For over two months, anti-government protesters have camped out in the center of Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. Coverage in the media has presented vastly different images of who these protesters are and what they represent. Recently, some commentators have depicted the protests as emblematic of a Europe-wide resurgence of chauvinistic nationalism. They point to the presence of the Right Wing among the protest movement and the prominence of “ultra-nationalist” groups in the recent violence.
In stark contrast, others have seen the protesters as fighters for democracy expressing the views and interests of the broad Ukrainian public to join Europe and rid themselves of Russian subjugation. Along these lines, the conflict in Ukraine has been viewed from a geopolitical perspective as a battle for and against efforts by the Kremlin to seize Ukraine, with critics of the protests seen as abetting such efforts or potentially even being on the Russian payroll. Asserting that “the movement as a whole merely reflects the entire Ukrainian population, young and old,” influential supporters of the Maidan in the academy have concluded that nationalist forces represent a “minor segment” of the protests and therefore a focus on such radicals is “unwarranted and misleading.”
What then do the protesters represent? What is the role of the far right in the protests in Ukraine? To what extent does the movement “reflect the entire Ukrainian population,” and how would we know?
Available research on the protesters and public opinion data from Ukraine suggest a reality that is more complicated than either of these competing narratives. First, there is no evidence that the majority of protesters over the past two months have been motivated primarily by radical nationalism or chauvinism. Surveys of the protest participants conducted in early December and again at the end of January suggest that the main driver of the protests has been anger at President Viktor Yanukovych as well as a desire for Ukraine to enter the European Union (see also Olga Onuch’s prior post on The Monkey Cage). Notably, the most unifying factor seems to be opposition to Yanukovych’s efforts to crack down on protesters. This is consistent with the ebb and flow in the size of the protest movement over the past months. Initially quite small, the protests exploded after a violent crackdown on them at the end of November and then again in mid January after Yanukovych pushed through a series of draconian laws to limit protest and dissent. None of the protest demands reflect an obvious chauvinist or nationalist agenda.
Yet, in Ukraine today, it is equally misleading to state that the nationalist right represents a “minor segment” of the current protests. The protest leadership (to the extent that it exists) consists of three opposition parties in parliament – one of which, the Svoboda party, is clearly on the far right. Svoboda, which captured 38 seats and 10 percent of the vote in the last parliamentary elections, until 2004 called itself the Social Nationalist Party of Ukraine and employed neo-Nazi and SS symbols. While the party changed its name and symbols in 2004, Svoboda’s leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, continued to argue that the opposition should fight the “Muscovite-Jewish mafia running Ukraine” and praised the Ukrainian Insurgency Army (UPA) in World War II for fighting “against the Moskali [Muscovites], Germans, Zhydy [Jews] and other scum, who wanted to take away our Ukrainian state.” The party does not hide its glorification of the interwar fascist movement, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN). In December they held a torchlight rally on the Maidan to honor the OUN leader, Stepan Bandera, and they regularly fly the red and black flag of the OUN, which has been banned as a racist symbol at soccer matches by FIFA.
The explicit harkening back to the songs, slogans, and symbols of the nationalist movement of the 1930s and 1940s — with its aspiration to achieve an ethnically pure Ukrainian nation-state free of Russians, Jews, and Poles — has been one of the most significant differences between these protests and the Orange Revolution of 2004. The right-wing groups have been particularly active among the organization of the protest movement on the ground, particularly as the number of protesters has dwindled over time and revealed a resilient right-wing core. Svoboda’s deputies control the opposition-occupied Kiev city administration building, its flag is widely visible and a portrait of Bandera hangs in the central hall.
And Svoboda is just one of many signs of a strong far right presence in the organization and mobilization of the Maidan. Andriy Parubiy, the “commandant” of the Maidan and the leader of the “self-defense” forces that guard the protest camp in the center of Kiev, was a co-founder of the Social Nationalist Party with Oleh Tyahnybok. In recent weeks, the coalition of smaller right-wing organizations called “Right Sector” spearheaded the violent turn in the protests – using stones, Molotov cocktails, pipes, and siege weaponry against police. While this group has not been welcomed into the protest leadership, it is clearly an important player on the ground and has reportedly been arming itself in the event that talks fail to achieve Yanukovych’s resignation. More generally, nationalist activists from Svoboda and these other groups have provided the opposition with its most “fearsome demonstrators” who according to the New York Times “led some of the more provocative efforts to occupy buildings and block government offices.”
