Far right rising

The success of the Svoboda party in Ukraine’s national elections in October has sparked concern.

Viktor Yanukovych (photo credit: Reuters)
Viktor Yanukovych
(photo credit: Reuters)
The roots of Svoboda, Ukraine’s controversial far-right political movement, go back to a meeting of a handful of nationalist activists in the medieval city of Lviv in 1991, barely a month after Ukraine’s parliament adopted its Declaration of Independence from the Soviet Union.
For most of the group’s existence, there had been little need to pay it more attention than it got on that fall afternoon 21 years ago. The movement had had occasional local successes in the Galicia region straddling Ukraine’s border with Poland, but in parliamentary and presidential votes, it always finished with less than one percent of the national vote.
All that changed this year, as the group adeptly tapped into what Ukrainian political observers said was an overall dissatisfaction with mainstream political parties; a distrust over the growing influence of the country’s large ethnic Russian minority; and the overall European economic malaise that is fueling discontent across the continent.
Heading into the October 28 vote, experts began predicting that the party could reach the key five-percent threshold that would guarantee parliamentary representation.
But in the end, the party more than doubled it, claiming 10.5 percent of the final vote, winning outright in three of 24 oblasts (regions) all in Galicia (including Lviv), and finishing second in voting in the capital Kiev, where the new mayor – winning by a scant 191 vote margin against the incumbent – will be 25-year-old Svoboda activist Andriy Illienko.
Despite an election marred by allegations of voter fraud, which took place with the main opposition leader behind bars, many of the headlines – once the votes were counted – focused on Svoboda. “It was a perfect storm,” Oleg Demko, a Ukraineborn political scientist with the University of Warsaw in Poland, tells The Jerusalem Report. “But now Svoboda will face the increased scrutiny that comes from a higher profile, and it remains to be seen if that will help them grow stronger, or if all this will be is a high point for them. We should learn a lot in the coming months.”
The strong finish has raised concerns in Israel, the European Union and the United States, as well as among Ukraine’s more than 160,000 Jews. Hardly surprising, given the newfound muscle for a party whose platform limits membership to “ethnically pure” Ukrainians, which would give national educational and health care preferences to ethnic Ukrainians, seeks to require state-issued documents to include a citizen’s ethnic origin, and pledges to reduce the country’s international obligations.
“This vote just legitimizes these extreme views,” says Rabbi Pynchas Vyshedski, who moved to the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk from Israel 18 years ago. He says the local Jewish community in Donetsk has become more active as Svoboda’s profile has risen.
“We are not worried about security, thank God, because the Yanukovych government is protective of its minorities,” Vyshedski says, referring to President Viktor Yanukovych, whose Party of Regions won a parliamentary majority in October. “But there are serious worries about a radical group that now has an important voice in the way policy is created.”
Alex Miller, a Knesset Member who was in Kiev for the elections, tells The Report that he is worried that with Svoboda in parliament, a pending free-trade deal between the two countries – already passed by the Knesset – could now be at risk. Ditto for an agreement negotiated to guarantee pensioners of one country their benefits if they retire in the other.
“I hesitate to comment on a domestic issue in Ukraine, but it is worrying that an extreme group like Svoboda was even allowed to stand for election,” says Miller, one of three MKs who went to Ukraine for the vote.
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman agreed, issuing a statement the day before the Ukraine vote arguing that Svoboda’s political stances “recall the darkest pages in the history of the last century that led humanity to the tragedy of World War II.”
Oleg Tyahnybok, a 43-year-old urologist and Svoboda’s charismatic and controversial leader, rejects any claims of anti-Semitism in the party’s organization, calling it a “pro- Ukrainian movement.” He tells The Report that equating nationalism with anti-Semitism was a “cliché … rooted in Soviet and modern internationalist globalist propaganda.”
But history paints a different picture. Many of Svoboda’s members started out as part of a right-wing paramilitary group called Ukrainian Patriot, which held openly pro- Nazi stances (Ukrainian Patriot and Svoboda officially ended their association five years ago, although unofficial links between the two groups remain), and which has called for purges of Jews and other minorities in Ukraine.
In 2004, Tyahnybok was ejected from a parliamentary faction he was part of, after he claimed in a televised speech that the country was run by a “Moscow-Jewish mafia” and praised a fallen leader of Ukraine’s underground resistance during World War II for fighting against the “Russians, Germans, Jews, and other enemies who wanted to take away our Ukrainian state.” Svoboda, which was founded as the “Social-National Party,” only abolished its swastika-like logo in 2003.
