Ukraine: “Popular Uprising for Democracy’’ or “Fascist Putsch”


Global Research, March 12, 2014

Let’s begin with Canadian Prime Minister
Stephen Harper’s version. One can think what one likes about deposed
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, but his election in 2012 was
recognized as legitimate by international observers and, after a certain
hesitation, by the defeated candidate, Yulia Timoshenko. In fact,
relatively honest elections were just about the only positive outcome
for ordinary people of the last big mobilization on Maidan Square, the
‘Orange Revolution’ of December 2004.
Presidential elections were set for
March 2015, and moved up to December 2014 by the abortive agreement
signed on Februrary 21, signed by Yanukovich and the parliamentary
opposition. Polls predicted defeat for Yanukovich. And despite the
corruption that characterized his regime, it tolerated a good measure of
political freedom. Among other things, much of the mass media was in
the camp of the opposition.
As for the immediate issue, the
Agreement of Association with the European Union, polls showed that the
population was divided. From that point of view, it is the attempt to
impose the Agreement “from the street” that appears as undemocratic. A
democratic demand would have been for a free public discussion, followed
by a referendum.
The Provisional Government

As for the provisional government that
is now in power, although it was ratified by Parliament, this was in
fact done in violation of the constitution, which requires a 75 per cent
vote to impeach a president. No such vote was held. Moreover, at the
present moment Olexander Turchinov is combining the post of Speaker of
Parliament with that of President of Ukraine, a concentration of vast
power that goes well beyond anything allowed for in the constitution.
This does not augur well for the fairness of the coming presidential
That said, it is clear that the tens,
and at times hundreds, of thousands who filled Maidan Square were moved
by the desire to end the pervasive corruption of the political system
(and that penetrates most non-state institutions). The protesters want
to establish popular control of the government and to orient its policy
in the interests of the people.
That movement is characteristic of the
present period which has seen a series of similar popular uprisings – in
the Arab countries, but also in the former Soviet territory – (Georgia
in 2003, Ukraine in 2004, and Kirgizstan 2005). An atomized population
is fed up with the political regime. It mobilizes through the social
media, but without a clear programme. The fruits of the mass
mobilization are then reaped by forces that are organized and that have a
clear programme.
The underlying condition of this
phenomenon in Ukraine is the absence of an influential left, which, in
its turn, reflect the current weakness of the working-class, the
traditional base of the left. Workers, as workers, were absent from
Maidan (no strike in support of the demonstrations took place), even
though most of the protesters were no doubt employees earning very
modest salaries.
For the real problem was not Yanukovich,
although his regime was indeed corrupt and serving interests hostile to
the working-class. (As for the bloodletting on Maidan, its real authors
are still clouded in mystery. Some observers, most notably the Minister
of Foreign Affairs of Estonia (hostile to Russia), have suggested that
it was organized by the Opposition itself.) In that, Yanukovich’s regime
was really no different from those of his predecessors, including
Viktor Yushchenko, hero of the “Orange Revolution,” and before him
Leonid Kuchma, who wanted to bring Ukraine into NATO, and before him,
Leonid Kravchuk, the Communist bureaucrat who spent most of his life
fighting Ukrainian nationalism only to become suddenly the father of
independent Ukraine.
The real problem is political and
economic systems dominated by ‘oligarchs,’ who manipulate linguistic and
cultural divisions to advance their own interests. And from that point
of view, the recent events have changed nothing. Anyone familiar with
Ukrainian politics knows that there is a constant circulation of
political personalities between government and opposition: the
oppositionists of Maidan were yesterday members or allies of the group
in power. That, by the way, distinguishes the Ukrainian regime from the
Russian. The latter is ‘bonapartist’ in the sense that the executive
dominates the oligarchs, even while promoting their overall economic
interests. In Ukraine the oligarchs dominate the government.
The mobilized but atomized masses seemed
incapable of understanding the real source of the problem and even less
of putting forth a real solution (which would be the socialization of
the main levers of the economy). Most saw membership in the European
Union – which, of course, was not being offered – a magical solution to
corruption and a guarantee of respect for democratic norms.
The lack of a clear analysis and
programme explains the role that fascist forces were able to play in the
events. These forces rejected any compromise with the contested
government, presenting themselves as unyielding adversaries, not only of
the current leaders, but of the ‘system’ itself. And they call for a
‘national revolution.’ This intransigent position attracted
demonstrators who were aware of the bitter fruits of the Orange
Revolution and who did not understand the real meaning of the proposed
‘national revolution.’
Fascists Gain Legitimacy

This brings us to the other
interpretation: the ‘fascist putsch.’ Even if it does not translate the
complexity of the events, it has some grounding in reality. One of the
three oppositional parties with whom the European diplomats negotiated
the agreement of February 21 was Oleg Tyaginbok, who lead the extreme
right-wing Svoboda (Freedom), an anti-Russian, anti-semitic party that
wants Ukraine for ethnic Ukrainians who speak Ukrainian (which would
thus exclude a little less than half of the population). Svoboda
obtained 12 per cent of the vote in the 2012 parliamentary elections,
mainly, but not exclusively, in the three western provinces, the main
centres of militant nationalism.
Until 2005, when Svoboda underwent a
certain makeover, the party bore the name ‘National-Social’ and had as
its symbol the ‘wolfsangel,’ emblem of certain Nazi SS units. At various
moments during the demonstrations, one could see the red-black banner
of OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) on the stage at Maidan.
OUN collaborated with the German occupation in World War II and
participated in the mass murder of Poles and Jews. Tyaginbok himself was
expelled from the rightwing parliamentary bloc in 2004 for remarks
about the “Jewish-Russian mafia” that was controlling Ukraine. Citing
the party’s racist and xenophobic character, in 2012 the European
Parliament appealed to the democratic parties of Ukraine not to
associate or form alliances with Svoboda.
Despite that, diplomats from the EU and
U.S. saw fit to confer legitimacy on this party, which is now integrated
into the official structures of the state. Its members now hold several
ministerial portfolios, including that of Vice-Prime Minister, Minister
of Defence, and Prosecutor General (who is responsible for upholding
the constitution and other laws).
But Svoboda has competition on its right
from a much smaller but more violent group: the Right Sector, which is
composed of fascist and football thugs and led by Dmytro Yarosh, a
long-time fascist activist. In the latter days of Maidan, Right Sector
activists, who were armed, contributed to forcing the pace of the
situation by taking over public buildings during the negotiations
between Yanukovich and the parliamentary opposition. They thus
contributed to blocking application of the agreement of February 21,
which was negotiated with the aid of European emissaries, and would have
created a provisional government of national coalition.

At present, members of the Right Sector
hold posts in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, responsible for the
police and the internal armed forces. According to some reports, Yarosh
has become assistant Secretary of the Council for National Security and
Defence, an organism that advices the President on national-defence
strategy. The Secretary of that Council is Andriy Parubiy, a longtime
far-right activist. Recently, Prime Minister Arseniy Yarsenuk dismissed
three Assistant Ministers of Defence for their refusal to integrate the
Right Sector’s armed bands into Ukraine’s regular armed forces.
Thus, for the first time since World War
II, neo-fascists hold posts in the national government of a European
state. And they do this with the blessing of the Western democracies.
Right Sector forces have seized
government arsenals in the western regions and are the source of a wave
of violence and vandalism that has swept Ukraine, directed at
pro-Russian or left-wing organizations, personalities, and symbols.
Among other, the headquarters of the Communist Party and the offices of
an anti-fascist organization in Kiev were ransacked. There were failed
attempts to burn down the Kiev home of the head of the Communist Party
and a synagogue in Zaproizhe. In some towns in the west of Ukraine (for
example, Rovno) Right Sektor thugs appear to be in control of the local
In sum, although one cannot speak of a
‘fascist putsch,’ fascists forces have emerged from the events with
increased strengthen and legitimacy.
Complex Divisions

It goes without saying that this does
not augur well for a country that is so deeply divided, for a very
fragile state that had never existed until 1991 (except for some months
during the Russian civil war). The western provinces were attached to
Soviet Ukraine only in 1939 (and reattached in 1944). As for Crimea,
which had been part of Russia since the eighteenth century, Moscow
presented it as a gift to Ukraine in 1954. If the nationalists reject
the Soviet past as illegitimate – and they are calling for lustration –
they should logically be prepared to give up Crimea. Instead, Svoboda’s
programme calls for the abolition of Crimea’s autonomy. The party also
wants to reintroduce ethnicity in identity documents. (A prominent
member of Svoboda even proposed to make the use of Russian a criminal
A situation so fragile would seem to
counsel prudence to genuine patriots of Ukraine. But the nationalists,
who are a minority in the country, want to impose their will on the
others by force. One of the first acts of Parliament after Yanukovich
took flight was to rescind the law that allowed certain regions to make
Russian a second official language, though subordinate to Ukrainian.
This decision was soon annulled by the government, but the damage was
done. Polls indicate that a strong majority believes that Russian should
be recognized as a second official language. Somewhat less than half
the population uses it as their everyday language. Parliament’s actions
help to understand the reaction to the new government in Crimea, largely
Russian-speaking and ethnically Russian.
The government that was formed in the
wake of Maidan is thus anything but a government of national unity, as
envisioned by February 21 Accord, which was aimed at reassuring the
Russian-speaking population of the eastern and southern regions. Of the
19 ministers in the new government, only two come from the east, none
from the south. Besides the language question, it has introduced a
resolution to outlaw the Communist Party, which took 13 per cent of the
vote in 2012 and is, in fact, the only remaining oppositional party
after the Party of Regions fell apart. In several western provinces,
where the legislatures are operating independently of Kiev, the
Communist Party and the Party of Regions have been declared illegal.
Ukraine’s divisions are very deep and
complex. Besides language, there is culture, in particular historical
memory. The heroes of the western provinces collaborated with the German
occupation and participated in its crimes; the heroes of the east and
south fought fascism and for the Soviet Union. There are also economic
interests: the eastern part of the country, the most industrial, is
closely integrated with Russia, by far Ukraine’s biggest trading
partner. There are also more subtle cultural differences, which are
beyond the scope of this article. But one thing is clear – the
population of the western provinces, driven by anti-Russian nationalism,
is more easily mobilized. A significant part of the protesters on
Maidan came from those provinces.
The American and EU Interventions

