While Ukraine remains tense, and the threat of Russian invasion is still present, the last weeks haven’t seen too many new big events in the country. So today I want to focus on an allegation that has been thrown time and time again at the new government in Kyiv – that they are fascist anti-Semites. Is this true? Well firstly, which political parties are we talking about here? And how much influence do they have on the new government?
This is a helpful article by Foreign Policy on what fascism actually is, for those who are unsure.
From the early days of the Euromaidan protests Yanukovich and Putin have labelled the protesters as ‘fascist’ – and Right Sector is one of the few groups to which this label could almost apply. They are an armed group set up at the beginning of the protests, and were some of the most active and violent protesters. They are still on the streets of Kyiv, often armed. They also hold strongly nationalist and anti-Russian views. While many members are definitely thugs and racists, they are not officially anti-Semitic; members have visited the Israeli embassy and there is still no evidence they have been involved in hate crimes.
To say that they are in control of the Kyiv government though is untrue. The new government has been cracking down on them in the last weeks, after calling all armed groups “illegal”. One of their leaders, who had links to organised crime and had fought the Russians in Chechnya, accidently shot himself after shooting at the police sent to arrest him in a raid in Western Ukraine. After a standoff in central Kyiv, many other Right Sector members backed down, and were bussed out of the city. This is an encouraging sign, and the new government is showing that armed groups like Right Sector have no place in a democratic society.
The other far-right party, Svoboda, is more troubling. They are a far-right nationalist group who are actually represented in parliament. They are much more accepted in Ukrainian politics, holding 5 seats in the new government. They have become more moderate over time, and are less extreme than Right Sector, but there is still controversy about their alleged anti-Semitism and fascism. Finding the truth here is difficult, with different media and academics saying different things. Many members are certainly anti-Semitic, though the party is mainly extremely conservative and anti-communist. They are also not the most democratic of people – recently the acting president of the state broadcaster was beaten and forced to resign by Svoboda members of parliament for showing Putin’s speech on Crimea on TV. They remarkably chose to film the ugly attack and put it on their website. These are clearly not people who belong in a democratic parliament.
On the way to a fascist take-over?
So is this proof that the new government is Ukraine is fascist? Not really, for a few reasons. Firstly, Ukraine is in an immediate post-revolutionary stage. All sorts of groups gained influence throughout the violent protests, in an atmosphere of fear and anger where the most vocal groups could gain the most support. Groups like Right Sector, who are still extremely marginal, are able to get much more attention in such a situation. To create a stable government the more moderate opposition leaders had to cooperate with groups such as Svoboda to avoid facing more unrest. It sounds like a weak argument, but in an unstable revolutionary situation compromises have to be made that would never be made in peacetime.
Secondly, the anti-Semitic and nationalist statements made by members of Svoboda and Right Sector aren’t unique to them, but are part of a far wider problem in the region. Russia has a long history of anti-Semitism, especially in the late tsarist period. The problem is that they were never forced to deal with it. While other countries in Europe saw the horror of anti-Semitism under Nazi occupation, the Russians won WWII and never had to confront their own racism. Anti-Semitic statements are sadly common in Russian media, especially in the current nationalist climate, with one national TV presenter recently saying that the Jews were partially to blame for the Holocaust. This provides some context for the racism of Svoboda and Right Sector, and shows the hypocrisy of Putin crying out against anti-Semites in Ukraine. It is something that many countries in that part of the world need to deal with.
Thirdly, neither the Right Sector nor Svoboda are looking like winning the elections. Their support among the general population is much lower than one might think. Right Sector is polling at 1.6%, and Svoboda at below 10%. In a peaceful situation, without threats from Russia, the appeal of nationalist groups will be much less. Putin knows that having thousands of troops on the border will drive people towards Right Sector and Svoboda, and weakens the position of the moderates. This then supports his claim that the Ukrainian government is ‘fascist’. But hopefully with the elections next month Ukrainians will show that they reject this. The popular opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko had the courage and integrity to withdraw from the presidential race and throw his support behind another moderate candidate, Petro Poroshenko, who is now in the lead. Barring another Russian invasion, the long-term future for the far-right parties doesn’t look as positive as they might hope.