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Issue 55, April 2001

Ukraine's gangster capitalists

THE UKRAINIAN capital, Kiev, has been rocked by the biggest protest movement since 1991, triggered by the murder of Georgii Gongadze, a little-known internet journalist. In the absence of a working-class political party with a clear programme and strategy, however, the protests have degenerated into a clash between clans and vested interests.

Gongadze was a journalist investigating top level corruption. He disappeared last September, his decapitated body discovered in a forest outside Kiev in December. Alexander Moroz, leader of the Ukrainian Socialist Party (SP), released a tape, claiming it was a recording of Ukrainian president, Leonid Kuchma, instructing the head of the secret service 'to deal with' Gongadze. (The SP was formed out of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1991. Moroz was for some time parliamentary speaker.) The SP formed a 'Ukraine without Kuchma' bloc with over 30, mainly right-wing, parties, some of which are openly fascist.

A tent city was set up in the centre of Kiev before the New Year. Protesters demanded Kuchma's resignation, an investigation into Gongadze's death, and the sacking of the heads of the army and police. The pressure forced Kuchma to sack the head of the secret service.

This dispute is not only about the fate of one journalist. It is about who owns Ukraine's industrial wealth. Before Kuchma was elected president, he headed Ukraine's largest factory - a huge rocket-building plant in the eastern city, Dnieperpetrovsk. The Ukraine has experienced some economic growth in the past year or two, mostly in the energy and metallurgy sectors. The privatisation of these sectors, in particular the industrial giants in Russian-speaking East Ukraine, started only in late 1996. This culminated in April 2000 with the auction of three of the biggest plants. In each auction, Western bidders lost out to Russian interests. The Ukrainian Aluminum Plant was sold to Siberian Aluminum (headed by a Russian 'businessman' currently in a New York jail). The Energy Network was sold to a group of Ukrainian industrialists closely linked to the Social Democratic Party and the Russian energy monopoly, Gasprom. The Zaporozke Metallurgy Plant also went to Russian capital.


These sales went ahead despite intense political pressure from the IMF and World Bank. The West, however, was in a weaker position. Its only threats were not to give the Ukraine more money or not to restructure Ukraine's debt. Russia's pressure is much more immediate: it can and frequently does cut off the Ukraine's energy supplies. The only consolation for the West was that, under the threat of stopping a further tranche of IMF money, Kuchma replaced his premier, Valerii Pustovoitenko, with Viktor Yushenko. Yushenko is a pro-American, pro-IMF neo-liberal who insists that the privatisations be reviewed.

Yushenko was supported in the government by deputy premier, Yulia Timishenko, whose husband was head of the Ukrainian Energy System - until his arrest for corruption involving $800 million! Timishenko, known as the 'queen of the petrol stations', was sacked by Kuchma in January and arrested for paying a $70 million bribe to former premier, Pavlo Lazarenko, who is also now in a US prison for 'mafiya'-related crimes. Gongadze was very close to these people.

Against this background, the events in Kiev are easier to understand. The two main parties in the 'Ukraine without Kuchma' bloc are the SP and Batkivshina, Yushenko's Party. The movement has been financed by Timishenko. The other parties involved are those not included in the share out of profits by the Dneiperpetrovsk clan, or are anti-Russian, pro-Western nationalists from West Ukraine. Nevertheless, the camp in Kiev attracted all sorts, each with their own grudges against Kuchma. There were groups of miners and, at one stage, the CP-led trade union participated with 1,000 people. Most who took part had illusions that somehow Yushenko was better than Kuchma.


The once left-of-centre(ish) SP has played a disgraceful role. Moroz has been doing the dirty work of the West. He is hoping he can use the movement to emerge as the strongest opposition candidate. At the start of the protest he instructed the party to drop the SP flag and use the Ukrainian flag instead.

Those parties that maintain a left position have been caught completely off guard by these events. The biggest, the CP, could have pushed the movement to the left but its leadership was completely indecisive. CP leader, Siminyenko, asked to speak at demos but was pushed aside by the organisers who did not want to frighten off their Western backers. The other left party, the Progressive Socialist Party, whilst some of the analysis in their paper was not bad, could only offer the 'strategy' that everyone should join their party.

Although much smaller, the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI) put a clear position in leaflets against Kuchma and Yushenko, raising the need for a workers' party. After this leaflet was circulated to the CP deputies, they adopted this position, even calling for a workers' party! Having long ago lost the initiative, however, they have only belatedly attempted to set up a 'Ukraine without Kuchma and Yushenko' campaign.

In the New Year, events took a nasty turn. Fascists, mainly from West Ukraine, had been involved from the start but that was stepped up. Marches converged on Kiev on 6 February. Amongst the marchers were big contingents from the UNSO-UNA fascist organisation armed with gas canisters and truncheons. At the same time, Simenyenko, led a contingent of about 1,500. He approached the 'Ukraine without Kuchma' organisers and asked to speak. They refused and these 'democrats' used UNSO-UNA to block the CP contingent, many of whom were injured on the way. They attacked anybody on the left. Vitalii Ploshkin, a CWI comrade, was badly beaten and spent a week in hospital.


The bulk of the demonstration then turned its attention to the parliament and the fascists tried to storm the building. The 200 protesters left in the tent city were attacked by 70 truncheon-swinging youth dressed in black and carrying black flags. The attackers wore headbands with anarchist logos and handed out leaflets identifying them as anarchists. These thugs had been recruited by Kuchma from the SBU Academy - Ukraine's successor to the KGB.

In their struggle for control of Ukraine's wealth, these politicians have been prepared to use any means. Their methods have included the largest-ever mobilisation of fascist thugs on the streets of Kiev. Until these events, the fascists were only able to mobilise so openly in the smaller cities of West Ukraine. The CWI in Kiev has approached other left parties to form a united front against the fascist attacks and are meeting with some success.

These events represent the awakening of the relatively quiet Ukraine. They have also complicated the situation. On 9 March, the regime broke up the camp and arrested over 200 people, mainly UNSO-UNA members. When some of them were interviewed on TV, they said they had joined UNSO-UNA because it appeared to be the only party genuinely opposed to Kuchma. When some of the arrested returned home to Lvov they were met by a two-day university strike backed, incidentally, by college rectors. Most of those who participated in these demonstrations were not fascists, but nationalist youth who see the West as more attractive than Russia.


Discontent is growing in the third-biggest country in Europe. There is a need for a genuine workers' party uniting workers and young people from both the Ukrainian-speaking West and Russian-speaking East. Only in a united struggle for class interests, can there be any way out of the capitalist nightmare that goes under the name of an independent Ukraine.

Rob Jones

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