As East-West tensions steadily deteriorate, Ukrainian leftists may wonder what has become of their Western counterparts. Locked into a rigid ideological mindset, European and U.S. leftists have consistently ignored radicals in Kiev or sought to cast aspersions on the overall political character of the EuroMaidan movement. The underlying reasons for such dismissive behavior aren't so difficult to fathom. According to leading leftist partisans, Western radicals should only involve themselves in political struggles which are squarely aimed against the U.S. "empire" and its satellites.
The Ukrainian left, on the other hand, doesn't fit into the partisans' neat pattern and oversimplified view of the world. To be sure, many on the Ukrainian left oppose Western imperialism, but activists also confront equally serious adversaries in the form of Putin and his puppets in Kiev, as well as other rightists and nationalists. This confuses the Western left, which views most East-West conflict in very narrow and ideological terms.
While it's difficult to pinpoint an exact intellectual "author" of the rigid leftist mindset, Noam Chomsky certainly comes to mind. A noted MIT professor, Chomsky consigns inconvenient social and political movements to the dustbin of history, preferring instead to concentrate exclusively on the victims of U.S. foreign policy. A somewhat more crude distillation of Chomsky's ideas can be found in the many essays of NYU professor Stephen Cohen, who goes off the rails by defending Putin against the West.
Yet another figure, pugnacious journalist Glenn Greenwald, embraces Chomsky's ideas while adopting many of Cohen's rigid partisan positions on East-West conflict. Over in the United Kingdom meanwhile, Tariq Ali pens similarly partisan essays such as one recent column entitled "Why the U.S. Turned Vladimir Putin into a Villain." In his article, Ali seems to take his cue from Cohen, arguing that Putin has been unfairly maligned and turned into "evil incarnate." The Russian leader, Ali writes, has been demonized because he dared "to contest U.S. hegemony by using the methods often deployed by the West."
Ignoring the Ukrainian Left
Despite his partisan leanings, Ali actually opens the door to a more nuanced discussion on Ukraine at the end of his piece. "Those who really value Ukrainian sovereignty," he writes, "should opt for real independence and a positive neutrality: neither a plaything of the West nor Moscow." It's a promising line of discussion, yet Ali never bothers to ask which Ukrainians might be in a position to actually promote these ideas or realistically put them into effect.
What will it take for Ali, not to mention fellow travelers Chomsky, Greenwald and Cohen to follow up on such statements and actually set up a dialogue with the Ukrainian left? Recently, I caught up with Denis Pilash, a post-graduate student at Kiev National University and an activist with several progressive outfits including Left Opposition, Direct Action, and Commons/Spil'ne, a journal of social criticism.
In an e-mail, Pilash writes that Western leftists should call for a wide degree of Crimean autonomy but not at the point of Russian bayonets. At the same time, Pilash would like Western radicals to call for military de-escalation and withdrawal of Russian troops as well as sanctions against Russian officials. Pilash adds that he'd like to see greater Western support for Russia's independent left and anti-fascist opposition, as well as solidarity for those political prisoners who have been locked up and held by the Putin authorities.
Getting Beyond Narrow East-West Paradigm
Such sentiments are echoed by Gabriel Levy in an article penned for British political magazine Red Pepper. In his piece, Levy examines the Ukrainian crisis in the context of Putin's clamp down on dissent within the wider region. Rather than concentrating on narrow east-west relations, Levy writes that Kremlin military adventurism has undermined worker solidarity while "inciting the worst type of reactionary war frenzy in Russia." Somewhat shrewdly, Levy adds, Putin sees war as a means of "forestalling social protest in Russia itself, which reached a peak in 2011-12 prior to his return to the presidency."
Despite Putin's successful moves in the Crimea, anti-war rallies have steadily grown in intensity. Indeed, notes Levy, "the level of anti-war protest in Russia itself is much greater than it was during the short Russo-Georgian war of 2008 -- probably because of the eruption of the new anti-Putin protest movement over the last couple of years." Even in the midst of such mounting opposition, however, the international left has remained mute. It's an unfortunate development, Levy argues, as "social and labor movements in Europe should be supporting these actions."
The international left has continued this downward spiral by similarly ignoring political activism in Ukraine. Pilash's group Left Opposition has been calling for an end to nationalist hysteria which has plagued both Russia and the Ukraine in recent months. To be sure, the group adds, EuroMaidan was sometimes prone to aggressive xenophobia. Nevertheless, the Ukrainian right ultimately failed to hijack recent protests against Viktor Yanukovych. As tensions mount, Left Opposition hopes that Russian speaking citizens of the Ukraine, as well as anti-war folk in Russia proper, will help to sabotage Putin's war plans.
