As is happening in other parts of the world during these times of financial difficulty, extreme right wing movements are gaining in popularity here in Ukraine, and the nation's very own extreme nationalists, Svododa Party, are doing particularly well. As NATO recently issued a report which called the party anti-western, anti-liberal, anti-EU, anti-Russian and anti-Semitic, we thought it was time to call in one of its representatives and have him debate his case. Andriy Illenko, head of the Kyiv Branch of the party agreed eagerly, and Canadian Blair Sheridan was pitted against him defending the ideas of tolerance and multiculturalism.
Blair Sheridan: Oleh Tyahnybok and the Svoboda Party have an unsavoury reputation, at least among foreigners living in Ukraine. Svoboda is considered to be an extreme right, racist organisation, with a hatred of foreigners and a desire to remove them from Ukraine. I’d like to hear what kind of nationalism (inclusive or exclusive) forms the basis of your party’s ideology.
Andriy Illenko: There are plenty of types of nationalism. We at Svoboda are Ukrainian nationalists, who have inherited the whole tradition of Ukrainian nationalism. We do not consider ourselves either a right-wing or a left-wing party; these notions are blurred and have different meanings. We are socially oriented nationalists, opposing the oligarchic clans that have seized the whole country.
BS: How do you understand the concept of “the nation?” How do you define the Ukrainian nation?
AI: We understand the nation as an ethnic and spiritual community, where both these elements – ethnicity and politicalcultural identification – are equally important. A nation without an ethnic element is the model of multicultural Europe, a model from which Europe is stepping back. A nation without a political aim is a kind of tribal community. Therefore, a strong nation is made up of these two elements. The Ukrainian ethnos has existed on this land for ages, and that is why we say Ukrainians are the titular nation of this state; it is only due to the Ukrainian ethnos that the name of the country and the country itself exists. However, the Ukrainian nation began to form when Bohdan Khmelnytsky united the people for the war of national liberation in 1648. Compared to other European nations, Ukraine is quite a young nation, since we’ve been struggling for independence for the past 300 years.
BS: Your slogan “Ukraine for Ukrainians” sounds quite racist, assuming you base an individual’s belonging to the Ukrainian nation solely on bloodlines.
AI: To me, a racist is one who thinks the colour of the skin or the ethnicity of an individual defines objectively the characteristics of that person. In this case, we are not racists, because we do not think a person is good or bad due to his origin. We are anti-imperialists, considering any attempts of one nation to oppress or humiliate another nation or ethnic group to be evil. I don’t see racism as a problem for Ukraine, as it appeared as a phenomenon in colonial empires, in order to justify the white domination over indigenous peoples. Ukraine has never been a colonial empire; on the contrary, it was enslaved for many years, so we have different problems. In Europe, however, there’s the problem of “auto-racism”, with Europe today having become a shelter for illegal immigrants. With the help of auto-racists at the top of the European political system, the idea of tolerance is promoted. This tolerance, however, does prevail among the ethnic minorities themselves; they do not tolerate homosexuality, feminism, etc. As a result we have aggressive, mobilised Muslims or other ethnic minorities and tolerant, nationally indifferent Europeans. Recently, leading European politicians like Merkel, Sarkozy and Cameron have admitted the policy of multiculturalism in Europe has failed!
BS: While you’re certainly correct regarding the recent statements of the leaders of Germany, France and the U.K., you should also remember that they do not represent Europe as a whole nor, given their electoral support, even their own electorates in their entirety. There is still plenty of space for tolerance and support for multiculturalism in Europe, at every level of society. Furthermore, let’s face it: when economic times are hard, the natural (and regrettable) impulse of any political leader – in power or not – is to appeal to an ineffable sense of “us” versus “them”, the latter being a broadly defined, sinister force. It’s a necessary, but not sufficient part of events, from the Armenian genocide to Holodomor, from the Holocaust to Srebrenica and Rwanda.
AI: The proof of the failure of multiculturalism is that, according to polls, Marie LePen, the leader of the National Front in France, is in first place in presidential election polling. Look at Finland: the nationalist party took third place there. Look at Hungary, where the nationalists’ party won. Svoboda growing popularity, now at 6-7%, is in line with the overall European tendency.
