THE BLOG
01/23/2015 05:34 pm ET Updated Mar 25, 2015

Note to Ukraine: Stop Whitewashing the Political Record

Listen too much to Kremlin pronouncements, and one might get the impression that the Ukrainian government in Kiev is comprised of nothing less than a malevolent and sinister fascist junta. In light of Putin's own authoritarian tendencies, not to mention Russia's support for Ukrainian separatists, such talk is highly ironic and that is putting it mildly. But while Kremlin propaganda should be roundly dismissed, Ukraine still displays rightist-nationalist traits that are worrying and such trends must be addressed forthrightly, without resort to white-washing or side-stepping.

For some time now, the political right in Ukraine has been gaining visibility. That, at least, is the impression I get after speaking with local activists on the independent left circuit in Kiev. During a recent research trip, I caught up with Denis Pilash, a veteran of student politics who participated in last year's Maidan protests which helped to topple the unpopular government of Viktor Yanukovych. Pilash tells me he first came into contact with the hard right long before Maidan ever took place.

Rise of Svoboda

"All the trouble started when rightists started targeting blacks, even though there were very few of them here in Ukraine," Pilash says. He adds that far right party Svoboda tried to stir up "anti-migrant hysteria" by holding rallies. Indeed, the party has sought to halt immigration and reserve civil service positions for "ethnic Ukrainians." In 2006, Pilash adds, he attended a punk rock concert in Kiev and at one point witnessed Nazi skinheads attacking an Azeri man. Pilash and his friends flew to the aid of the gentleman, which prompted the rightists to turn against them in turn and attack.

According to Anton Shekhovtsov, a visiting fellow at the Institute of Human Sciences in Vienna and an expert on Ukrainian politics, Svoboda exhibits several ideological strands, "including anti-communism, anti-liberalism, racism, anti-Russian sentiments, glorification of Ukrainian historical right-wing extremism and fascism, and heterosexism." In 2012, Svoboda was able to exploit the notion that it was the most radical party opposing Viktor Yanukovych, and the outfit garnered more than 10% of the vote in parliamentary elections.

Some believe that Svoboda is ideologically inchoate. Take for example Tetiana Bezruk of the Congress of National Communities of Ukraine. At a local Kiev café, I catch up with Bezruk, a researcher who is writing her thesis on Svoboda. The party, she says, isn't right wing precisely but more populist in orientation. Svoboda pretends it is nationalist but it favors European integration. "How do you reconcile such a strange contradiction?" I ask. "Exactly," Bezruk chimes in.

Whatever the case, Svoboda espouses many traditional and conservative views. For instance, the party has argued that religious affiliation and ethnicity should be listed on official identity documents. Socially conservative, Svoboda also seeks an end to abortion in Ukraine. Moreover, the party has glorified Ukrainian partisans from World War II and brandishes rightist flags.

Rightists On The Maidan

Perhaps, the far right realized that its anti-immigrant messaging had been only modestly successful in Ukraine and so it shortly changed tack by opposing anarchists, feminists, and the LGBT community. According to the BBC, "ultra-nationalists, and their extreme right fringe," were "a small part of the overall campaign - a subgroup of a minority" during Maidan protests. Nevertheless, "for its numbers," the right has "played an outsized, though not decisive, role."

Furthermore, "Euromaidan's political heads have at various points seemed unable, unwilling or even afraid to rein in the radical right." The BBC adds that many EuroMaidan supporters "bristle at, or deny, any claim that the movement contains an influential ultra-nationalist element, fearful this will be used to tar the entire movement...they simply call them 'patriots.'"

During Maidan, Pilash began to feel a little politically uncomfortable. A native of the culturally diverse western Ukrainian region of Transcarpathia [also known as Ruthenia or Zakarpatts'ka Oblast'], Pilash has mixed ethnic roots. Over the course of protests, Pilash observed how many Ukrainians uttered nationalist slogans such as "glory to the nation and death to enemies." A couple of years ago, he adds, "this slogan was only used by a couple of fringe right wing groups." In Maidan, however, the slogan was embraced by a wider cross-section of people.

The Guardian writes that Ukraine has paid a high price for tolerating right wing political theater. Though the right was very visible in Kiev during the Maidan, it played an even bigger role in eastern and southern regions of Ukraine where the protest coalition did not enjoy majority support. As a result, the local population became alienated and was pushed "even further away from the protest message." The Guardian adds, "This was not a Russian media invention. On the contrary, it happened as a result of the preceding protest coalition of the centrist opposition parties with Svoboda."

Rightists in the Fold

In the wake of Maidan, some leftist activists grew concerned that the right might achieve real political power. Take for example Denis Gorbach, an organizer with Autonomous Workers' Union, an anarcho-syndicalist group which seeks to organize industrial workers around Ukraine. At the end of February, 2014 Gorbach tells me, "there was a dangerous point when the entire governmental apparatus lay in ruins and the neo-Nazis were one of the few organized forces on the ground. So, that was kind of scary."

Fortunately the right never took over the reins of power, though later Svoboda was incorporated into the new government and party members acquired various cabinet positions. Shortly thereafter, Svoboda suffered an electoral defeat in further parliamentary elections when the party failed to garner a 5% barrier to qualify. Nevertheless, the BBC notes that if far right parties had banded together and not splintered the vote, they might have qualified. The Guardian meanwhile notes "it is short-sighted and formalistic to conclude that the Ukrainian far right is insignificant based on the lack of electoral success. The rhetoric of many politicians which could be called centrist or even liberal has moved significantly to the right, competing for the increasingly patriotic and even nationalist voters."

