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 , Contributor

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.

"[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.

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"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.

"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."

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."

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