BS: Pre-election polling is hardly an exact science. In fact, I remember how Marie LePen’s father was, more than once, tipped to upset the political apple cart in France. Yet, he never did. Nor am I surprised that France has consistently, since the end of the Second World War, rejected the ultra-nationalist line. France, after all, is the home of “Liberté, Egalité, and Fraternité” and, perhaps, the greatest example of the triumph of civic, inclusive nationalism, where a single political nation was forged from Breton and Norman, Occitan and Basque, etc. Therefore, your examples are deeply flawed and far too simplistic. “Ukraine for Ukrainians” inherently infers that all other nationalities will not be tolerated.
AI: By our slogan “Ukraine for Ukrainians” we mean Ukraine should be a country for the people, not for a dozen oligarch families who have divided all the resources and funds of the entire nation among themselves. This does not mean we are against foreigners, no. We follow the scheme once proposed by Stepan Bandera, leader of the Ukrainian nationalists. He said there could be three possible policies towards foreigners: if they are our allies – we’ll treat them well; if they are indifferent – we’ll treat them the same way; if they are our enemies – we’ll fight with them and will not tolerate them. If a person is not an ethnic Ukrainian, but is a loyal citizen of Ukraine, speaks the Ukrainian language and does not break the law, we’ll only welcome him. As long as a person is not an Ukrainophobe (like Tabachnyk), he’ll be welcome in Ukraine.
But we are not going to tolerate those who hate Ukraine. I’m very radical when it comes to Ukraine-haters, who insult Ukrainians. I think they should be held criminally responsible or simply be kicked out of the country. I’m radical when Ukrainians are deprived their rights of assembly and freedom of speech. I’m radical when the Ukrainian language and culture are despised. But this does not mean I disrespect a person just because he is not an ethnic Ukrainian.
Let’s be honest: we do not have any problems with any of the ethnic minorities living in Ukraine. We only have problems with Ukrainophobes!
On the other hand Ukrainians are far too tolerant! Go to any Kyiv night club and see how foreigners treat our girls, and then try to go to a night club in Libya, for instance, and act the same way with their local girls – you’ll be smashed to pieces!
BS: A couple of crucial points have to be clarified here: how does one define what makes a person indifferent to Ukraine or, worse, an enemy of Ukraine? Would a person have to actively work against the commonly accepted interests of the Ukrainian state in order to be considered an enemy, or would telling a joke in which the object of fun was a Ukrainian be enough? I realise it’s all a matter of degree, but I’d like to know how you define love versus hatred for Ukraine. Such simple definitions have no credence, and without your clarification of the slogan (which most people do not have access to) it quite clearly offers people easy access to a xenophobic platform. What Ukrainians tolerate, on the other hand, is no one’s fault but that of Ukrainians. And how exactly does a foreigner’s treatment of a Ukrainian girl in a nightclub differ from that of a Ukrainian's? This is a meaningless example that obviously infers foreigners are impolite, which in turn fuels xenophobia yet again.
So to stick to something relevant, Svoboda has written in its party platform that it would bring in proportional representation of Ukrainians in all branches of government, calling for 70% of posts to be held by Ukrainians. What does this mean?
AI: One has to remember Ukraine suffered genocide in the 20th century: three Holodomors, complete annihilation of the intelligentsia, planned russification, prohibition of the Ukrainian language and culture, distortion of Ukrainian history, etc. With regard to all of this, Ukraine has to provide the titular nation with benefits in order to recover its culture, language, and to dominate in politics. If you look at Ukrainian politics today, the prominent figures are mostly descendants of the oppressors and that’s how they treat Ukraine. At least for some period, the state has to support Ukrainians in this nation-forming process.
BS: But that’s my point! You are, in what you say, placing the ultimate marker of “Ukrainian-ness” not upon the civic markers of, let’s say, birth in Ukraine (or even later immigration to Ukraine), support for and daily use of the Ukrainian language, compliance with Ukrainian law, etc., but upon some blood belonging. For one thing, given Ukraine’s history as a crossroads in Europe and a legacy of inter-marriage, purity of ethnicity is not going to be something easily found. Secondly, when one marks out a given nation – titular or not - within a polity as the owner of prevailing political and other rights, one is heaving very close to the Nuremburg precedent. Furthermore, to maintain that “purity” – such as it may be – do you not have to enact laws prohibiting miscegenation? Lastly, if you want to guarantee the disloyalty of any minority within a nation, decrease the number of rights it holds in relation to the titular nation. At the very least, that’s the recipe for indifference; at worst – bloodshed.
