A Kind of “Freedom” Ukraine Doesn’t Need

March 12, 2011
The Russophobic and anti-Semitic antics of the extremist “Svoboda” party and its leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, may present tempting advantages for the Party of Regions in demonizing its opposition. But any superficial short-term political benefits for POR and for the Yanukovich administration are outweighed by the larger danger Svoboda presents to Ukraine’s unity.
James George Jatras, Deputy Director

One of the most useful advantages any political party can hope to have are opponents who can be marginalized as “extremists,” “racists,” “anti-Semites,” and so forth. This is particularly helpful when the accusations happen to be true.

Such an “advantage” tempts the current Party of Regions (POR) administration headed by President Viktor Yanukovich in the form of the All-Ukrainian Union “Svoboda” led by Oleh Tyahnybok. What more could POR ask for? Svoboda is a party that started with the name “Social-National Party of Ukraine” (Соціал-національна партія України), a clever wink-and-a-nod variant of “national socialist.” The party’s original symbol was the Wolfsangel rune, which also was the proud emblem of the Second Panzer SS Division “Das Reich” and “Werewolf” anti-Allied commandos. (Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice once absurdly compared the last-ditch Nazi “werewolves” to anti-American fighters in Iraq. Luckily, the “werewolves” turned out to be little more than propaganda. Unfortunately, Iraqi jihadists are all too real.)

To be sure, Mr. Tyahnybok and his friends were smart enough to soften their party’s image with a name change (who can be against “Freedom”?) and a cute new three-finger logo as wholesome as the Scouting Movement (Скаутський рух, Скаутское движение). However, Svoboda’s kinder and gentler image didn’t carry over into Mr. Tyahnybok’s rhetoric, notably his 2004 reference to the unfortunate fact that Ukraine is infested with Moskals and Zhids, the evil presences behind the “Moscow-Jewish mafia ruling Ukraine.” (Regarding his preferred term for “Jew,” it’s alright you see: “I don’t think this word is offensive! It’s not banned! We are sick and tired of all this damn political correctness!”) Not for nothing was Svoboda a major force behind former President Viktor Yushchenko’s award “Hero of Ukraine” to Stepan Bandera, whose OUN and UPA had a similar perspective on “Moskals, Poles, and Zhids,” who “must be exterminated in this struggle”( москалі, поляки, жиди . . . винищування в боротьбі). Naturally, speculation turned to who benefitted from the award – not only of a hidden POR hand (or even a Russian one) behind Svoboda but also Mr. Yushchenko’s parting slap at his erstwhile “Orange” ally, Yuliya Tymoshenko, by putting a scare into liberal voters who might otherwise have favored her in the run-off against Mr. Yanukovich. In any case, revoking the reward was an easy call for Mr. Yanukovich once he became president, further leaving Svoboda as the main torch-bearer for seemingly marginal nationalist true believers in the Bandera mold.

The apparent benefit for POR is the growth of Svoboda as a force in western Ukraine at the expense of comparatively moderate Orangists, with the evident goal of imprisoning more Russophobic manifestations of Ukrainianism within a political cordon sanitaire west of the Zbruch. Building on an impressive 34.4 percent vote in the 2009 provincial elections in Ternopil, Svoboda won 20-30 percent of the votes in Eastern Galicia in the October 2010 elections.

Currently, “Svoboda” holds seats in eight of Ukraine’s 25 regional councils, with a majority in three (Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, and Ternopil). Polls indicate the likelihood that Svoboda will enter the Verkhovna Rada in the 2012 parliamentary elections, and Mr. Tyahnybok – who doesn’t seem deterred by the idea of a cordon sanitaire – insists that Svoboda can metastasize into a truly nationwide force.

Again, viewed narrowly, POR might be tempted to view these developments with satisfaction. No doubt that’s the opinion of some in the presidential administration, who might counsel against any actions that might inconvenience Svoboda. Such notions may also reflect the thinking of some advisers that if the Ukrainian nationalist brand can be sufficiently debased by Svoboda, POR might have an opportunity significantly to expand its reach beyond the Russian-speaking east and south, even into Catholic west Ukraine. However, if that’s what POR is thinking, they are repeating a mistake often made by American political parties in violation of Rule No. 1: “Protect your base.” No political party can afford to take for granted its most loyal supporters, while chasing after voters they’re never going to get. In anticipation of the 2012 parliamentary vote, at a time when POR and the administration should be taking a hard look at what they actually have or haven’t delivered to their supporters – for example, their failure even to push for Russian as a second national language – it is a peculiar and politically dangerous strategy.

While AIU does not take a position on the relative fortunes of parties in competition with one another, nor formally endorse or oppose any political parties or candidates, we do comment on party programs and politicians’ views. It is hard to look at Svoboda’s and Mr. Tyahnybok’s radical and racist perspectives, which pit citizens of Ukraine against one another on the basis of whether or not they are really “Ukrainians” as anything other than a danger to the country’s unity and stability. That’s true whether or not, on a narrowly partisan basis, Svoboda’s rise is good or bad for POR and for the Yanukovich administration.

Despite its virulent nationalist rhetoric, Svoboda is in fact the most anti-Ukrainian party because its message undermines the unified Ukrainian state as we have known it since the breakup of the USSR. Quite apart from its geographic pattern of political support, its concept of Ukraine and what it means to be a Ukrainian can in no way encompass eastern and southern Ukraine. This is especially true of Crimea, whose autonomous status Mr. Tyahnybok has called for downgrading, and which is the home of a lot of people who from Svoboda’s point of view are not “real” Ukrainians linguistically or even ethnically but just Moskals. (It is also rumored that Odessa is full of Zhids.) These are areas where pro-Russian sentiments remain strong and the notion of a hostile relationship with Russia is unacceptable.

While Svoboda pledges to expand its national footprint, a more likely result is its further domination of those parts of western Ukraine where its sectarian brand of Ukrainianism has a substantial following. This is an outcome that can only drive a wedge between western and eastern Ukraine and make it almost impossible to consolidate a concept of Ukraine that bridges the regional divide in language and historical experience, and particularly between Ukrainian- and Russian-speakers.

We also should keep in mind that Svoboda is a diehard supporter of Ukraine’s accession to NATO, a perspective rejected by a solid majority of Ukrainians in large part because of its divisive impact on the country. President Yanukovich has put that issue away for good – for Ukraine as it is currently constituted. But would it be a closed issue for a rump western Ukraine, with its capital at Lviv, if Ukraine were divided at some point in the future?

No one should imagine that Washington has given up on its aspirations to pull Ukraine into NATO. If not today, then tomorrow. If not in its entirety, then in part. In some circles of influence in NATO capitals, notably Washington, the emergence of an independent “Svoboda-land” west Ukraine would be a welcome development.

It is one that would mean, literally, the end of Ukraine as we know it. The Yanukovich administration should begin to take a more critical and nationally minded view of Svoboda and of the threat it represents to unified Ukraine and to all Ukrainians. Whatever the political temptations of letting Svoboda run free, the coddling of a racist and anti-Semitic force that endangers the unity of the country must stop.