Ukraine: Neither Yanukovich or Yushenko

The working masses need their own alternative

The results of the second round of voting in Ukraine’s Presidential election have dragged the country into a deep crisis that threatens to split the country in two and, if it escalates further, could see ethnic conflict develop in one of the biggest and most populous countries in Europe.

After an extremely dirty and polarised campaign, the official results announced by the Electoral Commission gave sitting Premier Victor Yanukovich a small 2% lead over his opponent Victor Yushenko. Yushenko has refused to recognise the results and mobilized his supporters to force Yanukovich to accept defeat.

Literally hundreds of thousands of Yushenko supporters have flooded to Kiev and there are further huge mobilisations throughout western Ukraine. City councils in Lviv and other big west Ukrainian cities have declared they recognise Yushenko as Ukrainian President. The Police in Lviv are wearing orange ribbons in solidarity with Yushenko and what appears to be the whole population have gathered in a round the clock protest in Lviv’s centre. As a first move Yushenko’s supporters in the country’s parliament, the "Supreme Rada" demanded that a vote of no-confidence was passed on the head of the Electoral Commission but the government parties, supported by the communist party, did not turn up, denying the Rada a quorum. Victor Yushenko declared himself President and swore the oath on a bible and moved with his supporters on the Presidential Palace with the intention of occupying it. They were held back by hundreds of anti riot troops. The outgoing President Kuchma appealed for negotiations and overnight, Yushenko announced he was prepared to participate in drawing up an agreement and asked for some of is supporters to go home for the night.

In the eastern Ukraine however where the vast majority voted for Yanukovich other demonstrations were being organised. Tens of thousands were on the streets of the centre of the Ukraine’s coal mining region, the Donbas, demanding that Yanukovich’s victory be recognised. The leader of the country’s official miners’ union threatened to send the miners to Kiev to "sort out" the demonstrators. Regional leaders in Donetsk, Kharkhov, Odessa, Lugansk and the Crimea have declared they will organise a referendum to form an autonomous region called the South East Ukraine if Yushenko takes over as President. This would in effect split the Ukraine in two and some of these leaders, particularly in the Crimea, would use this as a means of taking part of the Ukraine into Russia. A meeting of 3,500 local officials from 17 of Ukraine’s 25 regions decided that a referendum should "be held in December this year to determine the region’s status".

At the time of writing the stalemate continues. Behind the scenes negotiations appear to be continuing but over what is unclear. Foreign leaders including the former Polish President Lech Walesa, the current Polish and Lithuanian Presidents, the EU’s Xavier Solana and Speaker of the Russian Parliament Boris Gryzlov met with the two opponents on Friday and issued a statement which called for the sides to avoid violence and the beginning of negotiations but little else. The Supreme Court has forbidden the publication of the official results until Tuesday, when the complaints of Yushenko about the vote rigging are due to be heard. The Supreme Rada eventually met on Saturday and declared it considers the vote invalid. Yushenko has said he would accept a rerun of the vote and it appears that the two sides will seek some form of compromise either to share power or to rerun parts of the election. Having taken the country to the brink, they are frightened and desperately trying to find a way out. Many of the Ukrainian oligarchs will be thinking how can they be on the winning side, they know what happened fate in Russia to the former Yukos boss Khodorkovsky who fell out with Putin and ended up in jail.

But in their squabble for power, the two sides have released a genie from the bottle, and they are finding it difficult to get it back in. Despite temperatures several degrees below zero, up to half a million people are in Kiev’s "maidan nezalizhimost" (Independence Square) listening to speakers and music while waving orange flags. In the early stages of course, the protestors were there to support Yushenko, but as time has gone on, criticism of his role is being heard. He offers no strategy and doesn’t even say what he will accept in the negotiations. Some of these protestors say that if he had acted more decisively at the beginning, the conflict would already be over.

