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Ukraine’s far right unclear prospects in the 2019 elections

Moscow has long exploited Ukraine’s far-right movements as scarecrows, inflating their political importance, in an effort to discredit the Ukrainian nation, as a whole. But in reality, ultra-nationalist parties in post-Soviet Ukraine have struggled to find support for several election cycles now. If the various groups cannot unite, they are likely to fail once again in the 2019 parliamentary elections.

March 22, 2019 - Andreas Umland - Articles and CommentaryUkraine elections 2019

Stepan Bandera monument, Ternopil Photo: Nikita Nikiforov (cc) flickr.com

Ever since the beginning of its armed struggle against Moscow during the Second World War, the Ukrainian far right has been exploited by the Kremlin as a bogeyman. The political radicalism, war crimes, fascist leanings, and manifest militancy of historic Ukrainian ultra-nationalism have been effectively employed by Soviet and post-Soviet Russian agitators to paint a scary picture of Ukraine, among Russian and Western publics, which are otherwise largely ignorant about Ukrainian matters. The Banderite label, derived from the surname of the one-time leader of Ukrainian nationalism’s most radical wing, was and is still being used to stigmatise Ukrainians from Galicia and Volynia, as well as Ukrainian patriots in general, or merely self-ascribed Ukrainians, as universally xenophobic, antisemitic and genocidal.

As a result of decades of relentless campaigning, the term “Banderite” (banderivets, banderivka) eventually became defiantly adopted as a self-description by many Ukrainians. This is in spite of the fact that most of Ukraine’s self-ascribed “Banderites” today share little with the historic Stepan Bandera’s political aims, beyond their common goal of Ukrainian independence. Parts of the Western public nevertheless continue to see little difference between liberationist and emancipatory impulses of Ukrainian nationalism, on the one side, and its extremist and ethno-centrist motives, on the other, as well as between their related diverging political permutations in either the past or the present.

The rise and fall of the Freedom party

The entry of the radical nationalist and explicitly anti-Russian All-Ukrainian Union “Svoboda” (Freedom) into Ukraine’s parliament in 2012, with 10.44 per cent in the proportional part of the elections, and the appearance in 2014 of new extra-parliamentary far-right groups, including the Right Sector and Azov battalion, provided new fodder for Moscow’s defamation campaign. In particular the first leader of Right Sector, Dmytro Yarosh, was singled out by Kremlin-controlled mass media as allegedly posing a deadly threat to Russophones in Ukraine (despite his origins in the eastern Dnipropetrovsk oblast). Russian TV’s frantic propaganda crusade against him made Yarosh – an actually minor figure in Ukrainian politics – a celebrity of sorts, in Ukraine and beyond.

Yet the surprisingly weak performance of Yarosh in the May 2014 presidential elections (0.7 per cent) and of his Right Sector party in the October 2014 parliamentary elections (1.8 per cent) took the steam out of the Kremlin’s propaganda circus. Even more astonishing (and, perhaps, for the Kremlin also curiously disappointing) were the only somewhat less meagre results of Svoboda and its head Oleh Tyahnybok in the presidential and parliamentary elections – 1.16 per cent and 4.71 per cent respectively. The latter result was below the parliament’s 5 per cent entry barrier and has thus led to the disappearance of the far right’s short-lived faction in the Verkhovna Rada (Supreme Council) which has since only contained some individual ultra-nationalists who do not cooperate much with each other within the legislature.

Svoboda’s decline, if compared to its 2012 result, was even more surprising in view of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the ongoing war in the Donbas, and its repercussions in Ukrainian society. In spite of heightening patriotism, rising irregular armed groups, and spreading fear of Russia within Ukraine’s population, Svoboda lost more than half of its popular support in October 2014, percentage-wise. It actually lost even more than that overall because voters in Crimea and in much of the Donbas – i.e. those parts of the Ukrainian electorate with especially little sympathy for Svoboda – did not take part in the elections. The frustration among the far right may have been especially high in view of the fact that Svoboda and the Right Sector had together received more than 5 per cent in the parliamentary elections. Had they formed a united list, they might have been able to jointly pass the entry barrier and to thereby preserve a far-right faction in parliament.

Towards a united ultra-nationalist front

In March 2017 it seemed that Ukraine’s radical nationalists had finally learned their lesson from their failures in 2014, as they adopted a joint “National Manifesto”. The heads of the three main parties, Svoboda’s Oleh Tyahnybok, the Right Sector’s Andriy Tarasenko and the National Corps’s Andriy Biletsky, signed – in a solemn ceremony at Kyiv’s House of Teachers – a common programmatic document. Among other things, it demanded the creation of a Baltic-Black Sea alliance of East European countries, as well as the reestablishment of Ukraine as a nuclear power. The novel coalition now explicitly united the two parties that had run separately during the two 2014 national elections.

Until recently this alliance also included the National Corps, a dynamic new party that had grown out of the Azov movement and is continuing the tradition of the pre-Euromaidan racist groupuscules “Patriot of Ukraine” and Social-National Assembly, also once headed by Biletsky. The new tripartite alliance was joined by three additional minor far-right groups: the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists and C14, a notorious neo-Nazi youth grouplet. Conspicuously though, another notable nationalist group, the so-called Statist Initiative of Yarosh, a splinter of the Right Sector, was absent at the March 2017 unification meeting and did not sign the joint manifesto. Yarosh’s demonstrative non-engagement turned out be a harbinger of things to come.

Throughout 2018, the far right’s leaders and activists were discussing a joint strategy for the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections. Much of their public rhetoric was about the ultra-nationalist groups’ need to campaign jointly and to run united. A major issue though remained who of their two most popular leaders, Tyahnybok or Biletsky, would be the far right’s single presidential candidate. Tyahnybok (b. 1968) is a veteran Ukrainian politician from Galicia who had prominently participated in the 1990, 2004 and 2014 Revolutions on the Granite, in Orange and of Dignity. He also had ten years of experience as a Rada deputy until 2014. In contrast, Biletsky (b. 1979) is from Kharkiv, did not participate in high politics until after the Euromaidan, and acquired his fame only in 2014 as commander of the Azov volunteer battalion, as a result of which he won a mandate from Kyiv’s Obolon single-member district, in that year’s Rada elections. While Biletsky has little political experience, he apparently pretends to play a role equal or even superior to Tyahnybok within the united ultra-nationalist camp.

At first it seemed that the far right had found a solution to the thorny issue of selecting only one joint presidential candidate. In November 2018, it nominated neither Tyahnybok nor Biletsky, but a third prominent politician, Ruslan Koshulynskyi (b. 1969), as its candidate for Ukraine’s presidency. Like Tyahnybok, a Galician Svoboda leader, Koshulynskyi had been Deputy Speaker of the Verkhovna Rada in 2012-14. He had acquired national recognition and a good reputation in that function and as a volunteer soldier in the Donbas.

Koshulynskyi thus seemed like a good choice. Yet it soon became apparent that Koshulynskyi’s nomination by the signatory organizations of the far right’s 2017 National Manifesto had, for one reason or another, either not at all or insufficiently been agreed with Biletsky’s National Corps. Svoboda and its allies on the one side, and the National Corps on the other, have since accused each other of sabotaging the coordination process before Koshulynskyi’s nomination.

In any case, neither the apparent break of the 2017 coalition nor Dmytro Yarosh’s public support for Koshulynskyi’s candidacy since are of much political importance. In fact, Koshulynskyi’s potentially weak performance in the upcoming elections could turn into a public relations disaster for the far right. In an opinion poll released by the reputed Razumkov Center on February 20th 2019, Koshulynskyi had the support of only 0.9 per cent of those intending to vote in the presidential election. With such a result Koshulynskyi would remain even below the already embarrassing result of 1.16 per cent that his party colleague Tyahnybok had obtained during the 2014 presidential elections. Add to this the fact that neither Biletsky nor Yarosh or any other prominent ultra-nationalists decided to run in this presidential election. Thus, it will be stunning if Koshulynskyi indeed receives so little support, particularly because he, unlike Tyahnybok who in 2014 competed with Yarosh, does not have a competitor on the far-right flank.

