by John Reimann
“The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the sons.”
You don’t have to believe in the Christian Bible to see this at work in the current crisis in Ukraine. It’s not all that is at work, but it certainly is part of it. In addition, we see the economic crisis of capitalism, the general lack of a truly independent workers’ movement on a global scale, and the weakening of US capitalism as the dominant force in the world, leaving an increasingly chaotic situation. (Not that US capitalism’s dominance served the interests of workers anywhere, either.)
“Ukraine” means border land in the Ukrainian language, and that is exactly what it is. As such a land, and lacking major barriers such as high mountains surrounding it, Ukraine was a target for invasion after invasion. This includes both the invasion of the “Golden Horde” of the Mongols, invasion by the Ottoman Empire, of the German Nazis, and on and on. One particular part of the present day Ukraine – Crimea – was especially the object of such invasions. Until they were forcibly uprooted and driven to Uzbekistan by Stalin (a move in which some 40% died), Crimea was settled predominantly by the Tatars. But just a review of the ethnic origins of this group reveals a lot. The Tatars are divided into various sub-ethnic groups. They speak Crimean Tatar, Russian or Turkish, depending on their locale. The Crimean Tatars are composed of Greeks, Armenians, Italians and Ottoman Turks on the southern coast, Goths on the central mountains, and Kipchaks and Cumans of the steppe and forming of the Crimean Tatar ethnic group. Wars arising from all the regional rivalries, such as that between Tsarist Russia and the Ottoman Empire, were fought on Crimean soil. (In turn, the Tatars themselves carried out raids on Russia and Ukraine in an earlier period in which they captured thousands to sell as slaves to the Ottomans.)
In “normal” times – that is, times of relative stability – this history of war, invasion, forced resettlement could be somewhat pushed into the background. But let a new crisis arise, and all the old ethnic tensions will be used by nationalist and right wing forces. Or to put it another way: These tensions will be exacerbated if there is no mass and independent working class movement to resolve them.
This is exactly what is happening now.
Hitler and Stalin
Another aspect of this history stems from the roles of both the Nazis as well as the crimes of Stalin and his regime.
The Russian Revolution swept into Eastern Europe, including into Ukraine, but then it was totally corrupted by the bureaucracy that seized power in the Soviet Union with Stalin at its head. The unstable position of this bureaucracy, with Stalin at its head, was shown by the purges and also by the attacks on different national minorities. In order to ensure that no opposition movement could develop anywhere he brutally oppressed almost all ethnic groups within the Soviet Union. Part of this oppression was the forced relocation of such ethnic groups as the Tatars, as mentioned above. Then there was the brutal crack down on the peasantry, including the forced collectivization. This hit the Ukrainian peasantry extremely hard, and thousands literally starved to death as a result. The consequence was that when the Nazis invaded Ukraine, some Ukrainians actually welcomed them. That most soon found out that the Nazis were just the opposite of their saviors is another story. Also factored into this was the historic anti-Semitism that was so common especially in Eastern Europe at that time.
Russian peasants starved to death under Stalin
The upshot was the development of pro Nazi forces in Ukraine as well as in Crimea, where a Tatar legion of the Nazi forces was built. After the defeat of the Nazis, Stalin used the latter as an excuse for the forced resettlement of the Crimean Tatars. In the 1950s, then Soviet Premier Khruschev carried out a program of “deStalinization”. While maintaining bureaucratic control over every aspect of life, he made a pretense of eliminating the worst aspects of Stalin’s rule. As part of this, he made Crimea part of “the” Ukraine at that time. (Perhaps this was done also to make it more difficult for the Tatars to return there.) However, it was not until 1991, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, that the Tatars returned to their ancestral homeland from Uzbekistan.
Imagine the meaning of this: Generation after generation of Tatars had grown up and lived outside of Crimea. They had no direct personal experience, yet the history, the call for a return to their homeland lived on and as soon as the opportunity arose they took advantage of it. (In some ways, this calls to mind the present situation of the Palestinian diaspora.)
