Whither the Ukrainian Far Right?
The early presidential and parliamentary elections in Ukraine that took place in May and October 2014 correspondingly proved to be disastrous for the Ukrainian party-political far right.
Oleh Tyahnybok, the leader of the All-Ukrainian Union “Freedom” (Svoboda), obtained 1.16% of the vote in the presidential election, while his party secured only 4.71% of the vote in the parliamentary election and, eventually, failed to pass the 5% electoral threshold and enter the parliament. In comparison, Svoboda managed to obtain 10.44% of the votes in 2012 and form the first ever far right parliamentary group in the history of Ukraine.
Dmytro Yarosh, the leader of the Right Sector, obtained 0.70% in the presidential election, and 1.80% of the voters supported his party in the parliamentary election. The Right Sector, at the same time, can only provisionally be considered a far right party, and “national conservative” would perhaps be a more relevant and cautious term. In contrast to Svoboda, the Right Sector interprets the Ukrainian nation in civic, rather than ethnic, terms, while Yarosh’s election programme even insisted that the values of human dignity and human rights should become a fundamental ideology of a new constitution of Ukraine.
Weakness of the Party-Political Far Right
The failure of Tyahnybok and Yarosh in the presidential election, however, had little to do with their own political popularity. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the start of the invasion in Eastern Ukraine, Ukrainians voted in the presidential election in a largely tactical manner. They supported the most popular candidate at that time, Petro Poroshenko, as they were eager to elect a new president already in the first round of the election, in order to focus on the anti-terrorist campaign in the East of the country. These attitudes affected all the other presidential candidates, including Tyahnybok and Yarosh.
The unsuccessful performance of Svoboda and the Right Sector in the parliamentary election requires a more elaborate explanation. Naturally, an element of tactical voting was present during the parliamentary election too. According to public opinion polls conducted before the election, Svoboda was on the verge of passing the electoral threshold and many voters decided not to risk supporting this party. At the same time, the popularity of the Right Sector was very low, to the extent that some sociological companies often did not mention it. However, the tactical voting cannot fully explain the far right’s failure.
Why did the far right, in particular Svoboda, fail in the parliamentary election? First, Svoboda’s popularity started to decrease already in 2013, as their former supporters became disappointed with its work in the parliament. Second, Svoboda and the Right Sector split the nationalist vote; Svoboda was affected the most, as some of its former supporters presumably swung to the Right Sector. Third, Svoboda’s success in 2012 was a success of a political force that was considered the most radical in its opposition to former president Viktor Yanukovych. Svoboda was largely an “anti-Yanukovych party”, but with Yanukovych gone, Svoboda lost the major source of negative mobilisation. Fourth, in 2012, Svoboda was also considered almost the only patriotic party, but since the Russian invasion forced all the democratic Ukrainian parties to turn to patriotic rhetoric, Svoboda lost its “monopoly” on patriotism. Last, but not the least, the questionable conduct and dubious activities of Svoboda’s top members (including those who were ministers in the provisional cabinet of Arseniy Yatsenyuk) in spring-summer 2014 drove off many of their former supporters.
However, the electoral failure of Svoboda and the Right Sector did not mark “the end of history” of the Ukrainian far right, and some other developments proved to be much more problematic. Before discussing some of these developments, it is useful to understand how some far right groups have been making a living in Ukraine.
Since the 1990s, Ukrainian far right activists – as well as activists of other political movements – always fell in two broadly generalised, yet sometimes overlapping, categories: “romantics” and “pragmatists”. “Romantics” take their political beliefs seriously, are ready to sacrifice their time and energy for the cause, and work fulltime for their political organisations on a voluntary basis. “Pragmatists” may be driven by genuine beliefs in the political cause too, but earning a living is always their number one concern.
This dual, “romantic-pragmatist” character of the far right movement in general often determines its hidden agenda: promoting and fighting for a political cause goes along with making money through activities that are not necessarily relevant to their politics. More often than not, “pragmatists” head far right organisations and parties and, therefore, turn them into enterprises with “romantic” rank-and-file being either low-paid or non-paid employees or interns. In this capacity, far right organisations are business machines able to offer various types of services.
As political parties, far right organisations can provide three major services. First, they can be employed by more powerful (and usually incumbent) political subjects, to pose as “scarecrow” or “bigger evil” actors to mobilise popular support for the incumbents presented as “lesser evil”. Second, during elections of any level, far right parties, which have very limited chances of success, yet are entitled to have representatives in electoral commissions, may financially gain by either exchanging their own representatives for those who represent other parties or participating in electoral fraud themselves to the benefit of more popular candidates. Third, more powerful political actors may promote far right parties, for example by covertly investing in their campaigns, in order to weaken or undermine major competing players, in particular of the mainstream right.
