Fascism in Ukraine: Assessing the Threat of the Ultranationalist Right
Remember the fascists in Ukraine? For a while after the Maidan uprisings that culminated in the Yanukovych-led government’s collapse in February, it seemed as though that was all one heard about—Svoboda and Right Sector. Voices from both east and west of Ukraine accused the provisional government of being led by such groups: Russian President Vladimir Putin, in his remarks following the referendum in Crimea, criticized the “fascist government in Kiev,” while in the United States the opposition to Yanukovych was characterized as dominated by groups that use “intimidation and brute force more typical of Hitler’s ‘Brownshirts’ or Mussolini’s ‘Blackshirts’ than a contemporary political movement.” Even among Tikkun authors, opinion was sharply divided over the nature of the activists on the Maidan—and for good reason.
The invocation of a fascist threat, especially in the Ukrainian context, necessarily draws a historical connection to the murderous anti-Semitism of the Third Reich. It was in Ukraine, after all, where the massacres at Babi Yar and countless other unnamed places were carried out and where a large portion of Europe’s Jewish population resided before the Holocaust. The thought of a fascist, neo-Nazi movement installing itself in Kiev was, and is, truly frightening.
But then a strange thing happened. As the May 25 elections to decide a new president for Ukraine approached, we heard less and less about the power and influence of these two groups. On election day, the pro-West centrist “Chocolate King” Petro Poroshenko claimed the presidency with over 54 percent of the vote as Ukrainians rejected the far-right parties outright. Svoboda candidate Oleh Tyahnbok took just over 1 percent while Right Sector’s Dymtro Yarosh carried less than 1 percent of all voters. For all the international attention that both groups attracted during the Maidan protests, these Ukrainian ultranationalists drew but a tiny measure of support when Ukrainian voters spoke through their ballots.
Svoboda and Right Sector’s sudden return to political obscurity seems even stranger when compared with the big gains made by other far-right political parties across Europe in the European parliamentary elections. In France, the Front National took more seats than any other French party; in Great Britain, UKIP made huge inroads; and in Hungary, Jobbik gained even more representation. It’s not as though this result wasn’t predicted—dissatisfaction with the established governing parties was one of the root causes—but the fact that a far greater proportion of people voted for populist-nationalist parties in Western Europe than in Ukraine may come as something of a surprise.
Put simply, the Ukrainian far right does not seem to pose as much of a threat to the democratic development and security of Ukraine as some have claimed. For all the threats of a fascist takeover of a democratic movement, and for all the uproar over the alleged dispersal of pamphlets directing Jews to register around the eastern city of Dontesk, the Ukrainian far right has stumbled from failure after failure following Yanukovych’s flight. Still, even though Ukrainian Svoboda and Right Sector have reached an ebb point in popularity, the danger lies in just that—that there is the distinct possibility of a rebound.
Even as much of the international attention is now focused to the east, where fighting between the Ukrainian Army and Russia-aligned separatists continues despite a shaky ceasefire, it is important not to forget about the ultranationalists in the west—groups that have been linked to violent anti-Semitism and xenophobia from their very beginnings.
Stepan Bandera and Ukrainian Ultranationalism
Both Svoboda and Right Sector trace their ideological roots back to Ukraine’s most prominent ultranationalist movement of the interwar period, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). By the late 1930s the organization had split into two wings, one of which—Stepan Bandera’s OUN(b)—attempted to establish a fascist vassal state to Nazi Germany after its invasion of the Soviet Union in1941.
While Bandera and many of his party deputies were soon arrested and the vassal “government” never gained authority, OUN(b) openly supported Nazi ethnic cleansings within Ukrainian boundaries, and its militarized wing, UPA, participated in and directed the killings of thousands of Jews and Poles in 1943 and 1944. After the Red Army pushed the Germans back in 1944, UPA waged an insurgency against the Soviet Union that lasted until 1953 and ended in the deaths and deportations of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians.
But while Bandera’s ill-conceived movement effectively ended in blood, the Ukrainian far right still looks to him as their ideological forefather, hoisting his portrait at rallies and holding parades in his honor. They see themselves as the historical inheritors of Bandera’s vision of a purely ethnic Ukrainian state, a dream they view as derailed by Soviet imperialism and currently threatened by Russian territorial ambitions.
The danger in the “Cult of Bandera” lies not in its insistence on respecting Ukrainian national sovereignty but in its rejection of groups that do not fit the model of what is “pure ethnic Ukrainian”—groups that include Jews and any other minority populations. And although the use of “fascist” in the post-Soviet landscape has developed so much as a means of political derision that it risks losing meaning, there are certainly highly radicalized members of Svoboda and Right Sector that prescribe to such visions of a racially divided society.
