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Zelensky, the Azov Battalion and the Greek parliament

The Ukrainian president’s decision to platform the far-right military force backfired dramatically in a country where memories of Golden Dawn are still fresh and the public are questioning the motives of those involved in geopolitical power play, says KEVIN OVENDEN

THE virtual speaking tour of European parliaments by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky is drawing to a close and caused a diplomatic crisis this week with his addresses to the Greek and Cypriot parliaments.

The right-wing Greek government of Kyriakos Mitsotakis thought it had choreographed an occasion in which the Nato member with ambitions of regional domination in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean would be able to project itself as a big player in the Ukraine crisis. He pre-announced Greece would take reports of Russian atrocities in Ukraine to the International Criminal Court.

But Mitsotakis’s and Zelensky’s media opportunity backfired spectacularly. His video address cut away in the middle to broadcast two members of the Azov Battalion, founded as a neonazi milititia in 2014 and still riddled with fascist ideology and personnel after it was incorporated intact as a part of the Ukrainian armed forces.

Both representatives of the armed far-right force — whose own atrocities in separatist areas of Ukraine led the US State Department to call them “terrorists” —  said that they were of Greek heritage and fighting in the besieged city of Mariupol. It has a historic and large Greek minority.

One aim seemed to be to appeal to ethnic solidarity in Greece with compatriots in Ukraine. But it was also to try to normalise and rehabilitate the fascist-inspired Azov forces. That has brought outrage in Greece. 

“Nazis Return to Parliament — Thanks to Mitsotakis” ran one headline on Friday, referring to the fact that it is only recently that Greece has managed to drive out its own neonazis through mass, democratic methods.

Opinion polls and phone-ins show deep support in Greece for the people of Ukraine, welcoming refugees, urging a ceasefire and for Russian withdrawal. 

But people want an end to war not a longer, bigger war, which you can imagine drawing in Greece and neighbours.

And they resent their support for Ukrainian people being usurped as blanket support for the Ukrainian government, still worse for the Azov forces that Zelensky says he “disagrees with ideologically” but hails as great Ukrainian fighters. 

Zelensky is not a fascist. He is a right-wing nationalist version of fellow comedian Bepe Grillo in Italy, who also mounted an unconventional bid to fill a political vacuum.

Why he took the risk promoting Azov on the international, not just domestic, stage is anyone’s guess. But it has proved disastrous for him. 

The Greek government’s spokesperson Giannis Oikonomou a few hours later said: “Including the message from an Azov Battalion member was wrong and inappropriate.”

That was after strong statements by opposition leader Alexis Tsipras opposing the presence of “nazis in the Greek parliament” and Yanis Varoufakis who said it was an abuse of Greek solidarity with the people of Ukraine to impose Azov’s presence. 

Communist MPs had already boycotted the chamber, saying that opposing both US and Russian imperialist aggression did not mean supporting a right-wing government in Ukraine that bans left-wing parties and is tied up with domestic reaction and billionaires.

The public backlash continued on Friday against the Greek government and attempts to channel Greek solidarity with Ukrainian people behind geopolitical games.

Similarly in Cyprus, where the communist MPs of Akel said they would not be present for the Zelensky address to their parliament this week. 

The speaker tried to get Zelensky to denounce the Turkish invasion of the now-divided island in 1974. It was to be a quid pro quo — lavish support for Ukraine in return for its support against Turkey. And little regard for the huge economic suffering in Cyprus as Russian tourism and hot money is blocked.

But the line went dead and the right-wing Cypriot president was forced to say “this was not what we were hoping to hear” from Zelensky. 

Meanwhile, fuel and food prices are soaring along with the arms spending commitments by one government after another in the region. 

The crisis in Greece and Cyprus over the Zelensky-Azov incident will probably deepen public questioning of their good will and motives being exploited for power plays by both the great powers and the lesser in this crisis. 

Wednesday saw the biggest and most dynamic general strike in Greece for at least eight years. 

A very popular slogan was: jobs, wage rises, no war. To that we can now add a renewed sense, and not only on the left, that society did well to hurl back Greek neonazism two years ago — and we will not excuse fascism anywhere else on account of Establishment priorities.

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