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Understanding Ukraine's Ultranationalist Support

What does the ultranationalist “Svoboda” Freedom Party’s 10.5 percent share of the party-list vote in Ukraine’s October 28th parliamentary elections mean? Is it the end of the world? Have Ukrainians embraced fascism and anti-Semitism? Or might there be somewhat less alarmist explanations for Svoboda’s showing?

There are three good explanations—and one shockingly bad one—for Svoboda’s rise from a minor regional party to a very minor national force. After all, let’s not forget that Svoboda received the fewest votes of the five parties that made it into the Parliament.

First, most Ukrainians certainly didn’t vote for Svoboda because they read its program. If they had, they would have noticed that Svoboda’s socioeconomic vision of Ukraine resembles that of the Republican Party for the United States and that its approach to ethnic relations is strikingly similar to official policy in the Baltic states. Nor did Ukrainians vote for Svoboda because they were familiar with its record of governance, which, according to one Lviv-based businessman’s private communication, has been abysmal:

Since 2010, Svoboda has had a majority in the Lviv City Council and is the largest fraction in the Lviv Province Council. I haven’t noticed any important achievements. They wisely choose to stay away from economic issues, preferring to engage in shrill criticism. Their intellectual capacity is weak. Their economic views are naive and primitive, reminiscent of socialism. They’re also corrupt, especially those who came to power recently and had criminal connections in the 1990s. Some businessmen have even been approached by them to pay protection money.

Ukrainians voted for Svoboda because they were fed up: with Regionnaire abuse of them and their culture and with the democratic opposition’s fecklessness. Placing Svoboda in the Parliament promised to put up at least rhetorical barriers to Regionnaire excess. As one Kyivite told me: “The Party of Regions is like the Nazis: they can only be stopped with force.” Or, as political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko, put it: “About 30-40 percent of Svoboda’s supporters are ideological believers in the idea of Ukrainian nationalism. But in Kyiv and central Ukraine many people voted for Svoboda as the most radical force, as the ‘special forces’ of the opposition. By the way, many Russian-speaking women voted for Svoboda.”

Second, Svoboda would never have made it to the national stage in the absence of the profoundly xenophobic, anti-Ukrainian, and Russian supremacist policies pursued by the Yanukovych government since early 2010. Regionnaire radicalism thus made the growth of ultranationalist radicalism both possible and inevitable. Indeed, there are good reasons to believe that the Regionnaires understood that their policies would benefit the ultranationalists. When President Yanukovych appointed Dmitri Tabachnik, a notorious Ukrainophobe, as minister of education, he had to know he was insulting all Ukrainians. When Yanukovych refused to fire Tabachnik even after a series of firestorms broke out over his anti-Ukrainians remarks, he knew full well that he was rubbing salt into old wounds. When, finally, the Yanukovych regime approved the openly anti-Ukrainian Law on Languages last summer, it understood that it was purposely dividing the country and adding fuel to the ultranationalist fire. Given this record of extremism, it is morally obtuse for critics of Svoboda’s xenophobia to refrain from criticizing Regionnaire (as well as Communist) Ukrainophobia.

Third, Ukraine’s primarily Russian-speaking, pro-Regionnaire oligarchs have actively supported the Freedom Party. Viewers of Ukrainian television know that for the last few years Svoboda firebrands have been unusually frequent guests on the country’s two most popular talk shows moderated by Russian journalists Yevgenii Kiselov and Savik Shuster, both of which are aired on oligarch-funded and regime-friendly television stations. There’s also been a nagging rumor that the Regionnaires and some oligarchs have funneled money to Svoboda (a charge Svoboda denies). A reliable source who spoke with a high-ranking government minister two years ago was told the following: “The Party of Regions used to support Svoboda. Then Kolomoisky did and now I don’t know who.” Kolomoisky, by the way, is Igor Kolomoisky, a Dnipropetrovsk-based oligarch who also happens to be the president of the United Jewish Community of Ukraine. Just why Kolomoisky stated in 2010 that “Svoboda has clearly moved from ultranationalism closer to the center and has become more moderate” is unclear: did he believe what he was saying or was he just trying to enhance its respectability as part of some murky game?

Why would the Regionnaires and oligarchs support Svoboda? The logic is simple, if you remember that the deeply unpopular Yanukovych will not be reelected in 2015 if he runs against a credible democratic candidate. The one person he would, as the lesser of two evils, definitely be able to beat is Svoboda’s head, Oleh Tyahnybok. Here’s the liberal Lviv-based intellectual Taras Voznyak’s analysis: “It’s clear that Tyahnybok will not receive 50%-plus-one votes throughout all of Ukraine…. That’s why he’s safe for Yanukovych. But in order to bring Tyahnybok into the second round of the presidential elections, he must be made, if not the leader, then one of the equally prominent leaders of the opposition. And for that he needs to have a substantive representation in the Parliament.”

According to Voznyak, it’s not just Yanukovych who needs Svoboda. It’s also the oligarchs:

The existing Ukrainian state is the best possible country for the Ukrainian oligarchate. The oligarchs have done extremely well in this country and they will continue to do so. They can pillage no less well under a blue-and-yellow flag and trident as under a red flag and hammer and sickle; that’s not important. It’s their country and they really live here, while the people just survive. Hence: no integration into the European Union! No to Russia! Our oligarchs are the greatest supporters of independence: they want to and will pillage Ukraine on their own.

In sum, Svoboda’s rise is overwhelmingly due to Ukrainian anger at the Yanukovych regime, anti-Ukrainian Regionnaire radicalism, and Regionnaire-oligarch connivance. It follows that the best antidote to Svoboda is, quite simply, democracy, rule of law, and the free market in general and the dismantling of the Regionnaire “oligarchate” in particular.

Here’s a shockingly bad explanation for Svoboda’s rise offered by the Jerusalem Post: “Historically, Ukrainian anti-Semitism is legend for its crudity, ferocity and intrinsicality. The Ukraine’s reputation for ongoing racism and ever-virulent intolerance is equally well-earned. Jew-revulsion never quite went out of fashion among broad segments of the population there. So it was not too shocking to learn last week that the extreme nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party’s fortunes had risen dramatically in the recent elections and that it now controls 41 out of the parliament’s 450 seats.”

In other words, Ukrainians are “intrinsically”—that is, innately—anti-Semitic brutes. Needless to say, ascribing “intrinsically” negative qualities to entire peoples is racist and, as such, no less repugnant than claiming that African-Americans are innately prone to violence, that Jews are innately prone to usury, or that women are innately prone to hysteria. Naturally, if you do believe Ukrainians are savages by birth, there’s only one way to keep their “crudity, ferocity and intrinsicality” in check: by violence. And, not illogically, the Post concludes with a backhanded endorsement of Stalinism: “anti-Semitism … in Ukraine … is vulgar and in-your-face—as it was before the Soviets temporarily held the genie in the bottle.”

True, totalitarianism can destroy any genie, but suggesting that the Soviets’ “temporary” use of genocide, terror, and the Gulag is the appropriate response to a marginal party’s marginal success at the polls may be just a tad extreme—and extremist.

 

Photo Credit: Vasyl Babych

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