24 Jan 2014

Ukraine: far-right extremists at core of ‘democracy’ protest

As violent scenes play out on the streets of Kiev, we look at the major role extremist right-wing movements have played in Ukraine’s “pro-democracy” movement.

Ukraine’s far-right is gaining support and confidence through its role in the street protests, with the Svoboda party assuming a leading role in the movement and paramilitary groups leading the street fighting.

In December US senator John McCain travelled to Ukraine to offer his support to the opposition, appearing on stage with leaders of the three opposition parties leading the protests – including the far-right Svoboda party.

Svoboda is currently Ukraine’s fourth biggest party and holds 36 seats in parliament. It is also part of the Alliance of European National Movements, along with the BNP and Hungary’s Jobbik.

Svoboda leader Oleh Tyahnybok is one of the faces of the protests, appearing regularly along with opposition leader and former boxer Vitali Klitschko (see picture right) voicing opposition to Putin’s influence over the region.

However, Tyahnybok has provoked controversy in the past with his anti-Semitic claims that a “Moscow-Jewish mafia” controls Ukraine.

His party was registered in 1995 and initially used a swastika-style “wolfsangel” rune as its logo. It restricted membership to ethnic Ukrainians. Until 2004 it had a paramilitary wing called Patriots of Ukraine, and though it ended its link to the group in 2005, the two continue to be closely associated and to participate in protests together.

Svoboda has played a leading role in the protests. Its member of parliament, Igor Myroshnychenko, claimed responsibility for the toppling of the statue of Lenin, and it led the occupation of the city hall.

In December inside city town hall, an organisational hub for the protests, a white power logo was displayed in the centre of the stage alongside Svoboda party flags.

Fascism is like a fashion now with more and more people getting involved. Sergey Kirichuk

It has helped to revive 1930s Ukrainian nationalist chants, which even Vital Klitschko has now adopted, shouting “Glory to Ukraine!”, to which the crowd reply “To heroes, glory!”.

Svoboda flags have been a permanent fixture in Independence Square, with pictures from clashes also revealing the presence of militant far-right groups carrying neo-Nazi flags and the red and black Ukrainian “insurgent army” flags.

On new year’s day, Svoboda led a 15,000-strong torch-lit march in memory of controversial Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera, who fought against the Soviets during world war II.

Read more: far-right group at heart of Ukraine protests meet US senator 

Hooligans strike

As violent scenes played out in recent days, groups of “autonomous nationalists” separate from Svoboda, who recruit from far-right football hooligan groups, have taken a leading role in the fighting.

Acting under the name Pravy Sektor, they are reported to have 500 militants inside government buildings seized by the protesters.

Sergey Kirichuk, a member of the group Borotba, which publishes and anti-fascist magazine in Ukraine, told Channel 4 News that these neo-Nazis are the most violent elements on the streets.

“These people are separate from Svoboda, though they will have many links through activists – but they are not controlled by any one group,” he explained.

“They are the ones throwing molotovs and trying to kill policemen, the most violent element fight at European Square.

“When left-wing groups tried to join the protests they were attacked and beaten by fascists. Svoboda are leading ideologically now. Fascism is like a fashion now, with more and more people getting involved.”

(Above: militants carry shields marked with neo-Nazi logos)

Paramilitaries from the Patriot of Ukraine group, Svoboda’s former paramilitary wing, have been present throughout the protests. Their masked activists, wearing distinctive yellow armbands, have been pictured carrying chains and bricks through the crowd and leading attacks on riot police.

In 2012 the presence of a violent and highly organised far-right in Ukraine and Poland became global news ahead of the Euro 2012 tournament.

The dominance of racist chants, Nazi salutes and neo-Nazi banners among football fans provoked controversy ahead of the tournament, prompting President Yanukovych to promise matches would be closely watched by security services.

Anti-Semitic attacks

The World Jewish Congress has called for Svoboda to be banned for its hardline anti-Semitic stance, and public Jewish events celebrating hanukkah were cancelled last month due to fears of violence, with Jewish leaders urging people to “increase security everywhere”.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish student, Dovbear Glickman, was stabbed while leaving a synagogue last week, suffering massive blood loss. It is the second anti-Semitic assault this month after a Hebrew teacher was followed home from synagogue by a gang before being beaten.