The presence of the far right in Ukraine has become a hot topic of discussion in wake of the Maidan movement of late 2013, and the subsequent conflicts over Eastern regions of the Crimea and the Donbass. In Issue 3, The Project carried an article from Ben Neal on The Far Right in Russia. This article will analyse the relative position of the far right in Ukrainian politics since the protest movements and civil war, and attempt to illuminate their likely future role in the development of Ukrainian society.
The over-arching crisis in Ukraine is overshadowed by long-term economic struggles. The Ukrainian economy is a basket-case, which has never managed to establish its own footing independent of its former colonial and political master Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The decade proceeding from the collapse saw a rapid decline of GDP, reversed only at the dawn of the Millenium. Since 2008 the Ukrainian economy has once again been in recession.
Ukrainian industry never managed to exorcise its export dependency upon former Eastern bloc countries and Russia, and has maintained a chronic import dependency on gas from Russia – the primary reason for its current payments deficit. In response to this import dependency, successive Ukrainian governments have pursued a policy of inflating the value of the Hryvnia (Ukraine’s national currency) in order to relatively reduce the price of gas imports. The primary mechanism used for this has been an attempt to attract foreign currency reserves which can be used to purchase Hryvnia’s, maintaining their value. Thus, the collapse of exports since the 2008 crisis has severely lowered the treasury’s balance of foreign reserves and had a knock-on impact on the already crippling burden of imports1. This continued crisis appears not to be abating, with Ukraine’s domestic industry unable to produce for the Western markets from which it desperately needs currency and no end in sight to her continued dependency on Russia’s gas reserves.
Corruption has never been effectively tackled since the early 90s, and Ukraine’s own network of oligarch’s continue to control vast swathes of the country’s wealth and political institutions2. Ukraine is beset with high rates of unemployment particularly amongst the youth, a whole generation that has never known employment3. The population is also in rapid decline, expected to drop by 36% before 2050.
These economic factors feed into a political environment where the left is non-existent. The Communist Party retains a hegemony over what exists of the parliamentary ‘left’, as the centre in Ukrainian politics has rejected all but neoliberal rhetoric to distance itself from the Soviet past4. The Communist Party’s historical associations to Russia, furthermore, isolate its support to only certain sections of the population – significantly reducing its maximum levels of support.
Most Ukrainian fascist movements have thus been able to comfortably fit into the social-democratic vacuum between the mainstream and the far left, emphasising collective values of social justice and brotherhood5. The primary far right party in Ukrainian politics, Svoboda, sports numerous social democratic policies in its programme – including the nationalization of all resources which possess strategic importance to the state – and the nationalization of all agricultural land to be leased at affordable rates to peasants and citizens6. Far right ideology in the Ukraine strongly emphasises collective Ukrainian unity, wealth redistribution and social equality amongst its core themes.
Historically speaking, Ukrainian nationalism has been the peculiar product of several key periods. The Cossacks of the Western Steppe in the 19th Century provide the first historical base of Ukrainian national identity, military societies with their own cultural independence from the hegemonic culture of the Russian Empire.
The next significant period in the development of a Ukrainian national identity, ironically, emerged form the early Bolshevik policy of Korenizatsiya (indigenisation) in which national minorities were encouraged by the early Bolshevik government to flourish as subversive and democratic movements against the traditional hierarchy of the Russian state and church. Korenisation went as far in the Ukraine as to tolerate the establishment of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church as an alternative to the Russian – and under this period (through the 1920s until the early 30s) Ukraine developed its own cultural and intellectual elite centred in Kiev. The sudden and brutal reversal of Soviet policy towards regional autonomy and nationalities under Stalin, in which much of this cultural and intellectual elite were arrested and executed, left a scar on the fledgling Ukrainian national consciousness which has lasted on to this day.
During the Second World War, the most significant development of far-right national mythology was represented by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) under the leadership of Stepan Bandera. Initially fighting alongside the Nazis against Soviet forces, the OUN were quickly illegalised under Nazi occupation after declaring an independent and autonomous Ukraine. Bandera was imprisoned until the end of the war, and the OUN respectively fought the Nazis, Soviets and also the Poles along the border – implicating themselves in numerous horrendous war crimes (including the massacre of as many as half a million Poles). Most far right organizations in Ukraine today ground their legacy in the history of Stepan Bandera and the OUN. National identity in the Ukraine is thus grounded very strongly in anti-Russian/communist feeling, and for this reason Europe has emerged as a plank of far-right policy – seen as a method of weaning off political and economic dependency from their Eastern neighbour.
