Friday, January 24, 2014

Ukraine Turmoil: Capitalist Powers in Tug of War (ICL-FI)

The following is a reprint of a Jan. 24th, 2014 Spartacist League/ICL-FI article originally published in Workers Vanguard:

Fascists Mobilize Behind U.S./EU Against Russia

Ukraine Turmoil: Capitalist Powers in Tug of War

Since the end of November, tens of thousands of demonstrators have repeatedly flocked to Maidan Square in the Ukrainian capital city of Kiev, protesting the refusal of President Viktor Yanukovich to sign an association agreement with the European Union (EU). Leading bourgeois politicians from the capitalist West, such as American Senator John McCain and EU foreign affairs representative Catherine Ashton, flooded into Kiev to solidarize with the protesters. In some ways, it was a reprise of the so-called “Orange Revolution” of 2004 when the U.S. and other imperialists, backed by a phalanx of imperialist-funded organizations, financed and engineered demonstrations that forced the election of a pro-Western and anti-Russian president, Viktor Yushchenko.

The ongoing aim of the Western imperialists is to establish a client state on the border of Russia, which under the rule of capitalist strongman Vladimir Putin has increasingly become a thorn in their sides. And Ukraine would be a big prize. Its industrial base supplies the Russian market, and its Black Sea and Crimean peninsula territories are of strategic importance to the Russian military.

The protesters and their imperialist backers claimed that they were fighting for the alleged higher values of European culture and civilization. A measure of those “values” is the major role played in recent protests by outright fascists belonging to the Svoboda party. This organization derives from the Ukrainian nationalists led by Stepan Bandera who carried out mass murders of Jews, reds, Soviet soldiers and Poles during World War II. Underlining their rabid anti-communism, the fascists spearheaded the destruction of a statue of V.I. Lenin, whose Bolshevik Party led the Russian October Revolution of 1917 that liberated the toilers and subject peoples of the former tsarist empire—Jews, Azerbaijanis, Ukrainians, etc.—from capitalist and landlord oppression. After renewed protests last weekend erupted into pitched battles between riot police and balaclava-wearing men armed with steel pipes and firebombs, some reports pointed to the involvement of the Right Sector, which, according to the BBC (21 January), considers Svoboda “too liberal and conformist.”

Last month, while McCain was shaking hands with Svoboda leader Oleg Tyagnibok, the Obama administration dispatched Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, to Kiev. Nuland emphasized: “We stand with the people of Ukraine who see their future in Europe.” At the same time, she stated that “the rule of law must be upheld,” which was understood by protest leaders to indicate U.S. reluctance to sponsor a forcible overthrow of the Yanukovich regime.

Such hesitation is a measure of Washington’s difficulties in pursuing its strategic interests around the world, not least its dealings with a more assertive Russian government. Capitalist restoration in the former Soviet Union emboldened the U.S. imperialists—no longer challenged by Soviet military might—in their depredations. On top of attempting to install pliant regimes through a series of color “revolutions” in former Soviet republics, the U.S. has established bases across Central Asia and elsewhere on Russia’s periphery. This military extension is aimed at the encirclement not only of capitalist Russia—still the world’s second-largest nuclear power—but also of China, the largest and most powerful of the remaining bureaucratically deformed workers states.

Bourgeois Rivalries

Ukraine is politically polarized between competing cliques of capitalist tycoons who enriched themselves at the expense of the working masses by grabbing the industrial wealth that had once been collectivized property in the Soviet Union. Yanukovich’s support derives from eastern Ukraine and Crimea. His son Oleksandr, one of the richest men in the country, has substantial interests in construction, banking and coal mining. Other oligarchs, with an appetite for more European investment, orient to the EU.

Both sides have demagogically stirred up antagonisms between the heavily Russified and Orthodox eastern Ukraine, where the bulk of industry is located, and the more rural and Uniate Catholic western Ukraine, long a breeding ground of Ukrainian nationalism. Participants in the recent protests in Kiev, which is located in the center of the country, were heavily drawn from Galicia and other areas of western Ukraine.

Commenting on the EU’s proposed agreement with Ukraine, one Western diplomat in Kiev bluntly admitted that “these Association Agreements reflect a kind of colonial attitude,” going on to note that the deal “is far more advantageous for European investors than it is for Ukrainian businesses.” In fact, the real losers would be the working people in Ukraine. A free-trade deal with the EU would lead to mass factory closures and layoffs, particularly in the east, where production of steel, metals, railway cars and nuclear equipment is ill-equipped to compete with industry in Germany. It would also imperil Ukraine’s massive oil and gas imports from Russia.

As an imperialist trade bloc dominated by Germany, the EU necessarily exploits the working classes of Europe and oppresses its weaker, more dependent countries. Having put the Greeks, Irish, Portuguese, et al., on starvation rations, Angela Merkel & Co. have no intention of making concessions to poverty-stricken Ukraine, with its 46 million inhabitants. Indeed, Ukrainians were not to be given even the alleged rights of EU membership. Thus, while the capitalists would have the right to invest and export goods to Ukraine, its populace would have no right to travel and work in EU countries. Moreover, the EU agreement was tied to an IMF loan that mandated an austerity diet, including budget cuts and the slashing of gas and oil subsidies, without which many would not be able to heat their homes in the frigid winter.

As the Western states increased their pressure, Putin played hardball with the Ukrainian government, threatening to end Russian trade preferences if the EU agreement were signed. He later offered concessions, including a loan of up to $15 billion and a one-third price cut for gas. It was an offer that the Ukrainian government could not afford to turn down. While offering a temporary reprieve, the Russian deal will not in any way put an end to mass poverty, which is rooted in capitalist exploitation. But the maneuver cut the ground out from under the opposition, temporarily dissipating the protests.

Subsequently, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution that denounced “Russian economic coercion” and threatened Ukraine with sanctions in the event of further state violence against pro-EU demonstrators, presumably including the fascists! And now European and American spokesmen are up in arms over laws just enacted by Yanukovich cracking down on protests. Nevertheless, it is widely conceded that Putin won a victory this round, albeit one that is financially risky. The New York Times (17 December 2013) noted: “For Mr. Putin, the jousting over Ukraine is the latest of several foreign policy moves that have served to re-establish Russia as a counterweight to Western dominance of world affairs.” The Times also mentioned Putin’s defiance of Washington in granting Edward Snowden temporary asylum and his deflection of a U.S. military strike on Syria with a proposal to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons.

Banderaite Fascists

The fascists of Svoboda are hardly a fringe phenomenon. In the 2012 elections, it received over 10 percent of the vote, giving it 38 out of 450 seats in Ukraine’s parliament. With a base in the western part of the country, Svoboda is recognized as part of the anti-Yanukovich coalition by the other main opposition forces, the Udar party led by retired boxer Vitali Klitschko and the Fatherland coalition associated with former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a darling of the Western media, who amassed a fortune in insider deals on gas contracts and is now in prison, convicted of “abuse of power.” (While hypocritically denouncing Putin for interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs, the EU demanded the release of Tymoshenko as a condition for its deal.)

Until 2004 Svoboda was called the Social-Nationalist Party, a reference to the National Socialism of the Nazis, and had a swastika-like logo. That year, Svoboda leader Tyagnibok made a notorious speech denouncing the “Jewish-Russian mafia” that supposedly ran Ukraine. Svoboda maintains ties with other fascist parties in Europe, like the British National Party. In 2012, a Svoboda lawmaker said that Ukrainian-born Hollywood actress Mila Kunis was not a “true Ukrainian,” calling her a “dirty Jewess.”

Ukrainian nationalism has always had a strong anti-Semitic coloration while subordinating itself to one or another greater capitalist power. At the time of the October Revolution and the civil war that followed it, Ukrainian nationalists allied with a series of reactionary forces against the Bolsheviks, including the Kaiser’s Germany, Russian White Guards and imperialist France. Finally, the Ukrainian nationalist Simon Petlyura, notorious for massacres of the Jewish population in western Ukraine, made a bloc with the Polish nationalist Jozef Pilsudski, ceding the western territories to Poland. This landgrab, consolidated through the 1920 Soviet-Polish war, effectively partitioned Ukraine, with the eastern region adhering to the new proletarian power established by the October Revolution.

