Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 2, 2019

How class mattered in the Ukrainian and Turkish elections

Filed under: Turkey,Ukraine — louisproyect @ 4:05 pm

Volodymyr Zelensky: the Jewish comedian likely to be Ukraine’s next President

In the 1930s, when fascism was on the march everywhere, it was fueled by both nationalism and medieval-like religious fanaticism. Germany and Italy obviously represented the first trend while Spain and Portugal’s mixture of fascism and Catholicism the second. Now, 80 years later, we are seeing the same kind of toxic brew. All across Europe, nationalism has fueled the rise of fascist-like regimes while as you head eastward, it is political Islam that has helped prop up reactionary rulers. While elections are not generally an reliable barometer of mass consciousness, those that took place this week in Ukraine and Turkey indicate that nationalism and religion will not suffice in keeping the working class quiescent.

For the past couple of years, I have seen constant references to Ukraine being the closest thing we have today to a fascist regime. We are continuously reminded that the government has officially recognized Stephen Bandera as a national hero and that the military is riddled with neo-Nazi Azov Battalion members. To a large extent, this narrative has gained traction on the left because of the tireless efforts of websites like Consortium News, Grayzone and what Jeff St. Clair calls the Sputnik Left.

If anti-Semitism is the hallmark of neo-Nazism today, it certainly did not figure in the calculations of Ukrainians who cast twice as many votes for the Jewish comedian Volodymyr Zelensky then they did for the incumbent Petro Poroshenko in the first round of Presidential elections. Since neither candidate received more than 50 percent of the vote, there will be a second round on April 21. With Zelensky receiving 30 percent of the vote over Poroshenko’s 16 percent, it seems likely that he will be the next president.

Zelensky played Ukraine’s president in a hugely popular TV series in 2015 titled “Servant of the People”. Kiev political strategist Olexiy Golobutskiy said: “People imagine what they want in Zelensky. Liberals think he is a liberal, patriots think he is a patriot, leftists think he is a leftist. This amorphousness is really helping him at this point.” In other words, he sounds like a typical politician. There’s not much information on “Servant of the People” online but a Foreign Policy article describes a show that can hardly sit well with Bandera admirers:

In the third season, crazed Ukrainian nationalists (with the slogan “Freedom, Surname, Country”) stage a coup that leads to his arrest. As one of the usurpers says while asking prison inmates to reveal their last names (and, hence, their nationality), “Ukraine is not for everybody”—so much so, apparently, that even “Ukrainian prisons will only hold patriots.”

The Foreign Policy article was written by Alexander J. Motyl, a Rutgers historian who feels that “Servant of the People” was insufficiently critical of the Russians. Zelensky probably yearns for an end to the war that a politician like Poroshenko kept going because it helped to unite the people around his nationalist agenda. Accusations that Zelensky is a secret Kremlin asset fail to engage with his political practice. Wikipedia states: “After the Ukrainian media had reported that during the War in Donbass Zelensky’s Kvartal 95 [his comedy troupe] had donated 1 million hryvnias to the Ukrainian army, Russian politicians and artists petitioned for a ban on his works in Russia. Unlike them, Zelensky spoke out against the intention of the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture to ban Russian artists from Ukraine.”

My expectations for Zelensky are minimal. Probably the best thing that can be said about him is his distance from the Ukrainian oligarchic business class. Poroshenko is worth close to a billion dollars while the Donbass rebels have close ties to the bourgeoisie whose wealth is derived from mining and manufacturing companies in the east. If nothing else, Zelensky’s presidency is about as close to the original promise of Euromaidan that is possible right now. That is certainly a step forward.

On Sunday, my wife and her sister were glued to online TV reporting from Turkey. By mid-afternoon, it had become apparent that the municipal elections had resulted in a clear repudiation of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP (The Justice and Development Party; in Turkish Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi). The capital city Ankara voted for the opposition Kemalist candidate as did Izmir. While the votes had not been finalized in Istanbul, the Kemalist lead was insurmountable.

The loss of Istanbul would be especially painful for Erdoğan since his initial electoral success was becoming its mayor in 1994. The AKP is similar to Christian Democratic parties in Europe except that its ideological base is drawn from Islam rather than Christianity. It had ties to a rising bourgeoisie in Anatolia, especially in the textile industry, that did not share the secularism of the traditional Kemalist bourgeoisie and its bureaucratic and military officialdom.

In the early years of AKP rule, it was able to win over many Kemalist voters because it benefited from a relatively flourishing economy and its generous social measures, especially in health care. It also seemed willing to bury the hatchet with the Kurdish population and to move toward integration with the EU, just as was the case in Ukraine.

On January 6, 2017, CounterPunch published an article of mine titled “What Turkey Has Become” that might be a useful introduction to AKP rule. I wrote, in part:

By the 1950s, the progressive aspects of Kemalism had long disappeared. Except for the Kurds and the beleaguered socialist groups in Turkey, there was not much resistance until the Islamists began to emerge as a bourgeois power with its own agenda. Largely based in the Anatolian region and in the textile industry, they began asserting themselves in the 1980s.

For many Turks who had little sympathy for Islamism as an ideology, the AKP was a welcome alternative to decades of Kemalist misrule. In the early 2000s, I took Turkish language classes with Etem Erol at Columbia University, who died much too young exactly a year ago from a heart attack. Like many progressive-minded Turks, Erol voted for the AKP in the 2002 elections and again in 2007. For him, the charitable work of the Islamists and their seeming willingness to bring the Kurds in out of the cold was reason enough to vote for the party.

Now a ferocious critic of the AKP that he would now have you believe is responsible for much of Syria’s miseries, Stephen Kinzer was of a different mind in 2006 when he praised Turkey’s bid to join the EU and the government’s relaxation of tensions with the Kurds. In a New York Review of Books article dated January 12th, Kinzer quoted a Kurdish writer named Lutfi Baski: “Before, we were afraid to speak out. The government was insisting that there were no Kurds, that there was no Kurdish language or culture. They arrested us and closed our organizations. Now, so much has changed, especially in the last few months. Our problems haven’t been solved, not at all, but at least we can talk about them honestly. It’s a huge difference.”

Not only did much of the left admire Erdoğan for a more enlightened stance toward the Kurds, he appeared to be on our side when it came to the Palestinians. In 2010 the Gaza Freedom Flotilla was an important initiative that had the full support of the AKP. That was the same year as the infamous “low sofa” interview he gave to Israeli television, one in which he was seated far below his interviewer—a sign of disrespect.

Between the time of the article’s publication and today, Turkey’s economy has gone into a steep decline. My friend Ahmet Tonak, who I have interviewed twice on Turkish political developments, had an article “The Turkish economy: worse than a recession” published on MR Online just a couple of weeks ago that confirms that the Turkish voters were in such economic distress that their Islamic beliefs were not deep enough to keep the wedded to the Islamic party. One hopes that this pattern might be repeated in other MENA states as the contradictions that produced the Arab Spring continue to mount.

During the final quarter of 2018, consumption fell by 8.9%. How significant is this? A comparison with corresponding figures reported for the United States during the economic crisis of 2007–2008 is quite revealing. At its worst, American household consumption declined by 3% and 3.7%, respectively, during the third and fourth quarters of 2008. In Turkey, by contrast, the drop during the fourth quarter of 2018 alone was nearly three times as bad as each quarter in the U.S., and more significant than even the two quarters combined. This testifies to the depth of the crisis in Turkey, and the tangible ways in which ordinary people are affected by it. The situation is fast becoming intolerable.

The situation is becoming intolerable? Except for what Bernie Sanders calls the billionaire class, that is true for most of humanity. Hold on to your hats, comrades. The ride will be rocky.

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