Ukrainian nationalism: are Russian strategies at work?

President Yanukovych has awakened the spirit of nationalism in Ukraine, writes Roman Kabachiy. In all probability, this was a deliberate operation, executed to allow the “guarantor of the nation” to triumphantly rid his countrymen of radical nationalism.

Roman Kabachiy
18 January 2011

When the results of last October’s local elections brought victory to the nationalistic Svoboda party, forecasts varied. There were those that argued the influence of this political force could soon spread to the east of the country, to the more pessimistic: that the current government had simply “allowed” Svoboda to win because it wanted to enclose it in a West Ukrainian “Galician ghetto”, and set it against the remaining “normal” 22 regions. The former, “optimistic” scenario would only be feasible if Yanukovych really wanted to adhere to the ground rules of democracy. This is certainly unlikely. Much more probable is that Yanukovych is indeed looking to emulate Russian modes of government, by allowing the existence of a few agreed “hot spots” that his government can then demonstrably defenestrate. And as the Polish MEP, Pawel Kowal has said, the anti-presidential majority in municipal and regional councils in Lviv, Ternopol and Ivano-Frankovsk mean nothing: real power lies not in the hands of the locally elected councils, but the presidentially-appointed regional administrations. 


When Viktor Yushchenko signed the Stepan Bandera edict he wasn’t thinking about opinions in Moscow and Warsaw. Some people think that he was trying to frighten voters in the east and south with the spectre of his rival Yulia Tymoshenko’s nationalism

In carrying out what is a a far from simple task, the president was assisted by two figures from Soviet history: one — Stepan Bandera,  the leader of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (more exactly, of its radical wing); the other — Joseph Stalin. The appearance of the first “helper” was facilitated by Yanukovych’s predecessor, Victor Yushchenko, who conferred the title “Ukrainian Hero” onto Bandera a year ago. He passed the supposedly poisoned chalice over to Yanukovych,  after recognising the surety of his impending defeat. Yet the affair has actually benefited the new President twice over. First, the possibility of posthumously decorating a Ukrainian nationalist scared potential liberal voters away from Yanukovych’s “neo-Orange” opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko (some cynics say that this is what exactly Yushchenko had intended). Second, Yanukovych’s judges managed to draw out any decision on the order just enough to keep Bandera’s supporters on the edge of their seats (thinking, no doubt, that “dear old Victor Fedororvych” would pardon Bandera and leave Yushchenko’s decree in effect), while leaving opponents of the decree in similar anticipation. For example, Yanukovych promised Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to overturn the decree by last year’s Victory Day (May 9), but did no such thing.

“Our Bandera army will cross the Dnieper river and drive the blue-arsed gang that are in government out of Ukraine”.

Yury Mikhalchishin, a member of the Lviv council representing Svoboda party

What did happen by Victory Day, however, was the unveiling of a new monument to Stalin. While kind-of-not-wanting-to, the authorities gave Communists the go-ahead to build it in the east Ukrainian city of Zaporozhye. Just like Kosovo for the Serbs, Zaporozhye is somewhere that is simply unreachable for Ukrainian nationalists: The majority of natives hold pro-Russian and neo-Soviet views, even though Zaporozhye, as the cradle of the Zaporozhe Sich, is in fact a celebrated symbol of Ukrainian Cossacks.

The decapitation operation

Since Stalin is considered the chief architect of the man-made Holodomor famine that killed millions, there was little chance of easy life awaiting this monument. It had already been covered with paint and decapitated by the time it was blown up, thirty minutes before New Year (1 January, by the way, was Bandera’s birthday). The decapitation operation (which took place two days before the explosion) was confirmed as the work of an organisation called Three Teeth (the Ukrainian flag features a prominent Trident), and it was on members of this organization and Svoboda that the majority of revenge arrests fell. Young men were arrested in Zaporozhye, Lvov and Ivano-Frankovsk, and a number of searches were carried out in Kyiv. Soon, rumours began circulating that the authorities had engineered the explosions themselves a la Putin, in order to paralyse the nationalists ahead of a final decision on the Bandera edict.

