Will Svoboda Sink the Opposition in the new Verkhovna Rada?

November 21, 2012
James George Jatras
Deputy Director, AIU

As even commentators sympathetic to the Opposition observe, “the noise around the Oct. 28 parliamentary election dying down.” Focus is shifting to formation of a new government, how ministries will be allotted (notably, which will go to the Communists), and how much discord the majority led by Party of Regions (PoR) will have to contend with within its own bloc.

But more dramatic and more interesting may turn out to be possible conflicts within the Opposition bloc, which will seek to remain as united as possible to take advantage of any vulnerabilities on the majority side. That unity, however, may soon founder on a question that seems to be arising with increasing urgency: will Batkivshchina and UDAR embrace or reject parliamentary cooperation with Svoboda as the dramatic rise in the vote share of that party draws increasingly harsh negative attention in the West, notably in the U.S. and Israel?

Hurting Ukraine’s Reputation Abroad

Of particular focus is Svoboda’s reputation for anti-Semitism and positive attitude toward World War II-era pro-Nazi elements. Indeed, these are sometimes extrapolated to suggest such characteristics typify Ukraine per se, both the western region and even the entire country, and not just Svoboda as a party:

“The Ukraine’s reputation for ongoing racism and ever-virulent intolerance is equally well-earned. Jew-revulsion never quite went out of fashion among broad segments of the population there.

“So it was not too shocking to learn last week that the extreme nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party’s fortunes had risen dramatically in the recent elections and that it now controls 41 out of the parliament’s 450 seats.

“But there is a far more disturbing aspect to this development. Svoboda did not do equally well in all parts of Ukraine. It garnered most success in the western Ukraine, the parts ripped off Poland after World War II.

“In the city of Lviv (which was one-third Jewish before the Holocaust and which Jews know as Lvov or Lemberg), it gained a whopping 50 percent of the vote. In June and July 1941 Ukrainian marauders rampaged through Lvov’s streets and butchered thousands of Jews in two pogroms.

“The Svoboda party now fetes these murderers as patriots, along with the Nazi-accomplice Ukrainian Insurgent Army.

“Svoboda’s leader, Oleg Tyagnibok, repeatedly rails that Ukraine is occupied by ‘Yids and Russians.’ Svoboda candidates have been reported to have urged party loyalists to resort to ‘Hamas methods,’ to have characterized the Holocaust as European history’s ‘heyday’ and to have denigrated Israel ‘an illegitimate state.’” (“Hatred in Ukraine,” Jerusalem Post, editorial, Nov. 3)

It is easy to see how Svoboda’s extremism becomes a problem for Ukraine as a whole. This is an image Ukraine can ill afford in its relations with other countries.

Timoshenko, Klitschko, and Yatsenyuk Tainted by Association?

But however much Svoboda’s rise is problematic for the whole country, it is a special problem for Batkivshchina and UDAR, and for Yulia Timoshenko, Vitaly Klitschko, and Arseniy Yatsenyuk personally. To the extent that Ukraine’s Opposition banks on support from the West as the standard-bearers of democracy and Ukraine’s “Euro-Atlantic” geopolitical orientation, Svoboda may prove to be a millstone around their necks.

For example, Abraham H. Foxman, National Director of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which calls itself – and is widely regarded as such in the United States – as “the world's leading organization fighting anti-Semitism through programs and services that counteract hatred, prejudice and bigotry,” has issued a statement condemning not only Svoboda but harshly criticizing Timoshenko’s failure to distance herself from that party:

“We are alarmed that 12% of Ukrainians voted for Svoboda, a radical party well-known for its anti-Semitic rhetoric. Its leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, just yesterday confirmed his long-standing claim that Ukraine is ruled by a ‘Muscovite-Jewish mafia’ and that ‘Ukraine should finally be given to Ukrainians,’ clearly excluding hundreds of thousands of Jewish Ukrainians.

“Tyahnybok has called Jews ‘occupiers’ of Ukraine and lauded the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, a nationalist militia in WWII, for killing Jews.

“Svoboda won three Western regions outright and came in second in Kyiv, the capital. Such strong and concentrated support for Svoboda raises our concern for the significant Jewish communities in Kyiv, Lviv, and the smaller communities in the West.

“It is of particular concern that the opposition party of Yulia Tymoshenko has signed a cooperation agreement with Svoboda, giving greater credibility to this fringe extremist political party.” (“ADL Expresses Great Concern Over Strong Electoral Support for Anti-Semitic Ukrainian Political Party,” Nov. 1)

In her current legal trouble, in which the West has been uniformly sympathetic to her, to suggest that Timoshenko’s association with Svoboda is not likely to benefit someone seen as a veteran pro-western standard-bearer is an understatement. As for Klitschko – widely considered a serious prospect for future influence in Ukraine’s political life – while his attitude toward Svoboda does not yet appear to have attracted as much visibility as Timoshenko’s, that likely is only a matter of time. This is also a potential problem for Arseniy Yatsenyuk, since it was he who initiated and signed a coalition agreement with Svoboda ahead of the election and then criticized Klitschko for not doing so as well.

In short, one way or another, the entire Opposition runs a risk of being tainted by association with Svoboda unless a firm and unambiguous repudiation is forthcoming in the very near future.

Hillary Clinton’s ‘Monster’

Finally, in an interesting twist that might not have been predicted, Timoshenko, Klitschko, and Yatsenyuk are not the only top-flight political figures who may find themselves in an uncomfortable position for getting too close to Svoboda (or even for getting too close to someone else who is close to Svoboda):

“Israel has expressed ‘deep concern’ at a political breakthrough by an extremist party in Ukraine that is well known for its attacks on Jews and foreigners, and which managed to win a large number of parliamentary seats for the first time on Sunday thanks to an election pact with controversial opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko’s Fatherland Party. The opposition was also boosted by the tacit support of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Mrs. Clinton last week penned an op-ed in The New York Times praising Mrs. Tymoshenko, who in turn joined forces with the anti-Semitic Svoboda Party.

“Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman wrote on October 27, ‘Israel is concerned by the recently signed coalition agreement between the ‘Batkyvshchyna’ party and the extremist “Svoboda” party in Ukraine. Antisemitic insults by ‘Svoboda’ have caused outrage on number of occasions both in Ukraine and in Israel. The “Svoboda” leader has praised the fight “against kikes and dirty Russians.”’

“One prominent Jewish leader, who asked to remain unnamed, says that Clinton’s New York Times op-ed ripping the current Ukrainian administration has ‘created a neo-Nazi Frankenstein by issuing a de facto endorsement of Mrs. Tymoshenko and her choices.’

[ . . .]

“Now, top Jewish leaders are calling on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to pressure Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for a retraction of her support for Tymoshenko.” (“Jewish Leaders Blame Hillary Clinton For 'Legitimizing' Ukraine's Neo-Nazi Party,” Breitbart, Oct. 29)

Granted, Secretary Clinton is expected to step down as head of the U.S. Department of State soon after President Obama’s January 2013 inauguration to his second term but is widely mentioned as a top contender for the Democratic nomination to succeed him in 2016.

Time to Choose

While Secretary Clinton’s one-degree-of-separation “de facto endorsement” of Svoboda is unlikely to factor for much in American politics, Timoshenko, Klitschko, and Yatsenyuk are not in a similarly comfortable position. They have to choose. Either they will make common cause with Svoboda in the new Rada as part of a united front in antagonism to a new PoR-led government, or they will follow the path of mainstream European parties confronted with extremist elements in their own parliaments and shun Svoboda. How they choose will have far-reaching consequences not only for Ukraine’s political life but for their own future and that of their parties.