Don’t turn a blind eye to Ukraine’s far right

By Naman Habtom-Desta
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14 January 2019
Ukraine Ukraine
The West's silence has only emboldened and enabled dangerous factions in the already fragile Eastern European state
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Since the debut of the 2014 crisis, Western governments and opinion have largely maintained their support for the Ukrainian government and its backers. With the increasing anti-Russian rhetoric, the West has largely kept quiet on the ever-expanding presence of far-right and neo-Nazi elements within Ukraine. This silence has only emboldened and enabled these dangerous factions and risks further radicalising the already fragile state.

Following the death of Senator John McCain, the Washington Post published a eulogy praising the senator for his supposed dedication to human rights and freedom around the world. The article was accompanied by a photo of McCain standing on a stage with Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the ultranationalist Ukranian Svobodaparty. Tyahnybok, who was ranked 5th in the Simon Wiesenthal Centres list of anti-semites in 2012, had previously advocated for the mass expulsion of minorities from Ukraine and described the countrys government at the time as being controlled by a Muscovite Jewish Mafia.Yet, a reader of this Washington Post piececould be forgiven for having the impression that Tyahnybok is simply a freedom fighter.

The explosion in anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine, following the outbreak of hostilities in eastern Ukraine between pro-Kiev forces and Russian separatists in 2014, has resulted in a legitimisation of some figures who were seen as Nazi collaborators. The past few years has seen a rehabilitation of figures such as Stephen Bandera, who not only actively fought with Nazi Germany but also commanded units that participated in the systematic killing of thousands of Jewish Ukrainians. None of this, however, proved to be too much for the Lviv Region, which chose to mark 2019 asthe year of Stephen Bandera.By reframing history in the context of fighting Russians, fringe extremist characters such as Bandera are returning to the political mainstream.

In the same week that Ukrainian President Petro Poreshenko published an op-ed in the New York Times, where he was photographed posing with an elite paratrooperwearing the infamous Waffen SS totenkopf(deaths head) insignia. One should not understand these trends as being isolated or anecdotal. In 2015, the Ukrainian government did in fact ban Nazi and Communist symbols, which to some might indicate an attempt to tackle far-right radicalism, yet they would be wrong. While the law does ban Nazi symbols, it says nothing of those who collaborated with them (which were praised during the same parliamentary session) and says nothing of representations and symbols associated with far-right leaders including Franco of Spain, while banning all communist symbols, and not just Soviet ones. By being more sophisticated, Ukrainian authorities have largely succeeded in avoiding universal condemnation in the West.

Russians are not the only minority to be victimised by this turn towards more extreme policies in Ukraine. In an attempt to marginalise the language and cultural rights of Russians, the Ukrainian government has pushed to suppress the rights of other ethnic minorities, including Hungarian and Romanian speakersrights to receive an education in their native languages. While the sidelining of ethnic Russians received little attention in the West, the discriminatory policies of Kiev have been implemented with easily predictable consequences. Despite some protestation by Budapest against this type of legislation, the Ukrainian government was not reprimanded for its breaches of human rights and allowed to obtain visa-free travel  throughout the Schengen area.

Toleration of such behaviour inevitably threatens public safety. Often times, this can be with the support of the government. In 2018, the extremist group C14, whose members often express neo-Nazi sympathies, attacked Romani settlementsin Kiev while at the same time receiving funding from the Youth and Sports Ministry for national-patriotic education projects.It is not surprising why such organisations would feel emboldened and would not fear authorities when receiving tacit support to their underlying philosophy. Instead of engaging directly in neo-Nazi behaviour, the government has succeeded in dog whistlepolitics, i.e. managed to appeal to  latent prejudices without overtly referring to them.

The rehabilitation of Nazi collaborators is most visible in Ukraine but the lack of condemnation has resulted in a spillover to neighbouring countries. Only in the face of international condemnation did the Polish government retreat from its controversial Holocaust lawwhich sought to jail those who claimed that there was Polish involvement in the Shoah – the mass murder of Jews under the Nazi regime during 19415. The praising of Nazi-ally Admiral Horthyby Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is simply another example. To a significant extent, this process of legitimising of far-right extremism, that arguably has been most prominent in Ukraine, has become an increasingly common trope amongst right-wing leaders across the world, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even partially exculpating Hitler’s rolein the Holocaust at the expense of the Palestinian mufti Amin al-Husseini. The inability to condemn and resist such normalisation in one place, such as Ukraine, inevitable results in the spread of such extreme views throughout the globe.

By accepting Ukrainian grievances at face value, genuine complaints by the Russian minority in Ukraine are ignored and simply dismissed as Kremlin propaganda. Rather than taking Kiev to task for its mistreatment of minorities, we are risking the chance of reconciliation becoming impossible. A largely underreported aspect of the fighting in eastern Ukraine is the fact that hundreds of thousand have fled to Russia. The use of terms such as fifth columnby established western media outlets only adds fuel to the fire. For stability to be established in Ukraine, a carte blanche cannot be given to the radical elements that are increasingly prevalent within mainstream politics there.