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The rise of the radical right in Ukraine

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Oct. 21, 2010, 10:26 p.m. | Op-ed — by Andreas Umland

Andreas Umland

Andreas Umland writes: Svoboda is a phenomenon that is not untypical for contemporary Europe. The year 2010 has seen a number of new, disturbing political developments in Ukraine. If these trends continue, they many undermine Ukraine’s international image as the only solidly pro-democratic oriented country in the former Soviet space.

All major institutions and structures that make up a functioning democracy have suffered from worrying interventions by the new Ukrainian leadership: parliamentary procedures, the rule of law, mass media, civil society and even higher education. They have been widely reported in both the Ukrainian and international press.

Another emerging problem for Ukraine’s future international reputation has, at the same time, remained largely ignored by most observers: the recent rise of the right-wing All-Ukrainian Association “Svoboda” (Freedom) of Oleh Tiahnybok, a physician and lawyer from western Ukraine’s largest city, Lviv. His ultra-nationalist party grew out of the clearly fascist Social-National Party of Ukraine (SNPU) founded in 1991 in Lviv.
It seems likely that Svoboda will have a faction in the next Verkhovna Rada. That will mean additional damage for Kyiv’s already dented international reputation.

- Andreas Umland, leacturer at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.

The SNPU’s name deliberately sounds like Hitler's Nazi-inspired National-Socialist German Workers Party. Its symbol was the so-called Wolfsangel once used by the SS Division “Das Reich,” and today popular among various European neo-Nazi groups.

In 2004, the Social-National Party renamed itself into Svoboda and abandoned the Wolfsangel. While Svoboda remained explicitly nationalistic, it has toned down its revolutionary rhetoric in recent years.

It also embraced, in its front-stage statements, a national-democratic discourse, and proclaims its adherence to the Ukrainian Constitution.

Its leadership includes a number of articulate intellectuals such as Iryna Farion, a senior lecturer in Ukrainian philology at Lviv’s Polytechnical Institute, and Andriy Illyenko, son of the legendary nationalist film director Yuriy Illyenko (1936-2010) and a political science researcher at Kyiv’s Shevchenko University.

They and, above all, Tiahnybok himself have recently become regular guests on Ukrainian TV shows, and sought-after interviewees or authors of many Kyiv periodicals.

As a result, Svoboda’s popularity has, especially in Western Ukraine, been constantly growing during the last year. It has also made inroads into the less nationalistic regions of central Ukraine.

As Ukraine has a proportional electoral system with a relatively low 3 percent barrier for an entry into parliament, it seems likely that Svoboda will have a faction in the next Verkhovna Rada.

That will mean additional damage for Kyiv’s already dented international reputation.

Svoboda is a racist party promoting explicitly ethnocentric and anti-Semitic ideas. Its main programmatic points are Russo- and xenophobia as well as, more recently, a strict anti-immigration stance.

It is an outspoken advocate of an uncritical heroization of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists – an interwar and World War II ultra-nationalist party tainted by its temporary collaboration with the Third Reich, as well as its members’ participation in genocidal actions against Poles and Jews, in western Ukraine, during German occupation.

Although Svoboda emphasizes the European character of the Ukrainian people, it is an anti-Western, anti-liberal, and anti-EU grouping. It belongs to the international so-called Alliance of European National Movements.

This radically right-wing pan-European party association includes, among other groupings, France’s Front national, The Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik) and the British National Party – three of Europe’s most prolific and extreme nationalist parties today.

Tiahnybok’s most prominent new political friend on the international scene is, incongruously, the Frenchmen Jean-Marie Le Pen who also used to be friendly with Vladimir Zhirinovskii – an aggressively anti-Ukrainian Russian imperialist politician.
A country as domestically unconsolidated and internationally non-integrated as Ukraine, a prominent ultra-nationalist party in parliament would be a dangerous luxury.

- Andreas Umland, leacturer at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.

Svoboda is a phenomenon not untypical for contemporary Europe.

Several EU member countries had or have politically significant parties and, sometimes, parliamentary factions with ideologies comparable to that of Tiahnybok’s association.

However, a country as domestically unconsolidated and internationally non-integrated as Ukraine, a prominent ultra-nationalist party in parliament would be a dangerous luxury.

Svoboda will, as a Verkhovna Rada faction, further estrange many Ukrainians in the country's east and south as well as a number of international partners from the Ukrainian state.

It will contribute to the already high geographical polarization within the Ukrainian electorate.

Svoboda’s presence in the national legislature would undermine the development of a Ukrainian political nation, and of a trans-regional, pan-ethnic patriotism.

Public opinion in countries like Poland, Israel and Germany would become more skeptical towards the Ukrainians as a European nation. Svoboda’s further rise will help cementing its current under-institutionalization in the European security structure.

The entry of ultra-nationalists into Ukraine’s political establishment will be an alienating factor between Kyiv and Brussels. It will thus, oddly, make Ukraine more vulnerable to Russian attempts to undermine this post-Soviet state’s independence and integrity.

Though many observers think that Ukraine is now already at the lowest point of its post-Soviet development, even more bad news might be in store for the largest country of Europe.


Andreas Umland was formerly a fellow at Stanford, Harvard and Oxford. He currently teaches within the Master in German and European Studies program at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and edits the scholarly book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” published in Stuttgart, Germany.
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