January 14, 2014
Political persecution leads, in the long run, to political power. Just ask Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi. So the news that three MPs from the Ukrainian opposition party Svoboda were seriously injured by riot police in Kiev on the 11th of January should not be overlooked. Since the protests began, a myriad of similar incidents have occurred on the capital’s streets, prompting suspicions of premeditation on the part of the authorities.
Following the 2012 elections, Svoboda increased its share of the popular vote, from 0.76% (2007) to 10.44%, making it the 4th largest Ukrainian party. By all accounts this is an impressive and somewhat unexpected rise. But who exactly are they and how will the protests change their role in Ukrainian politics?
The party traces its roots to the Ukrainian partisan army of World War II, loosely allied with Nazi Germany. Against this ideological backdrop, and following the fall of the Soviet Union, the Svoboda Party (literally, Freedom Party) came into being in 1991, espousing an aggressive, nationalistic rhetoric, still affiliated to Nazi groups. Svoboda made headlines when, in December 2012, an MP called Mila Kunis, an actress, a “dirty Jew”, angering Jewish communities around the world. For the casual observer, this shouldn’t be surprising, as party members whole-heartedly use inflammatory rhetoric to get their point across. Another notable incident happened in 2004 when Oleg Tyagnibok ranted in Parliament that every time Ukraine’s nationhood was under threat from “Muscovites, Germans and Jews“, they took up their automatic rifles and went to war. He is now the President of the Svoboda Party.
The rise of Svoboda can be linked to the ever-increasing share of the vote that extremist parties across Europe have gained, following the economic and social turmoil that has engulfed the Old Continent. In Ukraine, Svoboda rode a wave of popular discontent over the way national politics are handled by mainstream parties, some pointing the finger at Yanukovych’s pro-Russian policies as the main catalyst.
Fast-forward to the present day. The Euromaidan movement, triggered by Yanukovych’s withdrawal from negotiations over an Association Agreement with the EU, seems to have run out of steam. Svoboda-connected demonstrators made a few powerful, albeit rather symbolic gestures such as tearing down Lenin’s statute in Kiev and holding a candlelight vigil for former party figure, Stepan Bandera, a World War II Nazi supporter. Recently though, headlines seemed to be more concerned about police brutality and political squabbles within Ukrainian anti-government groups.
Three main political figures have virtually monopolized the stage: Vitaly Klichko, Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Oleg Tyahnybok; no longer is the name Tymoshenko synonymous with the Ukrainian opposition. But all have so far proved unable to garner the political capital needed to turn the demonstrations into a full-blown revolution and, crucially, all have failed to overcome the political polarity between eastern and western Ukraine, each appealing to a separate voter base. On top of that, Russia’s announcement that it would grant the government a $15 billion loan and a discount of 33% on natural gas helped nudge support away from the nationalists.
For the past decade, Ukraine has vacillated between the West and the East flirting with both Russia and the EU, but not fully committing to either one. This does not, however, mean that the current status quo is carved in stone. Given the right set of circumstances, Ukraine might, once again, swing towards its European neighbours.
It seems logical to conjecture at this point that Yanukovych and his Party of Regions might emerge as the dominant force in Ukrainian politics. In the end, the question one must be mindful of when gauging the impact of any protest is “To what end?” What is the alternative proposed? As Occupy Wall Street protests ran their course in the past, so too will the Euromaidan movement fade away if a credible solution that can bridge the political divide does not arise. Even if Svoboda capitalizes on its moment in the limelight, its aggressive rhetoric will not endear it to most voters and won’t make it an easy coalition partner either. One shouldn’t make a damp squib the talk of the town.