There has always been a kernel of truth in the accusations that pro-Russian partisans have raised about the revolution that deposed former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych earlier this year. The movement was indeed marked by a streak of aggressive nationalism: on Euromaidan, the blue-and-yellow flags of the far-right ultranationalist party, Svoboda, blended in with those of the European Union. And when violence broke out, far-right protesters from Svoboda and Right Sector, another ultranationalist party, stood side by side with liberal-democratic activists as they hurled Molotov cocktails at riot police.
It wasn’t difficult, in other words, for eastern Ukrainian separatists to conjure the specter of rabid Ukrainian nationalists in calling for yesterday’s independence referendums. But the separatists’ warnings will likely prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If, as a result of the referendums, Ukraine’s eastern regions do split off into an autonomous republic, as increasingly seems likely, the far right’s influence will rise. Far from protecting Ukraine’s Russian speakers, the referendums could plunge all of Ukraine into a spiral of political extremism.
RADICAL ROOTS, SOFTER IMAGE
Ukrainian separatists have consistently overestimated the support for far-right groups among the Ukrainian population. Right Sector and Svoboda constituted only a small minority of protestors during Euromaidan. And polling suggests that both groups are still marginal. A mere two percent of Ukrainians say that they would vote for Svoboda’s candidate, Oleh Tyahnybok, in the May 25 presidential election, and only 0.9 percent would support Right Sector’s candidate, Dmytro Yarosh.
This is not to suggest that the far right — Svoboda especially — could never attract a broader following. Its record of recent electoral growth is proof. In Ukraine’s 2007 parliamentary elections, for example, Svoboda earned less than one percent of the popular vote. By the next parliamentary elections, in 2012, it was pulling in over ten percent, making it the first far-right party in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history to gain parliamentary seats.
So what happened? In the ten years since its founding, Svoboda has transformed itself. It started off as the crude, anti-Semitic, and neo-Fascist Social-National Party of Ukraine (SNPU), which proved a dud in repeated parliamentary elections in 1994 and 1998. A rebranding in 2004 produced Svoboda, a more palatable far-right party, complete with a friendlier logo, an appealing name (“svoboda” means “freedom”), and a charismatic new leader, Tyahnybok, a native of Ukraine’s bustling western city, Lviv, and a surgeon by training. Following the lead of Western European populist parties such as the French National Front and the Austrian Freedom Party, Tyahnybok focused his early campaigns on ethnic and cultural issues, scapegoating ethnic minorities for Ukraine’s economic problems. The party has also called for ethnic quotas for government positions proportional to the ethnic composition of the country and proposed reinstating so-called ethnic passports, which were used in the Soviet Union to limit the movement of Jews and other minorities.
The most important shift came after Yanukovych’s election in 2010, when Svoboda leaders took to criticizing his government. In interviews I conducted with Svoboda activists and leaders between 2010 and 2012, I found that the typical Svoboda member no longer fit the popular stereotype. Far from neo-Nazi skinheads, many of those I spoke to were university students: approachable, politically engaged young men and women who would not stand out in a crowd. Their grievances centered on Yanukovych — specifically, his regime’s rampant corruption and his repression of Ukrainian language and culture. (In 2010, Yanukovych’s minister of education, Dmytro Tabachnyk, announced a joint plan with Russia to rewrite Ukrainian history textbooks to purge Ukrainian nationalist figures.) As one activist in Lviv told me in 2011, “The Yanuk government does not represent us. It’s an occupation regime and a Russian puppet.” Reflecting this sentiment, Svoboda has demanded that all former Communists, KGB agents, and, now, Yanukovych-appointed officials be purged from government ministries and the judiciary.
Svoboda also increased its popularity by emphasizing improved ties with Europe. According to a 2013 survey by the Democratic Initiative Foundation in Kiev, in the 2012 elections, Svoboda supporters were the most pro-European of all Ukrainian parties, with 71 percent supporting European integration and 51 percent considering themselves European. The Euromaidan protesters’ antigovernment and pro-European aims were thus perfectly aligned with the party’s political demands. No wonder, then, that Tyahnybok became one of three key opposition leaders, along with Vitali Klitschko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk, during the protests. He also met with Western diplomats, such as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Senator John McCain.
But Svoboda’s pro-Europe policies never contradicted its xenophobia. Indeed, its pro-Europe platform was primarily motivated by its anti-Russian sentiments. Although that stance might have helped it among average voters, however, it has hurt it with some of the radicals it once represented. As a pro-Russian activist in Kharkiv told me in May 2014, “Svoboda is soft. They are nothing compared to … Right Sector.”
