Boris Kagarlitsky on eastern Ukraine: The logic of a revolt
1 May, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal
Major anti-Kiev protests in eastern Ukraine, according to Wikipedia
By Boris Kagarlitsky, translated by Renfrey Clarke for Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal
Russian bureaucrats have been honestly surprised at the reaction by the official West—they did not expect such anger or unanimous condemnation. European politicians are beside themselves with fury. The mainstream press is relating appalling stories to its readers of Russian aggression against Ukraine. The television shows interviews with Kiev ministers and deputies who tearfully implore Europe to save their country from the enraged bear.
Indeed, the reputation of Putin’s Russia in the West is nothing wonderful—even worse than that of Brezhnev’s Soviet Union. But what we are now witnessing is quite outside the bounds of the usual. There was nothing resembling it either during the Cold War, or during the Chechen conflict, or during the clash between Russia and Georgia. We should not even mention the action of Yeltsin in shelling the Russian parliament; at that time, the liberal West applauded.
In Moscow, people were expecting criticism following the annexation of Crimea. But that was more than a month ago, and the Kremlin authorities have done nothing new since. Several times a day they repeat, like a mantra, words to the effect that they respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine; that they are not about to annex anyone else; that they have called on the West to work out a joint approach with them to the crisis…but the criticism has not ceased. Meanwhile, the more absurd the declarations issued by the present rulers in Kiev, the more avidly and delightedly these have been lapped up. Only after the signing of the Geneva agreement of 17 April between Ukraine, Russia and the West was there a certain softening: the European officials discovered abruptly that in Ukraine it was “necessary to deal with groups that answer neither to Kiev nor to Moscow,” and it was recognised that “clear proof was lacking” of interference from Moscow. But warnings were issued in every case that if the Russian authorities did not behave themselves, there would soon perhaps be such proof.
The arguments of the Kremlin in this dispute have not worked, and cannot work, for the simple reason that Western politicians for the present are not especially interested in what official Russia is thinking or doing. These 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 in 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.
The new Kiev authorities are directing the same accusations at the anti-Maidan forces in the south-east, and spinning the same conspiratorial theories about them, as Yanukovich’s propaganda employed a few months back in discussing the Maidan. But all this is now being repeated on a scale ten or a hundred times greater than before, and is taking on completely grotesque forms.
The parallels between the Maidan and the anti-Maidan are quite genuine. Foreign money, of course, has been an element in each case, as has foreign influence. The foreign money flowing to the Maidan was American and Western European, while in the case of the anti-Maidan it has been Russian (or more likely, Russian money has been involved in each instance). The West, though, not only spent many times more money, but invested it far more wisely and effectively. But just as the victory of the Maidan in February was not and could not have been the result of Western political machinations, the successful revolt of hundreds of thousands (and perhaps millions) of people in eastern Ukraine is not to be explained on the basis of Russian interference.
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.
Until recently political struggle was a privilege of “active society”, consisting of the liberal intelligentsia and of the middle classes of the capital, to whose assistance it was always possible to summon a certain number of impassioned members of marginal groups, above all unemployed young people from western Ukraine. The concept of democracy which many on the left shared, even if in unspoken fashion, with their liberal colleagues was of politics as a business for professionals or as entertainment for the middle layers. In this play-acting, the mass of working people (not only in the south-east, but in Kiev as well) were at best assigned the role of voters or of passive spectators, and at worst, that of guinea-pigs to be experimented on. The idea that this mass of silent and apparently apolitical people, preoccupied with their everyday struggle for survival, could play an active and independent part in events did not enter the heads of the liberal intelligentsia or of political elites of any persuasion. Even today, this idea is perceived by such people as an impossibility, a far-fetched nightmare.
The revolt of the hooligans
The events of the spring of 2014 had to happen sooner or later. The precursors to these developments did not even take place in Ukraine, but in Bosnia, where in defiance of all conventions crowds of enraged workers and unemployed came onto the streets in opposition to the established system, uniting under common slogans and shattering traditional political schemas based on the division of society into ethno-religious groups.
The waves of struggle that have swept through the cities of eastern and southern Ukraine, just like the protests in Bosnia, have sharply altered the sociology of political life. In the forefront have been the masses, with their demands, interests, hopes, illusions and prejudices. They are categorically unlike the romantic heroes of the children’s books, and their class consciousness was initially at an embryonic level. But once they began to act, they were destined to learn and to understand the science of social struggle.
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.
“I find it hard to believe the change in my compatriots,” the resident of the city of Gorlovka Yegor Voronov wrote on the Ukrainian site Liva. “Only six months ago they were simple common folk who watched television and complained about the bad state of the roads and of the communal services. Now they’re fighters. In several hours by the provincial administration building I didn’t meet a single person who’d come from Russia. The people were from Mariupol, Gorlovka, Dzerzhinsk, Artemovsk, Krasnoarmeysk. Standing next to me were ordinary Donbass residents—the people we travel with every day on the bus, stand next to in the queues, argue with when they leave the door to the stairwell open. They weren’t the Kiev middle class, set apart from the people by their special ‘circumstances’, but everyday workers. And there’s no denying, there are plenty of unemployed in these parts. Here were all the people who for the past month and a half had been ‘begged’ in the private offices and state enterprises to take a cut in their miserable wages. So here’s another conclusion—the more the wages of Donbass residents are cut or squeezed today, the more protestors Kiev will get in the east.”
The people who have been protesting against the authorities in Donetsk, Lugansk and many other Ukrainian cities have not had any particular knowledge of politics, or even a clear program of action. The confusion in their slogans, along with their simultaneous use of religious and Soviet or revolutionary symbols, must undoubtedly offend strict connoisseurs of proletarian ideology. The trouble is that the ideologues themselves have been so immeasurably remote from the masses as to be unable and unwilling not only to instil “correct consciousness” in their ranks, but even to help them make sense of current political questions. While the movement has groped its way spontaneously and with difficulty along its political path, coming up with a general expression of the mood of anti-oligarchic and social protest, the members of the left, except for a few activists in Donetsk and Kharkov, have occupied themselves with abstract discussions in the expanses of the internet.
It was completely predictable that the liberal intelligentsia, both Ukrainian and Russian, should have met the protests of the masses with an outburst of hatred and contempt. The workers who took to the streets came in for a great deal of spiteful name-calling. They were derided as “lumpens”, “trash”, “hooligans” and most amusingly, vatniki [“quilted jackets”]. On the whole, however, the caricature figure of the vatnik, copied from the American cartoon hero Spongebob, suggested precisely an individual unswervingly loyal to the state authorities and completely taken in by government propaganda. In this respect the people in Ukraine who deserved most to be regarded as vatniki were the intellectuals, who repeated uncritically any propaganda put about by the new government, even the most absurd.
It should be noted that in the lying competition waged by the propaganda services of Moscow and Kiev, it was the Ukrainians who clearly took out first prize. It was not that the Russians lied less, but the Kievans lied more recklessly and inventively, showing not the slightest regard for the truth and not even considering whether the television images they showed bore any relation to the commentary. The latter consisted solely of impassioned accounts of armoured vehicles heroically beating off crowds of Russian special forces troops, who were trying to force-feed the hungry soldiers with jam and home-made pickles.
It is not at all surprising that the liberal intelligentsia should have viewed the ordinary people of Donetsk, or anywhere else, as enemies and a threat to “progress” (as the intelligentsia understood it). Far more interesting is to ponder the reasons why a certain sector of the left on both sides of the border spoke out in the same vein as the liberals. As events proceeded the Ukrainian left-liberals at least refined their views and acknowledged that some of the demands of the Donbass were justified (this can be gauged from the materials of the Kiev conference “The Left and the Maidan”). But their Russian and Western co-thinkers took a position of complete irreconcilability, solidarising fully with the Kiev government and the leaders of the European Union. Significant numbers of “Eurolefts” also expressed such views, especially those among them who earlier had stressed the need to focus on such themes as multiculturalism, tolerance and political correctness.
Observing this, the Kiev political scientist Vladimir Ishchenko noted despondently: “It’s a strange feeling, when the army is already with the people, and many leftists (anarchists!!!) are still with the authorities.”
Obviously, this situation cannot be explained purely on the basis of ideological logic. The people and groups involved here seek to trace their political pedigrees to a mythologised and prettified 1917 revolution. It is significant that in many cases they employ the same arguments against the revolution now actually occurring in south-eastern Ukraine as were used against the Bolsheviks by their opponents a little less than a hundred years ago.