Stalin monument destroyed

The monument to Stalin in Zaporozhye was destroyed just before New Year, probably using an improvised explosive device. 

Public meetings were held in Kyiv and other regional centres in support of the arrested. The Presidential Administration was picketed with posters such as “Love your country, not terrorism!”, “I detest Stalin — I’m a criminal too!” and “Only occupiers repress patriots”. The arrests of the nationalists coincided with the reading of a verdict of the Supreme Administrative Court, confirming that the Bandera edict would be cancelled: that he would receive no such national award.  An announcement was posted on Yanukovych’s official site, and Yuschenko’s original edict was wiped from the ether.

Insofar that it was absolutely clear that the court, like all Ukrainian courts had decided not to go against the wishes of the authorities — and that it was possible that under future presidents, new judges could reverse ever this decision — disquiet came to a head in Galichina, West Ukraine. The Lviv Regional Council (Rada) convened what it called a “visiting session” alongside a monument to Bandera in the regional capital Lviv. The crowds were addressed by the General Secretary of the Council, Vasil Pavlyuk, who promised “to defend all that is Ukrainian, meaning, if necessary, by armed insurrection”. An even larger bomb was delivered in the war of words by Yury Mikhalchishin, a member of the local council representing Svoboda. He asked the crowd: “Had enough of crying? Had enough of being tolerant? Heard enough talk about compromise, reconcilliation, “the West and the East together? Today there are three centres of power facing Lviv: Moscow, Donetsk and Kyiv. Kyiv’s been occupied, and has given in the towel a long time ago. Now they are waiting for Lviv to do the same, that Lviv will roll over, that business will cave in, that the political elite will stay silent, that the good people of Lviv will keep schtum in their kitchens, and that the Lviv police will do the same as their Kyiv colleagues, and persecute patriots. But this isn’t what will happen! We won’t let it happen!”. Exuding assurance, the deputy declared: “Our Bandera army will cross the Dnieper river and drive the blue-arsed gang that are in government out of Ukraine”. The pro-presidential press was quick to pick up on these controversial words, and throughout the day that followed, referred to news of a “Lviv sabbath”.

Svoboda nationalistic meeting Kiev

A meeting in Kyiv organized by Svoboda. The party now has a majority in the Lviv city council, the largest faction in the Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk and Ternopil regional councils, as well as the largest factions in the Ternopil and Ivano-Frankivsk city councils.

Yanukovych’s masterstroke?

It would certainly seem, meanwhile, that Yanukovych has managed to get his own way, with what amounts to a masterstroke in tactical success. In the first instance, he has managed to announce the shelving of the Yuschenko’s plan to pardon Bandera, yet managed to avoid playing a direct role in it. Second, he managed to free himself of the “present” of a monument to Stalin (Communists say “not for long”), without actually having to remove it personally.  Third, he was able to spin out of the nationalistic Svoboda victory useful words about Ukrainian nationalists intimidating the rest of the country. Now, Yanukovych can bravely act as the “guarantor of the peace”, “defender against the nationalistic plague”. This is only on first glance, needless to say. Things can change.

“Now, Yanukovych can bravely act as the “guarantor of the peace”, “defender against the nationalistic plague”. This is only on first glance, needless to say. Things can change.”

Roman Kabachiy

Although it is unlikely that we will see a “Bandera Army” East of the Dnieper any time soon, the correct mixing of national grievance and government economic sanctions mean all is not lost for opponents of the regime. Last November, picketing entrepreneurs in the Western region of Khmelnitsky forced the head of the regional adminstration to scarper through the back door. So a uncritical belief in the failproof nature of “Russian strategies” is obviously not ideal. Even Leonid Kuchma knew that.

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