Parliamentary election in Ukraine will be held on 26 October 2014. Meanwhile, the road towards full peace in Eastern Ukraine is still uncertain, despite the 5 September Minsk protocol and its 19 September memorandum (OSCE), witness, among others, the battles for Donetsk airport and latest fighting in Luhansk or near Mariupol (OSCE SMM reports). Furthermore, on 2 November, the special status territories of the Donbass, the “self-proclaimed” Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR) will vote to elect their respective heads and representatives at the People’s Assemblies (Ria Novosti, 11 October 2014).
It is thus all the more important to continue our evaluation of the state of play for the various Ukrainian actors. Ukraine is indeed more than ever poised at a crossroad, with various forces struggling to see their objectives prevail, in a very difficult economic and international setting.
The parliamentary election should have taken place in 2017 (five years after the last one, which occurred in 2012). However, at the end of July, UDAR, which had backed President Poroshenko for the presidential election, Svoboda (see below), as well as fifteen independent deputies, withdrew from the “European Choice coalition”, which supported the Yatsenyuk interim government (Interfax Ukr, 24 July 2014). As no new coalition could be formed within 30 days, on 25 August 2014, President Poroshenko called for early elections, emphasizing that it was anyway the will of the people, as showed a poll, who could not trust the previous parliament (“President’s address“, Press office of President, 25.08.2014).
The composition of the new parliament should take stock of the crucial events that took place in Ukraine since November 2013, with political parties and potential deputies paying for or benefiting from them. It should usher a new period for the country, which will see it, at one hand of the spectrum, fall further into chaos or, on the contrary, at the other end, solve or rather progress towards solving its deep internal and international challenges and recover from ashes. Considering the international quagmire and powder-keg that Ukraine has become over the last year, in an overall very difficult world situation, the results of coming legislative election are most likely to have a strong international impact, through the government that will thus emerge and the way it will rule Ukraine.
The previous parliamentary election showed notably the remarkable progression of the nationalist anti-liberal party Svoboda, led by Oleh Tyahnybok and created in 1991 then as Social-National Party of Ukraine (Olszański, “The electoral success of the Svoboda Party…“, OSW Commentary, 28 Nov 2012). After already good results in 2010 for the elections to regional councils (e.g. Shekhovtsov, “17: From Para-Militarism to Radical Right-Wing Populism“, 2013), in 2012 it received then 10.44% of suffrage and won 37 deputies, thus becoming the fourth force of the Ukrainian parliament, when it had none previously (Olszański, ibid. Shekhovtsov and Umland, “Ukraine’s Radical Right“, 2014).
Since November 2013, other ultra-nationalist groups, such as Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) have frequently been under the spotlight (among others, BBC News, “Ukraine’s ultra-nationalist Right Sector“, 28 April 2014). Furthermore, a very recent research paper by Ivan Katchanovski (2014), “The “Snipers’ Massacre” on the Maidan in Ukraine” evidences involvement of extreme far-right elements of the Maidan in the killing of protesters on 20 February 2014, while “the government investigation was falsified for this reason.” However, in the May 2014 presidential election, all candidates of the far-right (Svoboda and Pravy Sektor) gathered less than 2% of the vote (Shekhovtsov and Umland, ibid: 62).
Meanwhile, the war in Eastern Ukraine was waged for and around nationalist and identity stakes, while both sides traded accusations of being involved with far-right and neo-nazi groups, which would commit related atrocities, supplemented by similar accusations made in the international world, notably by Russia or against it (e.g. Shekhovtsov and Umland, 2014).
Thus, what are the main features of Ukrainian ultra-nationalism, which can help us understand better the dynamics of the situation? What are their potential impact on the way far-right groups are accepted or rejected? What is, finally, the state of play for those far-right groups in Ukraine (next post) and the resulting potential for further polarization?
We shall focus in this post first on Ukrainian official nationalism, then look at the instruments of its implementation, before turning to the content of ultra-nationalism. We shall see it as a specific, extreme form of nation-ness, the latter being a collective consciousness that determines how a group perceives itself and others, which in turn influences actions.
