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Kyiv's Next Image Problem: The rise of a Galician right-radical party will cause further Ukraine fatigue in the West

By       Message Andreas Umland       (Page 1 of 1 pages)     Permalink    (# of views)   No comments

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Today, the prospect of Ukraine's rapprochement with, and future entry into, the EU constitutes, perhaps, the most important political idea, in this divided country. It is an aim that still unites almost the entire Ukrainian elite, and one of the few political topics on which large portions of the population of Ukraine more or less agree. Moreover, the course and results of the 2004 Orange Revolution have created an image of Ukraine, in Europe, which sets this post-Soviet republic apart from other successor states of the USSR. It was an event signaling the Ukrainians' willingness to lastingly break with their authoritarian past. To be sure, Kyiv's reputation in the West has, because of the post-revolutionary self-destruction and chaotic governance of the Orange camp, remained ambivalent (to say nothing more). Nevertheless, the push that Ukraine's democratization has received from the Orange Revolution remains a considerable international public relations asset, for this young nation state. The spread, in Europe , of the idea that the Ukrainians are a pro-democratic people was documented by, among other reactions, the European Parliament's February 2010 resolution explicitly endorsing a EU membership perspective for Ukraine . The 2004 mass action of civil disobedience as well as the relatively free and fair national elections of 2006, 2007 and 2010 have, in the perception of many West European political and intellectual leaders, left a picture of Ukraine which paints this nation as being a troubled, yet integral part of Europe.

During the last months, the new President and Government of Ukraine have done considerable damage to the international achievements of the Orange Revolution, and European reputation of Ukraine. Their heavy-handed approach towards political opponents, free-thinking journalists, unsuspecting academics, or representatives of foreign organizations is raising more and more eyebrows, in the West. In particular, the dubious procedure with which, in spring 2010, the Government of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov was brought to power has undermined assurances regarding the democratic allegiances and European aspirations of the new rulers in Kyiv. More and more Western observers today may ask themselves: Could Ukraine, after all, be a Eurasian rather than European country? Maybe Ukraine is, contrary to what the 2004 events suggested, just a smaller version of Russia? Does Ukraine really want to become a full member of the informal international club of democratic countries, and its formal communities such as NATO and the EU? And, if Yanukovych is creating a political system similar to Putin's: Should, perhaps, Ukraine enter the Russian Federation rather than European Union?

In early 2010, a large portion of the Western observers of Ukraine looked with hope and optimism to the change of power in Kyiv. Today, in contrast, a consensus seems to be gaining hold, among many Ukraine watchers, that Yanukovych may have been the wrong choice as a leader for this unconsolidated post-Soviet state. The constant flow of bad news on Ukrainian democracy, civil society, mass media and rule of law has made even radical critics of Yulia Tymoshenko to rethink their previous assessments. Yanukovich's restorative policies will certainly be reflected in the upcoming assessments of the quality of Ukrainian democracy, by such agencies as Freedom House. The new leadership's authoritarian regressions have become widely noted not only in the Ukrainian opposition, press and diaspora. They are now also discussed in EU governments, parliaments, parties, newspapers and think-tanks.

However, another emerging problem for Ukraine's future international reputation has, at the same time, remained largely ignored by most observers: the recent rise of the right-wing All-Ukrainian Association "Svoboda" (Freedom) of Oleh Tiahnybok (b. 1968), a physician and lawyer from the East Galician city of Lviv. His ultra-nationalist party grew out of the clearly fascist Social-National Party of Ukraine SNPU founded in 1991, in Lviv. The SNPU's name deliberately reminded of the National-Socialist German Workers Party. Its symbol was the so-called Wolfsangel (wolf's hinge) once used by the SS Division "Das Reich," and today popular among various European Neonazi groups. In 2004, the Social-National Party renamed itself into "Svoboda" and abandoned the Wolfsangel. While "Svoboda" remained explicitly nationalistic, it has toned down its revolutionary rhetoric, in recent years. It also embraced, in its front-stage statements, a national-democratic discourse, and proclaims its adherence to the Ukrainian constitution. Its leadership includes a number of articulate intellectuals such as Dr. Iryna Farion (b. 1964), a senior lecturer in Ukrainian philology at Lviv's Polytechnical Institute, or Andrei Illyenko (b. 1987), son of the legendary nationalist film director Yuriy Illyenko (1936-2010) and a political science researcher at Kyiv's Shevchenko University. They and, above all, Tiahnybok himself have recently become regular guests at Ukrainian TV shows, and sought-after interviewees or authors of many Kyiv periodicals. As a result, "Svoboda's" popularity has, especially in Western Ukraine, been constantly growing, during the last year. Having its main base in the East Galician regions of Lviv, Ternopil and Ivano-Frankivsk, "Svoboda" as an obvious result of its increased mass media presence is also making inroads into the Central Ukrainian including the Kyivan electorate. As Ukraine has a proportional electoral system with a relatively low 3% barrier for an entry into parliament, it seems possible that "Svoboda" will have a faction in the next Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council) - Ukraine 's national legislature.

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That will mean additional damage for Kyiv's already dented reputation in the West. "Svoboda" is a racist party promoting ethnocentric and anti-Semitic ideas. Its main programmatic points are Russo- and xenophobia as well as, more recently, a strict anti-immigration stance. Although "Svoboda" emphasizes the European character of the Ukrainian people, it is an anti-Western, anti-liberal, and anti-EU grouping. It belongs to the international so-called Alliance of European National Movements. This radically right-wing pan-European party association includes, among other groupings, France's Front national, The Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik) and the British National Party three of Europe's most prolific and extreme nationalist parties today. Tianhybok's most prominent new political friend on the international scene is, incongruously, the Frenchmen Jean-Marie Le Pen who also used to be friendly with Vladimir Zhirinovskii an aggressively anti-Ukrainian Russian imperialist politician.

"Svoboda" is a phenomenon not untypical for contemporary Europe. Several EU member countries had or have politically significant parties and, sometimes, parliamentary factions with ideologies comparable to that of Tiahnybok's association. However, for an as domestically unconsolidated and internationally non-integrated country as Ukraine, a prominent ultra-nationalist party in parliament would be dangerous luxury. "Svoboda" will, as a Verkhovna Rada faction, further estrange many East and South Ukrainians as well as a number of international partners from the Ukrainian state. It will contribute to the already high geographical polarization within the Ukrainian electorate. "Svoboda's" presence in the national legislature would undermine the development of a Ukrainian political nation, and of a transregional, pan-ethnic patriotism. Public opinion in countries like Poland, Israel and Germany would become more skeptical towards the Ukrainians as a European nation. "Svoboda's" further rise will help cementing its current under-institutionalization in the European security structure. The entry of the Galician ultra-nationalists into Ukraine's political establishment will be an alienating factor between Kyiv and Brussels. It will thus, oddly, make Ukraine more vulnerable with regards to Russian attempts to undermine this post-Soviet state's independence and integrity. Though many observers think that Ukraine is now already at the lowest point of its post-Soviet development, even more bad news might be in store for the largest country of Europe .


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============================================================================== Andreas Umland, CertTransl (Leipzig), MA (Stanford), MPhil (Oxford), DipPolSci, DrPhil (FU Berlin), PhD (Cambridge). Visiting fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution (more...)

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