Skip to content

The unique extra-parliamentary power of Ukrainian radical nationalists is a threat to the political regime and minorities

Article by Volodymyr Ishchenko

July 18, 2018

The unique extra-parliamentary power of Ukrainian radical nationalists is a threat to the political regime and minorities

The Ukrainian far right and Euromaidan

Electorally Ukrainian far-right parties have not been successful in comparison with their Western European counterparts. Before 2012 only a few MPs from any Ukrainian radical nationalist parties succeeded in entering the Parliament.[1] A major reason for this was the split Ukrainian national identity leading to polarized political attitudes on history, language, geopolitical issues in western-central and south-eastern regions.[2] Support for Ukrainian radical nationalists was the strongest in three Galician (Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Ternopil) regions and used to be negligible outside of western Ukraine. Nevertheless, the Svoboda (‘Freedom’) party was gradually increasing its support after successfully ‘moderating’ and re-branding itself from the Social-National Party of Ukraine in 2004. In the 2009-10 local elections the party made a breakthrough winning majorities in three Galician regions and the mayor’s office in Ternopil. In 2012 Svoboda for the first time entered the Parliament with 10.4 per cent of votes.

In 2013-14 Ukrainian radical nationalists played a crucial and indispensable role in the Maidan uprising that was triggered by President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to postpone signing an Association Agreement with the EU, which violently escalated in response to inefficient repression and ended in a change of government. Nevertheless, Svoboda supported less the idea of European integration but rather an opportunity for Ukraine to break away from Russia.[3] In the case of The Right Sector’s (Pravyi Sektor) – an umbrella coalition of even more extreme radical nationalist and fringe neo-Nazi groups – their spokesmen have been always quite open that they did not support the EU but exploited the opportunity of the mass anti-governmental mobilization to push forward their own agenda of the ‘national revolution’.[4]

Since the start of massive violence in January 2014, the far right’s role in the Maidan protests has been systematically downplayed and distorted for the sake of the information warfare against Russian propaganda.[5] The far right was indeed a minority amongst the Maidan protesters, however, according to systematic protest event data Svoboda was the most active collective agent in Maidan protest events, while the Right Sector was the most active collective agent in violent protest events.[6] The far right possessed a unique combination of resources that allowed them to play such a prominent role in Maidan’s mobilization, coordination, radicalization processes and eventual transfer of power. Unlike any other opposition party, Svoboda combined thousands of ideologically committed activists, resources of a parliamentary party, and control over local councils in the western regions with the highest support for Maidan. The Right Sector combined violent skills, a revolutionary ideology, and political organization making its violent actions more strategic and efficient compared to other groups with experience of violence like football ultras and Soviet Afghanistan war veterans.[7]

Their critical contribution to the uprising’s success had important consequences: they mainstreamed radical nationalist symbols and slogans amongst the protesters, in this way pushing the sceptical majorities in south-eastern regions further away from supporting Maidan;[8] the far right escalated violence with Anti-Maidan protesters, contributing to the war in Donbass;[9] the formation of autonomous armed paramilitary groups challenged the state monopoly on violence and contributed to the weakening of Ukrainian state capacity.[10]

Extra-parliamentary power of Ukrainian radical nationalists

In 2014 Svoboda and Right Sector leaders scored low at the presidential elections and later the parties failed to get into Parliament, although a dozen far-right MPs were elected in the single-member districts and on the lists of the ‘centrist’ parties.[11] References to their electoral defeat became a popular argument ‘proving’ supposed ‘irrelevance’ of the far right in Ukraine continuing the propaganda line taken in defence of the Maidan uprising.

However, the extra-parliamentary power of the Ukrainian far right is uniquely strong in the whole of Europe. In no other European country do radical nationalists control large politically loyal armed units relatively autonomous from the official military and law enforcement structures. The most notorious of them is the ‘Azov’ regiment formed in 2014 by activists of neo-Nazi ‘Patriot of Ukraine’ and ‘Social-National Assembly’ organizations. In 2016 Azov formed its own party the National Corps (Natsionalnyi Korpus) and in 2018 presented a paramilitary wing the National Militia (Natsionalni druzhyny). Svoboda-affiliated armed units had been disbanded by 2016 and their combatants integrated individually into official military and law-enforcement units, however, Svoboda united all the party members with combat experience into ‘Svoboda’s Legion’ association. Despite pressure from the government, the Right Sector has not even integrated its ‘Voluntary Ukrainian Corps’ (Dobrovolchyi Ukrainskyi Korpus) into official enforcement structures.

There is no reliable estimate of the total number of the combatants in the far right-affiliated military and paramilitary units; five thousand men under arms could be an approximate count. This does not mean that they are all ideologically extreme right, however, the ideological party activists usually form the core of such units and they control the commanding heights. Moreover, even demobilized combatants usually retain their connections with former commanders on whose patronage networks and finances they often continue to depend.[12]

The result is tightly interpenetrating networks of veterans, volunteers, and radical nationalists active in the local politics. There have been several cases of the far right paramilitary interference in the voting of local councils and intimidation of judges forcing them to issue decisions in favour of the radical nationalists.[13] Another problem is the successful cooperation of the far right with the law enforcement in patrolling the streets in a number of regions[14] and penetration of the law enforcement structures at the highest positions. For example, the deputy Minister of Interior and the former acting Chief of the National Police is Vadym Troian, a former activist of the ‘Patriot of Ukraine’ organization and a deputy commander of Azov.

The extra-parliamentary power of Ukrainian far right is aggravated by the overall weakness of Ukraine’s liberal civil society. The far right performed poorly at the recent elections, however, they lost to oligarchic electoral machines with no commitment to any specific ideology but with far greater media and financial resources that opportunistically exploited nationalist and Euro-liberal rhetoric. The ideological liberal parties – like Democratic Alliance or Syla liudei (‘People’s power’) – are much weaker than the far right and are usually not even included in the polls now. In comparison to other Ukrainian political parties, NGOs and civic initiatives, the radical nationalists have the strongest street mobilization potential.[15] Moreover, the ideological tradition of Ukrainian liberalism is underdeveloped and many of self-declared Ukrainian liberals are simply moderate nationalists in the crucial historical and language questions of Ukrainian national identity. The lack of institutionalized political and ideological boundary between the far right and liberal segments of Ukrainian civil society combined with the overall ‘fortress under siege’ atmosphere of the country at war contributes to the legitimacy for the far right and impunity of their radical stance and violent actions.

The political impact of the far right

The extra-parliamentary strength of Ukrainian far right, the political weakness of liberal civil society within the framework of the unreformed political regime of competing ‘oligarchic’ patronage pyramids results in significant impact of the far right on historical and language politics, and on contraction of political freedoms after 2014.

Nationalist and anti-Communist policies usually lacked the majority public support[16] within Ukraine, even when limited to the governmental-controlled territories. Moreover, they deteriorated relations with strategically important neighbours like Poland and Hungary. However, they were the easiest way for the ruling oligarchic pyramids to simulate changes after the ‘Revolution of Dignity’ and split the opposition sustaining intense patriotic hysteria, while resisting socio-economic and political reforms that would threaten their own material interests. At the same time the radical nationalists were exploiting their legitimacy within society and overlapping interests with the ruling elite, and have been raising the bar of nationalist demands.[17]

For example, issues which used to be the hobbyhorse of the far right, like banning the Communist Party of Ukraine became state policies in 2015. They were also combined with criminalizing ‘propaganda of the criminal totalitarian (Soviet) regime’, comprehensive dismantling of all Soviet monuments[18] and renaming geographical places that sometimes had only a slight relationship to Soviet ideology. The national-patriotic education penetrating the education system on all levels – from kindergartens to higher education institutions – is based on the nationalist historical narrative glorifying the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA)[19] – the tradition which almost all Ukrainian radical nationalists build on but majorities in Ukraine’s south-eastern regions still are opposed to.[20] In 2015 together with criminalizing ‘propaganda of the Communist regime’ the Ukrainian Parliament recognized OUN and UPA as ‘fighters for Ukrainian independence’ and a public display of disrespectful attitude against them is punished under the law. The mythical day of the UPA foundation October 14 – previously a holiday only for the radical nationalists – became a national holiday. OUN’s greetings and symbolism that were mainstreamed by the radical nationalists during the Maidan uprising became semi-official in post-Maidan Ukraine. Although admiration of OUN and UPA among the general public does not necessarily mean xenophobic attitudes towards Poles or Jews, it is usually based on ignorance and denialism about their mass murders and collaborationism with the Nazis.[21]

The far right has also been the harshest critics of the Minsk Accords with Russia and Donbass separatists. They also strongly opposed any reconciliatory dialogue or even tolerance to the voices sceptical about or hostile to the official pro-Maidan narrative about 2013-14 events, which comprise a significant proportion of the public even in the governmental-controlled territories.[22] On August 31, 2015 the rally against the parliamentary vote for a special status for the separatist-controlled Donbass ended in a bloodshed when a Svoboda activist threw a hand-grenade killing four and injuring over 150 policemen and National Guard soldiers. There have been multiple cases of the far right mobilization, intimidation, and violent attacks against media, journalists, and public figures dissenting from the official narrative about Maidan and the war.[23] They typically went unpunished, while the Government is itself pressing against the opposition media and employs selective political repression.[24]