At the same time thousands of Easterners have been mobilised in buses and trains to come to Kiev to support Yanukovich. It is reported that up to 30 planes a day have been landing full of protestors. By Friday even the demonstration of Yanukovich supporters outside the railway station was beginning to look as big as that in support of Yushenko in the City centre. At one stage this raised the prospect of a repeat of the Rumanian events of 1990 when the dictatorial Ionesco regime cynically misled and mobilised hundreds of miners fearful of privatisation to come to Bucharest to break up protests by students who were demanding democratic rights but who also had illusions in capitalism. But today, as these demonstrators have been marching into Kiev, they have appeared to, at best, have no heart for a fight. The first group of miners to reach Kiev actually joined in the pro-Yushenko demo, saying that they had been deprived of information in Donetsk – there the TV 5 Channel, which is the only pro-Yushenko programme, has been taken off the air. In the last day or so the demonstration in maidan nezalizhimost has been added to by delegations waving blue flags – that is Yanukovich’s colours.

However as the danger of a clash grew, rumours spread of troops being transferred nearer to Kiev and riot police were seen in increasing numbers, the authorities appear to have again backed down. The protesters outside the station were advised by Yanukovich to go home. Instead pro-Yanukovich demonstrations have been organised across the whole East of the country. On Saturday in the Donetsk region alone there are more than 50 such protests with tens of thousands on the streets of Donetsk.

The elections were undoubtedly fixed. In the pro-Yanukovich East turnouts of over 100% were achieved, an achievement not even managed in Soviet times. During the first round of the election armed men "kidnapped" a whole polling station including the ballot boxes and staff and kept them for several days. However like the results, the observations of the "impartial" election observers were also polarised. Election observers appointed by western countries reported hundreds of violations in both rounds of the election. But accompanying the EU and US observers were hundreds from Russia and the other former Soviet block countries and they reported that although in general the election was fair there were violations in the western part of the country.

What is without doubt is that the country is now extremely polarised, even allowing for the vote manipulations, whole regions of the East saw 90% plus votes for Yanukovich and in a mirror image whole regions of the west reported 90% plus for Yushenko. Kiev, the capital, saw a 76% return for Yushenko. Unfortunately the polarisation is along national lines, between the Ukrainian population in the west and Russian speaking population in the east whilst the huge Ukrainian working class, not withstanding the sharp confrontation between the government and opposition during the campaign, have found themselves without independent representation and left to chose between two pro-market candidates, one of whom is pro-western and the other pro-Russian.

Perhaps the only real gain for the working class at this stage has been the increase in political passions which will inevitably turn into a searching for a real political alternative to the current ruling elite in the future. But unfortunately, these passions are currently being channelled into a fight to defend competing sections of the Ukrainian bourgeoisie. This is indicated by the call for a general strike made by the Yushenko camp. Yulia Timoshenko, one of the leaders of the opposition threatened that if the Supreme Rada did not meet their demands then strikes should be organised and, mimicking Lenin’s words in 1917, demanded that the railway stations and central telegraph be seized. Yulia Timoshenko, who images herself on something between a Ukrainian peasant and modern day Joan d’Arc is in reality one of the country’s main oligarchs whose billionaire husband is in prison accused of huge tax embezzlement.

In the hands of such politicians the general strike is potentially very divisive. It was met with a certain enthusiasm in the west Ukraine but this part of the country, partly as a result of the vindictive national policy of the former Stalinist regime, is dominated by small scale industry and services. Many westerners have used the opportunity to blockade the railway lines linking the Ukraine to the rest of Europe. At the same time, in some cases workers have been forced to "strike" by the management who have closed the factories.

But the miners and industrial working class are largely located in the Russian speaking east, were 70% of the country’s GNP is generated. They are currently saying that they will work as normal. Many already hate Yushenko for what is seen as his attempts to westernize the Ukraine and for his role as one of the architects of neo liberalism reforms that led to the collapse of whole sections of Ukrainian industry. Miners interviewed in Donetsk by Russia’s NTV television said they felt cheated by having taken part in the miners’ strikes that raged across the Soviet Union 15 years ago. They recalled that when Yushenko was prime minister, Ukrainian mines had been closed down, leaving entire villages jobless.

As a result of the lack of a workers’ alternative the Ukraine is being split in half as the country has became an arena for a struggle between different imperialist interests. The Russian elite backs Yanukovich. The US supports Yushenko and has played a big role in putting together the "Pora" campaign that at the forefront of the anti-Yanukovich protests. The Russian capitalists are more interested in maintaining its control over the Ukrainian economy and in keeping the Ukraine as a reliable strategic partner within the CIS. The Bush administration, in contrast wants to prise the economy open for US capitalism and strengthen the Ukraine’s ties with NATO, so that it will act as a buffer against Russia in the region.

