Fear and loathing in Ukraine: a very “European” protest


A new type of mass mobilisation on the streets of Ukraine shows how society is being divided along lines all too familiar to EU citizens.


Oles Petik Denys Gorbach
1 April 2016

Discussing the far right in Ukraine is an uneasy, or should we say an all too easy, task for international commentators. Every manifestation of nationalist feelings, incident of hate speech, street violence, or usage of politically marked symbols is immediately advertised as further proof of the horrors of “the Kiev coup regime, with its racist and fascistic programmes” (the quote is, incidentally, taken from one of the readers’ comments at oDR) or explained away in the all-too-understanding manner of Maidan sympathisers opposing Russian imperialism.

In view of the impossibility to maintain a sober analytical perspective, many observers abstain from reporting and commenting on Ukrainian issues altogether. Indeed, the hysterical polemics between Putin’s fans and Maidan’s true believers is one reason why events of major significance in Ukraine are underreported or plainly ignored in serious western media. Contradictory facts are usually framed with regard to the military conflict and diplomatic talks, in which “Ukraine” (or the “Kyiv regime”) is perceived as a monolithic entity — be it a young democracy courageously fighting off the “hybrid war” or a “fascist neoliberal puppet of Washington masters”. 

Yet these events, which are too often glossed over in this manner, can actually say something important about what’s going on inside the country. 

In view of the impossibility to maintain a sober analytical perspective, many observers abstain from reporting and commenting on Ukrainian issues altogether

Two weeks ago, a mass protest took place in Yagotyn, a small town outside of Kyiv. Local residents, cheered on by activists from various far right groups, protested against the construction of a new temporary accommodation centre for refugees.

A week later, Lviv became the arena of intense public confrontation over an Equality Festival scheduled for 19-20 March. The church, the far right, the city council, the police, and passive yet hostile general public joined forces to prevent the event from taking place — they were outraged with the LGBT+ component of the festival’s programme. 

Far from being “another day in fascist Ukraine” or “one more vicious provocation of Russian secret services and lying media”, these events actually reveal a new trend that is developing today in Ukrainian society: as people learn how to come together for genuine and spontaneous mass protests, the far right is learning how to infuse these actions with their specific agenda and to lead them. 

Ukraine's PEGIDA

The government decided to build a facility for refugees on the location of an unfinished building site in Yagotyn outside Kyiv more than a decade ago, after Ukraine signed the 1951 UN Refugee Convention in 2002. 

Ukraine currently has two other refugee centers, in Odesa (since 2001) and the Transcarpathian region (since 2004), but the Yagotyn facility has not been put into operation for various reasons. Construction was resumed only in 2014 when the European Commission provided financing for the project. 

Now, it seems, any sensitive topic can be taken by Azov, Svoboda, or Right Sector and transformed into a rallying point

The first refugees were due to move in May 2016: single mothers, single kids, multi-child families, victims of violence and torture, and people that belong to other socially vulnerable categories across different countries, from Russia and Uzbekistan to Somalia and Afghanistan.

These plans have been agreed upon with the EU and are part of the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement Implementation Plan. Implementing these measures is necessary for the EU to advance visa liberalisation. 

yagotyn - azov.jpg

12 March: members of Azov's civilian wing protest against the housing of Syrian refugees in Yagotyn, Kyiv region. Source: vk.com/batalion.azov.But, unluckily, the refugee centre attracted the attention of sensation-seeking central media. Major media outlets in Ukraine have always been willing to disregard journalistic standards for the sake of a good audience share. Since 27 February, the country has seen a full-fledged media campaign against the refugee centre built up by all the major TV channels.

The basic argument goes like this: the government, urged by the EU, wants to bring “250 Syrian migrants with a dubious reputation” to a quiet provincial town, thus turning it into an epicentre of Islamic terrorism, street crime and “exotic diseases”. These talks of “Syrian invasion” are spliced with “relevant information” about terror acts and footage of anti-migrant rallies in Europe. 

