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Ukraine dominates discussion at Party of the European Left’s summer university
Read more on Ukraine HERE.
By Dick Nichols
August 4, 2014 – Links international Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The main concern of ninth Summer University of the Party of the European Left (PEL), held outside Berlin from July 23 to July 27, was the armed conflict in Ukraine. Debate on the issue absorbed many sessions, including those not directly devoted to it, and the war in the country was a returning theme in often agitated informal discussion among the 1000 attendees from 31 countries.
The university was fortunate to hear detailed presentations from two Ukrainian socialists: Sergei Kirichuk, the leader of the Borotba (“Struggle”) movement, presently living in exile in Berlin, and Kiev-based social scientist Volodymyr Ishchenko, deputy director of the Centre for Society Research in Kiev, editor of Commons: Journal for Social Criticism and a lecturer in the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Ishchenko is also the author of an informative interview on “Ukraine’s Fractures” in the May-June issue of New Left Review.
The two Ukrainians’ agreements and differences largely structured the discussion, even as speakers from various member parties of the PEL brought their own strongly held positions to it. (On July 2, after a long debate, the various left European parties that make up the PEL had reached a consensus position on the Ukrainian conflict, expressed in this statement.
The university’s Ukraine discussion also produced a proposal for a coordinated “European Day for Peace”, to coincide with North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s annual meeting (to be held in Wales on September 4-5). The idea came from the Danish Red-Green Alliance (RGA), and was spoken to by Mikael Hertoft, RGA representative on the PEL executive board and longstanding student of Eastern European and Russian politics.
Ukraine was already present in the opening plenary session of the university’s second day, devoted to the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War. Here Die Linke MP Heike Hänsel linked her view of Germany as the main guilty party in that conflict to the present push by a major fraction of the German establishment for an expanded military budget worthy of the country’s role as a “lead power”.
Hänsel stressed that this German rearmament drive, endorsed by NATO, was still being resisted by millions of German people, and this despite a sustained, semi-hysterical, media campaign against the “Putin threat”. For Hänsel, this mood was symbolised by the refusal of the other parties to back a Die Linke proposal for a plaque in the national parliament in honour of Karl Liebknecht. (In August 1914, Liebknecht was the sole Social Democratic Party MP to vote against war credits.)
How should the left respond to this new belligerence where war between “great powers” again becomes thinkable? For the Die Linke MP, “we have to be anti-imperialist or we cease to exist”. But how to apply that principle in the case of Ukraine?
For a number of Die Linke members speaking in discussion the main enemy was easy to identify—the European Union-US-NATO alliance with “puppet” Ukraine president Petro Poroshenko, put into power by the “fascist coup” of Euromaidan. According to one such speaker the Western plan is to provoke Russia into a premature war it cannot win, use victory to consolidate the Ukraine as an EU and NATO ally, and open up further breaches within the former Soviet camp.
By contrast, a number of speakers from the Finnish Left Alliance stressed that “Russian aggression” and military backing for the forces that have constituted the “people’s republics” in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions represents a serious threat to non-Russian eastern European countries and peoples—particularly when combined with the pan-Slavism used to justify Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
It fell to a speaker from the Danish RGA to re-stress the link with the First World War: when it came to the crunch of spreading war it had been easiest for the parties of the Socialist International to follow the line of least resistance and support “national defence” over and above peace among peoples and nations. A like policy today—decided on the basis of which bloc of capitalist states represents a “lesser evil”—would have a similar disastrous impact.
The various affiliates of the European Left have differing stances on this critical issue, forged by factors like their countries’ varied historical experience of great Russian nationalism in tsarist and Stalinist guise and varied appreciation of the progressiveness of alliances between the present Russian state and the other BRICS powers, and between Russia and the ALBA countries (led by Cuba and Venezuela).
Perhaps taking her clue from the RGA speaker, Heike Hänsel’s summing-up focussed on the need for the European left to thrash out a common analysis and message, based on a thorough European-wide debate on the nature of imperialism 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
‘Return’ of geopolitics?
The next plenary, titled “Geopolitics are back on the agenda”, retraced the already running Ukraine discussion in greater detail. First PEL vice-president Maite Mola, from the Communist Party of Spain (CPE) and the United Left (IU), laid out the themes for discussion (including the bombing of Gaza and the impunity of the imperialist powers). Then Sergei Kirichuk gave Borotba’s view of events in Ukraine since the November 2013 mobilisation of Euromaidan led to the February 2014 overthrow of former president Viktor Yanukovych.
For Kirichuk, Euromaidan had always been a reactionary movement, dominated by people committed to the values of “individual success”, and thoroughly anti-communist. As a coalition between ultra neoliberals, far-right forces like Svoboda (“Freedom”) and even neo-Nazi groups, the destruction of the remaining symbols of the Soviet era, such as Kiev’s Lenin statue, expressed the essence of the movement.
By deposing Yanukovych and allowing the election of “chocolate king” Poroshenko and the adoption of the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement (“a free-trade zone for imperialists”), Euromaidan would allow Western capital to destroy the industrial base of Ukraine, just as it had done in Romania and Bulgaria. In a country in which 50% oppose Ukrainian entry into the European Union (according to Kirichuk)[i], the victory of Euromaidan, which began when Yanukovych suspended negotiations over the association agreement, was a win for US and European capital in their offensive to outflank their Russian competitor.
Kirichuk stressed that the movement against Euromaidan in the more Russian-speaking south and east of Ukraine began as a “moderate democratic movement” with two main demands—the federalisation of Ukraine’s state structures and the adoption of two official languages, Ukrainian and Russian. However, it was the ferocious reaction of the most right-wing elements in Euromaidan, culminating in the May 2 burning of the Odessa Trade Union House, which had accelerated the “Anti-Maidan” movement in the east, leading to the formation of the people’s republics of Luhansk and Donetsk in April and their confederation on May 24).
For Borotba, US and EU imperialism, which together drive NATO’s program of “relentless eastward expansion” are now the main force standing in the way of a negotiated solution to the Ukraine’s civil war. However, the US—also the likely candidate for the “third force” behind the shootings of Maidan protesters in late February—has no interest in a peaceful resolution of the conflict because of its determination to wrest the Ukraine once and for all from the Russian sphere of influence.
Hence the effective silence of the mainstream US and European media over the humanitarian disaster of the shelling of Donetsk and other towns in the Donbas. Hence, too, its silence over the gross violations of democracy by the Poroshenko government, such as its dissolution of the Communist Party of Ukraine’s (CPU) parliamentary fraction and the legal preparations now under way for the party’s outlawing.
Kiritschuk emphasised that, despite agreements with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that Russian acquiescence in its “satellite” countries choosing their own destiny would see the phasing out of NATO, the last 25 years have seen the transatlantic military alliance adopt a strategy of tightening encirclement of Russia.
Nonetheless, Kirichuk stressed that Borotba did not support the Russian side in the sharpening inter-imperialist conflict centred on Ukraine nor did it support a break-up of the Ukraine (“Ukraine is not Yugoslavia”), but rather the need for a peaceful solution. That should begin with an immediate ceasefire to avoid a humanitarian (and possibly environmental) disaster before the coming winter and be followed by negotiations aimed at creating a neutral Ukraine.
Kiev had to be forced to return to the negotiating table, and what Kirichuk called the “crisis of our anti-war movement” overcome in order to achieve that goal. If not, the rising tide of chauvinist hysteria on both sides could soon parallel the pro-war frenzy of 1914.
Increasingly militarised EU
Die Linke vice-president Tobias Pflüger next explained the increasing militarisation of the EU, already envisaged under the EU’s 2007 Lisbon Treaty. This would become evident after NATO’s September annual meeting, when all members would be required to adopt a minimum of 2% of gross domestic product for “defence” expenditure. As a result Germany alone, with an actual military budget of 1.6% of GDP, would have to boost it by US$12.2 billion, a “burden” that would be happily shouldered by the ruling grand coalition of Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Social Democratic Party (SDP).
“The days when German foreign policy could be expected to act as a restraint on US aggression are over”, he said, stressing that the Angela Merkel administration fully supports an overtly imperialist role for an EU determined to get its hands on the Ukraine in order to privatise and exploit its lands and industry. As for the fighting in the Donbas (as in Gaza), for the EU militarists these were “valuable” testing grounds for new forms of warfare, featuring combined used of drones and “advanced” street-fighting techniques.
The Die Linke MP ended by stressing that only a mass anti-war movement, inside Ukraine and across the European continent could make social democracy—and wavering Greens—pay the political price of support for EU war-mongering.
In discussion, the poles within the PEL’s Ukraine debate emerged more clearly, beginning with a Finnish Left Alliance speaker who outlined the impact of the Ukraine conflict in his country (“the biggest topic in Finnish politics”).
Evoking Finland’s status as an EU and Eurozone member with a non-aligned foreign policy outside NATO, this speaker described the efforts of conservatives, led by Prime Minister Alexander Stubb, to convince the pro-neutrality majority in the country to join the transatlantic alliance. (An opinion survey in March by Helsingin Sanomat, Finland's largest newspaper, showed that 59% of Finnish voters opposed NATO membership, 22% supported it, while 19% were undecided.)
The Left Alliance speaker said that in Finland Russia’s occupation of the Crimea and its manoeuvres along the Ukraine’s eastern border were a political gift for NATO supporters and right-wing Finnish nationalism. He also questioned the view of the Donetsk and Luhansk secessionist movements as progressive and working class, pointing to “a far-right axis” of involvement by Russian nationalists with a previous record of paramilitary action in the Caucasus. The responsibility of the European left was to “condemn nationalism” and “condemn both parties to the present conflict”.
The opposing pole within the PEL was expressed by various Die Linke members, including a speaker from its Berlin-Spandau branch who had been in the Crimea at the time of the Russian intervention and referendum. “The locals felt protected by the Russian presence, and they participated in the referendum as an act of self-defence.”
Another Die Linke member spoke of the economic destruction entry into the EU would mean for former Soviet-era states, like Moldova. “What”, he asked, “will happen to Moldova’s wine industry under the Common Agricultural Policy? Presently it accounts for 50% of the country’s exports.” The Ukrainian metallurgical industry, centred in the Donbas, would also be decimated for the benefit of western European, principally German, capital. The “separatism” in eastern Ukraine should be seen as both a revolt in defence of the rights of Ukraine’s Russian speakers and as a defensive reaction against the threat of EU-driven austerity, supported by the Poroshenko government.
The PCE’s Maite Mola went further, calling for an end to the attitude that “the Russians are to blame for everything”, and calling for “a new internationalism” focused against EU and US imperialism and in full solidarity with Cuba and Venezuela.
The message from RGA speakers Inga Johanssen and Michael Hertoft was that the critical question for the PEL was to act on what all affiliates agreed on—the urgent need for de-escalation of the Ukraine conflict, with demonstrations and increasing pressure within national parliaments and the European parliament. Given its dependence on EU aid, the Ukrainian government could be forced to negotiate tomorrow if the EU so demanded.
Ukrainian socialists debate
In his summing up Kirichuk stressed that for Borotba what was happening in Donetsk and Luhansk was a “proletarian revolution”. If it had nationalist overtones, this was in reaction to the ultra-nationalism coming from Kiev. The people in the east were defending their rights, while the referendum in the Crimea had brought “relief” to the peninsula.
As for the Crimean referendum being illegal, for Kirichuk a “properly conducted” international referendum would have produced the same result and in any case international legality was more fiction than ever—given EU-USA support for the “fascist coup” in Kiev. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Ukraine had agreed to give up all its nuclear weapons in exchange for international guarantees of its territorial integrity. What were they now worth?
In the following seminar devoted exclusively to Ukraine, Volodymyr Ishchenko spelled out his points of agreement and disagreement with the Borotba position. To understand these it was important to grasp that the Ukraine conflict was a civil war with internal causes, not the result of rivalry between the EU-USA and Russia. The Western powers were supporting Kiev and Russia the Donbas republics (“you don’t buy BUK missiles on the black market”), but, as in the 1936-39 Spanish Civil War, the Ukrainian conflict arose from unresolved problems in the country’s society and history. As a result, there could be no simple external solution via “Merkel-Putin negotiations”.
National tensions between Ukrainian and Russian speakers were being manipulated by the competing oligarchical capitalist cliques that had emerged with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Tellingly, on both “sides” of the conflict working people and impoverished welfare recipients were being told that the “enemy” was the other “side”, but in both camps the enemy was the same layer of super-rich sprung from the bureaucratic privatisation of social property.
Yes, Ukraine’s tragic history certainly gave these oligarchs potent weapons with which to inflame sentiment. These included the 1932-33 mass “terror-famine” (Holodomor) brought on by Stalin’s forced collectivisation, which killed at least 4 million, the 1941 welcome as “liberators” given to invading German army and the collaboration with them of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) led by Stefan Bandera, and the horrific Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
However, such events were manipulated by far-right nationalism on both sides, and it would be a serious error if the left viewed the conflict as one of working-class resistance to a fascist junta in Kiev. Nor did it make any sense to argue which Ukrainian “side” is most under foreign control. For Ishchenko, the separatist militia in the Donbas were behaving as irresponsible gangs in the zones under its control, even as the Kiev government continues to supply essential services to the region.
A large part of the Ukrainian social scientist’s presentation was given over to describing the horrors of the war in the urbanised Donbas, where 300-400 separatist militia, several hundred Ukrainian soldiers and 500 civilians have already died (these are only minimal estimates, the real casualties are probably much higher), and infrastructure damage already ran into the billions of euros. The longer the war continued, the worse that impact would be.
Unfortunately, however, both sides had an interest in keeping the war going. For the Kiev government, the war is the unanswerable justification for its austerity program—everything must be sacrificed for the frontline. Poroshenko and company have already pigeonholed the social, anti-corruption and democratic demands of Euromaidan and were now preparing a “war budget” full of welfare cuts and privatisations. The 50% devaluation of the hryvnia over the past year, in part due to the shrinking of the country’s traditional export markets with Russia, provided another justification for austerity.
On the Russian side, support for the Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” was necessary as a bargaining chip in any eventual settlement with Kiev and the EU, as well as being “proof” to Russian minorities in others regions outside the Russian Federation that Moscow “cares for” them.
It was in this context that the move to ban the Communist Party of Ukraine had to be seen. Ishchenko stressed that “the CPU is not a communist party”, but rather a “reactionary conservative party” that gave geopolitical support to the Russian Federation and had indulged in activities similar to those of other Ukrainian “parties”—outfits created by oligarchical money. These included selling positions on its electoral lists.
The CPU has been accused by the new rulers in Kiev of support for "terrorism" and separatism and of having supported the Russian annexation of the Crimea. CPU rank-and-filers would be critical in rousing community support to end the war.
Hence, for Kiev’s war drive to continue unhindered, the CPU was to be banned. The risk for Poroshenko and company was that the present “low intensity” protest of families against the sending of their sons to fight in the east would expand into a broad social movement.