Strengthening nationalism in Ukraine
In 2005, then President Yushchenko embarked on a policy of promotion of nationalism, which aimed at “unify[ing] the country around a new set of historical myths.” “He tasked a set of historically minded historians to produce and disseminate an edifying national history, as well as a new set of national heroes” (Rudling, “The Return of the Ukrainian Far Right…“, 2013a: 228). This is nothing new in terms of construction of a nation and the literature on state-sponsored or official nationalism abounds (e.g Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities 1991; Eric Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780, 1992).
What is, however, new here is the timing, as this construction is done approximately between fifty years and a century after previous waves of state-sponsored nationalism, in a setting that is very different, and notably includes the rise of far-right groups in a world that thought to have overcome the worst dangers attached with their specific version and enactment of nationalism.
Indeed, scholars agree that Yushchenko’s official nationalism facilitated the rise of Svoboda (Rudling 2013a, Ishchenko, “Fighting Fences vs Fighting Monuments,” 2011) besides other factors (Shekhovtsov, 2013). As shown by Ishchenko (ibid.), the twin mechanisms of certification (legitimization: “‘the validation of actors, their performances and their claims by external authorities’, McAdam”) and attribution of threat and opportunity (Ibid) were at work. Using the same reasoning, it is more than likely that Yushchenko’s policy also legitimated all far-right or ultra-nationalist movements and actions, besides further legitimization and support they could receive from Svoboda, now fully part of the political life in Ukraine, and having even contributed to the early interim government after Maidan (Lavoix, Conflict in Ukraine – Setting the Stage, May 2014).
Instruments of nationalist promotion
As underlined by Rudling (2013a: 230-232), Yushchenko’s effort were deep and wide-ranging, involving notably the creation of various institutions of memory, such as the Institute of National Memory (see here for its active Facebook page), tasked with spreading the new historical myths, while the SBU (Ukrainian Secret Services) received “formal propagandistic duties”. The policy of official nationalism even reached the academia, where “the line between ‘legitimate’ scholarship and ultra-nationalist propaganda often is blurred (Rudling, ibid.).
On 25 March 2014, the appointment of Volodymyr Viatrovych, ex-Director of the Security Service of Ukraine Archives (2008-2010), as the Director of the Institute of National Memory of Ukraine by the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine (Center for Research on the Liberation Movement cdvr.org, 28 March 2014) would tend to indicate that the new power in Ukraine has decided to continue the policy of official nationalism, put on hold under ousted Yanukovich (e.g disagreement between then Communist Director of INM and Viatrovych on the 1932-1933 famine, The Ukrainian Weekly, 8 August 2010, pp. 1 & 19). Note that Rudling (ibid.: 231) underlines that the “Center for Research on the Liberation Movement” is a “front organization for the OUN (b)” (see below) Viatrovych also directed.
The dangers, which are underlined below and are linked to the way the nationalist narratives are created and spread, also depend upon the content of those constructed myths: the further away from reality, the more vital the facts changed, and the closer in time, the higher the potential for disaster. There is notably a very large difference between a policy that includes the promotion of the idea of, say, the kilt as Scottish traditional costume when it is a relatively recent creation (Trevor-Roper, “The Invention of tradition…“, 1983), and denial of pogroms (see below).
The involvement of the SBU, an institution responsible for the security of the state, in the construction and promotion of Ukrainian official nationalism, i.e. in an area where it should not be implicated is reminiscent of totalitarian regimes (Rudling 2013a), although avoiding “repeating totalitarian crimes” is meant to be the very aim of the current official nationalism as underlined for the Institute of National Memory, for example (cdvr.org, 28 March 2014). To uncover past Soviet crimes notably by making archives public is indeed a necessary historical task, however it does not justify hiding other actors’ history. Involving a security institution in science and knowledge may only be seen as dangerous in and by itself, from the point of view of opposing totalitarian regimes. Furthermore, it may contribute to the polarization of society, because voiced alternative memories, with fear, become increasingly improbable.
It also potentially indicates how nationalism is deeply entwined with the security of Ukraine, from a Ukrainian point of view. Indeed, and unsurprisingly, the latest project of the Institute of National Memory is called “Our Crimea“.
The implication of some scholars and researchers to produce nationalist myths was particularly shrewd, but also dangerous, because scientific knowledge is meant to seek objective understanding. Ukrainians and foreigners alike looking for understanding may only become an easy prey to the official nationalist narratives being developed if those who hold authority on knowledge deliberately lie to them – or to the least distort facts (on this theme, see also Rudling, “‘The Honor they so Clearly Deserve:’...”, 2013b: 131-133). This is a dangerous evolution because once trust is breached, it is very difficult to reconstruct it, and those who will understand they have been manipulated will then doubt everything. Meanwhile, as no one can be trusted anymore, the door is opened to the spread of any story, one becoming as valuable as another.
Furthermore, if the nationalist narrative spread does not correspond to personal and family historical memories, inhabitants will feel alienated and potentially afraid. Those promoting altered memories have the potential to be twice perceived as enemies, as liars first and according to the content of the message spread, second.
Practically, the use of both the SBU and some scholars (but by all means not all) for nationalist propaganda efforts may question their ability to, later, produce objective analysis, which crucially complicates the current and future situation by casting a potential doubt on their intelligence and knowledge production.
The content of Ukrainian ultra-nationalism
For this part, official nationalism will be considered as a proxy to represent Ukrainian ultra-nationalism, or Ukrainian nationalism in its most extreme form – although probably ignoring some of its finer grained features. Indeed, on the one hand, it is most unlikely that official nationalism could exist at all if it did not use pre-existing beliefs, and on the other, five years of officially imposed ideology, especially if it corresponds to already existing feelings are not innocuous, as we shall see below. Many Ukrainians are most probably not abiding by those perceptions. However with the rise of fear and of the feeling of threat, as those generated by the loss of Crimea and the war in the Donbass, ultra-nationalism may become further certified, increasingly pronounced and spread (Lavoix, 2005).
— Maxim Eristavi (@MaximEristavi) October 14, 2014
The period chosen as basis to promote Yushchenko’s Ukrainian official nationalism was the interwar period, when, as noted by Rudling (ibid.), the country was divided, part of the West being under Poland’s rule, while the rest was a Soviet Republic. Hence, the task of finding unifying historical myths could only be complicated and had, ultimately the potential for division and polarization rather than for unification (Ibid.).
In a nutshell, Yushchenko’s policy,
“Particularly emphasized the Holodomor (the Great Famine of 1932–1933 in the USSR), as the genocide of the Ukrainian nation by the Communist party and the Soviet state, and glorified the anti-Soviet struggle of Ukrainian nationalists during and after WWII (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and Ukrainian Insurgent Army (Ukrainska Povstanska Armiya, UPA)). Two interrelated strategies were predominant: victimization and glorification…” (Ishchenko: 369)
However, both Ishchenko and Rudling (2013a) evidence in a very detailed way that denial and justification of horrors committed, besides overemphasis on victimization, were built in the memories and the revised nationalism thus constructed. On this theme, against which Ukrainian official nationalism and its proponents actively struggle, see also J. P. Himka. Interventions: Challenging the Myths of Twentieth-Century Ukrainian history. University of Alberta. 28 March 2011; or Ivan Katchanovski, “Terrorists or National Heroes? Politics of the OUN and UPA in Ukraine“. Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University: 7, for a good summary of the tensions and struggles.
To only summarize their work, for example, the number of victims of the Holodomor are swollen to 10 million, when “latest research estimate it to between 2.6 and 3.9 million excess deaths” (Rudling 2013a, 2013b). The already enormous figure grounded in real facts made distortion unnecessary. Furthermore, the ethnic, essentialist interpretation for the Holodomor, which would have specifically targeted Ukrainians as such, is considered as the sole truth (Rudling, Ibid.; Ishchenko), when other more complex explanations and understandings may be more correct, including considering, for example, that many parts of the Soviet Union also suffered of famine (Rudling, 2013a) such as Kazakhstan, even if Stalin’s treatment of Ukraine was indeed specific. However, Ukraine was targeted because of the potential resistance of Ukraine to Staline’s – inept – policies, not because its inhabitants were Ukrainians (Werth, 2009).
Accepting to consider alternative, complex explanations, again, would not have in any way implied a disregard for Ukrainian sufferings, but certainly would have failed to serve the narrow political aim of “competitive victimization”, when one wishes to show that one is more of a victim than others.
As far as the OUN and UPA are concerned, a similar phenomenon of denial and revision of history is at work. Only Soviet crimes are remembered. Gone is OUN commitment to ethnic purity. Gone is OUN(b), one of the two branches of the original party as it split in 1938 at the death of its founder, “attempt to establish a Ukrainian state as a loyal satellite of Nazi Germany (Rudling 2013a using Rossolin ́ski-Liebe, 2011). To quote Rudling (2013a: 229) at length:
“During the first days of the war, there were up to 140 pogroms in western Ukraine, claiming the lives of 13,000–35,000 people (Struve, 2012: 268). In 1943–1944, OUN(b) and its armed wing, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), carried out large-scale ethnic cleansing, resulting in the deaths of more than 90,000 Poles and thousands of Jews. After the war, the UPA continued a hopeless struggle against the Soviet authorities until 1953, in which they killed 20,000 Ukrainians. The Soviet authorities killed 153,000 people, arrested 134,000 and deported 203,000 UPA members, sympathizers and their families (Siemaszko, 2010: 93; Motyka, 2006: 649).”
Ishchenko (Ibid: 2) writes:
“Emphasizing the ethnic dimension of the Holodomor and victimizing the Ukrainian nation as the object of genocide, often compared to the Holocaust, went hand-in-hand with either denial or justification of Ukrainian nationalists’ collaboration with Nazis in the beginning of WWII, their participation in the Holocaust, and the ethnic cleansing of up to 60,000 Poles in Volhynia in 1943.”
Yet, the OUN and UPA are the very organisations that were chosen as incarnating the Ukrainian heroic nation, their crimes being forgotten or justified by their future struggle against the Soviet Union (Rudling, ibid). “The “memory managers” juxtaposed the genocidal Soviet rule with the self-sacrificial heroism of the OUN-UPA, producing a teleological narrative of suffering (the famine) and resistance (the OUN-UPA) leading to redemption (independence, 1991)” (Rudling, ibid: 231), as also noted by Ishchenko (Ibid: 2) “Instead, the OUN and UPA were glorified as fighters for an independent Ukrainian state against both Soviet and Nazi occupations.”
The dark side of the OUN-UPA narrative has been so well denied and justified, that, as noted by the OSCE SMM,
“Rallies and marches were organized in a number of cities throughout the country on 14 October to mark the 72nd anniversary of the creation of the “Ukrainian Insurgent Army” (“UPA”).” (OSCE SMM, 15 October 2014).
Other celebrations were organised throughout the country, including by the very official Institute of National Memory of Ukraine, and as abundantly documented on its director, Volodymyr Viatrovych, Facebook page.
Even more officially, President Poroshenko decided by decree that the Day of the Defender of Ukraine would now officially be held on 14 October, i.e. merged with the day consecrating the UPA (Presidential decree 806/2014, 14 October 2014), instead of the previously chosen 23 February, that honoured the Soviet Army and had been chosen by President Kuchma and thus cannot anymore fit Nationalist Ukraine (see Paul Bobołowicz, 15 October, Facebook).
