Ukrainians of all ages and walks of life demonstrated astonishing courage and perseverance in opposition to corruption and misrule during two huge protest actions over the past decades.
Some two million people braved freezing conditions and attacks by the security forces as well as far right movements, first with the 2004-5 Orange revolution and then again in 2013. The protests became known as the Maidans, after Independence Square in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.
A new book, Ukraine and the Empire of Capital – from marketisation to armed conflict, outlines the economic and political realities that lie behind these peoples’ movements. It details how kleptocrats and oligarchs appropriated resources, hiding them in off-shore funds behind bland-sounding company names – and how they became “fused with governments”.
Its author Yuliya Yurchenko warns that Ukraine could be heading to a third and more violent upsurge in the near future. Economic collapse, massive indebtedness and worsening conditions, with 1.5m people suffering food insecurity exist cheek by jowl with gross displays of wealth.
Yuliya explains what motivated her research. “It is quite hopeful and also desperate and sad to see what’s been happening. The Maidans took place in Kyiv, but also on the squares of most towns and cities around the country, east and west. But it was not divided clearly between east and west.”
“The second Maidan,” she says, “which took place in the winter of 2013-14, became known as the Revolution of Dignity.”
People were outraged when the trade treaty with the EU was not signed and they demanded the decision should be reviewed. The oligarchs wanted to keep their sweet relations with Russia due to their dependence on oil and gas. There was also pressure from Western partners.
“President Viktor Yanukovych sent the Berkut riot squads to beat and kill protesters on the streets in the dead of night on 30 November 2013. This was the last straw, bringing yet more people onto the streets, leading eventually to Yanukovych fleeing the country under Russian protection.”
Yuliya says the second Maidan was not a consolidated revolutionary movement with a clear plan of what it wanted. But during the course of the protest, people began to shape agendas against oligarchisation and for decent public provision.
“The results were hijacked by the Russian annexation of Crimea and the incursions of Russian brigades and GRU special forces into the east. I am convinced if it were not for the foreign invasion of Ukraine at that time, we would have a very different country now with different political forces.
“But the seeds of that movement still remain in the country. Even those who thought the oligarchs could become a socially responsible rule have become disillusioned. And the protests continue to this day. Socio-economic conditions are now deteriorating due to growing equality. A third of households had children living in absolute poverty in 2014. There is a process of proletarisation – people have very little or nothing at all to lose.
“And there is frustration and anger about inequality. It is very obvious to people whose living standards are dropping and are losing social security while they are surrounded by expensive cars, clothes and newly-built skyscrapers. It’s awareness that there is not a lack of money but a misappropriation of money.”
So where does the power of the people to resist come from in Ukraine, after so much trauma and hardship?
“There is an understanding that if we do not do this, nothing will change,” Yuliya says. “The Orange revolution showed that people on the streets could get results and injected optimism. It proved that there was real solidarity. After the violence and bloodshed with a deepening economic crisis there is even less to lose.
“I hope there will be at least some form of social democratic alliance, but that could be considered a utopian vision. What will the masses follow if there is a serious shift in Ukrainian politics is hard to know. There has been a clampdown on any socialist or left-wing rhetoric – so there is a battle for the public mind.”
At the book launch in Parliament, Yuliya said: “If you say you are a communist, people think you work with oligarchs. If you say you are a democrat, that means you are implementing anti-democratic authoritarianism.”
So, how to explain this apparent contradiction?
“Political labels often have very little in common with their dictionary definitions,” Yuliya replies. “In the post-Soviet space, and Ukraine in particular, it’s quite specific. The party that descended from the Communist Party of the USSR, lost its communist and socialist ideals and often collaborated with the oligarchic parties, voting against progressive reforms.
“We see MPs on relatively small salaries driving extremely expensive cars and wearing watches costing tens of thousands of Euros that they clearly can’t afford on their own wages. We see conspicuous consumption and conspicuous corruption.
“Many parties claim democratic credentials and have beautiful democratic rhetoric in their programmes and statutes, but at the same time they vote for legislation that involves human rights abuses and authoritarian legislation.
“That’s been going on in Ukraine pretty much since it became independent [in 1991]. So there is a high degree of public mistrust. When someone proclaims she or he are liberals or social democrats, no one takes them seriously. The overwhelming perception is that all politicians are the same.
“Look at what happened when Yanukovych was kicked out by the Euromaidan protests. If we try to understand those protests as a ‘fascist coup’ – then we are really feeding into dictionary perceptions of what certain social forces could be.
“The right-wing forces were small at Maidan, but they were self-organising and pro-active, while the Maidan protesters had no other agenda except to oppose the police and to kick out the government that ordered them in. Against that mixed background a few right-wing brigades wore the only-too familiar Wolfsangel symbol – used during the Nazi period.
“So, why do we still have a neo-liberal kleptocracy in Ukraine? We now have a real oligarch for the first time as president, as opposed to a proxy one.
“During the 2014-5 protests, people on the streets demanded a change of leadership. Then Russia exploited the situation, using the political weakness of Ukraine when there was no commander in chief after Yanukovych fled the country.
“We had a foreign invasion and occupation while there was turmoil in the capital. Russia poured oil on the protests in eastern Ukraine and fuelling the rhetoric of Novorossiya, claiming it was Russian territory.
“The oligarchs, including today’s president Petro Poroshenko, capitalised on that geo-political weakness to call for a president to be elected as soon as possible so we have a commander in chief to take control of the borders. There was a very clever electoral campaign in the spring 2014 elections which is how Poroshenko could come through.
”The continuing war in the east is being used to muffle and restrain public discontent. People still go and protest, but they feel they need to avoid destabilising the country from within, because we are embroiled in a military conflict – that we must wait for that to end. This means that it’s in the oligarchs interest for the conflict to continue.”
Yuliya has dedicated her book “To the victims of capital” because she believes that the social ruptures in Ukraine have global dimensions.
“There are transnational forces at work,” she says. “Ukraine is part of the global economic system and is integrated into it. And just like any other country, it is subject to dynamics that go through and around nation states penetrating borders. Regardless of how uneven these movements of capital are, there are those who suffer from it everywhere. Ukrainians are experiencing a Bloody Winter, but the pain is not isolated to them.
“Conflicts may take different forms around the globe, over resources, and which involve state and institutional transformation, but the underlying class dynamics are the same. It is capital fighting for accumulation and sweeping aside labour, environment, norms of human dignity and civil order.
“Ukraine is a lesson for everyone. What’s happened in Ukraine in the last 25-years – it’s a speeded-up version of the construction of a neo-liberal kleptocracy which comes to life in the TV drama McMafia. Where does extreme austerity lead when so much is taken away? There is a global empire of capital that exploits people everywhere and eventually leads to conflict.”
I met with Yuliya just as news broke of a connection between the disgraced Yanukovych and a UK company based in Potters Bar. According to File on 4, Fineroad Business LLP has channelled huge sums from last year’s Eurovision song contest into the coffers of Yanukovych’s cronies.
“So we should remember,” Yuliya says, “that just because there are obvious oligarchs in the Ukraine doesn’t mean there are no walking monsters in the US and in the UK. Just as in Potters Bar!”
Ukraine and the Empire of Capital From Marketisation to Armed Conflict is published by Pluto Press at £19.99