Commentary: The lessons of Ukraine, or, how to avoid fascism and violence
Reflections on the recent developments in Ukraine and their connection to current affairs in the Czech Republic.
Whoever learns of what is happening in Ukraine through the Czech media, with a few honorable exceptions, must have the feeling that the revolution there is a fight of good against evil, a fight for democracy, European values and freedom, and also a fight for capitalism, which is, so to speak, firmly guarded by a strong wall of NATO troops. Czech viewers are being told that this is basically our Velvet Revolution minus Havel, a fight for the freedom of all Ukrainians and the independence of their country from Putin’s Russia, while the reality, of course, is quite different.
Whoever reads the Russian media coverage of Ukraine, on the other hand, gets the feeling that these recent events are a putsch conducted by fascist street-fighters and football hooligans paid by the opposition parties (who are supported by the governments of Germany, Poland, other European countries and the United States) to battle Ukrainian police units – essentially yet another battle between good and evil, the aim of which is to bring Ukraine into the EU and its army into NATO, to destroy its industry, and to exploit its market as a dumping ground for Western goods that are past their sell-by date. While this Russian view can be somewhat inspirational for the consumers of an exclusively Western viewpoint, reality is, of course, completely different from this account as well.
Fear in the Crimea
Whoever tries to follow the events in Ukraine directly, not just from the reporting by independent local media, but also from the direct eyewitness accounts of its population, the opponents of and participants in the anti-government unrest, its artists, political scientists and independent figures, as well as accounts from the completely ordinary people in various parts of the country, will probably be well and truly confused. The reality of contemporary Ukraine is inconceivably multilayered, and those layers often contradict one another and are in a rapid process of transformation.
It is basically the case, for example, that the west and center of the country (which is economically and socially more problematic, more aware of Ukraine as an independent nation, and historically more pro-Western) has different priorities than the east and south of the country (which is more diverse in terms of nationality, more industrialized, and more economically tied to Russia). However, that does not mean all the demonstrators in Kiev come from the west of the country, although the Crimean Parliamentary declaration that the citizens of Crimea fundamentally reject the idea of living in a Banderite, Nazi Ukraine does have the support of the vast majority of those living on the territory of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea (the Crimean Tatars, Crimean Turks, Jews, Russians and dozens of other nationalities) who have already experienced the practices of “Ukrainianization” first-hand.
It can’t go on like this
The protests that began last fall as a relatively insignificant demonstration by several hundred (or at the most 2 000) promoters of the opposition political parties were, at their core, a harmless reaction by the Kiev intelligentsia to President Yanukovich’s refusal to sign an association agreement with the EU. After his Berkut special police units brutally beat up the students involved, the protests grew into an out-of-control expression of outrage by more than 100 000 people angered by this police brutality against defenseless, peaceful, unarmed young people.
This was no longer about accession to the European Union (which is considered a dubious proposition by half of the Ukrainian population) but about the fact that this was the last straw when it came to people’s patience with the regime. The current regime is personified by President Yanukovich and his “family”, an inner circle of hand-picked allies whose despotic power and extensive reach affects all areas of Ukrainian life by either corrupting or terrorizing the people.
Yanukovich next sparked a fundamentally exponential increase in this sudden hatred for his regime (which had been tolerated for years) when he used Parliament, which he controls, to adopt a package of laws criminalizing all protest activities, including mere participation in a demonstration. It was precisely this resistance to Yanukovich that expanded into unprecedented dimensions, affecting various layers of society and bringing them together in a desperate attempt at a revolution led by the unifying vision that “it can’t go on like this – come what may, we will either change this or if not, let God’s will be done.”
News reports surfaced of the beating and torture of randomly arrested demonstrators, often peace-loving protest participants. The first fatalities of the situation made it even more dramatic and exacerbated.
It is impossible to ignore the fact that the vast majority of the revolutionaries on Independence Square have created a colorful, diverse, even motley society where age, political convictions and social position are not determining factors. At the barricades in the city center there is strict discipline and order – no one is allowed to drink alcohol and everyone must obey the orders of the commanders.
Special volunteer brigades work in shifts, constantly cooking and distributing hot food and tea, supplying the fighters with warm clothing, maintaining the “fire-pits”, providing medical services, and supplying not only food, water and wood, but fireworks, fuel, the raw materials for Molotov cocktail production, and shields. A general euphoria predominates, the hope that “once we win, things will be better” – as does fear of the regime’s reprisals.
One must humbly pay one’s respects to the explosion of bravery and civil disobedience being experienced these days by most Ukrainians, as it provokes a painful contrast to the civic passivity that tolerates the practices of our own oligarchs here in the Czech Republic, who are similar to those in the Yanukovich family in many respects. Be that as it may, the lessons of the Ukrainian mass rebellion also have a bitter, cautionary flavor.
