By Tash Shifrin | 25 February 2014
We saw horror and bloodshed on the streets of Kiev last week. And we may not have seen the last of it yet.
Ukraine, already a divided country, is in danger of being torn apart. This is not a simple tale of a united movement of the people against a corrupt and increasingly authoritarian regime – although Viktor Yanukovych’s rule was just that.
The Euromaidan protests, like the votes for pro-EU parties at election time, mobilised largely those from the mainly Ukrainian speaking western and central Ukraine. Those in the south and east of the country, where Russian speakers are concentrated, have traditionally voted heavily for Yanukovych’s pro-Russia Party of Regions. They have shown little support for Euromaidan.
Now those tensions are exposed. So too is the militarisation of the protest movement. And the fascist organisations, whose accepted and leading role has been a distinctive feature of Euromaidan, have made a breakthrough and set a new benchmark for fascists across Europe.
Outside the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, Euromaidan fighters stand guard and a man waves a flag of red and black halves. This is not an anarchist banner. It is the flag of the wartime Ukrainian Insurgent Army, military wing of Stepan Bandera’s OUN-B, which was originally allied with the Nazis and many of whose troops were trained in Ukrainian battalions attached to the Nazis’ forces.
Inside the Rada, exactly the same MPs are there as before last week’s events, but they have now reshuffled their factions.
But Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the fascist Svoboda party who yesterday called for free access to firearms, is expected to be included in the government that is due to be formed on Tuesday 25 February. Other fascist MPs could join him. Already a Svoboda MP runs the general prosecutor’s office.
[UPDATE 27 Feb: Fascist ministers join the government – new post]
The parliament has just voted to make Ukrainian the only official language – a heavily symbolic gesture in a country where up to 40% of people are Russian speaking and another 5% speak other minority languages.
There are now demonstrations of thousands against Euromaidan and the new regime in cities in the south and east of Ukraine, where there was little support for the pro-EU protest movement. The video (left) shows protestors in Odessa.
Many will be genuinely and rightly worried by the fascist element in the Euromaidan regime. But “Antimaidan” is also the territory in which Yanukovych’s Party of Regions is now operating, seeking to mobilise its traditional voting base in its own interests.
Now, just as Euromaidan is infused with nationalist politics and covered in Ukrainian flags, so many “Antimaidan” protestors wave Russian flags, regional flags or those of the former USSR. In some cities there have already been face-offs between the two sides.
At the most extreme end of the spectrum, there are calls for majority Russian-speaking Crimea to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation.
There is a grave danger, now that the showpiece Sochi Winter Olympics are over, that Russia could intervene – its strategically important Black Sea fleet is based at a naval base in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, under a controversial deal in which it leases the base from Ukraine.
The ugly rival nationalisms mean division among ordinary workers in Ukraine – and fear for smaller minorities, such as Crimea’s Tatars.
Both the pro-EU and pro-Russia sides are stoking reaction. The fascists’ ideology is based on ethno-nationalism and anti-Semitism, as well as worship of the Nazis’ ally Bandera. Svoboda’s Tyahnybok is notorious for his anti-Semitic views while the nazi groups of Right Sector are happily pictured with the White Power and Hitler-loving graffiti common to fascists across Europe.
The pro-Russian side has also been pouring out anti-Semitic propaganda, such as that on social media sites supporting the (rightly hated) Berkut riot police, which claims that the Euromaidan leaders are all Jews. It also warns that the dangerous liberalism of Europe will mean children will be “turned gay”.
And in a bid to match Euromaidan’s paramilitary organisation, the Samooborona or “Self Defence”, young men in the south and east are now flocking to mirror-image Antimaidan paramilitaries.
It is not a gain for democracy when divisions once reflected in polarised voting patterns between two roughly even halves of the population become a battle between reactionary armed militias.
This is a situation fraught with danger – in a worst-case scenario, it threatens bitter and bloody civil war.
A break-up or partition of Ukraine would be a disaster. We only need to look at the horrific communal violence – and long-term conflict – that followed Britain’s partition of India, or the bloody wars in former Yugoslavia to see where this could lead.
Those who argue that the western and eastern sides of the country could split “naturally” to align with the EU and Russia respectively are dangerously wrong. Neither half of the Ukraine is homogenous – each side has a minority that would be caught “on the wrong side”, to face persecution and violence if the country is divided.
Neither Brussels nor Moscow
No one can regret the departure of Viktor Yanukovych, the president who unleashed the forces of the state so brutally against Euromaidan protestors, political friend of a section of the oligarchy that controls Ukraine who – we can now see – has enriched himself along the way.
It is right to be horrified and appalled by the brutality of Yanukovych’s – failed – crackdown, and the huge death toll. No one should support the violence of the state.
But nor should we cheer for the former opposition forces who have now taken power.
This has been a battle that has its roots in the long-term divide in the oligarchy, between those whose interests are best served by a tie-up with the EU, and those who profit from links with Russia.
No part of this oligarchy, or its rival sponsors in the EU and Russia, has the interests of ordinary workers in Ukraine at its heart. Each side pulls the strings of its pet politicians in a country where political corruption is endemic.
It is worth noting that the EU’s planned sanctions were to be targeted at individual oligarchs linked to Yanukovych – a move that actually reinforces the idea that the oligarchy should control politics in Ukraine.
Neither Brussels nor Moscow – each side cursing the other’s interference – has anything good to offer the working class of Ukraine.
What is Euromaidan?
To understand what is happening in Ukraine, we have to understand what the Euromaidan movement is – and what it is not.
Euromaidan has been in effect a mass mobilisation behind the pro-EU faction of the ruling oligarchy. It has been dominated from the top by the politicians of the three pro-EU opposition parties, Batkivshchyna (Fatherland), UDAR (“Punch”) parties – and Svoboda.
