Ukraine’s counterfeit left and the Parliamentary Elections: A Shameful Affair

in:

Christopher Ford reports on this weekend’s elections.

The elections to the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine's Parliament on 31st March will be of vital importance for the direction of the country in the first decade of the century. Ukraine, an area the size of France, with a populace of just under 50 million, is one of the richest countries in Europe in terms of natural resources, agriculture and minerals. This wealth that has been the object of plunder over the centuries by neighbouring powers that denied the country self-determination. On the back of a mass movement Ukraine finally wrested independence from Russia in 1991during the break up of the USSR. A decade later with the European Union and NATO expanding towards its borders, Ukraine is yet again in a position of a vital crossroads. 

On appearance the elections are a complex affair, with voters facing two pro-presidential blocs, two anti-presidential blocs, and the neo-Stalinist Communist Party of Ukraine [KPU]. Overshadowing the campaign is the ‘Kuchmagate’ crisis sparked by the murder of critical journalist Georgiy Gongadze and the revelation of the virtually certain complicity of President Leonid Kuchma. Underpinning these divisions is the social and economic catastrophe of the post-‘communist’ period, which stands in sharp contrast to the high hopes that the national democratic movement of the late 1980’s aspired. The vision of this movement became narrowed to one of a ‘free market’ economy, EU integration and parliamentary democracy, ideas hegemonic across East Europe at the time. A recent ILO report on the conditions of the working class makes dire reading. Employment has shrunk by one-third since 1991, after nearly a decade of economic decline and stagflation; open unemployment stands at over 12 per cent with an effective rate of over 20 %. Three out of five firms are failing to pay agreed wages, on average workers go unpaid for six weeks whilst one in seven are working in “very unsafe” conditions”. A staggering 78% of workers received no benefit whilst unemployed; debt is pervasive with a third of homes in various arrears.1 

The ‘free market’ reforms having prized open the state monopolies as opposed to including workers in a ‘share holding’ democracy, has seen business and government ridden with the corruption of mafia style clans of oligarchs grown fat on the gains of privatisation.2 The privatisation process itself, which proved favourable to Russian companies to the detriment of western capital, gave the division of the pro-Moscow and pro-Western perspectives in Ukraine a firm economic foundation. The oligarchs bankrolled Kuchma’s 1999 election campaign, the President however having mastered the art of speaking out of both sides of his mouth at once, also conceded to the needs of irate western capital. He appointed a government of reformers under the IMF favoured, head of the National Bank Viktor Yushchenko. This government attempted to address the economic crisis by accelerated privatisation whilst attempting to discipline the economy, root out corruption and bring capital accumulation in the shadow economy under greater control. In turn alienating the very 'oligarchs' whose support Kuchma relied.3 The Yushchenko's government was besieged; first the Energy Minister Yulia Tymoshenko was dismissed on spurious allegations of fraud, arrested twice to be finally released. Finally, Yushchenko's was ousted on 26th April 2001 when the Verkhovna Rada carried a vote of no confidence. Kuchma’s then appointed of Anatoly Kinakh, leader of the Ukrainian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs as a replacement. At the heart of the no bloc was the KPU and the Social Democratic Party of Ukraine (United) [SDPU(o)]. 

Amidst this malaise the conditions could not be riper for the rebirth of Ukrainian socialism as an independent alternative to the options of alignment to U.S/European or Russian blocs. Horst Kohler head of the IMF and German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder defended Yushenko; on appearance this could be viewed as a blow by resurgent socialism over capital, however appearances deceive? 

The KPU boasts 150,000 members, less than 5% of its strength as a satellite party of Moscow during the days of the USSR and draws support from 20% of the electorate. A high concentration of its support is amongst the Russian population in East Ukraine and Crimea; this is not coincidental. The KPU rejects any claim to the Ukrainian socialist tradition, indeed as an instrument of the Russian rule it sought to destroy it. The principle force of Russian nationalism in Ukraine today, it is a hybrid of nostalgic cravings to restore the USSR and pan-Slavism calling for a “greater union of Slavic people”. This is expressed through the call for Ukrainian entry into the Russian-Belarus Union, a union that has emerged whilst authoritarianism has been re-asserted in Russia and Belarus. In Ukraine where memories of the gulag, a genocidal famine and poverty of a pseudo-socialist economy are fresh in the mind of millions retrogression poses a limited attraction. 