Indeed, an ominous air of impunity has seemed to descend upon Ukraine and leftists tend to agree with such interpretations. After Maidan protests ended, Pilash says, he was physically assaulted by a local right wing blogger. The man spotted Pilash on the street and beat the leftist activist while repeatedly shouting "communist!" Fortunately, Pilash managed to escape and wasn't severely injured.

Nationalism and War

If anything, the war with Kremlin-supported eastern separatists has made it even more difficult to question Ukrainian nationalism. Speaking in a local café near Maidan square, Bezruk tells me there's been a recent surge in patriotic feeling. For example, people are speaking more Ukrainian these days, and it's become important to demonstrate one's patriotism in school. Bezruk says that in some, but not all public elementary schools children are singing the national anthem more so than before. "It all forms part of this cute patriotism," she says, "where you supposedly love your country so much that you are willing to sing the anthem several times a day."

To be sure, such a surge in patriotism may be natural in light of the war with Russian backed separatists and the very real possibility that Vladimir Putin might succeed in splintering Ukraine even further. The question, however, is whether the current government has gone too far in seeking to appease the nationalist right in the midst of hostilities. In light of recent developments, there's some evidence that President Poroshenko has done exactly that.

Indeed, according to human rights activists Poroshenko has provided a Ukrainian passport to a Belarusian neo-Nazi. The man, Serhiy Korotkykh, served as a fighter in the eastern conflict zone and helped to defend Donetsk airport from Russian separatists. During a ceremony, Poroshenko awarded a medal to Korotkykh and praised the Belarusian as "courageous and selfless." Experts however claim that Korotkykh was a founder of a neo-Nazi group in Russia and point out the Belarusian had been charged for involvement in a Moscow bombing and was also detained in Minsk for allegedly stabbing an anti-fascist organizer. Needless to say, top Ukrainian authorities reject such claims as defamatory.

Far Right and Azov Battalion

Perhaps, Poroshenko is trying his utmost to get on the good side of volunteer battalions fighting in the east. As it turns out, Korotkykh is a member of the so-called Azov Battalion which espouses far right nationalism. According to the BBC, Azov is run by an extremist patriot group which considers Jews and other ethnic minorities "sub-human." The outfit has called for a white Christian crusade against such minorities, and sports Nazi symbols on its insignia. While Azov is only one of many volunteer groups fighting in the east, it has the backing of some top authorities in Ukraine.

One infamous Azov commander is Andriy Biletsky, who has been promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel in the police. The military figure has openly admitted that some men in his unit "are interested in their historical roots," though this may be difficult to understand for more modern, "uprooted" nations such as the United States. Biletsky moreover makes no apology for his controversial military insignia, which he says goes back some 600 years in Ukrainian heraldry.

Though figures like Korotkykh and Biletsky are promoted by official circles, the Ukrainian media is notoriously shy about taking on rightist politics. According to the BBC, prominent Ukrainian newspapers ask no controversial questions when interviewing notable right-wingers. What is more, another news agency airbrushed out accusations of extremism when reporting on Poroshenko's awarding of a new passport to Belarusian Korotkykh. "There are significant risks to this silence," notes the BBC. "Experts say the Azov Battalion, which has been widely reported on in the West, has damaged Ukraine's image and bolsters Russia's information campaign."

Left Activists' Growing Concern

As the far right gains respectability in wider society, left activists watch with growing unease. When asked if he's concerned about the Azov battalion, Pilash remarks "Of course. These people attacked us even before the war and committed hate crimes. But now, they have real combat experience and have actually killed people. It's very dangerous when they return, and such fighters are glorified as heroes because they struggled for Ukraine and therefore one shouldn't question their loyalty or credentials. The mainstream has no real problem with these figures, and to the contrary fighters are promoted as heroes and true patriots."

"There's no danger of the far right coming to power in Kiev," notes Denis Gorbach of Autonomous Workers' Union, though in a long-term strategic sense rightists may hope to install a dictatorship once the war is over. For the time being, the activist adds, there's an alliance of convenience between Kiev authorities and far right groups. Nevertheless, Gorbach says the authorities would like to rid themselves of extremists and "the army and police are trying to suppress the rightists. It's kind of obvious that all these far right folks are being sent to the front to make them die in high numbers and thereby lessen the threat to the government."

In a report, the BBC sums up the situation in Ukraine quite succinctly. "The question of the presence of the far-right in Ukraine remains a highly sensitive issue, one which top officials and the media shy away from," notes the news outlet. "No-one wants to provide fuel to the Russian propaganda machine." Such "blanket denials," however, also hold dangers since this allows ultra-nationalists to "fly under the radar." Rather astoundingly, many Ukrainians are totally oblivious of the far right and don't even know what a neo-Nazi or fascist really is.

"Nevertheless," the BBC adds, "neo-Nazis are indeed a fixture in Ukraine's new political landscape, albeit in small numbers. As a result, they have achieved a level of acceptance, even though most Ukrainians are unfamiliar with their actual beliefs. Ukraine's public is grossly under-informed about this. The question is, why doesn't anyone want to tell them?"

It's a well taken question, and one which is certainly on the minds of Ukraine's independent left activists.

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Nikolas Kozloff is a New York-based political writer who recently conducted a research trip to Ukraine.