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Not a Clockwork Orange

Not a Clockwork Orange
The current political crisis unraveling in Ukraine has numerous sides to it. Many narratives about the events in Kiev have played out in the media world over. The process began when protests broke out at the Maidan, the central square in Kiev, close to key government buildings, in November 2013. It has finished up in President Yankovych fleeing the national capital and hiding away as a fugitive.
The protests were triggered by Yankovych’s refusal, at the very last minute, to sign a trade agreement with the European Union (EU), offering loans in return for tough austerity measures and opening up their economy to outside competition. Under such circumstances, Russian president Vladimir Putin, offered their neighbours a $15 billion bailout.

The initial struggle, a peaceful one, began due to the desire of many young Ukrainians to join the European Union, which some had hoped would bring a different life. The state of the nation, under President Yankovych, was plagued by corruption, political and fiscal mismanagement, hopelessly dependent on Russian gas and beholden to the Kremlin’s whims, nearly broke and hurtling towards bankruptcy. The desire for European integration has split the country, right through the middle, with the Russian-speaking dominated south and the east not keen on such mergers. However, in the north and west, it is unsure, as to what their primary motives are, despite clamour by large sections of the youth for integration with Europe.

On 16 January, the recently ousted president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, tried to pass a series of draconian laws through parliament, virtually tearing up their constitution. Provisions safeguarding freedom of speech and right to assembly were thrown out of the window.  All participants in the protests, numbering in the low millions, were effectively turned into criminals. Little did Yankovych know about the whiplash such acts would create. The protests, which were peaceful until then, turned violent. The president lost whatever little support he had left, including areas at his home base/

A closer look at the protesters revealed a diverse mix, with representations from virtually all corners of Ukraine. They came from everywhere. Russian speakers and Ukrainian speakers, people from the cities and the countryside, people from all regions of the country, members of all political parties, the young and the old, Christians, Muslims, and Jews. They were not Nazis saluting statues of Hitler, as it was made to be initially. And it was this astonishingly diverse set of people who congregated at Maidans across Ukraine. The Maidan became the site for political dialogue and change.

However, it is critical to note, that once Yankovych passed a slew of undemocratic measures and unleashed the riot police, it is then that the protest turned violent. Demonstrators, unwilling to give the police any leeway decided to stand their ground. Molotov cocktails become the flavour of the season. The protests were then hijacked by groups on the far right.

One such group is the hard right anti-Semitic group called Svoboda. The group is led by Oleh Tyahnybok, who claims in his book that a ‘Moscow-Jewish’ mafia controls Ukraine. Bizarrely enough, Senator John McCain shared the stage with him in December last year.  The group also led a recent candle light march in the memory of Stepan Bandera, whose forces fought with the Nazis in the Second World War and took part in massacres of Jews.

However, the group was outflanked by even more radical groups such as the Right Sector, whose primary demands revolve around ‘national revolution’ and ‘prolonged guerilla warfare’. The entire discourse about the European Union has been thrown out of the window.

Under such circumstances, eager to destroy the credibility of the protesters, Moscow, which has close ties with the Yanukovych regime, has gone on record to call the protesters Nazis. This is an ironic statement coming from a country whose president Vladimir Putin is an avowed admirer of the philosopher Ivan Ilin, who wanted Russia to be a nationalist dictatorship . The propaganda machine of Moscow has worked full steam to point out that many of the dissidents are fascists.

Arguably the far right does have a formidable presence in Ukraine. Ironically, at least based on empirical evidence, it is the regime itself which has indulged in shameless anti-Semitism. The regime had gone as far as to instruct its riot police that the protesters are a mob of Jews led by Jews. This was terrible doublespeak, for the Ukrainian government, which told itself that its opponents are Jews and it was telling us that its opponents are Nazis.

The current Russian attempt to manipulate the memory of the Holocaust is so blatant and cynical that it must be rejected outright. If everyone gets caught up in the question of whether the protesters are largely Nazis or not, like most of the western media has, then they may miss the central issues in the present crisis.

The prime focus in this saga has to be Yanukovych himself and the mess he created. He has been backed to the hilt by billionaire oligarchs who seized control of resources and privatised companies after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Opening up their economy to international competition has always been a threat they’ve been content to keep at bay.

However, concern rose amongst them about the rise of ‘the family’. It is a group, close to the President, that has reaped the benefits of their proximity to power. Yankovych’s son, Oleksandr Yanukovych, a dentist by profession, has amassed a business empire in just a span of just three years. The rise of ‘the family’, allied with Yankovych’s dictatorial streak, has pushed these oligarchs to the brink. They’ve played a significant part in funding these protestors.

It’s anger at this grotesque corruption and inequality, Ukraine’s economic stagnation and poverty that had brought many ordinary Ukrainians to join the protests – as well as outrage at police brutality. Like Russia, Ukraine was beggared by the neoliberal shock therapy and mass privatisation of the post-Soviet years. More than half the country’s national income was lost in five years and it has yet to fully recover.

In the wake of his desertion, Yanukovych has left Ukraine with a massive rebuilding task. The new speaker, Oleksandr V Turchynov, admitted as much, warning in an open letter to the Ukrainian people on Sunday that ‘Ukraine is now in a pre-default condition and sliding into the abyss.’ The country’s most pressing problem, however, is largely out of their control: a fast-approaching economic disaster that they cannot solve without international assistance.

It is not clear when or if financial assistance promised by Europe and the United States would arrive. Though the West has claimed victory in the tug of war with Russia over Ukraine neither the European Union nor the United States has done anything more than make promises. The IMF has made clear that it is unwilling to help Ukraine without a commitment from the country to undertake painful austerity measures and other restructuring. Yanukovych’s resistance to those demands was a principal reason he backed away from a trade deal with Europe and sought help from Russia instead. Given the animosity of the new Ukrainian government toward Russia, Ivan Tchakarov, an analyst with Citibank, says that Ukraine could turn only to the West for help, and would inevitably face demands for tough reforms and a near-certain recession as a result.

Ukraine’s biggest problem is not a resurgent right as claimed by Russia. It s biggest problem is an impending economic apocalypse.

With the fall of Viktor Yankovych, who for all his faults, was a democratically elected leader, sectarian divisions have to come to the forefront. The Crimean south, which is a majority Russian-speaking province, has been terribly unhappy by the protests. Pro-Russian separatists and government forces are already coming to blows as we speak. Things will only get much worse from here on out.

(Inputs from The Guardian, The New York Review of Books, BBC, Financial Times, New Tork Times, AFP and other agencies)
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