Protests in East Ukraine: mostly Russian imperialism

April 11, 2014 at 5:37 pm (AWL, imperialism, posted by JD, protest, reactionay "anti-imperialism", Russia)

Pro-Russian protesters storm the regional administrative building in Kharkiv

Above: pro-Russian protesters storm the regional administration building in Kharkov

By Martin Thomas (at the Workers Liberty website)

On the weekend of 5-6 April pro-Russian crowds staged demonstrations in some cities of eastern Ukraine, and seized public buildings.

In Donetsk the demonstrators echoed events in Crimea by saying that they were constituting a new regional government and would organise a referendum on transferring Donetsk to Russia.

Are these justified protests by Ukraine’s Russian minority, strongest in the east, against Ukrainian chauvinist policies from the new government in Kiev?

Or are they operations fomented by the Russian government, using Russians crossing the border to join the protests, and the east-Ukrainian Russian minority? Operations whose core aim and function is to serve Russian foreign policy, for example by setting up clashes which will give Russian troops an excuse to invade?

The balance of evidence suggests they are mostly the second. The demonstrations do not emerge from a background of growing protest against specific policies and actions by the Kiev government disadvantaging Russian people in eastern Ukraine. Instead, they start immediately by seizing public buildings.

Without question there is a large Russian minority in eastern Ukraine (over 30% in some districts), and many Russians look to Russia.

Without doubt many in that Russian minority dislike the new government in Kiev. In that sense, an element of the depiction of the demonstrations as protests by an aggrieved minority is correct.

However, the broad historical facts which we know for sure are that Ukraine has been an oppressed nation, and mostly oppressed by Russia (Tsarist or Stalinist) for centuries; that for centuries also, Russians have come to Ukraine as imperial colonisers, Russian has been the language of the better-off and culturally-advantaged in Ukraine, and Ukrainian has been disdained as the “peasant language”; and that Putin’s government, keen to sustain Russia as a great power, has been striving to regain some of the reach of Tsarist and Stalinist imperialism (Chechnya, Georgia).

As contemporary evidence we have a large opinion poll conducted across Ukraine and Crimea on 14-26 March, with its results published on 5 April. The fieldwork was conducted by a Kiev-based agency (the “Rating Group”) and funded by the US Agency for International Development, so some bias can be suspected. However, it’s the evidence we have.

In the poll, only 12% of people in Ukraine and Crimea said “yes” or “to some degree” when asked whether Russian-speaking citizens were under threat. Only 29% of people who considered themselves ethnic Russians reckoned that Russian-speaking citizens were under threat, and only 17% of the population in eastern Ukraine had that view.

17% is a big enough minority to provide a base for spectacular demonstrations when the demonstrators know they have support from a neighbouring great power. It is not a democratic mandate for deciding the future of the area.

Only 13% (in Ukraine and Crimea combined) supported the “decision of the Russian Federation to send its army to protest Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine”. Only 14%, and only 26% in the east, were for the federal set-up in Ukraine which Putin demands.

When asked what should the new Kiev government’s priorities be, the big majority in the east as in the west said it should be tackling economic corruption. Only much smaller percentages mentioned minority rights or decentralisation.

27% of people across Ukraine emphatically did not support the Independence Square protests in Kiev which brought down Yanukovych. However, that 27% was a lower disapproval rating than the 33% recorded in February 2014, before the fall of Yanukovych.

In other words, it is not that people supported the movement against Yanukovych, but have recoiled on seeing the new government. On the contrary, some of those who supported or semi-supported Yanukovych to the end have switched sides after seeing Yanukovych flee to Russia and hearing more revelations about his corruption.

The theory that the overthrow of Yanukovych was produced by a surge of the far-right in Ukraine looks doubtful. The far-right Ukrainian chauvinist party Svoboda scores only 5% in the poll, as against 10% in the last elections; the vicious “Right Sector” group scores 1%.

The poll shows low levels of confidence in the Kiev government everywhere in Ukraine, and especially in the east. 50% expressed disapproval of the job the Parliament is doing, and 73% in the east.

That percentage, however, should be compared with 80% across the whole of Ukraine and Crimea who expressed disapproval of the job that Parliament was doing under Yanukovych, in September 2013.

It was not that Ukraine was jogging along fine under Russian hegemony until a far-right pro-EU conspiracy spoiled things. Rather, that the majority of Ukrainians resent both Russian aspirations to dominate, and the rule of Ukrainian oligarchs whether pro-Russian or Ukrainian-nationalist, and rightly doubt that the fall of Yanukovych has changed much about the oligarchic corruption.

The three principles on which Solidarity bases our attitude about Ukraine are:

• Ukraine is a nation historically oppressed by Russia which has the right to national self-determination. Russians living in Ukraine should enjoy democratic minority rights, but their rights cannot cancel the right to self-determination of the whole Ukrainian nation.

