Ukraine: the far-right in parliament for the first time

The Parliamentary election in Ukraine has, as expected, returned President Yanukovych’s Party of Regions to power. It has also had one less predicted result: the first election to the country’s parliament of MPs from the ultra nationalist far-right. Anton Shekhovtsov looks at the rise of ‘Svoboda’ (Freedom). Photo: RIA NOVOSTI Agency

A startling 10% of the vote

Since Ukraine became an independent state in 1991, no far-right party – in contrast to those in many post-socialist European countries – has ever succeeded in having members elected to parliament through the party-list system, although a few ultranationalists from various far-right parties have been elected in single-member constituencies. Their numbers, however, have never been sufficient to form their own parliamentary faction, and they have always allied themselves with other, mostly national-democratic, groups. Now Oleh Tyahnybok’s All-Ukrainian Union ‘Freedom’ (Svoboda), which has won a startling 10% of the vote, is ideally positioned to enter Ukrainian political history as the first far-right parliamentary faction.

'The 2009 regional election in the Ternopil oblast was a watershed for Svoboda: it finished in first place with 34.69% of the vote. In 2010 it gained seats in seven more regional councils in the west and centre of the country, and three regional councils are now headed by members of Svoboda.'

Established in 1991 under the name Social-National Party of Ukraine (and switching to its present name in 2004 on the advice of the French National Front), Svoboda polled badly in elections before 2009. It won a miserable 0.36% of the vote in the 2006 parliamentary election, and an equally poor 0.76% in 2007. The 2009 regional election in the Ternopil oblast, however, was a watershed for Svoboda: it finished in first place with 34.69% of the vote. And although the party failed to repeat this astounding result in the 2010 regional elections, it nevertheless gained seats in seven more regional councils in the west and centre of the country, and three regional councils are now headed by members of Svoboda.

Svoboda’s rise since the early elections in Ternopil oblast has been no accident. The two once allied ‘Orange’ national-democratic parties that finished first and second in the 2006 elections in this oblast – the Bloc of Yulia Tymoshenko (BYuT) and Our Ukraine (OU) – had become bitter enemies by 2009. The rise in support for Svoboda in that year took place at their expense: the BYuT finished fourth, while the OU finished sixth.

This development did not go unnoticed by the ‘anti-Orange’ Party of Regions (PoR). After PoR’s then leader Viktor Yanukovych defeated Yulia Tymoshenko in the second round of the presidential elections in February 2010 and its present leader Mykola Azarov was elected Prime Minister in March that year, Svoboda started enjoying massive promotion on TV channels either directly or indirectly controlled by the government (Inter, First National and Ukraina). The PoR’s calculation was clear: despite Svoboda’s forceful criticism of the government and President, its electoral rise was damaging for the PoR’s main political adversary, Tymoshenko, and her political force (even though support for Svoboda was confined largely to western and central Ukraine, while Tymoshenko was equally popular across the whole country).

'Svoboda, in contrast to Tymoshenko’s party, was considered an easy ‘sparring partner’ as its ultranationalism and racism could provide grounds for banning the party any time the government wanted.'

Last, but not least, Svoboda, in contrast to Tymoshenko’s party, was considered an easy ‘sparring partner’ as its ultranationalism and racism could provide grounds for banning the party any time the government wanted. Public opinion polls showed that, from 2010 onwards, the number of Ukrainians who did not recognise the name of Svoboda’s leader Tyahnybok decreased, while the number of respondents who supported him increased. Although the number of Tyahnybok’s opponents also grew, the PoR’s political strategy of covert promotion – and, hence, public legitimisation – of Svoboda on popular TV channels seemed to work. 

To minimise this damage to themselves and increase their own support, the national-democratic forces opposed to President Yanukovych and Azarov’s government decided to engage Svoboda in the workings of the Committee against Dictatorship, originally formed in 2011 to protest against Tymoshenko’s criminal conviction. Svoboda agreed to join the Committee and to work with the United Opposition coalition, led by Tymoshenko’s All-Ukrainian Union “Fatherland” and Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s “Front for Change”, in parliament, should the forces of the right win an election. Here, apparently, the PoR’s strategy started working against itself, as further, though still covert, promotion of the far right – reinforced by Svoboda’s open cooperation with moderate national-democratic forces – now played into the hands of the anti-PoR coalition.

Where has Svoboda’s support come from?

One reason for Svoboda’s stunning electoral results has been allegedly un-patriotic government policies (for example the adoption of a controversial law granting official status to the Russian language in regions where it is predominantly spoken) that have triggered wider support for the ‘patriotic’ far right. There are, however, at least four other important factors to consider.

