The following was written during my study abroad program with KROK University through SRAS and NovaMova. It is written as a policy brief.
6 May 2014
Policy Brief: The Post Euromaidan EU Approach to the Ukrainian Far-Right
The political situation in Ukraine has dramatically changed after the ouster of Yanukovich. This requires a re-evaluation of the European Union's approach towards the new government – particularly, if radical elements are truly increasing in strength. The dominant dialogue from the Russian government has been to accuse the interim Ukrainian government as being composed of, in President Putin's words, “Nationalists, neo-Nazis, russophobes and anti-Semites”.
While the Euromaidan movement initially began in response to the refusal of the Yanukovich government to sign the European Association agreement, it later evolved into a much more multifaceted movement discontent with the corruption and unaccountability of the government. Other groups that did not necessarily support EU affiliation joined in, and the movement became much larger. The idea that these far-right groups, whose views are fundamentally incompatible with European Union ideals, are puppets of the EU is patently absurd.
During the initial period, Russian media criticized the Euromaidan movement of being composed of the far-left, rather than the far-right, even calling it “Gayeuromaidan”. When this tactic failed, and when groups affiliated with the Right Sector name entered the protests, the Russian media and government quickly changed tactics. The resulting information war has reinvigorated fears of the Ukrainian far-right, but how accurate these fears are is debatable.
The truth of the matter is that Euromaidan was not “co-opted” by “fascists” per se, even at the height of the nationalist involvement. Although Svoboda played a significant role, along with Right Sector affiliated groups manning barricades, many of those affiliated with either movement do not actually support the more extreme sentiments of their respective affiliations.
Furthermore, Euromaidan was an incredibly diverse movement, composed of groups from all across the political spectrum. Far-left anarchists, even from Russia, came to assist their Ukrainian left-wing allies. Pro-European youth movements initiated the protests, protected by veterans of the Soviet-Afghan War. Feminist and LGBT groups became paramilitary groups putting up barricade. And, as uncomfortable as it to admit, nationalist elements did play a significant although by no means majority role in Euromaidan. This was a unified movement against Yanukovich.
Now with Yanukovich gone, the right-wing party Svoboda temporary holds a handful of executive positions in the interim government – which, even in countries such as Greece, the far-right has not held executive positions. The European Union has a desire to take Ukraine as a member, and Ukraine is seemingly on this path. Neither Svoboda nor Right Sector has supported this idea, instead being further focused on the idea of a culturally and economically independent Ukraine – something that is not likely to happen.
However, both Svoboda and Right Sector are much more against Russian influence than European – contrariwise to far-right groups in EU member states. Still, the European Union has no greater existential threat than the far-right. Far-right and fascist affiliated parties regularly earn around 4 to 10% of the vote in several EU member states, such as the NDP in Germany and Golden Dawn in Greece. Therefore, the strength and influence of the far-right in Ukraine must be assessed. In addition, the history of the movement deserves examination.
What has been the past and what will be the future roles of the far-right in Ukraine, and how should the European Union respond?
Populism and Nationalism, questionable Fascism
Officially, Svoboda's positions are presently not to the far-right. Despite this, rhetoric and symbolism is not necessarily in line with its official positions. Although initially much more extreme, Svoboda has made efforts at “mainstreaming” in recent years. Svoboda was originally known as the Social-National Party of Ukraine, and was particularly opposed to communist ideology during the 1990s. Its growth is most likely due to being a new “opposition party”, one that was allowed to exist with a fair amount of impunity as Yanukovich clamped down on democracy, particularly with the more centrist parties.
Although perhaps not “controlled opposition”, Svoboda's support flourished. It was a convenient excuse for Yanukovich: the question of who would people prefer, his government or the “hooligans” of Svoboda? Now, without Yanukovich, some of its support can be expected to wane with more moderate voices, and the release of Tymoshenko and her Fatherland Party's influence returning.
Symbolically, Svoboda's use of the wolfsangel has been a source of controversy. Svoboda typically makes two claims about the symbol: one, is that it is a historically Ukrainian symbol. The other is that it stands for the “Idea-Nation” (Idea-Natsii) concept of a Ukrainian ethnocracy. Nevertheless, although the symbol bears artificial similarity to the Norse eihwaz rune and was often used in medieval – primarily German – coats of arms, it was most recently used by units of the Waffen SS and the failed Nazi Werwulf insurgency.
