In addition to the military crisis in Eastern Ukraine and the rise of pro-Russian separatist rebels, Kiev now confronts a growing political crisis as the country gears up for new elections. What can we expect from the Ukrainian right, and how will nationalist forces seek to profit from escalating tensions with Russia? For answers, I caught up with Anton Shekhovtsov, a visiting fellow at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna and an expert on Ukrainian politics.
NK: In the aftermath of the Malaysia flight 17 disaster, the media has tended to examine events in Ukraine in military and geopolitical terms. Yet we hear very little about what effect the crash will have upon domestic politics in Ukraine and nationalist as well as rightwing sentiment. What are your thoughts?
AS: I don't think the crash has exerted much impact on domestic Ukrainian politics. Bear in mind that Kiev has been militarily engaged with Russian separatists for some time now, and so the Malaysia airliner disaster won't do much to change the fundamental dynamic one way or the other. I also don't believe this incident has had much of an impact upon nationalist groups, again for similar reasons.
NK: What's your own personal background in Ukraine, what is it like to live in a country on a war footing and how is heightened nationalism evident in everyday life?
AS: I don't live in Ukraine at the moment, but I was born in Sevastopol in the Crimea. I am from an ethnically Russian-speaking family, but I did not support Putin's annexation of Crimea. The last time I was in Ukraine was in May, and during that time I didn't pick up on nationalist symbols or rhetoric in Kiev or Lviv. To be sure, it's sometimes very difficult to distinguish between civic and ethnic nationalism. My impression, however, is that in general nationalism tends to take on a patriotic rather than a xenophobic character.
NK: I don't know if this is an indelicate or sensitive topic, but how does it feel to have your own home region taken away and annexed by Russia?
AS: It doesn't feel strange, but I am deeply depressed about it. I still have friends back in Crimea and I try to stay in touch. To be honest, however, I don't really feel like returning in the near future because it would be too emotionally disturbing for me.
NK: You didn't support annexation, yet many Russian speakers in Crimea were supportive of such moves. Do you feel unusual in that sense?
AS: What many people sometimes fail to understand is that being ethnically Russian and speaking the Russian language does not necessarily imply underlying loyalty to Russia politically or to Vladimir Putin for that matter. Indeed, Moscow is trying to promote this idea of "russkiy mir" or "Russian world" which is a very imperialistic notion and has nothing to do with Russian culture.
NK: Rightist forces fared very poorly in the recent presidential election. However, do you think they will do better in upcoming elections in light of military escalation in Eastern Ukraine?
AS: To be sure, Oleh Tyahnybok of the Svoboda Party and Dmytro Yarosh of Right Sektor fared quite poorly in the last election. Yet we also need to be mindful of another rising leader, Oleh Lyashko of the Radical Party who finished third. I wouldn't say Lyaskhko is a far right politician but more of a populist. However, he cooperates with right wing extremists --- serious Neo-Nazis and not some figment of Russian propaganda. My fear is that Lyaskho is going to absorb a lot of this right wing sentiment and will benefit politically.
NK: One frequently hears the word "populism" in conjunction with right wing Ukrainian political movements. What does the term mean in this case?
AS: When I say "populist," I mean that one offers simple solutions to complex problems. It's more of a rhetorical style than a set of beliefs. Lyaskho himself has no ideology. People are frightened because of the war and they feel helpless in the face of Russian aggression. As a result, they find comfort in Lyashko's simplistic slogans.
NK: Do populist groups employ symbolism, clothing or music to gain adherents?
AS: For the most part, Lyashko employs military symbolism. During the recent campaign, he frequently made trips to the conflict zone where Kiev was conducting anti-terror operations. I don't think Lyaskho will win the upcoming election, but he will steal votes from Svoboda.
NK: In the midst of such escalations and heightened Ukrainian nationalism, is there any chance that more progressive elements of society can compete in elections or form a viable political challenge to the status quo which is not only militaristic but also intent on following the diktats of the International Monetary Fund?