The 300,000 strong SDPU(o) on the other hand does claim to be a party of the Ukrainian left tradition. The SDPU(o) declares itself “successor” to the 19th century populist tradition of Mykhailo Drahomanov, and the Marxists, Lesya Ukrainka a founder of the Socialist Ukrainian Party, Mykola Porsh and Volodymyr Vynnychenko’s Ukrainian Social Democratic Workers Party (USDRP) of the Second International.4 A founding leader of the old USDRP Lev Iurkevych argued that the role “the young Ukrainian socialist movement plays within the national renaissance is significant, this movement has tied the question of national liberation up to all the problems of the liberation of the proletarian classes”.5 These principles of social and national liberty remained at the heart of Ukrainian radical thought. The SDPU(o) claims to be following the “path of generations” to “freedom, justice and solidarity”, yet in contrast to the tradition it seeks to appropriate, it was the only party to call for a boycott of the 1991 independence referendum, this divergence was not so much on account of Stalinism’s efforts to eradicate this tradition from memory, but an expression of the very nature of the SDPU(o) itself. 

After a period in the doldrums the SDPU(o) re-entered the political scene in 1995, when its Kyiv congress it proclaimed itself the “successor of the Ukrainian social democratic movement of the 19th and 20th centuries”. This revival continued at the 1996 Poltava congress when a new leadership emerged with Viktor Medvedchuk elected chairman and since 1997 the party has seen massive growth. Medvedchuk had already achieved notoriety for his dubious role as a state appointed ‘defence’ lawyer for the poet Vasyl Stus, sent to his death in the Gulag by a Soviet court. As co-author of the party’s draft Programme he boldly declared their “ideas approved by time” this was hardly the rebirth of a party of Ukrainian labour. The counterfeit nature of the SDPU(o) can be found in fact that it is not the creation of a re-emerged Ukrainian labour movement, but the new form of appearance of the social class that ruled production and the state in the USSR.

At the very point when Ukraine set upon a transition to a market economy it was hit by the global economic crisis of the early 1990’s. In response the Kuchma government introduced austerity measures including a programme of privatisation, and despite the rhetoric of a ‘free market’ it was imposed by the only force in a position to so: the state.6 As the State Property Fund of Ukraine set about auctioning off its goods, by a circuitous route the very same social class of exploiters was able to utilise its position to its full advantage during the change in forms of property.7 

Re-composition of the ‘red bourgeoisie’

In Soviet Ukraine the KPU was the most important institution, in the state-capitalist economy the largest and most important section of the ruling class were the industrial managers, dubbed the ‘red bourgeoisie’. Yet they were managers of a subsidiary strictly controlled from Moscow, and they themselves were the most loyal advocates of the interests of Great Russia. With independence this situation changed, the ease with which the KPU was made illegal after independence was not only due to the strength of the movement from below, the KPU was surplus to requirements; a new political voice of this class was required. This was done by the take over of existing parties, or creation of new bodies. These oligarch parties despite variations express their common interests in blocs, acting as satellite parties of the central administration. 

Within this development the power base of Medvedchuk has not been social democratic workers but with his partners in the Slavutch holding company. This clan gained influence over the lucrative energy distribution companies; the TV channel "Inter", a string of newspapers and the Kyiv Dynamo football club. Fellow SDPU(o) candidate is ex-President Kravchuk, who is making his fortune monopolizing the alcohol and tobacco trade. It is therefore no coincidence that the SDPU(o) has been branded the “party of entrepreneurs”.

This class character of the SDPU(o) is expressed within its programme in which it explicitly breaks from the tradition it claims to inherit. Medvedchuk writes that we should not “condemn millions of admirers of socialism, who selflessly struggled for renovation of the world, against brutality of the "wild" capitalism”. In the end however “analysis of the past, proves that romantic socialism” was in reality “attractive, but simplified, ideas of equality”. The relationship of the SDPU(o) to the Ukrainian social democrats of the early 20th Century, who considered themselves Marxists, and their predecessors is a parasitical one no less damaging to genuine socialism than that of the Stalinists, for both would render this tradition harmless to contemporary capitalism. 

