This week in many places across Ukraine, red flags will fly beside the country’s blue and yellow to mark the 70th anniversary of the Nazi invasion.
They will fly as a challenge to those in the Ukrainian parliament who have sought to impose a legal ban on symbols of the Soviet period.
Last weekend’s congress of Ukraine’s Communist Party heard its secretary Peter Symonenko stress the political importance of resisting what he described as the threat of nationalistic fascism, the attempt to link national sentiment to fascist and White Guard episodes in the country’s past.
In circumstances where the heirs of the discredited orange revolution have suffered serious setbacks electorally, they are now resorting to cruder methods. In those regions and districts where they still have political control, those who collaborated with the Nazis are being honored. Streets and squares are being renamed after them. Neo-fascist organizations are given freedom to operate. Hostility to Ukraine’s large national minorities, Russian, Jewish, Russian-German, is growing.
That was why, argued Symonenko, it was so important to reassert the progressive, multinational traditions of working people in Ukraine, of the heroism of their resistance to Nazi invasion and the achievements of the Soviet period.
The congress reflected the difficult yet pivotal position that the Communist Party holds within Ukraine’s politics. In 2006-7, its 26 deputies played important part in the consolidation of a parliamentary coalition which ended nationalist rule. In 2010, they gave support to the current President Viktor Yanukovych on the basis of commitments that he would defend the rights of working people, protect national minorities and strengthen international ties with Russia and countries of the Shanghai Co-operation Organization.
Politically, however, Ukraine’s Communists have no easy task. Restored capitalism is brutal.
About a dozen oligarch groups control an economy that has been radically privatized – including 90 per cent of state enterprises, almost all utilities, housing and agricultural production. These forces control the media and exert a dominating presence within government and over the state apparatus. And privatization continues. A new system of compulsory private insurance is being prepared for a health service that already operates largely for payment. Unemployment remains massive. Premature mortality, especially among working-age men, together with mass emigration has seen the population shrink by over 10 per cent. Over 40 per cent of those under 24 are without work, and the trade union movement is correspondingly weak.
In these circumstances, Communists have to fight against the odds. Banned in 1991, the party was reformed in 1993 but remains barred from organizing in the public sector, state enterprises and among civil servants.
Yet, surprisingly, the party is growing fast. A third of its 112,000 members have been recruited over the past four years. Young people are becoming increasingly involved and women now make up almost 40 per cent of members.
This is largely because the party has refashioned itself. It is now much more a mass campaigning party rooted locally and taking up the immediate issues that affect working people – unpaid wages, denied pensions, the swindling of compensation due to former members of collective farms.
Two years ago, 6,000 engineering workers occupied Ukraine’s biggest agricultural machinery complex. Its second post-privatization owner had gone bust. Their jobs were on the line. After a wider political campaign, in which Communists played a major role, parliament passed a motion taking the factory back into public ownership.
However, these successes do not blind Communists to the perilous imbalances of Ukrainian politics. At the congress, the party’s elder statesman Georgii Khryuchov quoted a statistic to highlight the dangers. He drew out the negative conclusions from a recent poll, which indicated that around 40 per cent of the population favored the restoration of socialism in some form or other.
The first conclusion concerned the 60 percent who did not hold this view. Passively or actively, they have been influenced to accept the inevitability of the existing order and, more dangerously, were susceptible to nationalist propaganda and policies that, under the previous government, included support for NATO and the EU. The second conclusion concerned the disparity between the 40 percent support for socialism and electoral support for the Ukrainian Communists, which generally runs at below 10 per cent.
The party, Khryuchev argued, had to further “radicalize” its work and, through much more direct engagement at the grassroots, dispel the distrust that was ceaselessly promoted by the mass media, whether nationalist or not.
Hence the importance attached to combating the rewriting of history concerning the Soviet Union and the war against fascism.
This was not a matter of nostalgia. It represented a real and essential engagement with present-day politics. Ukrainian Communists are mindful, as should all progressives in Britain, of the country’s front-line position within current shifts in the balance of world forces.
The orange revolution resulted in Ukrainian troops being sent to Iraq and Afghanistan, heavy penetration by U.S. agencies and preparation for NATO membership. These steps have been halted, but the pressure remains. Concrete alternatives need to be offered for a better future.
The new party program adopted at the congress advances perspectives for economic development based on the progressive restoration of social ownership and planning. This in turn is seen to require a new international orientation that does not subordinate such development to monopoly-controlled market forces – ultimately the restoration of democratically planned economic relations between the countries currently within the Commonwealth of Independent States. Other moves are also possible.
In 2010, Yanukovych visited China in a presidential delegation that included Peter Symonenko as leader of the Communist Party parliamentary fraction. This weekend, at the close of the congress, other red flags were flying in the streets of Kiev to welcome the first visit to Ukraine by President Hu Jintao.
John Foster is international secretary of the Communist Party of Britain. This article originally appeared in Morning Star. Photo: A delegate to the recent 44th Congress of the Communist Party of the Ukraine speaks. Via CPU website.