Class in Ukraine

TW: antisemitism, anti-Roma violence and rhetoric

An interesting class-focused look at the on-going conflict in Ukraine was put forward today in an opinion piece by Vladimir Golstein, a Russian immigrant to the United States and Brown professor with a degree in Slavic studies. I won’t quite link to it yet, for reasons that will become clear, but I think the question it raises (what can we see when we focus on class in the recent political upheaval in Ukraine?) is one worth exploring more broadly.

Even the comparatively pro-business sources acknowledged the reality of an oligarchic retreat from Yanukovych’s government this winter. One article from Bloomberg News at that time noted that “Business oligarchs such as Rinat Akhmetov, the country’s richest man who acquired control of state stakes in leading power generators in 2011-2012, had relied on ties to Yanukovych to safeguard control of large sectors of the economy”. Unfortunately, the looming possibility of repressing protest movements would “signal that Ukraine is adopting the model of next-door Belarus” and justify an international response like the EU’s “visa ban and asset freeze on [Belorussian President since 1994] Lukashenko and [other] top officials”. The many oligarchs involved in politics would have been directly affected, as would have their class as a whole because of how many of them have foreign investments or assets which would at least come under new scrutiny.

A bit more foreboding to the less wealthy Ukrainians who are typically more invested in their own country’s production, is that entering the EU would create a situation where the local markets would have “duty-free access to more than 90 percent of [the EU’s] products”. The already anemic manufacturing base of the country, concentrated along its eastern border with Russia, would likely crumble in the face of EU integration, stressing an already beleaguered working class in the region.

The German paper Der Spiegel argued even more overtly that several Ukrainian oligarchs that had been essentially invested in the existing government abrupt switched sides, and actively supported the protesters in the middle of this February. As one piece explained

Last Tuesday’s [February 17, 2014] bloody conflicts tipped the scales. On Wednesday both Akhmetov’s and Firtash’s [two oligarchs] TV stations changed their coverage of Independence Square: Suddenly the two channels, Ukraina and Inter, were reporting objectively on the opposition. The message of the oligarchs was clear: We’re letting Yanukovych fall. And in parliament — where the majority party had barely budged a millimeter in the past weeks — the mood suddenly changed: Suddenly they were looking for a compromise after all. It became clear on Thursday what this would mean: the forming of a broad coalition, the return of the old constitution and, with it, a reduction of the presidential powers as well as an accelerated presidential election.

That is the economic class and socio-political faction that Vladimir Golstein sees facing grassroots resistance from russophone and perhaps even russophile groups in eastern Ukraine. He asks

But what about the heavily industrialised Ukrainian east? Those who think that it is Russia that pulls it back are deeply ignorant of the complexity of the region. The Donbas Region, which comprises 10 percent of Ukraine’s population and produces 25 percent of Ukrainian exports, is inhabited by Russian-speaking people who work in mines, steel plants, and machinery factories, and who have a less cheerful view of Westernisation.

[…]

Local workers hardly need Putin propaganda to know that many of their smoke stack plants will be closed once Ukraine joins the EU. It is sufficient for Ukrainians to look to other recent EU countries, from Hungary to Romania and the Baltic States, or even at Russia’s own economy that switched to the export of natural resources at the expense of thousands of closed factories to know what will happen to the big Soviet-style factories that still dominate the landscape of the Donbas region.

Donetsk_Ukraine_map
(Shaded in is the Donetsk or Donbas region of Ukraine, with the city of Donetsk itself marked with a red dot. It is one of Ukraine’s most densely populated areas.)

Golstein is entirely too optimistic about this class consciousness, particularly in the larger Donetsk (or Donbas) region, being removed from ethnic and even racial histories. He explained that they were united in the interest of maintaining their jobs, independent of whether they are “ethnically Ukrainian, Russian, Armenian or Hungarian”. In the past few days, there have been allegations of separatists engaging in antisemitic pamphlet campaigns and anti-Romani violence, hallmarks more reminiscent of fascism’s recent history in the region than Marxism’s. The broader issue of average Ukrainians having different political interests than their economic and political elites will likely leave Ukraine’s prospective government in a precarious position, but the unique flashpoint so far has produced not only class consciousness as Golstein notes, but also hints of a dangerous sort of ultra-nationalism.

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