While it is important to note Ukraine’s legitimate desires for Western integration, there are good reasons to be skeptical of the American media narrative about events in Ukraine. Focusing solely on who and what composes the current Ukrainian government should make Americans leery of cheering on the pro-Western forces in Ukraine, let alone supporting them with American money or military actions. Promoting pro-Western forces in Ukraine means supporting far-right ultra-nationalists with ties to organizations that aided the Nazis during the Holocaust.
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Far-right candidates did not do well in the Ukrainian presidential elections on Sunday, but their parties are still influential in the government. It is important to note that Ukraine has a semi-Presidential system. That means that the executive branch of government is split between the parliament and the president, unlike in America where the president controls the executive branch. Exit polls show that Petro Poroshenko won the election. He is an independent. Poroshenko is from Ukraine but a native Russian speaker. His win shows that Ukrainians want to remain a united, Western-oriented country and that they do not in large part support the far right. Nevertheless, the far-right in Ukraine wields a disproportionate amount of power.
Far-right nationalist parties remain unpopular in Ukraine and do not garner a large percentage of the vote. However, they are over-represented in the Ukrainian government and currently wield a disproportional amount of power in Ukraine. The far right in Ukraine now controls the ministries of agriculture, ecology and education as well as the Prosecutor-General’s office and the National Security Council, the Anti-Corruption committee, the Youth and Sports committee and the deputy prime minister for economic affairs. Robert English, director of the School of International Relations at USC, wrote an op-ed in The Los Angeles Times that nicely summarizes their ideology and the threat they pose. English wrote, “The empowerment of extreme Ukrainian nationalists is no less a menace to the country’s future than Putin’s maneuvers in Crimea. These are odious people with a repugnant ideology.”
Russian media depicts the overthrow of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych as a fascist takeover whereas U.S. media describes it as a triumph of democracy. With calls to “make Putin pay.” The most accurate term one can use to describe the ideology of Ukrainian nationalists would be “Bandera-ist,” because Ukrainian nationalists describe themselves as followers of Stepan Bandera. They still carry on his legacy in annual torch light parades in Ukraine. The post-Yanukovych government is composed of a Bandera-ist wing, otherwise known as far-right nationalists, and the majority moderate “Bandera-ist-lite” faction. To describe what the term Bandera-ist means, it is necessary to look at ideologies, international affiliations and behaviors and the history of Stepan Bandera. The far-right elements in the current government are mostly members of either the Svoboda party or Right Sector, a paramilitary organization. Others have ties to the UNA-UNSO, which is now part of Right Sector. The majority “Bandera-lite” party is known as the Fatherland Party.
Only one in six Americans can correctly locate Ukraine on a map, diminishing “the ability for the public to serve as a check on a leaders’ foreign policy,” as political scientists Kyle Dropp, Joshua D. Kertzer and Thomas Zeitzoff wrote recently at The Monkey Cage. The heritage of Svoboda and Right Sector stems from Stepan Bandera and his faction of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, the OUN-B (the B stands for Bandera). Bandera collaborated with the Nazis before Operation Barbarossa and for about two weeks after the German invasion. After he declared Ukrainian independence, the Germans arrested him and he remained in prison until 1944. The Germans then went on to kill or capture nearly 80 percent of the OUN-B’s leadership, according to Timothy Snyder’s book, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus. During the Second World War, the main Ukrainian collaborationist effort went into supporting the Ukrainian volunteers in the Waffen SS division known as the 14th SS-Volunteer Division “Galician” or the SS-1st Ukrainian. However, the SS-Galician was supported by another rival OUN faction opposed to Bandera. The Ukrainian nationalists still honor the legacy of the SS-Galician to this day. It should also be noted that while thousands of Ukrainians did work with the Germans during the war, millions more fought against them. See the party’s own website.
Bandera and his followers were not Germany’s puppets in Ukraine, but that does not absolve their record. The followers of Bandera created the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), which, from 1943 to 1944, terrorized and murdered the Polish civilian population of what is today western Ukraine. They were effective in their campaign of ethnic cleansing because many UPA members were veterans of the German created Ukrainian Auxiliary Police. The Germans used these units to assist the SS in rounding up and killing Jews in the Holocaust in Ukraine, according to Snyder.