Fatherland and UDAR are conservative, neoliberal parties. Just like Yanukovych’s party, they are tied to the ruling oligarchy, but they represent its western-oriented, pro-EU faction.
Svoboda – originally known as the Social-National Party – is fascist. It is allied with the British National Party, Hungary’s Jobbik and the Front National in France. Like many fascist organisations across Europe, it dumped its old name and its traditional nazi Wolfsangel logo and formally distanced itself from its paramilitary wing, the Patriots of Ukraine – a strategy that succeeded as it won 10.4% of the votes in the 2012 elections. It has 36 MPs and a slew of councillors, with its base in western Ukraine.
A three-way alliance between these parties normalised Svoboda’s role. It has been a prominent and accepted part of Euromaidan since the start. Svoboda’s position provided legitimacy for a new alliance of hardcore nazi groups – Pravy Sektor (“Right Sector”) – to become an accepted part of the movement too. Right Sector, incidentally, has no interest in the EU, but seeks a fascist “national revolution”.
Euromaidan was not like the Occupy or Indignados movements – nor the workers’ protests now in Bosnia. Unlike these movements there were no democratic assemblies or forums to debate and formulate independent, working class demands. This movement has been used as a lever by the pro-EU politicians in their power struggle with Yanukovych and his pro-Russian backers.
And the prominent role of fascist organisations sets it clearly apart from the wave of progressive anticapitalist and anti-austerity movements that has broken out across the world in the past few years.
Two calls for strikes by Euromaidan leaders met with absolutely no response at all. This is not a workers’ movement.
Of course most of the protestors are in no way fascist. Many were motivated to join Euromaidan by economic misery, hatred of corruption and anger at the government. But this does not in itself make the movement a progressive one.
Activists from Ukraine’s tiny left who tried to leaflet Euromaidan, and at one point to join the paramilitary Self Defence, were beaten up and driven away by fascists.
Instead, the protests have been heavily coloured by nationalism, something that has only fed the fascist component. And it has alienated those in the south and east of Ukraine, away from the western and central heartlands of the pro-EU parties.
If Euromaidan raised working class demands, attacking the oligarchy as a whole and calling for improvement in living standards, it could have united workers across the country. But nationalism and the focus on alignment with the EU has sharply heightened the divide.
The turn towards paramilitary organisation
By early February, the mass movement had declined from its height in early December and seemed to be heading towards a stalemate. This is when the Euromaidan leaders ramped up the formation of the Self Defence.
By early February it claimed 5,000 members in Kiev with 10,000 across Ukraine. At that time, a Self Defence spokesperson claimed 35 “hundreds” – squadrons of between 50 to 300 members – were aligned with Fatherland, and another 20 were run by fascist Svoboda.
These troops are nominally under Euromaidan “commander” and Fatherland MP Andriy Parubiy.
But the Right Sector Self Defence forces – they claimed 1,500 in Kiev in early February – act under their own commander, longstanding nazi activist Dmytro Yarosh.
These numbers had clearly grown enormously by the time the Self Defence launched the march on parliament that prompted Yanukovych’s attempted crackdown on 18 February – they will be even higher now.
And by 18 February, the military battledress, shields, helmets and assorted weaponry had been augmented by firearms – Right Sector issued a call for all those with guns to bring them to the Maidan camp on 18 February.
As the Self Defence moved to storm government buildings and police stations in western provinces, the state security agency was forced to admit they had seized larger quantities of arms.
The fascists remain at the core of the paramilitary force, and have gained support as the hardest fighters, both in battles against the police in January and in last week’s bloody confrontation.
Svoboda and Right Sector fighters have been all over the mainstream press. On the pro-EU side, their politics are not questioned – these are the new “heroes of Ukraine”.
The centre of gravity shifted from mass participation in Euromaidan to the organised strength of the fighting force. And the fascists have far greater weight among the fighters than in the protest as a whole.
A new benchmark for fascism in Europe
Fascism traditionally has a twin track approach, with both electoral and street fighting wings. In Ukraine, the fascists have made a huge leap forwards – in addition to their successful electoral breakthrough in 2012, they are now set to enter the government.
And they now have armed, paramilitary troops – proven in pitched battle with the forces of the state, and admired as militant fighters and heroes.
While before, Svoboda kept the Patriots of Ukraine at arms length and the nazi groups that make up Right Sector carried out their combat training quietly under the radar, now they are recruiting openly. Right Sector as well as Svoboda is a big player now.
In recent years, fascists have not achieved anything like this elsewhere in Europe. It is a milestone, a new benchmark.
Whatever happens now in Ukraine – and the signs don’t look good as the divisions widen, the rival paramilitary forces build and the economy hits freefall – fascists elsewhere in Europe will look to the Ukrainian example for inspiration.
Don’t fuel a break-up
There is no merit in cheerleading the new regime, as EU and US politicians and media have done, nor in mourning the repellent Yanukovych. No one should encourage the break-up of Ukraine nor lend their support to rival militias – down this road lies division and potentially bloody conflict.
And attempts by the Russia, the EU or US to step up their intervention – especially military intervention – in support of their respective “sides” should be resisted.
If you want to pick a side, choose the one whose collective interests are completely unrepresented in this hideous battle – Ukraine’s workers: west, central, south and east.
But the prospects are grim. The genuine left in Ukraine is tiny, and has no hinterland of a mass labour or social democratic party to draw on. The main trade union federation is based largely on the old Stalinist state unions. The left has had no meaningful impact at all on recent events – there is no point in starry-eyed optimism about this situation.
These are dangerous days.