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Boris Kagarlitsky: Eastern Ukraine people’s republics between militias and oligarchs

Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal has published various left viewpoints from the region on the political situation in Ukraine. These do not necessarily represent the views of the publishers.

For more by Boris Kagarlitsky, click HERE.

By Boris Kagarlitsky, Moscow; translated by Renfrey Clarke

August 16, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — The war between the Ukraine government and the republics of Novorossiya [New Russia] is gradually taking on the character of a positional stand-off. The resources of both sides are exhausted, and fighting reserves are at an end. For the people’s republics, defending themselves against the many times larger military forces of the Kiev regime, the well-known principle of “a government needs to win, but for an insurrection it is enough not to lose” operates with full force.

The deteriorating economic situation in Ukraine, the growing demoralisation of supporters of the Kiev regime and the gradual development of a partisan movement on government-controlled territory together herald a new phase in a civil war that will clearly extend far beyond the boundaries of the south-east.

The middle of August marked the failure of the latest offensive by the government’s army (most likely, the last offensive in Kiev’s summer campaign). It is significant that during the previous offensive the main Western mass media, while assiduously denying their readers any real information about the war, suddenly began running reports of successes by the government’s army. Just as occurred last time, the optimistic forecasts have been followed by silence. The failure of the second offensive followed exactly the same scenario as that of the first: the attacking forces were cut off from their bases, and finished up surrounded. The virtual victories turned into a real catastrophe. A war cannot be won in the information space if you are getting beaten on land.

There might seem to be every reason to speak of positive prospects for the people’s republics of Novorossiya. But against the background of military victories a political and administrative crisis is unfolding, creating new dangers which, if they are not more perilous than those associated with the attacks by government forces, are no less serious either.

Over several weeks the entire leadership of the Donetsk and Lugansk republics has effectively been replaced. The most momentous, and unexpected, development has been the ousting of the military leader of the militias, Igor Strelkov. In the best Soviet traditions, the announcement was couched in terms of his “transfer to other work”. The decision was made at a time when Strelkov was in Moscow, far from his troops.

Strelkov’s removal from his post is an obvious act of revenge on the part of those very Kremlin forces on whom the leader of the militias had inflicted a serious political defeat in early July. Militia units, after conducting a heroic two-month defence of Slavyansk, had broken through encircling Ukrainian forces and made their way to Donetsk, where political figures linked to the Kremlin were already planning to surrender the city to the Kiev government. The arrival of the militias was accompanied by a radical purge in the structures of power. No one repressed the conspirators, but all were forced one after another to sign letters of resignation. They then left the city without excessive fuss, some of them setting off for Moscow and others for Kiev. This occurred against a background of growing political radicalisation within the movement. In August, a joint letter had been published by rank-and-file militia fighters demanding that the slogan of “social republics” that had been proclaimed in Donetsk and Lugansk should be put into effect, that the property of oligarchs should be nationalised and that reforms should be enacted in the interests of workers. The post of chair of the Supreme Soviet was taken by Boris Litvinov, a communist who had broken with the official leadership of the party. A law was adopted reversing the commercialisation of health care that had been initiated by the previous leaders, and recurrent, though somewhat timid, attempts were made at nationalisation.

For their part, political specialists close to the Kremlin unleashed a campaign against Strelkov in the Russian mass media. The bitterness of the Moscow bureaucrats and their propaganda assistants is understandable: while they were sitting in their cosy offices, drawing up plans and weaving intrigues, the people at the forefront of events were making history without asking their advice.

Paradoxically, it was Strelkov who did most to aid the radicalisation of the process, despite his sympathies for the pre-revolutionary monarchy and nostalgia for the Russian empire. The leader of the militias was not only famed for his honesty and openness (it is enough to recall his detailed accounts of his own difficulties and failures, accounts which contrast sharply with the propaganda from Moscow and Kiev). Strelkov’s political instincts drove him, to a large degree despite his own ideological leanings, to support social and political changes. He and his associates stressed repeatedly that they would not allow Novorossiya to be transformed into a second edition of pre-Maidan Ukraine, directly contradicting the strategy of the Kremlin, which sought precisely that.

Unlike other Donetsk and Lugansk leaders, who travelled constantly to Moscow to beg for assistance (for the most part in vain), the commander of the militias was to be found with his troops in the line of battle. There, as practice showed, it was safer for him politically than in the Moscow corridors of power.

[. . .]

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