Naturally, far right politicians elected into the parliament or appointed to the government as ministers can engage in a large number of corrupt schemes available to representatives of other political forces too.
The spectrum of the services that the far right can offer as social organisations or groupuscules is even wider than those of the far right political parties, although the level of reward is lower than in the second case. Most of the services provided by the far right can be grouped into – again, often overlapping – four major categories concisely named “illegal economic developments”, “protection and security”, “fake protests” and “violence”.
First, far right activists are sometimes hired as strong-arm men to provide support during illegal takeovers. In Ukraine, redistribution of assets, property, businesses and wealth sometimes take place outside the legal space, and the rule of law is replaced by the rule of force. Far right activists who often practice martial arts and/or bodybuilding are, thus, useful in these situations, especially when an interested party needs to physically break through and occupy particular enterprises and/or offices. While activities such as these are predominantly non-ideological, ideology may play a mobilising role when a far right group is hired to drive out a business run by people of non-Slavic origin from a market. To mobilise their rank-and-file for such an operation, “pragmatists” leading a far right group may interpret it as a part of the “racial holy war”, while in reality the original “need” to force out a business from a market has nothing to do with ethnicity.
Caught on CCTV: Ihor Moseychuk, then a member of the Patriot of Ukraine and currently an MP, is raiding an office and apparently stealing belongings of office workers. July 2014, Kyiv, Ukraine.
Second, some far right groups can be characterised as criminal gangs running protection and/or extortion rackets. In the case of the protection racket, far right activists would offer to protect a business against a real threat, for example an illegal takeover or aggressive competitors. In the case of the extortion racket, the far right would threaten to attack a business if it refused protection.
Third, and this point is similar to the extortion racket, far right activists sometimes organise or threaten to organise protests against particular political, social or cultural developments or events in order to extort a reward for stopping them. For example, real estate developers do not always take into account opinions of tenants of neighbouring houses who can make a weak protest that will then be hijacked and/or reinforced by a far right group. A strong legitimate protest can potentially stop a construction project that would lead to significant financial losses, so a building company would offer a payoff to a far right group in exchange for its withdrawal from the protest that would eventually die out without a mass backing of far right activists. In a similar vein, a far right group can threaten to block a concert of an “unpatriotic” singer or disrupt an event of social or cultural minorities in order to extract a payoff from the promoters or the organisers of the concert or the event.
Caught on a hidden camera: Ihor Mazur (aka “Topolya”), a leader of the Ukrainian National Assembly, is trying to “sell” an anti-government protest to a representative of the authorities. A Ukrainian investigative journalist pretended to be one. July 2013, Kyiv.
Fourth, far right activists can be hired by an interested party to perform acts of violence against its political opponents without giving away the connection between the “customer” and the “contractors”. More often than not, “customers” are incumbents who would be interested in disrupting opposition protests or demonstrations that can potentially pose a serious challenge to the incumbents. The violence may be either direct, i.e. physical attacks, or mediated. In the latter case, far right activists would infiltrate the opposition protests without disclosing either their political affiliation or their “customers” and radicalise them to the degree where a police action against the entire protest would be legitimate. In most cases, far right activists would attack the police to provoke them into using violence against the genuine protesters.
It is important to note that all the described activities are neither confined to the far right milieu nor to the Ukrainian context. Moreover, the brief description of these largely illegal activities does not imply that all the Ukrainian far right parties and groups are engaged in them or that those far right activists who are indeed engaged in them necessarily represent organisations that are fake in political terms. It is true that some Ukrainian far right organisations will only care about making money, but normally raising money would still contribute to the struggle for a political cause.
The recent developments in Ukraine marked by the rise of the previously obscure neo-Nazi organisation “The Patriot of Ukraine” (PU) led by Andriy Bilets’ky can be seen from a purely political perspective but they cannot be fully understood without taking into account the above-mentioned activities of some of the far right organisations in Ukraine.
The political perspective is as follows. Like some other leaders of the PU, Bilets’ky did not take part in the 2014 revolution, as he had been in jail since the end of 2011: he was charged with attempted murder. Bilets’ky and his associates were released only after the ouster of Yanukovych as “political prisoners”, and later the PU formed a core of the Azov battalion, a volunteer detachment governed by the Ministry of Interior headed by Arsen Avakov. From the very beginning, the Azov battalion employed imagery such as Wolfsangel and Schwarze Sonne that in post-war Europe is associated with neo-Nazi movements.