Within the old social democracy of the early 20th century the growth of opportunism was symptomatic of its impending ruin, this trend was engendered by transformation into opposite of a section of the working class during the growth of capitalism into a new stage - imperialism. A process described by Marx as “bourgeoisification” was changing the working class itself impacting on the labour movement as a whole. A privileged layer of workers based on the wealth of empire entered into virtual peaceful co-existence with their own ruling class. This corruption found its maturation in the 1914 collapse of the Second International as its main parties backed their own rulers in the slaughter of World War One.8 It is precisely this trend within the old social democracy that today’s SDPU(o) take as their point of departure.

“Changes that are taking place now can be irreversible if they are fully supporting socially, first of all this means existence of middle class…. . the most qualified part of the working class, scientists and technical intelligentsia, teachers and doctors….We, united social democrats, see our major task in full-scale support of formation of this new class. We are willing to become exponents and defenders of its interests. We are consistent and determined in establishing ideological, organisational and legal basis for middle class formation.”

In the pursuit of their class interests, the “state must also support entrepreneurship, expand the private sector through privatisation”, whilst this is not alien amongst European social democracy, it takes on a different dimension in Ukraine. This ‘restructuring’ is viewed as a means to strengthen those classes who desire to lord over the workers under capitalism as much as they did under communism.9 Thus for all their concern ‘free trade unions’ and their ‘crucial role in the process of democratisation of economics and society’ the SDPU(o) shielded the very powers which have shackled Ukrainian unions in order to protect the power of managers during privatisation, and undermine union recognition.10 

New friends in the west…

With the EU €1,072 billion I assistance to Ukraine, the involvement of European capital is a major determinant in Ukrainian political life, and an important question for Ukrainian labour. A Partnership and Co-operation Agreement with the EU came into force in 1998, it objects being to “bringing Ukraine in line with the legal frameworks of the single European market and the GATT/WTO system.” At last years Warsaw Summit President Bush stated “Europe should not forget about Ukraine and that he didn’t see the future of Ukraine outside of Europe”. In December the U.S Congress awarded $154 million in aid to support ‘democratic’ reform. Not surprisingly the SDPU(o) supports the Ukraine as a “full-fledged member of the European community”, as well as seeking to join the Socialist International. This perspective is one of legitimisation of its position within European social democracy. There is also money in it, Medvedchuk has built common business projects with the German SPD. 

Old friends in Moscow..

Whilst Ukraine can be expected to waver between the EU and Russia, with the balance towards European capital. This is not a road without difficulty. Russian imperialism has exercised powerful pressure on Ukraine, including trade wars that violate their ‘free trade’ agreement. Whilst Medvedchuk has argued that Ukraine “should forget about political radicalism for good and all!” the old ruler is very much in living memory, and their involvement with Moscow is an ominous one. The SDPU(o) prides itself in rejecting “discredit battles”, thus during the popular protests over ‘Kuchmagate’ it shielded Kuchma.11 At the time Russophile oligarchs parroted the conspiracy theories of Moscow regarding the alleged ‘Brzezinski plan’ by Washington to overthrow Kuchma, in the same manner as their ‘brother Slav’ Milosevic. This disinformation has been resurrected by Kievskiye Vedomosti an SPDU(o) paper. These Russophile politics are being underpinned by the Fund for Effective Politics, this organisation of Kremlin spin-doctors are Putin’s strategists, and now providing ‘campaign advice’ to SDPU(o). Not surprisingly the SDPU(o) have also backed Ukraine’s entry into the Russia-Belarus Union.12 

Whilst it may have fallen from grace from its old master, Kuchma and shown itself capable building an independent party, SDPU (o) is the opposite of the rebirth of Ukrainian socialism. The predecessors of the SDPU(o) can be found not in those socialists who saw the Ukrainian question as inseparable from the self-emancipation of the working class. Instead we can find their antecedents in those who opportunistically substituted state powers for the masses. In 1914, a section of former Ukrainian ‘Marxists’, accepted the sponsorship of Austria then ruler of west Ukraine and at war with Russia. They were rightly denounced as “a lackey of that Government, on which it is entirely dependent”.13 In the tangled web of corruption that passes for politics in Ukraine today what was termed a shameful affair stands as a lesson for today’s problems. 