This campaign reached its low point when two TV channels simultaneously staged “experiments” with hidden cameras: journalists masqueraded as “refugees”, clad in stereotypical “Muslim” attire and speaking with fake accents, asked local residents about accommodation at the refugee center. Needless to say, such “activist journalism” generates further anti-refugee hostility, which can be used in follow-up reports. 

Thus the media enter a vicious circle. The initial hostility towards refugees in Yagotyn was also generated by earlier media reports — specifically, the tendentious TV coverage of the refugee crisis in the EU and the “New Year events” in Cologne. As Maksym Butkevych, from the No Borders initiative, put it: “Neglecting professional standards, journalists plant ‘message bombs’ that trigger after a while, and then the media enjoys the consequences, planting mines for future use.” 

Whatever happens next, the right have gained some followers in the town, as well as some respect among wider audience

Another trope heavily exploited by the media is to oppose refugees to “our own Ukrainian people who need it much more”, such as internally displaced persons (IDPs) from Crimea and eastern regions or veterans of the ongoing military conflict in the east. 

Ironically, in everyday life, both groups often suffer the same kind of popular prejudice and hostility as refugees. IDPs are routinely discriminated against at their new places of living (including the argument that they receive too much help from the government, unlike the locals!), and veterans complain about shops and restaurants banning military men from their premises. But now we see them being chosen as the “right” kind of victims, who really deserve our compassion, as opposed to the undeserving and suspicious foreigners. 

Subsequently, the media hype around refugees in Yagotyn drew the attention of far right organisations, who then sent their emissaries to the town. Here, concerns first voiced in the media came to the fore time and again: the local hospital director’ warning against the danger of “exotic diseases”; the town council’s hurried and unanimous cancelling of its own decision to allocate land for the refugee centre; camouflaged men installed roadblocks and kept vigil against the “ISIS militants”. The State Migration Agency promised that no refugees would move in before the majority of the town agree to it. 

As officers of the agency and the UNHCR arrived at the public hearings to talk with the locals, an angry protest rally confronted them. The rally included roughly 100 activists, including representatives of far right organisations, such as Azov, Right Sector and Svoboda, who had come from Kyiv. Curiously, Right Sector even managed to bring a Swedish nationalist who authoritatively asserted that Swedes have become a minority in their own country, which was practically demolished by the influx of migrants.

The protesters hurled eggs at official vehicles and UN officials after they were forced to leave the “hearings”. Whatever happens next, the right have gained some followers in the town, as well as some respect among wider audience. They have been talking about the “migration problem” for years as the issue used to be marginal — but now they are being proved correct. All of this happens in an average town, which doesn't have a prior history of ethnic conflicts or far right activism.

Christians in balaklavas

Meanwhile, western Ukraine has also become the scene of another story about far right street mobilization. Lviv, the largest city of western Ukraine and a major tourist centre, was supposed to host the Equality Festival, a series of events organised by Insight, an LGBT+ NGO. 

Over several days, participants of the festival were to attend film screenings and discussions about the problems of various minorities (including IDPs or disabled persons). Previously the festival had been organised several times in Kyiv without significant problems, but this time the information about the forthcoming event reached local church circles.

Alternative locations turned out to be suddenly unavailable as well. Private security firms were also reluctant to help the activists

Local priests issued statements asking the city mayor to ban this alleged conclave of sinners, which had been cynically scheduled for the first week of the Lent. In this statement, the local Metropolitan asserted, that “the sin of homosexuality is equal to murder in terms of gravity”. A special petition, as well as the statements of the church officials, gained nation-wide prominence, and a small-scale routine event turned into the matter of principle for a large part of the population. 

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20 March: Police scramble to intercept far right activists' attempt to shut down Equality Festival in Lviv. Source: hromadske.tv. At a city council session, a representative of the far right vowed to prevent the gathering by all means necessary. The authorities informally advised the hotel where the conference was to take place against hosting it. The owner of the hotel personally stated he wouldn't let “perverts who tarnish the city’s reputation” onto his premises, even though they had already paid for it.

