“We demand human rights and death to the enemies!” Far-right movements and civil society in Ukraine

far-right in Ukraine

The debate on the “Ukrainian issue” has been going on for at least 5 years, but no clear answer  as to whether there is fascism in Ukraine [1]The issue of terminology is often the cornerstone of discussions about right-wing radicalism in Ukraine. In extreme cases, it all boils down to the formula “Fascism was in Italy. Learn … Continue reading has been found. So, does it have a place or does it not? Is it a mere Putin’s fantasy, or does the “junta” really exist? The answer you get will usually depend directly on whom you address the question. The variants can drastically vary even among people who, theoretically, adhere to the similar political views.

There is nothing to wonder here. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukrainian society has been regularly having serious problems with recognizing ideological markers. And given the ongoing battles of propagandists, its political compass had now completely gone awry. This confusion is also characteristic of civil society, which is deemed prospering after the “Revolution of Dignity”, and which should supposedly be first to be alarmed.

As one may have guessed, the conversation about fascism in Ukraine did not start in 2014. The struggle of the nationalist and “anti-fascist” narratives had been in full swing for 10 years before that and started during the 2004 presidential campaign. After the Viktor Yushchenko’s “orange” team got to rule the country, the first wave of decommissioning and heroization of OUN-UPA [2]Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists – Ukrainian Insurgent [Povstanska] Army (OUN-UPA) – is a nationalist organization (the OUN part) later formed the military organisation of Ukrainian … Continue reading figures took place. Nationalist ideas, heroes, and discourses, which until some time have been in use only among members of marginalized right-winged organizations, have become fundamental to big politics, because of their capacity of mobilizing the electorate far more efficiently than socio-economic problems. Soon, the counter-establishment groups from the Party of Regions [3]In September 2009, the then Prime Minister Mykola Azarov created the Anti-Fascist Forum of Ukraine. realized the benefits of using the “anti-fascist” arguments. Country’s prime minister and a member of the party, Mykola Azarov, even created the “Anti-fascist Forum of Ukraine”. To intimidate their East Ukrainian voters with banderivtsі from the country’s West, the Party of Regions secretly funded nationalists from the Svoboda organisation and gave its speakers plenty of prime time on controlled TV channels. The cooperation was beneficial for both parties. In 2012, Svoboda first entered the government with the reputation of being “guys who will kick the asses of ‘those Regionalists’”. The presence of the far-right in big politics was fully legitimized.

By 2014, there were already many cases of far-right violence. Back then, though, the right had to compete with anarchists and true anti-fascists in the right to control the streets. The nationalists’ successes during the violent confrontation on Maidan and their involvement in hostilities in eastern Ukraine have dramatically changed the situation. The monopoly on street violence has completely gone to far-right groupings. This has become one of the prominent factors in the political life of the country.

How to name these new political realities? This is a brain-bending question.

Junta. Fascism. Putin

“After the putsch of 2014 and the overthrow of legitimate power by Nazi militants for US money, the Fascist Junta came to power in Ukraine.” To put it bluntly, this sort of narrative was first promoted by Russian pro-government media immediately after the Maidan events. Through the lens of Russian propaganda, the Right Sector has grown to be the size of Marvel’s Hydra. It was reported to be responsible for all the evil that is happening on the planet. Such discourse on “fascism in Ukraine” was even characteristic of the top Russian officials, in particular, of President Vladimir Putin. “Anti-fascism” got to be a convenient ideological framework that explained the essence of the Donbas war.

Right Sector’s flags on the yearly nationalist march on October 14, 2017. Credit: Sergiy Movchan

This explanation fits well into one of Russia’s key historical myths, about the 1945’s “Great Victory” over fascism (the narrative promoted by Putin’s regime), and has led to consolidation of Russian society. Some Western political forces also supported the “anti-fascist uprising” in eastern Ukraine. Even today, on international conferences sometimes one may hear about “mass reprisals against the ‘people of Donbass’” and the “official ban on speaking Russian”, which has, supposedly, been in force since 2014.

