The Ukrainian Nationalism at the Heart of “Euromaidan.” Alec Luhn. The Nation, January 21, 2014.
two-month-long “Euromaidan” protest turned violent on Sunday as people in
masks, outraged over restrictive protest laws hurriedly passed last week,
marched on parliament and ran into police cordons that they pelted with stones
and Molotov cocktails. Police hurled gas canisters, stun grenades, and a water
cannon and rubber bullets at them, setting off a wave of clashes previously
unknown at the largely peaceful protest.
the clashes with police was Right Sector, a group with ties to far-right
parties including the Patriots of Ukraine and Trident, which BBC Ukraine
reported is largely comprised of nationalist football fans. In a statement the
next day, the group claimed credit for Sunday’s unrest and promised to continue
fighting until President Viktor Yanukovich stepped down.
months of unsuccessful tiptoeing about under the leadership of the opposition
parties showed many demonstrators they need to follow not those who speak
sweetly from the stage, but rather those who offer a real scenario for
revolutionary changes in the country. For this reason, the protest masses
followed the nationalists,” the statement read.
surge in violence sparked by Right Sector has revealed how uncritical and
undiscerning most of the media has been of the far-right parties and movements
that have played a leading role in the “Euromaidan,” the huge protests for
closer ties to Europe that flared up in November and have taken over Kiev’s
Independence Square (“Maidan Nezalezhnosti”). Protest coverage focused on the
call for European integration and the struggle against the Yanukovich regime
has largely glossed over the rise in nationalist rhetoric, often chauvinist,
that has led to violence not just against police, but also against left-wing
to Maksim Butkevich of the coordinator of the No Borders Project of the Center
for Social Action NGO, which works against discrimination and xenophobia,
far-right groups have grown in popularity over the course of Euromaidan.
wouldn’t say it’s big, that huge numbers of activists will join far-right
groups after this, but they became more acceptable and in a way more mainstream
than before for many active citizens,” Butkevich said.
the outcome of the protests is still up in the air, if they lead to snap
elections, nationalists could win greater political power, Butkevich said,
especially Svoboda, the far-right parliamentary party in the coalition of three
opposition parties leading the protest. (Right Sector criticizes all three for
“pacifism,” including Svoboda.)
Svoboda that was responsible for the most iconic image to come out of
Euromaidan: On December 8, masked protestors waving blue Svoboda flags and
yelling “Hang the Commie!” toppled a 67-year-old statue of Vladimir Lenin in
the city center. Svoboda leader Ihor Miroshnychenko, who has faced charges for
pulling down a Lenin statue in another city, told journalists his party was
is the most visible party on the square, it has essentially taken over Kiev
City Hall as its base of operations, and it has a large influence in the
protestors’ security forces.
has revived three slogans originating in the Ukrainian nationalist movement of
the 1930s that have become the most popular chants at Euromaidan. Almost all
speakers on Independence Square—even boxer-turned-opposition-leader Vitaly
Klitschko, who has lived mostly in Germany and has a US residence permit—start
and end with the slogan, “Glory to Ukraine!,” to which the crowd responds “To
heroes glory!” Two other nationalist call-and-response slogans often heard on
the square are “Glory to the nation! Death to enemies!” and “Ukraine above
activists have “to fight on two fronts, against a regime that supports harmful
police violence … and also against extreme nationalism, which is recognized and
legitimate on Maidan,” Nikita Kadan, an artist and activist in Kiev, said via
Skype during a discussion of nationalism at a Moscow bookstore in December.
Euromaidan protests began on November 21 after the government halted the
process of signing an Association Agreement and a Deep and Comprehensive Free
Trade Agreement with the European Union. The EU offered Ukraine what many have
framed as a “civilizational choice” between East and West, which have recently
been at odds over a traditionalist social agenda—including a controversial law
against gay propaganda—implemented under President Vladimir Putin in Russia.