A few words in conclusion on the international actors. Many will recall the conversation
between Victoria Nuland, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Europe
and the U.S. Ambassador in Kiev, Geoffrey Pyatt. The media focused on
her saying “fuck the EU.” Much less prominence was given to that part of
the conversation that should have really shocked: a discussion of the
composition of the government that would follow Yanukovich’s ouster.
Nuland definitely wanted to have “Yats” as head of the government. And,
behold, Arseniy Yatsenyuk is today Ukraine’s Prime Minister. Surely, a mere coincidence.
One could also see Nuland during the
demonstrations distributing bread to the protesters in Maidan Square.
Imagine the reaction of the Canadian government to the Russian
ambassador distributing donuts to student protesters during Quebec’s
‘Maple Spring.’ There is a difference, to be sure (as the West and the
media claim without irony): when Western diplomats intervene in the
internal affairs of foreign countries they do so to promote democracy
and defend the people of those countries…
Given the deep internal divisions of
Ukraine, its history, its geography, its economy, it seems obvious that
the most suitable international stance would be one of neutrality, like
that of Finland or Sweden. Polls indicate that 80 per cent of the
population opposes membership in NATO. Yet all presidents up until
Yanukovich pursued membership in NATO. Yanukovich was the first to
embrace a policy of neutrality. But NATO will not hear of that.
We do not know why Yanukovich suddenly
suspended negotiations on the Association Accord. He did not reject it
outright. If he did it under pressure from Moscow, it is not clear why
Putin waited so long to apply it, since, had he done it earlier, he
could have avoided the mass protest. After all, Yanukovich’s party
adopted the goal of an accord back in 2008. It seems probable that
Yanukovich himself changed his mind, fearing the negative impact on
Ukraine’s economy (which is in very bad shape, as it has been more or
less since independence in 1991). The EU was offering a mere 600 million
euros to be paid in tranches dependent on ‘structural reforms,’ that
is, on a policy of austerity applied to a population among which poverty
is already very widespread. Moreover, Ukraine would have to remove all
commercial barriers and duties for goods and services coming from Europe
and to align its legislation and regulations with those of Europe. That
would have had devastating consequences for Ukraine’s industry, located
mainly in the east. And what in return? Neither free entry into Europe
for its citizens nor membership in the European Union. Yanukovich seems
to have taken fright. But not ‘Yats,’ who has promised Ukrainians
‘painful measures.’
Remember Yugoslavia. It was after
IMF-imposed reforms that the separatist movements really took off. An
austerity policy would be devastating for the Ukrainian population and
reinforce unhealthy and centrifugal tendencies.
The Russian View

How do things appear from the Russian
side? The Russian government no doubt sees what has happened as another
step in the longstanding policy of the U.S. and NATO to contain Russia’s
influence to her own borders, this despite the solemn commitment of
George Bush made to Gorbachev not to expand NATO in return for German
reunification. From the Russian point of view, it is another use of the
tactic of manipulation of popular mobilizations, used successfully in
Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine, to bring about regime change.
Besides that, for purely domestic
reasons, Putin cannot remain indifferent to the rise of an extreme
anti-Russian right in a region with which Russia has close cultural and
historic ties. The foreign policy of his authoritarian, corrupt and
largely incompetent regime is about the only thing that attracts
positive support from the population.
It isn’t surprising, then, that Russia
has frozen its offer of $15-billion in loans to Ukraine, an offer made,
be it noted, without austerity conditions. The government has also
announced it will not renew its discount on the price of gas. And Russia
has many other economic levers at its disposal. Russia is Ukraine’s
leading trading partner and already threatened to impose punitive
tariffs on certain goods when the European accord was being discussed.
Russia’s military moves in Crimea appear
to be pursuing primarily symbolic goals aimed at its own population as
well as at Kiev’s right-wing government, which is being warned not to
get carried away. As for Western indignation, one should recall the NATO
bombing of Yugoslavia, a flagrant violation of international law (such
as it is), under the invented pretext of a threatened genocide of the
Kosovars. Or the illegal invasion of Iraq justified by imaginary weapons
of mass destruction. And dozens of other illegal interventions in Latin
America and the world over.
The words of the last U.S. ambassador to the USSR
can provide a fitting conclusion: “Because of its history, geographical
location, and both natural and constructed economic ties, there is no
way Ukraine will ever be a prosperous, healthy, or united country unless
it has a friendly (or, at the very least, non-antagonistic)
relationship with Russia.” Contrary to the will of the majority
Ukrainians, NATO rejects that position out of hand. •
David Mandel
teaches political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal and
has been involved in labour education in the Ukraine for many years.