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Ukraine’s choice: Nationalism vs. European values

The domineering of the far right in Ukraine, facilitated by the oligarchic mechanisms of power, has become a fact. It is not just a myth spread by Russian propaganda, although it is often exploited and aggrandised. The 2014 Revolution of Dignity and its aftermath was a turning point in Ukrainian history which marked an ideological split within the society into two camps, ultimately offering different paths for Ukraine’s national development.

June 29, 2017 - Evgenia Bilchenko - Articles and Commentary

Right Sector Odessa

The first vision – proposed by the “democratic” camp, embraces European values, freedom of speech, justice, dialogue and social security. It was internalised by the romantics, mainly national-liberals and centrists, but also some left-wingers whose revolutionary charm benefited the authorities, and an active public who has acted as a collective social police.

The second vision was put forward by far-right nationalists who have declared the Maidan their victory and are working to establish a peculiar neo-totalitarian regime of surveillance of everyone by everyone. They have had a rather vague idea about the system of European conventions, yet they enjoy significant backing from official structures, often fulfilling a punitive function where the authorities do not want to get their hands dirty.

The fact that Ukrainian nationalists are not only marginal street gangs but a highly co-ordinated group of people tolerated by the authorities who have been using them to impose their control over the population is demonstrated by the case of Ruslan Kotsaba. While at the Maidan the difference between a student who demands freedom and an extremist who dreamed of anarchy was invisible due to the overwhelming atmosphere of national recovery, at a time of war, the democratic and nationalistic identities have irrevocably parted.

As a writer and philosopher, I represent the first vision, which is becoming more side-lined in the current atmosphere in the country. I am not afraid to write that we have been used and I am not afraid to accept the blame for our failure to win Ukrainians’ hearts and minds as it seems that public opinion in Ukraine is now being shaped by right-wing propaganda more than the pro-democratic and pro-European forces.

Hence, Ukraine has been seemingly divided into two camps: supporters of the Ukrainian national idea in the form of nationalism and its opponents who want a return of the Russian vision of patrimonial statehood. The former romantics of the revolution are either expected to show repentance by the “pro-Russian” camp or are accused of betrayal by the Ukrainian nationalists. The former Maidan liberals who find respite in leftist values are now trapped, as they often find themselves defending the rights of the pro-Russian population from violent nationalists at considerable personal risk. Alas, however, they do not enjoy the support of those they are defending.

There is no room for compromise and any middle approach is treated as “criminally naïve”. Any call for tolerance and freedom of speech based on European conventions is easily dismissed by nationalists who often repeat: “What tolerance can we talk about at a time of Russian aggression?”

This is how the people distinguish between what is politically correct and what is not. They are being constantly reminded that they are not fighting against one another, but only defending themselves. And with that self-defence, any injustice can be acquitted as “compulsory measures” in the fight against an “internal enemy”. That is how repressions are beginning to take place in Ukraine. At the moment, we are under constant threat of secret services and street attacks. Denunciations, beatings and cyber-terror in social networks have become an everyday experience for many.

One of the victims of this situation has been Ruslan Kotsaba – a journalist, blogger, war correspondent, former director of the Stepan Bandera Museum in Ivano-Frankivsk and declared pacifist. As one of the first people who travelled to the frontlines, he dared to call things by their name. In January 2015, he uploaded a video to YouTube calling people to boycott the popular mobilisation to go to war, where Ukrainian citizens were killing one another. He argued that Ukraine was in the state of civil war and that the intervention of foreign powers, including Russia, was thus inevitable.

In February 2015 Kotsaba was arrested and charged with treason. Amnesty International named him a prisoner of conscience and he spent 524 days in prison. Members of the European Parliament wrote an official letter to the Ukrainian authorities demanding the release of the journalist. In June 2016, an appeals court cleared him of all the charges. However, in 2017 the nationalistic propaganda has further radicalised as the government’s mistakes became increasingly clear and the deepening social crisis in the country had to be justified not by internal but external factors, and war again became the main target of blame. Soon after, the hunt for Ruslan Kotsaba began anew.

The prosecution appealed the decision of the court, citing procedural reasons. On June 1st and 7th two new court proceedings took place during which the acquittal was revoked despite Europe’s recommendations, and Ruslan’s case was again transferred to Ivano-Frankivsk.

A cameraman of one of the main Ukrainian TV stations with whom I spoke, like his editor, are afraid of the pressure coming from the government. They participated in both court proceedings from the beginning to the end and they know the ins and outs of the case. While during the first hearing, only three opposition TV stations were present, one of which was a blogging site, only a few official channels were allowed into the second hearing and independent media reporters piled in the court’s narrow corridor.

We, the intellectuals who came to support Kotsaba, were intimidated by radicals. They walked in large groups, chanting nationalist slogans and threatening physical violence. One of their activists, Evgen Karas, stated that those who came to support the freedom of speech in Ukraine are “biodegradable waste” which should be destroyed. Their faces should be remembered and photographed, Karas went on, for future reprisals.

While a few dozen radicals attended the first court hearing on June 1st, on June 7th the group increased to about 150 people. They were well prepared, wearing sport clothes or special uniforms of their organisations – including the widely represented right-wing radical structure C14, also called Січ. They surrounded the building from all sides, got access to the court uninterrupted and their people were standing guard in the neighbouring streets.

After the court hearing, on one of those streets, some radicals beat up the leader of the European Socialists Party, Denis Zharkikh, who came to support the prisoner of conscience. Importantly, the police did not interfere or stop them. Then they recorded a video with threats stating that a similar fate awaits anyone who speaks out against the war propaganda in the country. The video could have been treated as a marginal action by radicals if it was not commented on with mocking sarcasm by the pro-government media.

The co-ordination of the actions by the right-wing activists and the authorities has been clear. The radicals were allowed to walk freely around the court, interrupt the work of the officials, put pressure on the judges and, to put it bluntly, behave loutishly. The Kotsaba case is an illustration of the process of Ukraine’s right-wing radicalisation which has seen the ultimate victory of street dictatorship.

In February 2017, my blog on Liga.net was closed down in response to my critique of the government and the dominant nationalist ideology – either at the authorities’ request or due to the website’s self-censorship.

Mahatma Ghandi criticised his past mistakes when he looked back at the beginnings of the freedom movement in India. Unlike Ghandi, the freedom movement in Ukraine does not want to acknowledge its flaws. On the contrary, the more mistakes it makes, the more it gets stuck in the deadlock of hysterical revanchism.

The arrest of journalists, shutting down of TV stations, state bans on the screenings of films which refuse to canonise dubious regional heroes (such as Wojciech Smarzowski’s Hatred about the Volhynia massacre) and arbitrariness in courts show that the post-colonial Ukrainian consciousness is moving further away from Europe than from another revolution. Ukraine will not become a modern society as long as the defining features of its national identity continue to be ethno-nationalism and militarism, which have already led to ultra-radical street surveillance.

Evgenia Bilchenko is a poet, culture studies scholar, pedagogue, blogger, and human rights activist. She is professor of cultural studies at the National Pedagogical Dragomanov University, member of International Academy of Literature and Arts, Ukrainian Congress of Writers, and expert at Studrespublica. In the past, she was Maidan activist and volunteer, currently a committed pacifist. 

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