Staunton, April 24 – It is notoriously easier to spark a protest movement than to control its direction thereafter or to ensure that it does not become a model for others one does not want to be involved in. That risk is now on display in eastern Ukraine where pro-Moscow activists are not only seeking to undermine Kyiv’s control but also attacking their own oligarchs.
Moscow has actively promoted and organized protests in eastern Ukraine against the authorities in Kyiv as part of its effort to weaken and dismember that country, but the Kremlin is likely to be less pleased by one direction these protests are taking: attacks on their own oligarchs, a group with which the Kremlin has sought to work and on which it relies in Russia itself.
As Aleksey Verkhoyantsev of Svobodnaya Pressa noted yesterday, “experts have long predicted that the political crisis in Ukraine would soon acquire a social dimension” and that the mixing of these two elements “could lead to unpredictable [and potentially uncontrollable] consequences”.
Boris Shmelyov, an expert at the Moscow Institute of Economics and a professor at the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy, told him that one of the reasons for this is that “for the majority of citizens of Ukraine living in the South-East, the term ‘federalization’ is not very well understood.”
The ordinary miner there isn’t interested in such details, and consequently “now we see that the residents of the Donbass are advancing social demands” which are both more understandable to them and more explosive. As the situation in Greece shows, such demands will only intensify as Kyiv seeks to meet the demands of the IMF.
Verkhoyantsev asked Shmelyov directly: Could this movement escape the control “not only of Kyiv but of Moscow as well?” Might the radicals “who today are calling for the creation of peoples republics in the South-East refuse to recognize the power of the oligarchs and, for example, nationalize the mines and other major enterprises?”
The Moscow economist did not respond directly but said that dual power already exists in many parts of eastern Ukraine but that real control is passing more or less quickly into the hands of those opposed to Kyiv. The social dimension of the protests will only accelerate this process, but at the same time, it will radicalize the anti-Kyiv forces.
“The dissatisfaction with the oligarchs in the Donbass and Luhansk is great,” Shmelyov said. They are to blame for much of the suffering of local workers. “Social anger is growing, and this will lead to a conflict between the population and the owners of factories and mines.” And that in turn may lead the new powers to nationalize those facilities.
Consequently, what we are seeing, he continued, “is not only the increasing collapse of Ukrainian statehood and the sharpening of regional conflicts in Ukraine. We are seeking the destruction of that liberal-oligarchic model of social-economic development on which Ukraine had been developing in recent years.”
Aleksandr Shatilov, a sociologist at Moscow’s Finance University, agreed, adding only that the tensions between workers and owners were growing not just in eastern Ukraine but throughout the country. He predicted that it was quite likely that there would be “a war not only against Kyiv but also against the Ukrainian oligarchs.”
And Sergey Vasiltsov, a KPRF Duma deputy who is director of the Center for Research on the Political Culture of Russia, agreed as well and said that despite the problems workers have in uniting, it is quite possible that demands for “’a state without oligarchs’” would soon be sounding in Ukraine.
Vasiltsov said the solution was for eastern Ukraine to become part of Russia because there is no place now in the world for smaller states. They must be part of some larger one or the satellites of some other.
It is certainly true that the passions of the miners and workers in eastern Ukraine could at least in the short term help Moscow to further undermine Kyiv. But their attacks on the oligarchs as a group simultaneously pose a threat to the Kremlin because they strike at the basis of the power of Vladimir Putin’s regime in Russia.
And just as activists in three Russian oblasts have asked Moscow to “invade” their regions so that they can have the rights Putin has promised Crimea, so too some in the Russian Federation may take away from this latest turn of events in Ukraine not just the nationalist one the Kremlin has been promoting but a social and class one as well.
To the extent that happens, Putin’s Anschluss of Crimea and his continuing subversion of eastern Ukraine could have serious blowback inside the Russian Federation, causing Russians to question the rule of the wealthy and powerful and thinking about how much better it would be for themselves if they could have “a state without oligarchs” too.