Radical nationalists and liberal values

As mentioned above, Ukrainian far- right support for pro-EU protests in 2013-14 was largely strategic. The radical nationalists retained Eurosceptic position. The ‘National Manifesto’ presenting strategic program of Ukrainian radical nationalists and signed in 2017 by Svoboda, the National Corps, Right Sector and several minor far-right organizations called for a ‘new vector of Ukrainian geopolitics’ against both Eastern and Western orientations – for a union of nations in the Baltic-Black Sea region.[25] However, Euroscepticism is not a primary issue of Ukrainian far right mobilizations as in the polarized geopolitics exacerbated by the war this position can be easily criticized as ‘pro-Russian’. Besides, sometimes radical nationalists try to exploit pro-European attitudes appealing to the ‘true’ ‘traditional’ Europe eroded by contemporary liberal values.[26]

The latter has become recently the target of escalated violence by the far right who benefit from their legitimacy within civil society, interpenetration with the law-enforcement, and enjoy impunity for their violent actions. Amnesty International Ukraine listed over 20 violent attacks on feminist, LGBT or human rights discussions and rallies committed by the radical nationalists during the recent year and criticized the Government’s connivance in these actions.[27] Since April the far right pogromed at least four Roma camps; in one incident several people got serious injuries and one Romani man was killed.[28] These pogroms were openly publicized and in some cases policemen, and journalists even joined the radical nationalists. The left movement is forced into a semi-underground situation. For example, despite the Communist party appealed against its ban in 2015 and is not technically banned at the moment of writing, it reduced all public activities to the minimum, rightfully expecting the violent attacks. Victory Day rallies on May 9, 2017 ended in massive clashes with the nationalists with multiple arrests for public demonstration of Soviet symbols.

These attacks against the marginalized left, ethnic and gender minorities maintain the militant tone of the groups of young nationalists giving them an ersatz of radical activity against ‘internal enemies’ while there is no major escalation on the frontline in Donbass. At the same time, these victims are the easiest targets who are usually unable to defend themselves physically and are stigmatized by large anti-Communist and conservative publics. The far right is also able to present their victims as foreign agents pointing to sometimes real, sometimes alleged support from Western liberal or left foundations and NGOs. Despite a significant segment of Ukrainian feminist and LGBT communities being loyal to the patriotic consensus,[29] often espousing a kind of ‘progressive’ legitimation of the war with the conservative Russian government and Donbass separatists and ‘pink-washing’ the post-Maidan regime,[30] it does not stop the far right violence against them.

Policy implications

  1. Recognize the problem that is neither a fiction of Russian propaganda, nor it can be reduced to the inevitable but temporary effects of the war. Ukrainian radical nationalists’ unique extra-parliamentary power, which is aggravated by their interpenetration with the law-enforcement and weak liberal civil society, present a real danger to human rights and political liberties in Ukraine. The far right contribute to self-destructive nationalist radicalization dynamics destabilizing the political regime in Ukraine which is especially dangerous on the eve of Ukrainian presidential and parliamentary elections in 2019 with unpredictable results.
  2.  As a minimum the Ukrainian government must: a) disband all armed units affiliated with political organizations; b) use all efforts to prevent, prosecute and punish all violence and intimidation against political, ethnic, and gender minorities; c) thoroughly investigate and consistently punish law enforcement’s support for radical nationalist violence and its failure to enforce the law against such groups; d) abstain from any further nationalist policies in history, language, and education alienating large segments of the population in a culturally diverse country and cancel at least some of the most criticized (including by international human rights institutions) and discriminatory laws.
  3. Considering the weakness of local opposition to the nationalist radicalization, Western powers should put these demands on the table in any future negotiations about support for the Ukrainian government.
  4. Ukrainian gender and ethnic minority communities, the political left and cosmopolitan liberals should form a broad front of solidarity of all those endangered by far right violence and nationalist policies in Ukraine.

About the author: Volodymyr Ishchenko is a Kiev sociologist who authored a number of articles and interviews on radical right and radical left participation in Ukrainian Maidan uprising and the following war in 2013-14. He is currently working on analysis of the Maidan uprising from the perspective of sociology of social movements and revolutions theories.

[1] Melanie Mierzejewski-Voznyak, The Radical Right in Post-Soviet Ukraine. The Oxford Handbook of the Radical Right. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Chapter 30 in The Oxford Handbook of the Radical Right (ed. Jens Rydgren), Oxford University Press. 2018. http://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780190274559.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780190274559-e-30

[2] Ivan Katchanovski, Cleft Countries: Regional Political Divisions and Cultures in Post-Soviet Ukraine and Moldova. Stuttgart: ibidem-Verlag, 2006.

[3] Andrii Mokhnyk: Nastupna khvylia revoliutsii, v yakii i ‘Svoboda’ bratyme uchast, bude antyoliharkhichnoiu, MIR, February 2018, https://iamir.info/52105-andrij-mohnik-nastupna-hvilja-revoljucii-v-jakij-i-svoboda-bratime-aktivnu-uchast-bude-antioligarhic

[4] Viacheslav Likhachev, The ‘Right Sector’ and others: The behavior and role of radical nationalists in the Ukrainian political crisis of late 2013 – Early 2014. Communist and Post-Communist Studies 48(2-3): 263. 2015.

[5] Volodymyr Ishchenko, Ukrainian protesters must make a decisive break with the far right, The Guardian, February 2014, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/feb/07/ukrainian-protesters-break-with-far-right

[6] Volodymyr Ishchenko, Far right participation in the Ukrainian Maidan protests: an attempt of systematic estimation, European Politics and Society 17(4): 453-472, 2016.

[7] Volodymyr Ishchenko, Denial of the Obvious: Far Right in Maidan Protests and Their Danger Today, Vox Ukraine, April 2018, https://voxukraine.org/en/denial-of-the-obvious-far-right-in-maidan-protests-and-their-danger-today

[8] Andreas Umland, How spread of Banderite slogans and symbols undermines Ukrainian nation-building, Kyiv Post, December 2013, https://www.kyivpost.com/article/opinion/op-ed/how-spread-of-banderite-slogans-and-symbols-undermines-ukrainian-nation-building-334389.html

[9] Serhiy Kudelia, Domestic Sources of Donbass Insurgency, PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 351, September 2014. http://www.ponarseurasia.org/memo/domestic-sources-donbas-insurgency

[10] Volodymyr Ishchenko, Denial of the Obvious: Far Right in Maidan Protests and Their Danger Today, Vox Ukraine, April 2018, https://voxukraine.org/en/denial-of-the-obvious-far-right-in-maidan-protests-and-their-danger-today

[11] Volodymyr Ishchenko, Ukraine has ignored the far right for too long – it must wake up to the danger, The Guardian, November 2014,  https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/nov/13/ukraine-far-right-fascism-mps

[12] Kimberley Marten and Olga Oliker, Ukraine’s volunteer militia may have saved the country, but now they threaten it, The War on the Rocks, September2017, https://warontherocks.com/2017/09/ukraines-volunteer-militias-may-have-saved-the-country-but-now-they-threaten-it

[13] See, for example, Marc Bennets, Ukraine’s National Militia: ‘We’re not neo-Nazis, we just want to make our country better, The Guardian, March 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/mar/13/ukraine-far-right-national-militia-takes-law-into-own-hands-neo-nazi-links; See also: Kirill Malyshev, Vitalii Gubin, Delo Kokhanivskogo. Radikaly spravili pominki po reforme pravosudiia v Sviatoshinskom sude, Strana.ua, October, 2017, https://strana.ua/articles/analysis/100755-natsionalisty-razhromili-sud-v-ukraine-spljasav-na-eho-ostankakh.html

[14] See Joint Letter to Ukraine’s Minister of Interior Affairs and Prosecutor General Concerning Radical Groups signed by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Frontline Defenders, and Freedom House, June 2018 https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/06/14/joint-letter-ukraines-minister-interior-affairs-and-prosecutor-general-concerning

[15] Volodymyr Ishchenko, Nationalist Radicalization Trends in post-Euromaidan Ukraine, PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 529, May 2018, http://www.ponarseurasia.org/memo/nationalist-radicalization-trends-post-euromaidan-ukraine

[16] With exception of Ukrainianization policies primarily aimed at limiting or eliminating completely the use of Russian language in the governmental, education and media institutions. See Volodymyr Kulyk, Ukrainians are ready to shed the legacy of Soviet Russification, Kyiv Post, October 2017, https://www.kyivpost.com/article/opinion/op-ed/volodymyr-kulyk-ukrainians-ready-shed-legacy-soviet-russification.html

[17] Volodymyr Ishchenko, Nationalist Radicalization Trends in post-Euromaidan Ukraine, PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 529, May 2018, http://www.ponarseurasia.org/memo/nationalist-radicalization-trends-post-euromaidan-ukraine

[18] Initiated precisely by the far right during and right after the Maidan uprising, see Haidai, Oleksandra. 2018. Kamianyi hist. Lenin u Tsentralnii Ukraini. Kiev: K.I.S., pp. 172-90.

