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July 15, 2014

Weighing Far-Right Movements in Ukraine: How a Minor Factor is Turned into a Bogeyman

Kyiv, July 14, 2014. The non-ostracism of far right movements from the political scene in Ukraine risks having serious repercussions on its democratic transition and national unification. Paradoxically, the danger does not stem from the ability of radical right-wing parties to drive Ukraine toward a nationalistic authoritarian drift; conversely, it is generated by the fear and divisiveness driven by the far right. Since the overthrow of Yanukovych’s government last February, alarmist statements from many commentators, in many cases neither experts nor those particularly knowledgeable about Ukraine, have promoted the idea that the leading force in EuroMaidan protests was right-wing extremism.

It is true that the Right Sector, along with the far-right wing nationalist party, Svoboda, have been particularly active among the organization of the protest movement on the ground. The ubiquity of the red and black flag on Maidan, the banner of the World War II-era Ukrainian nationalist group, in part demonstrates the presence of these two groups on the square. Likewise, it is true that right-parties representatives hold five ministerial posts in the interim government. Nevertheless, in the aftermath of the upheaval, far-right movements’ appeal to the Ukrainian people has been fading away. The political influence of the far right is increasingly marginal. In the last presidential election, Svoboda’s candidate Oleh Tyahnybok obtained 1.16 percent of the vote, while Right Sector’s Dmytro Yarosh won 0.7 percent. This is a significant shift if one compares the right-wing’s success in the 2012 parliamentary elections, which saw Svoboda win over 10.4 percent of the national vote.

While the government is accused by the same critics to be chock full of neo-Nazis and anti-Semites, the head of Ukraine’s Vaad Jewish umbrella group, Josef Zissels, declared that “the failure of far-right groups in the elections proves everything we knew to be true about the tolerant nature of Ukrainian society“.

That being said, communication professionals are master chefs able to cook news using sophisticated ingredients such as graphic pictures and sweeping comparisons, in addition to inflammatory slogans and dark historical references. These elements, if properly mixed in a hodgepodge of factual errors, truisms and misinformed judgments, serve the purpose of fostering confusion and fear. Only slightly adjusting American political scientist John Mearsheimer’s famous quote, the recipe is very simple: “Lie selectively, lie well, and ultimately be good at what you do.”

Bearing that in mind, the disproportionate attention to far-right elements in Ukraine’s protest movement, especially among Kremlin controlled media, seems aimed at discrediting one of the most impressive mass actions of civil disobedience in the history of Europe. Ukraine is a young nation lacking a consolidated democratic tradition that would enable its people and institutions to smoothly handle attempts to jeopardize the fragile transition process.

What happened in Italy last month is a case in point. On 24 June the MP Marta Grande from the 5 Stars Movement pronounced a passionate speech in Parliament in condemnation of the alleged heinous crimes committed by Ukrainian troops against separatists, basing her arguments on pictures that were later proven to be fake. At that moment she gained the empathy from the Assembly, raising righteous indignation amid the audience. Three days after her address to the Italian parliament, when the truth emerged, she had to apologize publicly for her statements.

Both the violent and nonviolent resistance to the Yanukovych government in Kyiv included representatives from almost all political camps, as well as large numbers of protesters without definable political ideology. The disproportionate focus on far-right radicals in some international media reports is therefore unjustified and detrimental, since for the time being their role in forging the new democracy is marginal.

Giuseppe Di Luccia for Ukraine Crisis Media Center