– The answer to why the pro-nationalist Svoboda party took Ukraine’s three western oblasts in the Oct. 31 local elections was on full display in an exchange that took place between two well-known actors on a national talk show a few days after the vote.
Aleksei Panin of Russia told an increasingly agitated studio audience that he saw no difference among Ukrainians, Russian and Belarusians. He asked why children were forced to study Ukrainian in the largely Russian-speaking Crimea. Panin then questioned the 1954 decree that transferred possession of the peninsula from Russia to Ukraine, indicating it was just “a piece of paper.”
Bohdan Beniuk, an honored Ukrainian actor who is also Svoboda’s co-head, then took the microphone. Calling his theatrical colleague a “beautiful Russian nationalist…who loves his country” Beniuk asked a question that resonated with the audience: “Why don’t I have the right to be a Ukrainian nationalist?”
That statement summed up the feeling of many Svoboda supporters and residents in western Ukraine who have distressingly watched the pro-Russian Party of Regions increasingly assault their country’s language, culture, history and even territorial integrity since taking power earlier this year.
Yet equally unhappy with the infighting of the democratic opposition parties that used to represent them, voters here have called for new leaders who would stand up for their rights and challenge the kind of attitudes displayed by individuals like Panin, whether it be at home or abroad.
“It’s a reaction to Russian chauvinism,” and the current policies of the Regions Party, said Taras Vozniak, a Lviv-based political observer and editor-in-chief of the independent Ji magazine, said of Svoboda’s solid electoral showing.
Once considered a nationalist fringe group, Svoboda has stepped in to fill a perceptible void. The party has vowed to keep Ukrainian as the only state language, promised to rid the country of officials like education and science minister Dmytro Tabachnyk, who has maligned western Ukrainians by saying they really aren’t Ukrainian, and to defend the country’s sovereignty.
“This leadership is leading us to blood and civil war,” if it continues with its current anti-Ukrainian policies, Oleh Tiahnybok, Svodoba’s party leader, warned on the same show.
Nationwide, Svoboda took 5.2 percent of the Oct. 31 vote, a result that would win it a place in Ukraine’s parliament if elections were held today.
The party now has a majority in the Lviv city council, the largest faction in the Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk and Ternopil regional councils, as well as the largest factions in the Ternopil and Ivano-Frankivsk city councils.
Ternopil held regional elections in 2009, which was when Svoboda signaled its rise as a regional political player.
Olha Palaciuk from Ternopil said she voted for Svoboda because she wanted to give young people a chance at governance. “Who else could I vote for?” she asked.
To a great extent, however, the Party of Regions has helped give rise to Svoboda through its policies, analysts and politicians said.
Andriy Shevchenko, a Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko parliamentarian, told a TV audience that President Viktor Yanukovych and his Regions Party could not appoint people like Tabachnyk and not expect a response. “Force is met with force,” he said.
While it may seem paradoxical, however, Svoboda and the Party of Regions need each other politically but for different reasons, said Vasyl Rasevych, a senior research fellow at the Institute of Ukrainian Studies, National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine.
Svoboda needs to show it is the only nationally-oriented party that can stand up to the Regions. Regions needs Svoboda as a tool for clamping down on democracy; it can say borderline Fascist parties are coming to power democratically in Ukraine and this tendency needs to be stopped.
Svoboda is a trump-card in that process, said Rasevych. Regions will argue that the party is a “danger for everyone” and just like Hitler came to power through democratic elections, Svoboda has come to power legitimately.
“The Party of Regions is beginning to turn back democracy,” Rasevych said.
Lviv-based political observer Vozniak expressed dismay that Western media has tended to turn a blind eye to the Regions’ anti-Ukrainian policies, but was quick to denounce Svoboda. The danger posed by the party has been overstated, analysts said.
“Svoboda is made up of different people,” said Vozniak. The party is now faced with a significant challenge and that is how to govern on the local level, Rasevych said. It is woefully short on professionals who can manage the kinds of issues that face municipal governments.
“They have few qualified specialists,” he said. “And many of these people don’t have an idea of what local councils do.”
To that end, analysts are divided whether the Oct. 31 local elections mark the height of Svoboda's popularity, or just the beginning. Much will depend on whether democracy grows or ebbs in Ukraine.
Officials in Kyiv, however, remain unimpressed by such analyses. Hanna Herman, the deputy head of the presidential administration, told the independent Zerkalo Tyzhnya newspaper that it was important to analyze how the people who voted for Svoboda “understand democracy.”
“Obviously the growth of the popularity of this political party is the result of the disappointment of so-called democrats,” she said.
Kyiv Post staff writer Natalia A. Feduschak can be reached at email@example.com