Ukraine: “Condemn Russia’s Imperialist Threat”

Ukraine: ‘condemn Russia’s imperialist threat’ • People and Nature • 24 January 2022

Ukrainian socialists are urging international unity against the Russian government’s imperialist policies that threaten a new war.

The Social Movement, a group of mainly labour activists in Ukraine, calls in a statement for “solidarity with people who have suffered from the war that has lasted almost eight years, and who may suffer from a new one”.

The statement expresses “gratitude and solidarity to Russian left-wing activists who oppose the imperialist policies of the Kremlin and are fighting for democratic and social transformations in their country”.

“Our house was stolen by war”: one of Ukraine’s 1.5 million internally displaced people. Photo from commons.com.ua

The Social Movement denounces the “myth, popular among some Western leftists”, that the Russian-supported “people’s republics” in Donetsk and Luhansk are “the result of popular will”. Their statement says:

The heads of the “Donetsk People’s Republic” and “Luhansk People’s Republic” are integrated into the ranks of the ruling elite of the Russian Federation and have become the mouthpiece of the Kremlin’s most aggressive predatory sentiments. In the “republics” themselves, any opposition political activity, even the most loyal to the Russian government, is suppressed.

In my view, this statement would be a good place to start discussion about how to build solidarity in the face of war, with working-class communities in Ukraine, and with labour and social movements there. So would the principled statement of opposition to Putin’s war drive by the Russian Socialist Movement, which I posted just before the new year.

The (Ukrainian) Social Movement statement concludes with a call for “complete withdrawal of Russian troops from Donbas”. It says that “one of the best means of pressure on the leaders of the Russian Federation would be the seizure of the property and assets of Russian oligarchs and officials in London and other places”.

It calls for “revision of the socio-economic course proposed to Ukraine by the West: instead of destructive neoliberal reforms under the pressure of the IMF – the cancellation of Ukraine’s external debt”. And it urges “more inclusive and progressive humanitarian policies in Ukraine, ending impunity for the Ukrainian far right, and abolition of the ‘de-communisation’ laws”.

One thing many Ukrainians find grotesque is the sight of their country’s fate being discussed by the US and Russia, as though the Ukrainian state did not exist. This is the focus of an article, “Moscow and Washington should not determine Ukraine’s future”, by socialist activist Taras Bilous.

Bilous’s earlier analysis of the breakdown of the Minsk accords is also worth reading.

So is a facebook post written on 20 January by Marko Bojcun, the socialist historian of Ukraine, which I reproduce here with his permission:

Though Putin, the artful player, has several options in his hand, his ultimate objective has been to get the US to join an expanded Normandy format and the Minsk negotiations, and there to help force Ukraine to accept further limitations to its state sovereignty. Basically, that means Kyiv would accept the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk “republics” as internationally recognised autonomous state institutions within Ukraine, but in reality bodies that continue to be run by Russian state ministries – as they already are in a concealed manner. Russia would use them to lever Ukraine’s domestic and foreign policies.

Putin recognises that he can achieve his main goal only with US endorsement. He needs the US to join him in twisting the arms of the stubborn Ukrainians. That has been the point of all these Russian troop movements to Ukraine’s current borders: to get the Americans to weigh in, to keep Ukraine out of any direct talks and to conclude a deal over their heads.

Ukraine is critical to Russia’s long term project of economic, military and diplomatic recovery, its resumption as a Great Power. That means Russia will not stop its drive until it achieves much more. The present conjuncture resembles in some way another historical moment, in 1938, when Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, met Joachim Von Ribbentrop, Nazi Germany’s foreign minister, over the Czechoslovak crisis. Chamberlain came out of that meeting, waved a scrap of paper in his hand and declared peace in their time. I wonder what US foreign secretary Anthony Blinken and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov will have to say after their meeting tomorrow?

The answer to that last question turned out to be: nothing much. Blinken offered Lavrov the carrot of a meeting between the US and Russian presidents, something Putin has long craved in his efforts to claim Russia’s “great power” status.

For a substantial analysis from a Marxist standpoint, Bojcun’s 2016 article on “The causes of the Ukrainian crisis” is essential reading.

More things to read in English

Friends are asking where they can find alternative, radical analyses, and views, of the war danger in English. Here are some more suggestions.

□ The Russian sociologist Greg Yudin’s view of “why Putin’s Russia is threatening Ukraine” is on Open Democracy Russia, which features a range of alternative viewpoints from across the former Soviet Union.

□ A recent comment article by the journalist James Meek is on the London Review of Books web site, on open access. Meek and Paul Mason are among the panelists appearing at an event organised by the Ukrainian Institute in London about the war danger, on Wednesday 16 February. (The Institute, run in the distant past by cold-warrior right wingers, is now managed by liberal, post-Soviet Ukrainians. Its educational and informational events are well worth looking out for.)

□ The London-based, official-labour-movement-focused Ukraine Solidarity Campaign regularly publishes information.

□ The biggest gap in English-language coverage is about what is going on in eastern Ukraine. I have occasionally translated and published stuff on this blog (see e.g. a recent post here, and, from further back, herehere and here).

□ The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group web site has excellent, and accurate, coverage of an appalling range of repressive state and military activities – see, e.g., their tags on Crimea and “terrorism” (which includes those “people’s republics”), but note, too, their more general reporting on human rights abuses in Ukraine and Russia.

□ It is a job of work to counter the stream of deceit and misinformation from Putin-ists in the UK labour movement. I summed up the arguments in a recent blog post here. I even wrote to the Morning Star, about one of its more grotesque lies – that “hundreds of trade union leaders” were killed by the post-2014 Ukrainian government. Accuracy about dead bodies is not their big thing, it seems. My letter is reproduced below. SP, 24 January 2022.

False reporting of “hundreds” of trades unionists’ deaths goes uncorrected

I sent this letter to the Morning Star newspaper, which claims its favours “peace and socialism”, two weeks ago. The editor has neither published it, nor corrected the gross fabrication to which it refers

Dear Editor,

In the article “Opinion: US and NATO play with fire in their latest anti-Russia campaign”, 9 December, John Wojcik stated: “Hundreds of trade union leaders and activists were murdered by the new right-wing Ukrainian government shortly after it came to power [in 2014].”

This is incorrect. The two major Ukrainian union federations reported no such deaths of union leaders. Nor did the detailed reports by the UN High Commission for Human Rights on civil rights in Ukraine. Some activists were killed in this period, during numerous civil disturbances, but there is no evidence that the government was responsible. (Many people were killed, by Ukrainian, Russian and separatist forces, in the military conflict that began in the summer of 2014. This is not what Wojcik is referring to.)

Many of your readers will have mourned the death of friends and comrades killed for their trade union activity. It would be disrespectful to them to leave uncorrected the statement that hundreds of union leaders were killed.

The article also states that the new Ukrainian government “banned the use of the Russian language”. This is incorrect. A law making Ukrainian the single state language was adopted in 2019. It requires Ukrainian to be used – but not exclusively, i.e. it can be used together with other languages – in certain public spaces. It will be applied to educational institutions and the media, but not to private or religious life. Many Ukrainian socialists are opposed to it. But exaggerating its effect can only help to exacerbate differences between working people on grounds of nationality and language, that historically the labour movement has endeavoured to overcome.

Simon Pirani, London. 

Revolt and Repression in Kazahstan

Revolt and repression in Kazakhstan • People and Nature • January 9, 2022

The Kazakh government has unleashed ferocious repression against the uprising that exploded last week.

Security forces opened fire on demonstrators. “Dozens” died, according to media reports, but on 7 January president Kassym-Jomart Tokayev let slip that “hundreds” had been killed. Tokayev also said he gave the order to “shoot to kill without warning” to suppress protests.

There are no accurate figures, because the government has cut off internet access for almost the whole country and imposed an information blockade.

The internal affairs ministry has said that more than 4400 people have been arrested, and warned that sentences of between eight years and life will be imposed. The Kazakh regime has used torture against worker activists before: its forces may be emboldened by the 3000 Russian and other troops flown in to support them.

From social media via The Insider. The security services facing demonstrators in Almaty

It’s difficult, in the midst of this nightmare, to try to analyse the wave of protest and its consequences. Anyway, here are four points, based on what I can see from a distance.

Continue reading “Revolt and Repression in Kazahstan”

Putin’s Little Helpers

Putin’s little helpers undermine solidarity • People and Nature • December 29, 2021

We know what solidarity in the face of war looks like. It looks like the Grupa Granica, set up to support those stranded on the Polish border by the government’s vicious anti-migrant policy and the Belarusian government’s cynical manipulation of refugees.

It looks like the thousands of Polish people who have demonstrated, demanding “stop the torture at the border”. And it looks like the solidarity networks set up further afield (including the Solidarity Without Borders appeal for cash to support groups on the spot).

To those supporting refugees – whether in Poland or Belarus, or in the English Channel, targeted by the UK government’s murderous crackdown – it makes no difference which war people are fleeing. It might be the US-UK-supported war in Iraq, or the bloodbath perpetrated in Syria by Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Now, we face the possibility of renewed Russian military action in Ukraine. This carries the greatest threat of war in Europe since the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s.

Demonstration in Warsaw, October 2021, to “stop torture on the border”. Photo by Slawomir Kaminski / Agencja Wyborcza.pl

The war in eastern Ukraine in 2014-15 has already caused 2 million or more people to flee their homes: more than 1 million now counted as “internally displaced” in Ukraine; at least as many have crossed the border to Russia. A new conflict would be both a human tragedy and a threat to social movements.

Solidarity is needed. An anti-war movement is needed.

Already, pro-Putin propaganda – that corrodes parts of the so-called “left”, as well as thriving on the extreme right – is being dialled up. It seeks to justify Russia’s military preparations. And it could endanger efforts to galvanise anti-war protest.

Putin’s little helpers on the “left” generally have a world view inherited from Stalinism: they believe that authoritarian regimes that spout anti-American rhetoric (Russia, China or both) are to be praised; the imperial character of these regimes’ actions is ignored; and these regimes, rather than popular movements, are seen as the means to resist western powers.  

Four of the fairytales told by Putin’s helpers, on the Stop the War website and the Morning Star newspaper, are:

Fairytale no. 1: NATO started it

Andrew Murray, writing on the Stop the War website, claims that “if there is conflict over Ukraine, it is the west that bears most of the blame”. But it’s not “if”. There has been a conflict going on for more than six years, which has taken more than 14,000 lives.

The forces involved are the Ukrainian army, the vastly better-resourced Russian army, and separatists and mercenaries supported by, and to a large extent funded and armed by, the Russian state. The western powers have been noticeable by their absence.

Murray says the 100,000 Russian troops stationed on the Ukrainian border are “allegations” and “media speculation”. John Wojcik in the Morning Star says they are there “if corporate press outlets are to be believed”. In the real world where the rest of us live, the Russian forces actually exist (see satellite pictures here and here).

Murray claims that the NATO military alliance is “trying to seize Ukraine by means of moving NATO right up to Russia’s borders”, that the US is “arming Ukraine to the hilt to resist” and that “British troops are stationed in the Balkans”. The journalist and commentator Paul Mason has demolished these claims point by point. He writes:

There is, in short, no NATO plan to “seize” Ukraine; no possibility of Ukraine joining NATO; no “arming to the hilt”; no significant number of British troops in the Balkans; no major deployment of NATO troops “eastwards towards Poland”.

