Timoshenko and the weakness of the Ukrainian ruling elite

The tragedy of the Ukrainian workers is that all the parties, including the Socialist and Communist Parties, have links with business groups, and are the mouthpieces for these business interests. This article, originally written in Russian in February, gives some useful background information to what is happening now in the Ukraine.

Yulia Timoshenko, the so-called “princess” of Ukraine’s PR-inspired “orange revolution” which saw Viktor Yushchenko defeat the Kremlin candidate Viktor Yanukovich, was endorsed unanimously as Prime Minister by the Ukrainian Rada by a record majority on Friday (February 4). Only the Communist Party opposed Timoshenko but their fraction did not turn up to the session, except for five deputies who voted for her, who have since been expelled from the party.

Former Kuchma and Yanukovich supporters, including deputies from the party of the Regions, don’t want to antagonise the new leadership any further. Their backing of Timoshenko as Prime Minister reveals just how superficial the difference between Viktor Yushchenko and Viktor Yanukovich was in terms of ideology.

The agenda of the new leadership is to re-distribute the property of rival business clans that benefited from privatisations carried out under Kuchma and distance itself from the old guard in the security forces with links with Russia. Already Timoshenko has declared that the huge steel enterprise Krivorizhstal and other factories will be re-auctioned by the state in a new wave of privatisations.

The Ukraine received a lot of international publicity during the elections because both the west and Russia saw events through the prism of their own national interests. Undoubtedly the fact that the Ukraine is caught up in the power struggles of rival imperialisms does affect its politics domestically. However, the elite within the Ukraine in its turn sees foreign policy through the prism of their self-interest, and has been prepared to cosy up to Europe one minute and Russia the next depending on circumstances. Now there is a new balance of forces in the country, with a greater orientation towards the west, but life and politics will carry on largely as before.

Workers will have the same managers and directors, and the same politicians will continue to lie and take bribes, as if all their talk of good intentions pays taxpayers back for all the money they stuff in their pockets. And the same politicians and businessmen will continue to rob and fleece the people, despite their competition among themselves to rob the people the most.

The crisis of the elite

It is true that the unanimous support for Timoshenko in the Rada underlines that for the moment she and Yushchenko hold the initiative. The executive, legislative and judicial branches of power are all under their control. But this is only a temporary conjuncture in the balance of forces within the ruling elite, which will split into squabbling, back-stabbing factions in the future. The government can’t divide the spoils of victory to satisfy the immoderate appetites of the greedy political and business groupings.

More importantly though is the fact that beneath the surface strength of Timoshenko and co. the docility of the elite expresses its weakness. None of these groups have played a progressive role in society by developing industry or projects in the public sector that the country desperately needs. And since they have not built up roots of support in the population they were compelled to rely on the support of business groups or the backing of the President to maintain their positions.

Without the semblance of power their relationship with Kuchma provided them with they are now left exposed as the frauds and unreal politicians they really are. Instead of repaying the favours that Kuchma wooed them with by remaining loyal to him they are the loudest to denounce him for abusing his position of power. They have offered their services to Yushchenko to avoid being isolated in the face of a predatory executive power. The whole façade of the political system has once again been shown to be a house built on chicken’s legs, on the powerful yet fickle patronage of the Presidential administration, which resembles the old Soviet politbureau, with its powers and connections, in a capitalist disguise.

The rottenness and corruption of members of the Ukrainian elite, and their poverty of ideas about how to build their country, are inseparable from the rottenness of the capitalist system they have imposed on the economy from above, mixing gangster capitalism with the worst aspects of Stalinism. The chaos of the 1990s, when fortunes were won or lost depending on who your connections were, who bribed who or who assassinated who and so on, was unleashed by the short-term, brutal struggle for assets and empires. Instead of developing production, and allowing the formation of business groups through profitable investment in industry and infrastructure, and a corresponding search for a political and social strategy to modernise the country, the new tycoons were only interested in feathering their own nests.

The ruling class in the Ukraine, shaped as it has been by the reactionary move back to capitalism, is parasitic and a barrier to progress. Following the nose-dive in economic activity in the 1990s there is now limited potential for growth, but potential nonetheless. The car market has jumped ahead at 40% a year in the last two years and doubled to just over 200,000 cars sold in 2004 for example. But this potential is inhibited by the constraints of the market and the lack of leadership on the part of the country’s rulers.

The legacy of Kuchma

The impasse and despair of the different factions within the ruling elite were manifested during Kuchma’s Presidency in the state turning in on itself. The clearest example of the conflicts within the state apparatus arose over the scandal of Georgii Gongadze, a journalist whose decapitated body was found in woods outside Kiev. Conversations that took place in the President’s office, which were secretly recorded by his head of security, showed that Kuchma himself had ordered the killing. Aleksandr Morozov, leader of the Socialist Party, moved to impeach the former President, but didn’t get a sufficient majority in the Rada, due to the support of parties backed by business groups that had gained from Kuchma’s patronage, not least preferential treatment in their bids for privatised assets.

