Ben Neal reports on the continuing protests in Ukraine
Dozens of people have been killed this week in Ukraine by a brutal government assault on the opposition-held Euromaidan (“Euro Square” or “Independence Square”) in the capital Kiev. Hundreds more have been injured, some of them seriously.
At least 70 people, including 12 security force personnel, are known to have been killed since Tuesday. Around 1,000 have been injured. Police have ejected protesters from the central trade union building – used as a headquarters for the revolution – setting the building on fire in the process.
The violence erupted when riot police blocked a demonstration demanding the restoration of Ukraine’s 2004 constitution. Protesters were prevented approaching the Rada parliament building. Security then tried to disperse protesters from all the occupied zones in Kiev.
There have been pitched battles in the centre of the city, with many reports of live ammunition used and snipers firing at protesters. This is possibly the work of police or security forces, or that of titushki hired thugs. The city metro was closed for a time with road blocks set up around the city.
The latest deaths follow five killed by police in January after protests against laws that effectively outlawed demonstrations and gave the state dictatorial powers to crush opposition. Both escalations in state violence came after relative lulls.
At the time of writing [Friday 21 February] opposition activists have retaken control of Independence Square. There are reports of thousands blocking the road to the airport to prevent politicians rumoured to be trying to flee the country. Around 50 security forces being taken prisoner by opposition activists.
The west of the country, including the city of Lvov, is effectively no longer under government control. In these places the police and other security forces will simply not follow government orders. There are street fights even in eastern cities such as Kharkov – Russian speaking and traditionally more supportive of president Viktor Yanukovich’s regime.
What is happening in Ukraine is clearly more than a simple protest movement. From day one it has had an insurrectionary character: government buildings being taken over and used as organising centres, huge barricades built and staffed by disciplined, organised groups of fighters. People from all walks of life and of all ages are getting involved, not just in fighting the brutal Berkut riot police and other forces, but also in providing food, first aid, tires and other materials for the barricades – right down to filling Molotov cocktails.
One recent visitor to Kiev described an atmosphere in the main opposition zone that reminded me of George Orwell’s description of revolutionary Barcelona. The state was completely absent. Ordinary people had taken control and were running things themselves.
But it’s important not to exaggerate. Outside the central square and its surroundings, life in Kiev had been going on as normal until this week, although similar protests have been taking place in cities all over the country, especially in the Ukrainian-speaking west.
The revolution is being driven from below. The main opposition leaders are liberals who advocate neoliberal economic policies. But they are not trusted by ordinary people, and on several occasions have been blocked from cutting deals with Yanukovich through rank-and-file pressure.
Right wing involvement
More worryingly the far right has a very visible and undeniable role in this movement. Svoboda is a hardline Ukrainian nationalist party with fascist elements. It has a large number of seats in parliament and has been heavily involved in the protests.
There is also the Right Sector, an opposition movement which has done most of the street fighting in Kiev – both initiating fights and giving them an insurrectionary character. The Right Sector are seen by many as the boldest part of the movement, in contrast to more mainstream liberal leaders may try to compromise with Yanukovich.
“It is a revolution,” Ilya Matveev, a St Petersburg based socialist and activist told me. “Yes, the far right is strong, but it’s not a fascist coup. It’s important not to present this revolution as a right wing uprising. That is echoing Putin’s propaganda.”
The Yanukovich government and his Kremlin backers are focusing on the involvement of Right Sector in order to discredit the revolution. The right is certainly a major part of this movement, which generally is dominated by somewhat nationalist rhetoric and symbolism. But it is not the only part.
It is clear that this is a mass popular uprising, with opinion polls consistently showing around 50% support for Euromaidan. Large numbers of ordinary people are actively involved, and while the main catalyst was a desire for closer EU integration, the motives of most are anger at corruption and repression from Ukraine’s political and economic elites.
Prospects for the left
Where is the left in all this? Ukraine’s left is small and weak. Ukraine had a traumatic experience under the USSR, especially in Stalin’s time, so many Ukrainians are understandably suspicious of anything connected to socialism.
The Communist Party is large, but is essentially a loyal opposition to the government. It opposes Euromaidan. The radical left is tiny and has had little impact on the process so far. It has split over how to react to the street protests, with one of the main left organisations, Borotba, opposing the movement entirely.
The small Left Opposition has participated in protests mainly by volunteering in hospitals. A group of 100 anarchists tried to form a defence brigade at Euromaidan, but were prevented from doing so by the Right Sector.
Nevertheless, the evening before Yanukovich’s crackdow saw an open meeting at the Euromaidan headquarters where Ukrainian leftists raised radical left demands – such as preventing oligarchs from taking public office. This struck a chord – many of those present responded with even more radical proposals, such as completely stripping oligarchs and millionaires of all political rights.
Last month the Left Opposition issued a ten point plan for social change that is now being discussed seriously in liberal and right wing publications. Such demands could make this movement more attractive to people in the east of the country, where so far the revolution has not been as strong. They are certainly in tune with the logic of the situation, which goes beyond nationalist and bourgeois demands of the opposition leadership.
It is far too early to tell how the situation will develop. But for now Ukraine’s opposition movement is strong, confident – and willing to fight a brutal, corrupt but desperate government. It is a dangerous situation, with a worryingly role played by right wing and fascist forces, as well as overt and perhaps covert involvement from the US, Europe and Russia. There are fears that civil war between east and west Ukraine could break out.
But more people from the Russian speaking east are joining in the protests. If this continues it will strengthen the chances of nationalism will be sidelined in favour of social demands. Whatever happens the people of Ukraine deserve our full solidarity in their struggle against their rulers.
Many thanks to Ilya Matveev for his input and comments and to Jan Ladzinski for his research and some of the useful links below.
- Interviews with protesters in early February
- Berkut declares to be on the side of protesters in Zakarpattia, Western Ukraine on Thursday
- Shooting on the streets of Kiev
- The masked piano player of Euromaidan
- Analysis by Ilya Budraitskis, Russian socialist and academic, on prospects for the left in Ukraine
- Analysis by Ukrainian Left Opposition activist Zahar Popovich
- Left Opposition manifesto
- Statement from Autonomous Workers Union
- Report of interview with Ukrainian Friends of the Earth activist about police repression in Dnepropetrovsk
- Interview with Ukrainian Anti-fascist Action members, regarding the role of fascists in the protests
- Video showing Ukrainian security forces firing on protesters with Kalashnikovs and sniper rifles