Foreign Policy Blogs

Will Ukraine’s Far Right Parties Fail Again in 2019?

The flag of the All-Ukrainian Union “Svoboda” (Freedom).

Ever since the beginning of its armed struggle against Moscow during World War II, the Ukrainian far right has been used by the Kremlin as a bogeyman. The political radicalism, war-time mass crimes, fascist leanings, and manifest militancy of historic Ukrainian ultra-nationalism has been employed by Soviet and post-Soviet Russian agitation among Russian and Western publics, otherwise largely ignorant about Ukrainian matters. The Banderite label, derived from the surname of the one-time leader of Ukrainian nationalism’s most radical wing, was and is being used to stigmatize Ukrainians from Galicia and Volynia, Ukrainian patriots, in general, or even merely self-ascribed Ukrainians, as universally xenophobic, antisemitic and genocidal.

As a result of decades of relentless
campaigning, the term “Banderite” (banderivets,
banderivka
) eventually become defiantly adopted, as a self-description, by
many Ukrainians. This is in spite of the fact that most of today Ukraine’s self-ascribed
“Banderites” share little to nothing with historic Stepan Bandera’s political aims,
beyond their common goal of Ukrainian independence. Parts of the Western public,
nevertheless, continue to see little difference between, on the one side, liberationist
as well as emancipatory, and, on the other side, extremist and ethno-centrist, impulses
of Ukrainian nationalism and their related diverging political permutations, in
the past and present.

The Rise and Fall of
the Freedom Party

The entry, in 2012, of the radical nationalist
and explicitly anti-Russian All-Ukrainian Union “Svoboda” (Freedom) into
Ukraine’s parliament, with 10.44% in the proportional part of the elections,
and appearance, in 2014, of new extra-parliamentary far right groups, like the
Right Sector and Azov battalion, provided new fodder for Moscow’s campaign.
Especially, the first leader of the Right Sector, Dmytro Yarosh, was singled
out, by Kremlin-controlled mass media, as allegedly posing, in spite of his
origins in the eastern Dnipropetrovsk oblast, a deadly threat to Russophones in
Ukraine. Russian TV’s frantic propaganda crusade against him made Yarosh – an
actually minor figure in Ukrainian politics – a celebrity of sorts, in Ukraine
and beyond.

Yet, the surprisingly weak performance of
Yarosh in the May 2014 presidential elections (0.7%) and of his Right Sector
party in the October 2014 parliamentary elections (1.8%) took the steam out of
the Kremlin’s defamation campaign. Even more astonishing (and, perhaps, for the
Kremlin also curiously disappointing) were the only somewhat less meagre
results of Svoboda and its head Oleh Tyahnybok in the presidential and
parliamentary elections – 1.16% and 4.71% respectively. The latter result was below
the parliament’s 5% entry barrier and has thus led to the disappearance of the far
right’s short-lived faction in the Verkhovna Rada which has since only contained
some individual ultra-nationalists who do not cooperate much with each other, within
the legislature.

Svoboda’s decline, if compared to its 2012
result, was even more surprising in view of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the
ongoing war in the Donbas, and its repercussions in Ukrainian society. In spite
of heightening patriotism, rising irregular armed groups, and spreading Russophobia
(fear of Russia) within Ukraine’s population, Svoboda lost percentagewise more
than half of its popular support, in October 2014. In fact, it lost actually overall
even more because voters on Crimea and in much of the Donbas – i.e. those parts
of the Ukrainian electorate with especially little sympathy for Svoboda – did
not take part in the elections. The frustration among the far right may have
been especially high in view of the fact that Svoboda and the Right Sector had,
in sum, received more than 5% in the parliamentary elections. Had they formed a
united list, they might have been able to jointly pass the entry barrier and to
thereby preserve a far-right faction in parliament.

Towards a United
Ultra-Nationalist Front

In March 2017, so it seemed, Ukraine’s radical
nationalists had finally learned their lesson, and adopted a joint so-called National
Manifesto. The heads of the three main parties, Svoboda’s Oleh Tyahnibok, the
Right Sector’s Andriy Tarasenko and the National Corps’s Andriy Biletskii,
signed – in a solemn ceremony, at Kyiv’s House of Teachers – a common
programmatic document. It demanded, among others, creating a Baltic-Black Sea
Alliance of East European countries, as well as reestablishing Ukraine as a
nuclear-weapons-state. The novel coalition now explicitly united the two
parties that had run separately, in the two 2014 national elections.

