Western politicians know perfectly well that there is no Russian invasion, and this, precisely, is the main international problem for them. To admit as much means admitting that the government in Kiev has gone to war on its own people. To speak of the Donetsk Peoples Republic as an independent political phenomenon is impossible, since this would require posing the question of the reasons for the popular protest, and listing its demands. The talk of Kremlin agents and of the ubiquitous Russian troops—who are impossible to discover, but who have occupied close to half of Ukraine without firing a shot or even showing themselves on Ukrainian territory—is playing the same propaganda role against the Donetsk republic as was played in the anti-Bolshevik propaganda of 1917 by stories of German spies and of money from the German General Staff.
The point here is not so much to discredit opponents of the present authorities, depicting them as traitors to their country, as to conceal the class essence of the movement that has arisen, its social basis. A half-unconscious fear has taken hold of the liberal public, from intellectuals and politicians to decent and almost progressive bourgeois, and is forcing them to believe the most obvious ravings, to repeat any manifest rubbish, so long as class struggle is neither mentioned nor thought about in any serious way. That is, not class struggle as it is described in learned tomes and depicted by the best avant-garde cinema, but as it occurs in real life, and as it becomes a fact of practical politics.
Far more important than the similarities between these two movements, however, have been the differences. The key distinctions to be drawn are not even ideological, though the comparison between the dominant slogans—fascist in the case of the Maidan, demands for social rights in Donetsk, accompanied in the latter case by the singing of the Internationale—deserves unquestionably to be made. The ideological differences ultimately reflect the fundamentally different social nature and class basis of the two movements. Of course, the revolt of the south-east is not only a negation of the Maidan but also its offspring and continuation, just as October 1917 was simultaneously the offspring and continuation of the February revolution, and its negation. The elemental nature of a revolutionary crisis, once it has spun out of control, draws into its orbit fresh strata of society, new groups and classes that earlier have not taken part in politics.
It must be acknowledged that the experience of the Kiev Maidan did not go to waste. Rising in revolt against the Kiev authorities, the inhabitants of the Ukrainian south-east made use of the same methods with whose help the right-wing radicals forced the previous regime to submit to their will. Street demonstrations progressed quickly to the seizure of administrative buildings. But the activists in Donetsk and Lugansk, refusing to limit themselves to seizing the buildings of the provincial administrations, announced the founding of their own people’s republics. While the people’s republic in Lugansk as of mid-April remained mostly a slogan of the mass movement, in Donetsk it soon began taking on the features of an alternative regime. Aiding in this was the seizure of local militia stations and other state facilities. Some of these seizures were carried out by rebellious crowds, but in many cases disciplined armed groups were also involved—former members of the Berkut police special forces and other Ukrainian law enforcement organs who had been dismissed by the new Kiev government or who had deserted (some units quit the service practically in full strength, taking their weapons and ammunition with them).
The propaganda of official Kiev responded by describing the former officers of their own law enforcement agencies as Russian spetsnaz special forces. But among the population of the Ukrainian south-east, sympathetic to Russia, these accusations did not serve to discredit the revolt, but were more like an advertisement for it. The more the authorities in Kiev and their supporters spoke of direct Russian intervention in the region and even of its “occupation”, the more people in the localities concerned joined in the protests.
The main trigger for the revolt, however, was not the pro-Russian sympathies of the local population, or even the declared intention of the Kiev rulers of repealing the law that had given Russian the status of a “regional language”. Discontent had long been building up in the south-east, and the final drop that caused the cup to spill over was the dramatic worsening of the economic crisis that followed the change of government in Kiev. After signing their agreement with the International Monetary Fund, the authorities decreed steep rises in the charges for gas and medicines, and a social explosion became inevitable. In the west of the country and in the capital, growing indignation was restrained for a time through the use of nationalist rhetoric and anti-Russian propaganda. But when applied to the inhabitants of the east, this method had the reverse effect. Trying to douse the fire in the west, the authorities poured oil on the flames in the east.
The future of the Donetsk Republic remains undecided, and this represents a huge historical opportunity of which there was not even a trace during the Maidan demonstrations, whose leaders could not always control the crowd, but kept rigid and effective control of the political agenda. By contrast, the Donetsk Republic formulates its agenda from below, literally on the run, in response to the public mood and the course of events. Strictly speaking this republic is not even a state—rather, it amounts to a coalition of diverse communities, most of them self-organised. In essence, it is the perfect embodiment of the anarchist concept of the revolutionary order. Curiously, the anarchists themselves refuse to have anything to do with it, preferring to repeat the state and patriotic rhetoric of the new Kiev rulers.
