War, nationalism, imperialism

Three Sources of Ukraine's “Freedom”: Nationalism, Xenophobia and the “Social Issue”

Vitalii Atanasov

Vitaly Atanasov

In the last three years, the popularity of Ukraine’s right-wing party Svoboda (Freedom) has seen an eightfold increase. At the moment, the party is supported by 6% of the country’s population, though it seems unlikely that anything might prevent the party overcoming the 3% level in the parliamentary election next year. Until 2004, the party had the eloquent name of the Social Nationalistic Party of Ukraine, and the only status it could aspire to was that of disturber of the peace in a few regions in western Ukraine, but things have changed since that time. The party’s true success was the result of the local level election last fall – Svoboda was the election winner in three of Ukraine’s western regions: the Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Ternopil regions. Besides ensuring the party’s control over the largest factions in the regional councils, the party holds the majority of seats in the city councils of the three regional centres. Ternopil’s mayor is also a representative of the Svoboda party.

Why is the far right-wing movement growing?

In part, the increased popularity of Svoboda can be explained by the moderate national democratic electorate’s disappointment in Viktor Yushchenko, Yulia Tymoshenko and other leaders of the “orange revolution”. When they came to power, they discredited themselves by making alliances with their former political enemies and by total corruption and neoliberal economic measures.

Moreover, the “orange” leaders actually paved the way and simplified the far right wing’s rise. For five years after the Maidan events, while Yushchenko remained President, the state made tremendous efforts to legitimise the right-wing conservative discourse and nationalistic mythology. Two themes were central to Yushchenko’s policy: the Holodomor of 1932-1933, which was interpreted as a genocide of the Ukrainian people, and the anti-Soviet armed struggle of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). The creation of “heroes” and “criminals” – through strategies of victimisation and glorification – is an interconnected process: the interpretation of the Holodomor as ethnic genocide was used to justify collaboration of the Ukrainian nationalists with the Nazis when they first invaded the USSR and to conceal their participation in the Holocaust and the ethnic cleansing of 60,000 Poles, painting the OUN and UPA as fighters for the independence of the Ukrainian state from the Soviet and Nazi occupation (CDS, 2011).

Should we find it surprising now that the organisation that inherited and shares many of the OUN’s political principles is gaining in popularity? Nevertheless, Ukrainian national democrats, who in the first years of independence were in the forefront of the anticommunist People’s Rukh (Movement) of Ukraine, calling for the restoration of the “national spirit of chivalry and honour”, are now terrified as they watch the rise of the right-wing radicals who have assumed control of the regional governments in the western part of the country and are aggressively attacking the liberals, whom Svoboda terms “enemies of the nation” (Marinovich, 2011).

Nationalism, traditionalism and xenophobia

The Svoboda party initiated its entry into big politics under the slogans of ethnic Ukrainian nationalism, anticommunism and traditionalist chauvinism, combined – semi-officially – with a good deal of xenophobia and anti-Semitism. Oleg Tyagnibok, the party’s charismatic leader, gained nationwide popularity in 2004, when all major TV channels broadcast his public speech, in which he demanded that “Ukraine finally be given back to the Ukrainians” and encouraged the people to follow the example of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which, to quote Tyagnibok, “fought the Muscovites, the Germans, the Jews, and other evil spirits…” (Historical Truth, 2010)

That was happening on the eve of the Orange Revolution, and the xenophobic statement made by Tyagnibok, who at that time was a member of Viktor Yushchenko’s opposition party “Nasha Ukraina” (Our Ukraine), was publicised by the pro-government media. Tyagnibok was expelled from the Nasha Ukraina party for the provocative statement; however, the scandal and publicity became the impetus for his political career. Since then, the derogatory terms “zhidva” and “moskali” that he coined, which can easily be construed as hate speech towards the Russians and the Jews, have become part of the Svoboda members’ lexicon.

One of Tyagnibok’s key slogans during the presidential election in 2010 was the call for “lustration”, by which nationalists mean cleansing of the government authorities, institutions and organisations of “ideologies and implementers of Moscow’s colonial policy by banning them from holding posts in the said institutions for a period of 5 years”. The Svoboda leader was more active still in his calls to put communism under trial.

Svoboda is the most active among the country’s political parties – in 2010 alone, the party and its ultra-right supporters held about 150 media-projected protests related to historical themes. As is to be expected, the historical policy of the radical nationalists is anticommunist. That is not peculiar to Ukraine; it is a common feature of the Central and Eastern Europe region in the post-Soviet and post-socialist countries. In the Ukraine, as in the other Eastern European countries, the policy was supported by the state authorities, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, served as key issues that built the far-right’s political power (CDS, 2011).

The radical right’s tactics and their connections with the establishment

It is during Yanukovich’s presidency (from early 2010) that Svoboda has grown and strengthened its positions. For radical nationalists, the current government is a convenient target for intransigent criticism. Svoboda calls the Party of Regions occupiers directed and led by Moscow’s firm hand, Ukraine-phobic forces, and enemies of the Ukrainian nation. The strengthened positions of the national patriots are also in the interests of the President and his Party of Regions, since the latter compete with the national democrats and Tymoshenko, who got only 3.5% less votes at the last presidential election than Yanukovich. Besides, the current president’s supporters, most of whom are concentrated in the Russian-speaking southern and eastern regions of the country, will never vote for the Ukrainian nationalists.

