Ihor Miroshnychenko, a parliamentarian from Ukraine’s ultra-nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party, is an ‘emotional’ man. That is the word that he and his colleagues use to describe his raiding the headquarters of the country’s state television broadcaster last month. Accompanied by five other Svoboda bully boys, Miroshnyschenko berated and beat the station director before forcing him to sign a resignation letter. So proud were they of this deed that one of the Svoboda members videotaped the whole confrontation and posted it on YouTube.
The proximate cause of Miroshnychenko’s anger was the station’s transmission of a Russian news channel broadcast of a victory concert in Red Square celebrating Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. One can imagine how this was a painful spectacle for most Ukrainian viewers, a proverbial rubbing of the salt into the collective national wound. But it hardly constituted a ‘betrayal’, as Miroshnyschenko (who, irony of ironies, is deputy head of a parliamentary commission on freedom of speech) characterised it to me. Nonetheless, he tried to analogise the problem for my American ears. ‘Imagine if on September 11, CNN put on Osama bin Laden to speak to Americans,’ he said, standing in the marble antechamber of Ukraine’s Rada (parliament). Yet that’s exactly what CNN (and Fox News, and the BBC, and most certainly Al Jazeera) did in those terrible days, playing endless footage of bin Laden sitting in his cave, warning us heathens of future attacks.
Oleksander Aronets, the 26-year-old Svoboda member who videotaped the incident, ventured another comparison. If ‘Mexico takes some part of the USA and the national channel broadcasts the picture, in real time without comments, of a celebration, I think that normal people would react emotionally,’ he told me.
Aronets now admits that storming the television headquarters was a ‘shameful thing’. But he seems to be in the minority among his fellow party members when it comes to the actions of Miroshnyschenko, a former football journalist with an apparent expertise in hooliganism. Two years ago, he wrote on his Facebook page that the Ukrainian-born actress Mila Kunis (voted by readers of lad mag FHM as the world’s most beautiful woman), was ‘not Ukrainian but a Zhydovka’, or ‘dirty Jewess’. Not all of Miroshnyschenko’s antics have been so regrettable; in February, he led a group of Svoboda members in tearing down a Lenin statue, one of hundreds of Soviet icons dismantled in recent months.
Yurij Noevyj, a 28-year-old Svoboda representative in the Kiev regional parliament, downplayed Miroshnyschenko’s behaviour by stating that he is merely a ‘very emotional’ man who ‘made a little attack’. (Svoboda members seem to have developed an appreciation for the British art of political euphemism.) So far, Svoboda has made no effort to punish Miroshnyschenko, an ominous signal for its future role in Ukrainian politics.
Svoboda was an auxiliary element in the ‘EuroMaidan’ movement that ousted Ukraine’s former president, the Russian vassal Viktor Yanukoyvch. A visit to the deposed leader’s estate, now an open-air museum to post-Soviet corruption about an hour’s drive from central Kiev, gives a sense of what so outraged ordinary Ukrainians about their former leader, in the same way that a boyhood trip to Versailles helped me understand if not justify the French revolution. Boasting a private zoo (complete with ostriches), a golden toilet, and a golf course, the gaudy property is half the size of Monaco. Yanukovych had the road connecting his estate to Kiev widened, my taxi driver explained, only to clear it twice a day for his motorcade’s commute.
A populist party that locates its support in the western (predominantly Ukrainian-speaking) part of Ukraine, Svoboda traces its roots to a variety of extreme right movements and militias that formed in the era of post-Soviet independence. Anti-Semitic and racist statements by its leaders, calls for ‘Ukrainophobia’ to be criminally prosecuted, a political programme predicated largely on ethnic grievance, and a reverence for the Nazi collaborator Stepan Bandera, have earned Svoboda a fascist reputation, a status that has become even more prominent with Moscow’s incessant propagandising. While the party is more accurately described as nationalist, one can judge Svoboda by the company it keeps. Until last month, it maintained observer status with the Alliance of European National Movements, of which both Hungary’s neo-Nazi Jobbik and the BNP are charter members. Svoboda left the coalition not due to any newfound discomfort with the nature of its partners, but out of self-interest: alliance leaders endorsed Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
That said, anti-Semitism and racism are not animating principles for Svoboda in the way that they are for other far-right European parties. Aronets, the young man who was the most enlightened of the Svoboda party members I interviewed, even expressed a sense of solidarity with the Jews. ‘They had a Holocaust, we had a holodomor,’ he says, speaking of Stalin’s forced starvation of millions of Ukrainians. ‘They were without their own country. And then when they formed a country, Israel… They brought back their own language. We have problems [maintaining] our language. They brought back their laws, their traditions.’
Talk of Svoboda’s alleged fascism and anti-Semitism clearly annoys its members.
‘All the journalists which are visiting our country, all the time ask about this question,’ Noevjy snaps when I query him about his party leader’s having complained of a ‘Muscovite-Jewish mafia’ several years back. When I ask him about the storming of the national television station, he complains of a double standard. ‘Nobody in the West speaks badly about Robespierre or other people who were great revolutionaries,’ he replies, revealing, among other things, that he is not a reader of this magazine. He speaks conspiratorially of ‘a big media campaign against Miroshnychenko’, whom he assures me ‘most people support’.
Demanding a videotaped, forced confession from someone, even a remnant of a previous corrupt regime, is not the behaviour of a democrat. And given Svoboda’s rabid anti-communism, it was particularly hypocritical, such a tactic being a hallmark of the party apparatchik. Thankfully, most sectors of Ukrainian society — including the acting prime minister — condemned Svoboda’s behaviour. Yet the party’s rallying cry of ‘lustration’ — the post-Soviet term used to describe the process of weeding out Communist Party members from state organs — has wide appeal now in Ukraine, which never went through a process of de-communisation.
Svoboda’s success in recent years, one experienced observer of Ukrainian politics told me, was attributable to precisely the sort of grit displayed by Miroshnychenko. Svoboda deputies would actually return the blows of allies of Yanukovych during the fist-fights that frequently erupted in the Rada. But the skills required while one is in opposition are wholly different from those necessary to govern, and like extremist movements elsewhere suddenly thrust into power, Svoboda is having difficulty adapting to Ukraine’s new political environment. The party controls three ministries in the coalition government, down from four after the defence minister, a Svoboda man, resigned in disgrace over complaints that he had failed to give orders to Ukrainian soldiers in the face of Russian invasion. If it wants to gain the confidence of Ukrainian voters, Svoboda needs to keep its ‘emotions’ in check.
James Kirchick is a fellow with the Foreign Policy Initiative.