Crimean Tatars: For generations they maintained their traditions
What did they find upon their return?
Their former homes and land was occupied by ethnic Russians, who now were the overwhelming majority (some 75%). Despite new laws, they found it near impossible to get land on which to build new homes or mosques to carry out their traditional religion. They were a discriminated-against minority in their own home. In the absence of a real workers’ struggle to unite all workers and peasants, this also created distrust among the ethnic Russians.
Collapse of Stalinism: Aftermath
With the collapse of Stalinism, US capitalism became dominant globally and with it the rise of the neo liberals and the propaganda of the “free” market. This meant wave after wave of attacks on any government intervention into the economy such as price supports for basic necessities, government social welfare programs, and privatization. All of this was accompanied by massive corruption, which included the rise of the “oligarchs” not only in Russia but also in Ukraine.
So it was that the early years of the 21st century saw the rise of massive wealth of the few amidst the increasing poverty of the many in Ukraine. (A story that might sound familiar to workers in the United States, for that matter!)
According to one report, “The Ukrainian hryvnia has lost 25 percent of its value against the dollar since mid-January (the currency is worth about 1/5th of what it was when it was issued in 1996).” According to al Jazeera, “As of December 2013 the external debt of Ukraine skyrocketed to $149 bn., which makes more than 77 percent of country’s GDP. About $65bn short-term debt can’t be paid at the moment, while the country’s gold and foreign currency reserves are estimated to have shrunk to $15 bn.” This has meant severe inflation in Ukraine.
Predominantly ethnic Ukrainian (as opposed to ethnic Russian) western Ukraine is also more rural than is Eastern Ukraine, which also has closer economic ties to Russia. Partly due to this, there was an opening for demagogic propaganda in western Ukraine to look towards the European Union (EU) for salvation. The gaze to the EU was directed at Germany, instead of to the crisis ridden Greece or Spain. Given all these factors, when the then regime of Yanukovich changed courses and moved towards Russia instead of the EU, all the tensions broke out in the open in the form of protests against this tilt and in favor of tilting towards the EU.
Thus arose the now famous Euro Maidan occupation. Prominent among the occupiers has been the neo Nazi forces of Svoboda as well as other fascists and semi fascists. To its eternal disgrace, representatives of US capitalism have either ignored this or openly encouraged it, such as when Republican US Senator John McCain and Democratic US Senator Chris Murphy publicly posed with Svoboda’s leader Tyahnybok in December of 2013.
John McCain with Tahnybok
An extremely interesting interview1 with a Ukrainian syndicalist goes into some detail about the occupation. One aspect has been a split among the ruling elite, the oligarchs. “Since 2010, Viktor Yanukovych, who had initially been just a puppet of powerful oligarchs, has become an ambitious businessman himself. His elder son has accumulated vast powers; “The Family” occupied important positions in the government, monopolized control over capital flows, and started fighting with Rinat Akhmetov, Dmitry Firtash and other oligarchs who had been their sponsors previously. Naturally, the traditional oligarchic clans didn’t like this, so the current protest has also an elite dimension.”
On the composition of the protests, he says: “Initially… the protesters were mainly students and urban ‘middle classes‘: petite bourgeoisie, bohemian circles, office workers. Right now, the class composition of the protests has definitely shifted to the more universal one. I’m not sure about the exact proportions but it’s doubtless that the protest has become more “proletarian” – although the share of workers is still low, and when they are present, they are there as “Ukrainians” or “citizens” but not as “workers”. Also, in Kyiv per se life goes on as usual, nobody is on strike etc. Generally, the protest has a cross-class nature: it includes unemployed people as well as the CEO of Microsoft Ukraine.”