The Party of Regions has never adhered to the classic interpretation of liberal ideology. Conservative-populist in the public sphere and neoliberal in economic matters, the Party of Regions does not try to conceal its close ties with the wealthiest oligarchic families in the country. Furthermore, President Yanukovich is particularly partial to the local branch of the Orthodox Church, which is subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchy.

Actually, the Party of Regions can be considered a party only in name. It is really an electoral machine supplying political representation to the business establishment. Locally, the Party of Regions does not have any human resources or activists to organise meetings, demonstrations or carry out routine activities during electoral campaigns. In between elections, party offices in the regions exist only on paper, but then spring to life when the next electoral race starts up again, and they can do this due to the massive human resources they can hire.

All more or less electorally successful parties in Ukraine’s post-communist democracy are based on the same principle, with the possible exception of the Communist Party, which had a solid activists’ base in the 1990s, which it had mostly lost by the late 2000s. Unlike the hired meetings and demonstrations periodically organised by the mainstream politicians, Svoboda always relies on its party’s active core, and in particularly significant cases it calls for mass mobilisation of its supporters. Svoboda is thus actively involved in the street protest policy.

The party does not miss any opportunity to include the right-wing football hooligans, for example, the ultra-right supporters of the Kiev football club Dinamo or the Lviv club Karpaty, in its protests and demonstrations. Thanks to the growth of its financial resources and political influence, Svoboda involves the active core of the far-right radical non-party organisations and informal initiatives in its activities and events, for instance, the openly racist “autonomous nationals” and the militarised neo-Nazi “Patriot of Ukraine”.

In spring 2010, Svoboda activists introduced anti-Semitic notes into the student protests that opposed the unpopular Minister of Education and Science, Dmitry Tabachnik, a former Kuchma administration figure. The minister is an extremely convenient target for the ultra-chauvinists, because he ideally fits into their political logic: all problems are due to people in power, who are not patriots and Ukrainians. In 2011, Svoboda attempted to split the student protest movement, in which the active role was played by the left student union “Direct Action”.

Elements of fascism

According to recent studies, Ukraine, along with Hungary, Bulgaria and Latvia, is among the leading countries in terms of the number of potential supporters of far-right ideologies and organisations. The demand for such ideologies in these countries is prompted by the intricate intertwining of xenophobic prejudices and mistrust of the political system. The distinctive feature of the radical-right movements in the post-socialist countries in Central and Eastern Europe is the combination of the pre-war European fascism of the 1930s and ideas borrowed from the contemporary right-wing neo-populists of Western Europe (Kreko, 2010).

Ukraine’s Svoboda, for instance, directly focused ideologically on the European extreme right. The party has officially welcomed the electoral victory of Jobbik, the Swedish Democrats, and collaborates with the French National Front. Svoboda is a member of the Alliance of European National Movements. The party combines ethnic nationalism and social-populist rhetoric appealing to religion and “traditional” moral values; it utilises the existing demand for authoritarianism and traditionalistic chauvinism that seeks an external enemy, while maintaining opposition to globalisation. The party criticises the consequences of globalisation for the national economy and culture and actively encourages anti-immigrant moods.

In Ukraine’s southern and eastern regions, where the Russian-speaking population is concentrated, Svoboda stresses Ukrainian ethnic nationalism less, focusing instead on the “threat” of illegal immigration. In combination with the criticism of the corrupt establishment, economic oligarchy and political officials, this tactic has attracted the local Russian-speaking ultra-right radicals, who find the xenophobic and racist foundation of the anti-immigrant alarmist rhetoric congenial to their own views. This has allowed Svoboda to organise a series of mass street protests under anti-Semitic slogans in some regional centres in the southern, eastern and central parts of the country. Thus, despite its clearly pro-Ukrainian image, the party has successfully found its way to the hearts of the xenophobic section of the whole region’s electorate. The party’s significant success can be measured by the outstanding results it has thus achieved even in the regions with traditionally strong pro-Russian attitudes.

These efforts yield results; intolerance toward immigrants is increasing in Ukraine, even though they are not numerous. It turns out that “virtual” foreigners can generate just as much fear as real ones (Kreko, 2010).

The widespread xenophobic prejudices existing in the country play into the hands of the right-wing radicals. Xenophobia has increased in Ukrainian society in the past two decades. From 1994 to 2007, the xenophobia index rose from 3.45 to 4.35 (Paniotto, 2008). Researcher Natalia Panina also noted in her research that “over the period of the independent Ukrainian state’s development, both the general level of national isolation and that of xenophobic attitudes to certain nations has been seen to rise”. The level of the overall national tolerance has also decreased in this period: in 1992, the share of the population with xenophobic attitudes was 6.3%, and in 2005 it rose to 25.2%. At the same time, the share of the population with tolerant attitudes declined from 35.2%, to 10.4% respectively. (Panina, 2005)

Economic knockout, distrust and the “social issue”

In Ukraine, a major factor contributing to the growth of support for the right wing was the economic crisis, which led to the exacerbation of social antagonism. Among the 29 former socialist countries of Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Ukraine was hit hardest by the crisis. Inflation reached 22% in 2008; the devaluation of the national currency was 60%. The following year, Ukraine’s GDP fell by 14%, and inflation grew by 12%.