But these elections have also demonstrated the deeply undemocratic nature of the Ukrainian state. The Ukraine has for long had a reputation in which it is dangerous for correspondents to work. The monopolisation of the mass media by the ruling party during the election deprived the electorate of even basic information. Black PR together with the verbal (and Yushenko alleges even his physical) poisoning during the election campaign just confirm that democracy has not established roots in the country. Indeed so blatant was the media bias in the election campaign, one group of TV journalists even staged a hunger strike in protest.

Victor Yushenko has built his image as an oppositionist on myths, winning himself a reputation as a defender of Ukrainian national interests as head of the "Ukraine without Kuchma" movement. But in reality he is a representative of the wing of the new Ukrainian bourgeoisie that sees its interests more tied with western capitalism than with Russian capital. During his period as Prime Minister between 1999 and 2001 and earlier as head of the National Bank Yushenko did as much to impoverish the Ukrainian masses (for example monetary reform) as any of his competitors, yet he now talks of the need to raise living standards! Indeed when he was National Bank head Yushenko was involved in a scandal of using IMF money to make secret, low interest loans to politically favoured private banks.

Yushenko also complains loudly about the undemocratic nature of the ruling elite but until recently his Parliamentary fraction included the leadership of the "Social-Nationalist Party of the Ukraine"; the nearest thing there is in the Ukraine to a Nazi Party. They recently laid wreaths of the tombs of SS troops in Galicina, only after which Yushenko was forced to distance himself from them. Last year Yushenko’s movement defended Silski Visti, the paper of the so-called "Socialist Party", after it claimed that the Nazi army that invaded Ukraine in 1941 had Jewish soldiers fighting within it, a crude attempt to combine nationalism and anti-Semitism. Yushenko’s support for "democracy" stops at the right of self-determination. After Saturday’s decision to hold a referendum on eastern Ukraine’s future Yushenko that "those people who will raise the issue of separatism will be held criminally responsible under the Ukrainian constitution".

Yushenko has always acted as the conductor of western interests in the Ukraine, both during his period in government and in the opposition. He supports the country joining NATO and the EU. During the latter stages of the election campaign the US Embassy openly joined in the election struggle on Yushenko’s side. The organisation "Pora" suddenly appeared from nowhere showing big similarities to the Otpor movement in Serbia and Khmara in Georgia, that were both built up by the west in opposition to the then ruling regimes of those countries. These interventions turned Yushenko from being a pro-western candidate into a hostage of US foreign policy. Obviously as President he would have great difficulty in fulfilling his election promise to withdraw the Ukrainian contingent from Iraq.

At the same time the huge resources of the state were mobilised behind the current Prime Minister Victor Yanukovich. In the run up to the election a social mirage was created in the form of increased pensions, free concerts on the streets of the big cities and the bringing forward of the military parade to celebrate the Soviet victory in the Second World War so that it took place before polling day. This was all intended to show how good life had now become and thereby assist his campaign.

The Russian card was also played strongly. In Russia itself there was so much advertising in support of Yanukovich that the impression was given he was already elected and the Russian mass media made clear that he was "Russia’s choice". Undoubtedly this campaign increased Yanukovich’s vote by thousands as polling stations were established in Russia’s big cities for Ukrainians living there.

In this way, as Yushenko became a hostage to western interests, Yanukovich became a hostage to the Russian elite. In the days before the election a big profile visit to Putin by Kiev was aimed at showing just who was boss. In some ways of course, this open support from Russia only served to underline the economic reality, in which Russian capital now controls almost all of Ukrainian industry. Ironically the biggest Russian inroads into the Ukrainian economy were made during Yushenko’s spell as Premier. According to official statistics, economic growth in the Ukraine is now amongst the highest in the world at 13%, but this is almost fully dependent on the expansion of the Russian economy, which in turn depends on the world oil price and the growth of the Chinese economy. Already the growth in Russia is coming up to its limits and any crisis in Russia will therefore be devastating for the Ukraine.