Despite the strong right-wing presence, are the protests nonetheless pro-democracy? The answer to this might seem obviously yes – given that they are directed against authoritarian behavior and an autocratic president. Yet recent work on mass mobilization has suggested that we need to be careful about assuming that politicians’ and analysts’ master narratives about “democratic revolutions” reflect the actual motivations of those on the street. Princeton University Professor Mark Beissinger has shown that Ukrainian protesters in late 2004 had a “weak commitment to democratic ends” – despite the fact that the protests were sparked by electoral fraud. More recently, a December survey of the current protesters in Ukraine cited above shows that less than 20 percent were driven to protest by “violations of democracy or the threat of dictatorship.” More broadly, it is important not to assume that opposition to a non-democratic regime is the same as support for democracy. History is littered with examples of opposition movements that governed in an authoritarian manner after they took power – from the opponents of the Shah in Iran in 1978/1979 to the anti-Soviet nationalist movement in Armenia, which harassed opposition, and engaged in serious electoral fraud after taking power in 1990-1991; to the dictator Alexander Lukashenko, who started off as an opposition parliamentarian in Belarus in the early 1990s.
Moreover, the protests themselves are not particularly representative of the views of a broader Ukrainian polity. The claims that “the movement as a whole merely reflects the entire Ukrainian population, young and old,” find very little support. In this, as in virtually every area of political opinion, Ukrainians are pretty clearly divided. Surveys taken in the past two months in the country as a whole range both in quality and in results, but none show a significant majority of the population supporting the protest movement and several show a majority opposed. Recent surveys provide suggestive findings that quite large majorities oppose the takeover of regional governments by the opposition. The most reliable and most recent survey shows the population almost perfectly divided in its support for the protest: 48 percent in favor, 46 percent opposed.
The protesters’ inability to garner greater support is surprising given the fact that Yanukovych’s popularity is far below 50 percent (although he is still apparently the most popular political figure in the country). One reason for this failure is that anti-Russian rhetoric and the iconography of western Ukrainian nationalism does not play well among the Ukrainian majority. Almost half of Ukraine’s population resides in the South and East of the country, what was once called “New Russia” when it was settled in the 19th century by a very diverse population of migrants from within the Russian empire. It is an area that has, for over 200 years, identified strongly with Russia, and nearly all of these Ukrainian citizens are alienated by anti-Russian rhetoric and symbols. The anti-Russian forms of Ukrainian nationalism expressed on the Maidan are certainly not representative of the general view of Ukrainians. Electoral support for these views and for the political parties who espouse them has always been limited. Their presence and influence in the protest movement far outstrip their role in Ukrainian politics and their support barely extends geographically beyond a few Western provinces.
Relatedly, there is little evidence that a clear majority of Ukrainians support integration into the European Union — despite the fact that the turn away from the European Union sparked the initial protests. While different polls show varying levels of support for European integration (e.g. this recent one from SOCIS), most show around 40-45 percent support for European integration as compared to about 30 to 40 percent support for the Customs Union – a plurality for Europe but hardly a clear mandate.
In conclusion, we should always be very wary of claims that protests speak “for the people.” We should be particularly wary when “the people” referred to are the people of Ukraine. If 20 years of scholarship and surveys teach us one thing, it is that Ukraine is a country that is deeply divided on virtually every issue pertaining to relations with Russia or the West, with very deep historic divisions that continue to bear on contemporary politics.
Ukrainians are, however, quite unified in the desire to be governed better than they have been for the past 20 years. The mass protests were primarily a response to efforts by President Yanukovych to impose a more repressive regime. Those on the square are not, on the whole, motivated by an affiliation for the far right or its agenda for Ukraine. Yet the heavy symbolic and organizational presence of the far right in the protests has surely limited the extent to which the protests can find majority support in the country and undermined their effectiveness in producing a better government for Ukraine’s citizens. A clear majority of Ukrainians could certainly be persuaded to abandon support for Yanukovych in an election, but the lack of majority support for the protests suggest that they might not take that option if it is presented to them wrapped in the violent anti-Russian rhetoric of the nationalist right.
For more from The Monkey Cage on the protests in Ukraine, see: