The tremendous popular movement that has taken control of the centre of Kiev to demand the departure of the government represents a wide spectrum of forces. They range from workers tired of falling living standards to rabid nationalists who hate everything Russian.
Ukraine’s debts are overwhelming the country’s economy and it’s reckoned it needs to find $60 billion to make interest payments on its loans next year. A paralysed regime reluctant to sign up to stringent International Monetary Fund conditions has found itself caught between Moscow and Brussels.
President Putin fears that if Ukraine is drawn into the European Union it will open the door to imports into Russia itself. So Russia, which has a stranglehold over Ukraine’s energy supplies, wants the country instead to become part of a Moscow-sponsored customs union.
Having won their independence in the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, it seems that the majority of Ukraine’s people do not want to be driven back into the arms of Moscow again. Their uprising is the second in the country’s brief period of independence, having taken to the streets in November 2004 in protest against rigged presidential elections.
There is material support (food and power supplies) for the current street action from president Viktor Yanukovich’s political opponents. Many of them helped organise the “Orange Revolution” which forced out Yanukovich nine years ago – only to see him back in power today.
Barricades are being reinforced in Kiev’s Independence Square, and people are settling in, despite sub-zero temperatures. They have seen off repeated efforts by security forces to remove them from the square over the last 22 days. Demonstrators and journalists have defied brutal assaults by the Berkut riot police. Morale is being boosted by popular singer Ruslana and bands like Mad Heads and Haydamaky.
There are a wide range of forces involved in the protests, including the far right nationalist Svoboda (freedom) party. Yanukovich’s support lies in the largely Russian-speaking eastern part of Ukraine, and its steel and coal tycoons, while his opponents include other oligarchs from “The Family”, the corrupt super-rich who hold the reins of economic and political power.
Behind the protests lies Ukraine’s impossible economic situation. Its woes deepened after the global financial crash of 2008, because of its reliance on exports of steel and raw materials from the heavily industrialised east and south of the country. Ukraine has been in recession for 18 months.
It was Yanukovich’s failure to sign an agreement at the November 28-30 EU “Eastern Partnership” summit in Vilnius which initially sparked the protests. In any case, it is clear that the EU states cannot bail out Ukraine, no matter how much they want to out-manoeuvre Putin.
Humiliation in Vilnius was quickly followed by Yanukovich’s failure last week to secure a deal in China where he hoped to negotiate a $3bn loan for irrigation. And the strength of the pro-EU protests makes the signing of a deal with the much-hated Putin impossible.
Last Sunday around a million people besieged the capital’s streets and nationalists toppled a statue of Lenin. Somewhat ironically Ukraine’s last period of true independence was during and just after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917.
As the founder of the young Soviet state, Bolshevik leader Lenin defended the principle of national self-determination and strongly opposed any forcible integration of nations into a Russian-dominated state. Rather than wanting a statue to himself, he would have been on the streets supporting the demonstrators.
But Lenin’s legacy was trampled by the greatest nationalist of them all – Stalin. His regime’s reactionary policies led to famine in Ukraine and starvation for millions. Many Ukrainians, with some justification, see Putin continuing in Stalin’s great-Russian footsteps and reject dictatorial rule from the east.
The mass of Ukrainians rightly want to free themselves from the shadow of power-hunger oligarchs and political dictators of all varieties. Becoming part of the European Union, which is imposing savage austerity measures on member states, will not help them, however.
At the same time, the main political parties – whether they are headed up by Yanukovich, Timoshenko, Klitschko or Yatseniuk – are fronts for the corrupt, oligarchic tycoons and mafias who own the country’s immense agricultural and mineral resources. These are the barriers which Ukrainians have still to remove.
A World to Win secretary