Ukrainian ‘Freedom’ party should be ringing alarm bells


Ukrainian politics have gone through several major upheavals: the alleged poisoning of Yushchenko, the Orange Revolution and, more recently, the hounding of Tymoshenko. The rise of the far-right seems to have ruffled few feathers, but it would be a mistake to ignore them, argues Ivan Katchanovski.

Ivan Katchanovski
21 March 2012

A far-right Ukrainian party, misleadingly called Svoboda [Freedom], became involved in an international scandal when it employed threats of violence to cancel a series of public lectures on the party’s ideological origins, which were to have been given by Grzegorz Rossolinski-Liebe, an academic historian of Polish origin from Germany. Svoboda succeeded in forcing all Ukrainian institutions to cancel lectures about the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and its leader Stepan Bandera: the only lecture that went ahead was in the German Embassy in Kyiv, in spite of the public protest organized by the party. When a black singer, Gaitana, was selected to represent Ukraine in the Eurovision contest this year, one of the leaders of Svoboda, Yuri Syrotiuk, went public with his contention that her race makes her unfit to represent Ukraine in the European contest.

'This rise of radical nationalism threatens the already bleak prospects for liberal democracy in Ukraine.'

These are just the latest cases of controversial and extremist public pronouncements that have put this ultranationalist party in the spotlight in Ukraine. The rising threat to democracy and freedom represented by the so-called ‘Freedom’ party has attracted little attention or concern from Western media and politicians. In Ukraine itself this party, or movement as it styles itself, encounters almost no criticism from politicians and parties that were heralded in the West as champions of democracy and the ‘Orange Revolution.’ Indeed, one of the provisions of the election pact signed at the end of January 2012 by Svoboda and the Orange parties prohibits criticism of other pact participants.

Svoboda may have abandoned its Nazi-like swastika logo and changed its name from the Social-National Party of Ukraine to the politically more emollient ‘Freedom,’ but the organization continues to promote an illiberal, anti-democratic ideology and to glorify its radical nationalist and fascist predecessors. It receives support from the opposition parties that are regarded as pro-Western and democratic, as well as from the camp of  President Viktor Yanukovych.


The 'Svoboda' party rally in the city of Lvov, January 2012. The party has become an important player on the Ukrainian political scene. It reflects the growing demand of Ukrainian society for a new right-wing movement with a nationalist agenda (photo: www.svoboda.org.ua)

The party came to power in several regions of Western Ukraine after the 2010 local elections and is almost certain to enter the national parliament in the elections scheduled to take place later this year. While its national popularity is nearing the 5% threshold needed to gain parliamentary seats for a party list, the election pact dividing single-member electoral districts between Svoboda and the Orange parties means that it is highly likely to win many seats in its strongholds in Western Ukraine.

Nationalist opposition

‘Freedom’ tries to present itself as an ideological nationalist opposition to the Yanukovych government and to occupy the political space vacated by the previous President Viktor Yushchenko, whose personal popularity, together with the popularity of his party, is in tatters.

Ironically, it was Yushchenko, hailed at the time in the West as leader of the democratic ‘Orange Revolution,’ who helped to pave the way for the illiberal ‘Freedom’ party. A  cornerstone of his policy was his promotion as national heroes of the OUN, Svoboda’s ideological predecessor, and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), established by the OUN during World War II.  

Svoboda, like Viktor Yushchenko, hails the OUN and the UPA as freedom fighters and national liberation movements, but these organizations bore the same relationship to freedom as the Taliban and Al-Quaida do in Afghanistan. The OUN was a semi-totalitarian organization combining elements of radical nationalism and fascism. Both organizations relied on terrorism, murdering tens of thousands of Polish and Ukrainian civilians. A significant proportion of OUN and UPA leaders and members were involved in the Nazi genocide. While serving in various police formations, they assisted the Nazis in the mass annihilation of hundreds of thousands of Jews, Ukrainians, Russians, Poles and Belarusians.

'Ironically, it was Yushchenko, hailed at the time in the West as leader of the democratic ‘Orange Revolution,’ who helped to pave the way for the illiberal ‘Freedom’ party.'

Svoboda on prime-time TV shows

Despite differences in ideology, Svoboda appears quite similar to Yanukovych’s Party of the Regions and Tymoshenko’s ‘Fatherland’ party, both of which represent the interests of the oligarchs. Allegations that politicians and oligarchs from the Yanukovych camp covertly finance the ‘Freedom’ party are difficult to verify, but the party and its leader Oleh Tiahnybok undeniably derive considerable benefit from their regular and prominent presence on prime-time TV shows on major national channels controlled by oligarchs from the Yanukovych camp or by the government. In addition, several leaders of the ‘Freedom’ Party in regions of Western Ukraine, like their counterparts from the Eastern Ukraine-based Party of the Regions, are reputed to have a background in organized crime. The support of the avowedly pro-Russian Party of the Regions for the nationalist Svoboda party can be regarded as an attempt to tighten their grip on power for a long time by turning radical nationalists, unlikely to win national parliamentary or presidential elections, into the main opposition force.

This rise of radical nationalism threatens the already bleak prospects for liberal democracy in Ukraine. Svoboda’s extremist ideology and policy, particularly in respect of ethnic and linguistic minorities and immigrants, together with its threats of violence against both its political opponents and academics are far from unique in Ukrainian or European politics. But the implicit or explicit support for Svoboda from both the opposition parties, which present themselves as beacons of democracy, and from the government camp, which publicly presents itself as the ideological alternative to Svoboda, should set the alarm bells ringing about the state of politics in one of Europe’s largest countries. 

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