(Burning barricades on the Maidan, Kiev. Picture by Oleg Tandalov.)
[Ilya Budraitskis, the Moscow-based socialist, was interviewed by marx21.de magazine earlier this month about the protests in Ukraine (Die Ukrainer kämpfen für eine bessere Gesellschaft, 19 February). Events have moved quickly since then: the president has fled, the opposition – including fascists – are forming an interim government, while separatist pro-Russian currents are emerging in the east and south, especially Crimea. Ilya’s interview nevertheless includes an important political analysis of the situation – but readers should be warned that it is not an up-to-date report.]
Tens of thousands of Ukrainians are defending the Maidan from the police, risking their lives in the process. Socialist Ilya Budraitskis visited the Maidan in early January – and thinks that the left must do more to get involved the protests.
Ilya, you’re active in Moscow in the Russian Socialist Movement, and you were in Kiev to observe the Ukrainian movement against president Viktor Yanukovych. Why?
We’ve had contacts with the left in Kiev for a while. I went there two weeks ago when the situation reached crisis point and the anti-protest laws were passed, which would have made a police state possible.
How did the movement respond?
It became more radical. First there were huge clashes with the police, with the aim of storming parliament. The protesters put up the well-known huge barricades at the edges of the parliamentary quarter, and there were several deaths.
Was the movement successful?
Yanukovych realised that he wasn’t going to make any progress against the movement by strengthening repression, so he tried bribing them with government jobs. The president even asked the opposition parties to appoint the prime minister. But they had to refuse this because the offer of power was on the condition that protesters leave the streets of Kiev. They weren’t able to persuade the protesters. Opposition leaders were booed on the Maidan after their negotiations with Yanukovych.
What are your impressions of the movement?
People are incredibly determined. They’ve been in Kiev’s central square for two months and they’re still holding it against the police, using four metre high barricades for example.
Many buildings in the area are occupied, including the mayor’s office, the central trade union building and a large exhibition centre. Everywhere there’s self-organised infrastructure for hot food, heating equipment, medical care, information centres, allocation of warm clothing and more. The level of self-organisation is impressive. All this has been set up by ordinary people themselves – not by the political parties.
Are the protesters intimidated?
Not so far. They go through the streets in helmets and with batons, and when they see an isolated police officer, they beat him up. As a result there are no more police in the area. The regime can let the situation turn into civil war, or it can retreat.
What political forces are active?
There is a huge amount of political agitation, almost all of it from right wing and far right groups. They range from the neoliberal opposition parties to the extraparliamentary ultranationalists of the Right Sector.
What is the Right Sector?
It’s an alliance of different extreme right groups setting up military structures. Among them are battle-hardened “ultra” fans of the Dynamo Kiev football team.
How do the protesters react to the extreme right?
For the most part in a positive way. Not because they support their ideology, but because the extreme right – to look at it objectively – are the most courageous part of the movement, they are literally the best fighters. No one goes on the offensive against the police like the extreme right does. However others see them as extremists who put the movement in a bad light.
One of the three opposition parties is Svoboda…
… which is the strongest far right party in the Ukraine, polling 10% at the last elections. Apart from anything else, its rise became possible because Victor Yuschchenko, the previous president, backed nationalism strongly until 2010.
How do you mean?
Well, for example, Yushchenko said that Ukrainians members of the SS during the Second World War were patriots fighting against foreign domination by the Soviet Union.
You can only understand this in the context of Ukrainian nationalism. In the Ukraine there are about 20 statues of Stepan Bandera, the best known SS leader. This far right version of nationalism is part of the mainstream in Ukraine. It’s the basis for the success of parties like Svoboda, which now plays a key role in the Maidan.
So is this a fascist movement?
I think that German socialists, at least, who throw the word “fascist” around, should learn a bit about the history of fascism.
What do you mean by that?
Fascism arose after the First World War as a counter-movement to strong revolutionary communist workers’ movements across large parts of Europe. Fascists had the explicit aim of smashing these workers’ movements and securing the dominance of capital, something the liberal state could not guarantee. They were able to seize power in Italy and Germany, but not in other countries.
In Ukraine in 2014 there is neither a strong workers’ movement, nor a fascist movement that aims to destroy it, nor a state which capital doesn’t trust. The situation is neither about bringing the working class to power, nor about physically destroying the workers’ movement.
So what sort of a movement is this?
The people fighting on the Maidan come from various oppressed classes: workers, the unemployed, the impoverished self-employed, students who won’t be able to get jobs and so on. Their opponent is the state and the political elites. It’s a mistake to call the movement fascist, because the class composition of parties in conflict is quite different.
But there are fascists in the Maidan.
Absolutely. The ideology of the Right Sector is unambiguously fascist. And they are trying to establish their dominance over the mass movement. But so far, fortunately, they haven’t succeeded – because the core of the movement doesn’t have anything to do with fascism.
So what is its core?
I don’t have a name for it. It comes from a post-Soviet society which has been robbed of class consciousness and has no tradition of protest. So movements can take on very different forms – and change their character particularly quickly, moving to the left or to the right.
How did the political character of the movement arise?
Now it has a nationalistic, partly anti-Communist character. This is partly because right wing groups were the best prepared for the situation. But it is also because of the catastrophic role played by Ukraine’s Communist Party.
The Communist Party polled 13% at the last elections.
Yes – and then they found nothing better to do than become a key source of support for Yanukovych’s government. Most Ukrainians associate the left mainly with the Communist Party. And, of all people, Communists in parliament voted for Yanukovych’s anti-protest laws. Without their votes, the laws would have been defeated.
How is that possible?
The Communist Party has been bought by oligarchs from East Ukraine in just the same way as they bought Yanukovych. It openly supports Russian nationalism. Communist politicians speak openly about their good relationship with Kyril I, Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church.
What position do they take towards the Maidan movement?
They criticise the Ukrainian nationalism, but not from a position of internationalism. Rather they put forward Russian chauvinist arguments – and so replace one nationalism with another. I recommend that all left parties in Europe break off contact with the Ukrainian Communist Party. Politics like theirs should not be tolerated.
What are genuine Ukrainian leftists doing?
People on the left hold various opinions about the movement and have done from the start. Some saw it as a far right movement, alien to them, something they shouldn’t take part in. Others have got involved and are trying to influence the political direction of the movement.
That must be hard to do.
There are lots of well-organised far right activists on the Maidan ready to attack socialists. Left activists have had their leaflets and flags seized, and some have been beaten up.
So this is no place for the left?
Yes there is, precisely because of that! Of course we have to take care of our physical safety. But as long as that is guaranteed, we cannot stand by and do nothing while the extreme right establishes political dominance. We cannot hand the movement over to them. We cannot let the right monopolise extraparliamentary politics.
Are you willing to debate with Nazis?
Perhaps with some of them. The main thing is that a large majority of protesters are politically active for the first time – and they are now holding the Maidan against brutal battalions of police. Some 300,000 people took part in the biggest demonstrations in Kiev. The vast majority of them don’t have anything to do with the extreme right.
Why are the ultranationalists such a strong force?
Do you know when a lasting, independent Ukrainian state was established for the first time?
In 1991 – when the Soviet Union collapsed. That’s why patriotic slogans get so much support in Ukraine. That’s why so many Ukrainians think like the inhabitants of a colony 20 years after independence: “The most important thing is that we aren’t controlled by a great power.”
But the movement is strongest in West Ukraine…
… because there’s not just a class divide in Ukraine, but also a strong division on economic and cultural levels. In the eastern half of Ukraine most people speak Russian as a mother tongue, at work, in school. Even Vitali Klitschko’s mother tongue is Russian – he speaks Ukrainian with a strong accent.
And in the western half?