It is not hard to work out that the reason why the self-organisation of the Donetsk Republic functions relatively well is because the remnants of the old administrative apparatus carry on with their everyday operations as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening, while all the questions of government are reduced ultimately to the organising of defence. But is this so different from the Paris Commune (not the idealised and romanticised commune, but the one that actually existed)? If the people’s republic in Donetsk survives for much longer, it will inevitably change, and it is far from certain that this will be for the better. But in waging its first battle, the republic has already demonstrated the huge potential of the self-organisation of the masses. Unarmed people succeeded in stopping units of the Ukrainian army and in carrying on agitation with the soldiers, blowing apart the “anti-terrorist operation” that Kiev had initiated. This peaceful resistance will not only go down in history, but will also become an important part of the collective social experience of Ukrainian and Russian workers.
Donetsk in the shadow of Moscow
It is no secret that the rebellious masses of the Ukrainian south-east have been counting on support from Moscow. Unfurling tricolours and shouting slogans about their love for Russia, they have sincerely hoped to draw the fraternal state onto their side. This hope has united people who dream of unification with Russia, others who seek the federalisation of Ukraine, and still others who simply hope that the might of Russia will defend the residents of the region against repression from Kiev. But from the very first, official Moscow has taken an ambiguous position on the events concerned. While clearly supporting a movement aimed against the openly unfriendly government in Kiev, it is least of all prepared to sponsor a popular revolution, even if the outcome would serve to expand the Russian state. The Kremlin functionaries do not relish the thought of receiving as their new subjects masses of rebellious people who are organised, often armed, and who have acquired the habit of active struggle for their rights. This is especially true in the context of a growing socio-economic crisis within Russia itself. Revolutions are sometimes exported, but there are few state officials who would want to import one.
Moscow has never wanted to conquer Ukraine or dismember it. This is not because the Kremlin has been loyal to the interests of a neighbouring state, but simply because the Russian leadership has lacked any strategic plan whatever. Today’s Russian elites are fundamentally incapable of thinking strategically. Two circumstances have exacerbated the situation. In the first place, it has proven impossible to consolidate the results achieved in Crimea. The annexation of Crimea to Russia was unquestionably an improvisation, and not so much on the part of Moscow as on that of the Crimean elites, who reacted to a changed situation and exploited it to serve their interests. But once Crimea had been annexed, the main task facing Russian diplomacy was to defend the acquisition. Part of this involved sacrificing the interests of the Ukrainian south-east. Meanwhile Russian society, unlike the liberal intelligentsia, has massively supported the Donetsk insurgents, and this has placed the Kremlin in a very difficult situation. To emphatically encourage such moods would mean creating a culture of resistance and revolt in the masses. But a sharp change of course, involving a refusal to support the rebels, would be risky; the patriotic moods cultivated by the Russian authorities themselves would take on the character of protest.
In such a situation the policy of the Kremlin is necessarily ambiguous and contradictory, but we witnessed a curious moment of truth when an agreement between Russia, Ukraine and the West was signed in Geneva on April 17. At first glance everything seemed thoroughly proper and conventional; there were appeals for reconciliation, disarmament and mutual concessions. But even before the meeting began, the Russian side, supposedly for technical reasons, renounced its demand that representatives of south-eastern Ukraine should take part in the talks. Later, it was said that the Russian delegation in Geneva had presented the viewpoint of eastern Ukrainian organisations, specifically, the Party of Regions and other oligarchic structures. The Donetsk Peoples Republic, the only force that genuinely unites the population and controls the situation at the local level, was not even mentioned.
The text of the resulting document indicated clearly that Moscow would not object to the liquidation of the Donetsk republic: “Among the steps for whose implementation we call are the following: all illegal armed organisations must be disarmed; all unlawfully occupied buildings must be returned to their legitimate owners; and all occupied streets, squares and other public places in all cities of Ukraine must be cleared. An amnesty must be put in place for all protesters except those who have committed serious crimes.”
In principle, the main idea that underlay the agreement, and that united the various sides, was a refusal to recognise the Donetsk republic as a political fact. It was consensus on this point that served as the pact’s real basis. The subsection on disarming “illegal formations” was written in a way calculated to suit the new Kiev authorities. Formally, the subsection proposes disarmament by both sides. But the Kiev government is to retain its army, the security services and the National Guard. The Donetsk republic has no armed formations apart from its “unlawful” militia. Lavrov reported after the event that by unlawful formations he had in mind the National Guard as well, but there is not a word about this in the text of the agreement. The Ukrainian side and the West will interpret the agreement differently, and in juridical terms they will be completely correct: the National Guard was set up by an official decision of the government, with the consent of the Supreme Rada. As for the “feral” hundreds and the elements of the Right Sector that have not yet been legalised through incorporation into the National Guard, the Kiev government itself dreams of disarming these, since conflicts with them have arisen already.