Yanukovich is a representative of that wing of the Ukrainian bourgeoisie which relies on the sale of raw materials and commodities. He took an active part in the battles to sell off state property in the early 1990s and has two prison sentences for violent attacks on his opponents to underline how close he is to the state-mafia gangs that took over the industry after privatisation. His clan is interested more than any others in maintaining wages at a low level. Ukrainian wages are now 2 times lower than those in Russia and 1.5 times than those in Belarus, even though the skill level is probably on average higher. The hand outs in the form of "unexpected" social benefits and salary increases in the period before the election, will only be clawed back by Yanukovich’s other hand when he pushes his new labour law through Parliament, thus forcing the already lowest wages in Europe even lower.

Yushenko has no alternative to offer that can end this situation. Merely pushing the Russian owners out and allowing western capital to take over will not lead to more jobs or better wages. This is a classic case which demonstrates that the only force that could prevent this struggle for redistribution of wealth between different imperialist interests is a unified working class, which would struggle for the nationalisation under workers’ control and management of Ukrainian industry so that the country’s wealth could be planned and used for the benefit of working people.

To attract the Russian speaking vote in the run up to the election Yanukovich and Putin proposed to introduce dual citizenship and relax the conditions of registration for Ukrainians living in Russia. We would of course support this proposal, although already the Russia mass media is commenting how difficult making the changes will be. But the fact is that the growth in the Russian economy is partly built on the brutal exploitation of cheap labour from the Ukraine, Moldova and Central Asia. Therefore it is necessary for the workers of both countries to organise themselves in the fight against discrimination, for equal pay for equal work and for a general increase in living standards. But at the same time we are against the squeezing out of Ukrainian culture and language. The educational system needs to be strengthened; everyone should be able to decide for themselves which languages they want to learn. This in turn requires the increase in salaries for teachers and democratic control of the education process. The people themselves, and not bureaucrats and the new bourgeois should decide in which country they want to live.

The fact that the election campaign centred on the different international orientations of the two candidates underlines the lack of a real workers’ alternatives. There was no working class party with a programme capable of offering any viable alternative to vote for. In the first round the two main "left" candidates, Moroz of the so-called Socialist Party and Simonyenko of the misnamed "Communist" party gained 5.8% and 5% of the vote respectively. Moroz long ago took his party to the right and aligned it with western interests. He was feted not only by US Democrats but by Republicans also. His pre-election promises included the destruction of the health system by introducing private insurance funding, and not surprisingly he recommended his voters to support Yushenko in the final round.

Simonyenko’s "communists" were no better. Rather than fighting for the interests of working people, his party lobbied for the interests of the pro-Russian industrialists. Not once in the past period has it presented any proposal in the parliament that could improve workers’ living standards nor did it oppose the pro-capitalist agrarian or constitutional "reforms". It could not even pull itself together to oppose the sending of Ukrainian troops to Iraq. In the past the CP has been presented as the left alternative to the outgoing president Kuchma but in the conditions when the election was between two bourgeois candidates it chose to resort to its pro-Russian position, and ended up in Yanukovich’s camp.

The lack of any focal point in the election put some left activists and the so called left political technologists (spin doctors) in a dilemma. Unfortunately a number saw this as an opportunity to earn money by working for one of the two warring camps. This only heightened the scepticism that many workers have at so called "lefts" who offer empty phrases when times are relatively stable but, when the action picks up, flock to where the money is best. Rather than using the elections to encourage the political organisation of the working class, they further discredit and therefore complicate the process of the formation of a real workers’ alternative.

But the lack of a left party and the despair and corruption of so called left activists does not mean that there is not a huge potential for genuine left ideas. Among the students protesting in support of Yushenko in Lviv there were those, for example, who made comments such as "we want rid of Yanukovich. How can we continue to live like this when society is so unjust, divided into extreme rich and extreme poor". Such comments are not surprising when you consider the level of wages in Lviv, where a teacher or skilled worker will be lucky to get a hundred dollars a month, whilst fifty miles over the border in Poland, now in the European Union, teachers can earn 3 or 4 times as much. As a result these potential left voters have, often with illusions in the West, fallen under the influence of Yushenko.

