Behind conflict in Ukraine
Dispute over influence in ex-Soviet republic between Moscow, imperialist powers
BY MICHAEL ITALIE
Thousands of protesters took to the streets in Ukraine to support competing presidential candidates following the November 21 election, which was marked by widespread allegations of fraud. Mass demonstrations by backers of Viktor Yushchenko, a former prime minister, have predominated in Kiev, the capital. Rallies backing the current prime minister, Viktor Yanukovich, have been centered in Donetz and other eastern sections of the former Soviet republic.
Behind the developing crisis is a dispute among the ruling layers over the extent of ties with Moscow or Washington.
Moscow, which is backing the current regime, is trying to slow down the establishment of governments in former Soviet republics on Russia’s borders that are more subservient to Washington and other imperialist powers. Ukraine, which has a large Russian-speaking population, has maintained substantial economic and military ties with Russia since declaring independence in 1991. Both historic and recent ties with Russia make Ukraine more important to Moscow than other former Soviet republics—from the Baltics to the Caucasus.
Discontent among working people with deteriorating economic conditions is also a factor in the current conflict. Decades of Stalinist misrule followed by efforts to reestablish capitalism over the last decade have brought an economic catastrophe that has devastated living standards. The republic’s economy contracted sharply in the 1990s and inflation has remained in double digits in recent years.
The national electoral council announced Yanukovich the winner November 24 by a 49.5 percent to 46.6 percent margin. This sparked the first round of antigovernment protests. The supreme court then blocked the final publication of the election results. On November 27, the parliament declared the vote invalid in a nonbinding resolution.
Two days later, outgoing Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma called for new elections to settle the dispute, and Yanukovich said he supported the proposal. Yushchenko, however, indicated new elections would not be enough. “The election was falsified,” he said. “As long as this problem is not solved, all other problems are secondary.”
Yanukovich, who had the backing of Kuchma, promised closer ties with Moscow. Russian president Vladimir Putin officially congratulated Yanukovich the day of the electoral council’s announcement. At the same time, the Kuchma-Yanukovich government was active in the U.S.-led NATO’s Partnership for Peace and sent 1,500 troops to Iraq as part of Washington’s “coalition of the willing.”
Yushchenko differs with the current regime in calling for more rapid moves toward membership in NATO and the European Union (EU). He has also called for the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from Iraq.
Washington and other imperialist powers have sided with the opposition in its claims of electoral fraud. The U.S. government is trying to position itself to gain greater influence in this republic of 48 million bordering Russia, the Black Sea, and the Caucasus region.
“We cannot accept this result as legitimate because it does not meet international standards,” said U.S. secretary of state Colin Powell, the day of the electoral council announcement.
“The validity of the elections [are] in doubt,” said U.S. president George Bush.
U.S. officials raised the possibility of sanctions against Kiev, including cuts in Washington’s $140 million in annual aid.
On the eve of the election, an Associated Press dispatch described the economy of Ukraine as a “mix of audacious consumption and entrenched poverty.” The candidates competed with each other over who could promise more jobs, and higher wages and pensions.
Efforts by the government of the newly independent country in 1991 to privatize the economy and reestablish capitalism spelt ruin for working people in a republic that had been considered the “breadbasket” of the former Soviet Union. Although privatization has now reached as high as three-quarters of the industrial sector, it is centered in light industry, food processing, pulp and paper, and woodworking, and accounts for 60 percent of industrial output.
The “Mass Privatization Program” began in 1995 through the distribution of “privatization certificates.” It quickly became a bonanza for those in the ruling caste in high managerial positions who bought up the vouchers at a fraction of their stated value from working people desperate for cash.
Between 1991 and 1999 the gross domestic product in Ukraine fell by 60 percent, and has only begun to recover in recent years. Hyperinflation that reached 10,000 percent in the early 1990s wiped out whatever savings working people or the middle classes had been able to put away, and real wages declined by 63 percent during the same period.
