In a news conference Friday, Viktor Yanukovych, now holed up in the Russian port of Rostov-on-Don, wasted no time in describing the protesters who had ousted him from the Ukrainian presidency in now-familiar terms. Euromaidan was just a bunch of "nationalist fascist youngsters," he explained, in what was his first appearance since fleeing Kiev.
The words might sound familiar to anyone who has been watching another crisis on the other side of the world. When Venezuelan protest leader Leopoldo Lopez was taken into custody after widespread protests this month, President Nicolas Maduro labelled the him the "political boss of the rightwing fascists."
Over the past few weeks, opposition groups in these two very different countries have had this label applied to them time and time again. Does it even fit?
In Ukraine, while the protests began with students, it's true that they did soon broaden to include groups that might be labelled "fascist." In particular, Yanukovych's fascist argument apparently refers to far-right Ukrainian nationalist groups, such as Svoboda or Pravy Sektor, who have been a prominent part of the Euromaidan protests. Svoboda ("Freedom" in Ukrainian) is kind of a modern European nationalist party, in line with British National Party or the French National Front, but, much like those parties, it has a pretty murky past. In its original form as the Social-National Party of Ukraine (SNPU), for example, it had a rather swastika-like logo, and as recently as 2004, party leader Oleh Tyahnybok was giving speeches demanding Ukraine rally against the "Muscovite-Jewish mafia."
The Pravy Sektor ("Right Sector") in Ukraine are even more unabashed. One of the most violent groups in the Euromaidan protest, they reportedly view Svoboda as "too liberal." They have been described as "neo-fascist" in the Guardian, and their ideology "borders on fascism," according to Time. The group are happy to use history to emphasize their pro-Ukrainian nationalism, for example using a banner very similar to the one used by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army during World War II: A very provocative sight for those who remember that group's period of collaboration with the Nazis during the war.
Things are a little different in Venezuela, and it's a little harder to see the logic in calling the protesters "fascists." Politically, much of the opposition movement is centered around the Democratic Unity Roundtable, a broad catch-all political group that nominated Henrique Capriles to run for president in 2012, though Capriles lost to both Hugo Chavez in 2012 and, following Chavez's death, Maduro in 2013. The street protests that have taken place over the past few weeks in Venezuela, however, began as student protests and have found their figurehead in Lopez, the 42-year-old leader of the People's Will party known for his charisma, good looks and Harvard education.
Both Capriles and Lopez were accused of being involved in the military's attempted coup d'etat in 2002 against Chavez's government, though Lopez later distanced himself from it and has recently said he doesn't want this wave of protests to turn into a coup (Capriles, meanwhile, has refused to endorse the protests at all). For Maduro's supporters, the opposition coup of 2002 is a powerful reminder that the the recent protests could be the return of anti-democratic "fascists" or, as Maduro has also described them, "coup-seekers." Plus, both Capriles and Lopez are from well-to-do, connected families: It's easy for the left wing government to portray them as siding with the "oligarchs" who had controlled Venezuela before Chavez's "Bolivarian" revolution, and left many of the country's poorer residents cut off from vast oil wealth.
The intent and reasoning behind using the word "fascist" are pretty obvious in both cases. In Ukraine, it's being used to link the broader Euromaidan protests to the far right Ukrainian nationalists groups such as Svoboda or Pravy Sektor, and perhaps with good reasoning: One anti-fascist organizer has estimated that some 30 percent of the Euromaidan were nationalists of some kind. That number could be way off, but its certainly true that there are right-wing, nationalist elements in the protest and their actions are hard to ignore. In Venezuela, the aim of the label seems broader: It's to imply that Venezuelan politics is a binary between the a democratically-elected leftist government and the "fascist" right who were involved with the 2002 coup. Again, there may be a kernel of truth here, but it's overall a simplification.
There are plenty of things that hurt the claims of Yanukovych and Maduro. Timothy Snyder pointed out in the New York Review of Books that Ukrainian riot police were apparently told the leaders of the protests were Jewish, while Putin's warning of a pogrom were smartly discredited recently by a article in Ha'aretz by Anshell Pfeffer. The Venezuelan government's violent response to protesters and an apparent media crisis in the country recently led pop star Madonna to label Maduro a "fascist," an opinion apparently shared by many.
It's worth remembering, after all this, that in political theory the term "fascism" is actually a highly contested term, one that academics have been arguing over for decades. In a 1944 essay by George Orwell, the author set out to answer the question "What is fascism?" and ended up deciding that it meant very different things to different people. "All one can do for the moment is to use the word with a certain amount of circumspection," Orwell wrote, "and not, as is usually done, degrade it to the level of a swearword." There's another, more recent idea that could perhaps be applied, too. To paraphrase Godwin's Law: The longer a disagreement goes on, the higher the chance someone will be compared to Hitler.