Pro-Russian protesters in Donetsk
For many on the left, capitalist Russia today serves the same purpose as it did when it was the USSR, namely as a foil to imperialism. Perhaps one of the more revealing expressions of that came from long-time Marxist Roger Annis in Canada who wrote:
Russia’s independence, and that of other, rising capitalist powers such as China and Brazil, is of considerable political consequence for the international working class. The frictions and conflicts between competing capitalist blocs create political and economic fissures through which peoples and countries can assert and defend their independent interests.
Implicit in this statement is that it is probably best for the rights of the Ukrainians to be violated if Venezuela’s are respected. In the geopolitical chess game, sometimes a pawn has to be sacrificed to advance major pieces.
One can imagine the excitement of such people when they read the Guardian article titled “East Ukraine protesters joined by miners on the barricades” that at first blush would lead you to believe that something like a Paris Commune was taking shape in Donetsk:
Word spread quickly through the few hundred pro-Russian protesters in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine: “The miners are coming!”
The crowd parted as a group of a dozen or so burly men in orange work helmets marched past barbed-wire and tyre barricades into the 11-storey administration building, which protesters seized last weekend as they demanded greater independence from Kiev.
“Glory to the miners!” the crowd began chanting. “Glory to Donbass!” they shouted, much as protesters at Kiev’s Euromaidan demonstrations had shouted “Glory to Ukraine!” before they ousted the president, Viktor Yanukovych, in February.
The Guardian article mentions in passing that Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man, owns most of the major mines in Donetsk. He has played a balancing act ever since the crisis in Ukraine began. Although he was one of President Yanukovych’s main backers prior to the crisis, he turned against him as the crisis deepened and instructed the Party of Regions parliamentarians he controlled to vote for his removal. Right now he is working with the governor of Donetsk to keep a lid on the revolt even as he is pushing for a settlement that is in line with Russia’s, namely a loose federation that would exclude NATO.
In the political calculations of the pro-Putin left, Akhmetov becomes an asset in the anti-imperialist struggle. That he and Putin can been seen in this fashion is a worrisome sign that the left has lost its way. A close look at his role in the formation of the Party of Regions and the class realities of the Donetsk region might help to wake these people up, although given the advanced stage of their condition, the prognosis is guarded at best.
To begin with, despite John McCain’s reputation as an archenemy of the Kremlin, it was the consulting firm of his campaign manager that proved instrumental in helping Yanukovych’s Party of Regions to take power in 2006. Akhmetov paid Davis-Manafort $3 million to run his underling’s campaign. (Rick Davis was McCain’s campaign manager in his unsuccessful presidential bid.) Once Yanukovych took power, it was possible for the oligarch to return to the Ukraine from a self-imposed exile after fleeing a murder investigation.
Akhmetov, like a number of the oligarchs that Kyiv has appointed to run local governments in the eastern region, made his billions exactly like the Russian oligarchs, namely through their ability to leverage their bureaucratic positions in state industry to become CEO’s of newly privatized companies. Since the eastern regions were deeply intertwined with the Russian economy, they saw their fortunes tied up with Russia rather than Europe. So, in effect, the alignment with the Kremlin had more to do with protecting capital investments than advancing the working class’s interests.
Unlike the eastern half of the country, the west only became part of the USSR in 1939. The east, especially Donbass that included Donetsk, was a major development site for the USSR, which staffed its mines and factories with ethnic Russian workers and pretty much assigned management positions to Russian party chiefs. It was out of this administrative elite that the current-day oligarchs emerged.
For those inclined to nostalgically link the Donetsk miners with the USSR, it is useful to remember that in 1991 they were the battering ram that Boris Yeltsin used to topple Gorbachev and proceed rapidly toward the elimination of state-owned property. The Washington Post reported on June 30, 2011:
Russia’s leader, Boris Yeltsin, allied himself with the miners and credited them for forcing Gorbachev to agree on negotiating a new union treaty among the 15 republics of the Soviet Union, one that would replace the enforced union of 1922 with a voluntary agreement. Power would be vested in the republics — Russia, Ukraine and the others — rather than in the Soviet government.
“The miners have turned out to be the initiators of the destruction of the old command-administrative system,” Yeltsin said that May, “and creators of a new system of economic management.”
Once the USSR fell apart, the Donetsk miners learned that capitalism was no picnic. The mines remained as dangerous as ever. On average each million tons of Donbass coal costs two lives. By contrast, China has a rate of 0.7 deaths per million tons and just a tenth of this (0.02) in the United States. Like miners in the USA, however, the focus of Donetsk miners is preserving jobs no matter the consequences. Opposition to the Orange Revolution and Euromaidan rests on a fear that a tilt toward the EU will leave them high and dry.
Yet there were ample signs that the people of Donetsk were ready to say goodbye to Yanukovych long before Euromaidan. Akhmetov’s decision to cut the strings to his puppet must have taken his narrow base into account, much more so than Right Sector violence. On October 27, 2012 the Washington Post described a president that had lost his most reliable voters:
Dismay with Ukraine’s ruling party has reached this eastern city [Donetsk], its strongest redoubt, yet the party is nonetheless on the verge of cementing its grip on power in Sunday’s parliamentary elections.
This is coal-mining territory, Russian-speaking and industry-laden. It is President Viktor Yanukovych’s home town and home to those who have prospered enormously during his presidency, known throughout Ukraine as The Family. Here, there is little but disdain for the leaders of the 2004 Orange Revolution, which thwarted Yanukovych’s first bid for the top job after widespread voter intimidation and fraud.
Here, he capped his wobbly comeback in 2010, when he took the presidency. Once, his Party of Regions could have counted on 70 percent of the vote in Donetsk.
Those days are over. Polls suggest the party has about 30 percent support here now – but that will be enough.
His two years in power have taught ordinary Ukrainians not to expect much from Yanukovych.
“Nothing has been done to help the coal miners,” said Anatoly Akimochkin, a leader of the Independent Trade Union of Miners of Ukraine. There’s a feeling of “betrayal,” said Yevgeny Stratievsky, who writes for a political Web site. People are dismayed by corruption, which sees the city paying double the market rate for nursery school lunches and about $2 more per gallon of gasoline than the pump price, said Yevgeny Senekhin, an activist with a group called the Democratic Alliance.
In some ways the Ukraine is like another country that starts with U—the United States. It has a two-party system in which you have the rough equivalent of the Democrats and the Republicans. The Party of Regions is supposed to be for the working people, even though oligarchs are in the driver’s seat. Meanwhile, the politicians of the west are supposed to be worse because they are pals with the fascists (think in terms of the Tea Party) and are even more anxious to cut pensions and close down factories. So the poor voter holds his nose every few years and votes for the lesser evil.
In 2008 I saw many people who should know better urging a vote for Obama because he was supposed to usher in a new New Deal. It did not matter to them that his chief economic advisers were U. of Chicago neoliberal economists. If you opposed Obama, you were naturally for Romney. This was the argument of the Communist Party that not surprisingly is one of the top defenders of Kremlin policy today. Opportunism has a way of seeping into every pore of the body politic.