Justified concerns about the rightwing VO Svoboda Party may have concentrated of late on certain revolting displays of anti-Semitism. They should not end there. The position taken in a recent article by Bishop Paul Peter Jesep, especially when he calls the coalition between VO Svoboda and the opposition Batkivshchyna and UDAR parties “a good alliance” fails, I believe, to take a number of other worrying aspects of VO Svoboda’s programme into account.
Many of the points discussed below are absolutely fundamental to the party’s position and core of supporters. Among the 10 percent of Ukrainians who voted for them in October, probably a majority would not share these principles. On the other hand, their largely protest votes were not just against Yanukovych’s regime, but against all the parties in power over recent years and felt to have let them down, including Batkivshchyna. VO Svoboda’s rigid and uncompromising position is likely to have been a vote-winner, and the party’s leaders, unfortunately, will probably not see any reason to change their stance.
Rather than encouraging VO Svoboda to mellow its position, the main opposition party – Batkivshchyna – has actually taken onboard one pernicious policy, that being the reinstatement of the notorious Soviet “fifth point” – nationality – in passports (internal identity documents, as well as passports for travel abroad).
“Nationality” is understood as meaning ethnic origin, and the full significance of this term can be understood by viewing the possibilities: Ukrainian, Russian, Jewish, Crimean Tatar. Recent attempts by the new Deputy Speaker to present this as being about protecting people’s identity are quite unconvincing and indeed Item 14 of their programme has an entirely different subtext. According to this candidates for all electoral posts must give their ethnic origin on their official biographies. The fifth point fostered anti-Semitism in Soviet times and there is no reason to expect anything different now.
Nor does the party give any grounds for optimism. In Items I. 7 – 9 of its party programme the party declares its plan to: insert “nationality” in both passport (internal document) and birth certificate; to introduce criminal liability for what it calls “any demonstrations of Ukrainophobia” (behaviour deemed anti-Ukrainian); as well as “to submit for nationwide discussion a draft Law on Proportionate Representation in executive bodies of Ukrainians and members of national minorities”.
Ukrainophobia clearly refers to behaviour against ethnic Ukrainians. In VO Svoboda-speak this is the meaning of “Ukrainian”. It is categorically not the meaning understood in Ukraine’s Constitution and is in no way appropriate for a multicultural society wishing to take its place in a democratic and multicultural Europe.
Under the present regime with the open contempt shown by many in responsible positions for the Ukrainian language, for Western Ukrainians, etc, it is hardly surprising that this policy is viewed by many as a way of affirming their Ukrainian identity. This was probably the reason that Batkivshchyna adopted it. The policy remains fundamentally divisive. Demanding that Ukrainians be divided into “Ukrainians” and “Jews”, “Russians”, etc is serving only those who have assiduously pushed the stereotype of Ukrainians as rabid anti-Semites.
This is just one of the many points where VO Svoboda’s policies seem aimed at anything but the good of Ukraine.
For all its strident statements against communism and the Soviet regime, VO Svoboda’s policies in a number of areas are extraordinarily Soviet. If they were ever to come to power, the country would become as closed and stagnant as in Soviet days. This would include, incidentally, treatment of foreigners, though here populism also plays a large role. There are blustering remarks about student places being for Ukrainians, not foreign students which conveniently begs the issue of why students from abroad are there – they bring the universities important income.
All Ukrainian parties’ political platforms are full of promises and plans which will never materialize. The danger with VO Svoboda is that the promises are intrinsically undemocratic and intolerant. . Like it or not, Ukraine is a country with a large number of people who are native Russian-speakers, who do not share VO Svoboda’s view of history, its ideas about heroes and villains. It is very easy to see how they too would be labelled “anti-Ukrainian”. And not just labelled – VO Svoboda’s plans for introducing criminal liability here, there and everywhere make one shudder. Censorship in true Soviet style is also inevitable. VI.6 proposes to impose “strict criminal liability for public denial of Holodomor as genocide of the Ukrainian nation” while Item V.21 envisages “stripping media sources of their licence if they “infringe language legislation; denigrate the national dignity of Ukrainians; spread disinformation or carry out anti-Ukrainian propaganda”. We can all cite examples of quite outrageous hate speech, including from certain ministers, most notoriously, Dmytro Tabachnyk, and can feel that it shouldn’t be allowed. It shouldn’t, but at political level, not through restrictions on freedom of opinion and expression.
Those committed to real freedom and democracy would do well to consider why the present regime has so deliberately antagonized many Ukrainians with its policies and extraordinary appointments. Ukraine’s bad press over the last month has largely been over VO Svoboda excesses. This is highly convenient for a regime which has imprisoned political opponents, fiddled the recent parliamentary elections, passed some seriously dangerous laws and systematically stifled freedom of expression and assembly.
VO Svoboda’s state programme for “patriotic upbringing”, Ukrainian history etc creates precisely the same ideological terrorism as in Soviet times – the coating may have changed, and therefore the views of those who are considered dissidents, but the mentality remains the same – light years away from democracy and pluralism. All of this makes words about European choice etc just as empty as those uttered by the ruling party. The opposition faces an extremely powerful opponent and unity certainly seems vital. In the present situation this political marriage comes at a price, and if that involves dividing the country and alienating the democratic world, then the price may well be too high..