The election standoff in Ukraine is portrayed in the U.S. media as a battle between pro-Washington democrats and pro-Moscow authoritarians. But it’s really a scramble for power within a ruling class dominated by corrupt politicians and their wealthy backers.
It’s almost certainly the case that the current government’s candidate for president, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovich–who has the high-profile support of Russian President Vladimir Putin–stole the election with widespread fraud in the runoff election November 21. But according to election observers, there were also reports of fraud in the Western Ukrainian strongholds of Viktor Yushchenko, a former prime minister who’s supported by the U.S. and the European Union (EU).
Yushchenko’s supporters captured the attention of the world by mobilizing 100,000 supporters in the streets of the capital city of Kiev for more than a week, blockading government buildings and calling for a general strike while demanding a new election. Yet Yanukovich also had mass meetings in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, the economic powerhouse of the country where the majority of the population is Russian-speaking.
The election plays on the historic divisions in Ukraine between the Russified East of the country and the Ukrainian-speaking West, which has only been under Moscow’s rule since 1940, when Stalin’s USSR invaded and took over. But if the candidates have played up such differences, it’s because their real policy differences are minimal.
The notion that that the crisis is simply Russian-speaking Eastern Ukraine versus West Ukraine is “pure nonsense,” Russian author and activist Boris Kagarlitsky told Socialist Worker. “The key place where you have most of the resistance to the government is Kiev, which is Russian-speaking,” he said. “In class terms, it is petty bourgeois protests against the oligarchs of the East–and the oligarchs are Russian-speaking. You cannot describe this in purely class terms, unfortunately. Both sides are quite reactionary.”
Kagarlitsky compares the mobilization to the “people power” mass protests in the Philippines in 2001, which forced out one conservative government–and led to its replacement by another.
Indeed, the crisis reflects the battle within the Ukrainian ruling class over how to orient to both Russia and the West. For example, Yanukovich, portrayed by the U.S. as a lackey of Moscow, has sent 1,600 Ukrainian troops to Iraq and ordered the Ukraine military to ferry NATO troops to Afghanistan.
And when a Russian steel firm tried to buy out a major Ukrainian one for $1.2 billion, Yanukovich blocked the deal and arranged for a sale to a Ukrainian government insider for just $800 million. Yushchenko, by contrast, sold off four utility companies to Russian-controlled companies.
If Yanukovich got Putin’s backing, it’s in part because the Russian government concluded that the current president, Leonid Kuchma, was going to help him steal the election–and that it was better to go with a winner.
In his campaign, Yanukovich made populist appeals by claiming that western Ukraine is a parasite on the industrial East, which accounts for an estimated 80 percent of gross domestic product.
Yushchenko, for all his posturing as a democratic hero, is a former central banker who used his term as prime minister to impose austerity measures that hit working people hard–in a country where the average monthly wage was just $80 in 2002.
His top ally is Yulia Tymoshenko, one of the country’s wealthiest oligarchs among the tiny circle of former Communist Party members and industrial managers who won out in the corrupt privatization of state industry when Ukraine became independent when the USSR collapsed in 1991. As energy minister in Yushchenko’s government, Tymoshenko used government power to squeeze her rivals until Kuchma forced her out on corruption charges. Yushchenko himself was pushed out of office in 2001 after trying to discipline the oligarchs with economic and political reforms.
Today, Yushchenko plays to the sentiments of millions of people fed up with corruption of Kuchma, who was caught on audio tape in 2000 ordering the murder of an opposition journalist. But as prime minister, Yushchenko himself was at the center of Kuchma’s operation.
By mobilizing their base and demanding the immediate ouster of Yanukovich, Yushchenko and Tymoshenko have raised the stakes and risked the situation slipping out of their control. Behind closed doors, however, they were negotiating a deal for a new election or a power-sharing deal in which Yushchenko gains the presidency while Yanukovich remains a power broker for the Eastern Ukraine.
“Everybody will be happy–with the exceptions of those who demonstrated in the streets,” Kagarlitsky said. However, he added, “it will be much harder to control Ukraine when the new government comes to power. There is a genuine democratic movement, and it is very much out of control of the current leadership.”
What’s at stake for Washington?
WHEN U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell declared that the U.S. wouldn’t recognize the results of Ukraine’s election, it was the capstone of Washington’s efforts to get Viktor Yushchenko elected.
Following the model used successfully in Serbia and Georgia and unsuccessfully in Belarus, much of Yushchenko’s operation has been “funded and organized by the U.S. government, deploying U.S. consultancies, pollsters, diplomats, the two big American parties and U.S. non-government organizations,” Britain’s Guardian newspaper noted.
Representatives of the Serbian student movement–who had extensive training from U.S. government-funded outfits like the National Endowment for Democracy–set up shop in Kiev during the election campaign.
Business Week explained why the U.S. is interested. “With its vast swathe of fertile black earth and well-educated population of 49 million, Ukraine is an emerging market worth playing for.” As a major producer of steel and machinery, Ukraine is benefiting enormously from demand in China. The economy is on track to grow by at least 11 percent this year–the fastest in Europe–and the stock market is up100 percent.
Nobody should be fooled by the U.S. claims of supporting democracy in Ukraine. Washington has turned a blind eye to election fraud across the former USSR–from Russia to the oil-rich Central Asian states.
By trying to help Yushchenko into office, the U.S. aims to pull Ukraine into Washington’s orbit.
LEE SUSTAR is a regular contributor to CounterPunch and the Socialist Worker. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org