agreement would have reduced tariffs but would not have led automatically to
visa-free travel or the ability for Ukrainians to work in Europe. (EU
politicians and even Senator John McCain have come to Kiev to stump for
European integration, and McCain had dinner with Svoboda’s head and the two
other leaders of the opposition coalition.) Instead, President Yanukovich, who
is from the generally Russian-speaking eastern half of the country, later
signed an agreement with Putin that will see Russia buy $15 billion in
Ukrainian government bonds and discount the gas it delivers to Ukraine by a
protests come amid a resurgence of nationalist sentiment in Ukraine that can be
compared to a Europe-wide rise of nationalist parties. Svoboda, which was
originally known by the Nazi-esque moniker “Social-National Party of Ukraine”
and whose leader Oleh Tyahnybok is infamous for a 2004 speech in which he
argued that a “Moscow-Jewish mafia” was ruling Ukraine, entered parliament for
the first time in 2012 by winning 10.44 percent of the popular vote. Before
this, the party had come to dominate regional parliaments in three provinces in
the largely Ukrainian-speaking west of the country. In last year’s elections,
Svoboda notably finished second in cosmopolitan, Russian-speaking Kiev.
2010 and 2012 elections, it became visible that a big part of the youth are
moving toward nationalism,” said Georgy Kasyanov, a researcher at the Institute
for the Development of Education. He noted that one factor is youth
unemployment, which is rising in Ukraine as in the rest of Europe.
its leading role at Euromaidan, Svoboda’s political program is at complete odds
with the “European values” for which the protestors at Euromaidan are
ostensibly agitating. (Admittedly, some of the party’s populist economic
program is in fact relatively progressive.) During its time in parliament, the
party was best known for introducing a bill to ban abortions, but in its
program, it also promises to abolish gun control, “ban the communist ideology,”
criminalize “Ukrainophobia,” ban the adoption of Ukrainian children by
foreigners and reinstate a “nationality” graph on passports and birth
Year’s Day, Svoboda led about 15,000 people in a torchlight march in honor of
Stepan Bandera, the controversial leader of the wartime Ukrainian Insurgent
Army, which fought the Soviets for an independent Ukrainian state but also
ethnically cleansed tens of thousands of Polish civilians. (Right Sector also
announced its own march that day in honor of Bandera.) Some historians have
accused the Ukrainian Insurgent Army of cooperating in the massacres of
thousands of Ukrainian Jews during the Nazi occupation, and Tyahnybok even
commended the rebels in 2004 for fighting “Russians, Germans, Jewry and other
crap.” The Simon Wiesenthal Center put Svoboda at number five on its 2012 list
of top anti-semitic slurs, citing Tyahnybok’s “Moscow-Jewish mafia” comment and
Miroshnychenko calling Ukrainian-born actress Mila Kunis a “dirty Jewess.”
the slogan “Ukraine above all!” sound on Independence Square alongside the
slogan “Ukraine in the EU!”, Ukrainian progressive activist Olga Papash asked
in a recent piece on the politics and culture website Korydor. Any ideology has
a certain point that integrates dissimilar ideas into a single system, Papash
think the attachment point, that shared place of rightist ideology in Ukraine
today, that ‘ideal’ that removes the contradiction between different calls to
action and messages, is the fear of (dislike of, reluctance toward) entering
into any sort of ‘civilized’ relationship with Russia,” Papash wrote.
Yury Noyevy, a member of Svoboda’s political council, admitted that the party
is only pro-EU because it is anti-Russia.
participation of Ukrainian nationalism and Svoboda in the process of EU
integration is a means to break our ties with Russia,” Noyevy said.
now, Svoboda and other far-right movements like Right Sector are focusing on
the protest-wide demands for civic freedoms government accountability rather
than overtly nationalist agendas. Svoboda enjoys a reputation as a party of
action, responsive to citizens’ problems. Noyevy cut an interview with The
Nation short to help local residents who came with a complaint that a developer
was tearing down a fence without permission.
are people who don’t support Svoboda because of some of their slogans, but they
know it’s the most active political party and go to them for help,” said
Svoboda volunteer Kateryna Kruk. “Only Svoboda is helping against land seizures
freely admitted she doesn’t support Svoboda’s nationalist platform and “would
be very concerned” if the party won a majority in parliament. Nonetheless, she
volunteers for Svoboda because she likes “the idea of a party that is
Ukrainian-focused” and thinks it is the most active of the opposition parties.
kind of reserved support of Svoboda as the party most likely to enact change
despite its intolerant rhetoric was echoed by several protestors on
Independence Square. Katerina, a doctor who also declined to give her last name
for fear of repercussions at work, said although she disagrees with Svoboda’s
nationalist program, she supports them “for now” for their strong anti-oligarch
not afraid to make demands,” she said.
who came to Independence Square from a village outside Kiev, said that the
nationalists have been essential to the growth of Euromaidan.
nationalists, there wouldn’t be any protest,” Alexander said, declining to
provide his last name.