Svoboda and Right Sector
Of Bandera’s ultranationalist descendants, Svoboda is by far the most institutionalized and coherent political group. The party’s breakthrough came in the 2012 parliamentary elections, when Ukrainian voters granted it 10.4 percent of the popular national vote, ceding its representatives 36 of the 450 seats in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament. This tenth of the national vote included 17 percent of voters in the capital of Kiev and even more in the west, where the level of support topped out at over 34 percent in Ternopil oblast. Prior to 2012, far-right parties had received an average of only 1.19 percent of the vote in elections held between 1990 and 2007.
Of course, the party had outwardly changed a great deal since 2004, when Oleh Tyahnybok, the former leader of an association of student fraternities and its losing 2014 presidential candidate, took over as Svoboda’s leader and set out to smooth over its more grotesque features. Prior to 2004, Svoboda (literally, “freedom”) was actually known by a different name: the Social-National Party of Ukraine. Among other symbolic changes undertaken by the party, its symbol, the Wolfsangel—a sign formerly used by various Nazi SS units—was replaced by the more benign image of three raised fingers (an allusion to Ukraine’s national symbol, the trident), and its party colors, originally reflecting the “blood and soil” imagery of extreme nationalist organizations, were traded for the national blue and yellow.
In another step calculated to project moderation, the party made efforts to tone down its virulent rhetoric and engage with issues beyond those involving a nationalist or ethnic tint. As recently as 2004, Tyahnybok himself railed against the “Muscovite-Jewish mafia” for causing Ukraine’s economic difficulties in a widely publicized speech. But by 2008 such openly xenophobic and anti-Semitic diatribes disappeared from candidates’ speeches and political literature.
These efforts to dampen and institutionalize the party surely affected the 2012 elections. But, in truth, Svoboda’s upswing came about as it increasingly defined itself as the only true opposition to Yanukovych and his governing Party of Regions. The 10 percent vote that Svoboda received in 2012 was not necessarily an indication of increased support for Svoboda, but rather a protest from voters, mostly in western Ukraine, who first and foremost opposed the cronyism of Yanukovych’s regime and turned to the most radical and outspoken critic available. Svoboda, as an ultranationalist party that had yet to have any true electoral success, came out the winner.
In contrast to Svoboda, Right Sector is a much looser and still developing association of radical far-right groups with variegated political ideologies. While many of the smaller groups under the Right Sector umbrella originated in the early 1990s, Right Sector itself only first appeared in November 2013 as the protest movement on the Maidan was getting underway. Although it was established strictly as an apolitical organization of resistance, it, like Svoboda, also had a presidential candidate in the 2014 election: Dmytro Yarosh. Yarosh is the leader of Tryzub, one of the most prominent groups in Right Sector that has been described as both “national conservative” and highly militaristic—in Bern-based Research Fellow Alina Polyakova’s words, Tryzub members view themselves as “the knights who protect Ukrainian nationhood.” Other groups within Right Sector include Ukrainian National Assembly-Ukrainian Self Defense (UNA-UNSO), a small radical right party that lost and regained its recognized party status in the mid-1990s while achieving minimal electoral success; the ominous sounding White Hammer; and the closely connected Patriots of Ukraine and Social-National Assembly.
Despite the multiplicity of groups within Right Sector, its membership remains small and it has yet to attract a diverse following. At its founding, the group contained only a few hundred members, and though it gained visibility during the Maidan protests, its current membership is believed to stand at around only a couple thousand—nearly all of them young men enamored with Right Sector’s romanticized militarism.
However, contrary to numerous prevailing media interpretations, many researchers do not believe Right Sector played a particularly decisive role in the Maidan uprising and maintain that it was involved in less than half of the incidents of violent resistance. Indicatively, of the so-called “Heavenly Hundred” who were killed in the February protests on the Maidan, only three have been confirmed to belong to Right Sector, while up to twenty were in fact members of Svoboda.
Anti-Semitism in Today’s Ukraine
It is important to remember that Svoboda and Right Sector, while certainly playing a role in the protests in Kiev, represent just a few of the many actors that shared the stage on the Maidan. As many have already noted, there was a certain irony to how the blue and yellow flags of Svoboda and Tryzub blended so seamlessly with the blue and yellow European Union flags of liberal democratic activists—activists who surely saw themselves as fighting for a vision of universal rights and freedoms that supporters of the far right do not share. On the Maidan, these disparate partners stood together against Yanukovych and for a more sovereign Ukraine. But as Svoboda and Right Sector gained more visibility, many rightly began to worry about the safety of communities in Ukraine that are not included in the far right’s vision of a pure Ukrainian state. Chief among these are Ukrainian Jews, a group that has faced extreme discrimination and violence in the past.
