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Kyiv’s Next Image Problem

Ukraine is today facing a dangerous anti-democratic challenge – from the new president’s authoritarian turn on the one hand and from a new right-radical movement on the other. From openDemocracy.

by Andreas Umland 13 October 2010

The prospect of Ukraine’s rapprochement with – and future entry into – the EU is, perhaps, the most important political idea facing this divided country today. It is an aim that still unites almost the entire Ukrainian elite, and one of the few political topics on which large portions of the population of Ukraine more or less agree. Moreover, the course and results of the 2004 Orange Revolution have created an image of Ukraine, in Europe, which sets this post-Soviet republic apart from other successor states of the USSR. That was an event signaling the Ukrainians’ willingness to seriously break with their authoritarian past. To be sure, Kyiv’s reputation in the West has, because of the post-revolutionary self-destruction and chaotic governance of the Orange camp, remained ambivalent (to say nothing more). At the same time, the push that Ukraine’s democratization has received from the Orange Revolution remains a considerable international public relations asset for this young nation state. The spread, in Europe, of the idea that the Ukrainians are a pro-democratic people was documented by, among other reactions, the European Parliament’s February 2010 resolution explicitly endorsing a EU membership perspective for Ukraine. The 2004 mass action of civil disobedience as well as the relatively free and fair national elections of 2006, 2007, and 2010 have, in the perception of many West European political and intellectual leaders, left a picture of Ukraine which paints this nation as being a troubled, yet integral part of Europe. 


During the last months, the new president and government of Ukraine have done considerable damage to the international achievements of the Orange Revolution, and European reputation of Ukraine. Their heavy-handed approach towards political opponents, free-thinking journalists, unsuspecting academics, or representatives of foreign organizations is raising more and more eyebrows in the West. In particular, the dubious procedure with which the government of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov was brought to power in the spring has undermined assurances regarding the democratic allegiances and European aspirations of the new rulers in Kyiv. More and more Western observers today may ask themselves whether Ukraine, after all, could be considered a Eurasian rather than European country. Maybe Ukraine is, contrary to what the 2004 events suggested, just a smaller version of Russia? Does Ukraine really want to become a full member of the informal international club of democratic countries, and its formal communities such as NATO and the EU? And, if President Viktor Yanukovych is creating a political system similar to Putin’s, should, perhaps, Ukraine enter the Russian Federation rather than the European Union?


In early 2010, a large portion of the Western observers of Ukraine looked with hope and optimism to the change of power in Kyiv. Today, in contrast, a consensus seems to be gaining hold among many Ukraine watchers that Yanukovych may have been the wrong choice as a leader for this unconsolidated post-Soviet state. The constant flow of bad news on Ukrainian democracy, civil society, mass media, and rule of law has made even radical critics of Yulia Tymoshenko to rethink their previous assessments. Yanukovych’s restorative policies will certainly be reflected in the upcoming assessments of the quality of Ukrainian democracy, by such agencies as Freedom House. The new leadership’s authoritarian regressions have become widely noted not only in the Ukrainian opposition, press and diaspora. They are now also discussed in EU governments, parliaments, parties, newspapers and think tanks.


