Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 26, 2013

What’s going on in the Ukraine?

Filed under: imperialism/globalization,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 11:32 pm

Attacking the Lenin statue in Kiev. Is this the whole story?

The last time I paid any attention to the Ukraine was back in 2004 when the country was in the throes of a “color revolution”, which for much of the left is all you really need to know. If the USA has donated money or organized training sessions for some dissident movement, it is your revolutionary duty to support the government. Perhaps there is no website more consistent in its commitment to this kind of Manicheanism than Global Research. Two years ago when the Egyptian military was closing down NGO’s, Tony Cartalucci, one of their daftest contributors, took the side of the military in an article titled The US Engineered “Arab Spring”: The NGO Raids in Egypt.

It is hardly a speculative theory then, that the uprisings were part of an immense geopolitical campaign conceived in the West and carried out through its proxies with the assistance of disingenuous organizations including NED, NDI, IRI, and Freedom House and the stable of NGOs they maintain throughout the world. Preparations for the “Arab Spring” began not as unrest had already begun, but years before the first “fist” was raised, and within seminar rooms in D.C. and New York, US-funded training facilities in Serbia, and camps held in neighboring countries, not within the Arab World itself.

There’s not a single word in the article about economic suffering, torture, lack of elementary democratic rights, or any other grievance that brought people  into Tahrir Square.

Despite my strong commitment to exposing the role of NATO and Western banks in Yugoslavia, I always had my doubts about some of the people who were Cartalucci think-alikes particularly Jared Israel and James Petras. Oddly enough, their embrace of a common methodology led them to diametrically opposed positions on Zionism and Israel. Jared Israel became a rabid Likudnik (maybe he always was one), while Petras began writing some truly obnoxious garbage about how the Jews were dictating American foreign policy.

What finally convinced me to break with this methodology was the way that Ukraine was being treated, as if it the same story as Yugoslavia. Back in 2004 I signaled my determination to follow my own path:

Although my writings on Yugoslavia have tended to link me–mistakenly– in some quarters with this point of view, I am by no means sympathetic to it. For example, I hold Robert Mugabe in very low esteem, despite the fact that he is Enemy Number One of the liberal NGO’s. You simply can’t put a plus where the bourgeoisie puts a minus. You really need to have a much more nuanced approach. In the case of the Ukraine, you seem to have a conflict developing between imperialism and the Russian government over the Ukraine’s future. Although I can be mistaken, it seems to me that this will never achieve the kind of sharpness that the Nato-Serb conflict achieved.

At the time I found Boris Kargalitsky’s analysis persuasive:

The theories that a pro-American opposition is battling with a pro-Moscow political elite do not hold water. Yushchenko is without a doubt pro-American. But the same can be said for all the current leaders in Ukraine. After all, it was current Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma and his prime minister, Yanukovych, who sent troops to Iraq. They created an absurd crisis in Russian-Ukrainian relations over a dam near the tiny island of Tuzla in straits between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. In contrast, right at the height of the confrontation in Kiev, the Verkhovnaya Rada resolved to withdraw Ukraine’s troops from Iraq. Communists and socialists were joined in their support of the measure by a significant number of Yushchenko supporters.

It is difficult to call Russia’s leadership anti-American or anti-Western. None other than President Vladimir Putin himself publicly announced his support of George W. Bush during the recent U.S. presidential elections. And while the Moscow television channels were condemning American involvement in Ukraine, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told journalists about possible plans to arm local forces in Iraq under U.S. control, as well as to send military specialists to Iraq.

The Cold War was a confrontation of two economic and political systems. But now Russia and the West share the same system, capitalism. The real axis of confrontation in world politics is no longer the standoff between NATO and the long-defunct Eastern Bloc, but the standoff between the dollar and the euro blocs. The Kremlin can’t seem to make up its mind which side to take in this rivalry, dodging back and forth between Brussels and Washington and dooming itself to a whole string of unilateral concessions to both competing sides.

