Is Ukraine Fascist?

02/03/2015 11:10 am ET | Updated Apr 05, 2015
ASSOCIATED PRESS

So which is it? Is Ukraine a hotbed of fascism, as the Kremlin and its supporters insist? Or is it a tolerant democracy, as Kiev and its supporters insist?

The issue is important to sort out since members of the new Greek government, including Prime Minister Tsipsas, have suggested in the recent past that the new government in Kiev has neo-fascist links that harken to memories of World War II. And that has been the view often promoted by the Kremlin from the outset of the conflict.

Although there are often two sides to a story, in this case, there really isn't. The Kremlin is dead wrong, and even though Ukraine isn't quite the consolidated democracy that its government says it is, the country is certainly far more democratic now than it was just over a year ago. And, despite some zigzags, it is becoming more democratic with every day.

Let's start with a brief discussion of what fascism is and then ask whether any of Ukraine's present or past government fits the bill.

WHAT IS FASCISM?

Fascism is often used as an epithet, especially by the left, but it actually is a perfectly respectable academic term that refers to a particular type of political system. Everyone can agree that fascist states are authoritarian -- that is, they lack the fundamental attributes of democracy. Unlike democracies, fascist systems lack meaningful parliaments, judiciaries, parties, political contestation and elections. In fascist systems, as in all authoritarian systems, parliaments are rubber-stamp institutions, judiciaries do what the leader tells them, opposition parties are marginal and electoral outcomes are preordained.

Like all authoritarian states, fascist states are highly centralized and hierarchical, they give pride of place within the power structure to soldiers and policemen, usually secret policemen, and they always have a supreme leader. Indeed, there can be no fascist state without a supreme leader. Like authoritarian states, fascist states limit freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly; and espouse some form of ethnocentrism glorifying their nation and their state and their fabulous past, present and future.

But fascist states are not just run-of-the-mill authoritarian states. The latter typically connotes images of dour old men ruling a sullen population. Fascist states exude youth and vigor, and they always implicate the population in its own repression. Fascist leaders strut. They want to appear youthful, manly and active: they are machos, par excellence. They also appeal to those qualities in the population, usually co-opting the young into their movements or parties. No less important, fascist states are popular: they incorporate the population into the system of rule, promising it a grand and glorious future in exchange for its enthusiasm and support.

Not surprisingly, fascist states tend to sound and act aggressively. The soldiers and policemen that run fascist states have a natural proclivity to toughness and weaponry. The ethnocentrism appeals to national and state glory, and cult of vigor sees enemies everywhere. The machismo-based cult-like status of leaders encourages them to pound their chests with abandon. And the population's implication in its own repression leads it to balance its self-humiliation with attempts to humiliate others.

Seen in this light, Franco's Spain, Pinochet's Chile and the Greece of the colonels were really just your average authoritarian states. So, too, is today's China. In contrast, Mussolini's Italy was clearly fascist, as was Hitler's Germany and Atatürk's Turkey. What of today's Ukraine?

I trust the question answers itself. Ukraine has a tri-partite government structure characterized by an independent presidency and parliament and a semi-independent (though corrupt) judiciary, a vigorous multi-party system, fair and free elections -- most recently, of both president and the parliament -- a free (if sometimes irresponsible) press and protection of human, civil and minority rights. Of special importance is the fact that Ukraine's government is run by civilians only and that its president -- Petro Poroshenko -- has none of the strongman features that a fascist supreme leader promotes via a machismo-based cult of personality. Last but not least, Ukraine has not pursued any of the repressive policies associated with fascism. Oppositions, minorities and marginal groups thrive, civil society is strong, and, if anything, Ukrainians accuse the government of being too weak -- and certainly not too strong.

Ukraine is far from a consolidated democracy. Its democratic institutions are young and weak; its commitment to democratic practices has not yet stood the test of time. Police, judges and politicians are often corrupt, and bad policies are frequently adopted. These faults make Ukraine a flawed democracy, possibly a very flawed democracy, but they do not come anywhere near to making it a fascist state.

IS UKRAINE RULED BY FASCISTS?

Supporters of the Ukraine-is-fascist argument might say that Ukraine is not fascist, but its rulers are fascists who want to establish a fascist system of rule. Alas, this claim is absurd.

Poroshenko and his predecessor, Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov, are obviously not fascists. None of the current cabinet members has anything resembling fascist credentials. The government that succeeded the corrupt Yanukovych dictatorship in late February 2014 consisted of 19 individuals: only two (Defense Minister Ihor Tenyukh and Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Sych) were members of the right-wing Svoboda party and one, the Secretary of the National and Security Defense Council Andriy Parubiy, had right-wing ties until 2004.

In early 2014, Svoboda had 38 seats in Ukraine's parliament -- out of a total of 450. Svoboda's leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, had run for president in the 2010 elections that brought Yanukovych to power and received 1.43 percent of the vote. He ran again, in the presidential ballot of May 25, 2014, and received 1.16 percent. Dmytro Yarosh, head of the right-wing Right Sector, received a mere 0.70 percent in 2014. In the October 26, 2104, parliamentary elections, Svoboda and the Right Sector got, respectively, six seats and one seat.

Tyahnybok has made some anti-Semitic and anti-Russian statements in the past but his language and behavior changed significantly during, and as a result of, the Maidan Revolution that ousted Yanukovych. He has since attempted to position himself as a moderate nationalist.