Svoboda would perceive itself as the ideological successor of the OUN (Rudling 2013a: 235), meanwhile also promoting a very revisited vision of the Waffen-SS division Galizia (Olszański, 2011: 4; Rudling 2012, 2013b). The latter have become, thanks also to the revisionist efforts of its veterans emigrated in Canada, the forgotten heroes of Ukrainian nationalism through the same type of strategy as practiced by Yushchenko in Ukraine (Rudling, Ibid.).
As a result and as identified by Rudling, and implied by Ishchenko, a crucial feature of Ukrainian nationalism is that all wrong doing becomes externalized, while Ukrainians may only be right and victims. We see here a pattern that is or has been at work in other societies, for example Cambodia, and that only increases with turmoil and difficulties.
Meanwhile, the scholars specialised in the Ukrainian far-right underline that the latter’s ethno-nationalism is first and foremost characterized by a Russophobia (Olszański, 2011: Shekhovtsov, 2013), sometimes but not always, and in a way evolving with time, accompanied by anti-semitism or “white racism”(Shekhovtsov, 2013). We may hypothesize that the promoted anti-Soviet genocidal myth, added to Ukrainian essential righteousness and externalization of the source of problems could easily be translated and transformed into an extreme anti-Russia and anti-Russian nationalistic stance.
Assuming this is correct and there is a potential predisposition in Ukrainian nationalism to perceive Russia as the enemy, or, worse, the enemy that wants one’s destruction (genocidal myth), then the loss of Crimea must have been a tremendous shock, with all the emotional component a shock implies (Lavoix, “Looking Out for Future Shocks“, 2011). Then, from this moment onward, all nationalist myths would become activated, in their most extreme forms, the very survival of the nation being at stake, filtering understanding and promoting actions (Lavoix, 2005). This explains the disproportionate actions against “pro-Russians” who, in April 2014 (for a summarized timeline, see setting the stage), had only demonstrated and seized without bloodshed buildings, their naming as terrorists, the sending of tanks against unarmed civilians, as well as the incapacity to understand domestic dynamics while whatever happens always ends up being a Russian ploy, or the fault of Russian invading troops.
A very recent example of such extremely biased perceptions can be seen in the map depicting “the situation in the Eastern regions of Ukraine -13.10.14“, published by the very official National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) of Ukraine. According to the map legend, military units of the Russian Federation are widely spread throughout the Donbass, when the active presence of the Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) of the OSCE throughout the territory makes this NSDC claim unbelievable: had Russian troops been as present as alleged on the map, the SMM would certainly have denounced it (see OSCE SMM daily updates).
A similar but inverted phenomenon has been most probably at work first in Crimea then in the Donbass, when, this time, Russian-speaking Ukrainians as well as the Russian minority in Ukraine witnessed the events in Maidan, the change of the law on language and the destruction of the statues linked to their Soviet and Russian heritage (see Setting the stage). The strength and speed of the reaction let us believe that polarization had been had work for some time in Ukraine, as the choice of the period for myth-making, when Ukraine was divided, let us expect. Indeed, Shekhovtsov with remarkable foresight when studying the rise of Svoboda wrote:
“Svoboda contributes significantly to the political polarization of Ukrainian society. The perceived rise of the party … will spark negative feelings on the part of the Russian minority and contribute to the activation of pro-Russian nationalist movements that can garner support from Russia and advance separatist activities in the largely Russian-speaking regions, such as Crimea.” (Shekhovtsov, 2013: 260)
It is against this backdrop of highly emotionally charged constructed memories, including a certification of the far-right as nationalist saviour in times of turmoil, when saving the Ukrainian body of the nation may justify anything, that the evolution of the far-right groups must be studied. Assessing the potential futures of the situation in Ukraine will similarly need to consider the specific Ukrainian ultra-nationalism and how it is highly likely to constrain and influence the actions of and interactions between various groups.
Full bibliographic references
Featured image: Still from the video “Procession of Azov and the right sector in Kiev“, 14 October 2014 by Pavel Sheremet on Youtube.
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