Not surprisingly, the same people who took the side of Yanukovych in 2004 are backing him now. They obviously have made up their mind on the basis of two incidents, the first was the toppling of a Lenin statue in Kiev; the second was John McCain’s appearance next to Oleh Tyahnybok, a leader of the ultraright and anti-Semitic Svoboda party that has links to the BNP in England. Of course, it is hard to keep track of the game without a scorecard. When Bashar al-Assad invites Nick Griffin, the head of the BNP, to Syria, these people shrug their shoulders and say “big deal”. This does not even get into the question of Yanukovych’s ties to the Kremlin. Maybe I am missing something but aren’t Russian skinheads not only torturing gays but posting their feats on Youtube?

So that’s where I left things in 2004. Now that Ukraine is in the news again, I will take advantage of my retiree benefits from Columbia University and see what Lexis-Nexis has to say on what has transpired over nearly the past decade.

Yanukovych was elected Prime Minister in 2010, replacing the pro-Western Yulia Tymoshenko who was arrested for corruption that year. A year later she was sentenced to seven years in prison. While you might jump to the conclusion that she was being punished for being an enemy of the Ukraine-Russia alliance, the charges were not quite what you’d expect as Fred Weir reported in the Christian Science Monitor (Weir is a very good reporter with solid Marxist training who used to write for “In These Times”):

Tymoshenko’s supporters have rallied to her defense, both the US and the European Union have expressed deep concern over what they suspect to be a “politically motivated” trial. Even Russia is growling angrily about Mr. Yanukovych’s decision to make the centerpiece of the case a controversial 2009 gas agreement that Tymoshenko signed with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

Yanukovych’s decision to put Tymoshenko on trial looks increasingly irrational,” says Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs columnist with the Moscow business daily Kommersant. “By putting a defeated opponent in the dock, he granted her a whole new political lease on life.

“And by indirectly implicating top Russian leaders in the case, especially Vladimir Putin, Yanukovych has aroused the anger of the Kremlin,” he adds. “That gas deal was Putin’s brainchild, and calling it into question puts his personal prestige and credibility on the line.”

Also, going against the grain of “color revolution” simplicities, there was every indication that Yanukovych intended at first to carry out the same economic policies as his pro-Western predecessor. In 2007 the Ukrainian news agency UNIAN reported:

Brussels, 27 March: Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych has a dream that Ukraine will begin talks on EU membership under his government.

Yanukovych was speaking at a sitting of the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee.

Yanukovych recalled that once, speaking in Washington, he said that dialogue between Ukraine and the EU would be deepened when he is prime minister. He said that that is still his dream. “I am lucky,” he said, recalling that the EU-Ukraine action plan was signed during his first term as prime minister [in 2002-04]. Yanukovych is confident that during his second term, Ukraine will become a member of the World Trade Organization, conclude an intensified agreement with the EU and set up a free-trade zone with the EU.

Yanukovych believes that an intensified agreement will be similar to a European document on associate membership. He added that it would provide for political association and economic integration.

After being elected two years later, Yanukovych soon found himself in the driver’s seat of a nation mired in economic crisis. In the face of mounting debt and deep social unrest, Yanukovych veered between the EU and Russia. On December 12th he turned to the West:

The Ukrainian government has asked the EU for Euro 20bn (£16.85bn) to sign a major trade deal with the bloc, after thousands of riot police failed to destroy a pro-EU protest camp in the centre of the capital, Kiev, yesterday.

Prime Minister Mykola Azarov announced the government would be sending a delegation to Brussels to discuss new terms for signing the historic Association Agreement, which Ukraine unceremoniously spurned last month in favour of moving further into the power orbit of Russia.

–The Independent, December 12, 2013

But in the end it was Russia that came through:

Russia threw Ukraine an economic lifeline on Tuesday, agreeing to buy $15 billion of Ukrainian debt and to reduce the price its cash-strapped neighbour pays for vital Russian gas supplies by about one-third.

