At the time of writing, the wave of protests which swept through Ukraine’s cities after the presidential elections on 20 November may be beginning to have an affect.
After thousands of supporters of opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko demonstrated and camped out on the streets and after Yushchenko’s sucessful call for a general strike, outgoing president Leonid Kuchma said another round of elections might be required. Ukraine’s Parliament has passed a vote of no-confidence in Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, whose victory in the presidential elections is thought to have been obtained by intimidation and corruption.
Sections of the police and the army had pledged their allegiance to Yushchenko. Blockades of government buildings took place in many of the big cities. Journalists went on strike in protest at how they had been instructed to report on the events. Yushchenko has established a “National Salvation Committee” as a form of parallel government.
The crisis came to a head, and really began to alarm international heads of state, when a talk began about a split between east and west Ukraine.
In the south and east of the country, mass rallies pledged their support for Viktor Yanukovych, the candidate declared by the Central Elections Commission to have won the elections. Yanukovych is, like Kuchma, seen as “pro-Russian”. Local councils passed resolutions calling for pro-Yanukovych general strikes. Political leaders in the Donetsk region advocated secession from the Ukraine if Yanukovych is not recognised as the winner, and are warning of civil war. Stan Crooke analyses the background to the political crisis in Ukraine.
The starting point for trying to make sense of what is going on in Ukraine is to look at how the country has evolved (or regressed) politically and socially since it declared its independence from the defunct Soviet Union in 1991.
For over a decade Ukraine has been plundered by an alliance of big business, organised crime and political corruption. The situation worsened dramatically in the course of 2003. According to a report published earlier this year by the human rights organisation Freedom House:
“Events of 2003 suggest that Ukraine is on a trajectory away from genuine democracy. The country is close to consolidating a political system that serves the narrow interests of a small oligarchic group that shares authoritarian political ideas and common economic interests. … Corruption and nepotism figure in appointments to government positions, to the benefit of business or criminal interests. The intersection among the criminal, business, and political worlds as a feature of corruption in Ukraine is pivotal. …”
“Ukraine is on the verge of losing even the most rudimentary characteristics of democracy and is in danger of becoming an authoritarian political system serving the interests of a small privileged class. …”
The national monthly minimum wage in Ukraine is £26. The average monthly wage is £44. The state pension is worth £7 a month. (The minimum subsistence level is around £36 a month.) Back pay amounting to £250 million is owed to workers. Unemployment is running at 12%. 1,230 workers died in accidents at work at last year, and another 23,500 were seriously injured. Homelessness is widespread amongst children, and trafficking into prostitution is widespread amongst women. Ukraine’s population is ageing and decreasing.
At the other extreme, a small elite has accrued massive wealth since Ukraine’s declaration of independence. Large-scale privatisations at knock-down prices at the beginning of the 1990s benefited a few favoured businessmen. The remaining state-dominated sectors of the economy — which still account for about 30% of the economy — have been plundered for personal gain by a new financial oligarchy.
Around the middle of the 1990s the political and financial elites began to unite around new political parties, formed in order to express their own particular factional interests. As the human rights organisation Writenet explained:
“The emergence of political-financial blocs was first noted in Ukraine in 1994. The peculiar nexus between the business and political worlds, highlighted in the emergence of oligarch politicians… (occurs) where parliament offers immunity from arrest and where the division of state assets becomes a political affair. Their [the new Ukrainian parties’] distinguishing feature was that they generally supported the president, primarily because their financial viability has usually depended upon this relationship.”
The bonds between the political and financial elites were cemented by a shared, and lucrative, involvement in fraud and corruption. According to the Transparency International league table, Ukraine is the nineteenth most corrupt country in the world. Freedom House points to the Ukrainian gas industry as a prime example of such state-sponsored corruption:
“The natural gas industry in general and Naftohaz, the state-owned Ukrainian gas monopoly, in particular, continue as centres of high-level corruption and are not subject to auditing by the state accounting chamber. The operations of Naftohaz, believed to reflect the overlapping interests of business, politics and crime, are suspected of being the source of illicit income for government officials and President Kuchma.”
Democratic scrutiny and accountability were anathema to this ruling elite as it consolidated its grip on the wealth of Ukrainian society in the course of the 1990s. Their hostility to democratic norms found expression in attacks on media freedom and in fraudulent practices at election time.
Most media are either state-owned or owned by oligarchs allied to the government. The Ukrainian authorities issue instructions to the media on how events are to be reported. Failure to comply is punished by licence revocation and onerous tax audits. The few independent media face additional problems of telephone tapping, selective enforcement of media regulations, spurious criminal investigations, and physical attacks on their reporters.
