leader thriving in hard times
Interview: Oleh Tyahnybok claims nationalist wave
‘has now crossed both the Zbruch & Dnipro rivers’
Paul Johnson, Business Ukraine
Volume 4, issue 12, December 2010
Oleh Tyahnybok’s Svoboda Party swept in from the fringes of Ukrainian politics this autumn, scoring emphatic victories in October 31 local elections throughout the traditionally nationalist West Ukrainian heartlands. The right-wing group secured local election wins in Lviv, Ternopil and Ivano-Frankivsk oblasts, making Svoboda one of the leading political forces in West Ukraine and bolstering their leader’s credentials as he seeks a place for himself and his movement at the top table of Ukrainian politics. The current economic and political climate in Ukraine has proven almost tailor-made for Tyahnybok’s media-savvy brand of nationalism – in a pattern mirrored by the success of nationalist parties across crisis-hit Europe, Svoboda has seen a surge in interest over the past two years to the extent that Tyahnybok now feels able to position himself as an alternative opposition figurehead. One of the most visually recognizable politicians in the country today, Tyahnybok is also a shrewd strategist who has turned the ramshackle nationalist movement he inherited in 2004 and turned into a modern electoral force to be reckoned with. Tyahnybok clearly understands the science of marketing and oversaw Svoboda’s adoption of the three-finger Ukrainian trident salute as an official party symbol – a clever exercise in political brand-building which tied his movement to Ukraine’s ancient heritage while providing it with an all-purpose mark of instant recognition. A Lviv native, Tyahnybok has an impeccable nationalist family pedigree and comes from a family steeped in Lviv lore. The Svoboda leader’s great grandfather Lonhyn Tsehelsky was an early twentieth century Lviv politician who played a crucial role in the short-lived West Ukrainian People’s Republic and was also one of a handful of officials charged with reading out the Act of Unification of the two Ukrainian Republics of the post-WWI era, a forgotten drama which took place on a cold winter’s day in January 1919 on Kyiv’s Sofia Square. Tyahnybok’s family tree also features a number of prominent Lviv academics and priests, including various martyrs to the Ukrainian cause executed during the Stalin era.
A nationalist outlaw coming in front the cold
Supporters of the Svoboda leader like to claim that he is that rarest of things among Ukrainian politicians: someone with a track record of actually sticking to his principles. This straight-talking approach plays particularly well among audiences of Ukrainian patriots disillusioned by the deceits which littered the long descent from the moral high ground of the Orange Revolution. Detractors, meanwhile, have accused him of racism and xenophobia while blaming Svoboda for stirring up ethnic tensions. Tyahnybok is certainly nothing if not divisive – he first achieved national notoriety when ejected from Viktor Yushchenko’s ‘Our Ukraine’ parliamentary faction in July 2004 for a series of inflammatory anti-Semitic and anti-Russian comments made during a speech which was later aired on national TV. Since this definitive break with mainstream Ukrainian national democratic circles, Tyahnybok’s political career has been dominated by the battle to bring his nationalist themes back to the top of the nation’s agenda. In this battle he is being aided by the lack of credibility enjoyed by the country’s mainstream national democratic politicians. Indeed, at present Ukraine’s discredited and demoralized Orange leaders appear uniquely ill-equipped to counter the nationalist threat in their traditional electoral bastions throughout Western and Central Ukraine. With the opposition so apparently ineffective it is no surprise to see Tyahnybok eyeing up the apparent political void with increasing confidence. Long shunned in polite political circles for the unpalatable nature and alleged extremism of his views, he may now be on the verge of securing political respectability via the ballot box.
Tyahnybok’s rise is part of Ukraine’s ongoing democracy experiment and also reflects a broader European swing towards the political Right which has seen nationalist parties steadily gaining ground throughout the continent. In the past year we have seen nationalist parties achieve national breakthroughs at parliamentary level in countries like Sweden, Hungary, Austria and Holland. Given his own party’s impressive growing electoral success over the past five years, it is little wonder that Tyahnybok now believes Ukraine will be one of the next European countries to register a nationalist parliamentary breakthrough. If Svoboda’s 2010 local election vote is replicated in the country’s next scheduled parliamentary elections - due in 2012 – then the Lviv-born former doctor will find himself at the head of a small but disciplined parliamentary bloc which few could afford to ignore.
Will the electoral success of Svoboda force the traditional Ukrainian national democratic voter bloc to move away from the political middle ground and towards more nationalistic extremities?
