February 14th, 2014
When researching the politics of and interactions between the various right and left-wing groups who struggle for political supremacy in modern Ukraine, one is certain to encounter the work of scholar Andreas Umland, a German political science and history authority who teaches at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Kyiv, Ukraine. While preparing for my trip there, I was surprised how often my search for information would lead to publications authored by Umland.
Umland is, as most strictly defined, a political scientist and historian. His research focus, however, lies in studying the post-Soviet extreme right-wing, in both Ukraine and Russia. This research area is not only of particular relevance to the Euromaidan movement, but also to Ukrainian-Russian relations going forward.
A few weeks before I arrived in Ukraine, some media reports insinuated that, because some fringe-right groups (Pravy-Sektor, mostly) had played a part in defending the Euromaidan encampment from government forces (along with other groups) with sticks, stones, molotov cocktails, giant slingshots, catapults, and etc. in response to police attacks on the camp – the whole of the Euromaidan movement, then, must have been taken over by such forces. Since I was not yet on the ground in Kyiv, I reserved my judgement.
After this reporting circulated for some weeks, I came upon an open letter of sorts, written in response to these media claims, published on change.org and authored by Umland. Before the title is even written, Umland makes clear who the piece is meant to reach:
“To journalists, commentators and analysts writing on the Ukrainian protest movement ‘EuroMaidan'”
Then the title, which also serves as a blunt, to-the-point declaration of what Euromaidan is, and is not:
KYIV’S EUROMAIDAN IS A LIBERATIONIST AND NOT EXTREMIST MASS ACTION OF CIVIC DISOBEDIENCE
The piece, cosigned by numerous professors, scholars, and authorities in the subjects of Ukrainian/Russian/Soviet/post-Soviet history, sociology and political science from around the world, argues that, when considering the complexity of interaction between the numerous right, left, and center facing political groups at Euromaidan, it is a mistake for those lacking a proper understanding of the nuance – or much of the history – behind them to declare the movement as usurped by Nazis or fascists or both.
Here is an excerpt of what I believe to be the most intense and direct criticism of such “lay person speculation” contained in the piece:
While we are critical of far right activities on the EuroMaidan, we are, nevertheless, disturbed by a dangerous tendency in too many international media reports dealing with the recent events in Ukraine. An increasing number of lay assessments of the Ukrainian protest movement, to one degree or another, misrepresents the role, salience and impact of Ukraine’s far right within the protest movement. Numerous reports allege that the pro-European movement is being infiltrated, driven or taken over by radically ethnocentrist groups of the lunatic fringe. Some presentations create the misleading impression that ultra-nationalist actors and ideas are at the core or helm of the Ukrainian protests. Graphic pictures, juicy quotes, sweeping comparisons and dark historical references are in high demand. They are combined with a disproportionate consideration of one particularly visible, yet politically minor segment within the confusing mosaic that is formed by the hundreds of thousands of protesters with their different motivations, backgrounds and aims.
Taken as a message, the article serves as a stern warning to writers aiming to classify the entirety of the Euromaidan movement as dominated by the Ukrainian fringe right-wing without doing any work on the ground to confirm such fears. After investigating the makeup of the people who comprise this movement myself, it is clear that, while fringe elements do exist there and are quite active (Pravy Sektor – “Right Sector” is the most concerning of these groups) – the whole of this protest movement is largely moderate.
I knew that Umland was a person I wanted to track down if we were to be in the same city for a convenient amount of time. As someone new to the intricacies of Ukrainian political identity, I had many questions, but did my best to familiarize myself with relevant Ukrainian political history – past and contemporary – in order to ask smart questions. I am still, however, very much a newcomer to the study of countries and their socio-political development.
Luckily, after scrambling for a few days, I was able to contact Umland to schedule an interview. He very graciously found some time for me within a day of our first contact.
We met the night of February 14th inside Kyiv’s Dnipro Hotel, which sits a few blocks away from the Euromaidan-erected and patrolled Hrushevskoho St. barricade, the site of the front-page headline generating clashes and police violence which finally drew the world’s attention to Kyiv in mid-January 2014 (see my photo-essay concerning this location, produced February 18th, the morning before the last clashes between Euromaidan and Yanukovich’s police forces began).
Me: Hello Andreas, thank you for meeting with me! It’s a rainy night in here in Kyiv, Ukraine. Euromaidan is ongoing blocks away, and we are sitting at a table inside of the Dnipro Hotel. How does one pronounce that name?
