Ukraine: Outside powers exploiting ethnic nationalisms

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By Tony Iltis

March 22, 2014 -- Green Left Weekly -- Russian President Vladimir Putin announced legislation on March 18 accepting the formerly Ukrainian Republic of Crimea and City of Sevastopol into the Russian Federation. The legislation was passed by the Russian Duma (parliament) on March 20.

Crimea and Sevastopol had voted in a March 16 referendum to leave Ukraine and join Russia. This was the culmination of a process that began after the February 21 overthrow of unpopular Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich by protesters in the capital Kiev.

Crimea is 60% Russian-identifying and 84% Russian-speaking, and was not historically part of Ukraine. Sevastopol is the home port of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. Yet this dramatic change in Europe’s borders was not on the agenda before the fall of Yanukovich less than a month earlier.

The Ukrainian government responded with predictable outrage and threats to what it regards as a blatant annexation of its territory. But Ukrainian forces in Crimea ― those who have remained loyal to the new Kiev regime ― have been powerless to stop pro-Russian forces taking over their bases and naval ships.

After Yanukovich fell, heavily armed unidentified soldiers took over the Crimean parliament and city administration buildings, and supervised votes by the elected bodies that installed a new pro-Russian administration.

The new Crimean regime went about legislating the transfer in sovereignty. The referendum was called at just 10 days notice. Pro-Russia rallies were organised by the new authorities while pro-Kiev rallies were attacked.

Western rhetoric

This took place to a chorus of hypocritical bluster from the self-appointed representatives of the “international community” ― the leaders of the US, the EU and other Western imperialist powers.

Putin’s acceptance of Crimea into the Russian Federation prompted an increase of Western rhetoric and some economic sanctions. But US President Barack Obama has explicitly ruled out a military response.

The EU has been more cautious with economic sanctions than the US. Not only do the French arms industry and British banking sector have a profitable relationship with Russia, 30% of the natural gas consumed in the EU comes from Russia.

Russian and Crimean leaders have countered Ukrainian and Western rejection of the legitimacy of the process by denying the legitimacy of the new Ukrainian government.

When Yanukovich fled after failing to crush two months of anti-government protests in Kiev’s Maidan (Independence Square), opposition politicians were manoeuvred into power by the country’s powerful oligarchs. This includes those who had previously supported Yanukovich.

These politicians were supported by the US and EU, diplomatically and with covert and overt interference, but explicitly shunned by the Maidan protesters who have remained in the Square.

The protests began in support of a free trade agreement with the EU which Yanukovich had promoted then backed out of, and to which the new government is entirely committed.

However, they rapidly became focused on the issues of police brutality, the dysfunctional economy and the domination of the country by criminal oligarchs and their corrupt cronies in parliament.

The opposition politicians now in power are representatives of the same oligarch-dominated politics. But tensions between the new government and the protesters have been muted by the threat from Russia and the growing danger that Ukraine could disintegrate into conflicting regions and communities.

This latter danger stems from both Western and Russian interference and the promotion by both the Ukrainian and Russian elites of ethnic nationalist ideologies.

Before 1991, Ukraine was the industrial heartland of the Soviet Union. Today it has significantly lower wages and higher unemployment than Belarus and Russia. The economy was devastated by Soviet bureaucrats who transformed themselves into oligarchs by literally selling the country to the highest bidder.

Bidding war

The catalyst for the Maidan protests was a bidding war between Russia and the EU. The EU free trade agreement offered Yanukovich aid and loans but with the immediate requirement to implement IMF austerity policies that would have risked a backlash from the impoverished population.

It would also have damaged economic ties with Russia. This was unpopular in the industrial areas in the east, where industry remains oriented toward the countries of the former Soviet Union.

The Russian government also has concerns about NATO’s expansion into eastern Europe and its aim of neutralising Russia as a military rival.

Putin enticed Yanukovich from the EU agreement to a customs union with Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Armenia by offering aid and loans without austerity needing to be implemented immediately.

In the impoverished rural west of the country and in Kiev, the economy is more oriented toward the EU, including as an illegal destination to seek employment.

Even after the EU agreement stopped being the protests' focus, they still drew their support predominantly from Kiev and western Ukraine, despite Yanukovich being unpopular throughout the country.

Economic differences between the regions reflect different histories.