The presence of the far-right in both the Maidan militia and the national army was obvious due to numerous photographs being regularly uploaded to social media and displayed in newspapers. The inept efforts of Ukrainian counterparts to deny it were to the advantage of Russian propaganda. The attempt to deny the evidence has failed the people twice: it served for Maidan critics as a ground to think that they are right, and made the proponents of Maidan think that the very idea of fascists existing in Ukraine is dangerous and full of betrayal. Mentioning “fascism in Ukraine” came to be seen as a repetition of the Kremlin propaganda, radical actions by the far-right were perceived as provocations arranged by Russian security service, and Putin was denoted as the only fascist (or even worse than fascists). This pattern of interpretation of fascism in Ukraine is still prevalent.

“There is no fascism in Ukraine”

This phrase can be considered as a large-scale response of Ukrainian journalism to hostile positions held by Russian media. It perfectly fits to be circulated both in the domestic environment and exported for the broader audience. Its main thesis is a hodgepodge made of heroization, silencing, whitewashing, whataboutism and conspiracy theories (ingredients mixed in different proportions depending on the context).

Ukrainian media outlets [4]According to a poll conducted by the Democratic Initiatives Fund in June 2019, 96% journalists reported that there was censorship in the Ukrainian media. 23% felt it was necessary, and 26% were … Continue reading were sincerely committed to fight for the country’s interests on the media front, therefore they simply refused to see neo-Nazi symbols on the standards of volunteer battalions, to recognize swastikas on clothing by the beloved by the Ukrainian patriots Svastone brand, or to pick out antisemitic lyrics in the bands having gigs for veterans. Every media article where nationalists are referred in a negative way, was counterposed by the fact’s avid negation by the local community of journalists.

When US Congress announced plans to include Azov military group into the list of terrorist organizations in late 2019, Ukrainian experts, politicians, and officials instead of objectively considering the evidence outlined by the congressmen were vigorously trying to disprove Azov being terrorists, because it potentially could harm the “image of the country”. Bellingcat, a group of international investigators, was also affected by this. During the time when the group was investigating  Russia’s involvement in the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner passing through the Donbass skies in 2014, it was well cited by Ukrainian media. But immediately after the group started to focus on the Ukrainian far-right activities and published a text about what was definitely an occupation of the Ministry of Veterans Affairs by nationalists, the “Russian trace” was “found” among the very Bellingcat activists. The Russian element was “tracked down” by a former head of the ministry, and now a deputy from the European Solidarity Party, Irina Fries. She said the group was “infiltrated by people of the Federal Security Service of Russia”.

Members of Ukrainian сivil society don’t have a problem with the attacks of the ultra-right on the “politically-wrong” journalists either. For example, in the report by ZMINA Center for Human Rights, the physical  attacks on journalists working for opposition 112 TV channel, Shariy.net and Strana.ua website or RPG attack on 112 TV Chanel were not mentioned. In the media community, there is no tradition to express solidarity with journalists of opposition channels, or even recognize them as journalists.  

Members of the far-right organization Tradition and Order are trying to attack the march in memory of victims of violence against trans people. 2019. Credit: Sergiy Movchan

Media experts took part  in  active denial of the fascists’ existence in Ukraine. Founded in 2014 and designed to combat the lies of “Kremlin propaganda in all its aspects and manifestations,” the StopFake website has been actively engaged in “exposing fakes” about fascism and Nazism in Ukraine. “StopFake has repeatedly pointed out that “fascist Ukraine” is one of Russian propaganda’s beloved topics. There are no reliable facts today, as before, to ground the bold statements about the “return of fascism” to Ukraine”, media experts say.

Even more important is the blindness of much of civil society to street violence, despite that it would seem impossible to not notice it. The team that conducted monitoring of far-right violence from October 2018 to 14 October 2019 recorded 137 cases, 89 of which were violent. Attacks on political opponents, left-wing activists, journalists, feminists, representatives of the LGBT community and national minorities, art exhibitions have become commonplace in the last 5 years. Nevertheless, media outlets prefer to see in the perpetrators of such attacks some sort of “Kremlin provocateurs” who “create a colorful picture for Russian television”, or otherwise they are called “activists and patriots”. Especially if the victims of such attacks do not have serious public support due to political circumstances or public prejudice.

