How Brazil Was ‘Ukrainized’
After an obscure—and confusing—term burst into politics, the country’s far-right may be forever changed.
In March 2016, when the Twitter user @fabranquinho predicted that right-wing militias in Brazil might “Ukrainize”—that is, radicalize a nascent protest movement against left-wing President Dilma Rousseff in order to provoke government repression, which would then spur further protest—he seemed to introduce Twitter a neologism that would soon spread. Countless tweets and videos later, by 2020, the idea spiraled out of control.
The protests against Rousseff, which attracted millions of people, were successful; the president was eventually ousted in August of that year. Calls to Ukrainize—ucranizar in Portuguese—aside, however, the movement remained largely peaceful in contrast to the Euromaidan in Ukraine a couple of years before, which had its moments of bloodshed and had eventually given way to a war with Russia in the country’s eastern stretches.
The protest movement and calls to Ukrainize the conflict did fuel the ambitions of the nascent far-right, however. In fact, even after the 2018 election of populist President Jair Bolsonaro, the term “Ukrainize” has remained, invoking a revolutionary spirit that paints followers as justified combatants against an oppressive elite.
In 2019, for example, a popular comedic pair called Brasileirinhos (a diminutive of “Brazilians”) called for their audience to “Ukrainize” in a popular video. The conservative Catholic duo is heavily reliant on anti-politically correct comedy, irony, and retro cultural references. When asked what they meant by the term, Elton Mesquita, one of the Brasileirinhos duo, responded that “abusive relationships have to be dealt with with a firm grip.” For him and his partner, to Ukrainize is a symbolic expression of the people’s exhaustion with their political class. Mesquita admitted his limited knowledge of Ukraine. “Nonetheless, we believe we’ve accomplished our objective to reorient the right’s thought toward this frequency,” he said. “The psychological Ukrainization already happened.”
For Andreas Umland, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv, Ukraine, the “Ukrainize” metaphor is confusing. “People know so little about the country that you can take a few dramatic images and then sort of interpret it on your own way,” he said, referring to a meme based on a picture of Ukrainian Member of Parliament Vitaly Zhuravsky being thrown in a dumpster, which had become a template for angry Bolsonaro supporters on which to paste the head of their most hated politicians. Umland also pointed out that Ukraine is highly politically pluralistic, far from the kind of authoritarian state that many who use the term “Ukrainize” seem to have in mind.
Accuracy aside, one benefit of the idea of Ukrainization for Brazil’s far-right movement is that it connects them to similar movements around the world, especially the American alt-right, which is big departure from the traditional institutionalized right, mostly linked to established political parties. According to the political scientist Paulo Cassimiro, who studies conservative thought at the University of São Paulo, Brazil’s new right does posit “core ideas of similar American groups, like the concept that there is a ‘Western civilization’ that is at risk of being destroyed by the political ‘elites’ or the ‘leftists.’”
Another way the term serves Brazil’s far-right, according to João Castro Rocha, a comparative literature professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro, is that “Ukrainize” circumvents the inconvenient fact that the right is actually in power now. The term, after all, calls for popular uprising that would lead to a direct democracy government without norm-setting institutions such as courts. “This word,” he said, “is a powerful narrative symbol to amplify their digital campaign in support of Bolsonaro.”
Powerful is correct. This spring, the word shifted from concept to reality when the Brazilian conservative activist Sara Winter created the civilian group “Brazil’s 300.” Its main objective was to support Bolsonaro’s government by putting pressure on democratic institutions through militant and supposedly peaceful means. When calling for new recruits, Winter used the verb “Ukrainize” constantly and said in an interview that “They are going to have to start being afraid of us!”
Winter, who has close government ties, has suggested that she was trained—and arrested—in Ukraine years ago. She was apparently a Nazi sympathizer in her youth: “Sara Winter” is a pseudonym apparently inspired by a famous British Nazi. (Her real name is Sara Giromini.) She eventually made headlines when her group marched to Congress and set off fireworks in the direction of the Supreme Court buildings. She and others were arrested a few weeks after that episode due to threats against Supreme Court judges.
For now, pleas to Ukrainize are still lingering among Bolsonaro’s supporters, even though the president himself has reduced his aggressive stoking of the culture wars in recent months. Federal investigations loom over his family, and the pandemic is pushing him to reconcile with Congress and the Supreme Court in order to normalize the political landscape and enact emergency rescue measures that are helping him in an unexpected way. He has seen a popularity boost after approving emergency pandemic aid.
In fact, in recent weeks, Bolsonaro has polled his highest approval rating of his term. In a municipal election year like 2020, the populist president has no option other than to back away from the tensions that he once stoked—at least until the next crisis arrives and his supporters can once again pull “Ukrainize” out of their back pockets.