An economy in crisis and a corrupt government: Ukranians have plenty to protest about. But the protests that grabbed international headlines in December against President Viktor Yanukovych are happening on the terms of a nasty section of the ruling class. They offer little prospect of improving the situation for ordinary Ukrainians.
In December, hundreds of thousands of people took part in massive and often militant protests in Independence Square in the capital, Kiev. Thousands camped out continuously. Tens of thousands continued to mobilise throughout January.
The initial spark was the Yanukovych government’s announcement that they were backing away from a pact with EU leaders in late November 2013. This would have opened up trade with Ukraine and increased political and strategic ties.
On the afternoon of the announcement thousands took to the streets, demanding that the agreement be signed. In response Yanukovych sent in 1000 police with clubs and tear gas to smash the protests, but this backfired badly. Hundreds of thousands joined the protests in response to the brutality and were soon fighting police, invading government buildings and calling for the resignation of Yanukovych.
The brutality of the government’s crackdown, and the fact of the government’s notorious corruption, means it has been easy to present these protests as straightforward expressions of “people power”.
But at this stage the anger, much of it entirely legitimate, is being channeled into a self-interested battle between rival ruling class factions. Behind the fight also lies the imperialist rivalry between Russia and the West.
The ruling class squabble between Yanukovych and the opposition is best understood in light of what happened after the fall of the USSR. In the former Soviet countries, massively corrupt privatisations saw a few individuals grab vast state assets. Between 1991 and 1999 Ukranian GDP contracted by 60 per cent and ordinary people suffered as 50 oligarchs came to account for 85 per cent of the Ukraine’s GDP.
There are two main competing factions inside the corrupt elite. Those around Yanukovych and his Party of Regions tend to be heads of heavy industry, mainly from the Russian speaking east of the country. Their industries depend on Russian gas and protectionist trade barriers that could be undermined by the EU agreement.
On the side of the opposition at the head of the protest movement tend to be those oligarchs who seek to benefit from access to EU markets, mainly from the Ukrainian speaking west of the country. The Association Agreement would eliminate trade barriers which would mean around an extra $5 billion for Ukrainian companies that currently export to the EU.
A look at the opposition shows they are really just another bunch of corrupt oligarchs. Their leading figure is the currently imprisoned Yulia Tymoshenko, who leads the centre-right Fatherland Party. She made her fortune in the energy sector as part of the plundering that happened after the collapse of the USSR.
The Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform is another centre-right opposition party, founded by a major property developer. The third force in the opposition is the repulsive far-right Svoboda; it publicly supports homophobic violence and is openly anti-Semitic.
The West and Russia each back opposing factions. Since the fall of the USSR Russia has fought to maintain political, economic and military interests in former Soviet countries, while the US particularly has sought to peel off countries from Russia’s sphere of influence.
The US state department channeled US $65 million to the pro-Western candidate in the lead up to the 2004 Ukrainian presidential elections. In exchange the US can shore up its own interests. Among other things it hopes to weaken Russia’s monopoly on European gas and help pull Ukraine into NATO. Republican Senator John McCain spoke at one of the big rallies in Kiev saying, “The destiny you seek lies in Europe … America is with you, I am with you.”
Russia’s aim is to do likewise by backing Yanukovych, for example by locking down gas pipelines that run from Russia through the Ukraine to Europe and stopping NATO encroachment.
Tellingly, immediately after Yanukovych rejected the EU deal Russia gave the Ukraine a $15 billion bailout and cut gas prices by over 25 per cent.
Cheering for either section of the ruling class will not improve the situation for ordinary Ukrainians. Neither the West or Russia, the opposition or Yanukovych, can offer relief from economic crisis or provide genuine democracy.
The prominence of the far right in the movement shows the dangers of the current political situation.
By Adam Adelpour