Extremism in Ukraine

Which Ukrainian political parties are extremist? Most people would point to the right-wing Svoboda party under the leadership of the charismatic demagogue, Oleh Tyahnybok. And they’d be right. Svoboda (or, ironically, “Freedom”) is xenophobic, radical, and anti-democratic: the three defining features of extremism.

But they’d be only partly right. No less xenophobic, no less radical, and no less anti-democratic are two other political groups—the Communist Party of Ukraine and the Party of Regions. Suffice to say that Ukraine’s Communists are still Stalinist and proud of it. As for the Regionnaires, two years of their rule have relegated Ukrainian language, culture, and identity to Bantustans, exacerbated tensions between Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers, intentionally promoted Russian chauvinism and Svoboda extremism, efficiently dismantled democracy, bequeathed the economy to rapacious corruptioneers, squeezed civil society, and eroded freedom of the press, speech, and assembly. If that isn’t extremism, I don’t know what is. Contrary to President Viktor Yanukovych’s assertions that he is a moderate, the fact is that he is an extremist par excellence.

But to put the matter in these terms misses the whole picture. After all, Svoboda captured a mere 0.76 percent of the vote in the 2007 parliamentary elections. It does have influence in Ternopil Province and the city of Lviv, but it is also, despite Tyahnybok’s assurances to the contrary, never likely to increase its share of the total vote in Ukraine over five percent. Five percent is five percentage points too many, but it’s also a tiny amount. Not so with the Communists, who polled 5.39 percent in the parliamentary elections of 2007 and 38 percent in the presidential elections of 1999. Not so, as well, with the Party of Regions, which got 34 percent of the vote in the 2007 parliamentary elections and whose candidate, Yanukovych, won 49 percent in the presidential elections of 2010. Since Yanukovych’s party effectively stole the Communist vote, the Regionnaires may be viewed as a non-ideological version of the former Communist machine. The Communists were extremists because that was the best way to build Stalinism; the Regionnaires are extremists because that’s the best way to steal. Choose your poison.

As odious as Svoboda is, therefore, the main extremist threat to Ukraine comes not from it, but from the Regionnaires and Communists. Indeed, unless you believe in miracles, Svoboda will never become a major political force, whereas the Regionnaires are and will long remain one. Moreover, Regionnaire extremism is primarily responsible for galvanizing Svoboda extremism. The moral for Ukrainian democrats should therefore be clear: avoid collaborating with extremists of all stripes, whether Svobodites, Regionnaires, or Communists.

Unfortunately, reality is more complicated. The Regionnaires are in power and will do everything it takes to stay in power. Should democrats shun and oppose them, and thereby lose every chance of influencing the course of events, or should they collaborate—or is the better word cooperate?—with them and hope to moderate their extremism? Power is a heady brew, and Yanukovych knows full well that he can co-opt democrats by offering them symbolically important positions in his regime. On the other hand, there is a case to be made for infiltrating the regime and attempting to change it from within.

Who’s right? What’s clear is that both stances are bets. Principled opposition to Regionnaire rule could turn out to be right or it could consign the democrats to impotence. Pragmatic cooperation could turn out to be effective or it could consign the cooperators to collaborationist infamy. Petro Poroshenko, the millionaire chocolate-maker and former good guy, has just joined the Yanukovych government as minister of economic development and trade. He obviously thinks that working with extremists might make a difference for the collapsing Ukrainian economy. If you agree, buy Roshen chocolates. If you don’t, switch to Hershey’s.

Naturally, if these qualms are valid with respect to the Regionnaire extremists, they must also be valid with respect to the Communist and Svoboda extremists. Back in the days of the USSR, some well-meaning Ukrainians chose to become principled dissidents while others joined the Party. The USSR’s collapse made the former look right, but for most of Leonid Brezhnev’s rule many viewed them as hopelessly unrealistic idealists. By the same token, some Ukrainian democrats are willing to include Svoboda in an anti-regime electoral coalition, while others are not. Their dilemma is identical to that faced by Russian democrats, who have to decide whether an anti-Putin coalition should or should not have room for nationalists and communists. If you think collaborating with Regionnaire extremism is permissible, you have no choice but to permit collaboration with Communist or Svoboda extremism. If you think all extremists are equally odious, you have no choice but to view cooperation with the Regionnaires as as wrong as cooperation with the Communists or Svoboda. Unless, of course, you believe that extremists with power are less odious than extremists without power, in which case you won’t collaborate with Svoboda until they make it into office.

Fortunately, democrats may be able to sidestep these moral dilemmas—but only at this point in time—precisely because the Regionnaire regime is crumbling, while the Stalinists and Svoboda are likely to remain minority parties (or so I hope). The democrats don’t need any of them to regain power. If they want to win the trust of the people, they should position themselves as anti-extremists and don the mantle of tolerance, moderation, and inclusion—the opposites of xenophobia, radicalism, and anti-democracy—and make the case for an anti-extremist Ukraine in which people, and not thieves, thugs, chauvinists, and anti-Semites, will be served. After all, Ukrainians want to live normalno, and normality is anything but extremist. 

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