Until recently, this alliance also included the
National Corps, a dynamic new party that had grown out of the Azov movement and
is continuing the tradition of the pre-Euromaidan racist groupuscules “Patriot
of Ukraine” and Social-National Assembly also once headed by Biletskiy. The new
tripartite alliance was  joined by three additional
minor far right groups – the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists, Organization
of Ukrainian Nationalists, as well as C14, a notorious neo-Nazi grouplet. Conspicuously
though, another notable nationalist group, the so-called Statesman Initiative
of Yarosh, a split-off from the Right Sector, was absent at the March 2017 unification
meeting, and did not sign the joint Manifesto. Yarosh’s demonstrative
non-engagement turned out be a harbinger of things to come.

Throughout 2018, the far right’s leaders and
activists were discussing a joint strategy for the 2019 presidential and
parliamentary elections. Much of their public rhetoric was about the ultra-nationalist
groups’ need to campaign jointly and run united. A major issue though remained
who of their two most popular leaders, Tyahnybok or Biletskiy, would be the far
right’s single presidential candidate. Tyahnybok (b. 1968) is a veteran
Ukrainian politician from Galicia who had prominently participated in the 1990,
2004 and 2014 Revolutions on the Granite, in Orange and of Dignity. He also had
10 years of experience as a Rada deputy until 2014. Biletskiy (b. 1979), in
contrast, is from Kharkiv, did not participate in high politics until after the
Euromaidan, and acquired his fame only in 2014 as commander of the Azov
volunteer battalion, as a result of which he won a single-member district in
Kyiv’s Obolon district, in that year’s Rada elections. While Biletskiy has little
political experience, he apparently pretends to play a role equal or superior to
Tyahnybok, within the united ultra-nationalist camp.

At first it seemed that the far right had found
a solution to the thorny of selecting only one joint presidential candidate. It
nominated by, in November 2018, neither Tyahnybok nor Biletskiy, but a third
prominent politician, Ruslan Koshulynskyi (b. 1969), as its candidate for
President of Ukraine. Like Tyahnybok, a Galician Svoboda leader, Koshulynskyi
had been Deputy Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada in 2012-2014. He had acquired
national recognition and a good reputation in that function and as a volunteer soldier
in the Donbas.

Koshulynskyi thus seemed like a good choice.
Yet, it became soon apparent that Koshulynskyi’s nomination by the signatory
organizations of the far right’s 2017 National Manifesto had, for one reason or
another, either not at all or insufficiently been agreed with Biletskiy’s
National Corps. Svoboda and its allies, on the one side, and the National
Corps, on the other, have since accused each other of sabotaging the
coordination process before Koshulynskyi’s nomination.

In any way, for the presidential elections,
neither the apparent break of the 2017 coalition nor Dmytro Yarosh’s public
support for Koshulynskyi candidacy since are of much political importance. In
fact, Koshulynskyi’s possibly weak performance in the upcoming elections could turn
into a public relations disaster for the far right. In an opinion poll released by the reputed
Razumkov Center on 20 February 2019
, Koshulynskyi had the support of only 0.9% of
those intending to vote in presidential elections. With such a result,
Koshulynskyi would remain even below the already embarrassing result of 1.16% that
his party colleague Tyahnybok had obtained during the 2014 presidential
elections. It would be stunning, if Koshulynskyi will indeed receive so little
support although he, unlike Tyahnybok who in 2014 competed with Yarosh, does
not have a competitor on the far-right flank. Neither Biletskyi nor Yarosh or
any other prominent ultra-nationalists decided to also run, in the presidential
elections.

The by far most important aspect of the current
tensions between the National Corps, on the one side, and the other
ultra-nationalist groups, on the other, is thus that it could mean that they
run separately in the parliamentary elections, in October 2019. Such a division
of their vote could repeat the far right’s fiasco of 2014. In fact, it is not
entirely clear that even a fully united far right list would be able to pass
the 5% threshold.