MORE BARK THAN BITE?
Founded during the Euromaidan protests at the end of November 2013, Right Sector is an umbrella organization of extremist nationalist groups, the most important of which is Tryzub (Trident), a paramilitary organization. Right Sector’s leader and presidential candidate, Yarosh, helped create Tryzub in 1994, and he embraces that group’s militarized ethos: he has preferred military fatigues to the politician’s standard suit and tie.
Like Yarosh, Right Sector members wear military uniforms, participate in paramilitary exercises, and adopt noms de guerre. Some, although not all, Right Sector leaders deny that the group’s ideas are fascist. Rather than indicating allegiance to Nazi parties, they claim that the blood-and-soil colors they use in their uniforms and flags simply symbolize their historical connection to a specific (if controversial) freedom-fighting group that resisted the Soviet military during World War II. Perhaps to prove the point, in February, Yarosh met with the Israeli ambassador in Kiev as a sign of goodwill. And then in April, Right Sector promised to offer protection to Ukrainian Jews in Odessa. Yarosh has also repeatedly said that Right Sector is neither xenophobic nor anti-Semitic. This hasn’t been enough, however, to quell fears among the general Ukrainian population — or pro-Russian groups — about the organization.
The size of Right Sector is difficult to gauge. Its press secretary, Artem Skoropadsky, boasts of membership “in the thousands,” and Yarosh has claimed that the organization could mobilize 10,000 through its regional chapters. Most experts, however, place the total number at somewhere between 300 and 500. Still, the group’s unabashed aggression gives it influence far in excess of its size. On May 1, avideo appeared on the Internet that seemed to depict Right Sector’s direct involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. In the video, about 50 well-armed men dressed in black and wearing balaclavas stand in a field. An ominous voice says that for every “little green man”– the Ukrainian term for the well-armed irregulars without insignia who have appeared in Crimea and parts of eastern Ukraine in recent weeks — “there will be a brigade of little black men.” It is difficult to verify whether the little black men in the video really are members of Right Sector. But the Social-National Assembly (SNA), which is part of Right Sector, has claimed responsibility for the little black men, citing the group’s activities as evidence of their commitment to defend Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Russian officials, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, have evoked Right Sector’s militarism for their own propaganda purposes. They cite the group’s nationalist aggression to discredit the interim government in Kiev. In one instance of propaganda, a Russian news channel claimed that it discovered Yarosh’s business card at the scene of a deadly shootout in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk on April 20 in which three people, including one pro-Russian activist, were killed. Right Sector has denied involvement. The story was mocked by many Ukrainians — the idea that Yarosh would be traipsing about Slovyansk with a stock of business cards was ludicrous — but it was effective among its target audience in eastern Ukraine. Increasingly, eastern Ukrainians believe that political independence is the only way to defend their safety. Pro-Russian separatists now use the term antifa (from “anti-fascist”) to praise anyone who opposes Kiev.
THE REAL THREAT
For now, Svoboda and Right Sector are fringe groups in Ukraine. These groups’ stock-in-trade is the exploitation of ethnic and linguistic differences. Those issues do matter to most Ukrainians, but that emphasis is hardly a guarantee of votes. Average Ukrainians recognize that they have more pressing political concerns these days, including economic stabilization.
Polls show that, in aggregate, the political views of western and eastern Ukrainians are not significantly different. According to polls conducted in mid-April, only four percent of western Ukrainians and 0.4 percent of eastern Ukrainians say they would vote for Right Sector’s Yarosh in the presidential election scheduled for May 25. For Svoboda’s Tyahnybok, the breakdown is similar: four percent in the west versus at most one percent in the east. (The differences are somewhat larger in the parliamentary elections: nine percent of western Ukrainians would vote for Svoboda versus one percent of easterners, and six percent versus less than one percent would vote for Right Sector, respectively.)
But if eastern Ukraine does pursue independence, that could change. The move would likely produce a crescendo of nationalist sentiment in the rest of Ukraine. Facing a new national trauma, one that cuts deeper than any in recent memory, western Ukrainians may turn to the far-right nationalist groups who have been eager to lash out at Ukraine’s adversaries, foreign and domestic. Eastern Ukrainians, in turn, would most likely embrace radical pro-Russian groups. It’s exceedingly unlikely that this cycle of mutual alienation would end peacefully.