An indication of the deteriorating social conditions in Ukraine is the lowering of the life expectancy rate, which fell from 70.5 years in 1990 to 67.9 years in 2000. The relative change among men and women is even more dramatic, with men on average living 11.2 years less.
While the GDP has increased over the last few years, inflation continues to hit working people hard, with the rate expected to reach double digits this year and next.
The economic decline of the last 14 years was preceded by decades of misrule by a privileged bureaucracy under the domination of the Stalinist rulers in Moscow.
The Russian Revolution of October 1917, under the leadership of V.I. Lenin and the Bolsheviks, gave an impulse to revolutionary uprisings throughout the old tsarist empire. The communist leadership began to forge a voluntary federation of the various republics organized on the basis of soviet power—both where working people had overthrown capitalism (as in Russia and Ukraine), as well as where that could not yet be accomplished but revolutionary workers and peasants governments had come to power (as in most of the Central Asian and Transcaucasian republics).
A bureaucracy in Kiev and Moscow came to power in the 1920s through the brutal suppression of workers and farmers and the destruction of the Bolshevik character of the Communist Parties of Ukraine and Russia.
In 1929 the Stalinist bureaucracy began a half-decade of forced collectivization of agriculture. Under the banner of financing rapid industrialization, Moscow devastated Soviet agriculture and destroyed the basis for the worker-peasant alliance that had made the revolution.
The results of forced collectivization in Ukraine were doubly brutal because the Stalinist rulers were also aiming to crush any nationalist aspirations among the Ukrainian people. The bureaucracy’s policy in the countryside produced a famine that killed several million Ukrainians in 1932-33.
More recently, Ukrainian workers and farmers learned to hate the misrule of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Chernobyl nuclear plant meltdown in 1986. Years of disregard for safety measures resulted in the worst nuclear disaster in history, which released 200 times the radioactivity of Washington’s 1945 atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.
More than 125,000 people in Ukraine and neighboring Belarus died in the disaster, and the United Nations estimates 9 million people in the area suffer from the effects of the radiation.
Both Yanukovich and Yushchenko come from the privileged bureaucratic caste that ruled Ukraine when it was part of the former Soviet Union. Yanukovich was a bureaucrat in the coal industry in the eastern region and Yushchenko in the banking system. They each served terms as prime minister during the presidency of Kuchma, who directed the regime in Kiev toward closer collaboration with Washington and other imperialist powers, while maintaining ties with Moscow.
Kiev joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) in 1994 and has participated in more than 200 of its training exercises. The Ukrainian government hosts the annual PfP training at a military base in western Ukraine. In May 2002 it formally announced its intention of seeking NATO membership. Six months later, Yanukovich, who criticized Yushchenko as “pro-West,” took office as prime minister.
The 1,500 Ukrainian troops stationed in Iraq represent the largest contingent from a non-NATO country. They are based in the sector under Polish command. Their deployment builds on years of cooperation in the Ukrainian-Polish Peacekeeping battalion (Urkpolbat) promoted by Washington and NATO. Urkpolbat has been based in Kosova since July 2000, aiding the imperialist occupation forces in the Balkans.
Kiev has also deployed troops to Afghanistan to join the U.S.-led “war on terrorism” there.
EU membership? No way
While Kiev seeks to increase collaboration with imperialism, which in turn wishes to draw Ukraine further away from Moscow, the European Union shows no interest in bringing Ukraine into EU membership.
The Polish government, which joined the EU in May of this year, is leading the campaign for Ukrainian membership. But Paris, Berlin, and others that dominate the alliance have kept Kiev at arm’s length. In 2002 the president of the European Commission said Ukraine had about as much of a chance of being admitted into the EU as New Zealand. The EU’s official European Neighborhood Policy, whose goal is to create “a ring of friends” around its borders, places Ukraine on the same level as Tunisia, Jordan, and Morocco.