The deal, reached at talks in Moscow between the Russian and Ukrainian leaders, is intended to help Ukraine stave off economic crisis though Moscow will hope it keeps Kyiv in its political and economic orbit.

The agreement could also fuel protests in Kyiv against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who faces accusations of “selling” Ukraine to the highest bidder after spurning a trade deal with the European Union.

–The Toronto Star, December 18, 2013

So, those of you who look at Yanukovych as some kind of heroic Bolivaran type anti-imperialist fighter are welcome to your views even if they are arrived at in total ignorance of the facts. People like Tony Cartalucci, in other words.

It is probably not news to most of you that I have grown totally disgusted with any Marxism that makes concessions to someone like Cartalucci whose “anti-imperialism” would dovetail nicely with that of the ultraright when it comes to the Middle East and North Africa. Some of the most incisive commentary on the Middle East has come from anarchists in fact, as well as from some Marxists that still have a brain and a heart—like Joseph Daher and Gilbert Achcar.

I doubt that at the age of 68 I will ever come out as anarchist—mostly because I still retain a big commitment to the best of Marxism, from CLR James to Jim Blaut. But I can’t help but noticing that the best article I have seen so far on events in the Ukraine can be seen at Tahrir-International Collective Network, a website that supports the “the fight for a free and self-governed society based on tolerance, equality and openness, the society in which the social side is placed above the mercantile.” I urge you to read the article there titled “UKRAINE: What’s Going On, And What Does It Mean?” It is really damned good as this excerpt would indicate, even if I take exception to his characterization of Cuba and Nicaragua in the last paragraph. As Joe E. Brown told Jack Lemmon in the final seconds of “Some Like it Hot”, nobody’s perfect:

Yanukovych and his pals probably wanted the deal off until they get a better deal, because they see their protected business interests threatened by competition from the EU, by higher energy prices and maybe also by mass anger against EU-style austerity when it comes. And he and his pals have something to defend. “Yanukovych has led the country to the brink of financial collapse as his coterie and his financial backers grow insanely and obscenely rich”(Ian Traynor, Guardian, 1 December 2013, ) The man himself is a “very wealthy man with a a large estate outside of Kiev”, according to another Guardian piece by the same writer. Where did his wealth come from? Not from heritage, for he was from a rather poor background. Politics-as-business, also known as corruption, may be the name of the game. He and his friends have much to loose, and beyond this, they feel pressurized by Russia, the big gas exporter, former imperial overlord and strong neighbour. The Yakunovych wing of the ruling class, with its entrenched interests and geopolitical ties, and with their armies of riot cops, are no pushover.

So there we have it. Entrenched power-holders, filthily rich and well-connected with Russia, and with armed force available, on the one hand; strong EU-oriented business and political interests interests on the other. Modernized austerity as an alternative to traditional corrupt business as usual. Not much to choose there. This is an intra-business conflict, in which the pro-EU wing of the ruling class succeeds in raising an impressive stage army of protesters. There is no reason whatsoever for the taking of sides here.

But then, the riddle begins. One can imagine opposition politicians mobilizing their supporters, in their thousands and in their tens of thousands. But in the last few days, we hear about hundreds of thousands in the capital Kiev alone. Half a million people in the cold streets, confronting riot cops and cold winds and snow, just because they would rather be exploited from Brussel-oriented business than from Moscow-oriented business? People barricading streets, blockading and occupyingh buildings becuase the prefer EU austerity above old-school corruption? It does not sound plausible. It does not make sense. There are more factors at play.