However, another emerging problem for Ukraine’s future international reputation has, at the same time, remained largely ignored by most observers: the recent rise of the right-wing All-Ukrainian Svoboda Association of Oleh Tiahnybok (b. 1968), a physician and lawyer from the East Galician city of Lviv. His ultra-nationalist party grew out of the clearly fascist Social-National Party of Ukraine founded in 1991, in Lviv. The SNPU’s name deliberately reminded of the National-Socialist German Workers Party. Its symbol was the so-called Wolfsangel (wolf’s hook) once used by the SS “Das Reich” Division and today popular among various European Neo-nazi groups. In 2004, the Social-National Party renamed itself Svoboda (Freedom) and abandoned the Wolfsangel. While Svoboda remained explicitly nationalistic, in recent years it has toned down its revolutionary rhetoric. It also embraced, in its front-stage statements, a national-democratic discourse, and proclaims its adherence to the Ukrainian constitution. Its leadership includes a number of articulate intellectuals such as Dr. Iryna Farion, a senior lecturer in Ukrainian philology at Lviv’s Polytechnical Institute, and Andrei Ilyenko, son of the legendary nationalist film director Yuri Ilyenko (1936-2010) and a political science researcher at Kyiv’s Shevchenko University. They and, above all, Tiahnybok himself, have recently become regular guests at Ukrainian TV shows, and sought-after interviewees or authors at many Kyiv periodicals. As a result, Svoboda’s popularity has, especially in western Ukraine, been constantly growing during the last year. Having its main base in the East Galician regions of Lviv, Ternopil, and Ivano-Frankivsk, Svoboda, as an obvious result of its increased mass media presence, is also making inroads into the Central Ukrainian, including the Kyivan, electorate. As Ukraine has a proportional electoral system with a relatively low 3 percent barrier for entry into parliament, it seems likely that Svoboda will have a faction in the next Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council) – Ukraine’s national legislature.



"Anti-Semitism is not a free-standing phenomenon, but derives from Semitism. When, after the Chernobyl nuclear station accident, radiation levels rose sharply, steps were taken against that radiation, which seeped out everywhere. [...] That's how it is with anti-Semitism: it's a reaction to rising levels of Semitism in society. And no government can do anything about it, even if they shut down all institutes of higher education.


The word Semitism itself is a phantom, a mask, that doesn't really mean anything. An anti-Semite is one who dislikes Semites. Arabs also belong to the Semitic family – the biggest anti-Semites in the world."



That will mean additional damage to Kyiv’s already dented reputation in the West. Svoboda is a racist party promoting explicitly ethnocentric and anti-Semitic ideas. Its main programmatic points are Russo- and xenophobia as well as, more recently, a strict anti-immigration stance. It is an outspoken advocate of a heroization of Stepan Bandera’s Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists – an interwar and World War II ultra-nationalist party tainted by its temporary collaboration with the Third Reich as well as its members’ participation in genocidal actions against Poles and Jews in western Ukraine during German occupation. Although Svoboda emphasizes the European character of the Ukrainian people, it is an anti-Western, anti-liberal, and anti-EU grouping. It belongs to the international so-called Alliance of European National Movements. This radically right-wing pan-European party association includes, among other groupings, France’s Front national, the Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik), and the British National Party – three of Europe’s most prolific and extreme nationalist parties today. Tiahnybok’s most prominent new political friend on the international scene is, incongruously, the Frenchman Jean-Marie Le Pen who also used to be friendly with Vladimir Zhirinovsky – an aggressively anti-Ukrainian Russian imperialist politician.


Svoboda is a phenomenon not untypical for contemporary Europe. Several EU member countries had or have politically significant parties and, sometimes, parliamentary factions with ideologies comparable to that of Tiahnybok’s association. However, for a country as domestically unconsolidated and internationally non-integrated as Ukraine, a prominent ultra-nationalist party in parliament would be dangerous luxury. Svoboda will, as a Verkhovna Rada faction, further estrange many [Russian-speaking] east and south Ukrainians as well as a number of international partners from the Ukrainian state. It will contribute to the already high geographical polarization within the Ukrainian electorate. Svoboda’s presence in the national legislature would undermine the development of a Ukrainian political nation, and of a transregional, pan-ethnic patriotism. Public opinion in countries like Poland, Israel, and Germany would become more skeptical towards the Ukrainians as a European nation. Svoboda’s further rise will help cement Ukraine’s current under-institutionalization in the European security structure. The entry of the Galician ultra-nationalists into Ukraine’s political establishment would be an alienating factor between Kyiv and Brussels. It would thus, oddly, make Ukraine more vulnerable with regards to Russian attempts to undermine this post-Soviet state’s independence and integrity. Though many observers think that Ukraine is now already at the lowest point of its post-Soviet development, even more bad news might be in store for the largest country of Europe.

Andreas Umland teaches within the Master in German and European Studies program at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and edits a scholarly book series, “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society.”


This article was published on 6 October by Andreas Umland and under a Creative Commons license.

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