Alternative locations turned out to be suddenly unavailable as well. Private security firms were also reluctant to help the activists: some of them openly stated that they couldn't oppose Svoboda, a far-right political party and activist organisation which is currently part of a coalition with the respectable parliamentary parties Samopomich and UKROP, which is funded by Igor Kolomoisky. The organisers later turned to the police for protection, who took the matter to court, where they asked the judge to ban the event. In the courtroom, some policemen warmly greeted the far right as old friends.

The far right’s strategy of intimidation and silencing of any non-nationalistic activism seems to be bearing fruit

The next day, more than a 100 neo-Nazis and football hooligans in balaclavas blocked the other hotel that had agreed to hold the festival. The police ignored phone calls and only reacted later (apparently, after receiving orders from Kyiv). When Olena Shevchenko, the coordinator of the NGO involved, told Lviv’s police chief that there was an illegal gathering of extremists taking place, he replied that they were just “coming to meet their friends”. 

According to Shevchenko, the police actually promised the nationalists to reveal the whereabouts of the activists after they evacuate them from the hotel. The Nazis hurled stones in the windows of the police buses with the Festival participants; eventually, the latter were taken to the outskirts of the city and left to their own devices. 

“Equal treatment”

Unlike Yagotyn, Lviv did not witness mass mobilisation. This time, only far-right militants participated in the protest.

At first glance, the situation looks similar to the far right’s attack on Kyiv’s Equality March last summer. But this time, the support the attackers received from Lviv authorities, church, police, and, to a certain extent, the local population, was overwhelming. Even Autonomous Resistance, the only politically active leftist organisation in Lviv, did not say or do anything to help the festival organisers or condemn the homophobic hysteria. The statement they issued a week later did not mention LGBT or homophobia once, further revealing Lviv’s conservative roots even in the leftmost part of the city’s activist sphere.

The far right’s strategy of intimidation and silencing of any non-nationalistic activism seems to be bearing fruit. A swathe of opinion makers both in Lviv and nationwide hurried to distance themselves from the issue at hand, blaming the two sides equally for “this provocation that looks like it was planned in Russia”. Some went as far as laying full responsibility on the festival organisers.

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Far right protesters chase Equality Festival participants in Lviv. Source: hromadske.tv.Interestingly, the “Russian gaze” — how people suspect Russian involvement where it is absent — was involved in the ensuing discussion in two ways: first, the LGBT+ festival should have been banned because it could have been used in Russian conservative anti-LGBT propaganda against Ukraine. Second, the festival would provoke a conservative backlash that will be, again, condemned by Russian propaganda in the Netherlands, which is about to hold referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. 

Ukrainians have learned how to protest, but this newfound ability is being used in quite a sinister way

The thesis of “equal responsibility” has also been the essence of Andriy Sadovyi’s response. Indeed, Sadovyi, the mayor of Lviv and leader of Samopomich, one of Ukraine’s most popular political parties, has catered to the country’s conservative electorate before. In October 2015, he fired the head of the city council’s culture department. The reason? Voicing minor criticism of the church’s monopoly on education and leisure in less developed parts of the city. 

This time, the mayor’s demonstrative lack of support was cited as grounds for banning the festival from the initially agreed premises on at least one occasion. Indirectly, Sadovyi’s rhetoric of “Russian provocation” lent enormous support to conservatives.

In search of a truly mass protest 

After Viktor Yanukovych was elected president in 2010, various opposition forces in Ukraine wished to oust him from power once again, diligently trying to replicate the 2004 Orange Revolution. However, each of the many protest campaigns initiated prior to 2013 turned out to be rather lacklustre and ultimately ignored by the populace. 

This lack of popular participation largely stemmed from Ukraine’s relative economic prosperity in the 2010s. After the financial crash, Ukraine’s economic recovery was driven by the rebound of global commodity prices, as well as temporary expansion of domestic market thanks to Euro 2012.

More pressingly, the protest campaigns of the Yanukovych era (No to Police State, the Anti-Tabachnyk campaign, the Tax Maidan, and the Language Maidan to name a few) failed to produce an agenda that resonated with the broader population. At their core, each of these protests centered around an issue that was critical to a single social group — activists, students, small business owners or nationalists. 

