy-rich oligarchs who have dominated Ukraine since independence, no matter which political faction was in charge.

That includes Rinat Akhmetov, the richest man in Ukraine and number 100 on Forbes magazine's list of the world's wealthiest people. Akhmetov was born in Donetsk and started building his fortune by buying coal mines and other energy industry assets during the privatization boom following independence from the ex-USSR. A one-time member of parliament representing the Party of Regions, Akhmetov came into increasing conflict with the former regime and abandoned Yanukovych before he fell.

In March, Akhmetov said he had ordered the 300,000 employees of his SCM Group conglomerate not to support pro-Russian forces demanding secession--though he apparently stopped short of accepting an offer from the government to be governor of Donetsk. Another billionaire industrialist, Serhiy Taruta, was given the position instead--a clear signal about whose interests the Kiev government has at heart.

The government's anti-working class agenda is likewise obvious from its rush to sign up with the IMF/EU/U.S. neoliberal program. This will harm working people throughout Ukraine, but especially in the east, where the economy is dominated by mining and heavy industry, built up through extensive investment from Russia.

Not only would a break with Russia cut off these companies from their main export markets, but "free trade" with the EU would force outdated eastern factories into an unwinnable competition with industry in Germany and other Western European countries. "If we join the European Union, our mines and factories will shut down," Igor Yefremov, a Donetsk native, told the Guardian. Ukraine should join the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union, he said. "It's our only chance."

THE CONFLICT in eastern Ukraine is starkly illustrated among the Donbass coal miners, so important to the political history of the country.

As Nick Evans pointed out for RS21, neither future--with the EU or with Russia--can look very appealing to miners: "Russia cut its investment in coal by 40 percent last year, so incorporation into Russia has little to offer; meanwhile, the EU-Ukraine deal will also mean dramatic 'downsizing' of the coal industry, in favor of onshore gas exploration by multinationals."

The miners, Evans says, are currently split between two unions: The Union of Coal Workers, aligned with Yanukovych's Party of Regions, and the Independent Miners Union, which has ties to the Fatherland Party, currently the leading party in the Kiev parliament under the new government. Some miners are participating in the anti-government demonstrations in eastern cities, but the Independent Miners Union rejected separatist calls to participate in a general strike.

Evans highlighted why miners, however much they may fear the new government in Kiev, have good reason to be hostile to the pro-Russian political forces dominating the eastern demonstrations:

At the state-owned Belorechenskaia mine, workers have not been paid fully since October of last year. The mine was nationalized in 2012 [under Yanukovych's reign] because of miners' protests at unpaid wages. The first action of the new administration was not to pay the miners, but to hire large numbers of security forces to deal with labor unrest. The Union of Coal Workers, because of its links with the administration, has done nothing to challenge this, unlike the Independent Miners' Union.

This complexity is entirely missing from the Western media's simplified depiction of Ukraine--that Ukrainian speakers want ties to the EU and Russian speakers want to secede; that people who live in the west of the country tilt toward Europe and embrace right-wing parties, while anyone from the east lines up in lockstep with Putin's Russia.

It's important to remember that in the early days of the Maidan movement last year, the mass protests against the regime spread westward from Kiev into the heartland of the nationalists--but also eastward toward Yanukovych's political base. The Donbass miners reacted to a government assault on demonstrators in December with a statement that they would strike in support of the Maidan: "People of Ukraine, in 1989, you supported our mass strike for our rights. Today's miners stand with you."

The political polarization and threats of war dominate consciousness today, but the hope for peace and economic justice in Ukraine lie with building on this spirit of class solidarity against all the oligarchs and the political parties that serve them.

HOW FAR will Russia go in supporting the protests in eastern Ukraine?

Putin and the Russian ruling class have a lot at stake. As James Meek wrote in the London Review of Books, Ukraine became an integral part of the reconstructed Russian empire in the years after the USSR fell apart and Ukraine and other former Soviet republics declared independence: "The truth is that Russia and Ukraine have been reunited for a long time, in a corrupt mosaic dominated by Moscow. Putin didn't begin invading Ukraine to bring it back into the fold but to stop it escaping."

Russia has critical economic and military interests in Ukraine--including a network of pipelines that connect Russian natural gas producers to their main export market of Western Europe. The Putin regime put a high priority on luring Yanukovych--with the carrot and the stick--away from an economic agreement with the EU. After he was overthrown, it made its move in Crimea to safeguard its military installations on the peninsula and put pressure on the new government in Kiev.

The pro-Russia revolts in eastern Ukraine obviously ratchet up that pressure further, and Putin has moved 40,000 troops into the border region near Ukraine out of "concern" for "instability." But an outright military takeover and secession--on the model of Crimea--would be much more difficult.

The insurgents who occupied the government buildings may not have faced open resistance, but a poll by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, conducted as the eastern city takeovers were beginning, found that three-quarters of residents in Donetsk opposed the seizures. In the eastern region overall, only 15.4 percent of people supported secession from Ukraine and annexation to Russia, with the percentage climbing to 27.5 percent in Donetsk and 30.3 percent in Luhansk--a significant minority, but still a minority.

An escalation of the skirmishes in eastern cities could still draw Russian forces into a more open intervention, but Moscow may prefer to keep up pressure on the Kiev government by supporting insurgents behind the scenes--while hoping for a more federalized power structure in Ukraine, which the new government has already offered, that would allow Russia to exert political influence in the regions of Ukraine on its borders.

As for the U.S. and its allies in Europe, their reaction to the eastern Ukraine uprisings has been a lot of hypocritical rhetoric about respect for sovereignty and the rule of law--but little action to back it up. Barack Obama, for example, said the U.S. and EU "have to be prepared--potentially--to respond," but explicitly ruled out a military option.

That, too, could change if violence erupts on a greater scale. But the U.S. and European governments are happy to have at least gained influence over the new government in Kiev--and to have consolidated their alliances with other Eastern European countries like Poland in the face of the war threats.

Of course, none of these strategic considerations have anything to do with concern about democracy in Ukraine or the well-being of the people of any part of the country. As long as Ukraine remains a battleground for imperialist rivals--and proxy forces representing one power or the other--working people in Ukraine will bear the brunt of the poverty, violence and suffering.

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