Throughout the country, leftist ideas are associated with the violent and repressive history of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party of Ukraine’s post-independence niche in the oligarch-dominated political establishment. This has allowed discontent to be channelled by ethnic nationalist demagogues.

The new regime in Kiev tried to bolster its nationalist credentials by introducing a law relegating the status of Russian and other minority languages. This law was rapidly withdrawn when Russia used it to play the ethnic nationalist card with Russian-speakers in the industrial east and Crimea.

With the Kiev government and the US signalling the likelihood of an increasingly Western-aligned Ukraine, Russia moved to secure its Black Sea Fleet’s base.

Regardless of exactly how fair the vote in Crimea to join Russia truly was, it does appear a majority of people in Crimea support the return to Russia.

However, not only were supporters of remaining in Ukraine prevented from putting their case, the vote took place in an atmosphere of ethnic nationalist hysteria.

This was helped by the fact that Neo-Nazi ultra-nationalist groups were prominent in Maidan protests. Svoboda, the most moderate of these far right groups, has three ministers in the new government.

The more hardline groups who played a prominent role in street-fighting during the Maidan protests, such as Right Sector, are more openly fascist. Their ideas have limited appeal, but they have used violence to silence progressives in the movement. They are well placed to take advantage of the simmering discontent in Maidan about the new regime.

The Ukrainian far-right identifies with Nazi-collaborating anti-Soviet nationalists during World War II based in the west of Ukraine. Since independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, these forces have been rehabilitated by the Ukrainian establishment.

On the other hand, the ethnic Russian majority in Crimea has never identified strongly with Ukraine. Crimea was transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 when both were part of the Soviet Union making the border an internal one.

The Russian national identity in Crimea identifies strongly with the resistance to the Nazi onslaught in the 1940s.

In the rest of the Ukraine, resistance to the Nazis is also a part of the national identity, particular in the industrial east. In the rural east, historical memories of Nazi atrocities are mixed with memories of the genocidal forced collectivisation of agriculture and other atrocities by the Soviet leader Stalin.

Pro-Russian protests in Crimea and eastern Ukraine also invoke the memory of the Tsarist Empire, are close to the Orthodox Church hierarchy and their ethnic nationalism is just as racist, xenophobic and homophobic as the neo-Nazis in the west of the country.

Ironically, the small group of international observers that defied the international boycott of the referendum was a who’s who of European far right, even including groups with links to Svoboda.

Putin has insisted that Russia has no intention of annexing any territory in eastern Ukraine. However, Russia maintains the “right” to intervene in Ukraine if they believe Russian interests or people are threatened.


Until the 1780s, Crimea was part of neither Russia or Ukraine (which did not then exist). The Crimean Tatar Khanate ruled over much of what is now southern and east Ukraine and south Russia. Crimean Tatars were the main ethnic group.

Between the Russian invasion in 1783 and 1939, Russian and Ukrainian settlement, periodic ethnic cleansing under Tsarist rule and the forced collectivisation of agriculture had reduced Crimean Tatars to 20% of the population of Crimea.

In 1944, Stalin ordered the ethnic cleansing of the entire Crimean Tatar population. Those who survived were exiled to Central Asia.

Crimean Tatars were officially allowed to return to their homeland in the 1960s, but it was only facilitated in practice after the Soviet Union collapsed. Today, they are about 12% of the population of Crimea and the Crimean Tatar population in Crimea now exceeds that still in central Asia.

Not surprisingly, Crimean Tatars have become the staunchest opponents within Crimea of rejoining Russia.

Post-Soviet Russia’s record with Muslim minorities is poor. On March 18, Crimean Deputy Prime Minister Rustam Temirgaliyev said: “We have asked the Crimean Tatars to vacate part of their land, which is required for social needs. But we are ready to allocate and legalise many other plots of land to ensure a normal life for the Crimean Tatars.”

It is in the interests of neither Russia or the West to fight a war over Ukraine and Crimea. However, the huge nuclear arsenals held by both sides makes the brinkmanship of both dangerous.

A greater danger than a war between the big powers is the type of ethnic-nationalist-based civil wars that devastated the nations of the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

This may not be what the big powers want but their reliance on ultra-nationalist proxies in their rivalry with each other over who will be the main beneficiary of imposing further austerity on Ukraine, could see the situation slip beyond their control.

[For more articles and analysis of the situation, including by left forces in Ukraine and Russia, visit Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.]

From GLW issue 1002