The US military support for Ukraine so far amounts to Javelin anti-tank missile systems, and small arms and a group of training officers. It remains dwarfed by the Russian mobilisation.

The danger of war is real. But to deny the central role of the Russian military is to deny reality.  

Putin’s helpers have form on this. During the civil war in Syria, the Stop the War campaign and their friends had little or nothing to say about the murderous Assad regime and the Russian government that armed and militarily supported it – despite the fact that they were responsible for an estimated 90% of the killings.

While the regime preferred to butcher and torture its own citizens, rather than to grant them a measure of democratic rights, Putin’s helpers spoke up only about minor incursions by western forces … the “anti-imperialism of idiots”, as Syrian-British writer Leila al-Shami called it.

As for Ukraine, the Stop the War campaign did nothing to support the victims of the 2014-15  conflict, but nevertheless hurried to the defence of the Russian “leftist” Boris Kagarlitsky, who joined fascists and nationalists in supporting the Russian intervention.  

Putin’s helpers are everywhere, including the Moscow Carnegie Center. Screen shot by the Russian Reader

Fairytale no. 2: Ukraine is fascist, really

There was a “fascist coup” in Ukraine in 2014, writes John Wojcik in the Morning Star (in an article republished from the US-based People’s World, of which Wojcik is editor). “Hundreds of trade union leaders and activists were murdered by the new right-wing Ukrainian government shortly after it came to power.” He also claims that the new government “banned opposition political parties, including the widely supported Communist party”. And it “banned the use of the Russian language, the primary language of 40% or more of the Ukrainian people”. Let’s go through the bits of this fairytale one by one.

(a) A “fascist coup”. The overthrow of the government headed by president Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 was, by any measure, a mass popular action. A crowd of more than half a million people occupied the centre of Kyiv for more than two weeks, in the face of assaults ranging from baton charges to sniper fire, making it impossible for the government to continue. There were mass actions on a similar scale in dozens of other towns and cities. The politics of this “Maidan” protest were complex. Participants ranged from fascists, who played a key part in the violent confrontations with the old regime’s armed forces, to socialists and anarchists. But the word “coup” is meaningless to describe it. As for the new government, while its record on defending democratic rights was mixed to put it mildly, it was no more “fascist” than the governments of e.g. Poland or Hungary. And, in terms of the rights to assembly, free speech and workplace organisation, less repressive than the governments of e.g. Turkey or Russia. 

(b) “Hundreds of trade union leaders and activists were murdered by the new right-wing Ukrainian government.” This is false – shockingly so. No such murders took place. No such murders have been recorded on the web sites of Ukraine’s two trade union federations. None have been mentioned in the detailed reports of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights on attacks on civil rights in Ukraine. Demonstrators were killed in clashes with the security forces, but this was mostly before Yanukovych was overthrown. Activists and journalists have been attacked, and some killed, apparently by non-state actors, albeit sometimes with covert support from elements in the state. In 2014, prior to the military conflict, there were other deaths and injuries resulting from civil conflict. The most serious incident, by far, was the deaths of demonstrators opposed to the new government who, confronted by its supporters, took refuge in a trade union building in Odessa that was then set on fire. Ukrainian law enforcement did little to investigate. Tragic as these deaths were, they were not murders of trade union leaders or activists by the government.

(c) The government “banned opposition political parties”, including the Communist party. It didn’t. The electoral commission banned the Communist party from participation in the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections, under the 2015 “decommunisation” law. This law, which forbids the promotion of “totalitarian regimes”, defined as Nazi and Communist, and their symbols, has been and is being used to attack democratic rights. Together with similar laws in other eastern European countries, it deserves to be denounced and resisted. But note, too, that the Communist party continues to operate legally; that it has mounted legal challenges to the ban; that no other party has been banned from electoral participation under the law; and that the government and the electoral rights group OPORA are currently in dispute over the extent of proportional representation – an election procedure that in the UK, for example, remains an unattainable dream.

(d) The government “banned the use of the Russian language”. It didn’t – and it’s irresponsible and inflammatory to sit in an editorial office in the US claiming it did. A law making Ukrainian the single state language was adopted in 2019 – the culmination of three decades of argument, shaped both by by aspirations to revive Ukrainian culture that has suffered historically from Russian imperial domination, and by hard-line Ukrainian nationalism. Ukrainian socialists opposed the measure (and I sympathise with them). Remember, though, that the law requires that Ukrainian be used in public spaces, and not exclusively; that it does not apply to private or religious life; that it will be applied in the education system, and to TV, over an extended period; and that breaching the law is essentially a civil, not criminal offence. (See reports by Russia’s state owned TASS news agency here, and Russia’s opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta here.)

Another of Putin’s helpers’ favourite tricks is to portray Ukraine as protective of the memory of wartime Nazi collaborators. With no reference to the real, complex battles over memory (see e.g. here and here), they point to Ukraine’s opposition to a Russian resolution on the holocaust at the UN, in a ridiculous diplomatic ritual repeated annually since 2005 (see here and here). This is a facile attitude to a serious subject. Putin’s helpers seem blind to the reality that it is the security forces in Russia, not Ukraine, that have recently tortured and jailed a group of young anti-fascists.

Fairytale no. 3: Ukraine is part of Russia, really

Putin’s helpers insist that Ukraine is not really a country with a history. The Stop the War site says that the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 “turned what had been internal borders, arbitrarily drawn with no great significance, into inter-state boundaries”; Ukraine has “failed to develop anything like a common democratic culture”; therefore what is now “decisive” is the “international aspect” and the actions of the western powers; and what mattered about 2014 was that the government established in Kyiv was “anti-Russian”.

