Ukraine this week held a deeply flawed election, in which the main opposition leader was jailed and the biggest gains went to a party of neo-fascists, who appear to have won 10 percent of the vote. For a country that eight years ago staged an inspiring uprising to overturn a stolen election, it’s hard to imagine a more depressing outcome.
The breakthrough by Svoboda, an extreme-right-wing party from the nation’s Ukrainian-speaking west, is just another sign that all is not well in this divided country. Before the Oct. 28 election, Ukraine was already being shut out by the European Union over its democratic failures and pressured by Russia to join a customs union with Belarus and Kazakhstan instead. Now neo-fascists will take their seats in parliament.
But here is why Ukraine is so difficult to read and handle, for all of its neighbors. To start with, Svoboda (which translates as Freedom), must be Europe’s only neo-fascists who are also pro-EU. Meanwhile, Yulia Tymoshenko, the jailed heroine of the 2004 Orange Revolution, says the EU is wrong to punish Ukraine for her treatment by freezing its association agreement with the bloc. And the supposedly pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych doesn’t even want to join Russia’s customs union, if he can avoid it.
Svoboda’s success and Yanukovych’s behavior are troubling. But for the EU and the U.S. alike, the priority should be to avoid widening the fissures between the Ukrainian-speaking west and Russian-speaking east, or driving the government into the arms of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s President.
Svoboda has cleaned up its act. In 2004 it changed its name from the Social-Nationalist Party and dropped a Swastika-like emblem. Still, much of its appeal lies in hardcore ethnic-Ukrainian nationalism and a hatred of Poles, Russians, Jews and gays. These have deep roots in Ukraine’s history and should give pause.
Svoboda’s leaders glorify those Western Ukrainians who welcomed the Nazis in 1941, seeing the Germans as potential liberators from Soviet rule. Those same Ukrainians also collaborated in the widespread murder of Jews and Poles. As in the Baltic states, there is a sharp division here over how to interpret the motives of those who worked with the Nazis and how they should be remembered today.
What the election result shows is a growing risk that disenchanted voters will again mix up Ukrainian nationalism with xenophobia. Svoboda, led by Oleh Tiahnybok, supported the 2004 Orange Revolution. It was later expelled from the group surrounding former president Viktor Yushchenko, when Tiahnybok made a speech saying that Ukraine was ruled by a “Moscow-Jewish mafia.” It was not the only speech he made that was loaded with this sort of language.
Tiahnybok has said that while he does not regret using those words, he was misinterpreted. He also says his party is neither xenophobic nor anti-Semitic. In any case, for Svoboda’s supporters, Russophobia remains the party’s main attraction. All votes have not yet been counted, but the party looks set to win about 33 of the Rada’s 450 seats.
On election day, while on a trip to Ukraine organized by the German Marshall Fund, I went to Irpin, a small town outside Kiev. There I met Sergeii, a 48-year-old musician, who didn’t give his full name because he was at a polling station. He told me he had voted for Svoboda because he wanted “Ukraine to be a powerful country, and if we have to choose between Europe and Russia it is Europe for us. Russia is Asia and I don’t trust Asians.”
The party presents itself as the only one that wants a “Ukraine for Ukrainians,” and not for the ethnic Russians who make up 17.3 percent of the population and who live mostly in the east. Ethnic Russians form the bedrock of support for the ruling Party of the Regions, but many more are simply Russian speakers who switch happily between the two Slavic languages, depending on the circumstance.
In July, the Party of the Regions pushed through a controversial language law that, while dressed up as protection for minority languages, was intended to bolster the use of Russian and probably a first step to making it an official state language, along with Ukrainian. Most probably Yanukovych believed this would help garner support in his eastern heartland.
In reality, the status of Russian is not an important issue for most Ukrainians, who can speak it freely. Instead of gaining votes in the east, the net result of the language law probably was to push some nationalist voters -- especially in the west -- into the arms of Svoboda, entrenching the country’s historical divisions.
Svoboda activists also have the advantage of being seen as conviction politicians, in a country where there is now a widespread belief that pretty much all of the current establishment leaders are only out for what they can get for themselves. Like fringe parties around Europe in recent years, they have gained from a protest vote.
How important a political role Svoboda will be able to play now that the party is in parliament is unclear. Vitali Klitschko, the reigning champion of the World Boxing Council, who also heads what looks set to become parliament’s third largest party, UDAR, says he’ll work with Svoboda, but will have nothing to do with its radical nationalist policies. Tymoshenko’s Fatherland, which remains the second-largest party, has already signed a cooperation agreement with Svoboda. Many in the Ukrainian opposition believe that time is taming the neo-fascists, and that its leader is on the same course as that taken by Gianfranco Fini, the Italian politician who over a period of years moved to the respectable end of the country’s right-wing politics.
It’s the ruling party that’s taking the toughest line on Svoboda. Oleg Voloshyn, the foreign ministry spokesman who echoes the views of the Party of the Regions, condemned the opposition “for inviting an openly anti-Semitic party to join them.” He says that the party is toning down its extremist language because it does not want to scare off too many voters. Hitler did the same, he said, in his quest for votes in the 1930s.
Svoboda needs to be watched and Yanukovych’s anti-democratic behavior needs to be discouraged. But the EU’s association process should also be resumed. It’s a way to tie Ukraine into the West and its institutions -- however much they are in trouble today -- and that’s why Tymoshenko supports it from her cell. Too much is at stake to isolate Ukraine.
(Tim Judah is an author and journalist. He writes about foreign affairs and covers the Balkans for the Economist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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