The leading imperialist powers in the EU oppose entry for Ukraine for the same reason they have pushed off Turkey’s possible admission into the distant future: it has an underdeveloped economy and a population larger than many current EU members. The rulers of France and Germany do not wish to provide any subsidies for Ukrainian agriculture.
Mass protests in Kiev began November 22 once the official results appeared to give the election to Yanukovich. Yushchenko supporters were outraged over what they charged was widespread fraud, especially after he had been declared in the lead, according to exit polls the day of the vote.
The following day Yushchenko took a symbolic oath of office in parliament, even as the electoral commission was about to declare his opponent the winner. The outgoing president called for negotiations between the two contenders for office. According to AP, however, a Yushchenko ally told a crowd November 23, “We are ready to negotiate only about the peaceful handing over of power to Yushchenko by Kuchma.” Protesters have surrounded government buildings and set up a tent camp.
Ties with Moscow threatened
In response to the daily protests of Yushchenko supporters, backers of Yanukovich took to the streets as well. The New York Times correspondent in Kiev reported that hundreds of thousands turned out in eastern Ukraine to back Yanukovich. His support is based in those areas, the more industrial regions of the country. The 17 percent of Ukrainians of Russian descent are concentrated there. Yanukovich himself did not learn the Ukrainian language until taking office as prime minister two years ago.
Officials from the eastern Ukraine voted November 28 to hold a referendum on secession should Yanukovich’s election be overturned. In the eastern city of Severodonetsk, about 3,500 local officials from 17 of Ukraine’s 25 regions met with Yanukovich, the BBC reports. While on the one hand saying he would not support such a move, Yanukovich told the meeting, “There is one step to the edge. When the first drop of blood is spilled, we will not be able to stop it.”
Tens of thousands rallied in Donetsk the day before for a referendum on autonomy, and 3,000 gathered in the Black Sea port of Odessa threatening to declare independence if Yushchenko becomes president.
Washington seeks to exploit the political crisis to increase its influence in a region once under the domination of Moscow. Under pressure from Washington, Berlin, and other imperialist powers, Russian officials have backed off from their announcement that Yanukovich was the winner of the presidential election, and stated they would consider a new election as a means out of the crisis.
Moscow refers to Ukraine as part of its “near abroad,” those former Soviet republics that remain under its influence. Ukraine is of special importance because of the role it played as “breadbasket” to the former Soviet Union, providing a large portion of its agricultural needs. It is also rich in iron ore and coal, and supplied much of the USSR’s heavy industry.
An article in the November 25 Economist said that “Ukraine is the key battleground for influence between the EU and Russia.”
Many of the former Soviet republics have joined the U.S.-led NATO alliance, and earlier this year three joined the EU. “Others, such as Romania and Bulgaria, will follow them before long,” the Economist said. “The Union’s new members have toughened visa requirements for Russian visitors and closed their borders to some Russian goods.”
Ukraine is dependent on Russia for about 85 percent of its energy supplies. At the same time, Ukraine is a major transit route for Russian oil and natural gas for export. “A government on bad terms with the Kremlin could choose to increase transit fees, putting a squeeze on Russia’s major source of outside revenue,” noted a November 27 AP dispatch. “It could also choose to use one of its pipelines to carry oil from Caspian countries such as Azerbaijan, rather than Russian oil.”
Earlier this year, Kiev announced it would not carry Russian oil through one pipeline, but reversed itself under pressure from Moscow, according to AP.
The Black Sea port of Sevastopol is home to Russia’s southern naval fleet. The division of the Black Sea fleet after the dissolution of the Soviet Union was a point of contention between Moscow and Kiev. Following years of negotiations, in 1997 an agreement was reached dividing the fleet between the two countries and providing for a 20-year lease to Russia of Sevastopol and other bases on the Black Sea. Under the accord, Moscow can station up to 25,000 troops at these bases, as well as armor, artillery, and military aircraft.
Moscow wants to avoid a situation like the one it faces in Georgia, where it is under pressure to withdraw military units that have been stationed there for decades.