Ishchenko concluded by referring the seminar to the June 8 Antiwar Appeal of Left Forces in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, and by stressing the importance of building a peace movement based on its six points:
1. An end to Kiev’s “anti-terrorist operation” and withdrawal of its troops from the territory of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions;
2. The complete cessation of hostilities, the release of all political prisoners and prisoners of war, and the disbanding of armed groups;
3. The Ukrainian government to release forcibly mobilised soldiers;
4. An end to Russian, EU and US interference;
5. An end to chauvinist campaigns by the Ukrainian and Russian media, which, “using the language of hatred, are one of the main instigators of the war”, and;
6. “The adoption of a new constitution of Ukraine, new elections to the institutions of state power in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, the genuine real right to self-determination and self-government for Donbas and all regions of Ukraine.”
Ishchenko concluded with the comment that the adopted PEL position was “OK—it’s about 70%-80% the same as ours”, but that the main challenge in his country was to overcome the “Maidan-Antimaidan” division. This would require general recognition that the Euromaidan protest against Yanukovych had just cause, and that the solution of the Ukraine’s problems lay with Ukrainians themselves, free from EU-USA and Russian interference.
Kirichuk responded to this presentation by presenting the Kiev government as the lead chauvinist in the Ukrainian conflict. Calling on the audience to “Remember Yugoslavia, Remember Lebanon”, he said: “The east is socially and culturally repressed, victim of racism and dehumanisation like that which justified the genocide in Rwanda.” Inevitably that had provoked a counter-reaction, including a desire to protect “our religion”.
As for Kiev’s “anti-terrorism” offensive, this was state terrorism pure and simple, with the shelling of Donetsk the biggest military offensive against a European city since World War II. Moreover, the conscripts fighting the war for Poroshenko and co. were the sons of the poor—any family that could scrape $600 together could buy exemption from military service.
As for the social climate in the west of Ukraine, while the oligarchs were “cutting up our motherland into little pieces”, neo-Nazi bands were now running free, attacking left militants, seizing left party offices and generally terrorising dissent into silence. The Poroshenko government, by conniving in their actions, was intensifying repression and “destroying natural centre-of-the-road politics”.
It was true that Yanukovych had accumulated immense wealth and also slyly supported Svoboda as a way of dividing his enemies, and it was also true that Putin had far-right allies, but none of this detracted from the need to defend the Donbas people from Kiev’s “anti-terrorist” offensivThe final speaker, Die Linke MP and executive board member Wolfgang Gehrcke, began with a confession of failure: the PEL had viewed Europe as little more than the European Union, overlooking Ukraine, while its “left analysis” (especially of the economic motives behind EU eastward expansion) had been shallow.
Now was the time for active solidarity, beginning with a campaign against EU support for the Kiev government, including its effective complicity in the Poroshenko administration’s attacks on democratic rights. Die Linke, as official opposition in the Bundestag, was pushing a motion against the banning of the CPU, and would urge other PEL affiliates to do their same in their national parliaments. Not a cent of German money should go to Kiev while it presides over violation of human rights, and all parties should be made to take a stance on that issue.
The bulk of Gehrcke’s speech was dedicated to the need to counteract the pro-NATO enthusiasm of the German government with proposals that would win support from the German social majority that is still in favour of a détente policy with Russia. He ended with the comment that these critical challenges for a left foreign policy were being generated by a new phase of imperialist re-division of the world, putting a priority on international people’s solidarity against capitalist bloc rivalries.
The discussion in the session had two aspects--apart from the claim from one speaker that the Russian state and the separatist movements in the Donbas had been proven to have had nothing to do with the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17: interventions from speakers from Eastern European left forces and thinking out aloud about what form solidarity and pro-peace action with Ukraine could take.
One suggestion was that where PEL affiliates have municipal councillors they should urge their towns and/or cities to “twin” with Donetsk. Another was to hold a Europe-wide day of cultural activity in support of peace.
A Romanian speaker, taking his clue from the Gerhcke’s acknowledgement of European left shortcomings, said that the EU’s imperialist intervention into Ukraine showed that the perhaps unconscious division of Europe into the EU and the “rest in the east” was damagingly out of date—now a left and progressive European politics had to operate from Lisbon to the Urals. This wake-up call should have come at the time of the “Orange Revolution” (2004), but it took the ultra-right presence in Euromaidan, and the use it of it by oligarch Poroshenko, to set alarm bells ringing.
