Eastern Ukraine: beyond the fragments

Gabriel Levy with a piece on the situation in Ukraine. It featured in People and Nature on 22 May 2014.

Organised workers in eastern Ukraine are urging action to stave off the looming civil war, making their voices heard against bosses of all nationalities.

The Krivyi Rih branch of the mineworkers’ union has issued a statement, not only supporting a workers’ pay campaign at the Russian-owned multinational steel company Evraz, but also denouncing “interethnic confrontation that is fuelling a hysterical mutual hatred between workers of different nationalities”.

The statement calls for “workers’ self defence” to “prevent the escalation of violence in Ukraine” and ends: “Long live international workers’ solidarity! By preserving the peace in Ukraine we will preserve the peace of Europe!” It has been published in English by RS21, a socialist group, with a call for a demonstration in London on Friday at the Evraz group’s headquarters. I hope this appeal gets a good response, not only on Friday but in the development of a solidarity movement with Ukrainian working people in western Europe.

Solidarity means listening to people and trying to understand the situations they face. And to that end I am publishing here (1) some comments on employers’ influence on trade unions in Ukraine, and (2) reports from friends in eastern Ukraine about workers’ views of the Donetsk and Lugansk “people’s republics”.

Bosses and trade unions

How could you not be confused by a call for strike action made this week by … the richest man in Ukraine, Rinat Akhmetov! He has called on workers at the metals plants and mines that he owns in Donetsk to stop work in protest at the so-called “People’s Republic” set up there.

Akhmetov was one of the key backers of the overthrown president Viktor Yanukovich. Since Yanukovich was defeated in February, Akhmetov has constantly been accused of supporting armed separatism in eastern Ukraine – and indeed the proto-fascist leader of the Donetsk separatists, Pavel Gubaryov, claimed the movement was financed by Akhmetov. But now Akhmetov has publicly stated his support for the Kyiv government.

In the second of two pro-Kyiv videos posted on Youtube, Akhmetov on Monday called on his own employees to strike against separatism. This followed the organisation of self-defence units by steelworkers at an Akhmetov-owned plant in Mariupol, the port city in Donetsk region. The units, formed last month with no apparent support from the steelworks management, were last week brought on to the streets with the managers’ active participation (according to this article in the New York Times).

Weird as it may sound to readers in many countries … workers are being mobilised by their bosses. Such alliances are a long and dishonourable post-Soviet tradition.

In the 1990s, miners and other industrial workers were for the first time developing independent unions that had been illegal and impossible to organise in Soviet times. At the same time, local bosses and would-be owners were battling for control of cash flows and assets with “the centre” (i.e. ministries in Moscow or, from 1991 in Ukraine, Kyiv). Both Russia and Ukraine suffered an epidemic of non-payment of wages by bankrupt enterprises. Plant managers would typically urge workers e.g. to block roads or railroads, or even kidnap visiting officials, to put pressure on “the centre”. The workers often needed little persuading.

These actions often made the headlines because the local bosses would also seek media coverage. Genuine workers’ actions, directed against those same bosses – typically, campaigns for better pay and conditions, and the right to workplace and community organisation – received far less attention. Sometimes, workers’ own actions and management-inspired actions overlapped or even fused, making things even harder to understand.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. In post-Yanukovich Ukraine, as well as the pay campaign in Kriviy Rih, there have been strikes by coal miners in the western city of Lviv and in Krasnodon in the east – at another mine owned by Akhmetov.

The Krasnodon strike was organised against Akhmetov, for better pay and conditions. Akhmetov’s own call for strike action, as part of broader action against the armed separatists, is political. Most likely, it is part of a bargaining process between him and the Kyiv government, about how to divide and rule Ukrainian workers in future. This in turn points to one possible direction that things might go: towards a drastically decentralised Ukraine, with the oligarchs’ hand strengthened against the Kyiv authorities in the east.

Another point to bear in mind is that the independent mineworkers union of Ukraine (IMUU), to which the Krivyi Rih workers and many others across eastern Ukraine belong, has a leadership quite closely tied to the Kyiv political establishment. Mikhail Volynets, leader of both the IMUU and the independent union federation, was in 2007-12 a parliamentary deputy on the list of Batkivshchina, the bourgeois centrist party headed by former prime minister Yulia Timoshenko. This year Volynets joined the Council of Maidan, a group of would-be politicians and NGO leaders who claimed to represent the Maidan movement – and participated in a farcical and unsuccessful attempt to call a general strike in support of Maidan (see here). In recent weeks, the IMUU’s leaders in eastern Ukraine have come out clearly against separatism (see here).

