The violent anti-government street protests that have rocked the Eastern European nation of Ukraine include a smorgasbord of opposition groups and dissenters who strongly object to the rule of President Viktor Yanukovych and the purported influence of Russian leader Vladimir Putin on the nation’s affairs. Clashes between rioters and police have already killed at least 25 people and wounded more than 250.
The most controversial element of the anti-government alliance is Svoboda (Freedom), an extreme right-wing political party that not only has representation in parliament, but has been dubbed by its critics as a neo-Nazi organization. Britain’s Channel 4 News reported that Svoboda has assumed a “leading role” in the street protests in Kiev, with affiliated paramilitary groups prominently involved in the disturbances. Svoboda flags and banners have been featured in the demonstrations at Kiev’s Independence Square. During the continuing street riots, one Svoboda MP, Igor Myroshnychenko, created an iconic moment of sorts when he allegedly helped to topple the statue of Vladimir Lenin outside a government building, followed by its occupation by protesters.
However, despite its extremist rhetoric, Svoboda cannot be called a "fringe" party – indeed, it currently occupies 36 seats in the 450-member Ukrainian parliament, granting it status as the fourth-largest party in the country. Further, Svoboda is linked to other far-right groups across Europe through its membership in the Alliance of European National Movements, which includes the British National Party (BNP) of the United Kingdom and Jobbik, the neo-fascist, anti-Semitic and anti-Roma party of Hungary. The leader of Svoboda, Oleh Tyahnybok, who has appeared at the Kiev protests, has a long history of making inflammatory anti-Semitic statements, including the accusation during a 2004 speech before parliament that Ukraine is controlled by a “Muscovite-Jewish mafia.” Miroshnychenko also called the Ukrainian-born American film actress Mila Kunis a “dirty Jewess.”
Tyahnybok has also claimed that “organized Jewry” dominate Ukrainian media and government, have enriched themselves through criminal activities and plan to engineer a “genocide” upon the Christian Ukrainian population. Another top Svoboda member, Yuriy Mykhalchyshyn, a deputy in parliament, often quotes Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, as well as other Third Reich luminaries like Ernst Rohm and Gregor Strasser.
In response to Svoboda’s anti-Semitic rhetoric, the World Jewish Congress has called for the party to be banned. Indeed, some public events for Ukraine’s tiny Jewish community have recently been canceled over fears of violence. At least two Jews, including an Orthodox student named Dovbear Glickman, have been attacked and beaten by gangs recently – although these assaults have not been linked directly to Svoboda.
In the meantime, if Svoboda and other far-right groups gain greater exposure through their involvement in the protests, there are fears they could gain more sympathy and support from a public grown weary of political corruption and Russian influence on Ukraine.
European and Israeli leaders expressed shock in October 2012, when Svoboda gained more than 10 percent of the electorate in parliamentary elections, entering the legislature for the first time. (In some western regions of Ukraine, Svoboda gained as much as 40 percent of the vote.) As recently as the 2007 parliamentary elections, Svoboda garnered less than 1 percent of the total vote. Founded in 1991 as the Social-National Party of Ukraine, Svoboda has apparently appealed to hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians tired of economic woes and rampant corruption in government. Reports also suggest that the party has derived significant support from the well educated and the young, who suffer from high unemployment.
Among other things, Svoboda seeks to end all immigration and ensure that all civil service jobs are filled by ethnic Ukrainians. The Nation, a leftist American publication, reported that Svoboda also seeks to ban abortions, abolish gun control, “ban the Communist ideology,” and prohibit the adoption of Ukrainian children by foreigners. In addition, Svoboda reportedly supports nuclear power (in the homeland of Chernobyl) and reinstatement of the death penalty.
Britain's Channel 4 News reported that Svoboda originally used a "wolf's angel" heraldic cross that somewhat resembled the Nazi swastika as its symbol. Limiting its membership to ethnic Ukrainians, Svoboda also had links to a paramilitary organization called Patriots of Ukraine, which has also stepped into the current imbroglio, leading charges against anti-riot police and shouting nationalist slogans like “Glory to the nation! Death to enemies!” and “Ukraine above all!”
Svoboda glorifies fascist figures and related slogans from Ukraine’s past – on New Year’s Day, 15,000 Svoboda members and their followers marched in honor of controversial Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera, who fought against the Soviets during the Second World War and had ties to Nazi Germany. His Ukrainian Insurgent Army allegedly took part in the massacre of thousands of Ukrainian Jews and Poles. Tyahnybok has repeatedly sought inspiration from Ukrainian insurgents who fought in World War II. “They did not fear, but took up their automatic rifles, going into the woods to fight Muscovites, Germans, Jewry and other filth which wanted to take away our Ukrainian nationhood. It’s time to give Ukraine to the Ukrainians,” he said.
Responding to concerns about his party’s anti-Semitism, Tyahnybok insisted Svoboda is pro-Ukrainian and not hostile to any other group. “I respect the position of [Israel], which defends the interests of its citizens,” he said after the parliamentary elections. “I would like to ask Israelis to also respect our patriotic feelings. Probably each party in the [Israeli parliament] Knesset is nationalist. With God’s help, let it be this way for us too.” Also, in refuting charges of anti-Semitism, Svoboda frequently notes that, like the Jews, Ukrainians also suffered a holocaust -- Joseph Stalin’s induced famine in the 1930s which killed millions.
Svoboda also assails nonwhites. In February, Yuriy Syrotiuk, a Svoboda spokesman, expressed his unhappiness that Gaitana-Lurdes Essami, a half-Ukrainian, half-Congolese singer, represented Ukraine in the Eurovision music contest, citing that she “is not an organic representative of the Ukrainian culture.” Moreover, Svoboda expresses extreme hostility towards homosexuals – party members once attacked and sprayed tear gas at the participants of a gay rights rally in the capital Kiev.
Separately, the integrity and retention of Ukrainian language and culture also represents a pillar of Svoboda’s ideology. Alarmed by the expanding use of the Russian tongue in public and government, the party has advocated for the banning of the foreign language. Among other measures, Svoboda demands that all parliamentarians speak Ukrainian instead of Russian. The Svoboda party has also opposed the renaming of streets in the country to Russian-friendly titles. Indeed, Moscow appears to draw the most opprobrium from Svoboda, which alleges Russia is still suppressing the Ukraine and frustrating its integration with the European Union.
Clearly, Svoboda is now taking advantage of the enormous media attention focused upon the Kiev protests. Sergey Kirichuk, an anti-fascist in Ukraine, told Channel 4 News: "When left-wing groups tried to join the protests they were attacked and beaten by fascists. Svoboda are leading ideologically now. Fascism is like a fashion now, with more and more people getting involved." The Nation reported that other right-wing parties, including Trident (a group of nationalist soccer hooligans) and an ultra-right wing group called Right Sector have also participated in the Kiev protests.
The Nation criticized Western media for playing down the presence of far-right groups in the Euromaidan protests roiling Ukraine. Maksim Butkevich, the coordinator of an anti-discrimination NGO called the No Borders Project of the Center for Social Action, told The Nation that far-right groups have climbed in popularity since the eruption of the protests in November. “I wouldn’t say it’s big, that huge numbers of activists will join far-right groups after this, but they became more acceptable and in a way more mainstream than before for many active citizens,” Butkevich said. But Butkevich warned that if the protests force the resignation of Yanukovych and a new election, nationalists, including Svoboda, could seek to consolidate its apparent gains in the public approval.
The bitter irony of the current protests in Kiev is that while groups like Svoboda are adamantly opposed to the pro-Russian policies of Yanukovych, they also find the “pro-European,” pro-democracy stance of most other Euromaidan protesters anathema. Yury Noyevy, a member of Svoboda’s political council, even revealed that the party’s pro-EU stance is only temporary, a device to break off from Russia. “The participation of Ukrainian nationalism and Svoboda in the process of EU integration is a means to break our ties with Russia,” Noyevy said. Indeed, a report in The Guardian noted that most of the protesters in Kiev are not interested in democracy at all. “You'd never know from most of the reporting that far-right nationalists and fascists have been at the heart of the protests and attacks on government buildings,” Seumas Milne wrote in the liberal British paper. “Ukrainians are deeply divided about both European integration and the protests – largely along an axis between the largely Russian-speaking east and south (where the Communist Party still commands significant support), and traditionally nationalist Western Ukraine. Industry in the east is dependent on Russian markets, and would be crushed by EU competition.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.