Thankfully there has been little officially reported anti-Semitic violence within Ukraine in the past decade, and no discernable increase has been recorded since Yanukovych was forced from office at the end of February. Josef Zissels, the Chairman of the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities in Ukraine, has even stated publicly that anti-Semitism is on the whole declining across the country. At a recent conference held to discuss the Ukrainian radical right in Berlin, Zissels went so far as to compare the situation in Ukraine to that in Germany, noting that in 2013 there were only thirteen noted incidents of anti-Semitism in the former while there were over 1,300 in the latter—a shocking figure.
These numbers, however, probably do more to mask the truth than to bear it. They do not, of course, take into consideration the subjective element in classifying crimes as being related to anti-Semitism or the fact that many incidents could (and most likely do) go unreported. Furthermore, they fail to take into account a special German sensitivity to anti-Semitism that may not be present in Ukraine. The fact that Zissels (among other Ukrainian Jews) adamantly spoke out against a perception of rising violence against Jews and others minorities is meaningful, but do his figures accurately convey the social atmosphere across Ukraine?
Even if the number of physical, violent anti-Semitic acts may be declining, there are strong indications that anti-Semitism retains an unfortunate pull across Ukraine. The key to understanding anti-Semitism in today’s Ukraine (and in Europe in general), explains Polyakova, is to see it as a force that has permeated society to a far greater extent than any mere political tool. It is something that is often unspoken but nevertheless becoming more pervasive as economies across Europe continue to struggle and stagnate. In post-Soviet Eastern Europe, anti-Semitism may not be as severe as it was during the Soviet period when it was highly institutionalized, but it continues to inform the common mindset today.
It is indisputable that anti-Semitic and xenophobic views undergird the far right, no matter if they are often only expressed informally and avoided on a large public scale. Anti-Semitic attitudes and an inclination toward conspiracy theories involving Jews were common among Svoboda members interviewed by Polyakova between 2010 and 2012, even as the party itself was moderating. And besides Tyahnybok, whose penchant for ignorant comments was already noted, the party contains such radical ideologues as Yuriy Mykhalchyshyn, a top advisor who wrote a curious thesis comparing the development of Italian and German fascism, tried to establish a think tank named after Joseph Goebbels, and is an enthusiastic supporter of the Waffen SS Galizien, a dubious Wehrmacht division that stemmed from UPA.
It is revelations like these that lead one to question how much Svoboda has actually changed over the last decade. As much of its transformation from a radical, hate-infused fringe group to an institutionalized party indeed seems to be more about show than substance, the consequences of its ever gaining true power hold the promise of being disastrous.
The Future of the Ukrainian Far Right
Luckily, since the end of May, it has been relatively clear that Svoboda and Right Sector are much weaker than the rest of the European far right. Each party is struggling to stay relevant: besides being known for open xenophobia and anti-Semitism, which was for the course of the Maidan protests not so much acceptable as momentarily unimportant to many Ukrainians, Svoboda is challenged by the loss of Yanukoych, its opponent through which it defined itself. Now that Yanukovych is gone, Svoboda has lost its pull to many Ukrainians who find a watered-down version of a right-wing radical party unappealing. Right Sector, while feeding off the energy of a youthful base, is simply too small to hope for broad institutional success or influence.
In a climate that is ripe for political extremism, there are, however, situations in which this could change. Polyakova, for one, sees a special danger to Ukraine’s political balance in the separatist movement in east of the country. In their sharp rhetoric and call to nationalism, militant eastern separatists resemble Right Sector, except for a couple key differences. First, the separatists are driven by Russian, not Ukrainian, nationalism. Second, according to Polyakova, is that in contrast to Right Sector, the eastern separatists are “less theatrical” and more violent, essentially “acting as warlords in a state of anarchy.” As ethnic and linguistic differences crystallize to a greater degree than ever before, there is the danger that the country could split apart, a process that could have already begun with the secession of Donetsk, an oblast which remains out of the new Poroshenko government’s reach.
Held together, political radicalism in the West tends to balance that of the East and vice versa; were Ukraine to split into east and west, ultranationalist parties on both sides would benefit and have a chance to launch their true agendas. And that end scenario—a splintered Ukraine with a strong, unbridled radical right in control of both east and west—is something few actually desire.