Understanding Ukraine’s Ultranationalist Support
What does the ultranationalist “Svoboda” Freedom Party’s 10.5 percent share of the party-list vote in Ukraine’s October 28th parliamentary elections mean? Is it the end of the world? Have Ukrainians embraced fascism and anti-Semitism? Or might there be somewhat less alarmist explanations for Svoboda’s showing?
There are three good explanations—and one shockingly bad one—for Svoboda’s rise from a minor regional party to a very minor national force. After all, let’s not forget that Svoboda received the fewest votes of the five parties that made it into the Parliament.
First, most Ukrainians certainly didn’t vote for Svoboda because they read its program. If they had, they would have noticed that Svoboda’s socioeconomic vision of Ukraine resembles that of the Republican Party for the United States and that its approach to ethnic relations is strikingly similar to official policy in the Baltic states. Nor did Ukrainians vote for Svoboda because they were familiar with its record of governance, which, according to one Lviv-based businessman’s private communication, has been abysmal:
Since 2010, Svoboda has had a majority in the Lviv City Council and is the largest fraction in the Lviv Province Council. I haven’t noticed any important achievements. They wisely choose to stay away from economic issues, preferring to engage in shrill criticism. Their intellectual capacity is weak. Their economic views are naive and primitive, reminiscent of socialism. They’re also corrupt, especially those who came to power recently and had criminal connections in the 1990s. Some businessmen have even been approached by them to pay protection money.
Ukrainians voted for Svoboda because they were fed up: with Regionnaire abuse of them and their culture and with the democratic opposition’s fecklessness. Placing Svoboda in the Parliament promised to put up at least rhetorical barriers to Regionnaire excess. As one Kyivite told me: “The Party of Regions is like the Nazis: they can only be stopped with force.” Or, as political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko, put it: “About 30-40 percent of Svoboda’s supporters are ideological believers in the idea of Ukrainian nationalism. But in Kyiv and central Ukraine many people voted for Svoboda as the most radical force, as the ‘special forces’ of the opposition. By the way, many Russian-speaking women voted for Svoboda.”