This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
The April 6 rally in Cherkasy, a city 100 miles southeast of Kiev, turned violent after six men took off their jackets to reveal T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Beat the Kikes” and “Svoboda,” the name of the Ukrainian ultranationalist movement and the Ukrainian word for “freedom."
– Jewish Telegraphic Agency, April 12, 2013
While most of the Western media describe the current crisis in Ukraine as a confrontation between authoritarianism and democracy, many of the shock troops who have manned barricades in Kiev and the western city of Lviv these past months represent a dark page in the country’s history and have little interest in either democracy or the liberalism of Western Europe and the United States.
“You’d never know from most of the reporting that far-right nationalists and fascists have been at the heart of the protests and attacks on government buildings,” reports Seumas Milne of the British Guardian. The most prominent of the groups has been the ultra-right-wing Svoboda or “Freedom” Party.
The demand for integration with Western Europe appears to be more a tactic than a strategy: “The participation of Ukrainian nationalism and Svoboda in the process of EU [European Union] integration,” admits Svoboda political council member Yury Noyevy, “is a means to break our ties with Russia.”
And lest one think that Svoboda, and parties even further to the right, will strike their tents and disappear, Ukrainian News reported on February 26 that Svoboda party members have temporarily been appointed to the posts of vice prime minister, minister of education, minister of agrarian policy and food supplies, and minister of ecology and natural resources.
Svoboda is hardly a fringe organization. In the 2012 election won by the now deposed president, Viktor Yanukovych, the party took 10.45 percent of the vote and over 40 percent in parts of the western Ukraine. While the west voted overwhelmingly for the Fatherland Party’s Yulia Tymoshenko, the more populous east went overwhelmingly for the Party of Regions’ Yanukovych. The latter won the election handily, 48.8 percent to 45.7 percent.
Svoboda—which currently has thirty-six deputies in the 450-member Ukrainian parliament—began life in the mid-1990s as the Social National Party of the Ukraine, but its roots lie in World War II, when Ukrainian nationalists and Nazis found common ground in the ideology of anti-communism and anti-Semitism. In April 1943, Dr. Otto von Wachter, the Nazi commander of Galicia—the name for western Ukraine—turned the First Division of the Ukrainian National Army into the 14 Grenadier Division of the Waffen SS, the so-called “Galicia Division.”