Far right neo fascists in Kiev
As numerous reports including this one make clear, there is massive confusion at best within this movement. The role of the neo-fascists adds to this confusion. There are numerous reports of trade unionists and leftists being beaten up by these far right forces. Since the fall of Yevtushenko, there have been fire bombings of Synagogues. And one of the first steps taken by the new government was to attempt to revoke the law which gave rights to speakers of all languages. (This attempt was later abandoned.)
Pervasive in the new government are neo fascists. This includes not only members of parliament but also members of the cabinet. The secretary of the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council is Andriy Parubiy. He is a leader of the “National Social Party”, and if that name sounds suspiciously like the Nazi “National Socialist Party” it is no accident. He is a neo fascist. “Overseeing the armed forces alongside Parubiy as the Deputy Secretary of National Security is Dmytro Yarosh, the leader of the Right Sector – a group of hardline nationalist streetfighters, who previously boasted they were ready for armed struggle to free Ukraine.”2
The appointment of Deputy Prime Minister, Oleksandr Sych, will not be a great step forward for women. ‘Sych, 49, is a member of the far-right nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party. He is an anti-abortion activist and once publicly suggested that women should “lead the kind of lifestyle to avoid the risk of rape, including refraining from drinking alcohol and being in controversial company”. ‘3
At the top of this cast of criminals stands newly appointed Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Yatsenyuk is a former central banker and has close ties with Western finance capital. Given US President Obama’s call on Ukraine to observe its “foreign commitments”, meaning paying off its foreign debts on time, as well as his call for economic “reform”, meaning attacking the Ukrainian working class, we know what to expect from him.
Russian Forces Invade
Russian troops in Crimea
In chaotic situation in which all the old ethnic tensions were brought to the fore, it is inevitable that the ethnic Russians would feel threatened. Given their majority status in Crimea, and given the fact that Crimea has historically been passed back and forth between greater nations like a gift at a birthday party, it was also inevitable that the ethnic Russians in Crimea would tend to rise up against the new, right-wing nationalist regime dominated not only by Ukranian nationalism, but by representatives of world capitalism. On the other hand, given their brutal treatment at the hands of Stalin, and their rivalry with the ethnic Russians in Crimea at present, and in the background of an independent movement of the working class itself, it was inevitable that the ethnic Tatars in Crimea would tend to side with the new Ukrainian regime in Western Ukraine.
Then there is the role of the Putin regime in Russia. Putin bases himself in part on Russian nationalism. Also, he sees the drive to spread the influence of Western – especially Western European capitalism – as a threat to Russian capitalism. Finally there was the potential threat to the Russian naval bases in Crimea. Therefore, for both domestic as well as international reasons, he could not stand idly by; he was forced to send his troops into Crimea.
The invasion of Russian troops has been accompanied by the entry of the “Night Wolves” thug Russian motorcycle gang into Crimea as well as of the nationalist bigot Vladimir Zhironovsky. This will not work out to defend the rights of ethnic Russians and especially not to defend the rights of the working class, neither in Crimea nor in Ukraine as a whole. It will also boost these right wing nationalist forces within Russia. In fact, just days after the invasion a group of anti-war protesters in Moscow were all arrested by the police there.
The representatives of US capitalism wailed and gnashed their teeth. Even before the invasion, Niall Ferguson wrote a column in the Wall Street Journal in which he complained: ‘The president said: “There will be consequences if people step over the line.” No one took that warning seriously—Ukrainian government snipers kept on killing people in Independence Square regardless. The world remembers the red line that Mr. Obama once drew over the use of chemical weapons in Syria . . . and then ignored once the line had been crossed.’4 Peggy Noonan, regular columnist for the WSJ wrote that Obama’s stance regarding Ukraine “doesn’t look peaceable, it looks weak”5
Their problem is not that Obama’s policy “looks” like it stems from weakness, it does stem from weakness! After all, even the normally rabid editors of the WSJ explain that there is little that Obama can do other than call for some sort of sanctions. But even they admit that the close ties between Western European and the Russian economies are a limiting factor. First and foremost is the dependence of Germany for its supply of natural gas on the Russian gas pipelines. So any serious economic sanctions would be a non-starter out of the gate.