The Ukrainian fascists later allied with Nazi Germany. On January 1 of this year, Svoboda staged a 15,000-strong march in Kiev to celebrate the birthday of fascist nationalist Stepan Bandera. Openly flaunting their fascist sympathies, they sported the red-black “blood and soil” banners carried by Bandera’s forces. Many wore the uniforms of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which was founded in collaboration with the German Wehrmacht in Soviet-occupied western Ukraine in 1940 to fight against the Red Army.

All wings of Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism collaborated with Hitler when he invaded the country in 1941. The Nazis quickly revealed that they had little regard for Slavic untermenschen (subhumans) and even less for Ukrainian independence; nationalist sentiment quickly turned against the Germans. Nonetheless the UPA, which by 1942 was dominated by Bandera’s wing of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN-B), spent more time fighting the anti-fascist Soviet partisans than it did German forces. Bandera was “rehabilitated” by the Germans in 1944, by which time the Soviets had regained control of much of eastern Ukraine. The Nazis hoped the Ukrainian nationalists could stop the advance of the Red Army. Bandera set up a headquarters in Berlin and oversaw the training of Ukrainians by the Wehrmacht.

The UPA not only carried out atrocities against Jews and communists but also butchered tens of thousands of Poles. Its all-pervasive anti-Semitism was described in the memoirs of Mikhail Baitalsky, a Jewish Ukrainian Trotskyist who was imprisoned by Stalin’s bureaucratic regime in the Vorkuta labor camp, where he encountered some of Bandera’s followers in the 1950s. Baitalsky recounted what he learned of the activities of the Banderaite cutthroats in Ukraine:

“I will not speak of the fate of the local Jews; you can imagine what happened to them. But Poles also lived there. The Bandera forces butchered, one after another, all the Polish families who had not managed to go into hiding. They slaughtered them not with guns but with sabers. They derived pleasure from hacking up other peoples’ children with their bare hands and massacring women.”

— reprinted in Bulletin in Defense of Marxism (March 1991)

By 1947, most UPA units had escaped into the waiting arms of Western intelligence, which turned them into a guerrilla force against the Soviets. However, by 1950 they had little in the way of operational forces in Ukraine. And in 1959, the Soviet KGB assassinated the fascist pig Bandera.

Ukrainian Nationalism and Counterrevolution

The heroic victory of the Red Army over Hitler’s Nazis set the stage for incorporating western Ukraine into the USSR. Despite the presence of a parasitic, Russian-centered Stalinist bureaucracy, the planned economy of the Soviet Union laid the basis for the advancement of minority peoples and sharply undercut nationalist forces. Less wealthy regions, such as Central Asia and also Ukraine, were economically subsidized.

However, in the period of the terminal decline of the USSR, nationalist hatreds and rivalries were revived, becoming a motor force for counterrevolution. In the mid 1980s, the policy of perestroika (market reforms), initiated by Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev in an attempt to revive the economy, spurred decentralization, helping fuel the resurgence of long-suppressed national antagonisms. Bloody communal slaughter, such as between Azerbaijan and Armenia, erupted. Western imperialists, who had always sought to undermine the USSR by inflaming national divisions, encouraged the growth of pro-capitalist “independence” movements in the Baltics, Ukraine and elsewhere.

Fascist groups like Pamyat in Russia and the Banderaites in western Ukraine began to crawl out of their rat holes. In the name of anti-Stalinism, most of our left opponents simply caved in to the imperialist drive for capitalist counterrevolution, which triumphed in 1991-92, destroying the Soviet workers state. These supposed Marxists supported any and all anti-Soviet forces, including outright fascists. In 1991, International Communist League representatives withdrew from the editorial board of Revolutionary History, an archival publication focusing on the Trotskyist movement. One reason was the desire of a substantial part of the editorial board to publish patently fascistic Ukrainian nationalist material. As an article in our British section’s newspaper noted: “Mikhail Baitalsky didn’t hail the Banderaites as fellow fighters in the struggle against Stalin; we can’t be part of an editorial board which allies with their virtual equivalents in the Soviet Union today” (“ICL Withdraws from Revolutionary History Editorial Board,” Workers Hammer No. 122, April 1991).

