From the moment of its spontaneous combustion on November 21, and for weeks thereafter, the mass protest encampment at Maidan Square in the center of Kiev, set up to oppose the Ukrainian government’s decision not to sign a comprehensive free trade agreement with the European Union, appeared to represent the epitome of 21st-century European values.
The varied activities of the vast, multi-ethnic crowd on the square that quickly came to be called Euromaidan – whether protest demonstrations, art exhibitions or musical concerts – celebrated themes of democracy, pluralism and an end to government corruption.
However, that uplifting mood began to change in early December, when the three main opposition parties in Parliament – Fatherland, UDAR and Svoboda – began to take control of Euromaidan. Activists of the ultra-nationalist, anti-Semitic and grotesquely misnamed Svoboda (“Freedom”) soon pushed to the forefront, giving the protests a progressively darker and more violent edge. A turning point came during a mass march through the center of Kiev on December 10, when a group of Svoboda activists – led by members of parliament – toppled a venerable statue of Lenin, decapitating and smashing it apart with sledgehammers, while chanting in ominous warning to the president of Ukraine, “[Victor] Yanukovych, you’ll be next!” Ever since the breakthrough success of Svoboda in the 2010 elections and its subsequent entrance into parliament, the leaders of Fatherland and UDAR have repeatedly declined entreaties from myself and many other supporters of democracy in Ukraine to break their electoral alliance with Svoboda. Apparently they view that party and its supreme leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, as an essential partner in the coalition to topple Yanukovych.
Yet during the last days of December, as momentum slipped away from the demonstrators with the news that Yanukovych had buttressed his political position by accepting a $15 billion loan package from Russian President Vladimir Putin, Fatherland leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk and UDAR leader Vitali Klitschko must have become acutely aware that the ever-growing profile of Svoboda was tarnishing the claim of the Ukrainian opposition coalition protesters to belong in the camp of modern-day Europe, instead of the neo-fascist Europe of 70 years ago.
This reality became crystal clear during a cringe-inducing vertep (comedic skit based on Ukrainian folk tradition) performed on the main stage at Euromaidan on New Year’s Eve, based in equal parts on the story of the birth of Jesus and contemporary Ukrainian politics. Playing a lead role in the skit, a Svoboda MP named Bogdan Benyuk donned black garb and payot (sidelocks) to play a stereotypical Orthodox Jewish wheeler-dealer character called Zhyd (Kike). The skit shows how the character creates obstacles for the newly born Jesus from behind the scenes, and contemplates taking a bribe from a character evoking both King Herod and President Yanukovych to help him crush the protesters.
Explaining to the crowd that he is involved in various occupations, including banking, stock market speculation, loan-sharking, and hosting a talk show, the Jewish oligarch character sings gleefully, “The East and West belong to me; our people are everywhere.”
Fascinatingly, however, the Jew switches sides and joins the opposition when he learns that on orders from Herod/Yanukovych, the regime’s special forces are preparing to kill the firstborn.
Nevertheless, the audience is made to understand, the character apparently changes course not necessarily due to a belated outburst of conscience but rather because, in the final analysis, “There is no greater fighter than a frightened Jew.” The takeaway from the supposedly “all in good fun” skit, which was followed by a solemn singing of the Ukrainian national anthem and congratulatory speeches to the crowd from the “power trinity” of Yatsenyuk, Klitchko and Tyahnybok, appeared to be that from the point of view of the opposition coalition, it is preferable to have the perfidious Jewish oligarch inside the tent pissing out, rather than the other way around.
Even more jarring imagery came to the fore the following day, as 15,000 opposition members greeted the New Year by marching in a Svoboda-sponsored torchlight parade down Central Kiev’s Kreshatik Boulevard in commemoration of the 105th anniversary of the birth of Stepan Bandera – who cooperated with Nazi Germany in the buildup to the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, and many of whose followers subsequently participated in massacres of Ukrainian Jews.
Marchers carried red and black “blood and soil” nationalist banners and shouted “Glory to the nation, death to the enemies” as they cheered Tyahnbok and expressed their undying love for Bandera.
On January 7, the US Senate unanimously adopted a resolution calling on the Ukrainian authorities to refrain from the use of force and to maintain a national reconciliation dialogue with the opposition, even as it called on all parties to refrain from hate speech and anti-Semitic actions.
Clearly, while still sympathetic with the declared democratic aspirations of the opposition, neither the US nor the EU will tolerate for long the growing ascendancy of Svoboda.
To salvage their remaining credibility, Yatsenyuk and Klitschko must immediately denounce the neo-fascist drift of recent weeks and break off their alliance with Svoboda. Then they should sit and negotiate with the Ukrainian government and leaders of the country’s vibrant civil society, including leaders of all religious communities, to find a solution to the protracted standoff in the center of Kiev that will provide hope for a democratic future for Ukraine, based on rule of law.
The writer is president of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee and a member of the Ukraine’s parliament.