At least 25 people died during violent clashes between anti-government protesters and police in Kiev on Tuesday. Photo:Getty.
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Ukraine is at war, we're just not admitting it yet

Ukraine finds itself in an impossible clinch, where it is alternately patronised (“those heroic Ukrainians!”) and refused serious help to counter Russia’s bailouts. With people dying on the streets as the violence intensifies, how much longer can this last?

After a fortnight of relative calm, Kiev is burning again, following the most violent clashes since anti-government protests began three months ago. Any hope from Russian authorities that media attention would be diverted by the Sochi Olympics is over. After a calmer Wednesday, this morning fights restarted and, according to unofficial statistics, the new death toll has reached as high as 50 (mostly protestors, but also police and journalists, with these numbers likely to rise again). Over a thousand people were wounded in a failed attempt by government forces to clear the protest camp on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square).

For the last three months the Maidan has acted like a city in its own right, with its own infrastructure, food and medical help points. Now this image has been replaced with photographs of the scorched Maidan obscured by plumes of smoke, of barricades, burning cars, people with bloody wounds and bandaged heads, some lying on the ground, having been beaten or even killed.

The reason for yesterday’s outbreak is the breakdown of negotiations between the Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s ruling Party of Regions and the opposition leaders. Specifically, the problems have emerged over attempts to have the 2004 constitution reinstated, removing the changes instituted two years ago to strengthen presidential power. This follows a few recent government compromises, including the rescinding of the harsh anti-protest laws which were voted into existence only weeks earlier, and which led to Maidan’s radicalisation.

After the first killings in January it was clear the protesters were not going to give up ground, and nor were the authorities. In this way, Ukraine reached a deadlock. This week, around 10,000 protesters (largely from the far-right Svoboda party) calling themselves the “Peace Offensive”, went to the parliament and, after the failure of negotiations, tried to storm it. This might have triggered the government’s decision to finally clear the Maidan.

The level of violence is unprecedented in independent Ukraine. Both sides are armed, and the number of dead policemen suggests a black-and-white reading of the protests, in which the only the protesters suffer, is inaccurate. Nobody is sure whether it was the police or the protesters who first used violence on the day now known as “Black Tuesday”.

The fights that have taken place over the last two months have prepared people for what increasingly resembles a civil war. On Hrushevskogo Street tyres were burnt and truncheons, stones, grenades and Molotov cocktails flew, somebody started shooting with real guns. Trucks used to isolate protesters were destroyed and barricades were partly dismantled by riot police. In the evening, police stormed Maidan, burning tents and using water cannons. The Trade Union headquarters, which has long served as the Maidan HQ, was set on fire.

Since Tuesday, the whole city has been shut down. Martial law has not yet officially been declared, but there’s been a ban on entering Kiev since Tuesday midnight, the Metro was shut down, the oligarch Petr Poroshenko’s critical Channel 5 was taken off air, and telephones are not working. Under special “anti-terrorist” laws armed forces can now legally check and use weapons against the civilians. Vehicle traffic has been heavily restricted. Protesters are now trying to convince the police to join their side. Despite Yanukovych again talking to the opposition all through Wednesday, the short truce is gone and it seems that nobody, including the opposition, has any control over what is happening.

This is a civil war inside Europe, though nobody is yet admitting to it. Ukraine finds itself in an impossible clinch, where it is alternately patronised (“those heroic Ukrainians!”) and refused serious help to counter Russia’s bailouts. As of now, President Obama has strongly criticised Russian support of the crackdown.

Yanukovych's dependence on Russia is overwhelming. He needs support in the upcoming presidential election in 2015 and is clearly dependent on Putin’s financial help (Yanukovych is set to place a pro-Russian PM to replace the former Ukrainian PM Mikolai Azarov). Putin, on the other hand, may be worried about how the protest in Kiev might influence opposition in Russia. The western portrayal of Maidan, meanwhile, has shifted from admiration for the “pro-European” protesters to a belated recognition of the major role played on the ground by the far right, whether parliamentary (the Svoboda party) or otherwise (the insurgent Right Sector). This shifting of the moral perception of Maidan came exactly when Yanukovych and co needed it – to help break the protests and support for them – after all, Yanukovych used the presence of “extremists” as the pretext for the crackdown.

The reality is that neither the EU nor the US really cares if Ukraine becomes more nationalistic or more pro-Russian and the recent recognition of the role of the far right in protests has served as an excuse to do nothing. What high officials care about, as the recent scandal with the US envoy Victoria Nuland and her open contempt for Europe shows, is geopolitics and relations with Russia. We must remember that the EU’s offer to Yanukovych, which kick-started Maidan, was predicated on an already economically-devastated country accepting IMF austerity measures, and had no agreement on visas or travel to the EU, and so would have left Ukraine still isolated in Europe.

Now EU countries, led by neighbouring Poland, have suggested sanctions be placed on Ukraine – yet nobody placed sanctions on Egypt in August, when over 600 protesters were killed. This should remind us that we hold post-communist countries to different standards. Ukraine is still treated like a pawn, both by Russia and by the “west”.

Given the policy of the Ukrainian government has oscillated between brutality and weakness, it’s not clear if Yanukovych will simply listen to Putin and continue to brutally suppress the protest. The only possible rival candidate to Yanukovych is Vitaly Klitchko, the popular leader of Udar party, who carries the positive image of not being associated with the far right. He has a German residence permit, so his participation in the election is uncertain. 

The opinion polls show that half the society still doesn’t support the protests anyway. Yet the participants now have the massive boost of being the Maidan heroes, who “fought for freedom” and this attitude, regardless of when and how Maidan will be suppressed, may inspire others across the country.

 

Agata Pyzik is a Polish writer publishing in Polish and English in many publications in the UK and in Poland, including the Guardian, Frieze and The Wire. Her main interest is (post) communist Eastern Europe, its history, society, art. She's finishing a book on postcommunism called Poor But Sexy for Zero Books. She lives in London and has a blog.

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The problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt