UKRAINE – Popular movements and imperialisms

This is an edited version of the resolution adopted at the meeting of the Fourth International Bureau on 7 June 2014. The original can be viewed at


The deep political crisis experienced by Ukraine since November 2013 is far from over. After national oppression by Poland and Russia, the process of national formation is incomplete and the nation-state fragile. This is made more difficult because the country is caught between Russian imperialist pressure and that of the Euro-Atlantic powers, and subject to the socially fragmenting impact of neo-liberalism.

1. From Maidan to the provisional government: a powerful popular mobilization

For three months from November 21, 2013 to February 22, 2014, tens of thousands (and on some days hundreds of thousands) of people gathered in the centre of Kiev, on the Place (“Maidan”) of Independence. It was the repression of the first protesters (“pro-European” and defending national independence) that gave the movement its massive size by late 2013, combined with the hope of well-being, rejection of corruption, democracy and national sovereignty ideally associated with “Europe”.

In February the IC resolution stressed the characteristics of this movement, which, “presented a combination of revolutionary (democratic, anti-elitist, self- organized) and reactionary elements – the overall outcome was and remains a question of political and social struggle. Those features are also deeply rooted in the current character of the present post-soviet Ukrainian society that is atomized, without any class identity, with the degradation of education and hegemony of reactionary nationalist ideas in society, combined with a legitimate commitment to national independence and the dramatic legacy of Stalinism.”

We can specify the weaknesses and limitations of Maidan as follows:

Despite its duration, the main forms of self-organization that emerged remained limited: above all its construction and maintenance, the defence of this rebel city of tents and barricades in the middle of winter, the organization of supplies and of health services, teams that occupied administrative buildings, a student assembly that imposed the transparency of the budget for education. “Sotnia” (companies) for self-defence were formed, of which a minority were controlled by political organizations present in the Maidan.

The movement never had any “representation” or elected spokespersons. This facilitated its exploitation by the political parties of the opposition, including the far right party Svoboda, ranked among the “pro-Europeans”, speaking in the name of “Euromaidan”, particularly abroad.

The small groups of the extreme nationalist right (Pravyi Sektor and so on) vying with Svoboda, played a role in the self-defence of the movement. Their “visibility” and their attacks against left-wing activists have been used to discredit the whole of Maidan, notably by the Russian government and media, and later by anti-Maidan components identifying with the left.

Finally, although very diverse and sensitive to social issues such as opposition to the confiscation of public goods, corruption and inequality, the movement has not expressed social demands; it has done little to mobilize the industrial working class, and despite a few exceptions, also the regions in the east and the south-east. If strike calls launched by the independent trade unions have not been supported, the same is true of attempts at workers’ mobilizations against Maidan.

Taking into account the initial “pro-EU” themes, the predominantly organized forces of the right and fascist aggression, the very weak Ukrainian left, faced with Maidan and in Maidan. has been divided. In addition to the various anarchist groups, the Socialist Movement – Left Opposition has chosen to intervene, to oppose right and extreme right ideas, because of the social and mass democratic aspirations of the movement. By way of contrast, the organization “Borotba” (Struggle) remained outside the movement, denouncing it globally as reactionary. Located on the “left” by its label, and its social discourse, the Ukrainian CP, very much involved in the oligarchic privatizations, has sought to distinguish itself from the Party of Regions by proposing a referendum on the agreement with the EU; but it was discredited by its vote for the February laws criminalizing all protesters, and like Borotba it has disseminated the thesis of the “Nazi putsch”.

In total, while taking more distance from the parties than was the case in the “Orange Revolution” of 2004, Maidan especially mobilized in the regions of the west and the centre of the country, more oriented to the EU; if it was expressing social and democratic aspirations shared across the entire country, its only “programme” was the fall of Yanukovych.


2. The fall of Yanukovych: a popular victory confiscated and a right wing government, not a “fascist putsch”.

The fall of Yanukovych has dismembered the Party of the Regions, which under his presidency had become the main instrument of the power of the oligarchy, and whose base was located in eastern Ukraine, where the Ukrainian oligarchy emerged and developed in the great industrial corporations fraudulently privatized during the capitalist restoration in the early 1990s. This party had strong electoral support because of the social relations of domination. The implosion of the Party of the Regions, which became during the presidency of Yanukovych the structural instrument of his regime, as well as the dissolution of the special forces of repression, “Berkout”, weakened the Ukrainian state, depriving it of an important part of its structures of domination.

Although the crowd of Maidan had accepted all the ministers of the new government, the movement was largely demobilized after the establishment of the provisional government.