[Andreas obliges my request for help with the pronunciation]
Andreas: “(d)nēprō”, yeah – it’s the name of the largest river of Ukraine.
You are a German, living and working here in Kyiv, who specializes in contemporary Russian and Ukrainian history with a focus on the post-Soviet extreme right. Why are you so interested in this field of study?
Well, my mother’s Russian, and I grew up Russian speaking, and I was a child in the former Soviet Union, and also in Ukraine, and then when the Soviet Union broke down, I had a feeling that nationalism – extreme nationalism, right wing extremism – would become important here, and that’s why I became interested in this. It also might be the most dangerous aspect of politics in this part of the world.
You attended a great many number of schools and academies. How many years did you spend on your education?
Too many years, maybe. Academic biographies are sometimes strange. You go where the money is, basically. Wherever I got a scholarship, I went. But now I’m here for the last 12 years, with intermissions, so I’ve spent nine years of the last 12 here in Ukaraine.
And how do you find it?
Well, it’s a very nice country, a very nice city. I think Kyiv is a city where one can live, and its green, particularly nice in May and June. These are maybe the nicest months here, so if you want to come here this is the preferable time, much nicer than now. Now it’s a little bit dirty, and ugly and so-on, but in May and June, it’s really wonderful.
Coming from Chicago, which is currently experiencing record-breaking low temperatures, the temperatures here are quite a relief.
It’s unusual also. February here is usually much colder, this is the mildest winter I’ve experienced so far here in Ukraine.
You teach at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. Do you teach your research interest, with focus on the extreme right?
No, my research is on right-wing extremism in Russia, and now also somewhat in Ukraine, but I teach here German and Ukrainian politics, that is my function here. We have a Masters program in European studies, this is basically preparing students to work in the future, in relation somehow to Germany, to the European Union, to other European countries – we prepare them for that. My research interests are a little bit apart from that.
Are your students interested in both, or one or the other? Would they were perhaps be interested in learning about your research interests if specialty classes were offered? Is that sensitive issue for some members of Ukrainian society to go into those histories?
Yeah. There are two points. First, the students here are more interested, now, in learning about Western societies than about their own society, and they see the future in the European Union, so they want to study the European Union, and also learn to Germany as the largest country within the EU.
And there is indeed, also, a touchy cultural issue here of course – I would be teaching about Ukrainian radical nationalism, which I may do one day, that would not be easy because they would be nationalistic students among them and they wouldn’t like, maybe, everything that I would be teaching and so-on.
Is that something you would like to do? Do you feel that teaching those subjects and facing increased resistance from potential students would be worth the stress?
Yeah, that’s a good question, a difficult question. In a way, I would be very interested to confront them with that, but then one runs indeed the danger of having students who have made up their mind already, with whom it would then be useless to discuss these issues. I guess I will try one day and see what happens.
What are your general thoughts and perspective about what is happening presently on Independence Square here in Kyiv?
Well, it is an uprising. The idea of this uprising is to make Ukraine what the people would say here a “normal European country”. It’s very much about basic Western values like democracy, rule of law, political freedom, civic rights. And now there is a paradoxical situation, that the protests were peaceful for two months…
Since they they began in November of 2013.
Yeah. And then they turned violent and we have now here this Civil War-like situation with barricades and young men armed with sticks and shields, and also with molotov cocktails, so this creates indeed an ambivalent impression. But it’s important to remember that the protest turning violent was a reaction to the police violence, enormous violence by the special units here – the Berkut, as they are called.
Many actions taken by the Euromaidan presence in Kyiv have been provoked by actions performed by the police or government. For instance, the anti-protest laws passed by Parliament on January 16th, 2014 would have censored the internet here and put citizens in jail for up to six years for blocking government buildings, among other restricitons. The Yanukuvich-led government seems to possess a very ingrained disregard for the people they are governing.
The model for this Maidan here – Maidan [Nezalezhnosti] is simply the square, [Independence Square] – for this uprising on Independence Square is the Orange Revolution of 2004, which also happened on Maidan. The dominant color then was orange, which was the color of the party of the then-presidential candidate Viktor Yushenko.