That is because, in the words of prominent Kyiv
political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko, “Petro Poroshenko’s broad campaign
is build on militant patriotic rhetoric as well as on support for the candidacy
of Ukraine’s incumbent President by some influential nationalists [which]
greatly diminishes Koshulynskyi’s chances, in the presidential elections, and
the chances of Svoboda, not to mention other nationalist parties, in the
parliamentary elections.”

In the words of the Vienna political scientist
Anton Shekhovtsov too, the far right has now “low chances to get into the Rada
because, above all, the political system of Ukraine is again extremely
polarized (as was the case in the 1990s and early 2000s). The conflict in the political center
is currently so intense that there is, for all peripheral parties, little hope
to join this confrontation within the center and thereby enter the national
debate. In some way, the situation of ‘Svoboda’ and the National Corps is
similar to that of small liberal parties like the Democratic Alliance or ‘Power
of the People.’ They too have no chance – and not so much because they do not
unite, but because the current system’s center is battle field of much stronger
political players. Moreover, it is important to remember that ‘Svoboda’ managed
to enter the Rada in 2012 because it was helped by the President Viktor
Yanukovych. Today, nobody needs the right-wing radicals apart from certain
business projects that require their services for raiding attacks or similar
practices.”

The Ambitious National
Corps

As of February 2019, the summary support of
those intending to vote in parliamentary elections for Svoboda (1.4%), the
National Corps (0.2%), the Statesman Initiative of Yarosh (0.1%), and the Right
Sector (0.0%) was, in the mentioned Razumkov Center poll, altogether just 1.7%.
To be sure, Ukraine’s far right has sometimes performed much better in real elections
than in pre-electoral surveys. Yet, the currently measured support for the far
right would have to triple during the actual voting, in order for a united
list, to pass the 5% threshold.

In spite of the sobering polling results,
Biletskyi seems to be currently still planning a separate list of his party in
the upcoming parliamentary elections. A representative of the National Corps
reportedly asserted, in November 2018, that his organization’s “potential and human resources are
much larger than those of all the other [signatory organizations of the far
right’s 2017 National Manifesto] combined.”
A competition between the National Corps, on
the one hand, and a united list of the remaining parties, on the other, could
become significant, if Poroshenko is not reelected in April 2019 and a less
militantly patriotic candidate becomes President. In such a case, nationalist
voters currently attracted to the incumbent President could decide to support
the ultra-nationalists in subsequent elections. This could provide the far
right with an opportunity to regain a faction, in the next parliament. However,
if, in such favorable conditions, Biletskyi’s National Corps runs an effective
parallel campaign, Svoboda’s list – the currently most likely and most
prospective option – could, in October 2019, again miss the 5% barrier, as it
did in October 2014.    

Much of this is, so far, however, speculation.
Ukrainian party politics and national elections are notoriously unpredictable
matters. The first two months of 2019 and meteoric rise of Volodymyr Zelenskiy,
within only a few weeks, have shown how fast and radical, the “correlation of
forces,” as a prime term of Soviet political analysis goes, can change, in
post-Soviet Ukrainian domestic affairs. Moreover, it is likely that Moscow
will, in one way or another, try to leave its imprint on, at least, the
parliamentary elections in October. Such attempts may not necessarily be
successful, in terms of the Kremlin’s interest. Yet, they could change public
opinion and the party-political constellation – perhaps, even to the advantage
of the far right. As of late February 2019, notwithstanding, it looks as if Ukraine’s
far right may perform calamitously in both, the spring presidential and autumn
parliamentary elections.

 

Author

Andreas Umland
Andreas Umland

Andreas Umland, Dr.Phil. (FU Berlin), Ph.D. (Cambridge), has been a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation at Kyiv, since 2014. He has held fellow- or lectureships at Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, Urals State University, Shevchenko University of Kyiv, Catholic University of Eichstaett, and Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. He is also General Editor of the book series "Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society" (ibidem-verlag.de/spps) and on the Boards of Directors of the International Association for Comparative Fascist Studies (comfas.org) as well as German-Ukrainian NGO "Kyiv Dialogue" (kyiv-dialogue.org).

Personal web site: ieac.academia.edu/AndreasUmland

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