Skip to main content

Rein in Ukraine's neo-fascists

By David Speedie
updated 7:35 AM EST, Thu March 6, 2014
Men carrying far-right Svoboda flags wait in front of the Ukrainian Parliament in Kiev on February 27.
Men carrying far-right Svoboda flags wait in front of the Ukrainian Parliament in Kiev on February 27.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Russian President Putin says violent far-right groups are behind coup d'etat in Kiev
  • David Speedie: Far-right activity might be exaggerated, but EU has condemned them
  • Speedie: The far-right party Svoboda holds key posts in the new Ukrainian government
  • He says the far right must be marginalized to attain a democratic, peaceful Ukraine

Editor's note: David C. Speedie is senior fellow director for the U.S. Global Engagement Program at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, an educational, nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that produces lectures, publications and multimedia materials on the ethical challenges of living in a globalized world.

(CNN) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin says neo-fascist far-right groups are firmly behind the putsch -- coup d'etat -- in Kiev and questions the democratic credentials of "men with black masks and Kalashnikovs" who became the poster children of the Maidan for Russians.

Does this assessment have any truth to it? In the fast-moving and chronically complex course of events in Ukraine, the issue has been debated from the beginning: the role of the far right in the events that led to the toppling of the Viktor Yanukovych government and in the present and future disposition of political power in the country.

David Speedie
David Speedie

There are some known facts: First, far-right, anti-Semitic, anti-Russian and openly fascist groups have existed and do exist as a blight on modern Ukraine. A 2012 European Parliament resolution condemned the main -- but by no means most extreme -- ultra-right party, Svoboda, as "racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic."

This extraordinary EU resolution contains 18 points of concern over policies embedded in laws of the Ukrainian Rada, or Parliament. A key paragraph reads that the EU "is concerned about the rising nationalistic sentiment in Ukraine." The Parliament stresses that "racist, anti-Semitic and xenophobic views go against the EU's fundamental values and principles."

The resolution also appeals to pro-democratic parties in the Rada "not to associate with, endorse or form coalitions with this party."

As if to endorse the sentiments of the EU resolution, the leader of Svoboda (or "Freedom"), Oleh Tyahnybok, is on record saying that Kiev is governed by "a Jewish-Russian mafia" and has said Ukrainians bravely fought Muscovites, Germans, Jews "and other scum" in World War II.

This unsavory constituency, including the "ultra" Right Sector movement, manned the barricades in the Kiev uprising, providing "security" to the mainstream political opposition leaders and matching the pro-government forces in violent tactics that led to the dozens of dead in and around the Maidan.

These rightist-nationalist forces were in large part responsible for the collapse of the agreement signed in February that called for early parliamentary and presidential elections and a return to the 2004 Ukrainian constitution, which harks back to the "Orange Revolution" that brought a pro-West government to power in Ukraine.

Ukrainian tanks are transported from their base in Perevalne, Crimea, on Wednesday, March 26. After Russian troops seized most of Ukraine's bases in Crimea, interim Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov ordered the withdrawal of armed forces from the peninsula, citing Russian threats to the lives of military staff and their families. Ukrainian tanks are transported from their base in Perevalne, Crimea, on Wednesday, March 26. After Russian troops seized most of Ukraine's bases in Crimea, interim Ukrainian President Oleksandr Turchynov ordered the withdrawal of armed forces from the peninsula, citing Russian threats to the lives of military staff and their families.
Crisis in Ukraine
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: Crisis in Ukraine Photos: Crisis in Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin: Russian forces are in a tense standoff with Ukrainian forces in Crimea, an autonomous region of eastern Ukraine with strong loyalty to neighboring Russia. Putin has denied that Russian troops are in Crimea, but he told U.S. President Barack Obama that Russia's Parliament approved military action in Ukraine because it "reserves the right to defend its interests and the Russian-speaking people who live there." Russian President Vladimir Putin: Russian forces are in a tense standoff with Ukrainian forces in Crimea, an autonomous region of eastern Ukraine with strong loyalty to neighboring Russia. Putin has denied that Russian troops are in Crimea, but he told U.S. President Barack Obama that Russia's Parliament approved military action in Ukraine because it "reserves the right to defend its interests and the Russian-speaking people who live there."
Crisis in Ukraine: Key players
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
>
>>
Crisis in Ukraine: Key players Crisis in Ukraine: Key players
Ukrainian crisis: 'This is Putin's show'

In backing away from this face-saving compromise, one that was negotiated with the approval of the French, German and Polish governments, and which surely would have resulted in the removal of Yanukovych, moderate opposition leaders essentially capitulated to the far right.

The Russian position is also somewhat bolstered by the fact that Svoboda holds key posts in the interim government in Kiev, including that of deputy prime minister. Andriy Parubiy, the commander of the "Maidan self-defense," has been appointed the head of the National Security and Defense Council, and the leader of the Right Sector ultras, Dmitro Yarosh, is expected to become his deputy chairman. Svoboda controls the prosecutor general office and the ministries of ecology and agriculture.

At very least, the interim government has made bedfellows of some highly suspect and divisive forces.

But it is also true to say that many of the specific details of far-right activity and influence are anecdotal and perhaps contradictory.

On the one hand, there are reports of Jewish homes in Lviv and the western part of Ukraine being daubed with anti-Semitic slogans; on the other, Ukraine's head rabbi has weighed in with the opinion that anti-Semitism is "not on the rise." A group of Jewish groups sent an open letter to Putin that said, in part, "Your certainty of the growth of anti-Semitism in Ukraine also does not correspond to the actual facts."

It is also true that far-right forces are on the rise across Europe, including in the "respectable" democracies of the West, and that their targets range from Jews to Roma to gays to any "out" group, including the miscellany of new immigrants who are encouraged under European Union laws of free movement.

Finally, it is true that the long reach of memory evokes images from 70 years ago, those of robust support in western Ukraine for the fascist side during World War II. This is especially true in the east and south of a divided country, those regions that look to Moscow rather than to Washington or Brussels.

But these various points do not alter the fact that the European Parliament undertook the extraordinary measure of singling out Ukrainian ultra-nationalism, nor do they gainsay the role of its most influential exponent, Svoboda, in the new interim government.

In this context, and even as they may disagree on specific measures to be taken the path toward a prosperous, peaceful, united, democratic Ukraine, sober observers agree that this can be achieved only with the marginalization of the far right.

Unfortunately, the appointments of ultra-rightists to the interim government place this in serious question. Looking ahead, we must hope that the meeting in Brussels of the European foreign ministers, including Russia -- the first, we assume, of several -- may create a blueprint for Ukraine based on cooperative solutions rather than confrontation.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Speedie.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT