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Yes, There Are Bad Guys in the Ukrainian Government
It's time for a frank conversation about some of the unsavory characters in Kiev.
Vladimir Putin insists Russia invaded Crimea to protect the ethnic Russians who live in that southern Ukrainian territory. Ukraine, the Russian president contends, has come under the control of "neo-Nazis and Nazis and anti-Semites," and the country’s Russian population is under threat. It is easy to dismiss Putin’s rhetoric — he is, after all, a serial fibber and fabricator who conflates gays and pedophiles and heads a state where Cossacks gas and whip punk rockers in broad daylight. But while Western governments and pundits are correct to dismiss Putin’s pretenses for invading Ukraine, they are wrong to presume his Ukrainian opponents are necessarily in the right. The uncomfortable truth is that a sizeable portion of Kiev’s current government — and the protesters who brought it to power — are, indeed, fascists. If Western governments hope to steer Ukraine clear from the most unsavory characters in Moscow and Kiev, they will need to wage a two-pronged diplomatic offensive: against Putin’s propaganda and, at the same time, against Ukraine’s resurgent far-right.
Ukraine is home to Svoboda, arguably Europe’s most influential far-right movement today. (In the photo above, Svoboda activists seize a Ministry of Agriculture building during Kiev’s Euromaidan protests in January.) Party leader Oleh Tyahnybok is on record complaining that his country is controlled by a "Muscovite-Jewish mafia," while his deputy derided the Ukrainian-born film star Mila Kunis as a "dirty Jewess." In Svoboda’s eyes, gays are perverts and black people unfit to represent the nation at Eurovision, lest viewers come away thinking Ukraine is somewhere besides Uganda.
Svoboda began life in the mid-90s as the Social-National Party (a name deliberately redolent of the National Socialist Party, better known as Nazis), with its logo the fascist Wolfsangel. In 2004, the party gave itself an unobjectionable new name (Svoboda means "Freedom") and canned the Nazi imagery, and in the subsequent decade has seen its star swiftly rise.
Today, Svoboda holds a larger chunk of its nation’s ministries (nearly a quarter, including the prized defense portfolio) than any other far-right party on the continent. Ukraine’s deputy prime minister represents Svoboda (the smaller, even more extreme "Right Sector" coalition fills the deputy National Security Council chair), as does the prosecutor general and the deputy chair of parliament — where the party is the fourth-largest. And Svoboda’s fresh faces are scarcely different from the old: one of its freshmen members of parliament is the founder of the "Joseph Goebbels Political Research Centre" and has hailed the Holocaust as a "bright period" in human history.
When the Ukraine crisis first broke in November, however, Western officialdom found itself in the dark. The end of the Cold War has occasioned a sharp drop in governmental interest in the Soviet successor states, and as Michael McFaul, a Russia scholar and the former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, recently observed, Team America is batting with a considerably "shorter bench."
Nowhere has this dearth of nuance been more apparent than in the Ukraine crisis. In December, shortly after protests began against Ukraine’s pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, U.S. Senator John McCain shared a platform and an embrace with Svoboda chief Tyahnybok at a mass rally in Kiev, assuring demonstrators, "The free world is with you; America is with you." In February of this year, France and Germany oversaw a peace deal between Tyahnybok, two other opposition leaders, and Yanukovych (though soon after, protests forced Yanukovych to flee to Russia). And in early March, the U.S. State Department published a debunking of Putin’s "False Claims About Ukraine," assuring Americans that Ukraine’s far-right "are not represented" in parliament.
Western commentators have done little better. When Liz Wahl, an anchor for the Kremlin-funded TV network RT America, quit on-air on March 5, she was feted for her bravery. Granted an extended interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, she explained her decision by recounting her disgust at the network "painting the opposition over there in the Ukraine as having neo-Nazi elements. I think that’s very dangerous."
Meanwhile, in the lead-up to the March 16 referendum on Crimea’s annexation to Russia, Svoboda was busier than ever. One of its chief demands — that all government business be done in Ukrainian — was passed into law, instantaneously marginalizing the one-third of Ukraine’s citizens (and 60 percent of Crimeans) who speak Russian. Then for good measure, the party launched a push to repeal a law against "excusing the crimes of fascism."
So is Ukraine poised for a Nazi putsch? The good news is that opinion polls show Tyahnybok at just 5 percent approval, far behind Vitali Klitschko (the hulking, pro-Western former boxing champion) and the center-right ex-prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko. In fact, it was the same French- and German-backed peace deal that gave Svoboda its disproportionate share of the resulting government’s ministries.
Western governments, then, are at least partially complicit in facilitating Svoboda’s rise. In the short-term, they will have to be more discerning about which members of the Ukrainian leadership they engage, backing only those who genuinely hoist the flag of human rights rather than ethnic supremacy. In the medium- and long-term, those same governments, universities, and think tanks will have to get serious about re-investing in the study of Russia and its former domains.
Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Crimea must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. Its justification rings just as hollow as it did four years ago when Russia de facto annexed the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Sound policy, however, can only be based on sound analysis of the players involved. That requires conceding the point — even when made by the Kremlin — that more than a few of the protesters who toppled Yanukovych, and of the new leaders in Kiev, are fascists.