Ukraine, Russia and the miners of the Donbass


Miners in the Donbass region have played a crucial role in Ukrainian politics since 1989, and are key today, argues Nick Evans

The situation in eastern Ukraine is becoming more and more dangerous. It is over a week since pro-Russian forces seized government buildings in the region. Attempts by the Ukrainian government to retake control in the town of Slavyansk on Sunday 13 April resulted in the death of a Ukrainian soldier.

The Russian foreign ministry described the use of the Ukrainian military to put down the protests as ‘criminal’; the US and NATO accused Russia of orchestrating the unrest, and demanded Russia move its troops back from Ukraine’s eastern border. On Tuesday elite units were moved to the outskirts of Slavyansk and the Ukrainian military retook the airport of Kramatorsk. Today there are reports that separatists have seized armoured vehicles in Kramatorsk, and that NATO will be building up its forces in Eastern Europe.

The US ambassador to the UN said there was nothing ‘grassroots-seeming’ about the uprising in eastern Ukraine. Exactly the same was said by the Russians and their supporters about the Euromaidan movement. Both are untrue.

Deep Free Trade

Within days of the Russian annexation of Crimea in March, the new Ukrainian prime minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk had signed an EU Association Agreement in Brussels. The economic and trade sections of the accord, will only be signed after the presidential elections next month, but the intention of Ukraine’s new political leaders to sign this are clear.

The implications of the proposed ‘Deep Free Trade’ agreement for the inhabitants of eastern Ukraine are devastating. Much of the industry of this area is geared towards export to Russian markets, and will suffer from a re-orientation towards Europe. Households will lose the fuel subsidies they depend on. Demands to end ‘fiscal populism’ will mean attacks on pensions. There will be faster than usual arbitration of disputes between investors and governments, so corporations can sue the Ukrainian government for any measures taken that damage their profits. The coal industry is to be ‘downsized’ and to shed its ‘enormous amount of surplus staff’.

The protests in November were sparked by Yanukovych’s refusal to sign this agreement. Protestors believed that Russian pressure and the desire to protect his model of crony capitalism had forced him to abandon the deal. They were right. But if he had signed it, some commentators have suggested that the uprisings we are now seeing in the east would have begun then.

The Miners of the Donbass

The Donetsk basin, or Donbass, in eastern Ukraine is the heartland of the country’s coal mining industry. The coal miners of the Donbass have played a decisive role in Ukrainian politics since 1989, and are key to the situation now. Miners have joined the current anti-government demonstrations in Donetsk, but others were involved in the Euromaidan protests in Kiev prior to Yanukovych’s fall. Separatists who called on the miners of the region to join a general strike were rebuffed by the Independent Miners’ Union of the Donbass: ‘If you crawl into our mines, we will beat you up,’ announced their chair, Nikolai Volynko.

In 1989 the Donbass miners took part in the first mass industrial action in the Soviet Union since the 1920s, demanding increased wages, the right to replace mine directors, managers and engineers, and increases in the social services provided by the mine administration. Even when many of the demands were met, and the miners returned to work, the strike committees were maintained. The following year, these formed the basis of the Independent Miners’ Union. In 1991, they called a strike, demanding the resignation of Gorbachev and the end of Communist Party control. The miners of the Donbass were central to the move to Ukrainian independence.

The collapse of Ukrainian industry since independence has led to mass redundancies for coal miners. Many began mining coal illegally. Fatal accidents are common, and adolescents and children work in many of these ‘wild’ mines. Since 2010, this practice has effectively been legalised, with coal from ‘wild’ mines sold cheap to subsidised state mines, which then sell the coal on at market prices. The state mines were controlled by Viktor Yanukovych’s son, Oleksandr.

The state mines are also extremely dangerous. On 11 April, seven miners were killed and more were injured in an explosion in the state-owned Skochinsky mine in Donetsk. The administration blamed the workers for failing to adhere to safety measures. But the pressure workers are under to ‘show initiative’ makes disasters such as this inevitable. In one mine, Zasyad’ko, 101 people were killed in a single accident in 2007.

The trade union movement in the mining industry is now split between the Independent Miners’ Union and the Union of Coal Workers. The latter is closely connected to Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions, while leading members of the former have connections to Yulia Tymoshenko’s party. Imperial competition between the US and Europe, and Russia, and splits between the different oligarchic blocs in the Ukraine are reflected in the bureaucracy of the respective sections of the trade union movement.

At the state-owned Belorechenskaia mine, workers have not been paid fully since October of last year. The mine was nationalised in 2012 because of miners’ protests at unpaid wages. The first action of the new administration was not to pay the miners, but to hire large numbers of security forces to deal with labour unrest. The Union of Coal Workers, because of its links with the administration, has done nothing to challenge this, unlike the Independent Miners’ Union.

Ukraine’s Richest Man

Driving these extreme levels of exploitation, including the use of illegally mined coal, at state enterprises, is the pressure of competition from the private sector.

Rinat Akhmetov, whose London residence is at One Hyde Park, is Ukraine’s richest man, and the 104th richest man in the world. Akhmetov bought up mining assets during the fire-sales of the 1990s. In 2011-12, one of his companies took control of 70% of Ukraine’s thermal power output. Until 2010, he was a close ally of Yanukovych, but relations soured as the then president attempted to promote his ‘family’ at the expense of the wider oligarchic bloc in the Donbass region. Akhmetov’s decision to stop buying coal from five state mining companies in 2012 immediately plunged them into crisis.

Akhmetov fully abandoned Yanukovych just before his fall, and is now posing as a peace-broker in the Donbass region. A statement on the website of his conglomerate, System Capital Management, condemns the separatists and instructs his workers not to take strike action. Analysts believe a Russian invasion would put his assets at risk.

Divisions above, divisions below

Ukrainian society is in profound crisis. Ultimate responsibility for this lies with the competing imperial powers and the competing oligarchic blocs inside the country. These are directly and indirectly responsible for the prominence of far-right groups, both of Ukranian ultra-nationalists, and Russian nationalists: whether this is the inclusion of the Right Sector in the newly formed National Guard, or the likely Russian support for groups such as the ‘Oplot’ who seized the Donetsk city council today.

None of this means that everybody else is simply passive in this. The miners of the Donbass region have suffered from years of corruption, falling living standards, dangerous working conditions, slashed public services, environmental depredations and political repression. But they also have a proud tradition of resistance to draw on.

When protestors in Kiev were attacked by the security forces in December 2013, miners in the Donbass put out a statement that they were prepared to go on all-out strike to bring down Yanukovych: ‘People of Ukraine, in 1989, you supported our mass strike for our rights. Today’s miners stand with you.’

Now the miners are torn. Russia cut its investment in coal by 40% last year, so incorporation into Russia has little to offer; meanwhile, the EU-Ukraine deal will also mean dramatic ‘downsizing’ of the coal industry, in favour of onshore gas exploration by multinationals. This ‘dash for gas’ offers no guarantee of jobs for Ukrainian miners, and offers no solutions for our global climate. The people of the Donbass are on the front line of a conflict with implications for our entire planet. They deserve solidarity.

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