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Political Determinants and Possible Consequences of the Rise of the Ukrainian Radical Right

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The tumultuous events in the Ukrainian executive, legislative and legal branches of power over the past months have deflected the public's attention from another important change in the political system of Ukraine . At the last local elections, Oleh Tyahnybok's nationalist party "Svoboda" [freedom, ed] received around 5% of support from the Ukrainian population, which means that this political force, which has yet to be studied in detail, increased its representation in the regional and local parliaments of Western and Central Ukraine . It also has more and more chances of forming its own party in the next Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council = Parliament). This would change the structure and the nature of both political competition and public discourse in Ukraine . The ideological spectrum of the party landscape at national level may soon lose its current two-pronged division.


The relevant party spectrum until now.

Since the collapse of the USSR , the majority of political parties and groups represented at different times in the Parliament could to a greater or lesser extent be classified as belonging to one of two camps in the Ukrainian political landscape. One the one hand, there is the camp of pro-Western and pro-European national democrats. From time to time their electoral associations featured individual politicians with a nationalist past (for example Andriy Shkil , Andriy Parubiy and Levko Luk'yanenko ), but on the whole the camp preserved its general liberal direction. On the other hand, there is a more or less pro-Russian, latently eurosceptic, often anti-American and partly anti-liberal group of parties, which in the 1990s was dominated by the Communist Party, and is now dominated by the Party of Regions .

Unlike Western politics, civilizational and geostrategic orientations played a more important role than economic and socio-political agendas for both Ukrainian camps. This led to coalitions that were unusual from a Western point of view, e.g. the alliance between the Party of Regions, run by financial magnates ("oligarchs"), and the Communist Party of Ukraine, or the social-democratic " Batkivshchyna " (Fatherland) party of Yulia Tymoshenko joining the economically liberal European People's Party (with observer status).

Over the last 20 years, it is true, some Ukrainian parties could not be clearly classified as belonging to either of these two blocs. But these were mainly groups which synthesized the ideas of the two camps and which strove to position themselves as a balancing force, in one way or another. These parties (for example the Socialist Party of Ukraine, the Litvin Bloc , "Trudovaya Ukraina" etc.) tried to occupy, in the party spectrum, a hybrid niche the ideological uncertainty and changing membership of which led to it sometimes being called "the swamp." The moderate success and vague programmes of these "centrist" parties, and also the high fluctuation of parties within this ideological section, meant that the two main political camps have dominated in election campaigns throughout the last two decades, and also in political debates broadcast by the Ukrainian media.

"Svoboda," the "white-blue" and the "orange".

The entry of "Svoboda" into the Ukrainian political establishment wrought changes in both the existing ideological rivalry of the parties and future constellations of political forces and possibilities for coalition in parliament. Firstly, it seems obvious that "Svoboda" could only be a coalition partner for the " Orange " parties, not for the Party of Regions. "Svoboda" and the Party of Regions are, to be sure, somewhat alike in their tendency towards authoritarianism (Svoboda is in favour of a purely presidential regime) and anti-Western ideas (neither party is very interested in post-war European values). Furthermore, there are rumours that Tyahnybok's association -" evidently for reasons of political strategy -" secretly received support from the Party of Regions, perhaps including financial infusions. Nevertheless, an official alliance between Yanukovych's party, which values good relations with Putin's United Russia, and "Svoboda" does not seem possible because of the latter's harsh anti-Russian position.

But, it would also be difficult for national democratic groups to move from the current informal cooperation with "Svoboda" at public events or in television debates to an official alliance. The platforms of the nationalists and the national democrats do have points of contact on issues of national historiography, pro-Europeanism or anti-Putinism. What is more, Yanukovych's recent attempts to change the Ukrainian political system have brought the interests of all nationally oriented parties closer together. The battle to preserve their organizations as significant public actors, and to protect the independence of Ukraine on the international stage, may lead to further rapprochement between the " Orange " parties and Svoboda.

The ideological position of the "Svoboda" party.

But outside this context, the fundamental mindset, political ideas and future vision of Ukraine among liberal national democrats on the one hand, and ethnic nationalists on the other, have little in common. This becomes clear already from reading Svoboda's platform. And, it should be noted that, typically for parties of this kind, official documents only partially reflect the real party ideology. They are written to comply with the political correctness of their countries, and thus are more moderate (often considerably so) than the actual, internally discussed agenda of the given organization.

In its official platform, "Svoboda" demands criminal prosecution for "Ukrainophobia," and also various regulatory measures oriented to a greater or lesser extent towards the principle of national identity:

  • restoration of the Soviet practice of indicating nationality in passports and on birth certificates;
  • proportional representation on executive bodies of ethnic Ukrainians, on the one hand, and national minorities, on the other;
  • a ban on adoptions by non-Ukrainians of Ukrainian children;
  • preferential treatment for Ukrainian students in the allocation of hostel places, and a series of similar changes to existing legal provisions.

Measures such as these are in themselves nothing out of the ordinary, but if they were all introduced at once, they could result in officially sanctioned ethnic differentiations that may eventually lead to the stigmatization of Ukrainian citizens of various nationalities, and guests of Ukraine . This would violate the principles of human rights to which Ukraine signed up when it joined the Council of Europe, and would aggravate existing ethnic conflicts in Ukrainian society. What is more, "Svoboda" announces in its platform that it is both possible and necessary to make Ukraine the "geopolitical center of Europe " -" a typically nationalist delusion of grandeur, reminiscent of Russia 's current superpower ambitions.

Svoboda's European partners.

For this and other reasons, close cooperation of the " Orange " parties with Tyahnybok's organization would provoke skepticism from their Western partners within the European People's Party . For example, the French Gaullists of the Union for a Popular Movement, or the Italian conservatives of the Union of Christian Democrats, will be unlikely to feel sympathy for any possible official cooperation of "Batkivshchyna," the Rukh Movement of Ukraine or "Nasha Ukraina" (Our Ukraine) with a Ukrainian group officially allied to Jean-Marie Le Pen or Luca Romagnoli. Tyahnybok's party is a member of the so-called Alliance of European National Movements (AENM), which includes the French right-wing extremist Front national led by Le Pen and the Italian neo-fascist party "Fiamma Tricolore" led by Romagnoli.

Svoboda's membership of this pan-European alliance is a good illustration of the type of nationalism represented by Tyahnybok's movement. The AENM is not an association of parties like the Austrian Freedom Party , which could be classified as right-wing populist. Besides "Svoboda," the Front national and Fiamma Tricolore , the AENM comprises several extremely nationalist parties. These groups are even more xenophobic than the neo-populist right-wing parties that have become widespread in Europe recently. AENM members include the British National Party , the Belgian National Front , the Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik) , the Portuguese National Renovator Party, and also the Spanish Republican Social Movement. These parties occupy the far right-wing niche in the political spectra of their countries, and exist in greater or lesser isolation from the political mainstream.

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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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