Against this background, a far more important aspect of the current tensions between the National Corps and the other ultra-nationalist groups is that it could mean that they may run separately in the parliamentary elections of October 2019. Such a division of their vote could repeat the far right’s fiasco of 2014. In fact, it is not entirely clear that even a fully united far-right list would be able to pass the 5 per cent threshold. That is because, in the words of prominent Kyiv political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko, “Petro Poroshenko’s broad campaign is build on militant patriotic rhetoric as well as on support for the candidacy of Ukraine’s incumbent president by some influential nationalists greatly diminishes Koshulynskyi’s chances, in the presidential elections, and the chances of Svoboda, not to mention other nationalist parties, in the parliamentary elections.”

In the words of the Vienna-based political scientist Anton Shekhovtsov, the far right now has “low chances to get into the Rada because, above all, the political system of Ukraine is again extremely polarised (as was the case in the 1990s and early 2000s). The conflict in the political centre is currently so intense that there is, for all peripheral parties, little hope to join this confrontation within the centre and thereby enter the national debate. In some way, the situation of Svoboda and the National Corps is similar to that of small liberal parties like the Democratic Alliance or ‘Power of the People’. They too have no chance – and not so much because they do not unite, but because the current system’s centre is a battlefield of much stronger political players. Moreover, it is important to remember that Svoboda managed to enter the Rada in 2012 because it was helped by President Viktor Yanukovych. Today, nobody needs the right-wing radicals apart from certain business projects that require their services for raiding attacks or similar practices.”

The ambitious National Corps

As of February 2019, the summary support of those intending to vote in parliamentary elections for Svoboda (1.4 per cent), the National Corps (0.2 per cent), the Governmental Initiative of Yarosh (0.1 per cent), and Right Sector (0.0 per cent) was, in the previously mentioned Razumkov Centre poll, altogether just 1.7 per cent. To be sure, Ukraine’s far right has sometimes performed much better in regional or national elections than in pre-electoral surveys. Yet the currently measured support for the far right would have to triple during the actual voting in order for a united list to pass the 5 per cent threshold.

In spite of such sobering poll results, Biletsky currently still seems to be planning a separate list of his party in the upcoming parliamentary elections. A representative of the National Corps reportedly asserted in November 2018 that his organization’s “potential and human resources are much larger than those of all the other [signatory organizations of the far right’s 2017 National Manifesto] combined.” A competition between the National Corps and a united list of the remaining parties could become significant if Poroshenko is not re-elected in April 2019 and a less super-patriotic candidate becomes president.

In such a case, nationalist voters currently attracted to the incumbent president could decide to support the ultra-nationalists in subsequent elections. This or another major political re-constellation within Ukraine’s public affairs and discourse could provide the far right with an opportunity to regain a faction in the next parliament. However, if, in such favourable conditions, Biletsky’s National Corps goes on to run an effective independent parallel campaign, Svoboda’s list – the most likely and most prospective option at present – could in October 2019 again miss the 5 per cent barrier, as it did in October 2014.   

So far much of this is, however, speculation. Ukrainian party politics and national elections are notoriously unpredictable matters. The first two months of 2019 and the meteoric rise of Volodymyr Zelenskiy, within only a few weeks, have shown how fast and radical the center of gravity can change in post-Soviet Ukrainian domestic politics. Moreover, it is likely that Moscow will, in one way or another, try to leave its imprint on at least the parliamentary elections in October, if not others as well. Such attempts may not necessarily be successful in terms of the Kremlin’s interest. Yet they could change public opinion and the overall party-political context of Ukraine – perhaps even to the advantage of the far right. As of mid-March 2019, however, it looks as if Ukraine’s far right may, as in 2014, again perform calamitously in both the presidential and parliamentary elections.

Andreas Umland is a senior non-resident fellow at the Center for European Security of the Institute of International Relations in Prague, principal researcher at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv, and general editor of the ibidem¬-Verlag book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” distributed by Columbia University Press.

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