The problem in Ukraine isn’t Svoboda, it’s Yanukovych: a reply to Ivan Katchanovksi

Many Ukraine observers have identified the far-right Svoboda party as the key source of racial conflict in the country. This represents a misunderstanding of Ukraine’s fake politics, its divisive president and the real far-right thugs of the Party of Regions, argues Taras Kuzio.

Western scholars such as Ivan Katchanovski [see his article published on openDemocracy, 21 March] are wrong to focus on the far-right Svoboda (‘Freedom’) party as a new and significant threat to Ukraine’s democracy. I say this for three reasons.

First, Svoboda’s popularity has not grown – and indeed in some recent polls has declined – since the neo-Soviet and pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych was elected president in 2010. Contrary to Katchanovski's analysis, Svoboda is unlikely to cross the 5 percent threshold in October’s parliamentary elections, and even if Svoboda members are elected, it will only be in single mandate districts [rather than via nationwide proportional representation]. Western Ukrainian ethnic nationalism is weak, and support for Svoboda has remained comparably low compared to that for nationalist and populist groups in Europe and Eurasia.

'Svoboda’s main raison d’etre is as an artificial scarecrow designed to direct votes away from bona fide democratic parties and to mobilise eastern Ukrainian, Russian-speaking voters against the virtual "nationalist bogeyman".'

Second, neo-Soviet and Russian nationalism is a far bigger threat to Ukraine’s democratic system and European integration than ethnic Ukrainian nationalism. Victor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions is a much more violent, anti-democratic and corrupt political machine than Svoboda could ever be.

Third, Svoboda’s main raison d’etre is as an artificial scarecrow designed to direct votes away from bona fide ‘orange’ democratic parties, and to mobilise eastern Ukrainian, Russophone voters against the virtual ‘nationalist bogeyman’. There are grounds to suggest that the Party of Regions has had a direct role funding Svoboda (though as financing of all parties is not transparent in Ukraine, there is no ‘smoking gun’ here).

Pro-Russian and anti-Russian Ukrainian 'nationalists' come into conflict at a November 2011 march in Kyiv. The western Ukrainian nationalists of Svoboda generate more attention, but are the thugs of neo-Soviet President Yanukovych more dangerous? (Photo: Sergii Kharchenko / Demotix, all rights reserved)

Many western scholars and journalists view nationalism in Ukraine as a sentiment held only by ethnic Ukrainians and a dominant political force only in the west of the country. The truth is different. The outward manifestations associated with nationalism – anti-democratic culture, racial intolerance, anti-Semitism and xenophobia – are more of a problem in eastern and southern Ukraine and Crimea than in western Ukraine. Leaked US embassy cables reported that neo-nazis are most active in the regions of Kyiv, Kharkiv, Kherson, Sumy, Donetsk, Dnipropetrovsk, Vinnytsia, Odesa, and Zhytomyr, most of which are in the east of the country.

According to a recent survey by the Razumkov Ukrainian Centre for Economic and Political Studies, western Ukrainians are also slightly more likely than their eastern neighbours to protest against racial and ethnic discrimination (3.9 percent against 3.3 percent). Both in opposition and in power since the 2010 elections, when it took control of parliament and the presidency, The Party of Regions has represented by far the most aggressive and violent political force in Ukraine. This is evident from the violence it has meted out inside and outside parliament against opposition parliamentary deputies and journalists, and from its campaign of political repression against former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, cabinet members in her 2007-2010 government and Batkivshchina (‘Fatherland’), the party she leads.

In the 2004 elections the Yanukovych campaign conducted a strategy of electoral fraud and ‘directed chaos’, whichcame perilously close to driving the country towards civil war. A leaked strategy document from the Yanukovych election campaign outlined plans to escalate conflict ‘along each of the main lines of division – Galicia [West] vs East and South; West (USA, Europe) vs Russia; Russian language, threat of rising extremism and so on’. The Yanukovych campaign looked to organise movements in eastern Ukraine that would oppose the coming to power of Yushchenko, who was described as a ‘reactionary, pro-American, radically-oriented’ candidate. True to their intent, the 2004 Yanukovych campaign mobilised latent anti-American feelings against Yushchenko and his Ukrainian-American wife.

'A leaked strategy document from the Yanukovych election campaign outlined plans to escalate conflict "along each of the main lines of division – Galicia [West] vs East and South; West (USA, Europe) vs Russia; Russian language, threat of rising extremism and so on".'