Anecdotal evidence through interviews in Maidan before Yanukovich's ultimate ousting revealed that some Ukrainians readily reject the association of the symbol with neo-Nazism, even if they are not supporters of Svoboda.
Although Svoboda officially dropped the symbol, altogether uncommon to see it spraypainted in Kyiv or Odesa, along with being worn as an armband by Euromaidan protestors. This may be because a small group known as the Patriots of Ukraine, which ended affiliation with Svoboda in 2007 but is now affiliated with the Right Sector movement, also uses the logo.
In addition, anti-Semitic rhetoric from the early years has continuously haunted Svoboda's image, despite a lack of evidence of anti-Jewish attacks or violence, although it does not take much for rhetoric to escalate into action. Svoboda leader Oleh Tyahnybok once said that Kyiv was governed by a “Jewish-Russian mafia”, and the European Parliament has censured Svoboda as recently as 2012, condemning them as “racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic.” In addition, the EU Parliament warned “pro-Democratic parties... not to associate with, endorse or form coalitions with this party.”
Nevertheless, there are reports of IDF veterans working with Svoboda in Euromaidan, such as the “Blue Helmets” organization. Furthermore, although the international Jewish community has typically censured Svoboda or criticized it, the domestic feeling by the Jewish community is significantly different – they certainly do not embrace Svoboda, but nor do they fear them as an impending oppressor.
Svoboda's actual positions seem much closer to populism than open fascism. A brief glance through their website reveals no further fascistic symbolism, and their issued statements revolve around Ukrainian independence from both European and Russian influence, along with “middle class issues.”
Even some informal statements echo the old “Idea Nation” concept with an idea of a Ukrainian ethnocracy, similar – in their idea – to Israel. Even according to Oleksander Aronets, who recently filmed the beating of a TV network worker by Svoboda members for showing the Moscow celebrations relevant to Crimea, “They [the Jews] had a Holocaust, we had a holodomor” – speaking about Stalin’s forced starvation of millions of Ukrainians. “They were without their own country. And then when they formed a country, Israel… They brought back their own language. We have problems [maintaining] our language. They brought back their laws, their traditions.”
Although they have significant connections to other European far-right parties, they do not openly display the neo-Nazi extremism that certain elements of the much smaller and much less organized Right Sector does. Although there are not readily available statistics, interviews show that many Svoboda members are not in agreement with some of the harsher rhetoric, nor often times some of Svoboda's positions.
Furthermore, Svoboda's influence is greatly exaggerated. For example, in the 2012 parliament elections, they won 10% of the vote. Furthermore, they have joined with the much more supported Batkivshchyna and UDAR parties as part of a coalition. Still, the presence of a handful of Svoboda members in the interim executive, widely controversial, is not indicative of their future influence, and most signs point to the party slowly becoming less neofascistic, although retaining nationalist roots.
Right Sector – A Banner, not an Organization:
Right Sector has recently usurped Svoboda's position as an extreme-right movement in the minds and eyes of many. The question that is rarely asked and even rarer answered is: who is Right Sector? Right Sector's influence at Maidan was estimated to only be around 2,500 members, although Right Sector claims 5,000 to 10,000. Even at Maidan, statistically their influence was marginal the total number of people at Maidan regularly was between 400,000 and 800,000. In addition, left-wing groups easily dwarfed Right Sector's presence in terms of members.
"The Right Sector is marginal," according to Andreas Umland, assistant professor of European studies at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy, who studies nationalist groups. "It's an umbrella organization of extra parliamentary lunatic fringe groups that has now come to this big prominence largely because of the media... Its importance is certainly overstated."
However, it is Right Sector's organization that is the source of its strength. Right Sector manned many of the barricades at Maidan, providing almost paramilitary security. Still Right Sector, until after Yanukovich's ousting, had virtually no “official” political presence, although a party has recently been formed by the same name. It is much too early to determine the relevance of such a party. Although the violence of Right Sector affiliates should not be understated, they too are insignificant in the “bigger picture” of the political landscape.
Right Sector is viewed by many western analysts as a more fascistic, more radical counterpart to Svoboda. However, Right Sector's “leader”, Dmytro Yarosh, who also leads the Right Sector affiliated group “Trident of Stepan Bandera” denies this, saying instead that Right Sector is undoubtedly nationalist but not racist, and that Svoboda is far more intolerant. Yarosh even met with Israeli ambassador Reuven Din El, stating that he was not a supporter of antisemitism.