AS: Politically, such forces are not very viable or competitive in elections. There are some left wing/liberal forces which I would call progressive, but we're not talking about political parties but rather clubs, milieus or circles around particular magazines.
NK: How easy is it for people to counter right wing nationalism and what kinds of strategies do you think should be employed?
AS: I don't think the left can oppose right wing nationalism. Their share of the vote [if you subtract the old Communist Party of Ukraine, which isn't even that Communist but more pro-Russian] is smaller than the political right's. I think the only force which can counter right wing extremism is the mainstream political center. I also believe that honest investigative journalism which exposes the threat of right wing nationalism is quite helpful.
NK: The western left, such as it is, hasn't exactly rallied to the Ukrainian cause. Perhaps, this has something to do with the fact that Vladimir Putin is on the opposing side, and he is countering the bogeyman of U.S. imperialism. Sometimes, such rigid ideological positions can look an awful lot like apologetics for Russian expansionism, and you had a rather testy exchange with Russian scholar Stephen Cohen on Democracy Now! not too long ago. How do you think the recent air disaster, coupled with suspicions that Russia may have assisted the Ukrainian rebels, will affect this debate and do you think leftist commentators in the U.S. and Britain will now reconsider their positions?
AS: So far, I haven't seen any indication that they will reconsider their positions. Some people simply parrot what the Kremlin says, and accuse Ukraine of shooting down the Malaysian airliner. I expect that Die Linke, a leftist party in Germany, will probably hew to the Kremlin political line because it is anti-American. Nevertheless, I don't believe all western groups share this pro-Russian position.
NK: If you think the progressive media in the U.S. or Britain has fallen short in its coverage of Ukraine, how do you think such outlets should cover your country?
AS: Western media, just like Russian outlets, tends to deprive Ukrainians of any agency of their own. There's always a lot of talk about conflicting interests between the west and Russia, geopolitics, expansionist interests on both sides, etc. All of these issues are certainly legitimate, but somehow Ukrainians themselves get left out of the discussion.
NK: How should Ukrainian society come to terms with anti-Semitism and what are the hopes for a more multi-ethnic and tolerant society?
AS: First of all, Ukrainian society is already very multi-ethnic. Though the EuroMaidan was oftentimes depicted in dark and ultra-nationalist colors, the movement has spurred the growth of a civic nation. The myth of the "heavenly hundred" has helped to contribute and consolidate such civic-mindedness and constitutional patriotism. I'm referring to the 100 or so martyrs at the Maidan who were shot and killed by riot police. Ukrainians died there, but also Russians, Poles, Georgians, an Armenian and a few Jews. To be sure, xenophobic nationalists have sought to erase such memories, and they may even find fertile ground in some pockets of the population. But I'm not sure they will ever be successful in electoral terms, and I'm skeptical that Ukrainians would ever rally to a program aimed at "ethnic cleansing" or the like.
NK: In the midst of heightened tensions, do you think controversial nationalist figures such as Stepan Bandera, who was linked to the Holocaust, might gain more of a following?
AS: Like you say, Bandera is a very controversial figure. If you read a history textbook in central or western Ukraine, you'll see a chapter on Bandera but no mention of the fact that he was involved in the Holocaust or pogroms in Lviv. Typically, he is described as a national liberation fighter. Bandera has been glorified not because he was an anti-Semite but because he was a nationalist figure who fought against Soviet influence. When people glorify him, it doesn't mean that they are aware of this dark history or even endorse anti-Semitism.
NK: Speaking of ethnic minorities, are you concerned that in the midst of escalating tensions other outside powers like Hungary might pursue irredentist claims within Ukraine? Take for example the Transcarpathia region, where there are a number of ethnic minorities, including Hungarians.
AS: I do share some concerns about Hungary, a country which is currently being led by semi-authoritarian Viktor Orbán. Meanwhile, the far right Jobbik party is on very friendly terms with the Kremlin. Both have been making noises about Transcarpathia. However, I don't think this dynamic will lead to actual conflict in Transcarpathia.
NK: Thanks for your time!
Anton Shekhovtsov is visiting fellow at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna and an expert on Ukrainian politics.