Firstly, a large part of the Ukrainian public seems to be fed up with the current political elite. This is a major element in the current success of Vitali Klychko’s Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR). The reigning WBC heavyweight boxing champion, Klychko is still a new face in Ukrainian politics, and – in contrast to many members of parliament, both in the PoR-led majority and the opposition – has ‘kept his hands clean’. The same applies to Tyahnybok, who despite two parliamentary terms (1998-2002 and 2002-2006), is also seen as a new face in politics. There is a widespread belief among Ukrainians that new people will bring new policies, and both Tyahnybok’s Svoboda and Klychko’s UDAR have taken advantage of this belief.

Secondly, since the 2007 parliamentary election Svoboda has been in the privileged position of being the only active far-right party in Ukraine. As such, it has become the focus for nationalist and ultranationalist voters whose vote was previously spread among a number of far-right parties or even the moderate nationalist Our Ukraine once led by Viktor Yushchenko. Former leaders of various  radical right parties and blocs – for example, Roman Koval, head of the now defunct “State Independence of Ukraine” or Levko Lukyanenko, number one on the National Front electoral bloc list in 1998 – have publicly endorsed Svoboda as virtually the only ‘patriotic’ party. Moreover, Svoboda has managed to appeal to many prominent figures in Ukrainian intellectual and cultural life. Moreover, as well as receiving support from smaller fascist social movements like the Autonomous Resistance or Social-National Assembly, Svoboda has also secured approval from many former members of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army that fought for Ukraine’s independence in 1943-1954. In other words, one far-right party has managed to consolidate the nationalist vote – an unprecedented development in Ukraine.

'Since the 2007 parliamentary election Svoboda has been the only active far-right party in Ukraine. As such, it has become the focus for nationalist and ultranationalist voters whose vote was previously spread among a number of far-right parties.'

Thirdly, Svoboda remains one of the most active political groups to take part in street rallies and protests organised around social issues. According to the Centre for Society Research, which monitors protest activities in Ukraine, Svoboda has participated in around one third of all protest rallies in Ukraine since the end of 2011. This strategy has obviously proved its effectiveness in not only increasing the party’s public visibility and helping attract prospective voters, but it has also allowed Svoboda to distract the public’s attention away from its intrinsic ultranationalism, unacceptable to the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine, and towards largely populist slogans on urgent social and cultural problems that might appeal to a wider Ukrainian public.

The return of ideology

Fourthly, the 2012 parliamentary election has been notable for the return of ‘ideology’. There has been some kind of consensus among many ostensibly liberal and politically active young Ukrainians that Svoboda is the only major party with a genuine political programme guided by an ideology to which the party’s leaders and activists have a long-standing adherence. Just as they are tired of the current political elite, Ukrainian voters seem to be fed up with the indistinct philosophies of big, catch-all parties such as the PoR and ‘Fatherland’. Paradoxically, several Ukrainian journalists working for allegedly pro-democratic publications have openly articulated their support for Svoboda for this very reason. These journalists claim to reject Svoboda’s racism, but see the fact of its being apparently rooted in ideology as of paramount importance. Hence the unexpected support received by the far right from a large number of liberal and pro-democratic political and social commentators, who have further legitimised Svoboda as an emphatically political organisation worthy of their vote. In the stifling atmosphere of catch-all parties’ obscure positions, the very fact that one party has a well-defined and articulate ideology (no matter what underpins this ideology) has appealed to many Ukrainian voters.

‘Just as they are tired of the current political elite, Ukrainian voters seem to be fed up with the indistinct philosophies of big, catch-all parties such as the PoR and ‘Fatherland.’

It is still too early to speculate how Svoboda will behave in parliament and what the far right’s political future may be. Close cooperation with national democrats may result in an ideological drift towards a less radical nationalism. If this happens, it will no longer be considered a rock solid political force and it will lose a huge chunk of its current support and most likely suffer a split between moderate and radical factions (Svoboda has always been ideologically heterogeneous). On the other hand, if Svoboda remains as radical as it is now, it will run into an unwillingness to cooperate on its more bizarre political projects from ‘Fatherland’ and UDAR, who will not risk alienating their largely non-radical voters. This scenario will probably lead to the estrangement and disengagement of the far right from the national-democrats, and, therefore, the fragmentation of opposition to the PoR and President Yanukovych.

About the author

Anton Shekhovtsov is PhD student at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies and European Fellow of the Radicalism and New Media Research Group. He is also editor of the "Explorations of the Far Right" book series at ibidem-Verlag.

Read On

Current Politics In Ukraine, blog

Kyiv Post, English-language newspaper

Ukrainian News Agency, website

Human Rights in Ukraine, Information website of the Kharkiv Human Rigths Protection Group

History of Ukraine, by Paul Robert Magocsi, University of Toronto Press Incorporated, 1996

Borderland: A Journey through the History of Ukraine, by Anna Reid, Basic Books; New edition 2000, 272 pages

Andrew Wilson: Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, Yale University Press 2005

What's left of Orange Ukraine?, by Mykola Riabchuk, Eurozine, March 4, 2010