Dynamic of the number of cases of violence in 2019

The series of Roma pogroms that swept through Ukrainian cities in 2018 is quite illustrative. The burning down of the temporary settlement of Roma in Kyiv’s Holosiivskyi Park and the immense media success it turned into for the far-right C14 organization[5]In 2019, the court upheld a C14 lawsuit against Hromadske. The TV channel insisted on its right to call the group “neo-Nazi”. The court obliged the media to publically discard this … Continue reading have opened up to other right groups a “recipe for success”. The attackers continued to appear on television and give interviews up until the last pogrom in July 2018, when an attack on a settlement near Lviv resulted in the death of one person and several others were stabbed (a 10-year-old child among them). After the murder, the situation has partly changed. The Lviv attackers were arrested and the attacks stopped[6]Here we refer to the attacks on Roma settlements. Despite the pogroms ended, the Kyiv City Guards organisation composed among others by C14 activists still reports about its fight against Roma living … Continue reading.

The same tactics is used by ultra-right in attacks on LGBT pride-parades, trans marches, feminist rallies and left-wing activists. For the media, such attacks are touted as a conflict between outraged patriots on one side and grantees, anti-Ukrainian forces, or “perverts” on the other, and the media is eagerly promoting this point of view on the matter.

It works the other way round too. Public anti-Semitic statements, not to mention physical attacks grounded in anti-Semitism, are mostly condemned in society. Reputational risks from such actions are also understood by right-wing radicals, so blatant anti-Semitism was excluded from their PR strategy. Ukrainian human rights activists, therefore, felt legitimized to state that the attacks on Jews had virtually ceased[7]The assessment of the level of anti-Semitism in Ukraine by different organizations varies a lot. The United Jewish Community of Ukraine (UJCU) report identifies 107 (90 direct) incidents of … Continue reading, and street anti-Semitism, as a phenomenon, had virtually disappeared after the Euromaidan. However, such a step back from the anti-Semitic direction and a reorientation to more “comfortable” goals can be considered purely tactical.

Far right and civil society

Immediately after the Maidan events, the public sector in Ukraine exploded in size. Numerous initiatives have tried to promote change in the state. However, mentioning the problem of far-right violence perpetrated by combatants at war and yesterday’s allies at barricades was somewhat unpatriotic. Nationalists, even if they committed crimes, could count on legal and information support. After a while, members of far-right groups even joined the human rights movement which ceased to regard them as foreign to its interests.

One of the latest most resonant assassinations – of Kherson activist Kateryna Gandzyuk (autumn 2018) – turned into an important topic during the presidential race. And although the murder was commited by lads with right-wing background, various far-right organizations have later joined the campaign to protect civic activists. “Surprisingly”, victims of violent acts of C14, National Corps and other nationalist organizations were not included in the list of persecuted people. All the reminders that this should be done were rejected. At the event commemorating Kateryna Gandzyuk (where right-wingers were present), curators from liberal NGOs tried to prevent such victims from taking part – to “avoid provocation”.

A left activist during an action against political persecution of activists. Caption: “Attacks perpetrated by right-wing radicals must also be investigated”. Credit: Mykola Myrniy

Sergiy Sternenko, a well-known Odessa Right Sector’s activist, joined the campaign against the persecution of activists too. It would seem that due to his criminal biography (among other cases, he stabbed one person of the two who reportedly attacked him), he should at least be expected to be awaiting for the court decision in the pre-trial detention center. But thanks to the “magical” power of the status of “activist” and “patriot” held by the suspect in the murder, Sergiy became a victim, and later, a prominent public figure who gives speaches at human rights discussions[8]In the discussion, together with Sternenko, took part the human rights ombudsman Lyumila Denysova, the Executive Director of UHHRU (Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union) Oleksandr Pavlichenko, the … Continue reading, and regularly meets with well-known public figures and “leaders.”

The ranks of the Ukrainian civil society were “replenished” with members of the Honor organization. Former football fans who attacked black fans & activists of the Azov Civilian Corps also demand to investigate the murder of Gandziuk, go to protests in Hong Kong and Paris, and like Sternenko, enjoy full support of the human rights environment.

