The Ukrainian Right: Symptoms of a Dark Past

Srebrencia, Bosnia 13th July 1995. Atleast 8,000 Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims are dead in the name of a ‘Greater Serbia’ endorsed by Milošević under a Serbian nationalist agenda. Yugoslavia, a multi-cultural hub for centuries, a jewel of differences was torn apart in a matter of years by the catastrophic civil war between 1992 -1995. The Bosnian Serbs’ 1992 edicts, hoped to impose specific rules on the minority and the ethnic cleansing of Muslims and Croats that took place under this political agenda saw some of the greatest atrocities seen in Europe since the end of the Second World War.

Why do I speak of Ukraine and speak of the Bosnian Civil War? Ukraine is showing many symptoms of heading down Bosnia’s road perhaps an even greater problem for Europe given the high stakes vested in Crimea and Western Ukraine by both the Russian Federation and the United States. Ethno-religious fault-lines are threatening to flare be they Russian, Tartar, Ukrainian, or even Jewish. The Balkans likewise was split on various ethnic and religious grounds as its diversity became its downfall.

The most powerful and influential contingent emerging from the wreckage of Kiev and Yanukovych’s former government are the parties Svoboda and the Right Sector comprised of neo-Nazis, fascists and ultra-nationalists. These elements are extremely dangerous to the future of Ukraine and although I would hesitate to say that the protests in Ukraine were a predominantly ‘ultra-nationalist movement’, it is difficult to argue against the fact that these groups have infiltrated and exploited the revolution in Kiev and the democratic, pro-EU elements and the power vacuum left behind by the removal of the corrupt and brutal Yanukovych. Certainly these are not empty slurs and accusations if you consider Svoboda, Right Sector, and Ukraine’s history.

Svoboda is particularly controversial. Its name until 2004 was the “Social-National Party” and it maintains informal links to another group, the Patriots of Ukraine, regarded by some as proto-fascist. In 2004, Tyahnybok was kicked out of former President Viktor Yushchenko’s parliamentary faction for a speech calling for Svoboda’s platform calls for passports to specify the holder’s ethnicity, and for government positions to be distributed proportionally to ethnic groups, based on their representation in the population at large. Another interesting fact is that what are we are seeing is a prominent division between western and eastern Ukraine matches the elections rate for Svoboda (based largely in western Europe) who won 30-40% of vote in three western regions in 2012 – and about 1% in three eastern regions. Many of their insignias are comprised of Hitler’s notorious SS. The SS, under Himmler’s command, were the primary perpetrators of the Holocaust.

Consider Ukraine’s history before and during the Second World War. The Holodomer and the repression of Ukrainian nationalism by the Soviet Union. The former I refer to in particular was the orchestration of the Holodomer (death by starvation) by Joseph Stalin on the Ukrainian people which some have claimed was a genocide orchestrated by Stalin to eradicate Ukrainian nationalism under the guise of the collectivization of the peasantry and Soviet industrialization as rural households entered collective farms with their land, livestock, and other assets. Five to seven million people were believed to have starved to death in Ukraine, and the atrocities of Stalin marked the lowest depths to which Ukrainian-Russo relations could sink. This was hardly helped by the Ukrainians who chose to align with the murderous regime of the Nazi’s and fascist ideologies.

During World War II  independence following liberation by Nazi Germany saw the brutal ethnic cleansing of over 80,000 Poles, Tartars, Russians and Roma people by enclaves of Ukrainian society and the escalation of Anti-Semitic feelings within the country towards the Jews. Ukrainian soldiers and military police were directly involved in the massacre at Babi Yar (the sight of one of the largest massacres of Jews in World War II). In fact one of the most heart-wrenching pictures (pictured above) of the war in my opinion was taken in Ukraine, a mother protecting a child with her body as Einsatzgruppen soldiers aim their rifles, the final seconds of life encapsulated by both remarkable cruelty and love. This was taken in Ivanhorod, Ukraine, 1942.

Such groups of men were assisted in Ukraine by numerous collaborators and even the 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS (1st Ukrainian) consisting predominantly of volunteers with Ukrainian ethnic backgrounds. It very much an unpleasant stain on Ukraine’s recent history, although it must be highlighted that hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians fought against the Nazi regime and suffered at their hands  the constraints on Ukrainian autonomy, mistreatment by the occupiers, and the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians as slave laborers, soon led to a rapid change in the attitude amongst those willing to work with the fascists. Between 1941 and 1945, approximately 3,000,000 Ukrainian and other non-Jewish victims were killed as part of Nazi extermination policies, along with between 850,000 – 900,000 Jews who lived in the territory of modern Ukraine.  Such memories between the two nations are not likely to be forgiven entirely, nor forgotten.