Far right groups in the Ukraine
The far right were negligible in Ukrainian politics before 1998, after which parties like Svoboda began to regularly poll 3% in national elections (still lower than the 6% usually attained by the Communist Party).7 Svoboda was able to gain support after its support in the Orange Revolution, after which it was also granted a place back in Yuschenko’s ‘Our Ukraine’ bloc (having been expelled in 2004).
After the 2008 crash, Svoboda made significant gains in 2009-10 elections in Galicia and took on numerous roles in local government. In national elections in 2012, the party won its place in the Ukrainian parliament polling 10.44% nationally and winning 37 seats.
Previously the Party had been a member of the Social National Party of Ukraine (SNPU), which it left in 2007, but retains informal links and conducts joint campaigns. The SNPU was an overtly fascist group, responsible for the formation of the paramilitary group ‘Patriot of Ukraine’ in 1999 using the Nazi Wolfsangel hook as its symbol. Though Patriot of Ukraine was formally disbanded in 2004, it was re-established during the Maidan protests as a paramilitary wing of the Social National Assembly (SNA) and played a significant role in the protests.
The Social National Assembly has existed in Ukrainian politics since 1998, and would eventually form the backbone behind the Pravy (Right) Sector in the Maidan protests in 2013. Pravy Sector in turn united disparate groups such as Tryzub (Trident) Patriot of Ukraine/SNA, White Hammer and Carpathian Sich into one force during the Maidan.
The Euromaidan protests presented an opportunity for far right groups to significantly increase their influence within Ukrainian politics. The protests were sparked by President Yanukovych’s decision not to ratify the integration treaty with the EU in November 2013, and took the form of a militant occupation of Kiev’s central square ‘The Maidan’. Incredible images of armed and disciplined units of Ukrainian protestors storming government buildings and attacking police lines poured into the Western press, the vast majority of which were displaying the fighting force of self-defence militias (sotnias) organised by Svoboda and various other factions of Pravy Sector.
Kiev Town Hall was effectively occupied exclusively by Svoboda, whilst in the main square far right organisations had total visual and organisational monopoly over the environment8. Far right call and response chants were dominant in the Maidan crowd, traditional gender roles allocated to protestors, and the Nazi Wolfsangel hook of Patriot of Ukraine displayed prominently9. Self-Defence of the Maidan, the primary organisational bloc of the protestors, is controlled almost exclusively by Svoboda – and is organised into a patchwork quilt of ‘Sotnias’ (hundreds)10.
On top of this cultural influence over the protest itself, the far right also directly gained from the collapse of the Yanukovych government. Svoboda in particular gained many prominent positions in the post-Maidan government, including the positions of Deputy Prime Minister ( Oleksander Sych) the Ecology and Agricultural Ministries (Andriy Mokhnyk and Ihor Shvaika respectively) and acting Prosecutor General (Oleh Makhnitsky). Founder of Trident and leader of Pravy Sector, Dmytro Yarosh, sits as Deputy Secretary of National Security under Andriy Parubiy – founder of the SNPU. One of the first laws passed by the new government was the Law of Lustration, a key flagstone of the Svoboda program, formally banning former and present Communist Party members from all positions of government, as well as barring all civil servants who worked under the Presidency of Yanukovych for 5-10 years.
In the war which followed Maidan, after Russian annexation of the Crimea and the battle for the Donbass region, the far right have also established themselves in the form of numerous military battalions. Most notable of these is the Azov Batallion, set up by Pravy Sector, which has now been incorporated as a regular unit in the Ukrainian army. Since the cessation of conflicts in the East, the Azov battalion has threatened to ‘bring the fight to Kiev’ and has predicted a ‘new revolution’ in the wake of the failure of the Maidan government to produce effective reforms11. Svoboda also founded their own independent Sich Battalion to fight the war in the Donbass.
Ukrainian politics has clearly shifted far in the favour of the far right since Maidan – who have increased their influence at every institutional level of the Ukrainian government and state, as well as their visible and core ideological presence in a now highly politicised society. Now established militarily as well as politically within Ukrainian society, they are presiding over a period of increased political radicalism and violence – unopposed by any serious left challenge.
The far right are in the best position of all movements to mop up discontent caused in the wake of the failure of Maidan and Ukraine’s continued economic problems. Political unrest continues in the capital, with thousands brought onto the streets by Svoboda in recently to commemorate the Day of the Ukrainian Cossacks. Ukraine’s peculiar dichotomy – ideologically separated from Russia but economically bound to it – is unlikely to resolve itself in the near future. In that time, the far right looks more than likely to grow.