The impeachment saga demonstrated how parliament in the Ukraine does not function as a forum in which policy is openly debated. Nothing is decided in the Rada. Instead all the parties, including the Socialist and Communist Parties, have links with business groups, and are the mouthpieces for these business interests. The miserably low intellectual and cultural level of the leaders of Ukrainian political life is illustrated by pictures shown on TV here in Russia of deputies engaged in brawls, quite unselfconsciously kicking in the face colleagues who have been pummelled to the ground. “You thought the state Duma was a circus,” the implicit message rings out on state television, “be grateful it’s not as bad as it is in Kiev!” Perhaps the most unforgettable example was of a female deputy who doused herself in oil and was about to set herself alight in protest against Kuchma as she approached the speaker’s platform before she was rescued by security guards.

The arms of the state were divided against each other, and within themselves, whether in the Rada, the Presidential administration or the judiciary. These divisions were visible in the so-called orange revolution. Take TV for example. The state ran Channel 1, and through the Social-Democratic Party (united) – led by the head of Kuchma’s administrationViktor Medvedchuk – controlled “Inter” and “Studio 1 + 1”, and ICTV, “New” and STB, owned by Kuchma’s son-in-law Viktor Pinchuk. The news editors of all these channels received envelopes with orders telling them what line to take in their programmes, but they were not able to control their journalists, who covered stories wearing orange ties to show their allegiance, or simply resigned en masse. Following the second round of voting, according to the Russian business weekly Vlast (29 November), coverage of the elections on “Inter” and “1 + 1” was led by only one journalist, who resigned on 25 November because “I look a complete idiot, like a strikebreaker.” The same article continues to say that viewers of the state channel were told “the results of the central election committee have been falsified. Don’t believe them. Our President is Yushchenko…”

Thus, the state in the Ukraine lost control of its own apparatus but this happened for reasons which are different than those which would be the case if the state began to collapse in an industrialised country with an established political system. Far from being the result of a powerful revolutionary onslaught of the population, rooted in the working class and its organisations, the crisis of the state in the Ukraine was brought about by its own internal weakness and splits.

The Princess and her palace coup

Far from being a revolution the so-called “orange revolution” was a regime change presented for public consumption. The revolutionaries on Maidan Square themselves had better things to do than worry about seizing power – like falling in love in their make-shift tents and having mock weddings in orange marriages that lasted for the duration of their campaign.

There was a festive atmosphere. It was exciting and fun. And everybody could feel they were important, that they had something in common, that they were heroes, if only for a few weeks. And then they went back to their real lives. (see Ukraine: déjà vu). Far from being the product of the painstaking preparation and sacrifices necessary to tie together in struggle the real demands of working people, this so called “revolution”, which even in Russia is often expressed in inverted commas, was an escape from real life, an adventure, a bubble that answered the needs of one wing of the elite who can now just as easily extinguish it because it never had any real, independent existence of its own.

And just as the protestors themselves were acting the role of revolutionaries and actually enjoying casting off their tired, everyday identity, so did Timoshenko revel standing in the limelight in her rich clothes, pretending to be so ardent and sincere as she ceremoniously pulls the strings now of a press conference, now of a mass rally or a sitting of parliament. Here is one example taken from a report in the Russian business daily Kommersant (23/11/04):

Dear friends! Our victory depends on the heroism of every one of you who has made it to this square… I want to ask you if you understand that not one of you can leave this square other than as a winner… And I know that this time, after thirteen years of slavery, we will not leave this square until we have taken power, for we have become a people’s army!

Timoshenko here is an actress playing a role, enjoying her princess’ costume, and feels as much concern for her audience as an actress does in a theatre. And beneath the disguise lurks the contempt for ordinary people of the political elite that she fumed against during Yushchenko’s election campaign.

Timoshenko has already made lots of announcements in financial circles about the direction in which her cabinet is going to move the country. But this isn’t what she talked about when, with her accustomed flourish of demagoguery, she introduced her cabinet and her programme: “meeting the people.” Her speech was awaited with some interest by deputies, who wondered how she would explain sections such as “belief”, “justice”, “life”, “harmony”, “security” and “peace” True to form she did not give a single figure to show how her programme would add up, and was warmly applauded for her bold start to the job.

The real face of Timoshenko

All the hype about her might suggest that she offers the country something new. Nothing could be further from the truth. She does not represent a progressive future for the country but the worst, the most calculating and vehement capitalists that enriched themselves in midst of the impoverishment of the people and the paralysis of the economy following the collapse of the planned economy.

She made her first millions in the early 1990s by setting up a corporation “Ukrainian Benzene” and trading first petrol and then gas to industrial enterprises in Ukraine, which unlike other eastern bloc countries were too big to be closed down and reorganised according to the needs of the European market. As a result the government kept factories going, and up-start capitalists like Timoshenko were quick to supply them with the necessary metals, chemicals and farm produce from Russia. With industry chronically short of cash and inflation high, vital commodities were at a premium –  if a factory wasn’t paid for its goods in money it could still obtain future supplies by barter. As a result the price of gas skyrocketed and traders who bought it cheaply in Russia made a fortune, especially as they then exchanged the Ukrainian goods they acquired dirt cheap for Russian gas, and carried on trading. Timoshenko, via her company United Energy Systems of Ukraine, was the biggest gas trader and controlled the supply of gas to, and the distribution of products from, hundreds of factories. She only entered politics when her business empire was broken up by ex President Kuchma.