Not the whole movement consists of supporters of the traditional opposition parties. There is a strong, student-based movement that tries to keep all politicians at a distance. Here is how Marina Lewycka, already quoted, describes it: “For the young people in the square, this whole game of political tit-for-tat is what they reject.” One of the places these wing of the movement appartently gets inspiration from is the Occupy movement, according to Claire Biggs who explains on 25 November: “Unlike the Orange Revolution, the current protests are divided into two separate rallies – one by young nonpartisan activists inspired by the Occupy movement, the second, concentrated on another Kyiv square, by political parties.” Now, the Occupy movement, whatever its failings, was not a very pro-EU movement, as people may recall. It was not a very pro-business movement either. Claire Biggs, 27 November on RFE/ RL : “The demonstrations have brought to the forefront a new generation of protesters that grew up in an independent Ukraine and have few – if any – memories of the Soviet Union. They see themselves as Europeans, they are disillusioned with politics-as-usual, and they feel increasingly at odds with establishment opposition figures.”

Here, the story gets interesting. These young people may function – ‘objectively speaking’, to use some old-fashioned jargon – as a stage army for the opposition. But they don ‘t see themselves that way, and there is no guarantee that they will behave that way. People assembled in mass protests day after day – for whatever reason – tend to gain in self-confidence, may start to develop ideas of their own, and may get into the habit of acting upon them.. And there is tension between these kind of protesters and the more traditional political opposition. “So far, most of the opposition leaders have refused to heed students’ requests to get rid of party symbols.” One side demands, another side does not comply. This is a recipe for people taking a direction that opposition politicians do not like.

As we already saw, there are not one, but two centres of assembly, one for the traditional parties, one for the younger, Occupy-style protesters. On the latter, we read interesting things: “Coordinating committees have been set up, with volunteers distributing blankets, food, and warm clothes donated by supporters. In Kyiv, the coordinating committee also organizes private accomodation for demonstrators travelling from other cities.” This is in no sense an anti-capitalist movement, and I have not seen any signs of workers in action for demands of their own. Yes, there have been a calls for a general strike. But one such call was put forward by “the regional authorities” in and around Lviv, according to Shaun Walker in the the Guardian on 1 December. Now, Lviv is a city in the West of the country where the opposition is strong. So this is probably a call by the party political opposition. This means that the action may be general, but not an workers’ strike in an serious sense. So, no, no independent workers’ role to be seen. But there is that odd bit of horizontal practice, that do-it-yourself-attitude, that characterizes radical movements, combined with the most un-radical political ideas. It is a weird mixture. But clearly, the domination of pro-business, pro-EU right wing politicians is not at all complete.

Of course, the pro-European attitude of even the Occupy-style activists is weird and misplaced. The EU is not the paradise of liberty and modernity that demonstrators may believe it to be. Roma persecuted in France and elsewhere, refugees detained and deported or being left to drown in the Mediterranean, anti-austerity protestors and antifascists being beaten back by riot police in city after city… all these people could tell a story or two of liberty, EU style. If Ukraine ever becomes an EY country, it will not look like Germany. It may look like Spain, or Greece.. Or like Slovenia, where there has been a strong movement against austerity already. ‘Europe’, for the Ukraine protesters, functions as a kind of myth, just like the Soviet Union functioned as a myth for too many radicals in the Nineteen Thirties, just like Cuba and China functioned as myths in the Sixties and Nicaragua in the Eighties. We should expose the lies behind the myth; but we should also be able to notice what is behind the attraction of the myth: a desire for freedom, a rejection of politics-Yanukovych-style. The desire and the rejection itself are fully justified; but the political expression in a pro-EU-direction is reactionary.

In my next post, I will ask the same kinds of questions about Thailand.

11 Comments »

  1. This description of the situation (particularly including the piece in Tahrir-ICN) was extremely illuminating, and the analysis of the flawed methodology of Global Research (and so much of today’s left) is right on the mark! It’s very understandable that ordinary people may see Ukraine’s cooperation with and incorporation into the EU attractive compared to domination by Russia; that doesn’t mean that they would subsequently accept austerity policies such as imposed in Greece. Their toppling of the Lenin statue was a sad reminder of the reputation that Stalinist Ruissia gave to “socialism” along with the continued pro- (capitalist) Russia stance of most of today’s “communists” in that region.

    I look forward to reading your analysis on Thailand, which I find quite dissimilar.

