Security threats and the Ukrainian far right

The rise to political power of the Ukrainian far right party, Svoboda, was recently halted by a new electoral law. But there are further security issues connected to the far right's increasing support that have not been stopped in their tracks.

Anton Shekhovtsov
24 July 2012

Contemporary far-right organisations and movements in Ukraine can be largely divided into two groups: political parties and social movements. Notable far-right parties in Ukraine are the All-Ukrainian Union “Freedom” (Svoboda), the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists, the Ukrainian National Assembly – Ukrainian Self-Defence, and the “Motherland” Party. All of them have representatives in local councils but no MPs in the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament. The largest far-right social movements in Ukraine include the Patriot of Ukraine and its sister organisation Social-National Assembly, Autonomous Resistance and the pro-Russian Cossacks. The first three are closely linked to Svoboda, one of the leaders of Autonomous Resistance serving as a Svoboda deputy in the Lviv regional council. Pro-Russian Cossacks is a heterogeneous movement consisting of many small local groups.

According to the hate crime statistics of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress, over the last six years, 295 people became victims of racist attacks in Ukraine, while at least 13 people we killed over the same period. Racist violence reached its peak in 2007-2008. It should be noted that the majority of racist victims were attacked by street yobs rather than far-right organisations.

Of all the far-right organisations in the country, the strongest one is Svoboda, led by Oleh Tyahnybok. It was formed in 1991 as the Social-National Party of Ukraine (SNPU) but was renamed in 2004 in a move towards respectability. Svoboda is currently not represented in the Verkhovna Rada, but more than 2,200 members of the party serve as deputies in regional and city councils in western and central parts of the country. Members of Svoboda are currently heads of Ternopil, Lviv and Ivano-Frankivs’k regional councils. Svoboda’s weakest support is in the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine. In the 2006 parliamentary elections, held under a proportional system with a 3% threshold, the party gained 0.36% of the vote and ranked 18th out of 45 parties. Svoboda enjoyed the privileged position of being the only far-right party to participate in the 2007 early parliamentary elections: it won 0.76% of the popular vote and was ranked 8th out of 20 parties.

Although Svoboda, unlike the SNPU, does not have an worked out doctrine, it is possible to distinguish several different ideological strands most commonly articulated by the party leaders, including anticommunism, anti-liberalism, racism, anti-Russian sentiments, glorification of Ukrainian historical right-wing extremism and fascism, and heterosexism. According to the leaders of the party, its membership is around 15,000 people.

Svoboda is a member of the radical right-wing Alliance of European National Movements, a Euro-party which has recently been promised €289,266 (£242,000) of EU taxpayers’ money by the European Parliament. Moreover, Svoboda cooperates closely with the French National Front (FN). In the beginning of 2004, it was FN spin doctors who suggested the “rebranding” of the overtly extreme-right SNPU into a more populist right-wing Svoboda.

Svoboda aspires to Ukraine’s membership in NATO, but is critical of the EU, although, paradoxically, supporters of the party are more in favour of European integration than those of other Ukrainian parties. Officially, however, Svoboda does not promote European integration but rather argues in favour of the GUAM, the regional Organisation for Democracy and Economic Development uniting Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova. It also regularly calls for building closer political and economic links with “the countries of the Baltic-Black Sea geopolitical axis”.

Today, popular support for Svoboda is growing. Several factors contribute to its rise, first and foremost is its capacity to design efficient strategies aimed at aggregating societal demands concerning social, economic and educational policies. Its growing legitimacy has also benefited from its ideological modernisation, its massive presence in the national media, and its capacity to depict itself as the contender of a cultural struggle – a “war of position”. The breakup of the national-democratic (mainstream right) political camp and the absence of relevant rival far-right political parties have also contributed to Svoboda's success. However, one should not underestimate the role played by the growing capacity of the party in organising itself, enabled by an increase in its funding after the 2009 and 2010 regional elections and the recruitment of young activists from extreme-right social movements.

On 17 November 2011, the Verkhovna Rada adopted a law creating a mixed electoral system that led to members of parliament securing election with a 5% threshold. Although Svoboda is unlikely to overcome this new threshold, it is expected to have several members elected in single member constituencies in western and central regions.

A far right future in Ukraine?

Today, there are no reasons to think that Svoboda will ever be able to seize power in Ukraine, but it nonetheless poses problems, including serious domestic and international security issues. Firstly, it may contribute to the destabilisation of the political system, as the rise in popular support for Svoboda takes place at the expense of national-democrats and may threaten the fragile balance of power between Ukrainian parties. The far right erodes the Ukrainian democratic camp and makes it difficult for it to oppose the accumulation of power by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and the currently dominant Party of Regions (PR). Svoboda’s negative stance towards European integration, and in particular its loathing of policies such as the readmission of illegal immigrants aimed at furthering the country’s rapprochement with the EU may also hinder this process to the disadvantage of EU-Ukraine cooperation, which is already affected by the regression of democracy and “selective justice” policies targeting opposition leaders in Ukraine under Yanukovych.

There may also be key security consequences to Svoboda's capacity to sour the Russian question. The far right contributes significantly to the political polarisation of Ukrainian society. Its further growth may spark negative feelings from parts of the Russian minority and result in prompting pro-Russian ultranationalist movements to be more active, especially those that can garner support from Russia and advance separatist activities in regions like the Crimea where Russian speakers are in the majority. As Svoboda is highly critical of the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine, which are largely supportive of Svoboda’s major political antagonist, the PR, and where Russian is more widely spoken than Ukrainian, the far right party may trigger a process of separation led by western Ukraine, pre-eminently the regions in Galicia and partly Volhynia, from the rest of the country. Lastly, Svoboda's virulently anti-Russian position may increase tensions between both countries, and given the country’s dependence on Russia for energy supplies, the EU’s energy security and Ukraine’s economic development might be put at risk.

This notwithstanding, Svoboda is by no means an object of cordon sanitaire in Ukrainian politics. The dominant PR evidently encourages Svoboda's growth by increasing its presence in the national TV media largely controlled either by the authorities or by individuals associated with the PR. Svoboda cannot properly compete with the PR due to deep differences in electoral bases between both parties, but it does successfully challenge the PR’s major political opponents, namely the national-democrats. At the same time, the mainstream right, most importantly Yuliya Tymoshenko’s “Fatherland” party and Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s Front for Changes, openly cooperate with Svoboda in the national-democrats’ struggle against the PR and President Yanukovych. In April 2012, more than 40 Ukrainian scholars and intellectuals signed an open letter to the leaders of Ukraine’s national-democratic opposition calling it to re-consider the inclusion of Svoboda into the Committee against Dictatorship (i.e. against the PR and Yanukovych) and to avoid collaboration with a far right party that harms Ukraine’s fundamental national interests. These recommendations were however completely ignored by the Ukrainian mainstream right.

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