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.
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"The success of Freedom is a concern," says Mr. Fesenko, of the Penta Center, but adds that it is primarily a regional party that is not popular at the national level. "Its success is less because of its nationalism and more because voters are looking for something new."Skip to next paragraph
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Nazis and Soviets still dueling
One major barrier to a party such as Freedom achieving nationwide success is Ukraine's cultural differences, which run along historical and geographical lines: A Soviet, pro-Russian identity predominates in the east, while the west traditionally supports a more independent, nationally minded view.
The presidential elections in January are likely to serve as a trigger for politicians to exploit this split. "Politicians will try to increase tensions and radicalize opinion," says Serhiy Taran, director of the International Institute for Democracy in Kyiv.
Last month in Lviv, in western Ukraine, Freedom had posters put up across town with the insignia of the Halychyna division, an SS division (formally known as the Ukrainian 14th Waffen SS Galizien Division) that fought against Soviet troops alongside Nazi Germany during World War II.
"They defended Ukraine," the posters read.
This is a particularly sensitive topic in a country that suffered huge losses during war, and where the victory of the Soviet Red Army is still celebrated on May 9 as a major national holiday.
Tyahnybok, on the other hand, calls the Soviet Union "a period of occupation," which caused much suffering in Ukraine.
All of that is grist for the mill for the Russian media, which is popular in the east of the country and uses every opportunity to decry "fascism" in Ukraine. The last presidential election campaign in 2004 was marked by attempts, encouraged by Russian political consultants, to portray President Yushchenko as an extreme nationalist.
Risk of a split?
Simmering tensions burst into the open on April 17, when 21-year-old nationalist Maksym Chaika was stabbed to death in the southern city of Odessa by a member of the radical leftist group Antifa. Accusations have since been flying back and forth, with one side claiming that the victim was an extremist, and the other charging that Antifa is connected to pro-Russian political forces.
Yushchenko himself got involved by demanding an investigation into links between Antifa and foreign anti-Ukrainian organizations.
"There is a threat of disintegration," says Mr. Taran, "but it's not a strong possibility. People don't identify clearly with east or west – they cross barriers and their identities are flexible. This is a powerful, peace-preserving mechanism, and makes it hard for parties to mobilize people on an ethnic basis."
Indeed, while the crisis has seen improved ratings for Freedom, it has also led to a significant rise in popularity for another new face, former parliamentary speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk, who is seen as a moderate liberal. "Most of society is not keen on radical ideas," says Fesenko. "They continue to support politicians with civilized standards and proposals."