What is the political middle ground? If you mean eternal collaboration with former invaders or forever opting for the policy of the lesser evil then we stand clearly against such things. It is true that Svoboda’s success will polarize Ukrainian politics, but only in the sense that it will allow the Ukrainian public an alternative to the usual choice between the greater and the lesser of two anti-Ukrainian evils. The success of Svoboda is not only a response to the failures of the country’s traditional national democrats and morally bankrupt parliament but also a sign of opposition to the anti-Ukrainian policies of a regime which is, in essence, a Kremlin colonial administration. We reject the ‘extremist’ label – depicting nationalism as extremism is a cliché rooted in Soviet and modern globalist propaganda. In reality, countries like modern Japan and Israel are fully nationalistic states, but nobody accuses the Japanese of being extremists.
How do you see Svoboda’s recent local election success within the context of the broader pan-European trend towards support for right-wing parties?
The current European nationalist renaissance is a response to the challenges facing EU member states as they fight to preserve national identity in the face of the globalism juggernaut. This struggle has already taken on the Shakespearian proportions of ‘To be or not to be’. Ukraine, meanwhile, is facing the challenge of emerging from 300 years of occupation and reversing the degradation which has regrettably coloured the two decades since independence.
Ukraine’s Orange leaders were hampered by deteriorating relations with Russia, which objected to what it identified as nationalist tendencies. Your policies are clearly far more nationalistic than anything the Orange administration introduced – does this make a clash between Svoboda and the Kremlin inevitable?
A conflict of interests clearly exists between the Kremlin and all of the Soviet Union’s post-colonial states. While the Kremlin remains infected with the bacilli of imperialism it will oppose any country which seeks to leave the Russian orbit. A weak and geopolitically ambiguous Ukraine will only encourage ever greater Russian interference. As the ancient Romans used to say: ‘if you which for peace, prepare for war’. Moscow is already waging virtual war on Ukraine along many fronts – in the information sphere and the diplomatic sector, within the energy trade and throughout the world of international PR spin. But would Russia be quite so ready to covet Ukraine if, for example, it was a nuclear-armed state with a nationally-conscious administration and a population united around a coherent national identity? The question, I believe, is largely rhetorical.
Support for Svoboda remains highly concentrated on a relatively small region of the country. What impact does this have on the credibility of your claims to be a national movement?
In this year’s local elections we polled over 5% nationally - the fifth time Svoboda has passed the parliamentary barrier. Today our movement has factions in eight of the country’s 25 regional councils, while three regional councils are governed by Svoboda nationalists. Only four Ukrainian political parties can currently count any Oblast Council leaders amid their ranks and of those four only Svoboda represent the opposition. Our political movement has succeeded in crossing not just the Zbruch River (historical border between Austrian West Ukraine and Imperial Russia – Ed.) but also the Dnipro, all the time remaining true to our nationalistic position. In the October 2010 elections, for example, the party received more support in Donetsk Oblast than it had done in Kyiv during the previous elections in 2006. In the past four years we have succeeded in pushing the frontline of nationalistic ideology far into the eastern regions of Ukraine. Analysis of both the January 2010 presidential elections (in which Tyahnybok received 1.5% of the vote – Ed.) and the recent local elections demonstrate that Svoboda is now receiving more total votes from Greater Ukraine than from the country’s nationalist heartlands in West Ukraine. This support is a direct result of our adherence to clearly stated policies and unchanging principles. We do not change our slogans to suit our audiences and always adopt the same positions whether in the east, west, north or south of the country.
How does Svoboda hope to strike a political balance between its nationalistic positions and the multicultural norms which are broadly embraced throughout the neighbouring EU?
Up until this point European multiculturalism has actually been more of an anti-culture, producing the fast-food mentality of globalisation which is displacing deep-rooted traditional cultures. European politicians, even those of a liberal persuasion, already acknowledge this - even German Chancellor Angela Merkel recently declared that multiculturalism had failed. Unlike both imperialism and globalism, modern nationalism seeks a healthy balance between domestic development and productive international relations. Nationalists will always find a common language with patriots in other countries because true nationalism means both love of your own nation and respect for others. Only he who respects himself has the power to respect others.
Which international political figures appeal to you and what attracts you about their historical legacies?
Charles de Gaulle was a man who united a nation, rebuilt the common man’s faith in the national ideal and then showed that he knew enough to know when to leave. German Chancellor Bismarck transformed the weak, divided clutter of the 19th century German states, revived a sleeping giant and created a great state. It was Bismarck who once said that agreements with Russia were not worth the paper on which they were written.