C14 members are gradually finding their place in the human rights sun. As the right leaning journalist Valeria Burlakova reports, the abovementioned Ministry of Veterans Affairs has set up a working group to monitor the rights and freedoms of veterans convicted or taken into custody. The group includes the following: key suspects in the murder of writer Oles Buzyna, Denis Polishchuk and Andrey Medvedko, another member of the C14, Alexander Voitko, who is the coordinator of the Union of Veterans of the War with Russia. Even before that, C14 leader Yevgen Karas through questionable online voting became a member of the National Public Control Council’s Anti-Corruption Board, and Polishchuk heads the C14 affiliated National Center for Human Rights.

For their part, representatives of far-right groups have also put effort – they meticulously learned the specifics of the “third sector” language. Now we can hear from them about “far-left terror”, sexist conduct of “foreigners” towards Ukrainian women, or about “racism” of Roma human rights activists. “We are not racists! We don’t care what color those who violate the rights of Ukrainians are, black or yellow”, said Yevgen Strokan, a member of the Unknown Patriot, when his gang disrupted the press conference commemorating the Roma pogroms.

Electoral “marginals”

Of course, the world is not black and white, and it is impossible to reduce the issue with right-wing radicalism to the question of “who is a real fascist, Poroshenko or Putin”. From a certain point in time, many experts have begun to turn their attention to the activities of far-right organizations in Ukraine. Freedom House mentioned the far-right attacks in its 2018 annual report. However, some experts were tempted to not “repeat Russian propaganda”, and to distinguish “ours” versus “theirs” based on the criterion of the attitude to “the Ukrainian issue”.

The main point of divergence here is the extent and origin of far-right activism, not the question of whether “there is fascism in Ukraine” (the answer is obviously yes). In the wake of Russia talking about the “fascist junta”, they felt the pressure to tell their Western partners that the scale of far-right extremism is clearly exaggerated and these are deeds of political marginals unable to influence public policy. And they somewhat succeed in proving this – through electoral indicators.

Indeed, even in its best period, in the 2012 elections, Svoboda received a modest 10% of the vote. And in the 2019 parliamentary elections, nationalists united and formed a coalition which got only 2.15% of the vote. They did not pass[9]One deputy from the Svoboda party, Oksana Savchuk, managed to get elected into the Parliament in the single-member district from Ivano-Frankivsk. Also, some nationalists could be found in the party … Continue reading. It would seem that in comparison to European countries where the local right parties are well represented in the parliament or even govern a country like in Austria, this would seem bleak. But here are some fundamental differences.

Firstly, Ukrainian politics has never been based on ideology. It’s no secret that virtually since the moment of independence (or at least since the beginning of Kuchma’s presidency in 1994), the struggle for power between financial and industrial groups has been ongoing in Ukraine. They use ideological messages only as a means of legitimizing their own existence and mobilizing the electorate. Politicians’ reputation and certain time-specific circumstances carry more weight than programmatic statements. To illustrate this point, in the recent parliamentary elections, voters cast their ballots for people completely unknown to them and who don’t have any experience in politics just because they represented the pro-presidential party “Servant of the People”. Therefore, parliamentary perspectives of right-wing parties are indeed ghostly. They are as ghostly as for any other political force rooted in ideology (e.g. for liberals) unless such force joins a broader coalition with eminent politicians in it. But does this cause a fundamental inability for the right to get into the parliament or even to take part in a winning coalition? Of course not!

What gives power to far-right and allows them to influence public policy (sometimes even more effectively than parliamentary factions) without being represented in parliament is their integratedness into public authorities and military and law enforcement agencies, availability of weapons, well built over the years infrastructure, access to sources of funding (including from state and city budgets), total street control, and hegemony of nationalist discourse in the country that legitimizes their violent actions. Hardly ever can any of Western European countries display such qualities of far-right “marginals”. Is that why Ukraine has become a tourist mecca for Nazis from all over the world?

Members of the German neo-Nazi organization Der III. Weg on the yearly far-right march in Ukraine on October 14, 2019. Credit: Sergiy Movchan

The fact that ultra-right violence is not a one-time-only thing can be indirectly shown by statistics. After all, during the year described, the quantity of attacks is peaking when important political events take place, such as presidential or parliamentary elections. It sharply falls immediately after.