Her words as Prime Minister therefore stink of hypocrisy. She says that she wants to end the shady wheeling and dealing of Ukrainian smash and grab capitalism, and to this end will strike blows against business interests that gained from Kuchma’s lobbying. One target are the assets of Rinat Akhmetov, an oligarch who basically owns the Donbass region, and Viktor Panchuk (the same Panchuk that is Kuchma’s son-in-law and owns TV stations etc etc) who own between them 93% of the shares of the Krivorozhstal plant that Timoshenko wants to re-privatise. But in the early 1990s she teamed up with Panchuk’s company “Interpipe,” which organised the supply of pipes to Russia, to form the company “Sodruzhestvo” before she focused on trading gas and he developed the production of pipes.

Her past proves that she is prepared to work with the devil himself (or herself) if it suits her short term interest. What she is doing now is merely copying the strong arm methods of Kuchma in distributing property to groups that she is aligned with. She says she wants to separate business from government but she herself gained from a cosy relationship with the government of Prime Minister Lazarenko, who is now on trial in the USA on charges of corruption and was booted out of office for showing her too much favouritism.

To Timoshenko questions of justice or the country’s prosperity come very much behind more direct questions of revenge on her former business rivals, if they figure at all in her mind.

Yet one more example of her way of thinking is her attitude to the position of Prime Minister, whose powers will be increased at the expense of the President’s from 2006. This reform was passed on the initiative of Kuchma, who wanted an ally as a strong PM to protect him from attack in the event of Yushchenko winning the presidential elections. Then she opposed it, arguing that a Yushchenko presidency should have as much power as possible. Now she is silent on this point. She talks a lot about setting down rules and respecting the constitution but for her this all just empty talk and a smokescreen.

Class struggle on the horizon

Timoshenko and co will not be able to dig themselves out of the organic crisis of capitalism. On the contrary they will inevitably provoke sweeping movements of the working class in trying to introduce from above their dose of capitalist shock therapy. This is what we are seeing now in Russia with the anti-monetisation protests. Although Putin has every branch of power under his control as well as record high popularity ratings, as the new regime in the Ukraine has for the moment, it has not stopped his government from over-reaching itself. Thousands of pensioners have braved the winter cold to block roads and stage mass rallies, which started to attract a layer of students and workers and have forced the cabinet into making concessions.

Many bourgeois commentators talk about parallels between recent events in the Ukraine and autumn 1991 in Moscow when the reform wing of the bureaucracy triumphed over the old guard. Naturally they focus on the role of the liberals and don’t understand anything. In Russia the moment the state stopped propping up liberal parties their apparent popularity fell through the floor. If business groups in the Ukraine took away their backing of the liberals they would also disappear from public life without leaving a trace behind them in the public consciousness, except as symbols of the mess they have left behind.

The victory of openly pro-capitalist politicians does not reflect an underlying shift in society to the right. The most important factor is the role, or absence in this case, of the working class. Recent events in the Ukraine have largely by-passed the working class. Workers are tired of politics after years of upheaval and broken promises, and know they can’t rely on anybody but themselves to help them, which manifests itself in working longer hours rather than a turn to trade unions or political parties that don’t defend them. It may be the case that the workers in the Ukraine will remain on the sidelines for a period, as they have in Russia. But even in this period of inactivity there were times when the workers did turn towards politics, in 1993 and in 1998.

It is difficult to tell from here what the mood among the workers in the Ukraine now is. But they are certain to be keeping an eye on the protests in Russia and will probably be thinking “I wish we had real movements like that here.” Having been ignored while their fate was apparently being decided there must be the desire to assert their presence. But there is likely to be also a feeling of inertia, that I won’t be the first to protest but will join in once a movement gets started. These different moods means that it is impossible to say when there will be a wave of struggle, particularly of strikes, as workers fight for higher wages when they see the company director going on holidays abroad on the back of higher profitability. The lack of activity might last longer than even Timoshenko and her cronies dare hope for, but it could equally be broken sooner than they think.

The inherent instability of the Ukraine is underlined by the anger of the middle class, who have not been pauperised as much as the mass of the population. Anybody who is not in the richest 10-15% or so of the population is fed up with the rottenness of the system. Yet the reality of the mass movement mobilised in support of Yuschenko was the middle class flirting with politics with an undefined programme and vacuous methods.

But Timoshenko, who revelled in stirring up the crowd in words, is now going to stir up the masses by her deeds. And if last autumn was a so-called revolution, the ground is being prepared for new waves of the class struggle in which the working class, if it has the correct leadership and tactics, will have the chance to take its own revenge on Timoshenko and her cronies, ending the ruinous policies of privatisation and capitalism, for re-nationalisation under workers’ control and a thorough democratisation of society, which can only be achieved on the basis of socialism.