Both Stop the War and the Morning Star quote Putin’s article On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians, published in July. It heightened fears in Ukraine of imminent invasion, with insanely exaggerated warnings of a path towards “an ethnically pure Ukrainian state”, that would be comparable to “the use of weapons of mass destruction against us”. (Putin followed up earlier this month, with a deranged claim that “current developments in Donbass” are “very reminiscent of genocide”.)

In his article, Putin explains the tsarist empire’s anti-Ukrainian legislation of the 1870s on the grounds that the Polish nationalist revolt was in progress; argues that Ukrainian nationhood was an invention of the Poles and/or Austro-Hungarians; and describes the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939, by which Poland and the Baltic states were divided between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, with the words “the USSR regained the lands earlier seized by Poland”. He never once refers to Russian imperialism and colonialism, and the role they have played in shaping, and trying to deny, Ukrainian national identity.

That Putin justifies his imperial aspirations with reference to Russia’s imperialist past is not surprising. For western “leftists” to endorse this logic suggests that the “left” has sunk to a new low.

Fairytale no. 4: Putin is protecting Russia’s riches from imperialist looters

“Possible western aggression against Russia” is caused, in part, by “the desire of the fossil fuel monopolies to control the world energy market”, the Morning Star claims. These western interests seek to “turn Ukraine into a base”, in order to “achieve economic control of Russia”. This is unbelievably upside-down and back-to-front.

The Russian economy was subordinated to world markets, as a supplier of raw materials such as oil, gas and minerals, in a process that took two decades after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. In the first decade of Putin’s presidency, especially, large chunks of the wealth earned from these exports found its way into private hands and was shipped to offshore locations, at the rate of tens of billions of dollars per year.

Although Putin insisted that the private owners of oil and metals companies pay more taxes than they did in the 1990s, and some oil assets have been renationalised (the state owns an estimated 50% of the oil industry now), investigations by journalists and the anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny have shown conclusively that his governing team put far, far more effort into diverting many billions in to their own accounts. Russian oil companies remain open to foreign investment; the largest of them, Rosneft, is 22% owned by BP.

So Russia’s economy has been integrated into the world capitalist economy in a way that serves its elite, not its people. Material inequalities have widened substantially under Putin.

Since 2014, a giant contradiction has opened up for the Russian government. The elite’s economic interests would be best served by developing these good relations with foreign capital. But its political interests required it to stoke up nationalism, to seek to reinforce its diplomatic and military control over its near neighbours that have slipped from its imperial grasp, Ukraine first among them. The war fought by Russia in Ukraine in 2014-15 was driven by these politics, not by economic interests. It, and western sanctions that resulted, damaged those interests.

The western powers already have most of what they want from the Russian economy. The idea that they are plotting military action to control it is, frankly, daft. There’s no doubt that the US hopes to constrain Russia’s geopolitical and military reach in central Europe – although the western alliance is split, and Germany is generally readier to compromise with Russia. But there is another factor here: the popular movement that removed Yanukovich and drastically weakened Russia’s political control over Ukraine, rooted in a history of colonialism. Putin is not only trying to reassert Russian influence against a divided NATO, but is also reacting to those changes in Ukrainian society. And it is Ukrainians who are being killed, and Ukrainian communities divided and devastated, by war.

In conclusion

The arguments put by Putin’s helpers are so absurd that I find it hard to explain them to Russian and Ukrainian friends. In 2015, a Ukrainian friend living in the UK asked: “What is it with these people? Are they being paid by the Russian embassy?” I answered that I was sure they are not. They justify Putin’s actions on account of their messed-up ideology, which on some level they must believe. That’s why, although it’s a bit like explaining why the earth isn’t flat, I offer readers these thoughts. SP, 29 December 2021.

Thanks to Simon Pirani for permission to reprint his essay here. ||| TRR

La algarabía 

WORD OF THE DAY
la algarabía (ahl-gah-rah-BEE-ah)
noun
racket
Cerré la ventana para no escuchar la algarabía de los manifestantes que estaban afuera.

I closed the windows so as not to hear the racket of the protesters outside.

Source: “Word of the Day,” 29 December 2021, spanishdict.com

Yigal Levin • Facebook • December 24, 2021

Do Russians want war?

A picket in Russia against war with Ukraine was so tiny that I didn’t even notice it in the stream of incoming news. And it happened something like a week ago. Six (6) activists were involved in the protest. They unfurled posters calling on the Kremlin to stop the war against Ukraine and waved the Ukrainian and Russian flags.

This was how it was reported on the Voice of America website:

“The participants of the anti-war rally said that most passersby did not support the picket. Some spat at the picketers, while others made the cuckoo sign and called the picketers insulting or abusive names. Kirov residents, mostly people of the older generation, urged that ‘Ukraine be wiped off the face of the earth,’ and told the protesters ‘not to disgrace themselves.'”

Basically, it’s all quite clear and expected. Just remember a few things. First, when they tell you that Russians don’t want war with Ukraine, they are lying to you. Let me remind you that silence = consent. Secondly, when you are accused of Russophobia, spit in the face of the person who accuses you.

But the six people who attended this protest rally are heroes. I say that without the slightest trace of irony.

Translated by the Russian Reader

“No to war! No to Putin” “Hands off Ukraine!” Photo of anti-war rally in Kirov courtesy of Yigal Levin

On 4 December, the Associated Press, citing information from the US intelligence services, reported that Russia was preparing to put 175,000 troops near the Ukrainian border. “[Deploying] Russian armed forces on Russian territory – that’s the legal right of a sovereign state”, responded Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, without denying the build-up of forces on the border.