Although in 2010, the country’s economy was partially restored due to a rise in world market prices on Ukrainian exports, the situation is still far from stable. Ukraine supplies the global market with raw materials – metals, chemical products and food, whose prices remain very unstable. Wages have either been cut or devaluated; unemployment is still high, and prices of mass consumption goods keep increasing. Over the past three years, Ukraine has become the second largest debtor of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the implementation of whose neoliberal programme is only exacerbating the social injustice and economic inequality in the country. Ukrainian authorities keep raising utility tariffs; they are privatising state run companies and intend to raise the retirement age for women.

The Svoboda party reacted by placing even stronger emphasis on the socially critical elements of its public rhetoric. The emphasis on the “social issue” has been one of the key factors for Svoboda’s increase in popularity in the last three years. The vector of the ideological evolution is revealed through the party’s ideologists using the term “social nationalism” more and more frequently, criticising the “culturalism” and “liberalism” of the traditional nationalistic movement, and arguing against the “free market economy” and “integration into the global capitalist system as a country offering a cheap supply of resources and workforce” (Illenko, 2011). The party often supports the socially themed protests of wage workers and activists of the housing and anti-land-development movements. The party is less successful in utilising the urban movements, in particular the movement against further infill construction in cities.

This coincided with the population’s acute dissatisfaction with the worsening economic conditions coupled with the overall mistrust of the state and its political institutes. People’s trust in the government, government officials, general prosecutor’s office, police, courts and parliament’s parties is continuously declining (Weekly Mirror, 2011). The deep disappointment in the overall political system is obvious.

From this point of view, the mass protests organised by the small-business entrepreneurs and self-employed, mostly market sellers, against the new Tax Code in November 2010 are particularly revealing. Despite the openly political anti-government slogans, the participants in the demonstrations and protests made every effort to distance themselves from “politics” and any and all political parties, insisting on the social nature of their actions. The attempts of Yulia Tymoshenko’s opposition block to take credit for the protests were angrily repelled by the demonstrators who did not want to have anything to do with “big politics”.

Some of my acquaintances, who are not ethnic Ukrainians and do not use the Ukrainian language in their everyday life, are sincerely delighted with the Svoboda leaders’ provocative statements and actions. By voting for this party, which positions itself as in fundamental opposition to the corrupt power and business system, they expect to strike a blow at the authorities in power, who sow disappointment, anger and resentment. In capitalist society, with its typical economic and political inequality, the conservative views and preferences of workers disappointed in liberal democracy is a widespread phenomenon.

Thus, Svoboda uses an eclectic approach and combines diverse elements. As a result, various social groups identify with the party: small- and medium level entrepreneurs, officials, students, the unemployed and pensioners.

In the afterword to the Russian edition of his book on European fascism, Wolfgang Wippermann notes that one of the key features of the fascist parties was “the determined and unwavering will to destroy their political opponents and also – randomly chosen – minorities” (Wippermann, 2000). In this respect, Svoboda’s approach does not differ from those found in earlier history: it is aggressive in its statements against the sexual minorities and LGBT organisations; it organises counter-protests against the March for Decriminalisation of Soft Drugs … There are regular reports of attacks by far-right radical groups on the left wing activities and members of LGBT organisations.

As in other post-socialist countries, the activities of Ukraine’s radical left are hampered both by the catastrophic consequences of Stalinism and the anticommunist propaganda of the past two decades. The specificity of the Ukrainian situation lies also in the fact that the left end of Ukraine’s political spectrum is occupied by the conservative chauvinistic pro-Russian Communist Party of Ukraine (KPU). Having inherited the Soviet Union’s ruling party’s name and symbols, KPU has pragmatically converted them into electoral dividends. For the past several years, the Communist Party has invariably joined in with the ruling coalitions and is directly associated with the ruling political system, with utter cynicism and the desire to cash in on its position of authority and power. To take advantage of the current situation, the Communist Party is contributing to the discredit of the very idea of communism associated, as it easily can be, with forced collectivisation, ethnic cleansing and man-made famine. The KPU’s calls to erect monuments to Stalin in Kiev and other cities have become a tradition of the party. The Communist Party’s participation in the socio-economic protests is significantly lower than that of Svoboda.

The vacuum on the left makes it possible for Svoboda to aspire to the status and role of the sole social force radically raising the issues of economic inequality and social injustice. Thus, all the dividends from the acute discontent with the political system, the government and the overall situation in the country go to Ukraine’s right-wing radicals.

Source: Transform! European journal for alternetive thinking and political dialogue


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