Right-wing parties seek to unite ahead of 2019 elections
Despite the way some Western and most Russian media describe Ukraine, it isn’t ruled by nationalists. The nationalist parties and candidates have had little political success, winning very few seats in parliament.
But it can change in 2019, as various nationalist movements say they want to join forces for presidential and parliamentary elections.
They will try to take advantage of Ukrainians’ disappointment in the current political leaders, none of whom, according to the June poll by GFK Ukraine research group, has more than 10 percent of support.
Nationalist leaders, most of whom don’t have a trail of political past, will present themselves as a fresh alternative.
It helps their profile that many of them are veterans of the war in the Donbas. About 15 percent of Ukrainians, or about 6 million, see the possible new leaders coming from civil society and veteran community, reads the Razumkov’s Center poll published in June.
But nationalists have more than their military past to win a vote. They also took upon the role of vigilantes, forming squads and vowing to do their own justice to compensate for government and law enforcement failures.
That could be their trump card: Experts predict that in times when around 70 percent of Ukrainians do not trust government institutions, nationalists have all the chances to enter parliament.
It’s not all rosy for nationalists, though. Their biggest challenge is that there isn’t a single nationalist party or movement, meaning that nationalists stand a chance only if they unite.
And this is what they are planning to do. Representatives of the National Corps and Svoboda rightwing parties told the Kyiv Post that at least three movements were negotiating an alliance: National Corps, Svoboda, and the Right Sector.
“We are planning to nominate a single presidential candidate (for the March 2019 election) and form a single list of candidates for the parliament elections (in October 2019),” Svoboda’s long-serving leader Oleh Tyahnybok told the Kyiv Post on July 7.
National Corps’ spokesperson Roman Chernyshev says nationalists will present their new strategy by autumn. So far, they are enjoying only moderate support: Around two percent of Ukrainians said they were ready to vote for an alliance of Svoboda, National Corps and Right Sector in a poll published in July by GFK Ukraine.
So far, Ukrainian right-wing parties have enjoyed little success in mainstream politics.
It’s proven hard for them partly due to their association with the Ukrainian nationalist movements of the 20th century, particularly the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. While this movement fought for Ukraine’s independence against Soviet authorities and Nazi Germany, it also has a controversial reputation due to ethnic cleansings and its one-time alliance with the Nazi regime as it was going against the Soviet Union’s Red Army for Ukraine’s independence.
In the parliamentary election of 2012, Ukraine’s best-known nationalist party Svoboda made it into parliament for the first time, getting 10 percent of the votes and winning 37 out of 450 seats.
But they didn’t repeat their success in 2014, when the party got 4.7 percent of the votes, failing to meet the five-percent threshold. In the same year, its leader Tyahnybok came 10th in the president’s election.
Even the surge of patriotism that came in 2014, as the EuroMaidan Revolution ousted a pro-Russian government of President Viktor Yanukovych, didn’t seem to help the far-right. Russia reacted by annexing Ukraine’s Crimea and starting a war in eastern Ukraine.
The new far-right party Right Sector that sought prominence for their role in the EuroMaidan protests, won some 1.8 percent of the votes in 2014, and its leader Dmytro Yarosh got less than one percent during the presidential elections in 2014.
Polls say that nationalists failed to grow their support since 2014. Less than one percent said they would vote for National Corps and the Right Sector, some 3.5 percent would support Svoboda, according to the Razumkov’s Research Center poll published in June.
The nationalists’ response to that? The polls are incorrect, and so were the 2014 election results.
“Svoboda did enter the parliament (in 2014). The Central Election Commission might have made a mistake when counting the votes — on purpose or not,” says Chernyshev. “And the Right Sector just wasn’t ready for the elections. They were experienced fighters but not politicians.”
Chernyshev says that nationalists will be better prepared in 2019. He claims that the National Corps, created in 2016 by lawmaker and ex-commander of Azov Volunteer Battalion Andriy Biletsky, is getting financial backing from local businesses and is setting up offices in Ukraine’s regions.
The National Corps’ report for the first three months of 2018, available online, says the party has branches in 13 oblasts of Ukraine and about Hr 1.5 million in its bank accounts.
That nationalists can win big only as a united force isn’t a new realization.
Back in March 2017, six right-wing parties and movements signed a document called the National Manifesto. The signees were Svoboda, Right Sector, National Corps, OUN, Ukrainian Nationalists Congress, and Sich-C14.
The document called for cooperation to fight for the prosperity of Ukraine as a nation-state.
But over a year later, an actual alliance is still in the talks.
“A lot will depend on whether nationalists will be able to implement their plan to form a united list for the parliamentary elections,” Andreas Umland, a political scientist and expert in far-right movements, told the Kyiv Post. “If so, their chances to pass the five-percent barrier are high.”
If they don’t form a united list, only Svoboda will have a chance to come back to parliament, Umland added.