    Comment by Jeff — December 27, 2013 @ 12:28 am

  2. Well, everyone struggles for metaphors. But it doesn’t always work, does it? I would judge this movement, tactics aside, based on the demands of what unites both centers: membership in Europe. I thought the point about the youth being EU oriented bakes sense give they are one generation removed from the overall political economy of the USSR of which Ukraine rested as the foundation in many ways, at least geographically. I thought that was an insightful point. That they would automatically, however, protest EU imposed austerity maybe reaching. Once you’ve put on the straightjacket of being integrated into the EU model, there is very little going back, especially if the motive force in social change is a very atomized and divided (ethnically) working class. it is not a good situation.

    Comment by David Walters — December 27, 2013 @ 3:15 am

  3. There is nothing out of you depth.

    They are a bunch of right-wing gobshites.

    You really are far from Europe my Son.

    Comment by Andrew Coates — December 27, 2013 @ 11:01 am

  4. Typo: “she was she was being punished”

    Comment by iskraagent — December 27, 2013 @ 1:46 pm

  5. “I doubt that at the age of 68 I will ever come out as anarchist—mostly because I still retain a big commitment to the best of Marxism, from CLR James to Jim Blaut.”

    I don’t call myself an anarchist, either, I prefer anti-authoritarian for various reasons. But I can’t help observing that you can appreciate CLR James, and still be an anarchist, AK Press published a book of his lectures a few years ago. Can’t say about Blaut, but I doubt that he is an impediment, either.

    The anarchist analysis posted here is reminiscent of the creative French and Algerian anarchist perspectives about the dirty war in Algeria in 1990s which were based upon close observation of social and economic relationships from the bottom up.

    It is impossible to overstate how tiresome the purportedly “left” analysis of events in places like the Ukraine, Syria, Egypt and Iran are that one finds at Global Research. The people as agents of change in their own societies are completely ignored. As I have said before, it becomes a kind of perverse Eurocentrism wherein the peoples of the lesser developed world only exist as pawns for US and European elites.

    Comment by Richard Estes — December 27, 2013 @ 7:39 pm

  6. Sounds as though you’ve joined the “Third Camp.” That’s ok with me. But this CLR James stuff…another story. To be continued.

    Wayne Collins

    Comment by Wayne Collins — December 28, 2013 @ 4:05 am

  7. “Kurish struggle”

    I think that’s supposed to be “Kurdish struggle”?

    Comment by iskraagent — December 28, 2013 @ 4:47 am

  8. I agree with you that radicals should not get caught up in geo-political score keeping. However, I don’t think much happening in the Ukraine qualifies as a radical or emancipatory event. Most of the protestors want EU visas and/or the IPhone lifestyle they see from Hollywood.

    As for Thailand, the ruling government has won election after election since about 2000, but is being undermined by the urban middle classes and the military. In that way Thailand has much more in common with Turkey than the Ukraine. Additionally Thailand is a proxy in the US/China rivalry and one the US is going to lose.

    Comment by jeff — December 28, 2013 @ 5:28 am

  9. […] the past 40 years without regard to the facts in a particular instance. As I have pointed out in a previous post, the picture is a lot more […]

    Pingback by The gangster billionaire behind Ukraine’s president | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — February 19, 2014 @ 12:17 pm

  10. “Most of the protestors want EU visas and/or the IPhone lifestyle they see from Hollywood.”

    How DARE they.

    Comment by johng — February 19, 2014 @ 1:12 pm

  11. Boris Kagarlitsky’s and Louis Proyect’s view that the former USSR is a “capitalist” social system is incorrect. Please indicate how it has made that transition from whatever it was before to “capitalism”? Where is the capitalist ruling class? You may point to the oligarchs, but they are thieves. Their property is constantly under threat – not in a capitalist type of fashion, but from other gangsters. Hence, the global analysis the above article presents is wrong.

    Comment by star — April 1, 2017 @ 2:45 pm


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