Flirtation with fascists in the former Soviet republics was all too common among pseudo-Trotskyists. The late Ernest Mandel’s United Secretariat hailed the Estonian Nazi “Forest Brothers” as “freedom fighters” in the “struggle against Stalinism.” Workers Power was caught out supporting Yuri Butchenko, who was connected both to Russian fascists and a scab miners “union” in Britain. We remained true to the Trotskyist program: upholding unconditional defense of the Soviet degenerated workers state from imperialist attack and the forces of internal counterrevolution while fighting for a political revolution to oust the Stalinist bureaucracy and restore a regime of workers democracy and revolutionary internationalism.

West, Russia Tussle for Influence

The capitalist counterrevolution that dismembered the Soviet Union dealt a severe body blow to the Ukrainian economy, which had been integrated into an all-Union economic division of labor. Throughout the former USSR, living standards plummeted. In Ukraine, real wages were at best only one-third of 1991 levels in 2000 and one-half by 2002. Industrial employment fell 50 percent between 1991 and 2001.

Lacking vital natural resources and economically impoverished, capitalist Ukraine is necessarily dependent on stronger capitalist powers. Since counterrevolution, the Ukrainian bourgeoisie has been torn, with some looking to the Western imperialists and others seeking to maintain existing trade ties with Russia. Notwithstanding the one-sided dependence of Russia’s economy on natural resource extraction, the country’s large nuclear arsenal gives it great-power status. With the imperialists trying to subvert Russian power, Poland has worked closely with the U.S., seeking to regain its former influence in Ukraine.

Putin has used the leverage provided by relatively high oil prices to pursue Russian interests in the region. The Russian bourgeoisie lords it over the minority peoples in its own backyard, as demonstrated by two bloody colonial-style wars fought to subdue predominantly Muslim Chechnya. Concerned about a possible Islamic insurgency on its southern flank, Putin was happy to sign on to Bush Jr.’s “war on terror” and negotiated a deal allowing U.S. troops bound for Afghanistan to transit through Russia.

Gazprom, the Kremlin-controlled gas corporation, has also been an instrument of Moscow’s foreign policy. Following the 2004 “Orange Revolution” that led to the defeat of the Kremlin’s favored candidate in Ukraine, Gazprom threatened higher prices. When the Ukrainian government objected, Gazprom shut off the gas. Since most Russian gas exports to Europe go by pipeline through Ukraine, this action also threatened the supplies of European customers. While a compromise was reached, prices went up and the Russians had made a point. Russia has also used its economic muscle with other neighboring countries. Thus, in an attempt to keep Moldova from seeking closer ties with Europe, Moscow declared a ban on imports of Moldovan wine, one of the country’s major exports.

Russia has also sponsored its own free-trade zone, the Eurasian Customs Union, whose purpose is to keep former Soviet republics in Russia’s orbit and away from the EU. Kazakhstan and Belarus have joined. More recently, Armenia, which depends on Russia for military defense, has come on board. Membership was offered to Ukraine in a counter to the EU association agreement. However, Putin has dropped this proposal for the time being, no doubt aware that it would not fly in much of Ukraine, particularly the west.

Almost two decades ago the ICL discussed slogans pointing to the future necessary socialist revolutions in the various nascent capitalist countries that arose in the territory of the former USSR. In “On Slogans Regarding the Former Soviet Union” (WV No. 614, 13 January 1995), we observed: “The breakup of the Soviet Union has revealed a situation of considerable interpenetration of peoples and of economic production units which were inherited from and geared to a (bureaucratically) centralized planned economy. Thus in a number of regions (particularly eastern Ukraine, Crimea, northern Kazakhstan) a democratic resolution of the national question cannot be achieved except through a socialist federation or federations of workers states transcending national boundaries.” The article pointed to the dangers inherent in any union of vastly unequal partners, such as Russia and other former Soviet republics, stressing that such federations must be voluntary.

Where will the population of eastern Ukraine go in the aftermath of proletarian revolution: with Russia, western Ukraine, a socialist federation linking them or some other variant? The answer depends very much on the course of future class struggle. But what is clear is that the future under capitalism is bleak for the working masses of Ukraine, Russia and elsewhere in the former USSR. The crucial task is to forge Leninist-Trotskyist parties that will wage a thoroughgoing struggle against all manifestations of nationalism and great-power chauvinism as part of patient but persistent propaganda aimed at winning the proletariat to the program of international socialist revolution.

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