Ukrainian political technologist Volodymyr Fesenko echoes Umland’s opinion.
He believes Ukrainians would prefer an experienced Svoboda over the National Corps, “whose members showed themselves being effective on the streets but not in politics,” he added referring to the numerous cases when National Corps, as well as other far-right organizations C-14, Tradition and Order, and National Militia, violated public order and law.
Since the beginning of 2018, members of far-right movements have attacked participants of the women’s rights march, clashed with police during the LGBTQ march, and attacked several Roma camps in Kyiv and western Ukraine.
The attacks on the Roma, which appeared to have ethnic grounds, caused an international backlash. Western nations and human rights’ watchdogs have condemned the nationalists’ actions and called the Ukrainian government to investigate the attacks as hate crimes.
In regards to that, nationalists think that the attacks should not be described as ethnic hatred, claiming that they destroy Roma camps because of the illegal settlements.
In June, members of the National Militia, a movement affiliated with the National Corps, destroyed the Roma camp in Kyiv’s Holosiyivsky National Park.
Chernyshev claims the park’s staff asked the National Militia to help with making sure that the Roma leave the park area after police allegedly ignored their reports. A park employee, environmentalist Oleksandr Sokolenko, backed this claim in a Facebook post following the militia’s attack on the camp.
“We brought no harm to Roma. We gave them 24 hours and they left,” Chernyshev said. “We destroyed only those things they called houses and cleaned up the area.”
The videos they shot in the park show young men, members of the National Militia, crashing the Roma tents.
While the incident was denounced as an ethnic attack, it played well with the nationalists’ self-presentation as the source of alternative justice.
“We come and solve the problem, while the police prefer to ignore it. People see the results of our actions and they will support us,” Chernyshev said.
In April, another nationalist group C14 burned another Roma camp in the western part of Kyiv, on Lysa Hora (Bold Mountain). The organization’s leader Yevhen Karas also claimed the radicals were responding to a call for help from the local environmental activists.
The wave of attacks on Roma camps went on after that. In the most recent attack, a Roma man was killed in Lviv in western Ukraine on June 23. A week after that, a Roma woman was found killed in Zakarpattya Oblast. The proximity to the attacks led many to allege it was a hate crime.
Both C14 and National Corps condemned the killings in their interviews with the Kyiv Post but insisted their actions in Kyiv were justified.
“People died and that is a crime, that must be investigated,” Karas says. “Still, we drew attention (to the Roma) and police won’t ignore the problem of Roma crimes and conflicts with locals as they did for ages.”
However, the Interior Ministry spokesperson Artem Shevchenko says that police did not ignore the problem. According to him, the crimes by the Roma people, most of which are petty thefts, make up only a small percentage of Ukraine’s crime statistics.
And pointing at the ethnic origin of a criminal is a way to heat ethnic conflicts, Vyacheslav Likhachov of the Ukrainian National Minorities Congress told Zik.ua news website back in February.
“It’s not a Roma who steals a wallet, but rather a thief. The ethnicity of the thief is considered to be the reason of the theft only by those whose wallet has been stolen,” Likhachov said.
In May, the C14 activists detained a Brazilian national Rafael Lusvarghi, who used to fight against Ukraine on the Russian-backed separatists’ side in the Donbas.
Lusvarghi was earlier sentenced for 13 years in prison on terrorism charges but got a retrial and was released. The activists learned about it, seized Lusvarghi in a Kyiv monastery where he stayed, and brought him to the State Security Service (SBU) headquarters, where he was detained again.
But the law enforcers aren’t happy with such help.
When trying to do their own version of justice, nationalists plunge Ukraine into marginal chaos, Interior Ministry’s Shevchenko said.
“By doing that, nationalists work in favor of the Kremlin,” Shevchenko said.
Pleasing the Kremlin?
Although Ukrainian nationalist groups deny any ties with Moscow, they are sometimes accused of playing along with Russia.
The SBU Head Vasyl Hrytsak also said the Kremlin might have been behind the nationalists’ deadly attack on the Roma camp in Lviv.
But any allegations that Ukrainian nationalists are financed and directed by Moscow are in need of hard proof, Umland said.
“Otherwise, such speculations appear to be mere distractions from the various failures of Ukraine's law enforcement agencies to prevent xenophobic violence,” he said.
Activists of nationalist parties and movements protest against the oligarchs’ influence on Ukraine in Kyiv on April 3. Some 2,500 people marched in central Kyiv to demand “a future free of oligarchs.” Nationalists in the past enjoyed little political success in Ukraine but might get lucky in 2019 elections if they form an alliance — and they claim they will. (Oleg Petrasiuk)
Leader of the C14 nationalist movement Yevhen Karas speaks with the Kyiv Post on July 5 in Kyiv. C14 activists are known to attempt "street justice." They detained a former separatist fighter in Kyiv and attacked a Roma camp to make it leave a city park. (Volodymyr Petrov)