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Andreas Umland: How spread of Banderite slogans and symbols undermines Ukrainian nation-building

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Dec. 28, 2013, 6:44 p.m. | Op-ed — by Andreas Umland

Oleh Tiahynbok, leader of the nationalist Svoboda Party.
© AFP

Andreas Umland

 Writing about the implications of Ukraine’s divided historical memory is a thankless task. Ukraine’s nationalist intelligentsia’s response to voicing the most elementary facts on, and assessments of, the corroding role of the promotion of World War II themes for Ukrainian state-building is always the same: Kill the messenger!

It is less important what is said and for which purpose. The person who dares to point out even widely known trivialities and makes all too evident conclusions related to the ambivalent meaning of a heroization of wartime nationalists, will be lectured or defamed, or both.

The analyst and not the matter of the issue will be questioned – if necessary through wild allegations, far-going accusations, and outright libel. The reason and justification for such far-reaching denunciations will be the attacker’s strong patriotism and love of Ukraine.

But is mainstreaming symbols, slogans and ideas related to the so-called Stepan Bandera movement really patriotic when soberly considering the socio-political realities of post-Soviet Ukraine?

The ethno-centrist slant of Ukraine’s third post-Soviet mass rebellion

The current uprising is the third such popular insurgence following the Granite Revolution of 1990 and Orange Revolution of 2004.

While these earlier revolts had also nationalist undertones, the current insurrection is different regarding the prominent role that supposedly “national” themes play in it. Above all, it is characterized by the far more notable presence, than in 1990 and 2004, of slogans, symbols and followers implicitly or explicitly heroizing Bandera’s wartime Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists.

This discourse is promoted, first and foremost, by the nationalist party Svoboda led by Oleh Tiahnybok, but has been willingly taken up by other political and civil actors too. In spite of the minor role of right-wing extremists in the protests, some leitmotifs historically associated with, but today not any longer perceived as representing, Ukrainian war-time ultra-nationalism are now characteristic of the entire protest movement. This may be a remarkable success for Ukraine’s post-Soviet neo-Banderite ethno-nationalists; yet it is bad news for the future of Ukrainian political nation-building.

Already a prominent participant of the 1990 Granite Revolution, in 2004, Tiahnybok was excluded from the Verkhovna Rada faction Our Ukraine for an anti-Semitic speech earlier that year. He thus played an only third-rate role during the Orange Revolution.

Today, in contrast, Tiahnybok is one of the most influential leaders of the protest movement eminently co-directing its rhetoric, ideology and actions. To be sure, he and has party usually have the support of only around 4-6 percent in recent popularity polls.

Moreover, in a number of experimental public opinion studies conducted by different sociological agencies, Tiahnybok has been repeatedly identified as the only major opposition leader who could lose, in a hypothetical two-round presidential election, against the discredited incumbent Viktor Yanukovych. Nevertheless, being effective orators and supported by a vocal support group in the crowds, Tiahnybok and some other ethno-nationalist spokespersons are, during the current protests, disproportionally present, on the streets, at the podiums, and in mass media. While they represent the electorally smallest faction and regionally most contained part of the opposition, the Svoboda leaders are as visible as those of the two larger opposition parties, Vitali Klitschko’s UDAR and Arseniy Yatseniuk’s Batkivshchyna.

This may by itself not seen as a problem. Representing a parliamentary faction, Tiahnybok’s party certainly has the right to be involved in the protests, and promote itself among the opposition voters. Moreover, “Svoboda” has, to no small degree and with considerable discipline, contributed to the effective organization, combat spirit and physical protection of the protesters. Also, Tiahnybok and Svoboda’s other spokespersons have markedly toned down the implicitly anti-Western aspects of their ideology, and took already 2012 an explicitly supportive stance on Ukraine’s rapprochement with, and integration into, the European Union. They did so in spite of the glaring contradictions between their ideology and post-war European values, and the outspokenly Eurosceptic positions of most of their former and current far-right cooperation partners in Central and Western Europe (e.g. France’s Front national, Germany’s NPD or Italy’s Forza Nuova).

However, at the same time, “Svoboda” and some minor similarly oriented groups have managed to insert into the entire protest movement a number of their own specifically ethno-nationalist themes, symbols, and slogans. This concerns above all the Ukrainian Insurgent Army’s red/black blood-and-soil flag, more visible today than during the 1990 and 2004 protests, and the OUN’s battle cry “Glory to Ukraine! – To the heroes glory!” The Euromaidan’s podium presenter, Yevhen Nyshchuk, an otherwise little known theatre actor and 2004 Orange Revolution DJ, has helped to transform this slogan into the protest movement’s main motto – mantra-like repeated hundreds of times during the last weeks.

Moreover, even such explicitly ethno-nationalist slogans like “Ukraine Above Everything!”, “Death to the Enemies!” or “Glory to the Nation!” have started being circulated, on Independence Square – a fact explicitly criticized by, among others, popular folk-rock singer Oleh Skripka.