Dynamics of ultra-right confrontation and violence with significant political events

Another way to diminish the ultra-right’s weight in the society is to deprive them of their agency. Media and NGOs claim that the far-right borrowed their ideas straight from Russia, or they comply to Russian State Security Service orders. From a rhetorical point of view, this discursive strategy makes sense (who in Ukraine would even love Russia?). Although, even before Maidan, the far-right actively cooperated with both the Russian far-right movement and with European like-minded people – Hungarian Jobbik and Fides parties, Marin Le Pen’s the National Rally, and others. But despite the obvious ideological intersections, most ideas of the Ukrainian right originate from the classics of European conservatism, and consist of either international white racism, or Ukrainian nationalism.

As for whether they directly collaborate with the Federal Secret Services (FSB), there are indeed several cases where such links could be found. For example, the case of Polish neo-Nazis who set Hungarian Cultural Center in Uzhgorod on fire in February 2018, or the situation with former UNA-UNSO[10]At the same time, the previous UNA-UNSO chairman, and now the leader of the Brotherhood organisation, Dmitry Korchynsky, had joined the campaign to discredit Viktor Yushchenko and actively cooperated … Continue reading breakaway chairman Edward Kovalenko. He was given out to Russia during the last prisoner of war exchange. In 2004, Kovalenko organized a march in a Nazi aesthetics in support of Viktor Yushchenko and made provocative xenophobic statements[11]One of the most prominent nationalist organizations in Ukraine. Its activity was peaking in the 90s. Members of the UNA-UNSO participated in the wars in Transnistria, Georgia and Chechnya. There was … Continue reading. It is quite telling that journalists do not shy away from using such words as “fascism” or “neo-Nazism” in writing about them. But such cases seem meager against the backdrop of more than a hundred confrontational or violent actions committed by Ukrainian far-right parties during a year. The evidence of the “Russian trace” in them is mostly reduced to the existence of Russian-speaking members among them (the presence of large number of Russian-speakers among nationalists is a well-known fact) or to grammatical misspellings in Ukrainian neo-Nazi graffiti (this, reportedly, indicates the FSB’s hack, not the level of education of “activists”).

… über Alles!

It is unfortunate, but the responsibility for the success of the far-right is largely on representatives of civil society. Every time when people are outraged by another attack or act of vandalism, well-known thought leaders boldly ask: “Who are these swastika monsters who painted the Sholom Aleichem monument?” “Who is the one who has beaten these guys and girls marching on the Kharkiv-Pride?” And they find a universal answer: “Kremlin Agents”.

This creates a paradoxical situation in Ukraine: the same people simultaneously defend human rights and legitimize those who regularly violate human rights. All the same experts and opinion leaders on the one hand strongly support the promotion of gender optics in society and the pursuit of LGBT pride, and on the other hand engage in patriotic activities with those who attack LBGT pride. They join the attackers in the anti-capitulation marches or demand to investigate the crimes against civic activists.

The slogan “Human Rights above all” [ukr.’ponad use’] which is quite popular at human rights campaigns, is a try to redefine the nationalist slogan “Ukraine above all” in a liberal way. But now it returned to its original meaning. When it comes to nationalists, veterans, volunteers, or simply “pro-Ukrainian activists”, it is not the human rights they are asking for, they are most concerned with the ethno-nationalist discourse and fighters for the “Ukrainian order”.

But the situation could be changed. If we want the far-right to lose legitimacy, the first step could be for the representatives of Ukrainian civil society to refuse to cooperate with them. This would allow civil activists to objectively investigate the human rights violations and to reduce the risk of street attacks. If they only recognized officially the problem of fascism in Ukraine, though still refusing to diminish its extent, it would also be good, because it will harm the Russian propaganda. It also has a potential to significantly improve Ukraine’s image in the world, turning it from the country where neo-Nazis come for their Pilgrimage, to a country struggling with this shameful phenomenon.