A Bulgarian delegate, a scientist studying in England, reported that a petition calling for direct NATO intervention in Ukraine was circulating in the universities, and asked that the PEL initiate a “Ukrainians Want Peace” counter petition.
A representative of the Slovenian United Left, recently successful in winning six seats in the 90-seat Slovenian parliament, asked “Where are the international brigades?” for fighting fascism in Ukraine, and criticised the “peace paradigm” common in the message of other PEL affiliates, like Die Linke and the Austrian Communist Party (KPÖ).
A Syriza speaker asked the question that was on everyone’s minds: if the Poroshenko government lost support, as would seem inevitable given its looming austerity offensive, wouldn’t the far-right nationalist Svoboda and neo-Nazi Right Sector be best placed to capitalise on popular anger, especially given the likely banning of the CPU and the weakness of other left forces?
In summary, Sergei Kirichuk stressed the IMF’s role in pressuring Kiev to implement its “anti-terrorist” operation in the east, apparently seen as a necessary political precondition to implementing lasting economic “reform”.[ii] He also strongly supported the idea of “people’s diplomacy” with Donetsk and other Donbas towns. As for the CPU, he accepted much of Ichshenko’s criticism, but added that one thing differentiated the CPU from the rest of Ukraine’s political formations—it had never voted for austerity.
The rest of Kirichuk's summary was devoted to doubts over the downing of MH17. Why hadn’t the transcripts of conversations between Kiev air traffic control and the doomed flight been released? Why were there no pictures from satellites?
For Ishchenko, speculation about MH17 was a waste of time, and he urged the audience to be very careful with propaganda and resist susceptibility to conspiracy theories. Only a full investigation, if it could ever take place, would determine the truth.
Ishchenko concluded by stressing Russian responsibility in the crisis. Because it has been largely peaceful the 2004 Orange Revolution produced hardly any growth in pro-Russian separatism. This time, the Russian annexation of the Crimea, even if supported by a majority, became a model of how to carry out regional separation, and encouraged Russian nationalist forces—often far-right and from outside Ukraine—to repeat the tactics of the Russian Special Forces in Crimea. In this way the indigenous protest movement in the Donbas had been built into a military operation supplied from Russia.
As for the future, Ishchenko agreed with his Syriza questioner that a strengthening of far-right forces was more likely than any immediate resurgence of the left.
For this observer the Ukraine debate was a sobering experience. It reinforced how far still, despite positive signs like the success of Slovenia’s United Left, socialist forces are from rebuilding their position in the lands once run by “communism”. Its agenda, a “third way” between the plans of Western and Russian capitalist camps, is almost invisible in public life.
That political vacuum, much greater than that in the rest of Europe, is presently being filled by xenophobic nationalisms, permanently stoked and manipulated by oligarchical cliques determined to wipe out any social gains left over from Soviet times.
Notwithstanding, there was a positive side to the discussion: the European left’s understanding of the interconnectedness of struggles in Eastern Europe with those in the rest of the continent has increased, and its commitment to act in solidarity with forces in struggle there for democratic rights, against austerity and for peaceful coexistence been spelled out.
Hopefully the protests to which the PEL committed itself at its summer university—against the banning of the CPU and against NATO militarism—will now start to register on the European political screen.
[Dick Nichols is Green Left Weekly’s and Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal’s European correspondent, based in Barcelona. He attended the European Left’s Summer University on behalf of the Australian Socialist Alliance.]
[i] For some information about of polling on this issue see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euromaidan#Public_opinion_about_joining_the_EU and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Euromaidan#Public_opinion_about_Association_Agreement.
[ii] For latest IMF Staff Report on Ukraine see http://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/scr/2014/cr14106.pdf.