Even more important, though, is the demand for the relinquishing of the occupied buildings and for the removal of the barricades on streets and squares. If this stipulation is fulfilled, it will mean the self-liquidation of the Donetsk and Lugansk republics, and the return to their former positions of the administrators appointed by Kiev. This is despite the fact that it was precisely these appointments that provoked the uprising. To rule the south-eastern provinces, Kiev named oligarchs hated by the people, giving these figures political authority in addition to their economic power.
It is noteworthy that this point is not offset by any counterbalancing concessions. Nothing, for example, is said about Kiev officially calling off its so-called anti-terrorist operations in eastern Ukraine, and there is no suggestion that military units are to be withdrawn to the places where they are usually stationed. That would make perfect sense, considering the obvious failure of the operations and the decreptitude of the army.
In sum, Moscow signed an agreement that provided for the uprising to capitulate in exchange for an abstract promise to begin an open and “inclusive” constitutional process, and did not even propose direct talks with the insurgents! Naturally, the representatives of the Ukrainian government were not called upon to give any clear undertakings as to how the preparations for this reform would be carried out.
The Russian diplomats were in such a hurry to sign the Geneva agreement with Kiev that they did not even bother to demand the removal of the disgraceful ban on the entry to Ukraine of adult males from the Russian Federation. This was despite the fact that the ban contradicts all international norms and amounts to a direct and flagrant breach of human rights, as the Russian negotiators would have had to point out in the presence of the Western representatives.
Official Kiev lost no time in exploiting the opportunities it had been given. Premier Arseny Yatsenyuk heaped threats onto the Donetsk and Lugansk rebels, demanding their immediate surrender and referring to the Geneva agreement, in the framework of which “Russia was forced to condemn extremism.”
The arrest of Konstantin Dolgov, one of the leaders of the Kharkov left-centre coalition Popular Unity; the attacks by the Right Sector on Donetsk republic checkpoints; and acts of repression against activists, all of which followed immediately after the signing of the Geneva agreement, confirmed that Kiev did not have in mind either democratic dialogue or a peaceful settlement. Even if the government of Turchinov and Yatsenyuk had been ready to make concessions, it would have been prevented from doing so by the radical nationalists, without whose support the new regime could no longer exist.
For their part, the leaders of the Donetsk republic stated that they were pleased to note the expression in the Geneva agreement of a “change in the position of the countries of the West in relation to the Ukrainian events.” But since representatives of the republic had not been invited to the meeting in Geneva, and had not signed the document, the Donetsk leaders did not consider themselves bound by it.
“We are forced to state that our warning concerning the juridical worthlessness and political absurdity of an ‘all-Ukrainian’ dialogue without the participation of the lawful representatives of eastern Ukraine and of the Donetsk People’s Republic has, unfortunately, proved completely justified. Ignoring the will of the people of the Donbass has had a predictably sad outcome: the results of the discussions can only be assessed as a set of pointless, semi-coherent appeals, impossible to realise in practice, directed by some obscure figures at unnamed people, and subject to implementation over an indeterminate period and in unknown fashion. At present these appeals reflect neither political realities, nor the new legal situation that has arisen since the proclamation of the sovereign Donetsk Peoples Republic, on whose territory they have no legal force.”
The Geneva agreement will not be implemented. How can anyone force people to carry out such an agreement when these people have just begun to feel their strength? When tanks turn tail and run from them? When they are able to bring army columns to a halt simply with catcalls and obscenities? The people will not surrender their positions just because important gentlemen in Geneva, without asking anyone actually on the spot, have taken it on themselves to decide the fate of others.
For anyone in Donetsk, Lugansk, Odessa, Kharkov (and even Kiev) who has held out hopes that Putin’s Russia will solve all the problems through its solidarity intervention, recent events will have been a sobering disappointment. But this disappointment will simply benefit the movement. Not only must the revolution rely on its own strength, but it already has enough strength to be successful. This is especially true since regardless of the position taken by the Kremlin, the sympathy of Russian society remains on the side of the insurgent people of a fraternal country.
Where Russia itself is concerned, the ruling layers are at risk of remaining in the hole they have painstakingly dug for themselves. By surrendering their positions on the Ukrainian question, they are turning against themselves the patriotic moods whose rise they have fostered in every conceivable way over the past few months. Of course, no facts will ever convince people who consider Putin an irreproachable hero or, on the other hand, a fairy-tale villain. But such people, even if they spam 70 per cent of the internet with their ravings, are nevertheless a minority.
By Boris Kagarlitsky, translated by Renfrey Clarke for Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal
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