People there speak mainly Ukrainian. This is one of the poorest countries in Europe, and more people are clearly poor or unemployed in the western part than in eastern industrial areas around Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk. West Ukrainians migrate to the Czech Republic and Poland because pay there is significantly higher than at home.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is led by the Kiev patriarchate in the West. It split from the main church in 1991 and its priests now speak from the stage at the Maidan. In the east, by contrast, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church led by the Moscow patriarchate has most support – and its priests are normally on the side of Yanukovych.
What significance does this have for the movement?
In the West, 99 percent of people support the protests. People have come to Kiev in buses to live in the Maidan for weeks. They are afraid of being dominated by Russia. Above all else they are against Yanukovych, who in their eyes wants to make Ukraine into a Russian colony again.
Are they wrong to be afraid?
Not entirely, no. The Russian state is always trying to make Ukraine more dependent upon it, by turning off the natural gas pipeline during winter for example. You can’t blame the Ukrainians for having no trust in Vladimir Putin.
Is the EU the alternative for the movement?
The movement is primarily directed against the Yanukovych government. The EU question is less important. But of course, it’s the only tangible alternative to an orientation towards Russia. And apart from that, many are under the illusion that rapprochement with the EU will bring to the Ukraine the prosperity, freedom and democracy of many EU countries.
Who benefits from a rapprochement between Ukraine and the EU?
Some oligarchs, the ones who control the opposition parties, think it would be a good deal. But negotiations would do nothing to address problems ordinary people face – the struggle against corruption, political and social reform. It’s mainly about access to the Ukrainian market for big EU companies.
Couldn’t an alliance with the EU ease Ukraine’s economic crisis?
The fate of our East European neighbours suggests otherwise. In Romania and Bulgaria, for instance, prices have risen but incomes have not. More and more young people have to migrate to work for very low wages in Western Europe – where they are used to push down the pay locals can earn. Joy over EU membership disappeared very quickly in these countries. Officially, all EU citizens are equal – but some are more equal than others.
So why are illusions in the EU so strong?
What set off the protests in November last year was Yanukovych’s last minute failure to sign an agreement with the EU. Until that point then both the government and the opposition parties campaigned for integration of Ukraine into the EU.
An unsigned agreement led to a mass movement?
Yanukovych had prepared no propaganda for his change in strategy. Literally overnight, members of the government said that the agreement stood in fundamental contradiction to the national interests of their beloved homeland, when those same people had explained 24 hours before that only the agreement could save the Ukraine from decline.
A real PR disaster…
… which played a decisive role in the spontaneous outbreak of protests. People felt Yanukovych was leading the Ukraine towards the EU, when suddenly Putin pulls out his credit card and makes him an offer he can’t refuse. That’s what it looked like.
… which the opposition parties made clever use of.
The oligarchs who controlled them thought it would mean more profits for them. But the key point is that oligarchs and their parties have found it difficult to direct the movement. It has become an autonomous centre of political power, and it is worth the left struggling around it.
Are all the East Ukrainians on Yanukovych’s side?
If there was a referendum over unification of Ukraine with Russia, even in the East most people would vote no. They don’t trust the Russian government. But Yanukovych does still have support in the East.
Does that mean the government is stable?
No. What weakens Yanukovych – as well as the mass movement in the west – is the oligarch system itself. Several “sponsors” of Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions are now privately demanding his resignation. If the oligarchs make this position public, the president would quickly lose his remaining support among the people. According to a recent opinion poll, Klitschko would win in a run-off for president against Yanukovych with a big majority. That means many Russian-speaking East Ukrainians would vote for Klitschko.
So is Klitschko the star of the movement?
What the media hides is the fact that the movement is, fundamentally, extremely critical of politicians and other self-proclaimed leaders. Klitschko is one of the few who hardly gets booed when they speak in the Maidan – but that doesn’t in any way make him a star.
Where does this critical attitude to politicians come from?
Many of the opposition politicians – Yulia Tymoshenko, for example – have already proved they are corrupt. So far Klitschko hasn’t – but he depends on the same business leaders as the others.
You keep mentioning oligarchs. What makes them so special compared with billionaires elsewhere?