Workers and the “people’s republics”

On 12 May the Donetsk and Lugansk “people’s republics” conducted referenda in which voters were asked if they approved of the establishment of these republics. I asked my friend D., who lives in eastern Ukraine, what he thought of these, and in reply he sent me this social media post by someone he knows in Lugansk.
Today I went out to collect some opinions “for” and “against” [the referendum] in Sverdlovsk, Lugansk region [not to be confused with the much larger Russian city of Yekaterinburg, formerly Sverdlovsk, in the Urals]. My impression is that everyone is potentially schizoid. The revolutionary formula of the Donbas consists of social discontent multiplied by the fear of a fictional enemy. “Divide and rule” – the main principle of the Communists and the Regionals[1] has developed itself fully. It is remarkable that in the mines, [the administration] prohibited [the workforce] from taking part in the referendum, so among the miners it’s only the idealists and pensioners who go voting. There are many public sector employees.[2] And there is an extraordinary amount of old women.
Very few, perhaps about 1%, vote in favour of the “Lugansk People’s Republic” in the direct sense of the term. But many indeed go to the referendum and vote “yes”; the attendance rate is about 35%. So, what are the people of Sverdlovsk voting for? 
The most popular reason is: “I am voting for my pension”. One person holding this opinion (65 years, pensioner, higher education, miner, still working): “I am offended by the fact that my work colleague retired after me, but receives 7500 hryvna, and I, with the same amount of years at work, receive 2500 hryvna. I voted ‘yes’ today so that his pension gets cut.” 
Responding to a question about what this actually has to do with the referendum, he replied that there will be people’s power and it will make everyone equal. All older women vote “for the pension” in different variations. Everyone has their own opinion: The Banderites will come and take away the pension; pensions will be paid for Banderites only, and we won’t receive anything; Putin will pay a good pension; Yakunovich has brought all the money out of the country, risking his life to save it from the Banderites, and now he will share it among us. The pension will amount to 3000 euros. For everyone. 
The second most popular reason [for voting “yes”] is being in favour of separation from Ukraine and joining Russia. One person holding this opinion (45 years, housewife, married to a miner, mid-level technical education, not working, the husband stands by silently): “It’s better to be slaves of Akhmetov or Putin than cannon fodder for the Banderites.” Upon being asked for clarification, she was unable to elaborate this further. 
Many are against an independent and unrecognised republic (“that’s some bullshit”), but still stubbornly vote “yes” because they believe that this is “like in the Crimea” and [the question is] about joining Russia. After being asked about who told them that tomorrow we’ll become citizens of Russia embraced by Putin, the answer is uniform: “Well, how could it be otherwise?” 
People talk about social problems – pensions, wages, unemployment. They wait for improvement, they argue that they grew tired of the idle government, that they are fed up of the government getting rich on their behalf. They like the word “People’s” [in “Lugansk People’s Republic”] very much – for them it means their kind, the people, that everything will be for the common good. Everyone waits for paradise starting tomorrow – with high pensions and wages, and many even expecting wages to be paid without having to work at all. Everyone waits for the rich to be stripped of everything, and for it to be distributed among the poor. The best contribution came from a flamboyantly painted woman of indefinite age, preaching at one of the polling stations: “Yesterday, in Mariupol, our guys have driven out the Nazis [she meant the National Guard], and the people’s power said: ‘Take everything you want!’ My sister and her husband brought so many things home: electric irons, ventilators, tonnes of other stuff, and vodka.” (I suppose that she was talking about taking part in pillaging). The listeners began to liven up and to speculate how tomorrow things will be taken from the rich in this manner. To sum it up, everyone here votes for their own vision, everyone has their own opinion and crazy stuff in their heads. To read, to think, to analyse – that’s not theirs, that’s not granted to them. 
