Valentyn Ogirenko / Courtesy Reuters Members of Right Sector stand outside the parliament building in Kiev, March 28, 2014.

On the March

The Coming Rise of Ukrainian Ultra-Nationalists

There has always been a kernel of truth in the accusations that pro-Russian partisans have raised about the revolution that deposed former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych earlier this year. The movement was indeed marked by a streak of aggressive nationalism: on Euromaidan, the blue-and-yellow flags of the far-right ultranationalist party, Svoboda, blended in with those of the European Union. And when violence broke out, far-right protesters from Svoboda and Right Sector, another ultranationalist party, stood side by side with liberal-democratic activists as they hurled Molotov cocktails at riot police.

It wasn't difficult, in other words, for eastern Ukrainian separatists to conjure the specter of rabid Ukrainian nationalists in calling for yesterday's independence referendums. But the separatists' warnings will likely prove to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. If, as a result of the referendums, Ukraine’s eastern regions do split off into an autonomous republic, as increasingly seems likely, the far right’s influence will rise. Far from protecting Ukraine's Russian speakers, the referendums could plunge all of Ukraine into a spiral of political extremism.


Ukrainian separatists have consistently overestimated the support for far-right groups among the Ukrainian population. Right Sector and Svoboda constituted only a small minority of protestors during Euromaidan. And polling suggests that both groups are still marginal. A mere two percent of Ukrainians say that they would vote for Svoboda’s candidate, Oleh Tyahnybok, in the May 25 presidential election, and only 0.9 percent would support Right Sector’s candidate, Dmytro Yarosh.

This is not to suggest that the far right -- Svoboda especially -- could never attract a broader following. Its record of recent electoral growth is proof. In Ukraine’s 2007 parliamentary elections, for example, Svoboda earned less than one percent of the popular vote. By the next parliamentary elections, in 2012, it was pulling in over ten percent, making it the first far-right party in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history to gain parliamentary seats.

So what happened? In the ten years since its founding, Svoboda has transformed . A rebranding in 2004 produced Svoboda, a more palatable far-right party, complete with a friendlier logo (a three-fingered cartoon hand that resembles the peace sign, but symbolizes the Ukrainian trident), an appealing name (“svoboda” means “freedom”), and a charismatic new leader, Tyahnybok, a native of Ukraine’s bustling western city, Lviv, and a surgeon by training. Following the lead of Western European populist parties such as the French National Front and the Austrian Freedom Party, Tyahnybok focused his early campaigns on ethnic and cultural issues, scapegoating ethnic minorities for Ukraine’s economic problems. The party has also called for ethnic quotas for government positions proportional to the ethnic composition of the country and proposed reinstating so-called ethnic passports, which were used in the Soviet Union to limit the movement of Jews and other minorities.

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