Political storms are washing new faces ashore.
And if snap elections to Ukraine’s parliament are held soon, smaller parties stand a strong chance of getting in. One of them is the right-wing Svoboda leader, seen by many as Ukraine’s Joerg Haider, the Austrian far-right political leader who died this month in a car crash.
The 39-year-old Oleh Tyahnybok, the towering and intimidating far-right leader of Svoboda, sees the prospects of early elections in Ukraine as a big chance to defend his so-called pro-Ukrainian agenda.
His aim is to gain representation in parliament for Svoboda. Success would mark the first time in a decade that the nation’s radical right gains a significant kingmaker role to maneuver in Ukraine’s cut-throat and fast-moving politics.
But Tyahnybok’s potential rise worries many, in Ukraine and abroad, who see his movement as fascist in nature. Recent polls show that his party is gaining ground, particularly in western Ukraine, the nationalist heartland.
Surveys indicate that the Svoboda Party could reach the 3 percent cutoff, picking votes from Orange Revolution supporters who are tired of the constant bickering between President Victor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.
So who, exactly, is Tyahnybok and where would he lead the nation?
Few Ukrainians can forget a sound bite made by Tyahnybok to supporters that aired on television in the summer of 2004, just ahead of the Orange Revolution, when he was still a member of the Our Ukraine bloc led by then-presidential candidate Yushchenko.
The recording was made in western Ukraine, in the Carpathian Mountains, to a group of youthful supporters. Footage showed Tyahnybok shouting: “It’s time to give back Ukraine to Ukrainians.”
He called upon his supporters saying: “[You are the ones] that the Moscow-Jewish mafia ruling Ukraine fears most.”
It was an apparent reference to a Moscow-leaning political leadership, and the strong presence of ethnic Jewish billionaires in Ukraine’s business elite.
Referring to World War II partisan armies in western Ukraine who fought against the German, Soviet and Polish armies, he added: “They were not afraid and we should not be afraid. They took their automatic guns on their necks and went into the woods, and fought against the Muscovites (Russians), Germans, Jews and other enemies who wanted to take away our Ukrainian state.”
After the comments, Yushchenko moved quickly to dissociate himself from Tyahnybok, who was ejected from the Our Ukraine bloc. The Orange Revolution propelled Yushchenko to the presidency, but four years later, many nationalistic voters are turning away from Yushchenko, and towards Tyahnybok. Ironically, Tyahnybok’s name means “the one who pulls to the side.”
In a Kyiv Post interview this month in a local cafe, Tyahnybok looked relaxed and adamantly defended his agenda. But he downplayed his divisive words from years earlier.
“I have never said Ukraine is for Ukrainians. But I have said that we protect the Ukrainians. Ukraine is not just for Ukrainians, but we want to be respected,” he said.
On foreign policy, Tyahnybok is wary of Russia, which he regards as the nation’s biggest threat. He is pro-NATO and critical of the European Union. Both stances put him at odds with the majority of Ukrainians, according to recent polls.
“Taking into consideration the possibility of Russian aggression in Ukraine after the Russian-Georgian war, we should work on strengthening our army and finish the delimitation and demarcation of Russian-Ukrainian borders,” he said.
In Tyahnybok’s opinion, the EU has demonstrated a Russian-oriented position after the conflict in Georgia. He’d rather form alliances with Baltic and Scandinavian countries, and Poland. He also wants to reinvigorate cooperation within GUAM, the regional grouping of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova. Bulgaria is also a good ally for Ukraine, in contrast to Romania, which has territorial claims on Ukraine, he said.
Traditional for nationalist parties in Europe, Tyahnybok criticizes the EU as bureaucratic and corrupt. “Nationalists support the idea of united Europe, but as a Europe of free nations each of which keeps its face, its culture and currency,” he said.
Dressed in business attire during the interview, he smiled and appeared pleasant, a soft contrast to some of the controversial things he has said. He said he wants, among other things, to ban communist ideology in Ukraine, and forbid people who had ever worked for the KGB to hold office.
A native of Lviv, the de facto western Ukrainian capital where anti-Russian sentiment runs highest, Tyahnybok still lives there with his wife and three children. He knows the region well. “The more [Yushchenko and Tymoshenko] quarrel, the more people will return to us,” he predicts.
His hoped-for road to the Rada includes wholehearted support for the unpopular plan to hold early elections. He sees the election as a big opportunity for his party, which — like Haider’s party — is also called Freedom. “Ukraine needs a fundamental change of power and the pre-term parliamentary elections are the chance for it,” he said.
With Yushchenko and Tymoshenko at loggerheads, the election date is unclear, but likely to be held in January, if at all. And while Tyahnybok has a chance to cross the 3 percent threshhold, he has not ruled out forming a bloc with another party, though remains tight-lipped about allies.
While Tyahnybok is unlikely to ever become president because of scant support in eastern and central Ukraine, political analyst Victor Nebozhenko said the Svoboda Party “will continue to gain popularity” among nationalists.
Tyahnybok is not new to politics. He served as a lawmaker twice, first running in 1998 on the ticket of the popular Rukh movement, which was eventually marginalized. In 2002, Tyahnybok entered parliament as a member of Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine bloc, eventually being expelled in 2004 for the notorious “xenophobic comments” aired on television.
Tyahnybok talked the scandal down. He told the Kyiv Post that the TV channel edited his speech to make it “incomprehensible.”
But what hurt him with many people has also helped him to win over a small but strong base of dedicated far-right voters, enough to form his own party and make a run for the Rada.
Tyahnybok said his party failed in recent parliament elections to win seats in the legislature because fellow Orange Revolution leaders “created a myth.” They convinced supporters that Svoboda has no chance of being elected to parliament, and that ultimately “votes would be lost,” Tyahnybok complained.
This time around, Tyahnybok is confident his base will not be fooled.
If Svoboda gets into the Rada, it might position itself in a kingmaker role, deciding which of the larger parties form a coalition government. While influential at times and playing a deciding role in key votes, the Svoboda party will be only marginal on a national scale.
“It is an ultra right-wing party which will not gain national popularity,” said Semen Hluzman, a Ukrainian dissident and human rights activist.
Marginal or not, Tyahnybok has in recent years formed international alliances with other far-right groups who defend ethnic majorities and oppose immigration. His party is a member of Euronat, an organization of nationalist parties which includes Austria’s Freedom party, France’s National Front and the nationalist parties of Belgium, Italy and the Czech Republic.
“If there are parties which defend the interests of peasants, workers or national minorities, why can’t there be a political force defending the interests of the [majority]?” Tyahnybok asked.
However, proportional representation of ethnic minorities in government is one of Svoboda’s agendas, he added.
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