In the election supporters of the CWI in the Ukraine called for a vote against both candidates. Some other groups did too, but unfortunately in a cynical ploy financed by the Yanukovich camp aimed at persuading the CP to remain neutral in the second round thus allowing the CP electorate to be sucked into the Yanokovich camp. The CWI’s call was based on a positive call for workers to become politically active, not in support of either of the candidates who would carry on with the neo-liberal programme in the Ukraine but to offer a genuine organised alternative to the policies of both wings of the Ukrainian bourgeoisie and their respective imperialist backers. In practice this meant struggling to defend the interests of the working masses while arguing for the formation of a genuine workers’ party.

Now the entire election should be rerun. But to ensure democracy in the election, control needs to be taken out of the hands of the ruling elite. The electoral commission should resign and be replaced by a temporary commission made up of representatives of all parties. At local level, each workplace should elect representatives to establish local commissions, with an exchange of representatives between regions. These bodies should act as observers during the voting and counting. There should be equal access for all candidates to the mass media.

But most of all there should be an attempt to stand an independent workers’ candidate opposed to the competing elite cliques. Attempts must be made to start a dialogue within the ranks of both sides to identify those activists who are looking for an alternative and do not trust either Yushenko or Yanukovich. On this basis a start could be made to the process of forming a new workers’ party capable of uniting working people in all regions of the Ukraine in the struggle to improve their living conditions and defend their democratic rights. .

Socialists argue that such a workers’ party should oppose the attempts by the bourgeois politicians to play the national card. It should oppose the attempts to draw the country into NATO, the EU and in support of US Imperialism’s war in Iraq. It must argue that genuine Ukrainian independence could only be achieved by breaking with imperialism, whether based in Washington, Moscow or Brussels, and with capitalism. Against the Russian capitalists’ attempts to form a new Slavic bloc based on Russian imperialist domination a workers’ party should campaign for an equal unity between the working peoples of the region.

It would need to mobilise against the attempts of the ruling elite to prevent people democratically controlling their own lives and government. The institution of President should be abolished and power concentrated in a genuinely democratic people’s assembly made up of elected representatives of the working masses. The mass media needs to be nationalised and democratised by being placed under social control and management. This would ensure that all sections of Ukrainian society and all political parties have access in proportion to their weight in society. Only fascist ideas and those that try to whip up hatred against other nationalities should be barred from publishing their vile filth.

Free elections can be ensured by abolishing the current electoral commission and establishing a commission made up of representatives of all parties to organise the elections, with election results monitored by commissions elected at a local level and with access given to representatives of all parties to observe and monitor voting and counting.

A workers’ party with a socialist policy would offer a completely different future. It would argue that the economy has to be taken out of the hands of the oligarchs, and their western and Russian backers, by nationalising industry under workers control and management. This would enable a plan to be democratically prepared that would utilise economic resources in the interests of working people rather than the profits of the few. On this basis wages and pensions could be immediately raised to a respectable level, health care and education brought back into state ownership and free to all. The resources released by the ending of arms expenditure and the state apparatus and from the nationalisation of the banks would be used to dramatically improve the quality of services as well as proving cheap credit to small businesses and the self employed.

It would fight to guarantee the rights of all nationalities in a multi national Ukraine based on the recognition of both Ukrainian and Russian as state languages with people having the right to converse and communicate in whichever language they choose. Special schools and cultural programmes would be established to redress the balance after years of the Stalinist suppression of Ukrainian language and culture, at the same time other minority cultures such as that of the Tatars would be supported. Regions that wish autonomy, such as the Crimea or sections of the West Ukraine would be allowed self determination and offered the opportunity to become an equal part of a genuinely democratic socialist federation.

Attempts by the Russian ruling elite to blackmail the Ukraine using energy supplies and other economic levers, as well as economic sanctions and tariff barriers set up by western imperialists as part of their struggle to control the Ukrainian economy would be opposed by campaigning together with the working class of other countries for them to take control of the economy. Then economic cooperation could be ensured on the basis of mutually beneficial planning.

In other words, a genuine workers’ party would struggle for an end to the capitalist exploitation of the Ukraine, which has led to the impoverishment of millions, whilst a few have concentrated billions into their own hands, it would bring to an end the legacy of Stalinism, that led to forced collectivisation, famine and national conflict and instead build a genuine socialist society in which state repression would end, economic prosperity would be assured for all and national rights and cultures flourish as part of an internationalist society – it would mean that for the first time in its history, the Ukraine would gain genuine independence in a European federation of free and equal socialist states.

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November 2004