Uses and abuses of far-right electoral gains in Ukraine
On winners and losers from the recent electoral success of the rightwing VO Svoboda Party
The recent electoral success of the rightwing VO Svoboda and the obvious benefits to the ruling Party of the Regions from such a scandalous opponent have prompted speculation regarding cooperation between the two parties. Attempts to play hero to the far-right xenophobes suggest the influence of other players, including at least one Kremlin-supported organization and the need for close attention to dangerous political manoeuvring and alliances
Shocking headlines vs. stubborn facts
Ukraine’s unique position in Eastern Europe for the marginal support consistently received at elections by far-right parties ended dramatically at the 2012 parliamentary elections when VO Svoboda won just over 10% of the votes.
It is noteworthy, if a touch suspicious, that even MP Holub whose Communist Party experienced no ideological difficulty in itself partnering the Party of the Regions for nearly 3 years, has stated publically that the ruling party brought about VO Svoboda’s spectacular success. Whatever Holub’s motives may be, the current situation in which VO Svoboda, still formally allied with the opposition Batkivshchyna and UDAR parties raises headlines worldwide through its punch-ups in parliament, foul anti-Semitic remarks and homophobic excesses is clearly a PR disaster for the democratic opposition and a pure gift to Yanukovych’s party.
It remains an open question whether the ruling party’s input was confined to offensive, often anti-Ukrainian policies, coupled with disastrous socio-economic policies, or whether such contribution went considerably further. The question deserves careful study and it would be well to consider how much any support was with the connivance of people in VO Svoboda.
The focus here is on fairly cynical attempts to gain benefit from the situation – by stirring up anti-Semitism fears, discrediting the opposition and presenting the ruling party as a defender of human rights, valiantly fighting discrimination and “Nazism”.
VO Svoboda’s behaviour in parliament, street protests and insistence on glorifying controversial historical figures like the nationalists Bandera and Shukhevych conveniently divert attention from the empty rhetoric of their economic promises and real dangers posed by their xenophobic and totalitarian ideology. In a recent article, Andreas Umland pointed out that one specific feature in VO Svoboda’s success has been the real, not imagined, threat from Russia. Another, by no means unrelated, element is the degree to which any mention of anti-Semitism in Ukraine leads overnight to wildly inaccurate claims encompassing at very least all of Western Ukraine. . Vyacheslav Likhachov has carried out invaluable monitoring over the past 10 years and says loud and clear that no dramatic rise in anti-Semitism has been recorded, rather the contrary. He, Umland and others have pointed to the fact that Ukraine stood out among neighbouring countries for the low level of support for extreme right parties and even the latest development is still in no way exceptional.
Knee-jerk responses to exaggerated claims and counter-attacks only exacerbate the problem, especially when the narrative is about Ukrainians having supposedly “always” been anti-Semitic, etc. . Unfortunately so too do memories from World War II which, like it or not, often present a quite different image of Bandera and his supporters from that presented not only in VO Svoboda circles.
All that said, there are certain organizations whose objectives have included pushing a certain image of Ukraine and the Baltic States. At least one has gained rather suspicious support of late from the ruling party in Ukraine.
Kremlin-linked moves “against Nazism”
Shortly before the parliamentary elections, In which she was running, Hanna Herman announced that she, as Adviser to President Yanukovych, had been elected “Human Rights Commissioner” from Ukraine of the International Human Rights Movement “World without Nazism”. She asserted that this body “brought together national human rights movements in 24 countries”. The movement and some of its members have been studied closely by the above-mentioned specialist from the Congress of National Minorities in Ukraine, Vyacheslav Likhachov. In his assessment: “the structure calling itself the Human Rights Movement “World without Nazism” is an overt political technology outfit created by businesspeople close to the Kremlin and helping the President’s Administration to carry out various socio-political and media campaigns in the post-Soviet area. “
He says its main aim is “to help discredit and create a negative image of certain countries of the former Soviet Union with the help of «anti-fascist” rhetoric, accusing their leaders of anti-Semitism, radical nationalism, abetting neo-fascism, muffling the truth about the Holocaust …”
It was noticeable even back in 2010 that any opposition to Yanukovych was regularly – and very often unwarrantedly - described in the Western media as “nationalist”. That was largely forgotten for a while as politically motivated prosecutions, cases of censorship and other human rights concerns mounted. VO Svoboda’s success gives new scope for distracting world attention away from inconvenient issues, and the regime is clearly eager to stop being the bad guy.