And this was an entirely peaceful mass-action of civic resistance. There wasn’t even anybody hurt, as far as I know. So there was this model, and that’s how this Euromaidan, about the EU associate agreement started, but then, in distinction to the 2004 situation with the Orange Revolution, there was then enormous police violence already in the first days [of the Euromaidan protests, when the protest consisted of a small group of students occupying Independence Square] that radicalized, basically, the whole situation here.
And now we have a different confrontation which is much more tense, which could even threaten the stability of the Ukrainian state. This is an unfortunate evolution but that’s how it is now. One only hopes it will remain as still relatively peaceful as it is, if you compare it to, for instance, the Arab Spring, or to events in Central Asia, not to mention Yugoslavia or Syria. But it could also turn into war, into a real war.
A real civil war?
Perhaps it would be not so much a civil war, as it would be a war between Russia and Ukraine, as there was a war between Georgia and Russia in 2008, which also started with a domestic conflict – in Georgia – into which then Russia intervened. This is the worst-case scenario. I don’t think it’s likely, but it cannot be excluded.
An article you wrote, published on change.org, cosigned by numerous academics in the field of Ukrainian history and sociology, warns journalists to be careful to not dismiss Maidan as co-opted by extremists. You declare the makeup of Maidan as simply reflection of Ukrainian Society. Do you feel that the moderate parts of the movement need to take steps to limit the growth of fringe right or left elements within Euromaidan due to its present on the world stage and visibility?
Yes, I would say so. The extreme right in particular has gained a prominence which is now becoming detrimental to the aims of the movement, however, the problem is: how do you do that? The movement here understands itself as a people’s movement, and it so happens that the people among the people who assemble here, there are also these nationalists and extreme nationalists. And they’ve also now gained some legitimacy now because they’ve taken part in the violent clashes with the special police forces.
They have “proven themselves useful”?
Yes, one could say so. They, in a way, defended the Euromaidan – or, they took part in its defense – they are not the only ones who used violence, but they were certainly among the crowd with sticks and stones who defended the Euromaidan from attack by the special [Berkut] police units. That’s now a difficult situation indeed, but it doesn’t change the core of this entire insurrection, which is not about nationalism or right wing extremism, but as I mentioned, about these European or “Western” values.
So it’s now a complicated situation, and one shouldn’t dismiss these complications, but one should also not use these complications to defame the entire movement here, to call it fascist or right-wing extremist, which would be wrong. It would be right for a certain section of the movement here, but it would be wrong for the majority of people active here.
How do you see Svoboda fitting in to the conclusion of Euromaidan? Will their party membership grow due to increased exposure, and would this be a good thing for Ukraine if it did?
To start with the last question: it would be bad, because this is a party that is ultranationalist, and that is also dividing the country. The paradox of Svoboda is that it sees itself, calls itself an All-Ukrainian Union, when in fact it has a nationalist ideology which doesn’t cover the all of Ukraine. They have an ethno-centrist discourse which is very much rejected in southern and eastern Ukraine, who have another view on their national identity in Ukraine. That is why it would be certainly bad if they would gain from this protest.
But so far, the opinion polls indicate that they are not actually gaining from it. They are very present here, and they also have maybe the most talented orator, a man called Oleh Tyahnybok, the party leader, who is very effective on the stage, on the podium. He’s rhetorically very strong, and he’s also a very experienced politician. He was already here on the Maidan in 1990 when the first anti-Soviet revolution took place, it was the so called “Granite Revolution” because it took place on granite stone. Tyanianbok is, as far as I understand, the only prominent political leader here who was already, back then, at this place, actively demonstrating. This experience now is visible – he is more experienced than the others. But, paradoxically, in the polls this is not reflected. The party is not doing particularly well.
About 5%, yes?
Yes. Tyahnybok, in the last poll that I saw, had support of 4%, the party had support of around 6%, but in the last elections they actually got over 10%. So compared to 2012, Svoboda seems to have lost support, oddly. So in spite of all this presence here on on Maidan, the party as a whole has not yet gained from it. That’s why it also doesn’t make sense to compare developments here with, let’s say, those in the Arab countries, where sort of anti-Western forces have then gained, actually, prominence. The support simply is not here for either the exrta-parliamentary right or for the intra-parliamentary extreme-right.
Tyanyabok has toned down his nationalist rhetoric since Euromaidan began. He was skeptical of EU integration, but he turned that around and toned down a few other of his more radicalized notions. It seems like he is attempting to drive Svoboda to a more moderate place within Ukrainian politics. Is this a temporary gesture made to gain acceptance from the primarily moderate forces within Euromaidan? Will he revert to his previous ideologies after it concludes, or is this a true reversal?
