Responding to concerns on the Leftt

I’ve been engaging in some vigorous e-mail conversation about Ukraine with a group of local left-wing political thinkers. The following are a few pieces of that conversation that seem worth sharing. These comments are in the nature of a quick exchange, so I am not providing sources here (except for a few), but previous posts on this blog provide further background, and I’d be happy to provide more upon request.


One of the articles that triggered some of our discussion was one entitled “The Fascist Danger in Ukraine,” posted on the World Socialist  (Trotskyist) web site. The article is neither unique — there have been several like it — nor representative of the western left. (An example of the more supportive articles, this one from the anti-capitalist A World To Win network, is here.)

I posted the following quick comments to the group in response to the WSWS article (they are slightly modified here):

This is another article that threads together facts (significant ones) with unsupported accusations and alarmist claims that stretch believability.

“The reality is that, for the first time since 1945, an avowedly anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi party controls key levers of state power in a European capital, courtesy of US and European imperialism”: How is Svoboda’s entry into the coalition government any different from the entry of so many other far-right parties into structures of government — Lega Nord in Italy, Austria’s Freedom Party, Belgium’s Vlaams Block, Norway’s Progress Party, the Danish People’s Party, Pim Fortuyn’s List in the Netherlands, the so-called Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (which is fascist by any definition), and others?

And what does MAUP (the Interregional Academy of Human Resources) have to do with the Maidan? Linking them through Lukianenko, a prominent human rights activist who went wacky in his old age, to Yushchenko and Tymoshenko as a way to discredit prominent opposition politicians, is a red herring that takes up a third of the article. Yatseniuk, the current PM, for instance, is Jewish. Other ministers are Russian, Roma (Gypsy), and otherwise non-Ukrainian in ancestry.

Svoboda, we are told, was “the major political force in the Maidan protests.” This is misleading. It was one of several forces, with significantly fewer supporters than the other main opposition political parties (Batkivshchyna and UDAR). Some of the other political forces (on the left and right) were not aligned with any of them.

“… abolish minority rights for Russian-speakers”: Do the authors mean the law about Russian as an official/state language? There was nothing proposed that would abolish anyone’s right to speak Russian, write Russian, teach Russian, etc. There are plenty of schools, newspapers, churches, and other venues in Ukraine that are Russophone.

There are several other things I would quibble with (e.g., what do citations from a post on the Svoboda web forum prove?), but the overall point is one of emphasis and balance. There are certainly ultranationalists or fascists in Ukraine, and figures who were prominent in Maidan who we ought to be worried about. But it’s relevant that the best sources on these topics (if you follow the links — or lack of links and do the research yourself) are from the very far-right scholars — like Anton Shekhovtsov, Andreas Umland, and others — who have been very actively disputing these accusations of the Maidan being a neo-Nazi phenomenon. [See previous posts on this blog for their writings.]


One of the participants in the group then wrote to me:

It is true that far right parties form part of various coalition governments. But not all ministries are equal. Is it true that “Parubiy is now secretary of the National Security and Defence Council, overseeing the Defence Ministry and the armed forces. Dmytro Yarosh, leader of the Right Sector, is his deputy,” as the Trotskyist publication states? To put the coercive forces of the state under the control of a party of the extreme right seems like an alarming move.

So Adrian, first, is this true? Second, if it is, what does it mean?

I was also a little concerned about the move to “abolish minority rights for Russian speakers.” Sure, that was rescinded quickly when it was realized how problematic it would be. But the fact that is happened at all indicates a disturbing willingness to accommodate the extreme nationalists, even though they were evidently willing to be talked down from their vindictive policy. [. . .] what actually happened with regard to that issue?


Here’s my reply, dealing with the easier question first:

1. On the language law 

I’m still not sure what’s meant by the phrase “abolish minority rights for Russians.” Ukrainian national law recognizes Ukrainian as the official language of the country, while Russian has that status for the autonomous region of Crimea. As a sop to his support base, Yanukovych, preceding the 2012 parliamentary elections, introduced a law that would give local and regional governments the power to give any language official status, if 10% or more of their population spoke it as their native tongue. That was seen by many as a “wedge” issue that would counter the anti-Party of Regions (POR) sentiment that had spread across the country, largely for economic reasons. The law pissed a lot of people off, but it passed the POR-dominated parliament (more on that in a moment), and several regions have since given Russian official language status. So when the opposition took over parliament, among many other motions was one to rescind that 2012 language law. It wouldn’t have “abolished minority rights” in any way; it would have simply reversed things back to their pre-2012 state, which seemed livable for the first 20 years of independent Ukraine. But Turchynov, the acting president, decided not to sign the proposed rescindment and so it hasn’t passed. (Here’s a quick source on some of the language debate.)

