The Ukrainian trap

The current political crisis and social unrest are part of a geopolitical game between the European Union (EU) and the Russian Federation. The Ukrainian authorities intended to sign an Association Agreement with the EU, a step towards becoming a member state. When doubts about signing appeared in the media, peaceful and cheerful marches in support of greater integration with the EU mobilized on the streets. These have evolved into violent anti-government mass rallies. The protests in Kiev are a desperate cry from the masses, expressing — in a distorted form — their anger against the entire legacy of the transition to capitalism.

After weeks of spectacular mobilization the movement is drowning in contradictions and confusion. The country is on the edge of a further economic collapse, so — for the moment — Ukrainian society is at an impasse. The conflict over the “choice” between a European or Russian orientation is simply the form of appearance of this crisis.

The President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovich, and Prime Minister, Mykola Azarov, both stated that the terms of the EU deal aren’t beneficial. The EU offered Ukraine 1 billion Euros, which is insignificant. In addition, the money would arrive in several tranches. On the other hand, as Azarov said “the agreement with Russia for cheaper gas and a promise to buy a large portion of Ukrainian debt saved the country”?”I am asking openly: what would Ukraine have faced? The answer is obvious: bankruptcy and social collapse. This is a New Year’s gift that the Ukrainian people would have in this case.”

For modern Ukraine, which emerged from the ruins of the Soviet Union in 1991, things went badly from the start. Soviet economic ties broke down and the administrative apparatus of bureaucratic governance disintegrated. In the newly independent Ukraine: production fell by more than half; the country was gripped by hyperinflation; and the shadow economy mushroomed. The new democratic system barely concealed the fact that real power was seized by shadowy figures — Mafiosi and oligarchs, often former secret service officers and high ranking bureaucrats — who congealed into the capitalist ruling class.

A period of economic revival in the 2000s was driven by cheap gas from Russia and the high price of metal and chemical exports. So, the world crisis from 2008 provoked a new economic collapse in the Ukraine.

The Russian side has been very active. Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, “warned Kiev of potential privilege loss,” but came up with concrete suggestions for immediate action. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin pledged to buy 15 billion U.S. dollar of Ukrainian bonds, to avert impending bankruptcy. Russia will use its 88 billion U.S. dollar National Wealth Fund, and Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned gas giant, would offer a 33 percent discount on natural gas. Starting January 1, Ukrainians can buy Russian gas for 268.5 U.S. dollar instead of 400 U.S. dollar per 1,000 cubic meters. “The agreements help us to adopt a budget of social development. Before this event the adoption of this kind of budget had been absolutely impossible and a collapse had threatened the country,” Prime Minister Azarov explained.

Events in the Ukraine reveal the peculiar characteristics of the confused public discourse all over Eastern Europe. In most ex-Soviet-block countries, life in the EU is viewed with starry eyes. The EU represents the material incarnation of mythical and mystical concepts of “The West,” where everything is modern and clean, and the people are cultured and wealthy. This mythology drives the psychology of the crowds on the streets of Kiev. They appear oblivious to the economic collapse that has gripped member states of the EU in recent years: particularly in Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland. On the other side, sections of the masses have a dark image of “evil” Russia. Apart from Poland, Western Ukraine is the only territory in Eastern Europe where primitive Russo-phobia prevails in the public sphere and is exploited by leading politicians at every opportunity. So it is no surprise that it raises its head during this major social mobilization. In this climate, Ukraine’s far-right nationalists are important beneficiaries. It is ironic that in their hatred of Russia they support the Ukraine’s EU application, which, legally speaking, would limit national sovereignty more than current relations with Russia do. The protesters and their far-right leadership are also backed by the right wing from neighbouring Poland.

On Kiev’s Independence Square — the central focus of the protests — this produced some grotesque and comic absurdities. One day, on the podium of this pro-EU extravaganza, we witnessed Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of Poland’s Catholic-fundamentalist parliamentary opposition, a fervent critic of the EU (which he sees as a reincarnation of Germany’s historical drive to conquer the East). He spoke alongside Oleh Tiahnybok, the leader of Svoboda (Freedom), a neo-fascist party, which is strongly anti-Polish and anti-Semitic! And to add a cherry to the cake, a few days ago, the former Republican candidate for U.S. president — John McCain — arrived in Kiev to: express support for the protesters, mouth off empty words about freedom, and warn Ukrainian authorities, with characteristic hypocrisy, of possible international sanctions against them for using “violence.”

Sadly, Ukrainian politics and society is at a dead end. There is no party offering a way out of the quagmire. Russian support will not solve the country’s socio-economic problems, and will only serve to strengthen the pro-Russian wing of the oligarchy. Only an awakening of the demands of the working class: struggling for their own interests, can offer a pathway out of this morass. This would help the Ukrainian masses to find common cause with their brothers and sisters in Europe and in former Soviet states.

Heiko Khoo
Boyan Stanislavski

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