Later, Right Sector ousted the “White Hammer” movement from its banner for its neo-fascist leanings. Yarosh also told the “Pravda” news paper that, despite sharing some political beliefs with other far-right parties, he did not share in their racism – including that, allegedly, of Svoboda.
Statement of Interest:
As aforementioned, the European Union has no greater internal political-existential threat than the far-right. Even without the presence of a radical right-wing, Ukraine has a difficult road ahead of it in order to meet the standards necessary to one day become a European Union member. Even not considering membership, the situation requires monitoring from a human rights standpoint.
The right-wing must be watched, monitored, and radical policies either censured or punished. However, policy recommendations must be made with the realistic understanding of the political climate. Svoboda, and even Right Sector, are not the same as Greece's Golden Dawn. Bringing the conservative Ukrainian zeitgeist closer to European values must be done cautiously, as to not aggravate and increase the influence of the far-right.
Isolation and Censuring
The European Union has previously approached both Right Sector and Svoboda with a policy of marginalization; that is to say, officials have often issued censuring statements and excluded them from particular organizations, as recently as 2012. In cases of the far-right parties of European Union member states, the policy has been similar; however, often times the governments of those countries have tried to repress the far-right with varying degrees of success, such as the German government's attempts at banning the NDP.
During Euromaidan, the European Union did not make particular statements for or against the right-wing in Ukraine. This was perhaps to avoid lending credence to the anti-Euromaidan arguments poised by the Russian government, and because the situation was rapidly changing on the ground.
Return to Isolation
Continue the policy of marginalization of the far-right, including Svoboda. Work with the Ukrainian government to actively oppose them in a democratic fashion.
1. Follows similar trends in EU member states.
2. Shows that the EU is opposed to the far-right.
3. Works against the Russian argument that the new Ukrainian government is dominated by the far-right.
1. Runs the risk of seeming “meddlesome.”
2. Could still be used by the Russian government as an example of a domineering EU.
3. Likely to actually encourage continued radicalization, rather than moderation.
Bide time – do not make “official” statements or take positions on Svoboda or Right Sector until further down the road. The interim government in Ukraine is still weak, and taking a role too early may further destabilize the situation.
1. Allows for more objectivity and neutrality for better analyzation.
2. Does not run the risk of inadvertently creating bigger problems.
1. Easily exploitable by Russian propaganda.
2. May make the EU seem “weak” on the far-right.
Recognize, if the trend holds, that Svoboda is evolving into a more moderate force. Also watch Right Sector as it too disassociates from the more neofascist groups associated with it.
1. Both organizations do seem to be on a path to moderation in “official” terms.
2. Rapprochement may actually accelerate their moderation.
1. Easily exploitable by Russian propaganda as a “far-right friendly EU.”
2. Rapprochement may strengthen them without moderation as a result.
3. Despite the apparent track to moderation, neither Svoboda nor Right Sector are particularly friendly to the EU, and have close ties with other far-right parties and anti-EU parties such as the UK Independence Party.
A “carrots and sticks” approach incorporating elements of both censuring and rapprochement.
Svoboda and Right Sector both currently hold close ties to other far-right groups in the European political sphere. They cannot be ignored, but they also cannot be viewed in the same light as their counterparts – it may be an opportune time to influence Svoboda and Right Sector as well, given that their extremist counterparts in EU member states have often spoken in support of Putin. Certainly, their influence and extremity is exaggerated, but it exists.
Ukrainian nationalism, even Right Sector's “ethnocratic” ideas that are, in the long run, incompatible with certain European Union ideals. However, this is not to say that they are on the same level as the Golden Dawn movement in Greece.
Still, the European Union cannot sit idly by in the rapidly developing situation in Ukraine if human rights are being violated. It is important, however, that the European Union not act too hastily. The interim government in Ukraine cannot repeat the past mistakes of political oppression, but in the same token it cannot allow for violent antisemitism. Furthermore, the role the European Union can play is limited by both the tenuous political situation and the fact that Ukraine is not, as of yet, a member of the EU.