[19] See Stanislav Serhiienko, Choho chekaty vid vrpovadzhennia natsional-patriotychnoho vykhovannia?, Commons: Journal of Social Criticism, July 2015, https://commons.com.ua/uk/chogo-chekati/

[20] Pidtrymka vyznannia OUN-UPA uchasnykamy borotby za dershavnu nezalezhnist Ukrainy, Kiev International Institute of Sociology, October 2017, http://www.kiis.com.ua/?lang=ukr&cat=reports&id=718&page=2

[21] OUN was pretty close both politically and ideologically to fascist movements of the interbellum Europe. UPA was formed by OUN in 1943 after the Stalingrad battle in order to fight for the independent Ukrainian state in anticipation of the Nazi retreat. Ukrainian nationalists collaborated with the Nazis in the beginning of the WWII participating in the Holocaust and counter-insurgency activities against Soviet partisans, organized the ethnic cleansing of the Polish population in Volhynia and terrorized Soviet citizens in Western Ukraine after the WWII.

[22] Survey of Russian Propaganda Influence on Public Opinion in Ukraine Findings, Media Sapiens, February 2017, http://ms.detector.media/detector_media_en/reports_eng/survey_of_russian_propaganda_influence_on_public_opinion_in_ukraine_findings .

[23] The level of public ignorance and indifference towards the violent actions of the far right is well illustrated by the fact that a neo-Nazi group C14 receives state grants on ‘national patriotic education’. The group is well known for their beatings, attacks, and intimidation of dissident journalists, bloggers, and activists, they openly boast about in popular media. C14 initiated a recent wave of anti-Roma pogroms. Two of their members are under trial suspected in the murder of a pro-Russian journalist Oles Buzyna in 2015. See Christopher Miller, Ukrainian Militia Behind Brutal Romany Attacks Getting State Funds, RFE/RL, June 2018, https://www.rferl.org/a/ukrainian-militia-behind-brutal-romany-attacks-getting-state-funds/29290844.html

[24] Maryna Stavniichuk, Freedom of Speech: Between Power and Truth in Ukraine, Kennan Institute Focus Ukraine, February 2018, http://www.kennan-focusukraine.org/freedom-of-speech-between-power-and-truth-in-ukraine .

[25] Natsionalisty pidpysaly ta predstavyly Natsionalnyi manifest, Svoboda, March 2017, http://svoboda.org.ua/news/events/00114270 .

[26] Pravyi Sektor: ‘My rasskazhem Yevrope, kuda yei idti’, LSM, February 2014, https://rus.lsm.lv/statja/novosti/mir/praviy-sektor-mi-rasskazhem-evrope-kuda-ey-idti.a78435 .

[27] Ukraina: vlada poturaie eskalatsii nasylstva z boku radykalnykh uhrupovan, Amnesty International Ukraine, May 2018 http://amnesty.org.ua/nws/ukrayina-vlada-poturaye-eskalatsiyi-nasilstva-z-boku-radikalnih-ugrupovan .

[28] Chris Scott, Roma’s murder by far right reveals deep wounds in Ukraine, Al Jazeera, June 2018, https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/attack-roma-killed-laid-rest-180629175419541.html

[29] A good example would be the ‘Invisible battalion’ initiative (http://uacrisis.org/57284-nevidimij-bataljon) that started with a sociological survey of social problems and gender discrimination of the women fighting on Ukrainian side in Donbass and developed into a well-received documentary based on six cases of female combatants including a known Right Sector activist. The initiative is challenging traditional gender stereotypes while reproducing the nationalist narrative about the war.

[30] See more detailed criticism of these tendencies in Mariia Maierchyk, Deshcho pro praid ta pravykh, Krytyka, 2015 https://krytyka.com/ua/community/blogs/deshcho-pro-prayd-ta-pravykh and Popova, Dariia. 2016. Viina, natsionalism ta zhinoche pytannia: poshuk shliakhiv feministychnoho aktyvizmu v Ukraini. Commons: Journal of Social Criticism 10: 72-90, https://commons.com.ua/uk/vijna-nacionalizm-ta-zhinoche-pitannya .

Topics
Footnotes
    Related Articles

     Join our mailing list 

    Keep informed about events, articles & latest publications from Foreign Policy Centre

    JOIN