(On the “POR-dominated parliament”: Ukraine’s parliament has been notorious for its “buyouts,” where if a certain party got a certain number of seats, deputies of that party would be offered big sums of money to switch parties and play by a different program than they got voted in on. That is how Yanukovych’s coalition, and previously Kuchma’s, managed to win control over Parliament, several times as I recall. It’s one of the things that have made Ukrainians most cynical about their system, and one of the things the Maidan made a point of trying to change. We’ll see how that goes. The non-party Maidan activists – including Dmytro Yarosh; more on him in a moment – keep talking about it.)

2. On the more troubling issue of recent political appointments

Yes, Parubiy was named secretary of the National Security and Defence Council. I’ve been told (by far-right watcher Andreas Umland, among others) that he has mellowed  and become pretty moderate since his days helping form the Social-National Party of Ukraine with Tiahnybok and others (in 1991). That party emerged from a few radical student groups in Lviv and many of its members have since become more mainstream. Parubiy was one of the most visible on-stage presences of the Maidan, and is a member of the Batkivschyna party of Tymoshenko, Yatseniuk (PM), and Turchynov (Acting President). Some members of that party (or of the Tymoshenko Bloc, which included it and a few smaller parties) have been strongly critical of Svoboda; I’m not sure if Parubiy ever has. I also don’t know how many of his earlier views he still holds. I don’t see anything particularly incriminating on his Facebook page. But I’m wary of him and troubled by his appointment, because of his history.

Yarosh was named one of his deputies. Neither Parubiy nor Yarosh is a member of the Svoboda party, so it’s not the case that the “coercive forces of the state” are “under the control of a party of the extreme right.” But that’s semantics. Yarosh is an ultra-nationalist – some would say fascist – and is a charismatic figure who rose into prominence because of his group’s (Right Sector’s) role in defending the Maidan. Up until recently, his views would have been considered utterly marginal in Ukraine. Today he polls 2.3% among presidential hopefuls (see the poll results released yesterday). That’s not too scary a figure, but it’s a significant change, and the fact that he was given an appointment as Parubiy’s deputy is, in my view, one of the most troubling results of the Maidan. There are a handful of Svoboda figures who’ve also gotten positions who I would worry about.

The bigger picture, I think, is that the parliament has consolidated itself and there will soon be elections. Someone like Poroshenko or Klitschko will win the presidency. Both are liberal centrists (from what I can tell) who will be pressured to turn to the EU, but who could conceivably carve out an independent, “neither-fully-east-nor-fully-west” economic policy (as previous presidents and parliaments have tried). More importantly, parliament’s role has now being restored to a more central one, as defined by the recently reinstated 2004 constitution, and that’s where there will be a cobbling together of (hopefully) a broadly representative coalition government. (No single party could control it at this point.) I hope that Svoboda and other ultra-nationalists don’t get into it, but it’s difficult to predict what will happen in the weeks to come.

There will be a lot of pressure from the Maidan activists and their supporters around the country to eliminate the kind of vote- and seat-buying that has characterized Parliament, and pressure for “new politicians” to emerge and take over from the seasoned ones (who are perceived as corrupt). That’s why I think that scraps are being thrown to the extra-parliamentary opposition — including visible and charismatic individuals like Yarosh — as a kind of attempt to nip their ambitions in the bud. But it’s a dangerous game.

Either way, I don’t necessarily see a historical change for the better as far as the political system goes, but nor do I see a historical change for the worse. Where I do see change for the better is in the experience of all of those who believe that their activism has now brought down two governments, that have learned not to trust politicians (of any stripe), and that will demand that the 1% not steal from the public coffers to build their dream homes (e.g., secretly on public lands, like the national park that Yanukovych chopped a piece off to build himself a palace in coastal Crimea) and to siphon money off into Swiss bank accounts.

From the perspective of revolutionary socialism, all of that may seem rather trivial. But from the perspective of a politics of mobilization and self-determination, I think the end result leans heavily on the positive side, though it comes with its attendant risks and challenges.

*          *          *          *          *

A previous exchange with another conversant went as follows:


So let me get this straight, Adrian: You are willing in this juncture to ally with U.S. imperialism against what you call Russian imperialism.

Also, again you seem to be speaking here as if the Ukraine were one thing, rather than being heavily divided with many people especially in the eastern part of the country not so happy about the U.S.-sponsored coup and rather welcoming of Russian intervention in these circumstances.