Kozar, a Cossack from Khmelnitsky who came with his brethren to provide
security on Independence Square, said Svoboda “is the one political party that
has a well-formed concept.”
there are those who say, ‘Beat Moskali!’” he said, referencing the derogatory
term for Muscovites sometimes heard on the square, “but they are few in
some left-wing parties, including the Marxist party Borotba, don’t support the
protests because they worry about the growing power the demonstrations have
given to Svoboda. Their concern alludes to a darker side to patriotic hymns and
fact that nationalist slogans “became mainstream of course points to the danger
of providing greater legitimacy to groups promoting positions that yesterday
were really marginal, and this danger is still in place,” Butkevich of No
can quickly escalate into action, and already protestors with apparent
nationalist sentiments have taken part in a spate of attacks on left-wing
activists on Independence Square. On November 27, activists with signs reading
“Freedom, Equality, Sisterhood,” “Europe is sex education,” “Europe is
equality” and “Organize trade union instead of praying for Europe” said they
were assaulted by “far-right thugs” calling themselves “organizers of the
protest,” who tore the banners. On November 28, several men with covered faces
pepper-sprayed a group of feminists and tore a banner reading “Europe means
December 4, labor organizer Denis Levin and his two brothers were beaten by a
small crowd shouting “Glory to Ukraine” and “Death to Enemies” after a
nationalist writer on the stage pointed them out as “provocateurs” with red
flags, Levin told The Nation. Shortly before and after the attack,
Miroshnychenko, a member of Svoboda’s political council, came by the tent where
the brothers were agitating for the Confederation of Free Labor Unions, Levin
added. The nose of one brother was broken, and Denis suffered from the
irritative gas used against the trio.
wearing armbands with the wolfsangel nationalist symbol also started the
violent clashes on nearby Bankova Street on December 1 that led to riot police
counter-attacking and beating journalists, photos from the incident show,
although it’s not clear in whose interests they were acting.
are not thinking about how an association with the EU will actually affect us,
they’re still finding simple answers for complicated questions. They are
blaming the Moskali for everything,” Levin said.
main mistake of Maidan is that the parties came, and social questions were
replaced by nationalist ones,” he added. “Maidan didn’t grow into Occupy [Wall
Street], it became reactive.”
Noyevy denied Svoboda activists had beaten the Levin brothers.
this situation, unfortunately Svoboda wasn’t involved in this action,” he said.
“Thank god everything turned out okay. Those provocateurs are mainly
extremists, they have an extremist liberal ideology and are using the funding
of western organizations.”
who says he’s a communist is a provocateur,” he added. “We will be against any
Svoboda member Ivan Ponomarenko, an architect from Kiev, said the party is
ineffective politically and will not be able to enact its measures, as its leadership
is only “pretending” to be extreme nationalists for their own political and
are playing at Klu Klux Klan,” Ponomarenko said.
political analyst Kost Bondarenko, commenting on Svoboda’s recent torch-lit
march in Radio Free Europe/Radio Svoboda’s Russian service, said that as the
dominant far-right political party, Svoboda could benefit politically from any
continuation of radical actions at Euromaidan.
radicalization on the right, and Maidan is right-wing in its essence and
ideology, will lead to a growth in the ratings … of this political force,”
Bondarenko said. “On the other hand, such a turn of events is desirable to the
authorities, I think, since Viktor Yanukovich understands that he will win if
Oleh Tyahnybok makes it to a second round” in the presidential election in
part, a bright-eyed Noyevy promised to implement a radical nationalist
is going to be the biggest winner among the opposition parties in increasing
its level of support after Euromaidan,” he added. “Right now the majority of
people on Maidan demand more radical actions, and I don’t see how other parties
will enact these wishes.”