You’re very well informed that you know some of these subtleties…
Best I could do before I arrived!
Well, you did some reading obviously…that’s indeed what happened, actually. It has actually less to do with the Euromaidan than with the last parliamentary elections when the party got much more support than everybody expected, and much of this support was from well-educated urban, pro-European, pro-Western voters, who voted for Svoboda because they wanted a disciplined and effective party in the parliament that would take up the fight against the [Yanakovich] regime. These were non-ideological voters, or only partly ideological voters. “Strategic voters” one could call them, “protest voters”, “tactical voters” – who wanted a disciplined, radical anti-[Yanakovich] regime party in the government. So this move to the center has already been taking place before Euromaidan, but it had now, I would say, accelerated, because Svoboda is now an integral part of this coalition, at least on the surface. The coaltion, [called the Maidan People's Union, comprises] …the two democratic parties, the Fatherland party of Tymoshenko and Yatsenyuk, and the so-called Ukraininan Movement for Democratic Reforms (UDAR), [lead by] the former boxer Vitali Klitschko. They are democrats.
And Tyahnybok’s party, Svoboda, is more of a nationalistic party, but they have moved to the center, they have become more national-democratic, at least for the time being. We don’t know where this will lead to – whether the party will become a sort of moderate nationalist conservative party or if it will move again to the political fringe. This is now an extraordinary situation here, and so in this situation there are different rules than in normal politics. Maybe in normal politics the party would move again to the right, that’s very difficult to predict.
But for now, one has to admit that this party has been a rather disciplined part of the opposition and has behaved, in most regards, constructively. The most nonconstructive has been perhaps its promotion of wartime Ukrainian nationalist symbols and slogans, which are alienating the eastern and southern Ukrainians from Euromaidan.
I met a Ukrainian girl earlier today in front of the stage on Independence Square. In our conversation, she pointed to the large photo of Stepan Bandera set up left of the stage, referring to him as a hero of her people. Bandera is reviled by some for his involvement with the Nazis during WW2, and for the acts of mass killing of Poles and Jews comitted by the paramilitary group he began, the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UIA). It is difficult for some, especially in the West, to accept glorification of a man with such history. How would you recommend Westerners understand why even moderate Ukrainians like him so much?
The personality of Bandera is particularly complicated issue. There were other ultranationalist leaders who were indeed collaborators with the Nazis, like the one-time commander of the Ukrainian Insurgent Party, Roman Shukhevych, who also fought for the Wehrmacht. But Bandera himself was actually in a German concentration camp. During much of WW2, he was under German arrest, so he is a very complicated figure to interpret because he cannot be made directly responsible for some of the crimes that were comitted, presumably, by Ukrainian ultranationlists of his movement during WW2 against Poles, Jews, and fellow Ukrainians.
So Bandera is a complicated and tragic figure of the Ukrainian nationalist movement, but he was, eternally, a leading figure. He was also an ideologist of the movement, and while he was, in a way, a freedom fighter – the Ukraine that he wanted to build, at least for a while, was a totalitarian Ukraine, an ultranationlist Ukraine for Ukrainians, with a basically totalitarian state structure. The thing is that he never got there, so he was never able to implement these ideas. The only thing that he did, the nationalists – they fought against Soviet and German occupation, and that is what is remembered. The fight against occupation for independence. What is less remembered is what would have followed after independence, but that never occurred. Like in Croatia, for instance the Ustaše, who came to power. The organization of Ukrainian nationalists never came to power. We cannot even be sure what they would have done had they gotten state power, how they would have behaved nor what their policies would have been. But Bandera, certainly, is a very controversial figure. It’s a big problem within Ukraine because he’s seen by one part of Ukraine as a hero, by the other as a trator. It’s also a problem in Polish-Ukrainian and Jewish-Ukrainian relations, because classical Ukrainian nationalism was anti-Polish and anti-Jewish, so yes, this a problematic aspect of this movement.
How do you explain the disparity between Svoboda’s visibility at Euromaidan and their relatively low numbers of membership within the country?
Well, that’s in a way the problem of street-politics – it’s not fully representative. I would say the Euromaidan, as a whole, sort of represents the Ukrainian nation, because you have here southern, eastern Ukrainians, you have Russian speakers, Ukrainian speakers.
