Svoboda: The rise of Ukraine's ultra-nationalists

Fight in parliament -  Ihor Miroshnychenko (centre) on the attack

Ukraine's ultra-nationalist party, Svoboda, was a shock winner in October's parliamentary election, capturing 10% of the vote and entering the legislature for the first time. How radical is it?

Svoboda's presence has been felt immediately in Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, where its 37 deputies belong to a broad coalition opposing President Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions.

Meeting for its first two sessions in mid-December, the Rada - as it has a number of times in the past - degenerated into scenes that resembled not so much a legislative process as an ice hockey brawl, involving dozens of shoving, punching and kicking parliamentarians.

Svoboda's newly installed deputies, clad in traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirts, were in the thick of the melee, when not actually leading the charge.

They helped attack and drive from the opposition's ranks two deputies - a father and son - who were accused of preparing to defect to the ruling party. Then they joined a massive free-for-all around the speaker's rostrum, in protest at alleged illegal absentee-voting by deputies from the governing party.

One of Svoboda's leading members, sports journalist Ihor Miroshnychenko, his ponytail flying behind him, then charged the podium to prevent a deputy speaking in Russian. (Svoboda believes that only Ukrainian should be used in all official bodies.)

Outside, Svoboda deputies used a chainsaw to cut down an iron fence erected last year to prevent crowds from storming the parliament building. This they justified in the name of popular democracy.

Start Quote

We want Ukrainians to run the country - 70% of the parliament are Jews”

End Quote Bohdan Svoboda party supporter

"No other democratic country has fenced-off the national parliament," said Svoboda's Ruslan Koshulinskiy, the deputy speaker of parliament. "People have chosen these lawmakers and should have a right to have access to them."

Chaotic and confrontational as this may seem to Western eyes, Svoboda's over-the-top behaviour is partly what drove many Ukrainians to vote for them.

The party has tapped a vast reservoir of protest votes. In a political landscape where all other parties are seen as corrupt, weak or anti-democratic - or all three - Svoboda seems to have attracted voters who would otherwise have stayed away from the polls altogether. Its strong anti-corruption stance - promising to "clean up" Ukraine - has resonated deeply.

"I'm for Svoboda," said Vadim Makarevych, a supporter, said at a recent rally in Kiev. "We have to stop what is happening in our country. It's banditry and mafia."

At the same time, they have staked out a position as fervent - some say rabid - defenders of traditional Ukrainian culture and language.

Svoboda's rise

Svoboda rally
  • "Svoboda" means "freedom"
  • Founded in 1991 as Social-National party
  • Fourth largest party in new parliament, with 37 out of 450 deputies
  • Share of the vote grew by factor of 14 between 2007 and 2012 elections
  • Won 30-40% of vote in three western regions in 2012 - and about 1% in three eastern regions
  • A member of the Alliance of European National Movements, along with France's National Front, the British National Party and Hungary's Jobbik

Months before Miroshnychenko charged the parliament podium, Svoboda activists were photographed appearing to spray police with pepper gas, at a demonstration against a law making Russian an official language in some regions of the country.

Among those who see Russia as a threat to Ukraine's independence - chiefly in the west rather than the east of the country - many applaud this tough anti-Moscow stance.

But in the run-up to October's election, the party also wooed centrist voters by softening its image.

Party leader Oleh Tyahnybok repeatedly reassured voters that Svoboda is not racist, xenophobic or anti-Semitic - just pro-Ukrainian. "We are not against anyone, we are for ourselves," he said.

By presenting itself as a party of very devoted patriots, Svoboda seems to have won over voters who would be repelled by some of its more radical views - or voters who sympathise with these views, but prefer them to remain unspoken.

In the last parliamentary elections five years ago, Svoboda managed only 0.7% of the vote. This time, in addition to expanding its traditional base in the country's Ukrainian-speaking west - it won close to 40% in the Lviv region - Svoboda made inroads into central regions, capturing second place in the capital Kiev.

Oleh Tyahnybok

Last week (20/12/12) the charismatic Tyahnybok was voted Person of the Year by readers of the country's leading news magazine, Korrespondent.

But while the party's radical past can be papered over, it cannot be erased. Its name until 2004 was the "Social-National Party" and it maintains informal links to another group, the Patriots of Ukraine, regarded by some as proto-fascist.

In 2004, Tyahnybok was kicked out of former President Viktor Yushchenko's parliamentary faction for a speech calling for Ukrainians to fight against a "Muscovite-Jewish mafia" - using two highly insulting words to describe Russians and Jews - and emphasising that Ukrainians had in the past fought this threat with arms.

The open letter (2005)

Letter about activities of Jewry
  • Title - Stop the Criminal Activities of Organised Jewry
  • Signed by Tyahnybok and 17 others
  • Lists Jewish businessmen, who got rich in the 1990s, and claims they control Ukrainian media
  • Describes Zionism as "Jewish Nazism" and warns of "genocide" through the impoverishment of Ukrainians
  • Demands investigation into the activities of Jewish organisations headed by people "suspected of serious crimes"

In 2005, he signed an open letter to Ukrainian leaders, including President Yushchenko, calling for the government to halt the "criminal activities" of "organised Jewry", which, the letter said, was spreading its influence in the country through conspiratorial organisations as the Anti-Defamation League - and which ultimately wanted to commit "genocide" against the Ukrainian people.

Tyahnybok stresses that he has never been convicted for anti-Semitism or racial hatred, though prosecutors opened a case against him after his 2004 speech. "All I said then, I can also repeat now," he says. "Moreover, this speech is relevant even today."

Other Svoboda members have also courted controversy. Yuriy Mykhalchyshyn, a parliamentary deputy considered one of the party's ideologues, liberally quotes from former Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, along with other National-Socialist leaders.

This undoubtedly appeals to a number of Svoboda's voters, though to what extent is difficult to determine.

Even now, Svoboda's platform calls for passports to specify the holder's ethnicity, and for government positions to be distributed proportionally to ethnic groups, based on their representation in the population at large.

"We want Ukrainians to run the country," says Bohdan, a participant in a recent Svoboda rally, as he waves a Ukrainian flag and organises cheering and chanting.

Start Quote

There's a belief that Svoboda will change, and that they may become proper national democrats”

End Quote Andreas Umland Mohyla Academy University

"Seventy percent of the parliament are Jews."

Some see signs that Svoboda's radical elements are reasserting themselves. Activists recently attacked and sprayed tear gas at a gay rights rally in central Kiev. Ihor Miroshnychenko, meanwhile, used abusive language to describe the Ukrainian-born American actress Mila Kunis, who is Jewish, in an online discussion.

However, a number of Svoboda's critics, while underscoring the potential dangers of the party's rise, also say that its popularity may be fleeting. Svoboda's surge mirrors the far-right's growing strength in many countries across Europe, they point out, and may not signal any fundamental, long-term rightward shift among the Ukrainian population.

With the increased scrutiny that the party will come under in parliament, more Ukrainians may also take objection to Svoboda's wilder statements, or decide it creates unnecessary divisions in an already polarised country.

The party itself could also become more mainstream as it conforms to pressure from its political partners. This has happened with other far-right groups in the past, like the Italian Fascist party, which mellowed as it integrated into Italy's conservative camp, experts say.

"There's a belief that Svoboda will change, once in the Verkhovna Rada, and that they may become proper national democrats," says Andreas Umland, a political science professor at Kiev's Mohyla Academy University.

But he hesitates to predict how the party's internal tensions will be resolved.

"We don't know which way Svoboda will go," he says. "It may actually become more radical."

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