Along with the migration crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border, these actions are an episode in the cynical and dangerous geopolitical game of Russian and the west, in which millions of working people in Ukraine, Belarus, Russia and other countries are being held hostage. This sabre-rattling is not only an attempt to push other states into retreat. Behind it also stands the aspirations of the elite to “rally the nation” once again around the Putin regime, as it did in 2014, after the annexation of Crimea.

The so-called “hybrid war with the west” is needed to distract the population’s attention from the poverty, inequality, political repression, falsification of elections and the collapse of the fight with the coronavirus. This “hybrid war” serves as a justification for round after round of attacks on the rights and freedoms of Russians, for the continuation of a social and economic policy directed against the majority of people – and for power becoming un-removable.

Militarism and nationalism are lethally dangerous drugs that are being injected into Russian society and, at the same time, are poisoning the consciousness of the ruling clique, which is becoming more and more removed from reality.

The loss of social support, the absence of any vision of the future and the determination to stay in charge by any means have pushed Russia’s rulers towards this terrible step: an attempt to cut the Gordian knot of their problems by dragging Russia into a major war.

In this situation it is essential that the progressive forces in Russian society, including the left, are united in opposition to war. Whatever our attitude to the political situation in Ukraine, or to the policy of the USA or the EU in the region, another military adventure will lead to nothing but a humanitarian catastrophe and the reinforcement of authoritarianism on both sides of the border.

We must not allow a repeat of 2014, when a section of the Russian opposition, gripped by illusions in the supposedly progressive character of the so-called “Russian spring”, in practice supported the Kremlin and its imperial expansion.

It must be axiomatic that a regime of record-breaking social inequality, of lies, repression and obscurantism, can not bring “freedom” to anyone, including the Russian-speaking citizens of Ukraine.

Source: Russian Socialist Movement (RSD) • Facebook • December 7, 2021 • Translated by Simon Pirani and published on People and Nature on December 29, 2021


Yigal Levin • Facebook • December 29, 2021

Solo pickets by Russians against the Russian government’s aggression in Ukraine. December 12, 15, 22, 27 and 28, Moscow. My deepest gratitude to these brave people. [There are several more photos at the link — TRR.]
 
“No to war! Money for the treatment and education of children, not for murder weapons.”

The Zhanaozen Massacre: Ten Years Later

Kazakhstan, ten years after the Zhanaozen massacre: oil workers’ fight to organise goes on • People and Nature • 15 December 2021

Ten years after police massacred striking oil workers at Zhanaozen, Kazakhstan, human rights organisations and trades unionists are demanding an international inquiry into the killings.

Even now, the number of victims is unknown. State officials admit that 16 were killed and 64 injured on 16 December 2011 – but campaigners say there were dozens, perhaps hundreds, more.

The initial killings, by police who fired into a peaceful, unarmed crowd, were followed by a three-day reign of terror in Zhanaozen, in the oil-rich Mangistau province in western Kazakhstan, and nearby villages.

Defendants at the 2012 trial of Zhanaozen protesters

The torture and sexual violence used against detainees should also be investigated by an independent international commission, campaigners say.

Although a handful of police officers were tried for “exceeding their powers”, and a detention centre boss was briefly jailed, the Kazakh government has refused to say who ordered the shootings.

The Zhanaozen shootings ended an eight-month strike by the town’s oil workers, one of the largest industrial actions ever in the post-Soviet countries.

Oil workers and their families had demanded better pay and conditions, and the right to organise independent trade unions, at Ozenmunaigaz, a production subsidiary of the national oil company Kazmunaigaz, and contracting firms.

On Saturday 11 December this year, oil workers gathered in Zhanaozen, amidst a heavy police presence, to commemorate the victims. Tomorrow, ten years to the day after the tragedy, activists plan film screenings and other gatherings in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s largest city.

Zhanaozen has become a crucial strand in Kazakh working people’s collective memory. On the day of the killings, local residents risked arrest and worse to smuggle out of the locked-down city video clips showing how demonstrators were executed in cold blood. Today, some of the fear has faded, activists say: whole films – such as this one, made in 2013 (commentary in Russian) – are shared on social media.

https://www.facebook.com/daryn.ibraeff/videos/1302525450187459

An international investigation is needed, because, even now, the Kazakh authorities are desperate to cover up the truth, human rights activists who have pursued the truth about Zhanaozen said in interviews with People & Nature.

Evgeny Zhovtis, director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, said “three questions have never been answered” about the events on Alan Square, where the initial shootings took place:

□ Who were the provocateurs who caused trouble on the square?

□ Who exactly gave the order to send in armed interior ministry forces against an unarmed crowd? 

□ Who fired the shots? The authorities have admitted to 15 killings on the square. In each case, [under Kazakh law] an investigation should show either that the officer responsible had opened fire unlawfully, or that he opened fire because his life was threatened.  

Zhovtis said: “The UN commissioner for human rights, Niva Pillay, visited Kazakhstan in 2012 and called for an independent international commission to be set up, to investigate these events. Maina Kiai, the UN special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, also called for such a commission. This has not happened.”

Human rights defenders in Kazakhstan reject the justice ministry’s claim that an adequate investigation had been carried out, Zhovtis said.

Police in Zhanaozen, 16 December 2011. A still from a video smuggled out by residents to make sure the truth reached the outside world

“The leading western governments are largely indifferent to what happens in central Asia. Look at their response both to the Zhanaozen tragedy and the Andijan massacre [of hundreds of protesters in Uzbekistan in May 2005].