But one has to say that the western Ukrainians – often these are Svoboda supporters – they are over-represented here. They are active, they are mobilized, they are disciplined, they are the most resolute part of the opposition here, out of nationalism. They are nationalists. That is what is driving them and that’s what makes them visible here. They have also been covered a lot by the media.
This is one of your issues, I believe?
Yeah, I mean I’m not against covering this part of the protest – this is actually not so much about Svoboda, but about the extra-parliamentary right, the so-called Right Sector. So they should be analyzed and covered and also criticized, obviously. The issue is more that Euromaidan has been identified with this part. It is a part of the Euromaidan but it’s not the driving force, it’s not what the ideology of the movement is about. So yes, this is a problematic aspect of the protests, in that you have both the non-violent parliamentary protests, or parliamentary parties that take part in the protests, you have an ultra-nationalist force [Svoboda], or at least a former ultranationalist force, and you have also the extra-parliamentary lunatic fringe, having a large presence here on the streets.
If there lie extreme fringe elements within Euromaidan, how do they compare to extreme elements from without, such as The Communist Party of Ukraine, Russian Block, Russian Unity? Those parties are, proportionally, much less powerful, especially given their lack of involvement in Euromaidan.
Well, in a way they are just a mirror-image. The communist party here is maybe not so much about communism, but an orientation towards Russia. They, in a way, promote a different vision of the Ukrainian nation than the Svoboda nationalists, who have a more ethnocentric view. The Communist Party [of Ukraine] and similar groups – the Russian Block, Rodina – there is also a strange group called the Progressive Socialist Party of Ukraine – what they actually promote is Ukraine as being part of the larger, all-Russian nation, that Ukraine should unite with Russia, and this would be the nation to which Ukrainians would then also belong. [These groups] also have a presence in parliament, they are also over-represented in eastern and southern Ukraine in the local and regional parliaments, so there is clearly this confrontation between these two different views of the Ukrainian nation.
Some of these parties have referred to the people of Euromaidan as fascist. What are your thoughts about that classification?
Well, there are probably people at Euromaidan whom want to be called fascist. The point I would make is that, certainly, there are these fascists, there are also anarchists, other radicals at Euromaidan, but that’s how it is. This is not what makes the protest movement what it is. They take part in it, they also play a certain part in it, but on the whole the movement is about justice, freedom, rule-of-law, democracy, all of these things. There’s a tension, then, of course, between these radical activists from the radical right or radical left and their values, and the actual mainstream ideology of the movement. But paradoxically, so far these radical right elements have, if you think in the logic of Euromaidan, perhaps even played a positive role because they actively defended Euromaidan from these special police units.
Last weekend there was an incident in which men allegedly hired by the government – “titushki” – attempted to dismantle a barricade at Euromaidan. I don’t know how many extra-parliamentary right-wing extremists composed the force which reacted to this attempt, but the group dismantling the barricade were swiftly repelled.
And peacefully repelled, this time, because there was no violence from the attackers and there was also no violence from the defenders, fortunately. The problem is that we have these young men here in their masks, with their armor and all these things, and we don’t really know who they are. Are they from Right Sector, maybe left-wingers? Do they have any formulated ideology? Some of them maybe just there because they are in favor of justice. Or maybe some of them just have fun doing that, I would’t even exclude that. There’s no research so far on what the relative weight of these right-wing extremists is in the [Euromaidan] defense forces. I guess they do play a significant role there, but maybe they are not even the majority of the defenders here.
What if any change will Ukraine’s population of Jews, non-ethnic Ukrainians and those identifying as LGBT see if the Euromaidan movement is successful in unseating the government? Or is this not an issue for most Ukrainians?
I don’t think it’s that much of an issue. The current [Yanukovich] government is also very much anti-gay, there was a whole propaganda campaign by the current power-holders blaming the European Union for too much liberalism concerning sexual minorities and for wanting to impose this sort of liberal approach to sexual minorities in Ukraine. This sort of homophobia, as one has to admit, is spread over all of Ukraine, so it’s nothing special.
Is Euromaidan a movement, or a revolution?
Well it’s both – it has become now a revolutionary movement, because they don’t want to just change the elite, they actually want to change the country in a fundamental way, to Europeanize it. And so, we will see whether it will be, at the end, a revolution, but many here see themselves as revolutionaries.
Thank you Andreas, for meeting with me after such short notice. I really appreciate it.