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Europe Must Not Let the Far-Right Ruin Ukraine’s Moment

Things were simpler in Karl Marx’s time. Back then, only one spectre was haunting Europe, and a committed communist knew just what to do about it.

February 25, 2014 - Josh Black - Articles and Commentary

25.02.2014 banderaa

Photo: Shutterstock

By contrast, Europe today is haunted by fears of its own inadequacy, the apparent resurgence of extremist parties and the self-confident projection of the Russian state under Vladimir Putin. All of these factors, rather than Europe’s traditional optimism in liberal values, explain its halting response to the crisis in Ukraine.

The protests that erupted in Ukraine over the decision of Mykola Azarov’s government to suspend negotiations with the European Union before signing an Association Agreement should have been an opportunity for Europe’s leaders. Instead, as Ukraine’s parliamentary opposition negotiates with a cynical and authoritarian government that knows full well that they do not command the authority of all those who are camped out in Kyiv’s Independence Square, Europe’s leaders sought to pull one of their key supports from under them.

Speaking on the eve of a visit to Kyiv in late January, EU High Representative Cathy Ashton called on Ukraine’s leaders to “to dissociate themselves from those who resort to violence”. That policy has been featured in almost every public pronouncement by the EU since and continues to be spoken in the midst of violent clashes that have left more than 60 dead. It is a laudable statement, but one which could have the very real consequence of forcing Vitali Klitschko and Arseniy Yatsenyuk to disown the third member of their coalition –nationalist leader Oleh Tyanhybok –and further remove them from the source of their authority.

Europe’s neuroses are understandable. Protesters, rather than the security forces, have initiated much of the violence in Ukraine in recent weeks, although there are many provocateurs among the opposition ranks. Tensions are high, with many protesters suspicious that the army might be called in, and the Special Forces are being accused of kidnapping and brutality. As a result, a number of far-right groups have come to prominence, including a rag-tag of nationalists calling themselves Right Sector and a handful of neo-Nazis who go by the name White Hammer. Antisemitism runs through Svoboda, which has gone from being a single-issue party motivated by the adoption of Russian as a second state language to seeing itself as the defender of Ukraine’s freedoms.

However, these elements should not be exaggerated. A prominent coalition of academics calls the media’s focus on far-right groups “unwarranted and misleading”. Anton Shekhovtsov, a researcher at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London, estimates that there are no more than 1,000 far-right activists across Ukraine as a whole. Svoboda, which entered Parliament in 2012, has softened its rhetoric in response to the demands of its constituents.

Sympathy with these groups begins with historical grievances against Russia including the behaviour of the Soviet Army during the Second World War and the famine of the 1930s (known in Ukraine as the Holodomor). Pro-Russian and pro-government thinkers dismiss these concerns using the communist-era language of anti-fascism. Yet these grievances need not lead to anti-systemic political views. Indeed, Ukraine’s dysfunctional political process is a cause, rather than a result of the existence of far-right politics.

Europe sees itself as having few levers of influence over the Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych, especially after Russia contributed 15 billion US dollars in bonds and loans on top of natural gas discounts in December, only recently instigating sanctions against members of the elites. Instead, Europe believes it has sway over the protest movement. That has proven to be false in a way that both understates and exaggerates Europe’s appeal.

The protests have ceased to be about Ukraine’s foreign policy and are now about the authoritarian and dysfunctional politics ushered in by Yanukovych. Europe’s model of government still holds the brightest future for Ukraine, yet there is an anti-Russian bias, as much as a European optimism, to the Euromaidan.

Josh Black studied Russian and Eastern European Studies at St Antony’s College, Oxford, and now works as a freelance journalist.

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