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Ukraine's economic straits raise worries about radicalism

Gains by a far-right party in regional polls and the murder of a Ukrainian nationalist have caused concern. But many caution that radicals hold limited appeal at the national level.

By James MarsonContributor / May 15, 2009

Kyiv, Ukraine

As the economic crisis in Ukraine continues to bite hard, one parliamentary deputy last month drew a chilling comparison in an open letter to the country's president, Viktor Yushchenko.

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"[Many people] are worried by the historical analogy between the rise of a neofascist mood in Ukraine during the economic crisis and events in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s," wrote Oleksandr Feldman.

While political analysts say that the comparison with the chaos that preceded Hitler's rise to power is exaggerated, there are concerns that the strained economic and political conditions in Ukraine are leading to a rise in radicalism. A far-right party won a regional election in March, and last month saw the murder of a Ukrainian nationalist by an "anti-fascist" group. And with the presidential election set for January, the worry is that the contenders are likely to stoke tensions for political gain.

"There is a certain radicalization of society that reflects disillusionment with the political elite, which in the past few years has put its own interests ahead of the state's," says Volodymyr Fesenko, director of the Penta Center for Applied Political Studies in Kyiv (Kiev).

With Ukraine's economy in meltdown – gross domestic product fell by an estimated 25 percent in the first three months of the year – a recent poll by the Research & Branding Group in Kyiv showed that 90 percent view the political situation in the country as "unstable."

Ukrainians have grown increasingly frustrated with the squabbling between former Orange Revolution allies President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. They are also disillusioned by the inability of politicians to clamp down on entrenched corruption or find an effective way to combat the economic downturn.

This disillusionment is pushing some Ukrainians to look for new faces, including those on the far right.

On Mar. 15, the election of a new regional assembly in Ternopil in western Ukraine saw a victory for the previously marginal Freedom party, which garnered 50 of 120 seats. Polls show that the party has also seen an increase in popularity across the more nationally minded west of the country.

The party's leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, is infamous for a speech he gave in 2004, where he made anti-Semitic and Russophobic remarks, and said, "It is time that Ukraine is returned to Ukrainians."

"We are not against national minorities," Mr. Tyahnybok says. "We simply want to defend the rights of the national majority, to look after the rights of Ukrainians in their own country."

Tyahnybok calls for a lustration process to purge the authorities of remnants of Soviet power, proportional representation in the government according to nationality, and strengthening of the president's powers.