Most likely, the spread of these mottos is also a result of their promotion by Svoboda and other ethno-nationalist groups over-represented on the EuroMaidan, including the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists, Ukrainian Platform Sobor or Right-Wing Sector.

In his speeches, Tiahnybok has used formulas like “national revolution” and “national state” to describe his vision of the nature and aims of the uprising. Before the current protests, Banderite slogans and symbols were heavily used only in Western Ukraine, and played a minor role in earlier protests. Today, in contrast, they have become mainstream, in the entire opposition protest movement, whether party-affiliated or not, and can be noted all over Kyiv as well as other Ukrainian cities.

The anti-national character of Ukrainian ethno-nationalism

Superficially, there may be nothing extraordinary happening today in Kyiv: Modern democratic revolutions, more often than not, had nationalist undertones – sometimes quite explicitly so.

A minority of political scientists even argue that nationalism has crucially supported liberalization and democratization in post-communist Europe. However, a distinct peculiarity of the situation in Ukraine is that the supposedly “patriotic” symbols and ideas of the war-time Organization of Ukrainian Nationalist, promoted by “Svoboda,” are not properly national, but instead implicitly separatist.

The issue here is not only and not so much the ambivalent historical record of the OUN which is being praised as liberationist, by one side, and classified as fascist, by the other. It is not this fact as such that is the problem, but rather that the OUN symbols trigger positive responses only in Western and, to lesser degree, Central Ukraine. In contrast, they are seen as inappropriate or even offending by the overwhelming majority of southern and eastern Ukrainians.

This circumstance – and less so a lack of xenophobia and homophobia in russophone Ukraine – is also a reason why Svoboda has been and probably will remain a minor Ukrainian political force. In spite of the considerable presence of racist stereotypes to which Svoboda appeals in Southern and Eastern Ukraine, Tiahnybok’s party cannot hope to ever collect a significant electorate there. Although calling itself All-Ukrainian Union “Svoboda,” it is a regionally based party that is popular mainly in Galicia, Volyn and Kyiv as well as, to a lesser degree, in other parts of western as well as central Ukraine. Yet, it does not cover the entire country.

The prominent role of disputed historical references is all the more surprising as there are episodes and figures in Ukraine’s all-national history that are uncontroversial among most Ukrainians.

For instance, the pride of the medieval Kyivan Rus, memory of the early modern Cossack republics, adoration of the national poet Taras Shevchenko, or grief about the millions of victims of 1932-33 famine nowadays constitute themes that unite the Ukrainian nation more or less comprehensively.

The moderately nationalist Ukrainian interpretations of these and similar topics may still be regarded as offensive by official Russian or pro-Russian Ukrainian historians. Nevertheless, even southern and eastern Ukrainians with Russian ties tend to support the mainstream Ukrainian view on, for instance, the Holodomor as a peculiarly Ukrainian tragedy. While many russophone Ukrainians feel, in one way or another, bound to Russia, they often nevertheless regard the current ambivalent portrayal of Stalin by the Kremlin-promoted media and Ukrainian Communist Party as inappropriate. There are thus a number of important historical periods and figures the interpretation of which is largely uncontentious and unites most Ukrainians in the west and east.

In contrast, the proper evaluation of the actions and ideology of the so-called Bandera movement is Ukraine’s by far most contentious historical question. Many Galicians and some central Ukrainians – above all Svoboda’s followers – tend to see the OUN and its military wing, the UPA, in exclusively epic terms. Ukrainophone nationalists, resembling their colleagues in the Baltics, even heroize known Nazi collaborators among the OUN leadership, like Roman Shukhevych, a one-time Hauptsturmführer of the infamous Schutzmannschaften.

In contrast, millions of eastern and southern Ukrainians regard the same persons as either alien to their historic traditions, or even as despicable traitors in the Soviet Union’s nations’ joint struggle against fascism. These divisions in Ukraine’s historical discourse are common places among those interested in Ukrainian politics – whether in- or outside Ukraine. The geographically divided memory of World War II has been confirmed in dozens of opinion polls and regional studies.

The Ukrainian patriots’ flight from reality

In spite of their obviousness, the implications of these facts for Ukrainian party politics, public debates and intellectual discourse are insufficiently discussed by Ukraine’s political leaders, activists and analysts.

The division in the memory of World War II is acknowledged and analyzed as such. But what topical conclusions, rhetorical strategies, and political actions would have to follow from them? Instead of asking and answering such questions, Ukraine’s patriots distract or escape from these difficult issues.

When confronted with the contradiction between their support for spreading Banderite nationalism and the incongruent historical memory of millions of eastern and southern Ukrainians, they use escapist tactics that avoid debating the actual challenge. They either engage in pseudo-historic lectures that whitewash the war-time Ukrainian ultra-nationalists, or they use neo-Soviet “whataboutism” asking: What about this or that inconsistency in the historical memory of this or that other country?