A member of Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front party, minister Avakov promoted the Azov battalion and granted the rank of police Lieutenant Colonel to its commander Bilets’ky in August 2014. The People’s Front also brought Bilets’ky into the military council of the party and apparently planned to officially support his candidacy in the parliamentary election, but, due to the opposition to such a move from the Ukrainian expert community and representatives of national minorities, the People’s Front was forced to re-think its decision. However, the People’s Front, in particular Avakov and his advisor Anton Gerashchenko, still supported Bilets’ky unofficially, and he was elected into the parliament in a single-member district in Kyiv. After the elections, Avakov appointed Vadym Troyan, deputy commander of the Azov battalion and a top member of the PU, as head of the Kyiv region police.
The political perspective raises troubling questions: Why did Ukrainians elect a neo-Nazi into the parliament? Why did the Ukrainian Ministry of Interior promote the leaders of the neo-Nazi organisation?
One can answer the first question still within the conceptual framework of political science. Bilets’ky’s neo-Nazi views and his leadership in the PU played no role in his victory. He was elected into the parliament for three major reasons: (1) he was a commander of a volunteer battalion that defended Ukraine against (pro-)Russian extremists in Eastern Ukraine, (2) although he was not taking part in the revolution – a little-known fact to the public – he was considered almost the only representative of the victorious Maidan movement in his electoral district, and (3) his nearest competitor was a representative of the ancien regime.
The framework of political science, however, fails to explain why the Ministry of Interior supported the leaders of the Patriot of Ukraine, as neither Avakov nor Gerashchenko is a neo-Nazi. The explanation seems to lie in the past and has to do with a sinister legacy of cronyism.
Avakov, Bilets’ky and Troyan are all coming from the Kharkiv region and have known each other at least since 2009-2010, when Avakov was still the governor of the Kharkiv region. In Kharkiv, the PU was involved in some of the largely illegal activities described earlier. In 2010, the PU activists headed by Troyan seized four dozens of news kiosks in Kharkiv in favour of, according to the media reports, Andriy Liphans’ky. The latter was a business partner of Avakov and headed the board of media and information of the Kharkiv region during Avakov’s governance. Media reports also suggested that Liphans’ky rented a gym for training of the PU activists. In their turn, the PU activists provided manpower for paid protests, as well as protection for the demonstrations of the Bloc of Yuliya Tymoshenko (BYuT) in Kharkiv – at that time Avakov, after having been dismissed from the post of the Kharkiv region governor, headed that the regional office of the BYuT. Furthermore, a leader of the Kharkiv football hooligans who was close to the PU took part in Avakov’s mayoral campaign in 2010.
Today’s involvement of the PU leaders in Ukrainian police seems to be driven by Avakov’s trust in the organisation that he worked with in the past. Avakov also seems to believe in the personal loyalty of the PU-led Azov battalion and may use them as his “private army” to protect his business and political interests.
The problematic relationship between the Ministry of Inferior and the neo-Nazis is undermining the credibility of the newly formed Ukrainian government both internationally and domestically. It was most likely Avakov who suggested to Poroshenko to grant Ukrainian citizenship to Belarusian fighter of the Azov battalion Sergey Korotkikh who had been involved in the neo-Nazi movements in Belarus and Russia since the late 1990s. Furthermore, under Avakov, the police in Kyiv have already proved unable or unwilling to investigate a number of hate crimes. In July, far right thugs – not necessarily associated with the PU – attacked four black people in the underground, a gay club and a Jewish student by a synagogue. The police initiated two criminal cases, but so far nobody has been prosecuted. In September, the head of the Visual Culture Research Centre Vasyl Cherepanyn was beaten apparently by far right activists, but the police failed to investigate this attack too. The police is also unwilling to address the issue with the tortures of political opponents inflicted by the neo-Nazi C14 group during the revolution in winter 2013-2014. There is no ground to believe that the infiltration of the far right into the police will contribute to the efficiency of its investigations in general and of the hate crimes in particular.
Avakov may consider the PU-led Azov battalion as his “private army”, but not everybody in the PU and Azov see the current cooperation with the Ministry of Interior as a goal in and of itself. The PU may benefit from this cooperation, but it still has its own political agenda that goes beyond this cooperation. The PU has also started advertising employment in the Security Service of Ukraine on their webpages.
Further infiltration of the far right into the Ukrainian law enforcement and other institutions of the state will most likely lead to the following developments. First, the coalescence of the police and the far right who were engaged, inter alia, in the illegal activities will necessarily increase the corruption risks. Second, the growth of the far right within the law enforcement will lead to the gradual liberation of the PU from the personal patronage of Avakov that will likely result in the PU’s independent action.
While Svoboda and the Right Sector have failed in the 2014 parliamentary elections, the infiltration of some other far right organisations in the law enforcement is possibly a more advanced long-term strategy in their fight against not particularly well established liberal democracy in Ukraine.
This article was originally published in German language in Ukraine-Analysen, No. 144 (2015).