Svoboda's approach to ethnic relations has been termed fascist but in point of fact it is strikingly similar to official policy in Estonia, Latvia and Israel. In effect, Svoboda aspires to create a "lite" version of what Israeli scholar Oren Yiftachel calls an "ethnocracy," a system of rule within which the titular nation holds a position of dominance over the other nations inhabiting the land, such as Estonians and Latvians vis-à-vis Russians or Jews vis-à-vis Palestinians. As the Baltic and Israeli examples show, ethnocracies can be democratic, but they're obviously not as democratic as liberal democracies and, with their penchant for hierarchy, can easily violate the civil rights of minorities.

Although Tyahnybok has gone on record praising Israel for the fact that all its parties are nationalist, Svoboda does not call for disenfranchising minorities in the manner of the Balts and Israelis. Instead, it supports a radical affirmative-action policy that would decisively promote Ukrainians and their language and culture within all spheres of the Ukrainian state and restrict citizenship to ethnic Ukrainians, everyone born in Ukraine and foreigners who speak Ukrainian. It goes without saying that Svoboda is anything but liberal (its representatives often deride Ukrainian liberals as "liberasts" -- a combination of liberal and pederasts) and that its ranks also include genuine anti-Semites, xenophobes and racists (the openly neo-Nazi ideologue, Yuri Mykhalchyshyn, comes to mind). But their relative presence in the party is probably no greater than that of Russian supremacists and Ukrainophobes in Yanukovych's Party of Regions and the Communist Party of Ukraine.

Svoboda's socio-economic program, which is a mishmash of socially conservative, capitalist and socialist elements and often reads like a Tea Party document, is pretty much irrelevant to its supporters. It is not surprising that the party has done next to nothing in the provincial councils it controls in western Ukraine. Svoboda has neither implemented xenophobic policies nor bothered with economic issues. What they have done is engage in the shrill, anti-establishment, populist rhetoric that got them elected in the first place. Their inactivity is probably due to their ingrained preference for street politics, their absence of economic knowledge and their paucity of intellectual skills. In the first and second respects, the nationalists resemble Ukraine's Communists. In the second and third, they resemble the Party of Regions.

The Right Sector, meanwhile, only emerged during the Maidan Revolution. Its members have indeed been among the foremost anti-Russian and anti-Yanukovych militants who then manned the barricades. Since then, they have actively participated in volunteer battalions in the fighting in eastern Ukraine. There are probably no more than a few hundred or a few thousand members, and their support within the population at large is under one percent. Interestingly, Yarosh, their leader, has criticized Svoboda for being anti-Semitic, while one of Right Sector's leading activists is a practicing conservative Jew.

In sum, the right-wing presence in Ukraine's post-Yanukovych government has been so slight as to be virtually invisible.

WHY PUTIN CALLS UKRAINE FASCIST

So why, then, do Putin and his supporters see fascism ablaze in Kyiv? There are several reasons for this bizarre charge.

First, as the above characterization of fascism's key features should have suggested, the country that possesses all of them is not Ukraine -- but Putin's Russia. Its democratic institutions are at best moribund, having been transformed into pliant tools of the Kremlin; civil society and the press have been severely circumscribed; representatives of the military and secret police dominate all ruling elites and suffuse them with their antidemocratic ethos; the Russian nation and state are unabashedly glorified; Putin is the undisputed leader, and his macho image exudes vigor, youth and manliness; a variety of rabidly pro-Putin youth groups act as the vanguard of the state; the population overwhelmingly supports Putin and has done so since he assumed the presidency; ethnocentrism, a mistrust of both internal and external foreigners and a corresponding glorification of Russia's past (including its criminal Stalinist period) and present are the official worldview; Russia has taken to asserting its "rightful" place in the sun by engaging in war against Georgia and Ukraine.

It makes a great deal of sense for Putin and his propaganda apparatus to accused Ukraine of the very crime that he has committed -- so as to deflect world attention from his own transformation of Russia into a repressive state.

Second, the Kremlin needs to insist that Ukraine's democrats are fascists because it insists that Yanukovych was a democratic leader. Yanukovych was corrupt and dictatorial. He was rapidly closing down Ukrainian civil society and transforming the parliament into a rump institution, but he was too incompetent and too comical to be able to project the he-man image that Putin had perfected. Since the Kremlin refuses to acknowledge the right of people to oust tyrants, it has to insist that Ukraine is ruled by a "junta" -- which is just shorthand for fascism. According to this logic, Americans had no right to rebel against King George, and the government led by Washington, Jefferson and Hamilton was nothing but a junta!

Finally, the Kremlin's insistence that democratic Ukraine is fascist goes back to old Soviet -- as well as tsarist Russian -- stereotypes of Ukrainians who insisted on their democratic and/or national rights as traitors, agents of imperialism, capitalist stooges and, of course, fascists. Ironically, continued use by Putin and his supporters of such terminology demonstrates just how deeply they are still ensnared in Stalinist political culture.

The bottom line is this: Putin has transformed Russia into a fascist state. Ukraine ousted Yanukovych in order to avoid becoming fully authoritarian. The war Putin unleashed against Ukraine is his way of telling Ukraine that fascism and democracy are incompatible.

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