The patriots’ history lectures often simply repeat the OUN hagiography of those Ukrainian history writers who have manifest sympathies for, or even organizational ties to, their object of study. They restate the stories told by self-ascribed history experts who seldom or never publish in leading academic journals, and do not attend relevant international scientific congresses. The patriots’ “What about?” questions sometimes concern only partly comparable issues abroad (e.g. in Israel), or seek to offset their own ambivalent preferences against those of others (e.g. Poles). If East Ukrainian communists praise Stalin, why should west Ukrainian nationalist not be able to praise Bandera? – is one of the most absurd “arguments” one sometimes hears even from educated Ukrainians.

The main defect of these responses is that they divert attention to a pseudo-analytical or para-comparative debate about the nature of the OUN rather than focusing on how to solve a rather salient practical-political problem of today Ukraine.

Instead of trying to find an answer of how to formulate a historical narrative that may be acceptable to most citizens of Ukraine, the apologists usually start a different discussion about who is right or wrong. Often these rebuttals include an explicit or implicit diminishing of the opponent as either a naive victim or a mischievous propagator of Soviet-Russian Kremlin propaganda. Such debates thus only further deepen rather than heal the divide between different parts of Ukraine. The “Ukrainian patriots’” mumblings about history, morality and comparability actively undermine rather than support the ideational foundations that a consolidation of the Ukrainian state needs. As a result of their escapist rhetorical strategies, the supposed patriots do the exact opposite of what they claim to be doing: They are subverting rather than strengthening the Ukrainian state. Worse, with their divisive discourse, they indirectly, but effectively serve Russian neo-imperial irredentism.

For instance, the standard response to the questioning of the usefulness of an elevation of the “To the heroes – glory!” cry to the main mantra of the protest movement would be a simple switch of topics. The most autistic respondents would start a discussion of the historic origins of the older “Glory to Ukraine!” slogan simply ignoring the question about the “heroes” part.

The more responsive defenders’ reply to critique would be some trivial explanation of what this slogan means to the today demonstrators on Independence Square. One would be informed one that the cry has no deeper historic connotation for many protesters, that it expresses their emotions in such historic times, that it unites people from different regions, including russophone ones, coming to Kyiv, and so on.

Yet, the most difficult question will be stubbornly ignored: Not what do the protesters mean when they shout the slogan, but what do many Eastern and Southern Ukrainians feel when they hear “To the heroes – glory!” For the protesters on the Maidan, including those from the Donbass or Crimea, “heroes” may be a generic term that means little beyond the concrete context of the protests. Yet, for many of their listeners in Ukraine’s east and south, the historical origins of the slogan will be known and relevant.

For them, “heroes” will actually mean UPA combatants once killing Red Army soldiers who were fighting German fascism and whose children today do not regard the UPA as heroic at all. Yet, this challenging contradiction would be simply ignored, and responded to with a pseudo-moralistic sermon about the lack of the questioner’s understanding of Ukraine’s past and present, or the anti-Ukrainian intention behind such a blasphemous question.

Will the Ukrainian revolution succeed?

Svoboda and the minor ethno-nationalist parties present on the Maidan have already done a lasting disservice to the Ukrainian nation by impregnating the protest movement with their peculiarly Banderite slogans, ideas and symbols unpopular in southern and eastern Ukraine.

A particularly sad outcome is that the ethno-nationalists have poisoned Ukrainian civil society with formulas that will disturb the formation of a unified Ukrainian civic community. The non-nationalist protesters who have uncritically taken over ethno-nationalist slogans and symbols are making a strategic mistake: When utilizing ambivalent historical references in their fight against a semi-authoritarian regime, they may be helping to undermine the Ukrainian state.

Oddly, they also create considerable uneasiness in the opposition’s relations with the European Union and particularly Poland – Ukraine’s most faithful friend in Europe. A whole number of more or less prominent Western representatives and institutions, among them the European Parliament, have repeatedly and unequivocally spoken out against heroization of the OUN. Indirectly, the protesters using OUN symbols or slogans would be assisting rather than fighting Putin’s imperialist divide-et-impera policies in the post-Soviet space.

For Jan. 1, Svoboda has announced that it intends to organize a big celebration of Stepan Bandera’s 105th birthday in Kyiv. This will not only give the Kremlin and his agents in Ukraine an additional excellent opportunity to discredit the EuroMaidan. It threatens – even without the unavoidable Russian political spin – to make on many people in and outside Ukraine a misleading impression about the origins, substance and aims of the current protests at Kyiv. As result of a worst-case scenario, one day historians may conclude that Putin and Tiahnybok did jointly succeed in tearing the young Ukrainian state apart.

Andreas Umland is an associate professor of political science at Kyiv Mohyla Academy.

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