We have now seen a quarter-century of reactionary hegemony, with the political and moral collapse of the left movement (not only on the territory of the former USSR, but in other countries as well). Over many years, play-acting at political correctness and the observance of minority rights is supposed to have taken the place of class and mass politics. None of this, of course, has passed without having an effect. On the level of social consciousness we have been thrown back a century and a half. Part of the responsibility belongs with the intelligentsia, which long ago forgot its popular mission and has occupied itself with refined cultural and ideological games instead of working with the masses and for the masses.
Precisely for this reason, the movement in Donetsk with all its contradictions and even absurdities, such as icons and tricolours alongside the red flag, has provided a first-rate picture of the stage of development out of which workers’ actions arose in the nineteenth century. Meanwhile the Donetsk Republic, if we examine it attentively, recalls more than anything the spontaneous political formations that working people created “prior to the advent of historical materialism”.
Before us is the real working class—crude, muddle-headed and devoid of political correctness. Anyone who dislikes the present ideological and cultural state of the class should go and work with the masses. The good thing is that no-one is stopping people going to this crowd with red flags and socialist leaflets (unlike the case with the Maidan, where the flags were torn up, and left agitators were beaten and thrown off the square).
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.
Catastrophe of the middle class
The events in Kiev that began in the winter of 2013 can legitimately be described as the latest “revolt of the middle class”. If we start with the beginning of the new century, these uprisings have rolled literally across the entire world, from the United States to Brazil and the Arab countries. Russia and Ukraine have not been exceptions. But although these revolts have had a whole series of features in common, their political agendas have not by any means always been similar. In some cases general democratic slogans have been combined with the demand for progressive social reforms in the interests of the majority of the population, while in others these slogans have been intermixed with the most primitive group egoism, effectively transforming democratic rhetoric into a cover for programs that in essence have been clearly undemocratic.
This incoherence is no accident. Because of the extremely insecure intermediate position the middle class occupies in contemporary society, it is also extremely unstable in ideological and political terms, prone to lurching both to left and right. Equally, it is not by chance that in the countries of the global “centre” middle-class protest is more often than not progressive, while on the periphery the reverse is true. The larger the middle class, and the more conscious its members are of their position as hired workers, the fewer illusions the class has concerning its position, its attributes and its prospects. By contrast, the narrower middle layers in the countries of the periphery and semi-periphery are more often inclined to elitist illusions, and to viewing their position as being threatened not by the implementation of neoliberal reforms, but by the claims of the dispossessed and invariably “backward” lower orders to a bigger share of the pie. Meanwhile the self-appraisal of the middle class, its idea of its own abilities and prospects, often amounts to a set of the most improbable illusions and myths. The more peripheral the economy of a country, the more preposterous these views turn out to be.
These misconceptions can, of course, be cured. Provided a country has a strong civic tradition and a left movement is present, a project of radical democratic modernisation may be developed, and even in such circumstances this will draw in behind it a part of the middle class—as has happened, for example, in Venezuela. But as soon as such a project encounters difficulties or ceases moving forward, we see how a section of the middle class turns sharply to the right.
The paradox lies in the fact that the movement of the left intelligentsia, which for many years has lacked any connection with working people but has been of one flesh with the middle class, has shared for the most part in the vacillations of its social base. For the left to maintain its ties with the middle class does not pose any great problems, considering that the social structure of modern society is now very different from what it was in the time of Marx. But the task of the left is to work toward the formation of a broad social bloc in which the middle class with the majority of society, and above all with the working class. Otherwise, the political agenda of the middle class becomes reactionary, and the left, in serving this agenda, not only finishes up misleading and confusing its comrades, but objectively (and not only objectively) furthers the interests of reaction. Ultimately, the victims of this process include the middle class itself.
This is what happened in Ukraine. Or more precisely, in Kiev.
Hostages of the Maidan
In observing events, ideologues of the enlightened middle class have been compelled to note the unconcealed hegemony of the right, and to grasp where the political vector of the movement is headed. But they have limited themselves to making trite excuses along the lines of “fascists and Bandera followers weren’t the only ones on the Maidan.” It is as though the debate were about the composition of the crowd, and not about who played the dominant role within the crowd, exercising ideological and political hegemony.