Translated by Aleksandra Renoire Alekseeva

References

1 The issue of terminology is often the cornerstone of discussions about right-wing radicalism in Ukraine. In extreme cases, it all boils down to the formula “Fascism was in Italy. Learn History.” The author is aware that there are significant differences between the various radical right ideologies, and that some representatives of the nationalist movement may condemn fascism and Nazism and oppose violent methods. But the very definition of “nationalist” has become a major self-title for almost all right-wing organizations in Ukraine, be they truly nationalist or overtly neo-Nazi. And in the ranks of initially nationalist organizations there may be a large number of radicals whose activities are in no way condemned. Given this, we felt legit to use the words “nationalists”, “right” and “far right” as interchangeable. The word “fascism” is also used as a general framework to refer to the various ideological trends of right-wing radicalism – fascism, Nazism, neo-Nazism and other discriminatory ideologies, excluding more traditional nationalist organizations.
2 Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists – Ukrainian Insurgent [Povstanska] Army (OUN-UPA) – is a nationalist organization (the OUN part) later formed the military organisation of Ukrainian nationalists (UPA) and operated before, during and after World War II, mainly in the lands of Galicia and Volyn. In the Ukrainian national-patriotic discourse these are considered to be heroes who fought for independence against the Polish, German and Soviet forces. In Soviet times, they were deemed collaborators of Nazi Germany.
3 In September 2009, the then Prime Minister Mykola Azarov created the Anti-Fascist Forum of Ukraine.
4 According to a poll conducted by the Democratic Initiatives Fund in June 2019, 96% journalists reported that there was censorship in the Ukrainian media. 23% felt it was necessary, and 26% were convinced that a number of topics should not be raised in the media. Among the topics not to be mentioned are bad sides of the Ukrainian military,  such as alcoholism, drug addiction and looting among volunteers in the Donbass; life in the occupied territories; the situation in the army; Euromaidan events; May 2 tragedy in Odessa, and texts depicting Russia in a good manner. The main enforcers of censorship are, as told by journalists, media owners (94%) and self-censoring journalists (48%). https://www.facebook.com/pg/politkrytyka/photos/?tab=album&album_id=1960325520734529
5 In 2019, the court upheld a C14 lawsuit against Hromadske. The TV channel insisted on its right to call the group “neo-Nazi”. The court obliged the media to publically discard this naming. The media plans to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. On September 28, 2019, C14 representatives announced the transformation of the organization into a political party, the Society of the Future.
6 Here we refer to the attacks on Roma settlements. Despite the pogroms ended, the Kyiv City Guards organisation composed among others by C14 activists still reports about its fight against Roma living close by the Kiev railway station. The press conference on the commemoration of the first attack was thwarted by representatives of the far-right group Unknown Patriot. https://politkrytyka.org/2019/05/27/dyskusiyu-pro-romski-pogromy-zirvaly-ultrapravi/
7 The assessment of the level of anti-Semitism in Ukraine by different organizations varies a lot. The United Jewish Community of Ukraine (UJCU) report identifies 107 (90 direct) incidents of anti-Semitism in 2018. This data directly contradicts the Vaad Ukraine report. Its authors criticize the UJCU methodology and conclude that “in 2018, no cases of anti-Semitic violence were reported in Ukraine. Just like in 2017, ” and that there is frankly no such thing in Ukraine. The UJCU report lists 66 cases of anti-Semitism for 2019 and 10 by Vaad team (as for October 2019).
8 In the discussion, together with Sternenko, took part the human rights ombudsman Lyumila Denysova, the Executive Director of UHHRU (Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union) Oleksandr Pavlichenko, the Director of Freedom House in Ukraine Matthew Shaaf and other representatives of leading human rights organizations.
9 One deputy from the Svoboda party, Oksana Savchuk, managed to get elected into the Parliament in the single-member district from Ivano-Frankivsk. Also, some nationalists could be found in the party list of Petro Poroshenko’s European Solidarity Party.
10 At the same time, the previous UNA-UNSO chairman, and now the leader of the Brotherhood organisation, Dmitry Korchynsky, had joined the campaign to discredit Viktor Yushchenko and actively cooperated with openly reactionary pro-Russian forces – the “Progressive Socialists” lead by Natalia Vitrenko and Dugin’s Eurasian Youth Union. In 2013 the orientation of Brotherhood activities changed and they turned into prominent Ukrainian patriots and fighters with the Russian aggression.
11 One of the most prominent nationalist organizations in Ukraine. Its activity was peaking in the 90s. Members of the UNA-UNSO participated in the wars in Transnistria, Georgia and Chechnya. There was a split in organisation after mass arrests of its members after participating in radical anti-presidential protests in 2001.

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