Kiev's Next Image Problem: The Rise of the Far Right
Would Ukraine be more at home in the Russian Federation rather than the European Union?
- For a country as fragile as Ukraine, a prominent ultra-nationalist party in parliament would be a dangerous development.
- "Svoboda" is a racist party that promotes explicitly ethnocentric and anti-Semitic ideas and has adopted a strict anti-immigration stance.
- The SNPU's symbol was the so-called Wolfsangel (wolf's hinge) once used by the SS Division "Das Reich."
- A consensus seems to be gaining hold among many Ukraine watchers that Yanukovych may have been the wrong choice as a leader for this unconsolidated post-Soviet state.
- The new president and government of Ukraine have done considerable damage to the international achievements of the Orange Revolution and have harmed Ukraine's reputation within Europe.
Today, the prospect of Ukraine's rapprochement with, and future entry into, the EU constitutes perhaps the most important political idea in this divided country. It is a goal that still unites almost the entire Ukrainian elite, and it is one of the few political topics on which large portions of Ukraine's population basically agree.
Moreover, the course and results of the 2004 Orange Revolution have created an image of Ukraine that sets this post-Soviet republic apart from other successor states of the USSR. It was an event signaling Ukrainians' willingness to permanently break with their authoritarian past.
To be sure, Kiev's reputation in the West has, because of the post-revolutionary self-destruction and chaotic governance of the Orange camp, remained ambivalent. Nevertheless, the push that Ukraine's democratization has received from the Orange Revolution remains a considerable international public relations asset for this young nation state.
The spread in Europe of the idea that the Ukrainians are a pro-democratic people was documented by, among other reactions, the European Parliament's February 2010 resolution explicitly endorsing an EU membership perspective for Ukraine.
The 2004 mass action of civil disobedience as well as the relatively free and fair national elections of 2006, 2007 and 2010 have, in the perception of many West European political and intellectual leaders, left a picture of Ukraine as a troubled yet integral part of Europe.
However, during the last few months, the new president and government of Ukraine have done considerable damage to the international achievements of the Orange Revolution and have harmed Ukraine's reputation within Europe.
Their heavy-handed approach towards political opponents, free-thinking journalists, unsuspecting academics and representatives of foreign organizations is raising more and more eyebrows in the West.
In particular, the dubious procedure with which, in spring 2010, the government of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov was brought to power has raised questions about the democratic allegiances and European aspirations of the new rulers in Kiev.
More and more Western observers today may ask themselves: Is Ukraine, contrary to what the events of 2004 suggested, just a smaller version of Russia? Does Ukraine really want to become a full member of NATO and the EU? And, if Yanukovych is creating a political system similar to Putin's, should Ukraine perhaps enter the Russian Federation rather than the EU?
In early 2010, a large portion of Ukraine's Western observers looked with hope and optimism to the change of power in Kiev. Today, by contrast, a consensus seems to be gaining hold among many Ukraine watchers that Yanukovych may have been the wrong choice as a leader for this unconsolidated post-Soviet state.
The constant flow of bad news on Ukrainian democracy, civil society, mass media and rule of law has made even radical critics of Yulia Tymoshenko rethink their previous assessments. Yanukovych's authoritarian regressions have become widely noted not only in the Ukrainian opposition, press and diaspora but also by EU governments, parliaments, parties, newspapers and think-tanks.
However, another emerging problem for Ukraine's future international reputation is the recent rise of the right-wing All-Ukrainian Association "Svoboda" (Freedom) of Oleh Tiahnybok, a physician and lawyer from the East Galician city of Lviv. His ultra-nationalist party grew out of the clearly fascist Social-National Party of Ukraine (SNPU).
The SNPU's name was deliberately made reminiscent of the National Socialist German Workers Party — also known as the Nazis. Its symbol was the so-called Wolfsangel (wolf's hinge) once used by the SS Division "Das Reich," which today is popular among various European neo-Nazi groups.
In 2004, the Social-National Party renamed itself "Svoboda" and abandoned the Wolfsangel. While "Svoboda" remained explicitly nationalistic, it has toned down its revolutionary rhetoric in recent years. Its leadership includes a number of articulate intellectuals who, along with Tiahnybok, have recently become regular guests on Ukrainian TV shows and sought-after interviewees for authors of many Kiev periodicals.
As a result, "Svoboda's" popularity, especially in Western Ukraine, has steadily grown in the last year. It seems likely that "Svoboda" will have a faction in the next Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council), Ukraine's national legislature.
That will mean additional damage for Kiev's already-dented reputation in the West. "Svoboda" is a racist party that promotes explicitly ethnocentric and anti-Semitic ideas and has adopted a strict anti-immigration stance.
It glorifies Stepan Bandera's 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 anti-Western, anti-liberal and anti-EU. It belongs to a radical right-wing pan-European party association that also includes France's National Front, The Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik) and the British National Party.
"Svoboda" is a phenomenon not untypical in 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, for a country as fragile as Ukraine, a prominent ultra-nationalist party in parliament would be a dangerous development.
"Svoboda" would, as a Verkhovna Rada faction, further estrange many East and South Ukrainians as well as a number of international partners from the Ukrainian state. "Svoboda's" presence in the national legislature would undermine the development of a Ukrainian political nation and of a transregional, pan-ethnic patriotism.
Public opinion in countries like Poland, Israel and Germany would become less amenable to the concept of Ukraine as a European nation. The entry of the Galician ultra-nationalists into Ukraine's political establishment would also be a source of tension between Kiev and Brussels.
It would thus, oddly, make Ukraine more vulnerable with regards 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 Europe's largest country.