Selective rights protection
Oleksandr Feldman’s recently tabled draft Law against Nazism is in many ways an echo of similar moves in Russia. The law ignores the need to defend those discriminated for sexual orientation which for a bill aimed at honouring the memory of victims of Nazism is clearly disturbing. It also focuses solely on Nazi symbols as though glorification of Stalinism in Ukraine were not also profoundly offensive.
Feldman changes political sides very often but has been consistent in speaking out against anti-Semitism and xenophobia. Party of the Regions MP Kolesnichenko’s new role as defender of human rights is considerably more difficult to take seriously.
In response to a revoltingly anti-Semitic remark by VO Svoboda MP Ihor Miroshnychenko, Kolesnichenko has tabled a draft Resolution aimed at banning the use by officials of offensive terms for Jew, Ukrainian, Russian and others. There are lots of references to international documents and protection from all forms of discrimination, hate speech etc, however the draft resolution is as short on substance as the Law against Discrimination adopted by parliament in September last year despite strong objections from human rights groups. A “law” was required, and hurriedly pushed through, to get the EU off their back and to fend off human rights criticisms during the election campaign. Neither Feldman nor Kolesnichenko made any effort then to add substance to that Law and their own documents are basically also empty verbiage.
A telling point in Kolesnichenko’s supposed fight against hate speech is his instruction to the Interior Ministry. The latter is the source of many of the reports perpetuating pernicious stereotypes about certain ethnic groups and regularly circulated to the media. There is no mention of cleaning up their own act, just instructions to make sure that the relevant article of the law is implemented. It is the Foreign Ministry’s role which seems to explain the whole purpose of the exercise. The ministry should “inform the world community and international organizations regarding the objective and essence of this Resolution.
Kolesnichenko can go on as much as he likes about “fighting all manifestations of discrimination”. As in Feldman’s law, the draft Resolution makes no mention of discrimination of sexual minorities. The reason this time becomes abundantly clear if we consider another of Kolesnichenko’s legislative offerings – a new draft law on outlawing “promotion of single-sex sexual relations directed at children”. This refers, we are told, to “deliberate activities aimed or expressed in the circulating of any positive information about single-sex sexual relations”. The verbal coating and reference to protecting children should not mislead us: a law of this ilk reflects the same profound contempt for others’ rights demonstrated in attacks on gays by homophobic VO Svoboda supporters. This law also differs little from a similar law being pushed in Russia.
Attempts to find the MP’s current role as warrior against hate speech seem especially unconvincing given the draft Resolution he tabled in 2009 based on the Russian Orthodox Church’s Basic Teaching on Human Dignity, Freedom and Human Rights. All the international documents and human rights values which he now refers to were then viewed in quite different terms:
““the contemporary system of so-called “universal human rights”, reflected in the majority of international documents and enshrined in the Constitution and a number of laws of Ukraine, was formed largely on the basis of the liberal-protestant western tradition with its inherent human-centeredness and extreme individualism, does not work properly on Ukrainian soil”.
The Basic Teachings and their Ukrainian version exude a view of traditional (Orthodox) values, of the West and its pernicious views on human rights and freedoms which are thoroughly Soviet, albeit with pan-Slavonic leanings. Vyacheslav Likhachov has on a separate occasion pointed at that “among the organizations founding “World without Nazism” there were gangs known for their rightwing radical extremist rhetoric (admittedly, of a pan Slavonic or pro-Russian bent”.
Hazardous manoeuvring and where it gets Ukraine
It seems unlikely that Ukraine’s leaders are hoping to convince EU and other Western governments that Ukraine’s main battle is between good blokes battling for human rights against hardened neo-Nazis. On the other hand, all the clear associations with Russian initiatives suggest that they plan to get every benefit they can from VO Svoboda’s success. We have no grounds at all for assuming that either the Party of the Regions or VO Svoboda care about the price the country will have to pay. Nor are the opposition Batkivshchyna and UDAR parties showing signs of even a self-preservation instinct. They not only seem unwilling to understand how much they themselves stand to lose through their alliance with VO Svoboda, but the Batkivshchyna Party has even followed VO Svoboda in promising that it will reinstate the old “nationality” (in fact ethnic origin) point in passports. The nationality element always served to breed division and anti-Semitism and would distance Ukraine still further from the democratic community.
The persistent failure by all political players in Ukraine to properly address such fundamental issues as fighting discrimination and safeguarding the rights of all citizens is profoundly frustrating. Maximum coverage of all forms of manipulation will not resolve this impasse, but can at least make those playing only for political points watch their step.