In some ways, the situation would have been less dangerous if the crowd in Kiev had consisted solely of convinced fascists. Even among the militants of the Banderist “hundreds”, not everyone was a committed fascist; people are not born adhering to fascism any more than they are born as communists, socialists or, believe it or not, liberals. But the Banderist ranks, after undergoing the corresponding socialisation, finishing up in the hundreds, and taking part in their actions, are indeed becoming genuine fascists. The Maidan became a real threat to democracy mainly because the ultrarightists managed to win the leadership of masses of everyday individuals from the middle classes of the capital, as well as student youth and a section of the intelligentsia. The left-liberal intellectuals, despite seeing clearly who was present in the ingredients of the Maidan cocktail and who was doing the stirring, joined in the process instead of speaking out against it. These intellectuals thus bear a direct responsibility not only for the political consequences of what occurred, but also for the personal fates of many people whom they drew into the movement.
Supporting the Maidan process, the left-liberals handed ordinary people over to ideological reworking, permitting and aiding their transformation into “human material”, a resource for use in implementing the agenda of the right (since there was no other agenda on the Maidan, and could not be amid the complete hegemony of the reactionary forces). They created a psychological and cultural atmosphere favouring a new wave of antisocial reforms, planned by the political leaders of the Ukrainian opposition.
Of course, speaking out against the Maidan in a context of general euphoria, while standing up to mass-media pressure and conservative-nationalist hegemony, was difficult and sometimes also dangerous. The Maidan militants began using physical violence against dissenters even before power finished up in their hands.
Then, a month and a half after the events in Kiev, other people came onto the streets of Ukrainian cities, people nothing like the middle class of the capital, and the mood and style of speech of the intellectuals changed dramatically. The intellectual critics of the Donetsk republic collected evidence with the tenacity and mean-spiritedness of a provincial prosecutor who has been entrusted with a case that is plainly collapsing. The Maidan was forgiven for its aggressive use of violence, for the Molotov cocktails thrown not at armoured cars but directly at people, at the conscript soldiers whom the government had drawn up in cordons.
Meanwhile, the Donetsk republic was condemned for the attempts made by its supporters to stop tanks with their bare hands, without weapons and without shooting at anyone; where the republic was concerned, nothing was let pass. Needless to say, there has been a good deal in the protests in eastern Ukraine that contradicts our ideas of a “correct” revolutionary aesthetic, but why have the left intellectuals been so indulgent toward the aesthetic of the Maidan, in what would seem to be comparable circumstances? Why have they forgiven the portraits of Bandera, the “flags of a foreign state” (the European Union), the Nazi symbols, the racist slogans, and most importantly, the openly antisocial, reactionary and antidemocratic agenda of the official leaders of the movement?
Dual standards are without doubt the norm for propaganda, but in this case we are dealing not with journalists for state television channels, but with intellectuals, who pride themselves on their independence and critical thinking.
The protests in the Ukrainian south-east would seem to have given the intellectuals everything they had dreamt of for many years, if we are to believe their words and writings. Shouldn’t non-violent resistance, stopping the state’s military machine in its tracks, have delighted the “greens” and anarchists? Aren’t spontaneously organised local groups the ideal mechanisms for self-rule? And why is the appearance on the streets of a mass of workers at odds with the prophecies and appeals of Marxists? Why aren’t the left intellectuals rejoicing? Why are they joining in the chorus of fascists and pogrom instigators, calling for bloody retribution to be visited on the rebels, or at best, maintaining a shameful silence?
Here, just as indicated by the teachings of Doctor Freud, we find what is not so much ideological inconsistency as unconscious terror. The reason the intellectuals attack the Donetsk republic is not only and not so much because they wish to condemn it, as because they hope to justify themselves, to prove to themselves that they have not been mistaken, and most importantly, to satisfy themselves that no guilt attaches to them because of their support for the nationalists on the Maidan. All their intellectual refinement, and all their sharpness of mind, has gone into devising arguments to justify the extreme right or collaboration with its members.
The uncritical support shown by intellectuals for the Maidan is appalling not only because it forces them into a morally catstrophic position. Much worse is the fact that once they have got themselves onto these rails, they find it very difficult to get off. Taking this position isolates the intellectuals not just from the masses who have risen up in genuine revolutionary protest in south-eastern Ukraine, but also from the large numbers of supporters and activists of the Maidan who yesterday were feeling doubts, today are disillusioned, and tomorrow will join in the protests, perhaps in the first ranks. Ordinary people can change their views, even to the direct opposite, relatively easily and without shame. But not intellectuals. Ordinary people are always able to say simply, “They deceived me.” Intellectuals have to confess: “I deceived people.”
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 solidary 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.