Ukraine’s Nationalist Spectre
Now that Viktor Yanukovych has gone, and new elections are promised, we need to assess the political and popular forces that succeeded in overturning Ukraine’s political system. Who were the protesters and what were their goals? At the barricades in central Kiev there were Ukrainian and EU flags, as well as portraits of the poet Taras Shevchenko (1814-1861), considered as a spiritual father of Ukrainian identity, and of Stepan Bandera (1909-1959) who was, depending on your point of view, either a great patriot or a Nazi collaborator. And there were pictures of five Ukrainian activists, treated as martyrs after they were killed during the clashes in Grushevsky Street.
Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Kiev’s Independence Square, the epicentre of the protests that had been taking place across Ukraine for three months, was filled with tents pitched by sympathisers from every part of the country: from Lviv, Ternopil and Ivano-Frankivsk, the strongholds of nationalism, but also from Lugansk and Donetsk, the big cities of the industrial east, which have always felt close to Russia. Cossacks wore their traditional costume. Women brought black bread and ham to the men standing guard. There was a pervasive smell of tea, cabbage soup and wood fires. During the week, the few thousand activists went about their day-to-day business; on Sundays, tens of thousands came to hear speeches by opposition leaders, pray and sing the national anthem, tirelessly.
The protest movement emerged in November last year, after Yanukovych suspended negotiations on a free trade agreement with the European Union. Independence Square was gradually transformed. The first to arrive were a few thousand pro-European partisans, but as repression began the square became a symbol of revolt against a corrupt and mercenary political system for many others—initially a revolt against the Yanukovych system, but also a rejection of the opposition parties, out of their depth in this crisis.
The involvement of several nationalist groups—a small but highly visible presence—and of ultra-radical, non-democratic movements without European sympathies has produced different reactions. Their presence was used actively by Russia, and to some extent by Yanukovych’s government, to discredit the movement. But it also raised fears of a possible takeover of Independence Square by the far right—even though a popular movement was behind the protests and any attempt to categorise it in political terms would be an over-simplification.
Far right’s inspiration
The far right is largely modelled on the nationalist movement that developed from the 1920s, when most of what is now Ukraine was divided between Poland and Soviet Russia. From the start it was shaped by a variety of influences: Italian fascism, the partial collaboration—for pragmatic or ideological reasons—of some of its representatives (such as Bandera) with Nazi Germany, the participation of several Ukrainian battalions in the massacre of Jewish and Polish civilians during the second world war.
Political scientist Andreas Umland, who teaches at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, said: “There are no objective historical accounts of Bandera’s [career]. Russian historians portray him as a fascist ally of the Nazis, while Ukrainian historians praise him without reserve. His admirers on Independence Square take a naïve and biased view of him, which is a problem. But it seems equally biased and dishonest to call him a fascist, as the Russians do.”
Dormant during the Soviet era, the nationalist movement reappeared after independence in 1991, when the Social-National Party of Ukraine (SNPU) was formed. Until the early 2000s, the SNPU was a marginal, xenophobic and ultra-nationalist organisation, and what little support it had was largely in the west of the country. Its leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, was elected to the Ukrainian parliament for the first time in 1998.
During the 2000s, the SNPU changed significantly. It shed its fascist trappings at its 6th congress in 2004, renaming itself Svoboda (freedom) and abandoning its neo-Nazi badge, the Wolfsangel (wolf hook), in favour of a more neutral symbol. According to Oleksiy Leshchenko of the Gorshenin Institute thinktank, these cosmetic changes “were intended mainly to reassure voters, but were also meant to improve Svoboda’s image abroad.”
In search of respectability, Svoboda established relations with other European far-right parties. Jean-Marie Le Pen, president of France’s Front National, attended the 2004 congress as guest of honour. Svoboda also moderated its nationalist stance and references to Bandera—about whom Ukrainians do not agree—and gradually adopted a more general discourse, relatively common among the European far right, based on radical and vehement criticism of “the system.”
This did not prevent Tyahnybok from making statements that recall his xenophobic and anti-Semitic roots. In 2004 he declared that the Ukraine was governed by a “Jewish-Russian mafia,” which led to his exclusion from the Nasha Ukraina (Our Ukraine) parliamentary group. In 2005 he wrote an open letter to the president, demanding that he “put an end to the criminal activities of Ukrainian Jewry.”
At the parliamentary elections in 2012, Svoboda won nearly 10.5% of the vote and 37 seats in parliament. With more than two million votes, it became a party of national importance, achieving significant results in parts of the country other than the west, which is traditionally more receptive to nationalism.
Svoboda’s anti-system stance played a significant part in its electoral success. As Ivan Stoiko, MP for the centre-right opposition party Batkivshchyna and “commander” of Ukrainian House, one of the buildings occupied by the Independence Square protesters, put it, “voters disappointed by the traditional political class and impatient for radical change were seduced by Svoboda’s rhetoric, by its closeness to the people and its grassroots initiatives.” Yuri Yakimenko, deputy director of the Razumkov Centre thinktank, claims that, of the 10% of votes won by Svoboda, “hardcore supporters account for 5%. The remaining 5% voted above all to express their opposition to other political forces.”
Svoboda, “probably on the advice of [France’s] Front National,” according to Andreas Umland, has also drawn up an economic programme with a social dimension. This would renationalise a number of enterprises, introduce progressive taxation on business profits, and seek to reduce the dominance of the oligarchs over the political and economic systems. These measures, together with the promise of a vigorous campaign against corruption, have attracted some categories of voters, especially small businessmen and members of the middle class, who have been particularly affected by the crisis and by nepotism, which has increased since Yanukovych was elected.