“Nevertheless, we simply have to keep demanding justice.”   

Galym Ageleuov of Liberty, the human rights organisation, who has travelled regularly to Zhanaozen since the massacre to gather evidence, said that, in addition to the events on Alan Square, any investigation should cover:

□ The use of torture against oil workers and their supporters detained during the three-day crackdown. Detailed evidence of this had already been made public, especially at a trial of 37 Zhanaozen residents in 2012.

□ Sexual violence against women detainees, including Roza Tuletaeva, an oil workers’ trade union organiser (about her release, see here and here); Zhansaule Karabalaeva, daughter of a trade union activist; Asem Kenzhebaeva, daughter of another activist (the family’s story here, her evidence of sexual violence here); and others. “There is evidence that women and men prisoners were detained naked [in winter], were beaten, and had freezing water poured on them”, Ageleuov said.

□ The total number of killings in Zhanaozen and nearby villages on 16, 17 and 18 December 2011. Of the 16 admitted by officials, 15 were killed on Alan Square with revolvers, bullets from which usually remain lodged in the body. The authorities have denied responsibility for those killed by automatic gunfire and long-distance sniper fire, including bystanders. Ageleuov said: “There are numerous cases in which bodies were only released to the families of those killed if they accepted death certificates that registered the cause of death as, for example, a heart attack.”

Asem Kenzhebaeva

□ The killing of Torebek Tolegenov in Shetpe, and the wounding of young people who blocked a railroad to protest at the Zhanaozen massacre, needs to be investigated.

□ Multiple reports of bodies being loaded into unmarked graves – including by Yelena Kostiuchenko of Novaya Gazeta, Russia’s prime opposition newspaper, one of the first journalists to get into Zhanaozen after the massacre – have never been followed up. “Any international commission should insist on the exhumation of these bodies”, Ageleuov said.

□ A fire that broke out, inexplicably, at the Ozenmunaigaz offices on the day of the massacre.

The Kazakh labour movement will this week commemorate the Zhanaozen tragedy – at a time when the right to form independent trade unions, a key principle in the 2011 oil workers’ strike, is again at issue in many workplace struggles.

In June, the national oil company Kazmunaigaz tried to scrap an agreement on wages and conditions with the independent Oil Construction Company Workers Union, seeking instead a sweetheart deal with a “union” it had created. That followed an attempt by the authorities to deregister, and effectively put beyond the law, the independent Sectoral Union of Fuel and Energy Workers, a national-level umbrella of which the Oil Construction Company Workers Union is part.

Markhaba Khalmurzaeva, coordinator of the Central Asia Labour Rights Monitoring Mission, said: “There have been several strikes in which workers demanded the right to independent organisation, and in some cases, once the pay dispute was settled, employers even helped to register unions.”

But there is also a constant campaign of repression. “Quite often a strike will be settled, some demands are met, but activists who played a part in organising it are dismissed, and blacklisted.”

These battles for the right to independent organisation flared up earlier this year amidst a wave of strikes over pay and conditions. There were more strikes in the first half of 2021 than in the three years 2018-2020 put together. And this summer, the wave hit the western Kazakhstan oilfield, including Zhanaozen, where 11 firms were on strike simultaneously in July.

In September the Central Asia Labour Rights Monitoring Mission reported:

Most of the strikes are in the rich oil region of Mangistau in western Kazakhstan, although it is not only oil workers who are walking out. The most widespread demand is for wage increases. Some groups of workers demand a 13th wage [i.e. to be paid an extra month’s money each year]; partial or complete funding of sanatorium breaks for those working with toxic chemicals; compensation for Covid-19 tests; and … [a supply of] milk [at work].

In Zhanaozen, in the years after the massacre, the Ozenmunaigaz oil company was reorganised into 14 separate divisions. Many of the strikers were employed in the drilling services division, where pay was raised substantially and today is at more than twice the level of ten years ago.

In an attempt to smother the social discontent that exploded in 2011, the government invested in the town’s infrastructure, providing among other things round-the-clock water supply, where previously water only reached people’s homes for short periods twice a day.

Zhanaozen’s population has also expanded … but not everyone benefits. Unemployment has grown rapidly, and in 2019 young people began to demonstrate at the local authorities’ offices, demanding work at Ozenmunaigaz.

A mass meeting in July this year at KMG Security, one of 11 workplaces on strike in Zhanaozen. Photo: Manas Kalyrtai RFE/RL

Erzhan Elshibayev, who helped to organise these peaceful gatherings, was arrested and jailed for five years. Galym Ageleuov said: “Elshibayev is a victim of political repression. In 2019, he was charged with an offence arising from a fight he was involved in, when he was attacked by four men in 2017 while on his way to work – an incident that gave rise to no charges at the time.

“Elshibayev has been in detention for two years. For the last three months he has been in solitary confinement and no-one has heard from him.” Trade unionists gathered at Bishkek last week at a conference called on the Kazakh authorities to release him immediately.

Ten years after the massacre, labour’s battles against capital continue in the oilfield – for better pay and living conditions, for the right to organise independently at work, for ways to live decently. Exposing the truth about the state repression in 2011, about the chain of command, about the barbaric use of murder and torture in the service of capital, is a part of this wider struggle. SP, 15 December 2021.

■ Statement by human rights organisations in Kazakhstan, 15 December 2021

■ Zhanaozen: worker organisation and repression, by Simon Pirani (Gabriel Levy)

■ Zhanaozen: some lessons by Evgeny Zhovtis

■ They shot to kill. Interview with Galym Ageleuov

■ Kazakh oil workers: index of articles

“Freedom of association is a workers’ right! Free Erzhan Elshibayev! Stop victimising people for being active citizens!”

Originally posted on People & Nature on 15 December 2021. Thanks to its editor, Simon Pirani, for allowing me to repost his article here. ||| TRR

Kronstadt as Revolutionary Utopia: 1921-2021 and Beyond

Kronstadt as Revolutionary Utopia: 1921-2021 and Beyond

March 20-21, 2021

Conference to be streamed on Twitch, including discussion/questions and answers

Saturday, March 20, 2021
1) Welcome and opening event – 9:30am Pacific/12:30am Eastern/4:30pm GMT/7:30pm Moscow

2) Historians’ panel – 10:00am Pacific/1:00pm Eastern/5:00pm GMT/8:00pm Moscow

  • Konstantin Tarasov, “Kronstadt self-government in 1917”
  • Simon Pirani, “Kronstadt and the workers’ movements in Moscow and Petrograd, 1921”
  • Dmitriy Ivanov, “Kronstadt 1921 uprising, political identities, and information flows”
  • Alexei Gusev, “Kronstadt Uprising of 1921 as a part of the Great Russian Revolution”

Lara Green moderating

3) Panel: “Disinformation and Counter-Revolution, 1921-2021” – 11:30am Pacific/2:30pm Eastern/6:30pm GMT/9:30pm Moscow

  • Ramah Kudaimi, “The People Want: Syria’s Uprising”
  • Lara el-Kateb, “Disinformation in the age of social media: The case for the Syrian revolution”
  • Omar Sabbour, “On the continuities between imperialism and vacuous anti-imperialism”
  • Javier Sethness, “Marx/Plekhanov vs. Bakunin; from Kronstadt to Neo-Stalinism”

Shon Meckfessel moderating

4) Film screening: The Russian Revolution in Color (2005) – 1:00pm Pacific/4:00pm Eastern/8:00pm GMT/11:00pm Moscow

Sunday, March 21
1) Welcome and opening event: recap of day 1, and agenda for day 2 – 9:30am Pacific/4:30pm GMT/7:30pm Moscow

2) Panel: “The After-Lives of Kronstadt” – 9:45am Pacific/12:45pm Eastern/4:45pm GMT/7:45pm Moscow

  • Mike Harris, “In the Spirit of Kronstadt”
  • Danny Evans, “A Spanish Kronstadt? The Barcelona May Days of 1937”
  • George Katsiaficas, “Enduring Problems of Communist Parties’ Suppression of Popular Movements”
  • Dmitriy Buchenkow, “The problem of power in the anarchist worldview”

Laurence Davis moderating; Irina Sisseikina interpreting

6) Film screening: Maggots and Men (2013) – 11:30am Pacific/2:30pm Eastern/6:30pm GMT/9:30pm Moscow

  • Q&A with Cary Cronenwett, Ilona Berger, and Zeph Fishlyn afterward

7) Kronstadt 1921 and the Social Crises of 2021 – 1:00pm Pacific/4:00pm Eastern/8:00pm GMT/11:00pm Moscow

  • Lynne Thorndycraft, “Kronstadt: Why It Matters”
  • Tom Wetzel, “Worker Congresses as a Form of Working Class Political Power”
  • Bill Weinberg, “Syria: Lessons from Kronstadt 1921”

Javier Sethness moderating

8) Closing event with words from cosponsors – 2:30pm Pacific/5:30pm Eastern/9:30pm GMT/12:30am Moscow

No Platform for Boris Kagarlitsky

no platform

You can not fight the far right by giving a platform to their friends
Simon Pirani’s Archive
July 25, 2019

The editors of Transform, a socialist journal that aims to strengthen the fight against the far right, are to publish a letter from me protesting their use of an article by Boris Kagarlitsky, a Russian “left” writer who collaborates with fascists and ultra-nationalists.

In 2014, Kagarlitsky energetically supported armed action in eastern Ukraine by Russian forces, mainly ultra-nationalist and fascist volunteers. He also began to cooperate with, and to share platforms with, extreme ideologues of Russian ultra-nationalism and fascism. Antifascists and trade unionists in Russia broke all ties with him. I gave details about Kagarlitsky’s position in 2014–16 in an open letter to the Stop the War campaign here.

Kagarlitsky continues to collaborate with the ultra-nationalists. Earlier this year he addressed a Moscow rally supporting Russia’s claim against Japan to the Kurile Islands, alongside the fascist mercenary Igor Strelkov-Girkin and other ultra-nationalist speakers.

At the same time, Kagarlitsky has never expressed solidarity with the young Russian anti-fascists who have been tortured by the security services and put on trial in the notorious Network case. Antifascists in Russia and internationally have united in a defence campaign around these victims of state repression; Kagarlitsky and his friends have not.

Despite this, Transform published an article by Kagarlitsky—about France, not Russia—in the last issue. This week I wrote to the editors to express concern. One replied, saying that my letter would be published in the next issue, later this year, and that they were “not aware” of Kagarlitsky’s cooperation with the right.

To raise awareness, I have put on line this short statement that you are reading.

This gap in the Transform editors’ knowledge is regrettable. All participants in Russia’s beleaguered antifascist movement know of Kagarlitsky’s high-profile defection. Plenty of material alerting English-language readers to his changed stance was published in 2015–16.

Obviously, this is not just about Russia or about Kagarlitsky. The right-wing populists and fascists, through nationalism and campism, pull “left” demagogues into their orbit more widely. This trend must be understood and fought.

Simon Pirani, 25 July 2019

My thanks to Mr. Pirani for permission to reproduce his statement here. Image courtesy of the Spectator and Getty. // TRR

Pavel Sheremet, Belarussian Journalist

Pavel Sheremet, Belarussian Journalist
Simon Pirani
The Pensive Quill
July 22, 2016

Ukraine’s political life has been shaken by the car-bomb killing of Pavel Sheremet, the Belarussian journalist, in Kyiv on Wednesday – a brazen, brutal murder in broad daylight in the city centre.