Allow me to offer the example not only from my home country, but from my home province – Québec. Some ascribe the oppression of the Québécois to a deliberate policy on the part of the Anglo-Saxon political and economic elite; some to the desire of the Catholic Church to keep the Québécois poor, God-fearing and rural; and some to a combination of the two. Still, whoever was the ultimate “bad guy”, the Québécois became, as we say in Quebec “maîtres chez nous” – masters in their own house. But the trick is in how they went about it. The Parti Québécois enacted legislation that didn’t outlaw English (despite howls of alarm from those who say they did), but rather brought French to the forefront, creating the “French face of Quebec”. Nor did they ever come close, or have any desire to elevate what we call “Québécois pure laine” – ethically pure French-Canadiens – to overarching political power. No nationalist leader in Québec would ever think of basing belonging to what is a very progressive, tolerant society, striving towards the greatest possible social, political and gender equality on the basis of descent from the original 300 settler families. He would be laughed out of Québec, as former Premier Parizeau was, when he muttered darkly about “money and the ethnic vote”.
That is the face of a modern, tolerant nationalism. Not that which you tout.
To expand upon what many would call your extreme nationalist view, what place does religion have in your ideology?
AI: We are a secular party, but we understand that religion plays an important role in society. We want to unite all the Ukrainian Orthodox confessions into one powerful Ukrainian church. Regarding the difficult confessional situation in Ukraine, we are only against the Moscow Patriarchate (which we regard as a Russian church in Ukraine) and totalitarian sects.
BS: I ask, because, for one thing, you raised the question earlier about homosexuality, in the context of certain minorities in Europe being intolerant of it as a lifestyle. Many religions hold the same view. Can I assume that your party does not share this view?
AI: We treat homosexuality from a rational point of view – it’s a non-productive road for a society. Although the phenomenon of homosexuality has existed since the dawn of mankind, it became a mass phenomenon only in times of societal decline – remember the Roman Empire. We are not going to break into someone’s apartment, searching for homosexuals, but the promotion of homosexuality must be prohibited and those doing so must be held criminally responsible.
BS: As one cannot exactly define what would be considered a criminal promotion of homosexuality (for example, would two men holding hands in public be condemned as promoting homosexuality?) then we can clearly see that not only is your party xenophobic, but also homophobic. It seems you believe homosexuality is a conscious choice, and that’s something the majority of educated people disagree with.
Regardless of these sentiments, the most important thing for any political party is the economy. How would Svoboda approach the Ukrainian economy?
AI: The nationalist idea of economy is not one of isolation, but one in which the economy will work for the nation, not for certain individuals as it does now. We need to support local manufacturers as much as possible. We need to understand one thing: only power is respected, that is why Ukraine needs a strong economy, a strong nation and a strong army with nuclear weapons. As for potential allies, we need to cooperate with Eastern Europe, as Western Europe wants nothing to do with us. We are EU sceptics: we think the EU is founded on false ideas. We are for integration into NATO, but no one wants us there as yet, so we need to take care of our security ourselves.
BS: Certainly, economic isolation and autarky is a fool’s dream. And you certainly aren’t wrong that Ukraine – indeed any state – needs to be able to protect its own borders and national interests, whether it does it alone, or in alliance with like-minded nations. I don’t think that NATO is an impossible dream for Ukraine, even under a Svoboda government. However, I do have some trouble believing that Ukraine could resurrect its nuclear capacity without engendering some very strong opposition from the very countries it seeks as eventual allies. I don’t see them – for a while at least – believing that Ukraine would be able to secure its nuclear arsenal to the degree necessary, for one thing.
AI: There was a stereotype of the nationalist in the Soviet UNI0N: a wild man with a knife, ready to kill anyone. Today, the image has changed: Ukrainian nationalists are regarded as stupid uneducated idiots, who have read only one book and care only about language and culture. However, in fact, our party is probably made up of the best educated people in Ukraine: we know our history, theories of nationalism, and we care not only about national, but also social and economic issues. However, if need be, we’re capable of smashing someone’s face in, in the event that our other arguments don’t work.
BS: I’ve no response to this.