Bandera helped create the Roland and Nachtigall Battalions before the war began. Their role in the pogrom of L’viv is still debated by historians. In the best-case scenario, they were passive collaborators. Other historians believe that they took part in the killing of thousands of Jews and Poles in July 1941. See Tadeusz Piotrowski, Poland’s Holocaust (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 1998), 207-209 Graphic video footage of the L’viv pogrom can be found on YouTube. In the first days of German occupation in L’viv, the OUN issued calls to “Exterminate the Poles, Jews and communists without mercy.” The Nachtigall and Roland Battalions then went on to assist the Germans in Holocaust operations in Belarus before their members left to join the UPA. In contrast, the Allies granted veterans of the SS-Galician division combatant status since they fought the Soviet Army rather than civilians. Many of them settled in the USA and Canada after the war.
Timothy Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999 (New Haven & London: Yale University Press, 2003)
Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (New York: Basic Books, 2010)
“Ukraine’s Reins Weaken as Chaos Spreads” in the New York Times
“Ukranian Nationalists march to honor 105th birthday of Stepan Bandera” on YouTube
“Ukraine: Lvov march honours Nazi volunteers” on YouTube
Given that legacy, the actions of Bandera-ists these days start to form a pattern. The current leader of Right Sector, Dmytro Yarosh, proudly claims the legacy of the UPA as does the current Deputy National Security Adviser in Ukraine. Right Sector uses the flag of the UPA as its own. Ukrainian Bandera-ists are violent and utilize violence to intimidate their political opponents. Svoboda politicians have physically confronted and attacked pro-Russian politicians and communists in the parliament. Right Sector leaders have broken into offices and threatened prosecutors and media figures. The recently killed Aleksandr Muzychko once threatened local officials while brandishing an AK-47. He was also wanted for terrorism-related charges in Russia. His followers in Right Sector have since besieged and stormed parliament.
The events surrounding the fire that killed 40 people in Odessa on May 1, remain mired in controversy but the far-right and Right Sector most likely escalated the violence. The New York Times reports that, while the fire burned the trade union building and the people inside it, “Ukrainian activists sang the Ukrainian national anthem, witnesses on both sides said. They also hurled a new taunt: ‘Colorado’ for the Colorado potato beetle, striped red and black like the pro-Russian ribbons. Those outside chanted ‘burn Colorado, burn,’ witnesses said. Swastika-like symbols were spray painted on the building, along with graffiti reading ‘Galician SS,’ though it was unclear when it had appeared, or who had painted it.” The Guardian reports that Right Sector’s aim was to clear Odessa of pro-Russians. Russian media, predictably, places all the blame for the fire on the far right. While it is still unclear what exactly happened in Odessa, there are enough troubling reports to indicate that Right Sector legacy of violence live on.
Amongst Bandera-ists there is a strong current of anti-Semitism as well. Svoboda’s current leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, has repeatedly made anti-Semetic remarks. In a 2012 debate over the Ukrainian-born American actress, Mila Kunis, he said that she wasn’t Ukrainian, rather she was a “dirty Jewess.” Tyahnybok wants the ethnicity of Ukrainian citizens to be printed on their passports and has called on Ukraine to fight against the “criminal activities of organized Jewry” and against the “Muscovite-Jewish mafia.” These comments are not the rantings of a fringe member of the party. They come from the leader of the party and are part of Svoboda’s ideology. Svoboda used to be called the Social National Party of Ukraine, a deliberate linking to Hitler’s National Socialism. Party leaders recently distributed texts from Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels. Both Svoboda and Right Sector members have called Jews their political enemies and distributed copies of Mein Kampf and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Their neo-Nazi ties can be established by their usage of symbols like the Wolfsangel and the Celtic Cross, their tagging toppled statues of Lenin with the letters “SS” and their attacks on World War II veterans.
In Europe, political parties from different countries join together to create international affiliations. In particular, the Bandera-ists join forces with far-right and racist parties. For instance, on their English version website, they admit to working closely with other far-right parties in Europe. Svoboda has in the past joined affiliations with such parties as the British National Party, Hungary’s Jobbik, Greece’s Golden Dawn and others which are widely known to be anti-Semitic and racist. They also associate with the National Democratic Party of Germany, which openly calls for German territorial expansion and is Germany’s most predominant neo-Nazi party. Svoboda has invited the leader of France’s National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen, to speak at one of its conventions. It was Le Pen who convinced Svoboda to change its name from the Social National Party of Ukraine because it was eerily reminiscent of Hitler’s ideology of National Socialism. Le Pen has been convicted of inciting racial hatred on numerous occasions. He has also been fined for Holocaust denial, for calling the Holocaust a “technicality” and for defending the German occupation of France in World War II. Le Pen also may have conducted torture on prisoners in Algeria. Remember, this is the guy who told Svoboda to moderate its image. In 2009, Svoboda leader, Tyahnybok, signed an agreement with the National Front that promises to support an end to immigration by Africans and Middle Easterners into Europe.
