May 9 Lesson From Lviv: “Svoboda” a Danger to Ukraine’s Democracy, Not a Card to Be Played for Political Advantage

May 20, 2011
James George Jatras
Deputy Director, American Institute in Ukraine

On May 9 clashes broke out in Lviv during Victory Celebrations of the World War II defeat of Nazi Germany by Soviet forces. At the Hill of Glory a group of hooligans from Oleh Tyahnybok’s All-Ukrainian Union “Svoboda” broke through a police cordon and tried to prevent the unfurling of the (Soviet) red victory banner. They also tore off displays of orange-and-black (non-communist) Saint George victory ribbons, a pre-Revolutionary symbol of valor that has been restored in Russia but not in Ukraine. In addition, they ripped from the hands of Oleg Astakhov, the Russian Consul in Lviv, a commemorative wreath he attempted to place on the grave of soldiers – no doubt including many Ukrainians as well as Russians and those of other Soviet nationalities.

Thus was displayed once again, if anyone doubted it, the violence and intolerance that lie at the heart of Svoboda’s “vision” for Ukraine. As explained one observer, who sought to blame the the violence on the authorities, not Svoboda: “This conflict has shown that a unified history does not exist for Ukrainians.” However true that may be, how does that justify violence against people marking an official national holiday? How does it justify desecrating a commemoration of the sacrifice of soldiers who died defending their native land against invaders? Disagreements about history and politics are no excuse for physical attacks.

Fourteen people were injured and nine detained for disorderly conduct. A criminal case also has been opened on the shooting of a Svoboda member wounded in the leg, apparently by a rubber bullet. Meanwhile, another criminal case has been opened against Iryna Sekh, Svoboda party chief for the Lviv regional council. Criminal investigation, prosecution, and punishment for those responsible for planning or performing illegal actions should be vigorously pursued.

But that hardly is the end of it. As the American Institute in Ukraine has observed before, any support, direct or indirect, for Svoboda by Party of Regions (POR) – however tempting the superficial prospect of political gain – must stop. Instead of seeing Svoboda as a clever card to play to undermine more moderate opposition in the western part of the country, the Yanukovich government and POR need to understand that coddling Svoboda, far from paying dividends for POR’s self-serving party advantage, only can damage Ukraine’s always fragile regional unity and boomerang to hit POR itself.

It’s an open secret that some POR figures believe that if the Ukrainian nationalist brand can be sufficiently debased by Svoboda, POR might have an opportunity significantly to expand its reach beyond the Russian-speaking east and south, even into Catholic west Ukraine. As AIU has noted before from our own experience with American politics, if that’s what POR is thinking, they are repeating a mistake often made by American political parties in violation of Rule No. 1: “Protect your base.” No political party can afford to take for granted its most loyal supporters, while chasing after voters they’re never going to get.

Perhaps the most unbelievable “too clever by half” comment on the Lviv clashes was made by presidential adviser Hanna Herman:

“The one who organized all this in Lviv undoubtedly worked for the narrow party interests of [Yulia] Tymoshenko,” Herman wrote in a posting in her blog on the Ukrainska Pravda online publication. She stressed that the events in Lviv on May 9 “in general only caused Lviv and Ukraine damage.” “May 9 showed Lviv residents the worst side of the Svoboda party, which has achieved high ratings. There is no doubt that Svoboda’s ratings will drop in Lviv. The BYT will get a chance to regain lost positions,” the presidential advisor said. According to her, the BYT is now trying to suggest that “someone wanted to distract the public from the economic problems in Lviv with these scandals.” “Those, mildly speaking, silly things done by Svoboda in Lviv caused damage not only to [that organization]. The local authorities and the police could not avoid excesses with such a scale of provocation,” Herman noted.

Such comments might have some relevance if intended as satire on her own unrealistic expectations of expanding POR’s reach into the west by puffing up Svoboda and using crude administrative measures to weaken more moderate “Orange” figures. Perhaps she thinks POR will prosper in parliamentary elections in 2012 and in Mr. Yanukovich’s presumed campaign for reelection in 2015 by setting up Mr. Tyahnybok and his hooligans as a scarecrow opposition, while trying to eliminate Ms. Tymoshenko by criminal accusations of the sort also leveled against former Naftogaz chief Oleh Dubnya or former Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko, inexcusably held without bail on a ridiculous charge of overpayment to his driver.

To point out the wrongheadedness of such tactics is not to take sides on “Orange” versus “Blue and White,” which is not AIU’s business anyway. Nor is it a partisan observation to suggest that POR is only hurting itself by trying to criminalize political differences – a “strategy” that can only come back to bite them when the political pendulum swings the other way, as it inevitably does in every democratic country.

Ms. Herman and those who think like her are pursuing a peculiar and dangerous political strategy at a time when POR and the administration should be taking a hard look at what they actually have or haven’t delivered to their supporters – who mostly are, and will remain, in the east and south. Instead of playing dangerous and unscrupulous political games with fascists, racists, and anti-Semites, POR needs to start with keeping their promises to the people who voted for them, starting with advancing a “national language accord” to elevate Russian as the second official national – not just a “regional” or “ethnic minority” language – in an officially bilingual Ukraine.

Above all, the current administration in Kiev needs to focus on what it can do in the short term to improve Ukraine’s economy, starting with reducing the cost of energy. Looked at in clear, hard-headed terms, it means recognizing that the choice between the Russia-Kazakhstan-Belarus Customs Union (CU) and a Free Trade Agreement with the European Union (FTA-EU) is no choice at all: to reverse the old saying, the CU is a big crane (журавель/журавль) in the hand now, and FTA-EU is a tiny chickadee (синица) in the sky sometime in the future – maybe. There’s no question that Moscow will drive a hard deal on Ukraine’s terms of entry into the CU, which may entail an eventual merger of Nafotgaz and Gazprom. But the payoff would be an early and permanent shift to CU domestic pricing, an essential for Ukraine’s economy and Ukrainians’ standard of living. Closely related is the need to drop an energy policy that reflects short-term, tactical shuffling – and quixotic opposition to South Stream – in favor of a sorely lacking strategic plan.

The choices for Ukraine, and for its current ruling party, are not easy ones. But they cannot be obscured or avoided by underhanded intrigue with disruptive and violent anti-national forces like Svoboda.