The turning point came in 2013 when, in late June, a crowd gathered around a village police station in southern Ukraine to express anger at the release of suspects in a rape case. Two of the suspects were police officers. Several days later, protesters stormed and looted the police station. Suddenly, the issue of police violence, which had been previously ignored, was important to everyone.

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June 2013: residents of Vradiivka, Mykolaiv region, storm the local police station in protest at release of suspects in rape case. Source: 16/12. Two weeks after the Vradiivka protest, a crowd stormed another police department, this time in Kyiv, in reaction to the news that a police officer had hit a female protester. The culmination came several months later when police officers violently dispersed a handful of student protesters protesting against Yanukovych’s decision not to sign the EU Association Agreement. This act of police violence prompted a popular reaction that later became known as Euromaidan. For the general public, the violence and corruption of the law enforcement agencies became the embodiment of all the flaws inherent in the regime as a whole. 

These actions, as well as subsequent, spontaneous protest outbursts were a perfect political school for various right-wing populists in Ukraine. Already enjoying monopoly in terms of culture hegemony, they learned how to hijack grassroots protest. Initially, the pro-European agenda of Maidan became a surprise for the right, but they managed to ride the waves of popular anger. 

Is there a way to prevail over populism in this conflict? 

So far, most of post-Maidan spontaneous protests were directed against the authorities — be it the police, oligarchs, or politicians. Sometimes, the anger was expressed against Russia (or Putin personally), which is also understandable in the circumstances of war. 

In Yagotyn, though, the far right channelled the aggression of the masses versus refugees, a social group that is already discriminated against. And in Lviv, the right once again demonstrated their ability to mobilise quickly in service of street violence — without genuine mass mobilisation, but with overwhelming silent approval of their actions. 

New polarisation 

The events in Lviv and Yagotyn signify something new. But while the conclusion that Ukrainian society is “shifting rightward” is too superficial, we can say that it has become even more susceptible to the influence of rightwing populists.

Ukrainians have learned how to protest, but this newfound ability is being used in quite a sinister way. Now, it seems, any sensitive topic can be taken by Azov, Svoboda, or Right Sector and transformed into a rallying point, a tool for harvesting votes and sympathies. Likewise, “big” parties can undergo political mutations under the influence of these processes, and head them: let’s not forget that Hungary’s Fidesz was initially created as a liberal party.

Society is starting to polarise along a new axis: left- and right-wing populists against cosmopolitan liberals

With these latest developments, mass protest action in Ukraine is becoming all too reminiscent of the situation faced by its western neighbours — not only Poland, Hungary, or Slovakia, but even Germany (PEGIDA) and the UK (UKIP). But why so? 


February 2015: Ukraine commemorates first anniversary of Maidan killings. (c) Sean Gallup / Getty Images. All rights reserved.Politically, Maidan was an uneasy cohabitation. The nationalist right, who dominated the protest, came together with progressives and liberals – a rare breed in Ukraine, almost non-existent previously. After Maidan, the former were strengthened in many respects, but the latter also found their own voice in the public space, however weak.

Over the past two years, a number of issues previously marginal to Ukraine’s public discourse, such as LGBT+ rights and feminism, have become increasingly prominent. This can be measured in many ways: the variety of thematic events (from discussions to LGBT+ pride march), the huge boost in attendance of human rights film festivals, the emergence of “ordinary people” at the 8 March rally to mark International Women’s Day (which used to be a niche event for activists only).

But on the other hand, this situation allows right-wing populists to feed on moral panic and mobilise supporters against the emergent threats. Society is starting to polarise along a new axis: left- and right-wing populists against cosmopolitan liberals – in line with Poland, Hungary and other countries characterised by this type of opposition. Thus, in a way, Ukraine is indeed becoming “Europeanised” — be it for better or for worse.

Is there a way to prevail over populism in this conflict? The answer appears to lie on the surface: the socially progressive cause is doomed to fail unless it is accompanied by the “social cause” — the struggle against austerity and falling standards of life. Unless Ukrainian liberals seriously take on the socio-economic agenda, they are bound to lose to their populist rivals. These groups are perfectly able to combine their nationalism and social conservatism with social-democratic rhetoric, thus monopolising both the right and the left.

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