• We do not endorse the trade deal which the EU has got Ukraine to sign, and we demand that the Western governments give Ukraine real aid by cancelling its crippling debt to Western banks. But the immediate threat to Ukrainian political self-determination comes from Russia, invading Crimea, massing troops on Ukraine’s border, fomenting small coups in east-Ukrainian cities, and demanding Ukraine fit its constitution to Russian wishes.

• The oligarchs offer Ukraine a bleak, unequal future even if Ukraine manages to conserve its independence. Socialists internationally should back the Ukrainian left and labour movement in its efforts to create a force which can win real victories for the social demands which fuelled the Independence Square protests.

Such a force would provide a solid basis for uniting all workers in Ukraine, Ukrainian-speaking and Russian-speaking, “ethnic”-Ukrainian and “ethnic”-Russian, west and east.


  1. Protests in East Ukraine: mostly Russian imperialism | OzHouse said,

    […] Apr 11 2014 by admin […]

  2. prianikoff said,

    An interview with Sergei Kirichuk of “Borotba” on 11th April 2014
    (from “Rabkor – freely translated from Russian)
    Is it possible to highlight the Southeast’s most active center, the capital of the resistance?

    I would not single out one of the cities. The situation in each of them is different, and each city has its own specifics.
    Odessa was alone, in Lughansk and Donetsk, people held the regional administration building, and built barricades.
    In Kharkov the administration is now occupied by special forces. … the Kharkov police sided with the people and offered no resistance. Therefore, to suppress the popular uprising, police were brought in from Poltava and Sumy. They are still in the city.

    Who is protesting in Kharkov?
    Most people are peaceful protestors; citizens: students, workers and pensioners. Many of them have never participated in the protests before and are not members of political parties or movements. For many, it is their first time at a protest. It was a reaction to what is happening in Kiev and the policies pursued by the “Junta”
    There are, of course, also activists from “Borotba”, and the Communist Party, and many other organizations, among them pro-Russian activists.

    I would like to emphasize that this movement has two factions, two powerful currents:

    Firstly, those people people focused on Russia, who give priority to cooperation with Russia.
    The second fraction – the part we represent, is anti-oligarchic and anti-capitalist
    The latter want to overthrow the power of the oligarchic clans that run the country.
    This position has very strong support here in Kharkov and in the Kharkov region.

    Some protestors demonstrate under red flags, others under the Russian flag.
    But we don’t believe that those who wave Russian flags are “separatists”
    They want protection. They watch TV and the Ukrainian news – Russian (cable) TV is now being blocked – and they see the far-right groups, the activists who surrounded the Ukrainian parliament with guns…..
    Of course, they want someone to protect them against all this.
    Under the circumstances, we sympathise with this sentiment.
    But we are consistent with the position that Ukraine should remain united.

    In order to preserve this unity we have to respect the rights of the people of South-East and change anti-people policies of the government of Kiev. In the end this means changing the power in Kiev.
    What are the minimum and maximum programmes of the protesters and, in particular, “Borotba.”

    I will not go into the “maximum programme”, but can tell you what our demands are in the ” here and now” –
    Autonomy for the Southeast, a referendum on autonomy, decentralization of power, an elected governor, county executives, judges and prosecutors, with the right to recall them at any time if they fail in their duties.

    The second requirement is linguistic equality, with the right for all citizens to receive education and communications in their native language.

    The third requirement is non-aligned status for Ukraine, no membership of any military-political alliances.

    With the passage of time and in the course of this struggle, the fourth requirement is removal from power of the oligarchy -the richest people running the country.

    These are the requirements set forth by the people of South-East in different forms and are repeated by all the political parties and movements involved in the protests. These are very heterogeneous, but this platform unites people in the Kharkov area.

    How did the South Eastern protests begin?
    It happened in late February – early March, when neo-Nazi groups and right-wing organizations tried to destroy Lenin monuments throughout the country. These antics were met by timid resistance in many cities
    In Kharkov, too, was an attempt to overthrow Lenin monuments. Fortunately, it did not succeed, because it is a huge 50-meter high statue and technically not easy to topple.

    Activists in Kharkov then pitched a tent camp and installed barricades to protect the monument. Many had professed leftist-communist views. But not all.
    Many just came to protest, and for them it was a very important symbolic action.
    They were not supporters of Lenin’s ideas, but nevertheless rejected the right-wing views of those who had came to power , particularly the Svoboda “Freedom” and Batkivshchyna “Fatherland” parties.

    The Southeastern resistance began with the defence of the Lenin Monuments and absolutely did not involve any separatism.
    People want to protect themselves, their city, their families from the extreme right-wing government. Everyone was very concerned that this government, by feverishly seeking money from the International Monetary Fund, would agree to its monstrous 10-point plan, which involves the reduction of social benefits, freezing pensions and salaries, reducing benefits, increasing gas prices and utility tariffs.
    In general, measures that would lead to the impoverishment of the people.
    When people realized that this plan would be implemented, they rose up to fight. Once this struggle began, all the Ukrainian media, which has a very one-sided coverage of the situation, accused the movement of being separatist thugs “titushek” and alleged they were all from Russia.

