The rise of Svoboda, though regrettable, can't be viewed out of context
At the start of the year, probably in a slow week for news, the BBC finally got wind of the right wing phenomenon that is Svoboda. Its report was not very different to similar previous reports on other right wing groups, such as Hungary’s Jobbik. After all, in 2012 the BBC had already put lots of effort into telling us about the kinds of attitudes that apparently only exist in Eastern Europe. Ritualistic activities make the best footage, and it’s not difficult to get some quotes from a party member sounding forth reprehensible views, most worryingly the abhorrent and baffling anti-semitism that pre-occupies right wing groups across Central and Eastern Europe, long after the Jewish communities in these countries were savagely almost completely extinguished. There are certainly things to worry about, not least the unchecked veneration of the controversial Stepan Bandera, but reports about the right wing resurgence ignore the wider context of Ukraine’s political landscape at their peril.
Take history, for example. It was the Party of Regions, not Svoboda, which closed access to the SBU archives that had been open during the Yushchenko era. At that time the authorities also handed control of the country’s National Institute of Memory to the Communist Party. Since then it has aggressively pushed the Soviet-era narrative of World War II in schools and in the gaudy Victory Day celebrations. Against this background of limiting rational and impartial historical research and promoting national myths, it is not difficult to see how Svoboda now has fertile ground to promote the Bandera narrative. Contrast this with the breakthrough over the past few years in Holodomor remembrance which means that even pro-Russian politicians are seen at the memorials on remembrance day. The airing of historical evidence has doubtless helped enormously in making this possible, and superseded the heated debate over whether it should be classed as genocide.
The authorities and those that came before them have also laid fertile ground in a host of other ways. A push for what might be termed as ‘Galician nationalism’ epitomised by the vindictive Education Minister, was soundly rejected by Ukrainians at the polls. Svoboda’s strong showing in Kiev oblast shows that any kind of Galician nationalism, or an attempt to put a wedge between Western and Central Ukraine, is a non-starter, and doesn’t even depend on voters being Russian or Ukrainian-speaking. Don’t forget that Galicia (Halychyna) in fact also extends into Poland (Galicja) and the concept is of little relevance to modern Ukrainians, many of whom clearly value national unity.
Svoboda was heavily implicated in the recent fighting in the Verkhovna Rada, and Udar rightly praised for standing back, but let us not forget that it is not Svoboda that created Ukraine’s parliamentary thugocracy, as some nasty beatings in the previous parliament illustrate. Ukraine’s lack of proper parliamentarianism goes back a long time. Support for banning multiple-voting (‘piano playing’) by MPs is an easy gold sticker for Svoboda. The European Parliament’s plea to the other opposition parties not to co-operate with Svoboda seems like a non-starter when crucial votes on such issues could make all the difference, and with such disregard across the board for constitutional principles. It is also inconsistent with previous cases within the EU, such as in Slovakia when Robert Fico’s Smer party went into coalition with the anti-Hungarian Slovak National Party (whose leader proclaimed his wish to roll tanks into Budapest). Shouldn’t the European Parliament have taken a similar stance then?
The success of Svoboda, and the Communists, also point to a need in Ukrainian politics to return to ideology. The personality parties of the last 20 years have done little to enable debate about the best course the country should take, and the affinities the major parties have claimed along ideological lines with the groupings of the European Parliament have ranged from tenuous to bogus. The re-emergence of the left and the right ought to concentrate the minds of those in the centre, particularly if ideology now counts for at least 1 in 4 of the country’s voters. Ukraine must take more steps towards functioning parliamentarianism rather than strong presidentialism, as studies have proved that the former model is more effective at enabling reform than the latter, much as this is counter-intuitive to many in the former USSR.
Svoboda may also be addressing another major gap in the country’s political life, that of civic activism, appearing keen to get involved in issues ranging from shale gas to industrial relations. This is a glaring gap that the major parties have left to be exploited. A Kiev friend tells of how, shortly after the Orange Revolution, her mother, a private medical practitioner and educated woman, called in at the offices of the Tymoshenko bloc asking how she could meaningfully contribute to the party’s work; the answer was that she could if she wished distribute leaflets and that no other service was required as the aim was simply to gain and retain power. It’s not difficult to see how Svoboda’s involvement in issues that matter to people, even if opportunistic, would resonate. Ukrainians occasionally show a penchant for direct action, blocking a railway line at Kharkiv or breaking down fences around beaches in Crimea. If Svoboda can tap into those grievances, they’ll be onto a winner.
However, a note of caution against becoming a Svoboda apologist. A student of mine here in Warsaw puts it in succinct terms; “my grandfather’s family was killed by Bandera”. The black marks against Svoboda are black indeed.