Jim DeMint, president of the neo-conservative Heritage Foundation summed it up. He wrote: “Weak statements, history has proven, only invite aggression. What our friends, and also our foes, need to hear is a clarion call in support of liberty and self-determination, and the threat of punitive sanctions against those who transgress those principles. The Ukrainians who rose to demand freedom need to be comforted by our words and intentions, and the thugs in the Kremlin need to fear them.
“Going forward, President Obama must understand that his ‘reset’ with Russia has been a disastrous failure and that his promises to Putin of post-election ‘flexibility’ have backfired. He must also rethink his entire policy of deserting our friends and cozying up to our enemies, as well as plans to neuter our military might. But now, what we need is clarity and global leadership.”6 Words and more words. Even the neo-conservatives are at a loss to advocate any clear action.
The reason is clear: It’s simply that the tops of US capitalism put a compromiser and advocate of “diplomacy” into the White House because they have come to recognize that they are in a weakened position globally. Not that they aren’t dangerous. With a military possessing numerous weapons of mass destruction and whose total size is almost as large as the combined militaries of the entire rest of the world, US capitalism poses a deadly threat.
But what can they do in this situation? Send troops to Ukraine? Nobody is advocating that. For one thing, Russia is a nuclear power. (This, incidentally, is an incentive for the Iranian regime to develop a nuclear weapon. Not that the spread of nuclear weapons is not a deadly danger to life on the planet, but the increased international tensions and increased desperation of US capitalism are driving different capitalist regimes in that direction.) And even if the risk of nuclear war weren’t present, US capitalism implicitly accepts the “sphere of influence” of Russian capitalism, just as it insists on its own similar sphere on the American continent. (Although even that is weakening.)
Without having a clearer view of the internal forces within Ukraine, especially within various sectors of the Ukrainian working class, it is foolhardy to try to be anywhere near definitive about the future in Ukraine. But one thing is most likely: That the new regime in Ukraine will try to carry out the demands of Western capitalism and cut social services, privatize, etc. It seems unlikely that Russian troops will go beyond Crimea, but if new measures are carried out against ethnic Russians in Western Ukraine Putin may feel forced to send them.
In addition, there are the perspectives for the workers’ movement in other parts of Eastern as well as Western Europe. Whenever an independent movement of the working class develops in these regions, it is certain to have an effect on Ukrainian workers. But the question is “when”.
We do not know to what extent the Ukrainian working class was involved in the struggle, with their own class interests in mind, but it seems almost impossible that this did not happen at all. But the outcome at this point has been a new regime that prominently includes the most vicious right wing forces. This outcome is not isolated: In Egypt, millions of workers and youth rose up to oust Mubarak. And what was the result? First the reactionary Islamic fundamentalists rode into power, and then they were ousted by the equally reactionary Egyptian military. Then there is the situation in Syria, which started as a genuine revolution from below. This even included a tendency to form workers’ councils7 . This revolt from below was then overwhelmed by the forces of reaction. And Chinese society appears to be bursting at the seams with struggle, but now we have this horrific terrorist attack evidently by nationalist Uighur forces. According to one article, this attack is having an effect on the mood in China similar to what 9/11 had here in the United States.8
one of the wounded in the Uighur nationalist terrorist attack in China
This is only one side of the coin. In Egypt, for instance, there is still wave after wave of strikes. And the powerful Chinese working class still has not fully spoken. But these defeats, however temporary and partial, give a hint of the serious danger that human society faces. To this must be added the environmental disaster that looms.
Egyptian textile workers on strike
The working class is far from down for the count. It will rise from Ukraine to Syria to China. But the conditions do not allow for indefinite time. We must do all we can to draw the lessons and build a mass, independent and international workers movement. The alternative is too horrible to contemplate.