Over Memorial Day weekend in the United States, Europeans went to the polls and cast votes in a slew of elections across the continent, including elections for the European Parliament, revealing a disturbing trend of far-right parties gaining strength. Many of the far-right parties mentioned above did well. They garnered anywhere from nine to 25 percent of their nation’s vote. France’s National Front won in France. Golden Dawn earned third place in Greece. The Danish People’s Party won the election in Demark. The National Democratic Party of Germany did not win many votes in Germany but it did earn a seat and is sending a lawmaker who called Hitler a “great man” to the European Parliament. Jobbik got the second most votes in Hungary. The right-wing anti-immigrant UK Independence Party garnered the most votes in Great Britain. These results indicate that far-right parties are surging across Europe and not just in Ukraine.
Ukrainians, especially Western Ukrainians, have good historical reasons to want to align with Western Europe and the European Union. Western Ukraine has aligned with Western Europe since the 1340s when the Polish King Casimir the Great incorporated it into Poland. Kyiv and its surrounding lands were part of Lithuania since the 1360s. Both Poland and Lithuania are currently NATO and EU members. The central portion of Ukraine around Kyiv was not ruled by Moscow until 1654. The western portion of Ukraine maintained its Western orientation even after that and was not ruled by Moscow until 1939 when the Soviet Union took over as part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement. Western Ukraine’s first impression of Russian rule was therefore during the era when Joseph Stalin collaborated and jointly carved up central Europe with Adolf Hitler. In contrast, Crimea had been part of Russia since the 1780s and only became part of Ukraine in 1954. This historic legacy can be seen by examining voting patterns in Ukrainian elections, with parties that support European orientation winning more votes in Western Ukraine. Ukrainians also have good reason to distrust rule from Moscow. Stalinist collectivization in the 1930s resulted in the deaths of approximately three million Ukrainians. This is known as the Holodomor and is recognized as a genocide by the United States.
The far right, while influential, is neither the largest nor the dominant faction in the Ukrainian government. The largest party is Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkivshchyna, which translates into Fatherland Party. Many questions remain about the conduct of Fatherland Party members. For example, according to a leaked phone conversation between the Estonian Foreign Minister and the EU’s Foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, the snipers who killed demonstrators in Maidan square may have been hired by the opposition forces that now constitute the government in Ukraine. The Estonian Foreign Ministry confirmed this conversation to be authentic. Russian media additionally pointed out that the building from which snipers fired was controlled by opposition forces, specifically those loyal to Andrey Parubiy, a member of the majority Fatherland Party and the current Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine. He founded the Social National Party of Ukraine. Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, during a telephone conversation, appears to have called for Russia to be obliterated and Russian speakers in Ukraine to be killed with nuclear weapons. It was Tymoshenko’s ally in the Orange Revolution, former-President Yushchenko, who posthumously awarded Stepan Bandera with Ukraine’s highest award.
The domestic agenda of the new government is not primarily concerned with race or anti-Semitism but rather it is an attempt to secure IMF loans and other forms of financial assistance. The IMF bailouts that Prime Minister Yatsenyuk secured cut pensions and raised fuel prices for ordinary Ukrainians. The IMF loans will go first to pay Russia. As for Yatsenyuk, who one analyst described as the “kind of technocrat you want if you want austerity, with the veneer of professionalism… He’s the type of guy who can hobnob with the European elite. A Mario Monti type: unelected and willing to do the IMFs bidding.” The IMF guidance of Ukrainian policy in the 1990s devastated Ukraine. After IMF shock therapy in 1994, the price of bread increased overnight by 300 percent, electricity prices by 600 percent, public transportation by 900 percent and real wages in 1998 had fallen by more than 75 percent in relation to their 1991 level, according to Centre for Research on Globalization. This does not seem to be what the protestors on the Maidan had in mind when they forced Yanukovych from office.
The situation in Ukraine is not as black and white as some politicians and media sources lead us to believe. Ukraine is a complex country with a complex history and composition. American media has a duty to accurately report on the sort of people in charge of Ukraine. Failure to understand other countries led to fiascoes and disaster in Iraq and Vietnam. Aggressive American involvement in Ukraine without a thorough comprehension of the country and its history could mean official American support for ultra-nationalists. Openly protecting racist governments could further damage our moral position in world, as well as our national security.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University or the College of Social Sciences and Public Affairs.