Ultimately, Svoboda and Right Sector are not the “cause” inasmuch as the symptoms. Neither are “puppet parties” although their activity may have been convenient at times for more powerful factions. Neither are they “merely” neo-fascist groups. They are symptoms: the result of an extreme version of the increasing desire for a Ukrainian identity, but manifested as right-wing and anti-liberal organizations. Although the symptoms merit treatment, the causes must also be addressed.
Danilova, Maria. “After Ukraine Protest, Radical Group Eyes Power.” Associated Press. 14 Mar. 2014. <http://bigstory.ap.org/article/after-ukraine-protest-radical-group-eyes-power>. 6 May 2014.
An article on the political ambitions of Dmytro Yarosh and Right Sector, along with its organization during Euromaidan, as well as Jews serving side by side with Right Sector. Furthermore, Andriy Tarasenko – a Right Sector spokesman – speaks out against the ideas of Right Sector being associated with neo-Nazism, although embraces the ethnocracy idea.
“Israeli Envoy Opens 'Hotline' with Ukrainian Ultra-Nationalist.” Haaretz. 7 Mar. 2014. <http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/1.578537>. 6 May. 2014.
This article references Svoboda's past use of anti-Semitic slurs, along with Dmitry Yarosh's meeting with Israeli ambassador Din El, and Yarosh's disavowal of racism.
Motyl, Alexander J. “Ukraine's Chief Rabbi Refutes Putin's Anti-Semitic Charges.” World Affairs Journal. 5 Mar. 2014. <http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/blog/alexander-j-motyl/ukraines-chief-rabbi-refutes-putins-anti-semitic-charges>. Accessed 6 May 2014.
Op-ed by Alexander Motyl, Rutgers University professor political science, on Rabbi Yaakov Dov Bleich accusing Russia of staging anti-Semitic provocations and the “Russians... blowing this way, way out of proportion” with regards to anti-Semitism by nationalist factions.
Motyl, Alexander J. “'Experts' On Ukraine.” World Affairs Journal. 5 Mar. 2014. <http://www.worldaffairsjournal.org/blog/alexander-j-motyl/experts-ukraine>. Accessed 6 May. 2014.
After criticizing other commentators, Motyl goes into extreme detail on Svoboda's more populist positions here, staying that despite the extreme right-wing nature of Right Sector and Svoboda that they are not neofascist and not “dominating” the post-Yanukovich government.
Olszanski, Tadeusz. “Svoboda Party – The New Phenomenon on the Ukrainian Right-Wing Scene.” The International Relations and Security Network: Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) Warsaw, Poland. 4 July 2011. <http://www.isn.ethz.ch/Digital-Library/Publications/Detail/?lng=en&id=137051>. 6 May. 2014.
This article describes the use of the wolfsangel by Svoboda, and the “Idea-Natsii” ethnocracy concept, along with the potential causes for Svoboda's growth, arguing against the idea of it as merely a “puppet party” or a neo-Nazi party.
“Open Letter of Ukrainian Jews to Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin.” 5 Mar. 2014. <http://maidantranslations.com/2014/03/05/open-letter-of-ukrainian-jews-to-russian-federation-president-vladimir-putin/>. 6 May 2014.
An open letter by various Jewish representatives to Putin stating the problem of “Fascism” is overblown, and even in the case of “Bandera followers” they do not show blatant xenophobia or anti-Semitism.
Stern, David. “Svoboda: The Rise of Ukraine's Ultra-Nationalists.” BBC News. 26 Dec. 2012. <http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20824693>. 6 May 2014.
A brief article describing the aftermath of the 2012 parliamentary elections, and the possible motivations for their support, including evidence of potential anti-Semitism along with denials by Svoboda members of anti-Semitism.
“Ukraine: Report From a Visit in Kiev in April 2014.” Tahrir-ICN. 30 Apr. 2014. <http://tahriricn.wordpress.com/2014/04/30/ukraine-report-from-a-visit-in-kiev-in-april-2014/>. 6 May 2014.
A collective news report from an anonymous anarchist who operated with left-wing groups in Maidan such as Left Oppositon, Student Direct Action, and Autonomous Workers' Union.
Umlaud, Andreas. “The Rise of the Radical Right in Ukraine.” KyivPost. 21 Oct. 2010. <https://www.kyivpost.com/opinion/op-ed/the-rise-of-the-radical-right-in-ukraine-87119.html?flavour=mobile>. 6 May. 2014.
A brief opinion piece describing the use of the wolfsangel by Svoboda, and its increasing trend towards moderacy.