“Svoboda”, Ukraine, and the West

15. 3. 2017

“Svoboda” party’s approach to ethnic relations has been termed fascist, but in point of fact it is strikingly similar to official policy in Estonia, Latvia, and Israel.

The recent electoral gains of the right-wing “Svoboda” (Freedom) party in Ukraine have produced soul-searching among Ukrainian and Western analysts who view its 10 percent-plus share of the popular vote as cause for alarm. While Svoboda’s fifth-place showing in the October 28th parliamentary elections is no cause for complacency, a closer look at the party’s history and the context that spawned it may show that consternation is not an entirely appropriate response.

Indeed, the ongoing soul-searching may say more about Western and Western-oriented analysts than it does about Svoboda and Ukraine. After all, independent Ukraine is no stranger to extremism. Although Svoboda’s rhetoric has often been xenophobic, radical, and anti-democratic, two other political groups—the Communist Party of Ukraine and the ruling Party of Regions— express themselves in no less extremist terms. Worse, they have actually pursued or still pursue extremist policies. Ukraine’s Communists are proud Stalinists who ravaged Soviet Ukraine for decades, while the “Regionnaires” have attacked Ukrainian language, culture, and identity, promoted Russian supremacism, dismantled democracy, bequeathed the economy to rapacious corruptioneers, and eroded civil rights. Moreover, the Communists and the Regionnaires enjoy far more support than Svoboda. In the 2012 elections, the Communists received 13 percent and the Regionnaires 30 percent, together outpolling Svoboda by over four to one. Paradoxically, the anti-Ukrainian extremism of the Communists and Regionnaires hasn’t provoked any of the fears that Svoboda’s recent rise has.


Svoboda traces its origins to the far-right Social-National Party, a tiny group that lasted from 1991 to 2004, when, together with several other similarly inclined grouplets, it reinvented itself as the “All-Ukrainian Union ‘Svoboda’.” The Union’s fortunes remained dismal for another five years, and it received only 0.36 percent and 0.76 percent of the vote in the parliamentary elections of 2006 and 2007 respectively. The 2009 elections to the Ternopil Provincial Council, when it won 35 percent, marked a watershed. One year later, in 2010, Svoboda received 26 percent and 17 percent in the elections to, respectively, the Lviv and Ivano- Frankivsk Provincial Councils. Most recently, in the 2012 parliamentary ballot, Svoboda garnered 10.4 percent: As expected, it won about a third of the vote in Lviv, Ternopil, and Ivano-Frankivsk provinces in the west and, unexpectedly, almost 18 percent in capital city Kyiv. Offsetting this upward trend was party leader Oleh Tyahnybok’s miserly 1.43 percent in the 2010 presidential elections.

Most of the Ukrainians who voted for Svoboda in 2012 did so because they were fed up with Regionnaire abuse of their country and culture and because they admired Svoboda’s implacable opposition to the Yanukovych regime. Whereas the democrats looked helpless in the face of Regionnaire steamrolling in the Rada, Svoboda was and is widely viewed as being the only political force willing and able to say no to Regionnaire authoritarianism, corruption, and thuggishness. A trademark example of saying no took place on December 12, 2012 when, in a move that could only elicit popular support, newly-elected Svoboda deputies tore down an iron fence that had protected the Parliament from angry demonstrators. As political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko has put it: “About 30–40 percent of Svoboda’s supporters are ideological believers in the idea of Ukrainian nationalism. But in Kyiv and central Ukraine many people voted for Svoboda as the most radical force, as the ‘special forces’ of the opposition.”

That “idea of Ukrainian nationalism” rests on the view that the Ukrainian nation faces an existential threat—a not implausible claim in light of Ukraine’s catastrophic encounter with the twentieth century—and can be saved only by resistance to both foreign and domestic domination (an analysis and remedy that reflect the thinking of such anti-colonial theorists as Frantz Fanon). Notwithstanding Fesenko’s reference to “special forces,” Svoboda’s 15,000 members, as a look at any of their larger demonstrations shows, are not goose-stepping storm-troopers, but a fairly broad cross-section of Ukrainian society, with overrepresentation of boys and girls in their teens and early twenties, and with Russian speech as common as Ukrainian. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many of the Kyivites who voted for Svoboda belong to the intelligentsia, which, in Kyiv at least, is bilingual and bicultural. Svoboda’s strength in Lviv, Ternopil, and Ivano-Frankivsk provinces derives from the anger common to its supporters elsewhere and its skillful invocation of national liberation, a theme with great resonance among western Ukrainians (both in Ukraine and abroad), who revere the interand post-war nationalist movement for its implacable opposition to Soviet rule and Russian cultural domination. Unsurprisingly, Svoboda claims to be following in that movement’s footsteps.

Svoboda’s leader, the 44-year old Tyahnybok, has contributed greatly to his party’s popularity. He is articulate, smart, well-educated, and charismatic and he projects an image of a leader who, in contrast to the democrats, would never buckle under Regionnaire pressure. The reality is more complicated, of course, and it’s been more or less reliably rumored that he has received financial support from regime-friendly oligarchs, including Igor Kolomoisky, the president of the United Jewish Community of Ukraine. Either the oligarchs are hedging their bets or they are acting on Yanukovych’s behest and promoting the only candidate the incumbent president could beat in the second round of the 2015 presidential elections.

Svoboda’s approach to ethnic relations has been termed fascist, but in point of fact it is strikingly similar to official policy in Estonia, Latvia, and Israel. In effect, Svoboda aspires to create a “lite” version of what Israeli scholar Oren Yiftachel calls an “ethnocracy,” a system of rule within which the titular nation holds a position of dominance over the other nations inhabiting the land, such as Estonians and Latvians vis-a-vis Russians or Jews vis-a-vis Palestinians. As the Baltic and Israeli examples show, ethnocracies can be democratic, but they’re obviously not as democratic as liberal democracies and, with their penchant for hierarchy, can easily violate the civil rights of minorities. Although Tyahnybok has gone on record praising Israel for the fact that all its parties are nationalist, Svoboda does not call for disenfranchising minorities in the manner of the Balts and Israelis. Instead, it supports a radical affirmative-action policy that would decisively promote Ukrainians and their language and culture within all spheres of the Ukrainian state and restrict citizenship to ethnic Ukrainians, everyone born in Ukraine, and foreigners who speak Ukrainian. It goes without saying that Svoboda is anything but liberal (its representatives often deride Ukrainian liberals as “liberasts”—a combination of liberal and pederasts) and that its ranks also include genuine anti-Semites, xenophobes, and racists (the openly neo-Nazi ideologue, Yuri Mykhalchyshyn, comes to mind), but their relative presence in the party is probably no greater than that of Russian supremacists and Ukrainophobes in the Party of Regions and the Communist Party.

Svoboda’s socio-economic program, which is a mishmash of socially conservative, capitalist, and socialist elements and often reads like a Tea Party document, is pretty much irrelevant to its supporters, and it is not surprising that the party has done next to nothing in the provincial councils it controls in western Ukraine. Svoboda has neither implemented xenophobic policies nor bothered with economic issues. What they have done is engage in the shrill, anti-establishment, populist rhetoric that got them elected in the first place. Their inactivity is probably due to their ingrained preference for street politics, their absence of economic knowledge, and their paucity of intellectual skills. In the first and second respects, the nationalists resemble Ukraine’s Communists. In the second and third, they resemble the Party of Regions.


The larger context for Svoboda’s relative rise is fourfold: 1) the legacy of Soviet nationality policy, 2) Ukraine’s seemingly permanent systemic crisis, 3) the abject failure of the Orange Revolution, and 4) the anti-Ukrainian extremism of the increasingly authoritarian Yanukovych regime. The first two factors are, to use the language of causality, facilitating conditions; the third is a necessary condition; and the fourth is a sufficient condition.

The Soviet authorities managed to create a Soviet Ukrainian entity that more closely resembled a traditional colony than an autonomous republic. First, Stalin destroyed Ukraine’s elites and subjected its peasantry to a genocidal famine in the early 1930s. Then, Stalin and his successors created a pliant Soviet Ukrainian elite, established Russian political, cultural, and linguistic dominance, and assiduously pursued policies of Sovietization and Russification of Ukrainian and other non-Russian cultures. In effect, the Soviet authorities established a totalitarian ethnocracy (some have called it an empire) with Russians and Russified non-Russians occupying the top rungs and the non-Russians the lower rungs. The fear of national extinction acutely felt by Balts, Poles, and Czechs in the late 1980s, and which eventually subsided with European Union and NATO membership, continues to exist in much of Ukraine.

Ukraine’s ongoing post-independence systemic crisis has generated both enormous apathy and a desire to break with the existing oligarchical system at all costs. Ukrainians are dismayed by their consistent inability to change institutions that have benefited the super-rich, impoverished over three-quarters of the population, and forced a tiny middle class to hold on desperately for dear life. They have taken Albert Hirschman’s advice: since “loyalty” is unpalatable and moderate “voice” failed during the Orange Revolution, most now opt either for “exit” (emigration or internal withdrawal to their homes or dachas), while a few, as in the case of Svoboda, prefer a very loud voice.

The appeal of radical solutions was greatly enhanced by the failure of President Viktor Yushchenko to take advantage of the enormous popular enthusiasm generated by the 2004 Orange Revolution and break through to democracy, rule of law, the market, and the West. Instead, Yushchenko’s never-ending squabbles with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, his tolerance of corruption, and his indifference to statecraft discredited the Orange experiment and suggested that the democrats who made the revolution were incapable of governing. With the collapse of the Orange alternative, the appeal of extremist parties such as the Regionnaires, Communists, and Svoboda correspondingly grew. Viktor Yanukovych’s comeback and election as president in 2010 was in large measure due to popular disillusionment with the Orange record.

But the factor that propelled Svoboda to prominence was the last three years of Yanukovych’s misrule. He has concentrated vast powers, reduced the Parliament to a rump institution, transformed the courts into instruments of Regionnaire rule, enabled his “family” to plunder the economy, jailed political opponents, and restricted freedom of speech, assembly, and press. All these measures were bad enough, but the policies that transformed him into a pariah among Ukraine’s nationally conscious population and earned his regime the epithet of “occupationist” concern Ukrainian culture, language, and identity. Everything from the denial in 2010 of the famine of 1932–1933 as a genocide to the appointment of the notoriously Ukrainophobic Dmitri Tabachnik as minister of education to the passage of a Law on Languages in 2012 that openly promotes Russian language has driven even moderate and Russian-speaking Ukrainians to view the government as irredeemably hostile to their very existence as a nation. In extreme circumstances such as these, a party that argues for national liberation will find resonance.


It is important to remember that Svoboda received the fewest votes of the five parties represented in the Rada. Its rise has been meteoric, but there is no reason to think it will continue. Although Ukraine seems doomed to remain in systemic crisis for the foreseeable future, the Yanukovych regime may, now that its back is to the wall and the president is so reviled, moderate its extremism and adopt a less anti-Ukrainian stance. The Orange Revolution has receded into the distant past, while the impact of Soviet nationality policy is declining with every year. The current democratic opposition has been termed, and arguably has been, feckless, but they could change as the 2015 presidential elections and the prospect of victory draw near—especially if Tymoshenko is freed and runs for office. Finally, Svoboda could split in the next few years. The hard-core ideologues will insist on radical purity, while the elected deputies will have to be pragmatists. Tyahnybok, if he is serious about his career, will have to abandon his rhetorical excesses and categorically denounce xenophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism. If and when that happens, the next incarnation of Svoboda could resemble a right-of-center party able to play a constructive role in national politics, while the radicals could be demoted to what they had been, a marginal group of loony extremists.

The West can promote this development by opposing all forms of extremism in Ukraine, whether Communist, Regionnaire, or Svoboda’s. Even-handed support of moderation and democracy will deny Svoboda the publicity it thrives on and, by referencing Europe’s experience with the Eurocommunists, clearly point to the direction in which Svoboda must move if it seeks a measure of acceptance as “Euronationalists.” Ultimately, integrating Ukraine into the West in general and Europe in particular is the only way of ending the legacy of Soviet nationality policy and overcoming Ukraine’s permanent systemic crisis. Once Ukraine is treated as, and becomes like, Estonia and Latvia, all three forms of extremism currently plaguing the country will be pushed to the margins and liberal democracy just might take root. To put it simply: If Ukraine signs an Association Agreement with and moves toward the European Union, extremism will decline. If Ukraine joins the Russia-led Customs Union and adopts the political practices of its members, all forms of extremism will flourish.

Alexander J. Motyl

is a Professor of Political Science, Rutgers University-Newark. He is a specialist on Ukraine, Russia and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires and theory. He is the author of 10 books of nonfiction. He is also a novelist, poet and painter.

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