Meeting the 43-year-old nationalist leader is no extraordinary event for Borshchiv residents. They have seen Tyahnybok here at least five times in the last few years and are familiar with his party platform. After all, most Svoboda supporters live in western Ukraine. Tyahnybok seems at home but looks a little tired. The town hall meeting in Borshchiv is his third one that day.
“Glory to Ukraine!” Tyahnybok greets his followers while jumping on stage. People who looked relaxed a moment ago, are suddenly alert and loudly reply: “Glory to heroes!”
The 450-capacity concert hall at Borshchiv Agricultural and Technical College looks 75 percent full. Most people are middle-aged and elderly men and women.
For the first time in its 21-year-old history, Tyahnybok’s nationalist party has a realistic chance of getting elected to parliament on Oct. 28. Recent polls show Svoboda is close to passing the required 5 percent threshold.
Presenting people from his party list, Tyahnybok mentions that the 10th spot is Ihor Yankiv, a rifle shooting instructor. “So you understand that we prepare very seriously in terms of staff to … who knows what will happen?” Tyahnybok says with a smile. “For those who spy here – that was a joke,” he adds, as the audience laughs and applauds. Such jokes are typical for Tyahnybok.
But critics don’t think the militant nature of Svoboda events is a laughing matter. Participants of an Oct. 14 march organized by Svoboda to mark the 70th anniversary of the nationalist Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) burned flags of the Communist Party and the pro-presidential Party of Regions. During a protest against a Russian language law that was adopted in July, a man in a Svoboda t-shirt was filmed by cameras spraying tear gas at police.
A fight involving Svoboda followers happened during the celebration of World War II Victory Day in Lviv on May 9 last year. Ukrainian media reported that about 1,000 Svoboda supporters met a dozen of people wearing Soviet ribbons that symbolized victory and demanded that they be removed. People with the Soviet ribbons started running away, pursued by Svoboda activists. Scuffles broke out and one Svoboda member was shot in the legal.
Svoboda members, however, often miss such incidents as acts of provocation by their enemies.
Meanwhile, on the campaign trail in Borshchiv with Svoboda leader Tyahnybok, a middle-aged man in the first row stands up and asks how people should vote.
“Vote for Svoboda,” Tyahnybok replies. “If you don’t want to support Svoboda but are against the regime of (President Viktor) Yanukovych, then vote for our partners Batkivshchyna.”
As opposition forces, Svoboda and imprisoned ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna have divided some single-mandate districts between each other. Svoboda got to nominate candidates in 35 districts, while Batkivshchyna and the seven other parties of the United Opposition, led by Arseniy Yatseniuk, got 190. Both parties have already agreed to form a coalition in the future parliament. Vitali Klitschko’s Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms is also likely to join.
To negotiate with Yatseniuk and Klitschko, Tyahnybok canceled his next two meetings in Ternopil Oblast that day. He jumps into his Toyota sports utility vehicle and rushes to Kyiv despite mixed feelings about Klitschko’s party.
“I consider that Klitschko will be the biggest disappointment of this election campaign,” he told the Kyiv Post while sitting in the back seat of his car. “I suspect (he will be) like (Sergiy) Tigipko.”
Tyahnybok says he likes Klitschko personally, but thinks that many members of his party will cooperate with the pro-presidential faction, as did Tigipko, who was initially seen as an opposition figure, but then joined the ruling Party of Regions coalition government soon after the 2010 presidential elections, later merging the two parties.
Tyahnybok says most of Klitschko’s party list is actually accountable to billionaire and Yanukovych ally Dmytro Firtash or presidential administration head Serhiy Lyovochkin, as well as former opposition members excluded from their factions for cooperation with the Party of Regions. Klitschko has denied any such alliance with Firtash or any of the so-called oligarchs.
“I don’t believe the faction (that Klitschko) will bring to parliament could be in opposition,” Tyahnybok says, watching the road while his car speeds through sharp turns. A trident, Ukraine’s coat of arms, dangles on a thread hanging from the rearview mirror.
Tyahnybok was a member of parliament twice, in 1998 and 2002, but was excluded from Viktor Yushchenko’s Our Ukraine faction after he gave a controversial speech in the summer of 2004. In that long speech he said that “Ukraine should be given finally to Ukrainians” and that Ukraine is ruled today by a “Muscovite-Jewish mafia.” Tyahnybok says a criminal case was opened against him for inciting ethnic hatred, but he managed to win all the court cases and protect his name. He thinks there was nothing chauvinistic or anti-Semitic about the speech and does not back down from his words.
“All I said then, I can also repeat now,” he says. “Moreover, this speech is relevant even today.”
Tyahnybok says his party adheres to a nationalist ideology, which means loving one’s homeland. In his view, the love shouldn’t be mixed with chauvinism or fascism, which means superiority of one nation over another.
Thus, Svoboda’s platform is called “Our Own Authorities, Our Own Property, Our Own Dignity, on Our Own God-Given Land.”
Tyahnybok says his first mission in parliament is to initiate the impeachment to President Viktor Yanukovych and dismiss the government of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov.
He also plans to denounce the gas deal that Yanukovych signed with Russia, which saw Ukraine get a $100 gas price discount in exchange for extending the lease on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol until 2042.
His faction aims to cancel the recently adopted tax code, pension reform and the law that elevated the status of the Russian language, mainly allowing Russian to gain official status in many regions of Ukraine.
It also wants to nationalize all strategic and illegally privatized companies. Foreigners would be banned from owning majority stakes in private banks, while offshore companies would be forced to transfer their money to Ukraine. A moratorium on the sale of agricultural land would be extended and foreign entities would never be allowed to own it.
Tyahnybok’s party also wants to make Oct. 14, the symbolic founding date of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) – freedom fighters who fought Nazi and Soviet occupation during after World War II – a national holiday. He in addition wants to give UPA veterans the same social benefits that other WWII veterans get. Meanwhile, communist ideology and symbolism would be banned on par with Nazism.
“A week ago Moldova adopted a law on banning communist symbols on its territory, while we are still rummaging in that Communist-Bolshevik mud,” Tyahnybok told his voters.
Tyahnybok dismisses all allegations that his party is backed by Ukrainian oligarchs, the authorities or even Russia.
“Our political opponents spread such rumors about us, but they have absolutely no grounds,” says Tyahnybok while his car narrowly avoids an upcoming truck.
He says his party is financed by small and middle businessmen who are members of Svoboda: It has already spent Hr 10 million on the campaign, and shouldn’t exceed Hr 15 million by Oct. 28. This is a modest amount compared to the Hr 100 million spent by Klitschko’s campaign, according to a Kyiv Post interview with Klitschko.
The modest budget means Tyahnybok has no campaign headquarters. It seems he doesn’t’ need it though. While touring around Ukraine he said he often sleeps in his car. The Kyiv Post noticed a pillow, blanket and air mattress in the storage area behind the rear seats of his SUV.
Kyiv Post staff writer Oksana Faryna can be reached at [email protected].
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