The legacy of Stalinism has left immense problems for the rebirth of genuine Ukrainian Marxism. In the name of ‘socialism’ whilst ‘bourgeois nationalism’ remained alive, albeit as a subject of abuse the regime systematically eradiated the Ukrainian left in the 1930’s and 1940’s. When the mass movement re-emerged in the 1980’s this legacy, and the regime itself contributed to hegemony of pro-capitalist ideas, the false opposites were viewed as state versus ‘free market’, as opposed to a new society. The free market views of the new movement have proved no threat to the former state capitalist ruling class. These problems of viewing rulers versus ruled as opposed to alignment to blocs and their ideological attachments continues to plague Ukraine. Yet the Ukrainian working class is today at its strongest in the history of the nation, the trade union movement counts 17.3 million, 94% of the workforce.14 Rooted in this potentially powerful subject, and making an absolute break from all forms of capital domination, whether under the capitalist or communist guise truly independent working class socialism can be reconstituted and set about the rebirth of Ukraine on new foundations. 

  Spectre’s editorial staff felt that the situation in the former Soviet Union was such that our usual policy, of not publishing polemical criticism of left parties (for example, we would normally not publish an attack on the PCF by LCR, or vice versa, or of  the SLP by the Socialist Alliances, or vice versa) could not be applied. Any readers who wish to defend any of the groups criticised in Christopher Ford’s article are encouraged to write to us.

1 Ukraine ten years after independence: Worker insecurities, poverty intensifies ILO studies find millions either unpaid or on forced leave Thursday 23 August 2001 ( ILO/01/27 ) GENEVA (ILO News)

2 The Ukrainian economy since independence Marko Bojcun, University of North London 1999. Interim Research Report Information Policy of the Ukrainian State: The Case of Agrarian and Land Reforms: Research Project the Center for Policy Studies, Open Society Institute, Budapest, Hungary.

3 National Identity and Civil Society in Ukraine: Explaining the Yushchenko Phenomenon By Taras Kuzio RFE/RL Newsline Vol. 6, No. 19, Part II, 30 January 2002.

4 Officicial Informational Site of the SDPU (u) www.sdpuo.org.ua.

5 Lev Iurkevych, L’Ukraine Et La Guerre, by L Rybalka, Borotba, Lausanne 1916.

6 See: The new forms of appearance of state-capitalism by Andrew Kliman, News & Letters December 1992

7 An analogous re-composition of class can be seen in industrial revolution England, in the old landed Aristocracy came together in a symbiosis the industrial Bourgeoisie, see: The Consolidation of the Capitalist State by John Saville Pluto 1994.

8 Notably the other USDRP leader that the SDPU(o) claim as their own is Symon Petliura, whose Moscow based paper Ukrainskaia Zhizn came out in support of the Russian war effort in 1914, in this he joined the openly chauvinist, Russian social-democrat Plekhanov. Petlyura himself became Military commander of the Ukrainian Peoples Republic and was opposed by the Bolsheviks and Ukrainain left alike.

9 A analysis of the social classes in the USSR is outlined in The Intelligentsia; The Social Physiognomy of the Ruling Class in Russia as State Capitalist Society, republished in the The Marxist-Humanist Theory of State Capitalism (Chicago: News and Letters 1992)

10 ICFTU Trade Union Rights Information Bulletin for Central and Eastern Europe issue 28 / 04.03. 2001. The ‘Law on Trade Unions, their Rights and Safeguards of Activities’ was finally repealed in October 18, 2000 following a major union campaign.

11 Ikor Shurma SDPU(o) Secretary In Ukraine must be rich and healthy! And it should forget about political radicalism for good and all! 15.01.02 20:50 Briefing by Serhiy Chernenko

12 Russia Gives Ukraine A Helping Hand In Its Elections By Taras Kuzio, Centre for Russian and East European Studies University of Toronto. RFE/RL News line, Jan 2002.

