The portrayal of the uprising against Ukraine’s government in Kiev and other cites as simply an East-West tug-of-war is a superficial viewpoint that insults those slaughtered by snipers on the streets of the country’s capital yesterday. Ukrainians are actually dying to remove a corrupt regime that represents only the oligarchs.
Neither should anyone be fooled by the crocodile tears shed by the White House and the EU for the dead of Kiev. Safe to say that if protests against governments in any of these capitals reach the fever pitch shown in Kiev, troops and armed para-militaries would quickly be on the streets and a state of emergency declared.
While it is true that far right forces around Svoboda are prominent in the fighting, there is no clear, unifying agenda in Maidan Square. People of all classes have rallied to an anti-government movement but without a perspective of what happens next. This is characteristic of global uprisings that began with the Arab Spring and that have spread to many countries since, taking different forms each time.
In Ukraine, opposition political parties, who play with populism just as much as Victor Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions, do not control the crowds that have taken the square. The direct action Common Cause group has seized many buildings and is for the dissolution of the state while the fascists draw their support from disenchanted workers in western cities and the middle-class in Kiev.
But as one observer put it: “Yet they do not go there [Maidan Square] for the West or against the East. They go for themselves and against the regime that victimises them… not in the name of a political system or even a particular politician, but for the rule of law and open borders.”
The fact that the fighting has spread to the mainly-Russian speaking city of Kharkiv in the east adds substance to this point. "The price of freedom is too high. But Ukrainians are paying it," Viktor Danilyuk, a 30-year-old protester, said in Kiev yesterday. "We have no choice. The government isn't hearing us.”
They may not seem revolutionary enough for some people but these demands, as modest as they appear, are sufficient to produce a violent confrontation with a government and state that cannot rule for Ukrainians as a whole. Where that leads depends on other factors, including the crucial question of leadership and organisations that can transcend nationalism and the rule of the oligarchs.
Ukrainian oligarchs control large parts of the country's economy and are prominent in the ruling Party of the Regions, and control over 80 MPs. Orysia Lutsevych, researcher for the Chatham House think tank, notes: “In Ukraine, the fusion of business and politics is more the rule than the exception. Holding high legislative and executive office provides access to a patronage system, protection for business, access to public finance, and immunity from prosecution."
The businesses of Ukraine's richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, the main financial backer of the regime, obtained 31% of all state tenders in January 2014. The president’s son Oleksandr tops even this, having "won" 50% of state contracts in the same period. Father and son have stashed away vast sums of wealth in Western Europe.
Ukraine’s economy has been badly affected by the global crisis, particularly since the middle of 2012. Borrowing heavily both from Russia and the International Monetary Fund has left the Yanukovych government caught in the middle. Russia wants Ukraine drawn into a customs union of its own while the European Union sees 50 million potential new consumers.
Either way, the prospect for Ukraine’s workers is lower living standards either within an authoritarian, Russian sphere whose capitalist economy is badly affected by falling oil prices and an EU dominated by austerity and mass unemployment. Not so much an East-West tug-of-war as an East-West nightmare. Other, revolutionary solutions that rise above borders, beckon.