My response:

No, I’m not willing to ally with U.S. imperialism against Russian imperialism. I’m willing to ally with certain currents within Ukrainian society (those tending toward democratization, collective self-determination, etc.) against certain other currents (those tending toward authoritarianism, oligarchy, neoliberal capitalism, fascism of one kind or another, etc.) both within and outside Ukrainian society. The Yanukovych regime represented one of the latter, as does the Putin regime. The Maidan has admittedly been a mixed bag, but it clearly and prominently features the first set of currents, and it’s that part of the Maidan that I support.

The U.S. imperialism at play here seems to be relatively minor on the scale of the U.S.’s global misdeeds and crimes. To the extent that the current revolution facilitates neoliberal policies, it will only be continuing what Yanukovych and his Party of Regions were already imposing (and which only Yulia Tymoshenko, of recent in-power politicians, paid much lip service against, which made her a dangerous “populist” to some western observers). The U.S. worked well with Yanukovych, and Republican advisors advised him in his presidential run. For that matter, his arch-rival Tymoshenko could easily work with Russia (as Putin himself has conceded).

It’s not the change in authorities that’s the point of this revolution, it’s the change in the scope of what Ukrainians themselves — apart from what authorities, oligarchs, et al. allow them — can do with their lives. If a more transparent system of rules and procedures, an independent judiciary, a relatively uncontrolled media, a reined in government apparatus (that cannot steal on the level that Yanukovych and his cronies did), et al, can help with all that, then I’m for it, not against it.

As for Ukraine being not one thing but many, that’s at least as true for the U.S. (which you conveniently disregard in your account of U.S. imperialism) or for many other countries (e.g., Canada, Venezuela, Belgium, et al.) as it is for Ukraine. The Ukrainian “divisions” reflect a large and diverse country, but it is a country that has been unified within its present boundaries for several decades. The (in)famous east-west divisions have been perpetuated and promoted by the post-1991 ruling class so that it can maintain itself in power.

Today the country is actually relatively united, partly thanks to Putin’s invasion of Crimea. The only people who have actively welcomed Russian intervention in Ukraine are small bands of pro-Russia activists in Crimea and a few other eastern/southern cities. I would estimate that they make up about 2-3% of the population of Ukraine. Some of these pro-Russian activists have been shown to be actual Russians, not Ukrainians (i.e. Russian citizens, not Ukrainian citizens) shipped in from outside the country for a media stunt. Most Ukrainian citizens are against any division of the country.

The one significant exception to the overwhelming sentiment against Russian invasion is Crimea (which has about 1/25th of Ukraine’s population), where ethnic Russians constitute 50-60% of the population (though ethnicity is a fluid construct and the numbers have shifted, irrespective of in or out migration, over the decades). Many of these ethnic Russians would probably be just as happy to be part of Russia as Ukraine. I’m not sure how many would prefer one or the other option; a referendum ought to be able to tell us.

The remainder of Crimea’s population — ethnic Ukrainians (at least a quarter) and Crimean Tatars (about 12-15%, and who are the only ones with a claim to being “indigenous” to Crimea) — is adamantly opposed to being integrated into Russia. (A common economic union is a separate matter.) If Crimea were to be annexed to Russia, we’d likely have a humanitarian crisis on our hands, and a severe intensification of Muslim extremism to boot. If, on the other hand, it would remain part of Ukraine, there wouldn’t be any crisis for Crimeans. The deal allowing Russia to use Sevastopol for its marine fleet was extended (by Yanukovych) far enough into the future that there should be no crisis for Russia as well. I’m pretty sure that Putin is much less worried about losing his Black Sea access (and anyway, he’s just sunk a bunch of billions into Sochi) than he is in allowing a part of his perceived empire to rise up against authority and overthrow it. That’s a sin that needs to be punished by authority.

At issue here is authoritarianism, not capitalism, which has and will continue to seep into Ukraine either through the more visible and transparent channels of EU-style rules (which can be opposed and/or mitigated) or the more shadowy channels of the post-Soviet oligarcho-nightmare (which are more difficult to oppose or mitigate).

Any hope for a “revolutionary” socialism is pretty extinguished for now, in Ukraine as in Russia. (But no one was expecting that.)  Hope for social democracy, however, is not. And hope for the kind of mobilization that makes grassroots activism possible is far from extinguished. Some, like Putin, would like to crush it; others would like to guide and work with it to nourish the better branches and neuter the less desirable ones (such as ethnic nationalism and chauvinism). If the western left contributes to crushing it, then it’s working toward its own extinction. I hope it doesn’t do that.




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