13 The ‘Social Democratic-Ukrainian Labour Party’ and the ‘Ukrainian Union of Revolutionary Socialists’ operated as fronts of the Austrian secret police. Amongst them were former members of the USDRP who had joined the RSDRP to later align themselves with Austria who then ruled Western Ukraine. The left-internationalist USDRP journal Borotba [Struggle] was scathing in its critique. See Feb.1915 ‘A Shameful Affair’, by Lev Iurkevych.

14 The tradition of the universal trade union membership has survived the Stalinist period when unions were an instrument of the state. The labour movement is divided into two groups, one encompasses trade unions inherited from the USSR and now formed as the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine (FTUU), with 12-14 million people. Alongside FTUU the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine in 1997 and includes 18 trade union organisations and associations with a total membership of 148,588, the 40 or so independent unions formed during the fall of the USSR have a membership of around 1.5 million. The trade union movement unlike in western Europe have no direct allegiance to any social-democratic or labour party. 

Ukraine ten years after independence: Worker insecurities, poverty intensifies ILO studies find millions either unpaid or on forced leave Thursday 23 August 2001 ( ILO/01/27 ) GENEVA (ILO News)

14 The Ukrainian economy since independence Marko Bojcun, University of North London 1999. Interim Research Report Information Policy of the Ukrainian State: The Case of Agrarian and Land Reforms: Research Project the Center for Policy Studies, Open Society Institute, Budapest, Hungary.

14 National Identity and Civil Society in Ukraine: Explaining the Yushchenko Phenomenon By Taras Kuzio RFE/RL Newsline Vol. 6, No. 19, Part II, 30 January 2002.

14 Officicial Informational Site of the SDPU (u) www.sdpuo.org.ua.

14 Lev Iurkevych, L’Ukraine Et La Guerre, by L Rybalka, Borotba, Lausanne 1916.

14 See: The new forms of appearance of state-capitalism by Andrew Kliman, News & Letters December 1992

14 An analogous re-composition of class can be seen in industrial revolution England, in the old landed Aristocracy came together in a symbiosis the industrial Bourgeoisie, see: The Consolidation of the Capitalist State by John Saville Pluto 1994.

14 Notably the other USDRP leader that the SDPU(o) claim as their own is Symon Petliura, whose Moscow based paper Ukrainskaia Zhizn came out in support of the Russian war effort in 1914, in this he joined the openly chauvinist, Russian social-democrat Plekhanov. Petlyura himself became Military commander of the Ukrainian Peoples Republic and was opposed by the Bolsheviks and Ukrainain left alike.

14 A analysis of the social classes in the USSR is outlined in The Intelligentsia; The Social Physiognomy of the Ruling Class in Russia as State Capitalist Society, republished in the The Marxist-Humanist Theory of State Capitalism (Chicago: News and Letters 1992)

14 ICFTU Trade Union Rights Information Bulletin for Central and Eastern Europe issue 28 / 04.03. 2001. The ‘Law on Trade Unions, their Rights and Safeguards of Activities’ was finally repealed in October 18, 2000 following a major union campaign.

14 Ikor Shurma SDPU(o) Secretary In Ukraine must be rich and healthy! And it should forget about political radicalism for good and all! 15.01.02 20:50 Briefing by Serhiy Chernenko

14 Russia Gives Ukraine A Helping Hand In Its Elections By Taras Kuzio, Centre for Russian and East European Studies University of Toronto. RFE/RL News line, Jan 2002.

14 The ‘Social Democratic-Ukrainian Labour Party’ and the ‘Ukrainian Union of Revolutionary Socialists’ operated as fronts of the Austrian secret police. Amongst them were former members of the USDRP who had joined the RSDRP to later align themselves with Austria who then ruled Western Ukraine. The left-internationalist USDRP journal Borotba [Struggle] was scathing in its critique. See Feb.1915 ‘A Shameful Affair’, by Lev Iurkevych.

14 The tradition of the universal trade union membership has survived the Stalinist period when unions were an instrument of the state. The labour movement is divided into two groups, one encompasses trade unions inherited from the USSR and now formed as the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine (FTUU), with 12-14 million people. Alongside the FTUU stands the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine formed in 1997 and includes 18 trade union organisations and associations with a total membership of 148,588. The 40 or so independent unions formed during the fall of the USSR have a membership of around 1.5 million. The trade union movement unlike in western Europe has no direct allegiance to any social-democratic or labour party.