Not Letting West off the Hook
Though Pilash and others are critical of political forces in their own local neighborhood, they are also harshly critical of the west. The European Union, Pilash remarks, should push for a visa-free regime for Ukrainian citizens and call for debt relief. At the same time, western leftists should criticize International Monetary Fund (I.M.F.) austerity and Shell oil company's plans to develop shale gas drilling in Ukraine. Not stopping there, Pilash says activists should oppose NATO expansion into Ukraine and do their utmost to keep his country free of military bases.
Some European leftists claim the new government in Kiev is fascist, notes Levy, though in truth the regime has a more "neo-liberal" complexion. If they ever get off their ideological hobby horses, western leftists might mobilize on behalf of Ukrainians who are fighting against I.M.F. proscriptions. "Ukraine's economy is in crisis," notes Levy, "its state finances are in trouble, and the new prime minister, neoliberal economist Arseniy Yatseniuk, is set to negotiate a loan package with the I.M.F."
When it comes to fighting neo-liberal austerity, the Ukrainian left could sure benefit from some political assistance. Under an earlier I.M.F. package back in 2008, Ukraine was obliged to slash public sector wages, reform its pension system and raise tariffs on municipal services. Current Prime Minister Yatseniuk has stated that he will implement further I.M.F. demands. Volodomyr Ishchenko, a sociologist in Kiev and editor of Commons Journal, says that unfortunately Yatseniuk and his cabinet have ignored many progressive social-economic demands of the EuroMaidan movement in the rush to satisfy international capital.
The Rise of Svoboda
The independent Ukrainian left faces a no less serious adversary in the form of local right wing forces. In his e-mail, Pilash remarked that Western leftists should do everything in their power to isolate the Ukrainian right including the Svoboda Party. Currently, adds Levy in Red Pepper, Svoboda is a partner in Yatseniuk's coalition government. The party practices populism, espouses nationalism and its leadership is full of anti-Semites.
Anton Shekhovtsov, a researcher at University College London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies, writes that Svoboda is linked in turn to far right social movements such as Patriot of Ukraine, Social-National Assembly and Autonomous Resistance. Shekhovtsov adds that Svoboda will not be able to seize power, but the party may cause a lot of mischief by destabilizing Ukraine's fragile political system and antagonizing Russian minorities.
Rightist Street Gangs
How can one explain the rising popularity of retrograde Svoboda? In an interview with Asheville FM radio, a Ukrainian activist adds that ironically, Svoboda has become popular amongst the educated liberal middle class in Kiev. Though liberals don't know much about Svoboda's program, they are prompted to vote for the party in the hope of shaking up the political system and getting rid of chronic corruption.
Shekhovtsov adds that in the short-term, it's not so much Svoboda which poses the greatest danger but rather self-defense units, some of which are armed and linked to the party or so-called Pravy Sektor ("Right Sector"). Timothy Eastman, a photojournalist, touched on such concerns with anti-fascist Ukrainian activists. In an interview, they remarked to him that Nazis had descended on anarchist protesters at the height of the EuroMaidan protests.
Sporting baseball bats, sticks and helmets, rightists did their utmost to intimidate the left, and even attacked and injured other protesters. Given such stark realities on the ground, Shekhovtsov writes that "we on the European left should search for ways to work solidarity with Ukrainian leftists against these very real dangers."
Independent Political Left in Need of Support
To its credit, the independent left in Ukraine has sought to move above narrow-minded populism while confronting the right. In defiance of the government, which wants to raise the pension age and increase working hours, Ukrainian anarchists have demanded the lowering of retirement age, extending vacation time and shortening the work week. Meanwhile, even as the authorities move to raise the price of metro and bus fares, activists have called for free public transport in Kiev. Left Opposition has furthermore called for the transition from a presidential to a parliamentary republic where executive power is greatly curtailed; nationalization of industry; the creation of independent workers' unions; introduction of a luxury tax; prohibition on offshore capital transfers, and access to free education and health care amongst other demands.
Sounds good, but unfortunately the independent left must also contend with the likes of the old-style Communist Party. According to Levy, the Communists offered their support to the ousted government of Viktor Yanukovych while other activists claim the Communists' "political program and agenda (can be) rather described as conservative, just like a regular social conservative party. If you compared (them) with Marie Le Pen, you would not find much difference between them."
Clearly, the independent Ukrainian left has its hands full with any number of international and domestic adversaries. What will it take for western leftists to get beyond the narrow confines of their ideological blinkers? Perhaps, Chomsky, Cohen, Greenwald and Ali will someday discover that Ukraine is a lot more nuanced than their rigid outlook actually permits.