The fall of Yanukovych was the victory of a quasi-insurrectionary movement, and not the deed of a “fascist anti-Russian putsch supported by the west”. Even if Yanukovych came to power in 2010 through elections recognized as legitimate, he was responsible for his own downfall: he is deeply discredited, including in his region of origin, the Donbas, by years of oligarchic personal and familial enrichment while the country is impoverished. Even his unexpected refusal in November to sign the agreement with the EU has illustrated the presidential drift of a regime less and less controlled even by his own party and parliament. His fall was catalysed by the repression and the dead of Maidan. In view of the disputes on the responsibility for these deaths, the government in Kiev has appealed to the International Criminal Court (ICC), on April 25 to investigate the events from November 21, 2013 to February 22, 2014.

It was the parliament itself which voted with a very large majority for the dismissal of the president after his escape, and which designated the provisional government. The latter largely reflects the compromise, supported by Western diplomats, which had been negotiated with Yanukovych before he fled. After having explicitly supported all “pro-European” parties, including Svoboda, the European governments have been embarrassed by the extreme right. Svoboda has sought to make itself more “respectable”, toning down its anti-Semitic discourse and its celebration of the SS Galizien Division. In parallel, the minister of the interior, who has been asked by the European Parliament to disarm the private militias, is in a tense relationship with Pravyi Sektor.

If the government is not “neo-Nazi” it is nevertheless true – and not trivial – that the extreme right party “Svoboda” has several powerful positions within it: four ministries reduced to three since, March 25, when its Minister of Defence, Admiral Ihor Tenyukh, regarded as “inactive” in the face of the events in the Crimea, was “dismissed”, as well as the post of attorney general. Andriy Parubiy, secretary of the Council for National Security and Defence, is sometimes also listed as a member of Svoboda. He was one of the founders, in 1991, of the “Social Nationalist Party of Ukraine” which took the name of Svoboda in 2004. But he left this organization ten years ago and since 2012 has been a member of “Batkivshchyna” (“Homeland”) led by Yulia Tymoshenko.

It is this formation that dominates this neo-liberal government. It has appointed oligarchs to posts as governors of regions and has put in place the measures required by the IMF. These include an increase of 50% in the price of gas, a freeze on wages and recruitment in the public sector, a reduction of pensions and social expenditure, increases in VAT. The first measure taken by the new parliamentary majority, the repeal of the 2012 law on languages has not been ratified by the acting president. This law had been adopted by a minority of the members of parliament and was considered as an indication of the “presidential” character of the regime. But in the context of a denunciation of the new regime as “anti–Russian” including by Moscow, the effect has been disastrous in the Russian-speaking regions. The Russian aggression in the Crimea is presented as a response to such a policy.

The 25 May election carried the oligarch Petro Poroshenkoto to the presidency of the Republic – with 54.7% of the votes, and a participation of 60.3%, although this latter figure is undoubtedly an over-estimation[1].

This election, taking place against a background of tensions that diverted the social questions, nevertheless expressed a popular desire to give Ukraine a sovereign representation. At the same time it buried the fundamental political demands expressed by Maidan – a radical cleansing of the police and State apparatus, the fight against corruption, the separation of big capital from direct political power. Never in the modern history of Ukraine has big business been so directly involved in the management of the country: almost all those who figure in the Forbes list of the richest Ukrainians are today in high-ranking posts in the executive.

3. Annexation of the Crimea

The Crimea, a gift of Khrushchev to Ukraine in 1954, had acquired in 1993 a special status as an autonomous republic within independent Ukraine. Twelve percent of its population includes Tatars formerly deported by Stalin and having returned since 1991. Its main city, Sevastopol, has a separate status as a naval base which houses the former Russian Black Sea fleet, in accordance with a 1997 “peace and friendship” treaty.

Moscow had obtained from Viktor Yanukovych an extension of the lease, under which it leased the base to the Ukraine, in return for an agreement on energy tariffs and the debt, which was settled in December 2013. Putin exploited the fall of Yanukovych to unilaterally challenge all these agreements, by annexing the Crimea. But it was the argument of the “Russian minorities”, threatened by a “fascist putsch”, that was put forward in the vote by the Duma in favour of the employment of Russian armed forces in Ukraine. That is why this thesis plays an essential role in the propaganda. In the posters for the plebiscite that was held under military deployment and without access to Ukrainian media, Ukraine was marked with a swastika.

Moscow has stated that 97% of voters voted yes, with a participation of 86% – figures very far from those provided by the Russian Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights: “According to various sources, in Crimea 50-60% voted for joining Russia, with the total turnout of 30-50%”. The exodus of Tatars out of Crimea has resumed, and their fate is uncertain. But on 20 March the treaty, incorporating the Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol in the Federal Republic of Russia was ratified by the Russian Duma.