With Hitler on their crests
Concerns are rising that these angry, spontaneous protests against the further asset-stripping and pilfering of Ukraine by the small group of oligarchs in power will be exploited by nationalist, ultra-right political forces that are gaining more and more sympathy from the radically-inclined segment of society with each day of fighting on the barricades, as well as exercising actual power in the streets. These people are putting themselves forward as “the only ones determined to bring down Yanukovich and restore order to the country.”
The military/political Right Sector group, which mainly brings together radicals from various nationalistic groups (such as Patriots of Ukraine, Stepan Bandera’s Trident, Ukrainian Nationalists, or White Hammer) including football hooligans, comprises the hard core of the street-fighters on Hruševský Street. In the eyes of many Ukrainians, these people have been transformed from feared hooligans into revolutionary heroes.
This is happening under the political patronage of the ultra-nationalist, xenophobic Freedom Party and its leader, Oleh Tyahnybok; the party has been categorized as an extremist, nationalistic organization that identifies with the ideology of German National Socialism (see the annual report of the Steven Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism and Racism) and that also espouses the legacy of the fascist Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists by annually celebrating the wartime establishment of the Ukrainian division of the Waffen SS. The party has previously made it onto municipal councils in several western areas of the country and is seated in Parliament.
While many Ukrainian fascists and nationalists now manning the barricades call such claims the “Trojan horse” of Yanukovich’s propaganda, it is the case that a four-meter-square portrait of Stepan Bandera was hung over the entrance to Kiev City Hall, while there are droves of black Banderite banners and blue flags with the yellow logo of Freedom on the barricades, and some fighters are wearing crests on their helmets such as the logo of the SS, "wolf-hook" runes similar to Nazi swastikas, or the infamous neo-Nazi code-numbers of 14 (for American white nationalist David Lane’s Fourteen Words - "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for White children") and 88 (for “Heil Hitler”). Helmets and uniforms that are strikingly similar to Nazi uniforms are also a big hit there.
The other guys are the fascists
On the other hand, most of the demonstrators who are ultra-radical nationalists also distance themselves from any mentions of or questions about a link to fascist forces, responding irritatedly with claims that Yanukovich and his “family” are the “real” fascists, as are the members of the Berkut police units, whose methods are on a par with the fascists’. This is not just about brutality when beating up defenseless students or pressure and terror against all of Yanukovich’s ideological opponents, but also, for example, about his aggressive hatred toward sexual minorities - Yanukovich’s promoters often call efforts to integrate Ukraine into Europe the “dictatorship of Jew-rule by European gays.”
The tragedy is that the cumulative violence and felonious methods employed in the fighting (the armed robbery and kidnapping of the “enemy”, who is beaten, tortured and, in more than one case, slaughtered) is leading to growing brutality on both sides and increasing concerns that a real civil war will break out. That, of course, could grow into a conflict between the superpowers should the EU and USA start supporting one side and Russia the other.
The rise of the nationalists in Ukraine is prompting reactions from all over the country as well as from abroad. In the western city of Uzhhorod, for example, several hundred Ruthenians and members of other minority nationalities are demonstrating against the Galician nationalist radicals who want to occupy the local seat of power.
The minorities are concerned about the rise of hatred against “anyone not Ukrainian”. Similar concerns are being heard from the Crimea and other areas to the east and south where Crimean Tatars, Russians, and dozens of other nationalities live in addition to Ukrainians.
This unrest and the active, militant engagement of the ultra-nationalists in it are also sparking reactions of admiration from European right-wing extremists. The Russian Nazi group Wotan Jugend, which has branches in the Czech Republic and Ukraine, has repeatedly said that the engagement of rightist radicals on the barricades in Kiev is an irreplaceable lesson for the future of the whole European neo-Nazi scene.
Ukraine as a lesson
When watching the dramatic footage from Ukraine, many here in the Czech Republic reassure themselves that it’s all happening “far away to the east” where people have a “different mentality” and “different problems”, that the conflict basically doesn’t concern us much. The Czech media occupy a similar position.
The reality, however, is that Ukraine’s original catastrophe was that its oligarchy has asset-stripped and pilfered its coffers, leading most of its population into poverty and social privation. The “tunneling” of the country, paradoxically, did not begin with the Yanukovich “family”, but with the oligarchic clans of Yulia Timoshenko and Viktor Yushchenko, who were, of course, pro-European and pro-Western in their foreign policy.
It is precisely the economic crisis and social exclusion that have so harshly impacted all levels of Ukrainian society, spawning an abrupt rise in public favor for fascist propaganda and nationalist forces. In the Czech Republic too, forces that are openly nationalistic and xenophobic are gaining more and more public support.
We should learn two lessons from the Ukrainian protests: To follow the example of the civic engagement and courage with which the Ukrainians have stood up to their regime, and to prevent our unnecessary passivity from creating space for the rise of our own Czech ultra-nationalists, who are always prepared to show people who is to blame (often scapegoats such as national, political, religious or sexual minorities) and to offer them swift justice in the name of the nation.
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