Between 1998 and 2002 ten journalists died under suspicious circumstances, and another 41 suffered serious injury from attacks. Kuchma was directly implicated in the murder of Gongadze, a journalists murdered in 2000. In 2002 four journalists were killed, most likely in connection with their work, six disappeared, and 28 were injured in attacks.
In 2001 the International Committee to Protect Journalists ranked Kuchma as number seven in its list of the ten worst enemies of media freedom. In 2003 Reporters Without Borders listed Ukraine as the 34th worst country in the world in its league table of media freedoms. A 2004 report on Ukraine commissioned by the UN High Commission for Refugee added journalists to its list of “extremely vulnerable categories” of persons at risk of persecution in Ukraine.
Electoral fraud is a well-established practice in Ukraine. The 1999 presidential elections, won by Kuchma, were declared unfair by observers because of the harassment of independent media, biased coverage by the state and pro-government media, intimidation of candidates and their supporters, and illegal campaigning by state officials.
In the mayoral elections in Mukachevo this year, thugs threw polling observers out of the polling stations, smashed up some of the polling stations, harassed exit poll workers, and stole ballot papers at the close of voting — and all this in full view of international observers and a delegation of Ukrainian MPs who were also acting as election observers.
Even before the polling stations opened in last week’s elections there had been numerous reports of irregularities. A number of local authorities refused to allow Yushchenko to hold rallies. False opinion polls conducted by Russian polling companies were released. Yanukovych was given eight times more media coverage than Yushchenko. Journalists who failed to toe the line were sacked, while journalists at the pro-Yushchenko Channel 5 television station had to go on hunger strike to prevent the station’s closure.
At the end of October the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights issued a press release warning that “violations of international standards for free and fair elections have persisted and become even more acute in the course of the electoral campaign… There is reason to suspect that law enforcement and security agencies are being used to harass persons and organisations who support the opposition. Army units are being used to create an atmosphere of fear among the population.”
In the presidential elections Yanukovych stood for a continuation of the politics of the 1990s. He had been appointed Prime Minister by Kuchma. In the elections he was backed by Kuchma — and, more importantly, by the state apparatus headed by Kuchma. Rinat Akhmetov, the richest man in Ukraine, supported him, as too did the son-in-law of Kuchma, Viktor Pinchuk (who, thanks to his father-in-law, had recently been awarded control over the Kryvorizhstal steelworks, although foreign bidders had offered twice as much).
Support from the business oligarchs for Yanukovych went well beyond a few individuals. The Financial Times reported last week:
“Ukraine’s business oligarchs mostly backed the bid by Viktor Yanukovich for the presidency… They acquired their wealth by working closely with Leonid Kuchma, the outgoing president…
“Most remain wedded to Mr Yanukovich, especially the barons of his political heartlands in the industrialised Donetsk region… Most have seen backing Mr Yanukovich as the best way of retaining money and power. So too have Russian business people who have invested heavily in Ukraine.”
Yushchenko, whatever the Western media might say about him, certainly does not represent a radical alternative to Yanukovych. He helped make Ukraine the country it is today. And, albeit to a lesser extent, he was also the candidate of sections of the business oligarchy who owed their wealth to fraud and corruption.
Yushchenko headed the National Bank of Ukraine from 1993 to 1999 — and remained silent as the resources of the country were plundered by a new oligarchy. In 1999 he was appointed Prime Minister by Kuchma and pursued a policy of Thatcherite monetarism. Only after parliament had passed a motion of no confidence in him — after he had alienated the Communist Party and the other pro-Russian parliamentary factions — did he move into the opposition camp and form the “Our Ukraine” bloc.
Yushchenko’s democratic credentials are also marred by incidents such as his comparison of those supported Gongadze, the journalist murdered in 2000, with fascists, his defence of the magazine Silski Visti after it had published an article alleging that 400,000 Jews had invaded Ukraine along with the Nazi forces in 1940, and his failure to condemn his supporters who make anti-semitic attacks on Kuchma’s son-in-law, Pinchuk.
The most prominent backer of Yushschenko is Yulia Tymoshenko. In the mid-1990s, under the patronage of the then Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, Tymoshenko’s United Energy System was awarded a series of contracts for the supply of gas to Ukrainian enterprises. Tymoshenko quickly gained control of nearly 20% of Ukraine’s Gross National Product. In the late 1990s she served as a deputy Prime Minister under Kuchma. Her personal fortune is now estimated at eleven billion dollars.
And whilst Yushchenko is denouncing — quite legitimately — the electoral fraud committed by Yanukovych and his supporters, there is evidence to suggest that the elections were not entirely free from fraud in the regions which backed Yushchenko the most strongly.
But Yanukovych and Yushchenko presented themselves differently in their electoral campaigns.
Yanukovych mobilised his traditional bedrock of support in the south and east of the country — more industrialised than the West of the country, inhabited in the main by ethnic Russians, enjoying close economic ties with Russia, and home to the dominant factions in the Ukrainian business oligarchy.