An oligarch doesn’t just have influence over the economy and society, but also direct control over one or more political parties. So an oligarch can transform his finance capital directly into political power.
Which parties are controlled by oligarchs?
All the parties in parliament are financed to a great extent by oligarchs. Only Svoboda came out of ideologically formed activists – and in a favourable situation it has used the opportunity to get a lot of money. But without oligarchs even Svoboda would not have become so influential.
What do the media say about this?
The oligarchs own all the big TV companies and control directly what they broadcast. Svoboda politicians were already being invited onto important talk shows when the party was only getting 0.8% in elections. Meanwhile it’s unthinkable that anyone from the left would be allowed to speak.
Is this conflict just a conflict between different blocs of capital?
Elites always try to use mass movements for their own ends. If we were to wait for a movement free from capital’s influence of capital and led entirely by workers, we’d wait for ever – particularly in Eastern Europe. We’d need a very different society from the one we currently have for such movements to exist.
A different society would make such a movement possible?
Exactly. Every protest movement mirrors the contradictions of the society in which it fights. In Ukraine you have strong nationalism and extremely powerful oligarchs on the one side, with no tradition of self organisation, class consciousness, or big unions on the other. What sort of protest can you expect?
Is there no way forward?
Yes there is. But those of us on the left first have to discuss how we act in these circumstances. Should we condemn these movements because it’s too difficult for us to work in them? Should we decide we’d rather go home because the protesters in the Maidan wave the Ukrainian flag, sing the national anthem and shout “long live Ukraine”?
What do you suggest?
It’s tough. When you tell them in the Maidan that you’re a Marxist, you can get attacked. But the politics and character of the movement are still developing. People change their politics enormously quickly – and they are very open to political ideas.
What signs of that do you see?
As late as December, a lot more people trusted Klitschko. No one could have imagined then the kind of struggles they were capable of in January.
Can the left organise in this situation?
There are almost always possibilities there for the left. There are many problems for which the left can offer a solution – and in a way no one else can.
How do we get involved?
Most people in the Maidan want to organise themselves. They want direct democracy, not negotiations behind closed doors. These are the ideas people in the Maidan are fighting the police over, despite the fact that one of their comrades was murdered. And this is the place where leftists have to bring their ideas.
How can the left in Kiev improve?
We must learn to take notice of the situation. An attitude of “I’m going to spread my own slogans or nobody’s” doesn’t go down well in Kiev. I think it’s inexcusable if socialists deliberately don’t go to the Maidan – which has unfortunately happened.
Yes. If we stay away, we leave the people to the Right Sector, whom we hate so much. No one will thank us for not going where the far right goes – except the far right themselves.
Is that possible in practice?
Of course. It might mean I have to leave my beloved red flag at home, because it goes down badly. So what? I want to get into political contact with people. Something is radical if it leads to success. It’s not our fault that a red flag is unpopular – it’s down to the Communist Party. But we have to respond intelligently to that fact.
Can the movement win?
It depends on what “winning” means. The movement can bring down Yanukovych – he’ll lose power sooner or later. But many protesters want to change society, to change the political system. This movement won’t be able to win that.
So is it all pointless?
Absolutely not. Many people will be disappointed, but they will also gain experience on which they can build. Some will realise that a social struggle is also necessary if their lives are to be improved. If that happens in the near future, it will be an enormous step forwards.
Ilya, thank you for the conversation.
[Interview by Anton Thun, translation by Colin Wilson, Mona Dohle and Ben Neal. Ilya Budraitskis is a member of the Russian Socialist Movement (Rossiiskoye Sotsialisticheskoye Dvizheniya). The organisation emerged at the start of 2011 from a restructuring on the left and a fusion of different groups. It sees itself as a pluralistic, anti-capitalist, radical left coalition movement that advocates a new and democratic socialism. It is active in many of Russia’s large cities and across various social and democratic movements. RSD participated in the mass movement against Putin during 2011 and 2012.]