The fighting in Ukraine has everything to do with global politics, but if we reduce it to a global war of positions, we lose its localized facets. Ukraine is not only the latest battlefield in the North Atlantic’s attempts to stem the rising tide of BRICS economic influence. It is also the site of a contentious civil society resisting government repression.
Those of us who live in the West can, and must, acknowledge the geo-political import of the struggle. Incensed by the NATO invasion of Libya, Russia stood against similar attacks in Syria. Meanwhile, Chinese academics called into question the double standard shown by the North Atlantic in its intervention in Mali and refusal to intervene in the Central African Republic, where a million people have been displaced (and China has lost fortunes in investments). In Central Asia, on the other hand, the political and economic influence of China and Russia is growing with agricultural, infrastructure, and energy investments. Ukraine, with its rich natural gas reserves and vast fields of grain, is then a site of fierce economic competition.
Just as the 2008 conflict over Georgia hung over the question of European access to gas fields in Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan, an important political conflict over gas resides in Ukraine. Indeed, Ukraine’s gas oligarch Dmytro Firtash has just finished constructing a new company in Switzerland (of course), called OstChem, which is negotiating increased flows of gas from Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, drawing Ukraine further into what journalist Pepe Escobar has dubbed “Pipelinastan.” Many in the opposition who want energy independence are displeased with the gas play by Firtash, who was central in the imprisonment of opposition leader and former Prime Minister Iulia Tymoshenko in 2012 after she attempted to expose his political support of both current-President Yanukovich and Arseniy Yatsenyuk, leader of the opposition’s right wing Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party.
Russia has also voiced concern over Ukraine’s independent, aggressive gas exploitation—particularly the part that involves Shell and Chevron fracking borderlands, and poisoning water sources for Russians. Yet Ukraine’s gas reserves may prove pivotal for an EU that has seen fracking restricted in France the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria and part of Germany. If it swings economically to the EU, Ukraine could join Poland and the UK in the new wave of Euro-frackers.
Gas was likely on the forefront of the EU’s mind when Yatsenyuk marched to the Munich Security Conference pleading for increased support for the opposition. What Europe wants to provide is a more stringent IMF package, along with alterations to Ukraine’s constitution (a recipe that may seem reminiscent of post-Soviet Poland, considering the fact that several key Solidarność figures are strong supporters of the Ukranian opposition). Although Firtash has ties to both Yanukovich and Yatsenyuk, even financing the very building out of which both of their simultaneous presidential campaigns were launched, the far-right political organization Pravy Sektor (literally, the Right Wing) has fallen on the side of Yatsenyuk because of his anti-Russian politics, in spite of the fact that they reject European involvement.
As the Pravy Sektor leader Dmitro Yarosh delicately explains, “For all the years of Ukraine’s independence, Russia has pursued a systematic, targeted policy of subjugation toward Ukraine, so of course we will prepare for a conflict with them. If they stick their faces here like they did in Georgia in 2008, they’ll get it in the teeth.” Pravy Sektor maintains the barricades around the protest camps in Kiev, and is responsible for sending dozens of police officers to the hospital. They are also staunch nationalists, many of whom are neo-Nazis, and they have taken extremely reactionary social positions, against immigrants and Jews, for example.
Current support for the far right may be explained, due to their defense of the Euromaidan protests, which sprang up around Ukraine after President Yanukovich backed out of an unattractive resource agreement with the EU. The Euromaidan camps and political movement surrounding them have been under intense pressure, not merely from the government, but from other pro-government forces, such as the “Ukrainian Front” in the East who have committed numerous acts of arson, property destruction, and violence, likely including the brutal stabbing of popular Kharkiv Euromaidan leader, Smitry Pylypets during a broader, city-wide crackdown in December.
Part of the character of the current opposition is this reactionary element that fights because it seeks an end to all foreign intervention in Ukraine, but it is not the whole picture. The right wing aspects of the opposition not only want to excise Russian influence from the industrial sectors (controlled by the pro-Yanukovich Ukrpodshipnik Group and the Akhmetov group, among others) by gaining oil and gas independence away from oligarchs like Firtash, but also to ensure agricultural sovereignty. Some analysts maintain that much of the opposition’s power emerges from the agricultural oligarchs in Western Ukraine, while the government’s industrial power centers are located in Eastern Ukraine, where Russian is a predominant language.