    But among the 64 people who were detained after the storming of the regional administration, ALL of them were residents of Kharkov and the Kharkov region. Not only were there NO Russian citizens amongst them, but NO residents of other Ukrainian regions!
    It is a struggle of residents of South-East for their rights, their dignity, and their social, economic and political needs.

    Does the resistance in Kharkov envisage the possibility of negotiations with the current government?

    I think the Southeast is ready to negotiate. But, unfortunately, such negotiations have been made impossible by the so-called President Turchynov and Prime Minister Yatsenuk.
    Instead of meeting with protest groups, to develop administrative reforms, giving more powers to the regions over budgets and cultural and linguistic equality, they have sent their special forces here, arresting people and trying to silence pockets of resistance.
    In our view, this is an absolutely silly position, which is leading to the division of the country.
    In fact they are real seperatists, not us. Today the government in Kiev shows a complete inability to engage in a political dialogue.

    Is it possible to recognise the upcoming elections in the South-East?
    No. I don’t think that these elections will be recognized by the people of the South-East.
    A number of political movements, including “Borotba” demanded:
    “No election without a referendum.”
    That is, no elections without the possibility of the people of South-East defending their rights, including the right to choose.

    We do not believe in elections at gunpoint.
    Nor do we believe in elections held under the diktat of neo-Nazi groups.
    For example, the office of the Communist Party of Ukraine was captured by group C14, a group, which is close to “Svoboda” and some of their members were abducted.
    So even opposition party offices can’t operate freely.
    Given these conditions, how can you can go to the polls?

    We are very critical of all the candidates, who are counting on the support of the South-East. We believe their desire of Peter Simonenko (the Communist Party of Ukraine’s leader), Oleg Tsarev (Party of Regions) and Mikhail Dobkin (Ukrainian Front- the former Mayor of Kharkov)” to run is a serious mistake.

    In addition, we have every reason to believe that nothing good will come from these politicians of the older generation, who are associated with the oligarchy, .
    In general, it’s most likely that conscious people in the South East will boycott the coming elections
    How are ordinary residents of the western regions of the country responding to what is happening in the South-East?

    Many are victims of propaganda, because every day the Ukrainian media show them that are bandits and separatists have come from Russia. Of course, people are disoriented. They think that all this is true, and many demand drastic repression.
    But I believe that in the thinking part of the population in the West Ukraine, especially in the centre of the country, there are many of those who sympathize with this movement and understand that it is not a separatist movement, but directed against the oligarchy, against inequality and injustice.

    Are the actions of the protest groups in different cities of South-East coordinated?
    There are links between Lughansk, Odessa and Donetsk. Borotba is active in Odessa and Donetsk “.
    With each passing day, this coordination increases.
    The authorities are trying to weaken us with repression. But I hope people will not falter, and eventually we will win. We will win anyway, because no matter how sophisticated weapons they did not have, we have the most important thing – the power of our ideas, the strength of our views. And I think that we will win.

  3. Rilke said,

    ‘Mostly’? This is probably the word used to allow a ‘get-out’ from the obvious observation that the leading article is full of Russophobic rhetoric and anti-Slav sentiment. ‘Mostly’, applies to ‘most ‘Russians’, or perhaps ‘most of their attitudes and political dispositions? Are they ‘mostly’ inclined towards ‘despotism’ as good British liberals used to say in the 19th? Are the Ukrainian Russian speakers no longer ‘mostly’ Ukrainian and now just Russians and therefore foreign ‘wreckers’ and ‘mostly’ just Russian ‘imperialist’ agents?
    It used to sound cool just to mouth the phrases ‘Russian imperialism’ and ‘Stalinist oppression’ at every poltical situation in the East, but things get more complicated and this article reads as the ramblings of an over-aged ultra leftist bar room bore doing a rather unappealing Gerry Healy impression.
    Stay away from the kids and grow up!

    • Jim Denham said,

      I should have thought that it was obvious to even the most meagre intellect, what the word “mostly” means in this context: ie that there is undeniably a degree of genuine and spontaneous grass-roots support for the protests, but overwhelmingly they’re the result of Russian imperialist manipulation. Serious politics is all about making such judgements.

  4. Rilke said,

    Yes,you are surely correct Jim, the meanings of words are just ‘obvious’ and all is explained by the mystical ‘context’ so beloved of those that do not understand the way language works or in fact do not speak any other language than their own. Or at least ‘mostly’ so!
    It may also be that as with Freud’s parapraxis, the slippages, omissions and tensions in our language use betray certain underlying prejudices and phobias. Interesting thought that don’t you think? Mind you, in the end all that Freudian and language philosophy rubbish trembles before the fiery intellect of those that have read bluffers guides to Trotsky but forgot to read the Grundrisse!
    Man, you have to admit it is hilarious!

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