Yanukovych promised to make Russian a recognised state language in Ukraine. He promised to maintain close economic ties with Russia — on which many jobs in the Donetsk region in particular depend — and reminded his core voters of the jobs which had been lost in the region as a result of Yushchenko’s monetarist policies.
He boasted of the investments he had secured for the region when he had been Donetsk governor, and encouraged regional particularism by emphasising that although Donetsk counted for only 10% of Ukraine’s population, it provided 20% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product.
Yushchenko, on the other hand, presented himself as the champion of democracy and as the enemy of Kuchma and the oligarchic backers of Yanukovych. In doing so, he struck a chord with the millions who have suffered under Kuchma’s and Yanukovych’s stewardship of the country. The economic policies he proposed were geared towards closer ties with, and eventual membership of, the European Union, which seemed to many to offer a way out of Ukraine’s economic stagnation.
This was sufficient to win the elections — accepting that there was large-scale electoral fraud in the elections — but it did nothing to breach support for Yanukovych in his heartlands. A map of the election results shows a straightforward east-west divide. And, in the longer term, Yushchenko, with the billionairess Tymoshenko behind him, will fail to satisfy the aspirations of even his own supporters.
Yushchenko is backed by the US and the European Union. In fact, many aspects of the current campaign of protest are largely financed by US money and modelled on previous US-backed campaigns which saw the end of Milosevic in Serbia and Shevardnadze in Georgia.
But it would be ridiculous to reduce the current protests in Ukraine to a US plot — “Yushchenko got the US nod, and money flooded in to his supporters,” as Jonathan Steele put it in a recent article in the Guardian (“Ukraine’s post-modern coup d’etat”).
Steele’s article was pointing out Yushchenko’s chequered record and the hypocrisy of the US in condemning elections as undemocratic when it suits them, but turning a blind eye to ballot-box stuffing, or the absence of any electoral process at all, when it suits them. In doing so, Steele was not supporting Yanukovych.
But sections of the left – such as those who act as cheerleaders for clerical fascism in Iraq — may not bother with such nuances. It is quite possible that these sections of the left will now have found a new hero to add to their pantheon of ‘anti-imperialist’ heroes: Slobodan Milosevic, Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein — and now, Viktor Yanukovych.
But the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who have taken to the streets have not done so because they support American and EU imperialism. They are protesting against the erosion of the already limited democracy in Ukraine — exemplified by the fraud in the presidential elections — and against the pervasive corruption of the dominant political and economic elite — exemplified by Yanukovych himself.
The problem confronting socialists in Ukraine is how to intervene in, and seek to influence, that mass protest movement without abandoning working-class political independence. And they also have to find a way to address those who voted for Yanukovych simply because Yushchenko had nothing to offer them, not because they enjoy being ruled over by a corrupt oligarchy.
The form that such interventions should take, the precise demands that should be raised, the manner in which illusions in Yushchenko (and Yanukovych) should be challenged — all these are questions which can really only be answered by socialists active on the ground in Ukraine.
But, even at a distance, what is clear is that socialists in Ukraine cannot limit themselves to the choice: Yushchenko or Yanukovych. Socialists share the struggle, not the illusions. And a struggle for radical democratic reforms and redistributive economic policies means raising demands which go well beyond anything which Yushchenko and, even more so, Yanukovych, would tolerate.
There are several different fault lines of language, religion, culture and politics in Ukraine. Voting in the Presidential election reflects the division.
There is a geographical dividing line in the Dnieper river, which runs through the capital, Kiev, bends south-east to Zaporizhia and then turns back to the Black Sea at Kherson.
The land to the west has been known as Right Bank, the land to the east as Left Bank.
Crudely, Russian is the dominant language on most of the Left Bank, especially in the large urban centres, and Ukrainian on the Right.
Orthodoxy is the dominant religion on the Left Bank, while on the Right it co-exists with the Uniate (or Greek Catholic) church.
Poland, and later Austria, dominated the westernmost regions of the country for hundreds of years. These regions only joined the rest of the country in the USSR in World War Two — against their will. Some western Ukrainians were so anti-Soviet that they backed the Nazi side in World War Two. Others fought both the German and Soviet armies, hoping to carve out an independent state.
The bulk of Ukraine’s Russian minority (some 17% of the total according to the 2001 census) lives on the Left Bank and in Odessa, which also voted for Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.
Part of the Russian population in the east arrived to work in heavy industries, such as coal, steel and chemicals, that were developed under Stalin. This population was the most Sovietised, while the population in the west of the country had the strongest cultural links with the rest of Central Europe.
However, some northern Left Bank regions voted for Yushchenko, just as some southern Right Bank regions voted for Yanukovych.