Ukraine’s Ultranationalists Show Surprising Strength at Polls
Published: November 8, 2012
KIEV, Ukraine — The last time Oleg Tyagnibok was a member of Ukraine’s Parliament, his colleagues kicked him out over a fiery speech in which he described how Ukrainians, during World War II, bravely fought Muscovites, Germans, Jews “and other scum,” and then used slurs to refer to the “Jewish-Russian mafia, which rules in Ukraine.”
Sergey Dolzhenko/European Pressphoto Agency
Eight years later, Mr. Tyagnibok is preparing to return to Parliament, not as a lone member of a broader coalition, as he was when he was ejected, but as the leader of Svoboda, the ultranationalist, right-wing party that will control 38 of 450 seats, or about 8.5 percent of the national legislature.
Svoboda’s surprising show of strength in the Oct. 29 election — polls had predicted that the party would fail to meet the 5 percent threshold to enter Parliament — has stirred alarm, including warnings from Israel about the rise of anti-Semitism and xenophobia in Ukraine, a former Soviet republic and a place with a firsthand knowledge of ethnic violence and genocide.
But in an interview in the downtown office building that Svoboda shares with an insurance company and a dental clinic named Smile, Mr. Tyagnibok said that fear of his party was misplaced and the accusations of racism and extremism unfounded.
“Svoboda is not an anti-Semitic party,” he said, seated behind a desk, a sport jacket stretched by his barrel-sized chest, his huge hands folded in front of him, speaking slowly and firmly in Ukrainian. “Svoboda is not a xenophobic party. Svoboda is not an anti-Russian party. Svoboda is not an anti-European party. Svoboda is simply and only a pro-Ukrainian party. And that’s it.”
Of course, that was not it.
Mr. Tyagnibok was just beginning to demonstrate the smooth charm that has helped Svoboda, which means “Freedom,” build support beyond its traditional stronghold in the Ukrainian-speaking west.
Tall, with beefy good looks, Mr. Tyagnibok, 44, who is a urological surgeon by training, has used his party’s pro-Ukrainian message to tap into frustration over the country’s stalled economy and growing disillusionment with the government of President Viktor F. Yanukovich.
From Mr. Tyagnibok’s frequent appearances on television talk shows, emphasizing national sovereignty and warning of encroachment by neighboring Russia, most viewers might never discern that some of his party’s members are unabashed neo-Nazis, while others shun the label but nonetheless espouse virulent hatred of Jews, gays and especially Russians.
Researchers who specialize in extremism say it is a talent shared by other leaders of far-right parties and has helped bring them into the mainstream in many European countries, including Hungary, Poland and Romania.
“This is a common phenomenon within these parties, that they have a front-stage image and a backstage agenda,” said Andreas Umland, an expert at the National University in Kiev. “The internal discourse, from what we can only suspect, is much more radical and xenophobic than what we see.” He added, “This is all much more radical.”
In the interview at his office, Mr. Tyagnibok said Svoboda’s message was only positive. “We do call ourselves nationalists,” he said. “Our view is love. Love of our land. Love of the people who live on this land. This is love to your wife and your home and your family. So, it’s love to your mother. Can this feeling be bad?”
“Our nationalism does not imply hatred to anybody,” he continued. “We formed a political party to protect the rights of Ukrainians, but not to the detriment of representatives of other nation.” He added, “So, if you ask about philosophy to be explained in two words: We are not against anyone. We are for ourselves.”
For a long time, they were for themselves and mostly by themselves. In the previous parliamentary election, in 2007, Svoboda received less than three-quarters of 1 percent of the vote, and that was an improvement. Until 2004, Svoboda was called the Social-Nationalist Party, which critics said was just a word flip of its true ambitions.
Born in Lviv, sometimes called the capital of the western, Europe-oriented Ukraine, Mr. Tyagnibok said he was raised to hate Communists, in part because his paternal grandfather was a victim of oppression under Stalin. He got his start in politics as a student organizer in the late 1980s, attended medical school and has been a member of the nationalist party from its inception in the early 1990s.
He served six years in Parliament, from 1998 until he was ejected in 2004. In 2001, with Ukrainian voters growing increasingly frustrated with the status quo, Svoboda made major gains in local and regional elections. Some voters who supported Svodboda said they believed that the party could present the strongest challenge to President Yanukovich. Many said they did not view the party as extreme.
“Those people who supported Svoboda in these elections, they don’t support racism, anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism,” said Vyacheslav Likhachev, who monitors extremism for the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress. “They support Svoboda because every vote for Svoboda was a vote against the ruling government.”
Still, Mr. Likhachev said, Svoboda’s rise was not a positive development for Ukraine. “It is bad for society,” he said.
In the days before the vote, Mr. Tyagnibok signed an agreement to work with other opposition parties, including the Fatherland party of the jailed former prime minister, Yulia V. Tymoshenko. Ms. Tymoshenko, who was barred from the ballot this year, recently began a hunger strike to protest what she said was fraud in the elections.
Mr. Tyagnibok’s ties to Ms. Tymoshenko and former President Viktor Yushchenko date to before Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004, which Mr. Tyagnibok and other nationalists supported. Critics of the alliance say that it will give Svoboda more power than it would have on its own, and grant it further legitimacy as a mainstream faction.
Although his occasional use of ethnic and religious epithets is well documented — there was the 2004 speech to supporters, and in 2005, his public signing of an open letter to President Yushchenko and others demanding an end to “criminal activities of organized Jewry in Ukraine” — Mr. Tyagnibok called the allegations of hate speech “a fantasy and a serious exaggeration.”
The general prosecutor charged him with inciting ethnic hatred, but the case was dropped after the Orange Revolution. “In 2004, I was accused of anti-Semitism, but I won in all the court cases,” Mr. Tyagnibok said.
Mr. Tyagnibok said nationalist parties were enjoying a renaissance in Europe because of the Continent’s financial problems, as well as conflicts with Muslim immigrants in countries like Italy, France and Spain. “Europe is change,” he said. “Economic failures make people look for reasons.”
But he said it was all for the best. “In our view the ideal is to see Europe as one big flower bed full of different flowers, with Ukraine as one of the most beautiful flowers in it,” Mr. Tyagnibok said. “It has its own scent, its own beauty. It is different from other flowers, but it is in the same flower bed.”
He waved away any thought of nationalist strife. “Just imagine one nationalist talking to another nationalist,” he said. “There should be no problems between them. Everybody respects their interests, and everybody understands we live in one big world.”