Pavel Sheremet. Photo: Ukrainska Pravda

Sheremet was an extraordinarily talented and honest reporter, which is why many people with power and money hated him. He was jailed, beaten and harassed by the authorities in Belarus; worked on Russian state television and then quit in protest at its one-sided coverage of Ukraine; and moved to Ukraine where he worked on television and on Ukrainska Pravda, the largest news web site.

Sheremet graduated from a prestigious university of international economic relations, right after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. “My classmates became oligarchs, ministers, diplomats – and, true, some of them ended up in jail. When I moved from a bank job to work on TV, everyone said I was mad, but I never regretted it”, Sheremet said in an article, published by his colleagues this morning, entitled “Every Day As If It’s the Last: Rules for Living”.

The early 1990s was a golden era for journalism in the former Soviet Union. Sheremet hosted a popular news analysis programme on Belarussian state TV that was banned by president Aleksandr Lukashenko in 1995. Sheremet switched to Russia’s main state channel, ORT, as the head of its bureau in Minsk.

As Lukashenko’s regime descended into authoritarianism, Sheremet became a prominent dissident and spokesman for the Charter 97 human rights organisation. In 1997 his classic reportage on smuggling across the Belarussian-Lithuanian border earned him a two-year prison sentence. After serving three months he moved to Moscow.

The spirit of media freedom was still alive and kicking in Russia. Sheremet investigated the disappearances of Belarussian dissidents, some of them his close friends, and made cutting-edge documentaries, including one about the Chechen war. He set up Belaruspartizan.org, the most effective Belarus-focused dissident web resource. He won the International Press Freedom Award in 1998, the first of a string of such prizes.

“Pavel was a really rare bird among post-Soviet journalists”, wrote the Russian journalist Konstantin Eggert in one of a host of tributes. “He very well understood Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, and maybe because of that he was a European – and not a Russian, Ukrainian or Belarussian – journalist.”

From 2010, Sheremet began to spend more time in Ukraine, and then moved to Kyiv, continuing to work for the main Russian state TV channel (ORT, later renamed Channel One). But in July 2014, four months after the overthrow of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich by the Maidan movement, Sheremet resigned from the station, complaining that those who contradict Kremlin propaganda were “hounded”.

“The TV still gives the impression that nothing has happened. That irritates people”, Sheremet wrote in the article published today. “The life people actually live is one thing, and then they turn on the TV and see a completely different picture. I quit [Channel One] because it became impossible to work there and preserve my reputation and good name.”

The news web site Ukrainska Pravda, where Sheremet worked for the last couple of years, along with broadcasting commitments, was his natural home. The site was set up in 2000 by Gyorgy Gongadze, another fearless child of the post-Soviet boom in free speech.

In September 2000, Gongadze was kidnapped and murdered by three police officers, who were many years later jailed for their part in the crime. The killers were clearly acting on the orders of elements in Ukraine’s political elite – although the connections beyond the internal affairs minister of the time, Yuri Kravchenko, who also died violently, were never completely clear.

The Gongadze case became a watchword for democratic rights in Ukraine. Rising to the challenge of censorship by thuggery, Gongadze’s colleagues turned Ukrainska Pravda from a penniless blog into the country’s prime web-based news resource, a position it enjoys to this day. Its news output is underpinned by comprehensive reporting on Ukraine’s oligarchs and the corruption that surrounds them. After the Maidan events two Ukrainska Pravda journalists, Sergei Leshchenko and Mustafa Nayyem, entered parliament on an anti-corruption platform.

Sheremet fitted in well in this company. The car he was driving when killed belonged to Aliona Prytula, Ukrainska Pravda’s co-founder and owner. The police at first suspected she may have been the intended victim, although on Thursday it was reported that investigating officers now thought the attack was most likely targeted at Sheremet himself.

There is no guarantee that we will ever know who killed Pavel Sheremet, and who ordered the killing. In the cases of many of the journalists murdered in former Soviet countries in the past 25 years, the trail of infamy that led to their deaths has been successfully covered up, often with the help of law enforcement agencies.

All we can be sure of is that the military conflict unleashed in eastern Ukraine over the past two years makes murders such as Sheremet’s more likely.

The complex clashes in eastern Ukraine that followed from Yanukovich’s removal were turned into war by the influx of huge quantities of military hardware and volunteer fighters from Russia, an influx for which the Russian state bears the main responsibility. Human life has been cheapened; more than 9400 people have died; human rights organisations now routinely issue reports (the most recent from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch on 21 July) of torture, disappearances and arbitrary detentions.

All this has ratcheted up the danger to people like Pavel Sheremet, who so well understand the dynamics of such conflicts, and could explain them with frankness and good humour to their fellow citizens who don’t believe most of what the media tells them. (Pavel’s recent blog posts ladled sarcasm and wit on Russian war propagandists, Ukrainian business oligarchs and Ukrainian “volunteers”-turned-criminals alike, leaving us none the wiser about which of his enemies might have been involved in his killing.)

I have been travelling to Russia and Ukraine for the past 25 years as a journalist and a researcher. It’s easy for me: I have a British passport in my pocket and can leave at any time. For many like Sheremet, who in recent years I counted not just as a colleague but as a good friend, there is no such protection.

Flowers at the place in the centre of Kyiv where Pavel Sheremet was killed. Photo: Belaruspartizan.org

My thanks to Simon Pirani for his permission to reproduce this obituary here. TRR