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Ukraine's protests in context

KENNY COYLE examines how the fascist Svoboda party emerged from the fringes of Ukrainian politics

Western corporate media outlets have been noticeably reluctant to delve too deeply into the neofascist wing of the Ukrainian protest movement.

The protests against the government of President Viktor Yanukovych have been presented as essentially a resurgence of democratic pro-European values against a corrupt Kremlin-backed regime.

The truth is more complex, combining geopolitical rivalry between Russia and the EU with mass impoverishment following the Soviet Union's collapse.

After 20 years of capitalism, Ukrainian per capita GDP is 12-20 per cent lower than it was in the last years of the Soviet Union.

The Euro love-fest for Ukraine masks some deeply ugly alliances. Some on the left, meanwhile, have tended to discount any focus on the far-right in order to embrace yet another illusory revolution from below and have depicted any criticism as smears of a mass revolutionary movement.

Of course, the Ukrainian protests have a mixed content and the far-right, certainly so far, has not been the dominant force. But it has the advantage in being well-organised and will find itself strengthened by recent events.

Politicians who may benefit in the short term from the removal of Yanukovych, such as Yulia Tymoshenko, have been largely discredited during previous administrations for their incompetence and corruption.

This could allow the far-right to advance its positions either independently or as a necessary coalition partner.

It is critical to understand that the far-right does not stand outside the Ukrainian Establishment but already has its foot in the door.

Those who dismiss the sights of fascist banners and neonazi logos as the work of irrelevant fringe extremists fail to see how far the mainstream parties have adopted the far-right agenda and indeed have facilitated its emergence.

The rise of the Ukrainian far-right has been spectacular. The country's main fascist group the Svoboda (Freedom) party won just 0.3 per cent in the 2006 elections but it took 10.4 per cent in the elections of 2012. The reason is simple. Svoboda struck a deal with the Tymoshenko Bloc, which led to the two groups fielding joint candidates in single-member constituencies.

As has been the case elsewhere, the rise of fascism has been assisted by the step-ladder of the "respectable" right.

Alongside economic desperation and widespread corruption, another factor in the success of the ultra-right has been the officially sponsored rewriting of Ukrainian history, especially the Soviet period.

The complex causes of the Soviet famine of the early 1930s, for example, have been ignored and simplified as a genocide against the Ukrainian nation, Soviet war memorials have been desecrated, ceremonies to commemorate victims of Ukrainian fascists have been disrupted and memorials to their killers erected.

Yet the British media has continued not only to present the far-right as a purely marginal force but also to outrageously rewrite the history of the second world war and the Holocaust in the guise of an impartiality rarely shown in other areas.

Take, for example, BBC's online news on January 1 reporting a torchlight rally in Kiev.

"The marchers from the Svoboda or Freedom Party were marking the birthday of a World War II-era partisan leader."

Partisan is a term used almost exclusively to refer to anti-fascist fighters in World War II, but the report identified the leader as Stepan Bandera of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists - "a controversial figure," the BBC correspondent conceded.

"In western Ukraine, many revere him as a national hero, while in Russia and eastern Ukraine some accuse him of having co-operated with the nazis."

At this point even the BBC's "impartiality" is stretched to breaking point as the report's conclusion gives the game away.

"Some of those marching on Wednesday did so in the uniform of a Ukrainian division of the German army in World War II, AP reports."

Even this is inaccurate. There was no Ukrainian division in the Germany army (the Wehrmacht) but there was one in the Waffen SS.

The 14th Galician Division recruited from Bandera's wing of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists, the OUN-B.

As for Bandera, he is not merely the poster boy of the fringe far-right.

In 2010, outgoing Ukrainian president Victor Yuschenko awarded the posthumous Hero of Ukraine to Bandera, later revoked by Yanukovych after furious protests at home and abroad.

A second far-right party, the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists (KUN), founded by veterans of the OUN-B, also participated in electoral coalitions and government during Yuschenko's presidency and Tymoshenko's premiership but has since been eclipsed by the rise of Svoboda.

There is no need for mealy-mouthed BBC euphemisms. Bandera led an organisation that was a nazi ally and an active participant in the Holocaust.

Bandera's group was responsible for the killings not only of thousands of Jews but also of Poles, other non-Ukrainian nationalities and of course thousands of Ukrainians who remained loyal to the Soviet Union and the anti-fascist cause.

Bandera's friction with the nazis was real. He was at one stage held in special custody, but this was temporary and due entirely to the nazi contempt for the Ukrainians rather than any belated turn to anti-fascism. Freed in 1944, he returned to serve his nazi overlords.

Bandera was a war criminal, a fascist and anti-semite. He also passed through the hands of the CIA and MI6 during the cold war until he was assassinated in 1959, one of many fascists enlisted in the defence of the "free world."

It would of course be a mistake to conflate the various demands and grievances of the anti-Yanukovych movement solely with the far-right, but why the far-right has nonetheless become so prominent in a mass movement also needs to be explained.

How did this fascistic movement emerge and why has the Ukraine, of all the former Soviet republics, seen the re-emergence of an overtly nazi movement as a force in national politics?

Svoboda was originally founded in Lviv as the Social-Nationalist Party of Ukraine (SNPU) in October 1991, when the anti-communist backlash was at its height.

Lviv was once home to one of the most important Jewish communities in eastern Europe but this was almost entirely wiped out during the Holocaust. Today it is the bastion of the extreme right.


In 1998, Oleh Tyahnybok, the deputy head of the SNPU was elected to the Verkhovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, and soon took over the leadership of the party itself.

After re-election in 2002, he spearheaded a cosmetic clean-up of the party's image.

The party's fascistic Wolfsangel logo was ditched in favour of a hand with three fingers stretched into a trident shape and in 2004 the party was renamed Svoboda.

However, the leopard has not been willing to change all its spots.

The party remains embedded in a wider fascist movement and is linked with groups such as the Social-Nationalist Assembly, which was set up in 2008.

In 2005 Yuri Mykhailyshyn, one of Tyahnybok's main advisers, set up The Internet Joseph Goebbels Political Research Centre - a name that says everything.

Street-fighting groups such as C14 and Patriots of Ukraine, active under the umbrella of the supposedly amorphous Right Sector, are also linked to Svoboda.

On an almost comical note, Svoboda has the unusual distinction of having been denounced by the far-right Alliance of European National Movements (AENM) for racism.

The AENM, which includes such enthusiastic multiculturalists as the British National Party, French National Front and Hungarian Jobbik party, revoked Svoboda's observer status for its attacks on Ukraine's Hungarian minority.

While it might be easy to dismiss Svoboda as a crackpot party, its ability to tap into the darker side of Ukraine's past provides it with a potential mass base, especially among the young who have grown up knowing only the last two decades of anti-communism and narrow nationalism.

Svoboda will seek to feed on the growing uncertainty and instability of the coming months.


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