Agricultural oligarch Oleg Bakhmatyuk is a veteran of national gas company Naftogaz Ukraine, and looks forward to advanced, lucrative trade with China over corn, lard, chickens, and other farm products. “Grain is to Ukraine as oil is to Saudi Arabia,” he proudly states, echoing the adage of the Global Land Grab: “Food is the new oil. Land is the new gold.” There is no reason Bakhmatyuk would take or support the hard-right stance of Pravy Sektor politically, but he has been part of the Tymoshchenko bloc, which sits uneasily in the opposition. While Tymoshenko’s daughter, Evgenia, maintains that Ukraine is not “close to Russia,” she claims that Ukraine sees Russia as “at least protecting it’s national interests.”
Born in the western city of Ivano-Frankivsk, Bakhmatyuk foresees “billion dollar” equity deals with West and East Asian powers, which would give foreign investors a stake in Ukrainian land. However, just last month, Cargill acquired 5 percent of Bakhmatyuk’s corporation, Uklandfarming, which he declared to be, “an important step for Ukrlandfarming in developing our international presence and export potential.” Indeed, due in large part to Ukrlandfarming’s moves, Ukraine is on pace to surpass Russia as the third biggest exporter of grain in the world. The extremely important Privat Group also maintains 150,000 hectares of agricultural lands, and are also veterans of the Tymoshchenko bloc.
Yet, the struggle in Ukraine is larger than West versus East, agrarian versus industrial or EU versus Russia. Part of the difficulty in alliances being shifted around hinges on the more-recent appearance of Yanukovich as an anti-EU President, whereas as recently as 2007, he was seen as pro-EU. Business interests that supported him back then are reluctant to become public in a manner that would threaten relations with the EU. Finance oligarch Kostyantin Zhevago, having been a member of the Tymoshchenco bloc during the years following the Orange Revolution, remains the only Ukrainian oligarch to openly support the opposition continuously, and he is originally from Russia. Petro Poroshenko, another leading oligarch, manages to find support from across the political spectrum, although he is different from Firtash, because he requires their support—they may not require his.
It is clear that the struggle in Ukraine cannot be rigidly identified between the traditional Left and Right—capitalist versus socialist—but if it can be abstracted as a revolutionary, dialectical movement of development towards a different kind of internationalism, it can only be done so with a careful eye to civil society, rather than a determinist point of view that sees industrial progress as the driver of history. In moments of telling symbolic expression, opposition members pull down and vandalize statues of Lenin, while pro-state representatives have christened a brand new Stalin monument. Yanukovich’s politics are not Stalinist, and the history of Stalin’s famine-inducing agricultural policies remain. Yet Stalin also retains symbolic significance as an anti-Fascist hero, so his image is deployed by pro-government factions. The true irony lies in the fact that some of the oligarchs behind either side of the puzzle received their start either directly from the Soviet-era Komsomol or through the post-Soviet, Ukrainian mafia. Between the messy dissonances between sides, a different civil society politic is growing up, which has varying ties to right and left wing positions, up to and beyond inter-oligarchic struggle.
“We haven’t achieved anything”
An open letter released in the EU Observer last week and signed by former foreign ministers, world bank officials, and a cross-section of political commentators, calls for support of the opposition as a means of prying Ukraine away from Russian control and bestowing power to civil society in Ukraine. The vastly different political positions of the letter’s signers put on display the chimerical nature of the opposition. Insisting that Europe “not turn its back on Ukraine,” the letter references the Orange Revolution that swept Yanukovich into power, and depicts the recent movement the latest manifestation of an emancipatory movement in Ukraine. Yatsenyuk called for more vocal support from Europe, stating, “Ukraine desperately needs a Marshall plan and not martial law in order to stabilize the political and economic situation in the country.”
Yatsenyuk is likely calling out to the North Atlantic to match the $15 billion gift bestowed upon Ukraine by Russia to stabilize the Yanukovich regime. According to European Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy, Stefan Fule, “the EU plans to intensify its role in resolving the growing political crisis in Ukraine,” and John Kerry has also pledged to back the opposition. While Kerry insists, “Nowhere is the fight for a democratic, European future more important today than in Ukraine,” Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov counters, “Why are so many prominent EU politicians actually encouraging such actions although back home they are quick to severely punish any violations of the law? What does incitement of increasingly violent street protests have to do with promoting democracy?”
