21 February 2014

Ben Neal reports on the continuing protests in Ukraine

Dozens of people have been killed this week in Ukraine as a result of a brutal government assault on the opposition held “Euromaidan” (Euro square), or Independence Square, in Kiev. In addition hundreds of people have been injured, some of them seriously.

At least 70 people, including 12 members of the security forces, are known to have been killed since Tuesday, and around 1000 have been injured, some seriously. Police managed to eject protesters from the central trade union building, which was being used as a headquarters for the revolution, and in the process the building was set on fire.

The violence erupted when riot police blocked a demonstration, calling for the restoration of the 2004 constitution, from approaching the Rada (parliament), and then went on to try and disperse protesters from all the occupied zones of Kiev. There have been pitched battles in the centre of the city, with many reports of live ammunition being used, possibly by police or security forces, or by the “titushki” hired thugs, and snipers firing at protesters. The city metro was closed for a time, and police road blocks set up around the city.

The deaths are in addition to the five people killed by police in January after protests erupted in response to laws passed which effectively outlawed demonstrations and gave the state dictatorial powers to deal with any opposition. Both escalations in the fighting came after relative lulls.

At the time of writing opposition activists had retaken control of Independence Square in Kiev. There were also reports of thousands of people blocking the road to the airport due to rumours of politicians trying to flee the country, and of around 50 security forces being taken prisoner by opposition activists. The west of the country, including the city of Lvov, is effectively no longer under government control and in these places the police and other security forces will simply not follow government orders. Street fighting has taken place even in eastern cities such as Kharkov, which are Russian speaking and traditionally more supportive of Yanukovich.

What is happening in Ukraine is clearly more than simply a protest movement. Right from day one it has had an insurrectionary character, with government buildings being taken over and used as organizing centres, huge barricades being built and manned by disciplined and organised groups of fighters. People from all walks of life and of all ages are getting involved, not just in fighting the brutal Berkut riot police and other forces, but in providing food, first aid, tires and other materials for the barricades, filling molotov cocktails.

One visitor to Kiev who was there recently described to me the atmosphere in the main opposition zone in ways that reminded me slightly of Orwell’s description of revolutionary Barcelona. The state was completely absent, yet ordinary people had taken control and were organizing and running things themselves.

However it is important not to exaggerate here. Outside the central square and surroundings, life in Kiev had been going on as normal until this week, although similar things have been happening in cities all over the country, especially in the Ukrainian speaking west, where the revolution is strongest.

The revolution is being very much driven from below. While the main opposition leaders are liberals who advocate neoliberal economic policies, they are not trusted by ordinary people, and on several occasions have been prevented from making any deal with Yanukovich due to pressure from rank and file protesters.

More worryingly, the far right, whether the nationalist “Svoboda” (Freedom) Party which has a large number of seats in the parliament, or the “Right Sector” which has been engaged in street fights with the police, has a very visible and undeniable role in this movement. It is particularly the Right Sector which has done most of the street fighting in Kiev, both initiating it and giving the fighting its insurrectionary character. They are seen by many as being the boldest and most fearless part of the movement, in contrast to the more mainstream liberal leaders who some fear will try to find a compromise with Yanukovich.

"It is a revolution." Ilya Matveev, a St Petersburg based socialist and activist told me. "Yes, the far right is strong, but it’s not a ‘fascist coup’. It is important not to present this revolution as a right wing uprising. That is echoing Putin’s propaganda." The Yanukovich government, and his Kremlin backers, are focussing on the involvement of the Right Sector in order to discredit the revolution. The right is certainly a major part of this movement, which generally is dominated by somewhat nationalist rhetoric and symbolism. However it is not the only part.

It is clear that this is a mass popular uprising, with opinion polls consistently showing around 50% support for Euromaidan. Large numbers of ordinary people are actively involved, and while the main catalyst was the desire for closer integration with the European Union, the motivations of most are anger with the corruption and repressive nature of political and economic elites in the country.

Where is the left in all this? In the Ukraine the left is very small and weak. The Communist Party is large, but is essentially a loyal opposition to the government, and opposes Euromaidan. The radical left is very small and therefore has had little impact on the process so far. It has suffered a split over the movement, with one of the main organizations, Borotba, opposing the movement completely. The small Left Opposition meanwhile has participated in the protests, mainly by volunteering in hospitals. When a coup of 100 anarchists attempted to form an anarchist defence brigade at Maidan, they were prevented from doing so by members of the Right Sector. What’s more, Ukraine had a traumatic experience under the USSR, especially in Stalin’s time, so many Ukrainians are understandably suspicious of anything connected to socialism.

Nevertheless, the evening before Yanukovich’s crackdown, there was an open meeting in the Euromaidan headquarters where Ukrainian leftists raised radical left demands such as preventing oligarchs from taking public office. Many non-political people present responded with even more radical proposals to strip the oligarchs and millionaires of all political rights completely. The Left Opposition issued in January a ten point plan for social change, which is even being discussed seriously in liberal and right wing publications. Such demands could make this movement more attractive to people in the east of the country, where so far the revolution has not been as strong so far, and they show the logic of the situation, which goes beyond the more nationalist and bourgeois demands of the opposition leadership.

It is far too early to tell how the situation will develop, but for now it seems that the opposition is strong, confident, and willing to fight a brutal, corrupt but desperate government. It is a dangerous situation, with a worryingly prominent role being played by the far right, overt, and possibly covert, involvement by the USA, European Countries and Russia, and the fear that civil war between east and west could develop. Nevertheless, more and more people from the Russian speaking east are joining in, strengthening the possibility that nationalism will be sidelined in favor of more social demands. The people of Ukraine deserve our full solidarity.