History very often leaves an imprint, a mindset in many segments of society and clearly the Nazis left their mark on many radical elements of Ukrainian society. The leaders of Western Europe should remember that from a Russian perspective, fascism is not exactly their most favorable term when you remember Operation Barbarossa and the slaughter of over ten million soldiers and fifteen million civilians. Believe it. Such slaughter would leave a mark greater than that of 9/11 on the United States and that of World War I on the United Kingdom, the genocide in Rwanda, and that of the Holocaust to Israel. The legacy and memory of history are very important considerations in this crisis when looking at it from a Russian  perspective.

Like the former Yugoslavia before its collapse, Ukraine is swiftly being swamped by economic instability due to the crisis. The deterioration in economic and social stability of the latter prompted a unnerving rise in Serbian nationalism.  Over the next several years, Bosnian Serb forces, with the backing of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army, targeted both Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) and Croatian civilians for atrocious crimes resulting in the deaths of some 100,000 people (80 percent Bosniak) by 1995. Some branded it ethnic cleansing, others went further labeling the atrocities genocide.

While  ‘alarmist’ but as Lemarchand notes, ‘history does not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes’ as can be seen by the ethnic divisions between Ukrainian nationalists and ethnic Russians predominantly, the Russians and Crimean Tartars, the Ukrainian fascists and Ukrainian Jews living within the country. It may not happen at all, it may happen in or over a number of years, but their elements are there to become an bloody conflict. Pro-Russian militia have been beating up Ukrainians and Crimeans opposed to their attitudes and threatening foreign onlookers, the protests seen in Kharkiv and Donetsk are certainly not peaceful. Russian ultra-nationalists also represent a threat to the stability of the region as any action by the Ukrainian government against them could see further reasons for Putin to occupy Eastern Ukraine and annex it. This is unaided by Right Sector members talking of a ‘clean’ Ukraine. 

Consider the fact that BBC itself has covered the rise of ultra-nationalism in Ukraine in 2012. Similarly for all football fans who remember Euro 2012 that tournament preparation was marred by racist violence, anti-semitism, and xenophobia at the heart of Polish and Ukrainian football. Panorama itself covered the fundamental problems at the heart of Ukrainian football in-particular titled ‘Stadiums of Hate’. Eastern Europe including Russia in many aspects still holds many backward concepts, that are unacceptable in Western Europe and very often we see this at its very worst in football stadiums support run by Eastern European ultras. Football can represent society at its very best for unification. At its very worst it can represent hatred, discrimination and disregard for diversity which can often be starkly highlighted by these events.

These beliefs can often be rooted in that society and culture of a particular country. Ukrainian football, like its politics possesses ultra-nationalist and fascist elements.  They have to contained if the situation is to be prevented from escalation as much as the Russian military must remain as bloodless as possible. The withdrawal of Ukrainian forces from the Crimea, ultimately a surrender, is likely to ease the tensions for a brief period.

The protests which escalated into riots had the media all over the world fearing Europe’s first civil war since the Balkan crisis until the Russian intervention, our generations second if you were born in the 1990s. Our politicians, NATO, and the United States are suggesting that Putin is on the ‘wrong side of history’ and certainly controversy surrounds the man, however is it possible to consider that we are going to be on the wrong side of history? What if extremists in the coalition government have the potential to trigger a civil war or regional conflict, rather than the Russians?

The Ukrainian Right has been bullish with the Russian intervention in the Crimea. In Bosnia and Kosovo it would not simply be a case of NATO playing catch up as seen in ‘Operation Deliberate Force’ when the damage was already done, the region reeling in the wake of mass-murder, torture and rape. It would be a case of both Russia and NATO propping up and allowing the extremists (of which they exist on both sides) to flourish in the power vacuum which will not only increase tensions within the Ukrainian socio-political spectrum, but also between the Kremlin and the White House.

The Ukrainian borderlands are being conditioned for war. Whether it would reach the ethnic and nationalist extremes witnessed in Bosnia is yet to be seen, but the continued problems of racism, religious division and more in Eastern Europe in the past and future are not particularly favorable omens.

 Matthew Williams