In October 2012 Svoboda took the Ukrainian political scene by storm, entering parliament for the first time with 37 seats out of 450. Dismissed by many as being too radical to bring on real change, the party is now taking up popular mainstream causes, trying to move beyond its base in Central and Western Ukraine, and vying for international recognition.
Svoboda's surprising success goes far beyond support for their right-wing ideology and nationalist agenda. Indeed, experts point to a combination of votes against the current political paradigm and a vote in favour of someone, anyone, that is motivated by ideas rather than access to the trough. It is also a testament to just how unpopular President Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions has become after almost three years of his presidency.
Traditionally based in Western Ukraine, where Svoboda has been long present at local echelons of power, the October parliamentary elections saw support for the party spread East and South. Vitaliy Skorokhodov, the pro-Russian commentator, wrote that “voters from the south and east of Ukraine voted for Svoboda out of hatred towards the Party of Regions, thinking let those Banderites beat the faces of the Regionals”.
As a result, Svoboda has found itself in the unprecedented position of having to play a role in mainstream politics. This will be a difficult task, requiring a careful balancing act between some of the party's hardline supporters and the much more moderate views of the population, which mainly expects strong opposition to the ruling coalition.
Whether or not Svoboda manages to sway voters beyond its traditional power base in Ukraine's western regions will depend on how deftly it can emphasise the social and populist segments of its manifesto, and whether it keeps its most radical members at bay
A need breed of populism
Svoboda has in the past played up its ties to the wartime Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), a guerilla group centred on Western Ukraine that fought all “foreign forces” on their territory, mainly the Polish underground, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Svoboda's demonstrations in Lviv, Western Ukraine's cultural centre, unfailingly feature UPA veterans together with large photos of Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukevych, whose cause the nationalist party has championed since a court in Donetsk stripped the two insurgent leaders of their Hero of Ukraine medals, awarded by the former president, Viktor Yushchenko.
While this may rally support in the West of the country, the exuberant references to Western Ukrainian nationalism will irk many in the country's East, where pride for the Red Army's 1945 victory runs strong and the UPA is reviled for its collaboration with the Nazis. The result has been a shift away from polarising projects in favour of those with broader social appeal – particularly those centred on Ukrainians' main worries, such as the poor economy and rampant injustice.
In regards to the latter, Svoboda members have been very active in the cause celebre that is the case of the Pavlichenkos, a father and son suspected of murdering a judge in March 2011 in revenge for evicting them from their apartment in central Kyiv. The father and son, Dmytro and Serhiy, were recently sentenced to life and 13 years in prison, respectively, although their defenders continue to advocate their innocence, citing a number of suspicious circumstances surrounding their conviction.
Serhiy Pavlichenko's ties to the football hooligan community of Dynamo Kyiv led to protests against the conviction of the Pavlichenko's, from where the protests grew into a broader, nationwide phenomenon. A petition has recently been proposed on the White House website We the People which proposes to extend the recently passed Magnitsky Bill (named after the Russian lawyer who died in prison following corruption investigations) to deny visas and freeze bank accounts of the officials involved in the case.
Svoboda activists have also taken up the labour cause, storming the offices of the energy holding company, DTEK, owned by Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine's richest man, following a conflict between the company and miners working at a supplier in Ukraine's eastern Luhansk region. The miners demanded that plans for massive layoffs be cancelled and annual bonuses paid. The apparently successful resolution of the conflict was a perfect way for Svoboda members to bolster their socialist credentials in front of one the biggest electoral prizes in Ukraine – disgruntled blue collar workers in the country's east.
Younger and more combative (also literally, as seen during the fights when the new parliament was formed), Svoboda representatives have also changed the landscape through their active stance against the Party of Regions. Thus, Svoboda is leading the charge in the attempts to outlaw the practice of voting in parliament with other people's cards, galvanising the other opposition groupings. While this attitude is likely to boost support for the party, it may also lead to a radicalisation of the remaining opposition forces, leading to a fight for the right-wing of the political spectrum.
An uphill international battle
Although gaining ground domestically is feasible, the international legitimisation of Svoboda will be a tougher nut to crack. Anti-Semitic rhetoric has been a poison pill for any attempts at recognition by mainstream political forces beyond Ukraine.
Jewish organisations, already wary of Svoboda's rise, have had further reasons for concern after a Svoboda member used a derogatory term for Jew to describe famed actress of Ukrainian origin Mila Kunis. While party leadership dismissed the whole affair as a linguistic problem – the use of an archaic form that became insulting due to the influence of Russian on Ukrainian – the whole affair has further cemented Svoboda's ultra-nationalist image. Semantic disputes aside, it is clear that Svoboda has a nasty nationalist streak – as one could easily suspect from an organisation first founded as the Socialist Nationalist Party of Ukraine (in essence, the Nazi party of Ukraine).
Tadeusz Olszanski, a Ukraine watcher at the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies, hit the nail on the head in his description of the party's ideological foundations: “The key principles of its ideology include unequivocally equating the nation with a community which has been formed naturally by a single ethnic group, the primacy of the nation’s collective rights over individual human rights, the need to build an “ethnoeconomy” and the openly racist rhetoric claiming superiority of the “white race”, etc.
Svoboda's rise also prompted a resolution by the European Parliament expressing concerns about the rising nationalistic sentiment in Ukraine, which led to the party's election and called upon “pro-democratic parties in the Ukrainian Parliament not to associate with, endorse or form coalitions with Svoboda”.
This, however, has not prevented attempts by Ukrainian nationalists from reaching out abroad in search of support. In a somewhat surprising move, Svoboda in 2010 agreed to cooperate with the National Rebirth of Poland party, despite the difficult history between the two nations and a strong faction in both groupings that wants to revise the borders.
Svoboda leaders also flash their cooperation and membership within the Alliance of European Nationalists (AEN). Recent meetings, however, have not been attended by Svoboda members and the party has not been listed on AEN press releases, sparking a statement in early-January by Svoboda denying allegations that it had been removed from the grouping.
Whatever the situation, this remains a far cry from Batkivschyna's (the main opposition party) observer status in the European People's Party and the support it regularly receives (the “third force of the opposition”, Vitaly Klitschko's UDAR party, is also believed to be moving towards an agreement with the European political grouping).
While the party's central pillar may try hard to capitalise on public grievances, it will be held back by the considerable radical element within its structures. Thus, the ideological drive (no matter what the actual ideology is) which appealed to Ukrainians and made Svoboda stand out during the electoral campaign, could be sowing the seeds of its own destruction.
Jakub Parusinski is an editor at the English-language weekly Kyiv Post.