There is no-one here voting against the Lugansk People’s Republic. Those who are against, and who think it’s absurd, didn’t go to vote, because they don’t recognise the referendum and see it as unlawful. But I think there are fewer of us. Near the polling station some miners were drinking beer at a kiosk and recognised me. “Hi, Nikolaevna, you weren’t there for that carry-on were you?” No, I said, I just wanted to work out what was happening there. They didn’t vote, didn’t go the polling station. Although they are angered and enraged by both the new government and the old one, the way the country is being run, DTEK [an energy company owned by System Capital Management, the holding company controlled by Akhmetov] and the complete absence of any social policy. Everyone can go to hell, as far as these guys are concerned. There were robbers before, then another bunch of the same robbers under a different flag appeared. A natural rotation of robbers, as they call the presidential elections. 
Their view on the candidates … [Oleh] Lyashko [leader of a small ultra-right Ukrainian party, the Radical Party] tells it like it is. [Olga] Bogomolets [a singer and populist pro-Maidan politician] … well, she’s cute. Yanukovich – a traitor. The new authorities are just like the old, because … What are these regional bandits [they used the word “regionaly”, which probably specifically refers to Party of Regions politicians] doing in power? Why don’t they pass some sensible laws? How come our mayor steals like that and gets away with it? Why did they give the mines to Akhmetov and why don’t they take them back? These are the main questions. As for the LPR [Lugansk People’s Republic]: ha! what sort of f…ed up republic is that? We asked them who is going to pay our pensions, and who needs our coal. Only one answer: we’ll take power and then we’ll sort it out. The bandits of Akhmetov and [Aleksandr] Yefremov [former governor of Lugansk under Yanukovich and senior figure in Yanukovich’s Party of Regions] have come to power. But they won’t be there for long. They will use [the bandits] and then kill them. 
That’s the workers’ opinion. And another thing. When I asked would they fight for Ukraine, for unity, they said: Have you gone mad? They’ve armed those guys [the separatists] so that they can grab everyone by the balls and hold them for five years. Why would we want to pick a fight with bandits? I also heard the opinion that, once Akhmetov had picked up the Ukrainian flag, that just made it clear that, up there, over our heads, they had divided up the country. Doom. Gloom. Luganda [a play on words, Lugansk and Uganda] and Dyra [a play on words, Donetsk and “dyr”, which means hole] just have to be. Maybe just for six months or a year, but they have to be. To cure those who have dragged us into this swamp and opened up the doors of hell.
My friend D. added some observations of his own:
At the coal mines [the management] forbid people to participate in the referendum, most likely because the miners don’t like the anti-Maidan people. […] The local intelligentsia are also against [the people’s republics]. However, as you see, the author of that post, a pro-Ukrainian liberal, reports quite a number voting FOR [the separatists]. […] 
To make it clear why the picture is so miserable and why you don’t see the left on the political scene, something that a friend of mine from Donetsk is very relevant. “Now, in order to be considered some kind of force, you have to say how many hundred fighters you can put on to the street. And if you don’t have half of a hundred, no-one is going to talk to you.” My friend is right. The time for intellectual discussion, convincing manifestos and talented orators has gone. All that is still needed now, but on one condition … that you can put on to the street a hundred morose guys in camouflage jackets, ready for action. But us, we are in a mess. Some Ukrainian revolutionary Marxists are participating in a united movement “for Russia” together with Denikinists, Russian Orthodox religious extremists, Stalinists, monarchists and Cossacks. And others are joining military brigades with the neo-Nazi Svoboda to “defend the bourgeois-democratic revolution”.
I am sharing D’s pessimistic comments because this was his honest response to my questions. I hope readers will consider his views, and those of the voters in Lugansk, as well as the more inspiring message from the Krivyi Rih miners. That’s solidarity.

GL, 22 May 2014

Thanks to GL for help with the translation
The photos of Ukrainian miners are from the web site of the Independent Miners Union of Ukraine
There are links to other articles on eastern Ukraine at the end of this report from Odessa

[1]The Party of Regions, set up by business interests in eastern Ukraine in the early 2000s, was led by former president Viktor Yanukovich until his overthrow in February. It was then the largest party in the Ukrainian parliament, but since then large numbers of its officials at all levels have quit. The Communist Party of Ukraine is a director successor of the Ukrainian section of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Its parliamentary fraction supported all Yanukovich’s key legislation, including the emergency laws of January this year aimed at crushing the Maidan movement.
[2]The word “biudzhetniki” was used, i.e. all those paid from the budget – central and local government workers, welfare, education and health staff, etc.

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