In the meantime, Yatsenyuk and other right wing opposition leaders, like former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, have stoked concerns that a “state of emergency” may be on its way, and the government may call in the military to quell protests. “There is no victory without a fight,” says Klitschko. “We are going to fight.” This kind of violent rhetoric in pre-empting a “state of emergency” is uncomfortable, to say the least, coming from a representative of a right wing party, the UDAR, which is funded by a German foundation and has allies in the neo-Nazi movement. Such associations obviously reflect badly on both the opposition and its backers—particularly amidst the rise of neo-Fascism throughout Europe and Russia.
For now, however, Pravy Sektor is honoring a tentative truce called during negotiations. Pravy Sektor is taking a gamble in light of potential persecution by Yanukovich if negotiations fail; however, many foresee that the far right stands to benefit the most if negotiations succeed and new elections are called.
Into this field of deeply entrenched positions parachuted UN-Arab League mediator Lakhdar Brahimi just hours after the failure of Syria negotiations in Geneva. The first wave of negotiations ended days ago, and the next wave is supposed to re-engage on the February 10. Brahimi is understandably pessimistic, admitting, “We haven’t achieved anything.”
Advancing Civil Society at What Cost?
Ukrainian anarchist and writer, Sergei Zhadan still holds hope for the more intimate political center that he locates in the Kharkiv Euromaidan protest camp, where people congregated from around the region in a mass movement not unlike the Occupy Wall Street or Tahrir Square. “[The protestors] want to change the system of local government, to solve social problems. This is a topic that was barely raised a decade ago during the Orange Revolution.”
The city of Kharkiv in the northeast is an example of the complexity of the situation in the Ukraine. Gennady Kernes, the mayor of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second biggest city and seat of industrial power, has called for Russian support in instilling stability in Ukraine. Kernes calls Kiev “the scene of illegal, unconstitutional moves to grab power, moves that have been systemically planned,” and claims that the opposition leaders (namely Yatsenyuk, Klitshcko, and Tyagnibok), have stepped into the negotiation room while “radically-minded extremists are not listening to them anymore.” He also accuses the Western media of “handing out cookies to the radicals” when they present the opposition in a positive light.
Kharkiv is the turf of the oligarch, Oleksandr Yaroslavsky, who has close contacts with Yanukovich, yet Zhadan sees, even in Kharkiv, “the birth of a situation where a citizen of Ukraine suddenly begins to read the Constitution and realize their rights,” insisting that, “with the realization of rights comes the desire to defend them. It is with such civil initiative that the base to restart the country is formed. Not on any change of policy or policy of the President, but on the activation of the citizens.”
While Zhadan calls for leadership in the opposition movement stemming from the Maidan camps, Kernes is more cynical. “Eager to win kudos from the Maidan protests, the opposition leaders are playing it both ways, which is very bad, because it’s not politics. They are betraying human ideals and values.” Kernes concludes, “I believe these people must be called to order and told, loud and clear, to seek definitive results in their negotiations with the authorities.” Kernes is leading a campaign for a referendum that would sack the parliamentary deputies caught participating in the Maidan mobilizations. Zhadan is calling for leadership outside of the institutional political sphere, towards what Giorgio Agamben calls, “the praxis of destituent power.” It may in fact be true that new opposition-led elections would merely be the kind of coup d’etat that the neo-liberal state needs to further the exploitation of Ukraine.
Zhadan’s position here may turn out to be most prescient. Early elections would not necessarily support a rise of the kind of pluralist, democratic Populism. If civil society is to peacefully resolve the whirlwind of economic and political problems, it might do so outside of the “official” political spectrum, with leaders not candidates. This would require great restraint from both the state and reactionary, anti-Yanukovich forces (as well as their backers). It would also require the continuing engagement of the public in politics beyond the interests of the oligarchy and, incidentally, the mafia. Indeed, it would seem that amidst the smoldering fire pits of the Maidan movement lingers the always-possible, though etiolated figure of solidarity.
Alexander Reid Ross is a co-moderator of the Earth First! Newswire, and editor of the forthcoming anthology, Grabbing Back: Essays Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014).
This article is also being published at earthfirstjournal.org/newswire.