Behaving like a super-power, Putin has stifled domestic critics by encouraging a nostalgic Great Russian chauvinism for all of “little Russia”, at the risk of a conflagration in the Ukraine. As was long the practice in Stalinist propaganda, to be Ukrainian (or Tatar) now means being (pro) Nazi and “anti-Russian”. This finds its counterpart in the ultra-nationalist propaganda where to be “Russian” means being “anti-Ukrainian” or “Bolshevik”. The real political, social and geo-strategic conflicts are thus hidden.

4. The “Anti-Maidan” faced with an unpopular government

In any event, the eastern and south-eastern regions of Ukraine are not the Crimea. Unlike the latter, they had voted massively for the independence of Ukraine in 1991. Until recently opinion polls showed that they remained predominantly attached to this, in spite of their political mistrust of Kiev. Favouring linguistic pluralism, and even a form of decentralization, or again wanting to keep the links with Russia (hoping notably for better energy prices), or being nostalgic for the USSR does not have a secessionist logic. Even if it is presented as a protector the Putin regime is not attractive and the policies applied in Russia near Donbas have removed much of the state aid which is still massive in Ukrainian industry. But the policies conducted by Kiev cause concern, even if jobs are as much threatened by insertion into Russia rather than into the EU or submission to the IMF. The popular choices are therefore uncertain and concerns are quickly exploited.

The self-proclaimed “popular republics” of Donetsk and Lugansk, exploit mistrust of Kiev. But they have broadly been reduced to para-military apparatuses or bring together former members of the Ukrainian state apparatus, criminals of all sorts, military personnel from Chechnya, members of the Russian security forces, or ordinary Ukrainians. There is nothing that promotes a real popular mobilization, in a situation, which is increasingly chaotic after clashes the outcome of which are difficult to assess.

The tragedy of the fire in the trade union centre in Odessa[2] on May 2 marked a radicalization of the “anti-Maidan” propaganda that described it as a “new Oradour[3]” under a “Nazi state” in Kiev. If this interpretation is challenged there are accusations of “callous indifference”.

The anti-Maidan has not produced any mass mobilisations beyond a few thousand protesters, in a highly populated area. It is difficult to include the thousands of voters in the plebiscites of May 11 in favour of the “popular republics”. Without doubt these have been in part a protest demonstration against Kiev and a vote forced by the militias, the same ones who on May 25 banned participation in the presidential election. Massive strikes have taken place, especially in Krasnodon, but they were on wage claims and the workers have rejected the political manipulation of the “pro” or “anti” Maidan candidates. Other more recent strikes among the miners are against the “anti-terrorist” actions taken by Kiev, denouncing the risks of the bombing for the mines.

Even if we can denounce the hypocrisy of Putin when calling for dialogue, which he rarely practices at home, or when denying that there is any external intervention, this does not take the form of a military invasion. The violence of the armed “anti-Kiev” militias, blocking any dialogue, certainly requires an adequate response. But such a response should rely on the democratic and peaceful aspirations of the people. And the defence of the unity of the country implies answers other than military ones. Even if it is difficult to accept all the false propaganda, it is certainly true that the operations launched by Kiev were ineffective in ending the chaos and unable to earn the trust of the people. This is something that Putin intends to exploit.

5. Russia’s imperial policy

After its marginalization in 1989, since 2008 Russia has sought to reaffirm itself as a great power by playing on imperialist contradictions. The dismantling of the USSR and the restoration of capitalism in Russia was reflected in the Yeltsin period of 1990 by a plundering of wealth by oligarchic, quasi-feudal fiefdoms controlling the state. The Community of Independent States (CIS) had little reality in this period. Yeltsin’s Russian state lost its internal power, including its ability to collect taxes, and external power in spite of its dirty war in Chechnya. The integration of Russia in the “G8” did not fool anyone about its actual strength.

The initial result of the Putin era in 2000 was the restoration of a strong internal state, incorporating the control of oligarchs and exports, following the payments crisis of 1998, especially in the oil and gas sector. This was accompanied by a “managed democracy”, with a tight control of elections and the major media, and repressing protests while at the same time the old social protection was being dismantled. The resumption of strong growth has been accompanied by the internationalisation of the economic and financial presence of the Russian oligarchs, as well as several attempts by Moscow to create around Russia a more integrated economic “space” than that of the CIS.

Especially since 2011the Russian regime has tried to transform the Customs Union already put in place with Belarus and Kazakhstan (which Armenia has joined), in a project of “Eurasia” for 2015 directed also at Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and even Georgia and Moldova. In particular it has used the weapon of the gas tariffs, offering them an alternative to the “Eastern Partnership” with the EU. The challenge for Russia is to compete with China and Western capital but also to counter attempts at incorporation of its “close neighbours” in the Euro-Atlantic institutions, the EU and NATO.