Svoboda has also been rewarded for its nationalist stance, which, though toned down, remains central to its identity: It has won over some of those who once voted for Viktor Yushchenko, president from 2005 to 2010. “The Yushchenko period was the most fertile in terms of the development of nationalism,” said Sophie Lambroschini, an independent French researcher based in Kiev. “It brought freedom of speech in public life and politics. But it’s Svoboda that is getting the dividends, as Yushchenko greatly disappointed nationalist voters.”
A number of initiatives under Yanukovych’s presidency have irritated voters keen to defend the Ukrainian language and identity. They include a law on regional languages that came into effect in summer 2012 and allows regions that wish to do so to make Russian their second official language, or to reduce Ukrainian language-teaching in schools, as it is “unnecessary,” according to the education minister, Dmytro Tabachnyk.
Though re-centred, Svoboda is still anchored in the far right. Its lead policy is the strengthening of Ukrainian national identity, which implies an end to Russian influence. On the foreign policy side, this translates into a wish to see Ukraine join NATO, rearm with nuclear weapons and leave all post-Soviet cooperative organisations.
Among Svoboda’s domestic priorities is “de-Sovietisation”: purging or sidelining former SNPU cadres and KGB agents, changing street and place names, removing monuments to heroes of the Soviet Union. Svoboda also proposes to abolish Crimea’s autonomous status and promote Ukrainian national identity through measures ranging from systematic glorification of the nationalist movement to reintroducing the mentions of religious affiliation and ethnicity on identity documents.
Svoboda wants to see Ukraine join the EU. This pragmatic change of stance is inspired more by the tactical necessity for a “sacred union” with other opposition forces, and by electoral goals, than by a sincere desire to join, though Svoboda does also see the EU as a way of keeping Russia at a distance.
Svoboda is the only party to criticise immigration (which is low) and propose measures to limit it, such as restricting access to the university system for foreign students, or the granting of Ukrainian citizenship only to those born in Ukraine or “ethnic Ukrainians.” The party denies being xenophobic, but rejects multiculturalism. “We are defending family values and a Europe of nations against multiculturalism, which I regard as a policy aimed at merging different cultures—which is not possible,” said Yuri Levchenko, a senior Svoboda cadre. “Look at your own country: Immigration hasn’t produced a new culture, only ghettos. It’s not logical to make people of different cultures live in the same city. It can’t work.”
The party has also tried to disassociate itself from anti-Semitism, to the point where Joseph Zisels, chairman of the Association of Jewish Communities in the Ukraine, assured me that “Svoboda presents no threat to Jews. Their real enemy is the Russians. ... It’s true that it’s the only major party to take Bandera and Shukhevych as its heroes, which I admit is awkward, but for all that it is not anti-Semitic.” This has not prevented a few slip-ups, for instance when Svoboda MP Igor Miroshnichenko in November 2012 denied that US actress Mila Kunis had Ukrainian roots, saying that she was in fact a jidovka, an ambiguous Ukrainian slang word meaning a person of Jewish faith or ancestry.
Svoboda has been highly visible in Independence Square—it controlled Kiev city hall, occupied until 16 February—but ultimately has little influence over the demonstrators, as is the case for other opposition parties. This political void, coupled with the violence used by the authorities over the past few weeks, culminating in a pitched battle, has created conditions favourable to the emergence of new groups, whose style and ideological stance have raised many questions.
The biggest, Pravy Sektor (right sector), emerged after the Grushevsky Street clashes and, for the moment, enjoys real popular support. It has a few thousand members across the country, including people disappointed by Svoboda, members of ultra-nationalist groups, hooligans and dropouts. Their common denominator is a taste for radical action, and for the ideology that one of the movement’s leaders, Andrei Tarassenko, dispensed from its high-security headquarters on the fifth floor of Trade Union House, on Independence Square. Pravy Sektor defines itself as “neither xenophobic nor anti-Semitic, as Kremlin propaganda claims” and above all as “nationalist, defending the values of white, Christian Europe against the loss of the nation and deregionalisation.” Like Svoboda, it rejects multiculturalism, as “responsible for the disappearance of the crucifix and the arrival of girls in burqas in your schools,” but it does not advocate joining the EU, which it describes as “liberal totalitarianism in which God has vanished and values are turned upside down.”
Pravy Sektor supports none of the opposition parties, especially not Svoboda, disappointed by its “appeals for calm and negotiation with the authorities.” It could contemplate becoming a party itself, which would be awkward for Svoboda’s Tyahnybok: Besides seeing his reputation as an anti-system champion seriously dented by his appeals for moderation during the clashes, he would have to come to terms with a party even further to the right, whose feats of arms and determination are known.
Svoboda’s success over the past few years and the presence of neo-fascist groups such as Pravy Sektor in Independence Square are signs of a crisis in Ukrainian society. It is first and foremost a crisis of identity: In 22 years of independence, Ukraine has not managed to develop an unbiased historical narrative presenting a positive view of all its regions and citizens. Even today, Ukrainians are seen as liberators in Galicia but as fascists in Donbass. It is also a political crisis. Some Ukrainians, exasperated and disappointed with the Orange Revolution, have turned to voting for extremist parties more out of pique than for real ideological reasons.
Though Independence Square will go down in history as an extraordinary example of collective and popular action, the political outcome is as yet unclear. Ukraine is in need of a new force that truly serves the people and transcends its many social and political divides.
Emmanuel Dreyfus is an international relations consultant specialising in the former Soviet Union. Translated by Charles Goulden.