The party has been linked to violent clashes with minority groups as recently as earlier this year.
But Tyahnybok appears to be working to shun – or at least obscure – the group’s controversial past. It was Tyahnybok who ditched the swastika-like logo for a friendlier moniker, one reflecting the colors of the national flag. More substantially, just before the elections, Svoboda signed an unexpected cooperation agreement with Fatherland, the leading opposition party in Ukraine, founded by former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was jailed two years ago after a controversial trial alleging wrongdoing in a natural gas deal with Russia.
That Svoboda-Fatherland agreement surprised many Ukrainians – Kostyantyn Gryshchenko, the country’s foreign minister, called the two parties “strange bedfellows, to say the least. Internationally, it likely tarnished the image of Fatherland as a progressive voice in Ukraine, even after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and European Union Foreign Policy chief Catherine Ashton, the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security, used a New York Times op-ed piece to tacitly endorse Fatherland.
But among many pundits and observers in Ukraine, it is seen as an effort to strengthen Fatherland’s hand in parliament (combined, Fatherland and Svoboda will have nearly as many seats in parliament as Yanukovych’s ruling Party of Regions movement), while at the same time casting Svoboda in a more centrist light.
Indeed, some inside Svoboda charge that Yanukovych’s allies may be publicizing Svoboda’s most extreme characteristics as a way of indirectly damaging Tymoshenko’s Fatherland. Fatherland remains the Party of Regions’ main opposition in parliament, especially after the disappointing election result of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR), headed by former boxing champion Vitali Klitschko. UDAR had been expected to mount a challenge to become the main opposition party, but instead finished a distant third in the vote, barely ahead of the old Communist Party and Svoboda.
And to be sure, there were other issues in the October 28 vote that raised concerns among observers. The Yanukovych government went out of its way to grant access to elections observers, and many of them had positive comments about the technical aspects of the vote. But the 56-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), seen as the world’s most thorough election observer organization, sent its biggest ever delegation to monitor the Ukraine vote, and came away calling the vote “a step backward” compared to the 2010 elections won by Yanukovych.
Audrey Glover, the OSCE’s delegation head, said the vote was “characterized by the lack of a level playing field caused primarily by the abuse of administrative resources, lack of transparency of campaign and party financing, and lack of balanced media coverage.”
Meanwhile, the government has said it will allow fresh re-voting to take place in five electoral districts where problems were revealed; the opposition says the vote should take place again or that already cast votes be recounted again in at least 13 districts. And Tymoshenko remains in jail, where she has embarked upon her second hunger strike, to protest the results of the vote.
But much of international attention remains on Svoboda, which will likely end up with 37 seats in the 450-member Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament (that number could change by one or two seats if a re-vote takes place in some districts). It will be the fourth largest bloc, behind 187 seats for the Party of Regions, 103 for Fatherland, and 40 for UDAR (the Communists had more votes than Svoboda nationally, but finished with only 32 seats). The newly elected parliament will not meet until December 15, and until then it will be difficult to know how Svoboda will flex its muscles.
For his part, Svoboda’s Tyahnybok promises to take a wait-and-see approach, with the party’s stances moderated by its alliance with Fatherland, headed by author and economist Arseniy Yatsenyuk while Tymoshenko remains behind bars.
Even so, many Ukrainians and many of those with connections to the country remain nervous. Svoboda’s history is well known among Ukraine’s Jewish community, the fifth largest in Europe. And with an estimated 330,000 Jews from Ukraine living in Israel, there are fears that already prickly relations between the two countries could suffer.
With its success at the polls, Svoboda is expected to go from a junior member of the far-right umbrella group, the Alliance of European National Movements, to a leadership position. Many of the organizations in the alliance have ties to neo-Nazi views, though its official political stance is to protect against the mixing of indigenous racial groups and fighting against the establishment of a pan-European government.
On October 31, the director of the European Jewish Association, Rabbi Menachem Margolin, issued a statement saying the organization was “concerned about the safety of Ukrainian Jews.”
Rabbi Vyshedski also is dismissive of the more moderate recent statements from Svoboda’s leadership. “I have read Svoboda’s speeches and statements many times, and I do not need any more proof that they are anti- Semitic.”
Among the concern over the resurgence of the far-right, there is for some a historical irony in the timing of Svoboda’s electoral success. “October 28 [the date of the elections] was the 68th anniversary of the liberation of Ukraine from the Nazis,” says Oleg Voytko, a half-Jewish high school history and geography teacher in Kiev, who says he voted for Yanukovych’s Party of Regions. “Now, on that anniversary, they are back.”