Russia also exploits the dependencies and “partnerships” that the big imperialist powers have established with it, such as the “fight against terrorism” or the management of the Syrian crisis. It takes advantage of the crisis of these powers, but it suffers also because of its own dependencies, which it is endeavouring to mitigate with the deepening of its relations with China.

The Russian coup in Crimea was reliant on the apparatus of Yanukovych and on the extreme “Eurasian” right to establish a new relationship of forces in international negotiations. But it is not certain that Putin controls the separatist forces of Ukraine and the dynamic carries dangers beyond the short-term gains: Azerbaijan has joined the criticism against the annexation of the Crimea which is not reassuring for the neighbours with which Moscow would like to associate.

6. Western imperialisms

Gorbachev accepted the fall of the Berlin Wall, in the context of “Soviet disengagement”: lowering the cost of the arms race and winning Western credits were his priority. In the negotiations undertaken in Germany, he had advocated the dissolution of the two military blocs. He then had to accept the entry of the reunited Germany into NATO, in return for the commitment by the United States that no foreign troops or weapons would be stationed in the East and that NATO would not extend further.

But US imperialism made the choice to expand NATO to Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic in 1999, Bulgaria, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia in 2004, as well as Albania and Croatia in 2009.

And the “pro-Western” forces of the “coloured revolutions” in Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004), heavily supported by the United States, had called for their integration into NATO and the EU. The latter was however divided with regard to relations with Russia. As can be seen by the direct links that Germany (or Italy) had preferred to build with Moscow for oil supply.

In 2009, the Polish leaders, supported by Sweden, advocated an “Eastern Partnership” of the EU. In the absence of new enlargements, this amounted to a “thorough and comprehensive free-trade” agreement with all the former countries of the ex-USSR bordering the EU, including Ukraine. Russia reacted with the “Eurasia project”, which offered to the same countries the objective of a redefinition of continental relations, where Russia would be a dominant pole, but also a counter-weight to the demands of the EU.

With his country of the brink of cessation of payments, Yanukovych, under pressure from Russia and the IMF, negotiated the agreements with the EU until 2013. He asked for tripartite meetings between Ukraine, Russia and the EU, which were refused. Today, the Western imperialist states seek an agreement with Russia, in spite of all the big speeches. None of them, any more than the government in Kiev, can control the clashes on the ground, which could degenerate into a real civil war.

7. Sovereignty of Ukraine

The unity of Ukraine requires military neutrality, the withdrawal of Russian troops, and the rejection of anti-social policies.

Only a Ukrainian and international anti-war and anti-fascist front, based on popular support against the reactionary forces of every kind, can win the unity of Ukraine, defend social and national rights and oppose violence against the diktats of Russian and Western imperialist.

These are the objectives that the progressive forces of Russia and the EU will defend against the IMF and the “free trade” agreements, a recognition of the right of the Ukrainian people to decide on its international links.

The national question is at the centre of political activity in Ukraine. As the Left Opposition put it: “the national and cultural renaissance of the Ukrainian nation and other nations of our country is not possible without the social problems being resolved”. In Ukraine, a left that leaves the national question to the nationalists will condemn itself to failure in advance. In the nationalist camp there are already currents emerging that are taking advantage of the marginality of the socialist left, and wish to appear in the eyes of workers as an alternative to capitalism.



[1] Tadeusz A. Olszanski and Agata Wierzbowska-Miazga of Warsaw  note ( that in the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk, where the pro-Russian “militia” did everything to prevent the vote, it takes into account only the registered voters in polling stations that opened, that is to say respectively 668 000 out of 3.3 million and 216 000 out of 1.8 million, the participation is 15.4 % in the region of Donetsk and 38.9 % in that of Lugansk, whereas if all registered voters are taken into account participation undoubtedly did not exceed 3 % and 10 % in these two Eastern regions.

[2] The fire at the trade union centre cost the lives of 40 so-called “pro-Russian” activists, including Borotba activists, who barricaded themselves in it following an armed attack on a demonstration for the “unity of Ukraine which had left 4 dead.

[3] In Oradour-sur-Glane in France, on the10 June 1944, 642 of inhabitants including women and children, were massacred by a German Waffen-SS company.

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1 Comment on UKRAINE – Popular movements and imperialisms

  1. A response to this declaration, examining its underlying assumptions through empirical research done at the time of the Maidan, and the historical period which proceeded it, shows the declaration to have no basis in fact.

    Titled “Which Camp are You In? The Split in the Global Left on Ukraine” can be found here:

    Liam, this is the article to which I had earlier referred.

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