Since the 2006 elections, the Party of Regions has also been in alliance with Russian nationalists in Crimea and they have jointly formed a movement called ‘For Yanukovych!’. The current Crimean Prime Minister, Anatoliy Mogilyov, is parlicularly well known for his xenophobic attitudes. Writing in the local paper, Krymskaya Pravda, he penned words of support for Stalin’s ethnic cleansing of the Crimean Tatars in the 1940s, subscribing to Stalin’s justification that they were ‘Nazi collaborators’. These are not isolated views, but racial prejudices are regularly fanned by Krymskaya Pravda and other media outlets in the region. Over on ‘Inter’, a television channel owned by oligarch and First Deputy Prime Minister Valeriy Khoroshkovsky, controversial anchor Yuriy Pershykov, also from Crimea, continues a long record of xenophobic anti-Tatar reports. And former Crimean Parliamentary Chairperson Anatoliy Hrytsenko told US Ambassador Taylor that Crimean Tatars ‘betrayed’ the USSR in World War II and that ‘a majority of Crimea’s inhabitants view Tatars as traitors’.

Far from being limited to western Ukraine, xenophobia and national chauvinism is perhaps even more widespread in Russian-speaking eastern and southern Ukraine. In Crimea, for example, it is acceptable for the local media to print stories vindicating Stalin's decision to deport the Crimean Tatars. (Photo: Andrew Lubimov / Demotix, all rights reserved)

The Party of Regions has a long history of using nationalism to its political advantage. In 2001, then-President Kuchma’s regime used neo-nazi skinheads in attacks against the opposition. We also know from the 'Melnychenko tapes' — secret recordings made by in Kuchma’s office by presidential guard Mykola Melnychenko — that the ex-President was both an anti-Semite and a xenophobe. In these tapes, Kuchma is heard in conversation with current Prime Minister Mykola Azarov about Ukrainian-Jewish oligarch Heorhiy Surkis. ‘Fuck’, says Kuchma, ‘why do we need a fucking Jew?’ In another recorded episode, Azarov asks President Kuchma to approve an illegal scheme in which he could trade his 50 square metre apartment in Kyiv for an apartment three times the size in a more desirable building, with the eviction of a Jewish family occupying the larger apartment. Playing on Kuchma’s anti-Semitism, Azarov says: ‘Well, the Jews would have to be taken out…’ President Kuchma grants Azarov his blessing to throw the Jews out and occupy the apartment.

It is certainly true that Ukrainian anti-Semitism draws on two political traditions. On the one hand, it does indeed stem from nationalism in western Ukraine. Yet the overwhelming majority of instances of racism, xenophobia and anti-Semitism in Ukraine come from Eurasian nationalism and neo-Soviet anti-Zionism in eastern Ukraine, where the Party of Regions holds on to a monopoly of power.

Contemporary anti-Semitism in Ukraine, Belarus and Russia draws on a long history of Soviet campaigns against ‘Zionism’. In 1963, Trofim Kichko's book entitled Judaism without Embellishments was published by the Soviet Ukrainian Academy of Sciences; four years later, a propaganda campaign, railing against so-called ‘cosmopolitanism’ and ‘Talmudism’, linked Zionism with Nazism. Anti-Zionism was synonymous with anti-Semitism. Today, Belarusian President Lukashenka, whose regime’s ideology is Soviet Belarusian nationalism, continues to propagate anti-Zionist propaganda.

Eastern Ukrainian antagonism to ‘Ukrainian nationalism’ and Ukrainian national identity in turn draws on a Soviet legacy of ‘anti-nationalist’ tirades against World War II Ukrainian nationalists, dissidents and émigrés. The belittling of the Ukrainian language and culture has traditionally been undertaken alongside anti-Tatar and anti-Muslim stereotypes. Mykhaylo Bakharev, editor of the popular Krymskaya Pravda newspaper, has repeatedly said there is no Ukrainian language as it is an ‘artificial language’ spoken by the uneducated strata of society, invented by the nineteenth-century bard Taras Shevchenko and others. Bakharev believes no Ukrainian nation exists and that the Ukrainian state has no future.

As a final point of comparison, there have been two Ukrainian activists murdered by Russian nationalists, composer Ihor Bilozir in Lviv on 8 May 2000 and Odesa State University student and member of the patriotic youth movement Sich Maksym Chaika in Odesa on 17 April 2009. By contrast, no pro-Russian nationalist or activist has died at the hands of Ukrainian nationalists in post-Soviet Ukraine.

Svoboda has attracted more attention in the West than the Party of Regions and other pro-Russian and neo-Soviet nationalist groups in eastern and southern Ukraine, whose threat to Ukraine’s democracy, inter-ethnic accord and European integration is far greater. Ivan Katchanovski is right to criticise cooperation between democratic opposition parties and Svoboda, but this point alone should not distract our primary attention from the primary source of trouble – President Yanukovich and his neo-Soviet nationalist cohorts.

Taras Kuzio was a signatory to an open letter condemning Svoboda. See http://www.day.kiev.ua/226447

About the author

Taras Kuzio is Research Associate, Centre for Political and Regional Studies, Canadian Institute for Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta and Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations, School of Advanced International Relations at Johns Hopkins University