By Peter Dickinson
March 1, 2014 Business Ukraine magazine
Ever since anti-government protests first broke out in Ukraine late last year, the Kremlin has adopted a policy of labeling all Ukrainian protesters as fascists. These fascism claims are now being used to justify the military invasion and occupation of Ukraine. What began as a fairly run-of-the-mill Kremlin slur has now taken on the gravest possible historical importance as a justification for war.
In parallel to the military invasion of Crimea, an information war is currently being fought to discourage the international community from going to the aid of Ukraine by portraying events in Kyiv as a fascist coup. The objective is turn Western public opinion against intervention and allow Putin free reign to punish Ukraine for the country’s latest escape attempt.
There are ample indications that the Kremlin is winning this information war. While international media coverage of Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests initially focused on protester demands for European integration, as the protests took on a more militant tone the role of nationalist groups began to receive greater prominence in the international media. This ‘fascist Ukraine’ narrative has led to a heated debate over the morality of supporting Ukraine’s revolution. While the whole world – more or less – cheered Ukraine’s peaceful 2004 Orange Revolution, on this occasion the presence of nationalist paramilitaries in the front ranks of the protests has led to a considerably more circumspect international response and much outright opposition. The Kremlin has skillfully fanned these flames, repeatedly calling on Western governments to denounce the Ukrainian protesters as fascists, Nazis and extremists.
There can be no question that nationalist groups have played a prominent role in Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution, but there remains much misunderstanding over both the nature and importance of these groups. First and foremost, it is crucial to grasp what nationalism means in the Ukrainian context, and how this differs from traditional Western perceptions. In almost all Western societies, our understanding of nationalism has become intrinsically linked to notions of racism, to the extent that the two are often regarded as virtually indistinguishable. This race-based definition of nationalism is simply not relevant to Ukraine, where the non-white ethnic minority population is negligible. Nevertheless, international attitudes towards Ukraine’s revolution have undeniably been colored by inaccurate associations with what is probably the most widely disliked and discredited political philosophy in modern Western society.
Nationalism in Ukraine is actually rooted in a narrative of national struggle through the centuries. The Ukrainian nationalist mythology is one of oppression and defiance, not superiority and hate. In their own terms, most Ukrainian nationalists tend to see themselves as much closer to the freedom fighters of a liberation movement than to the racial warriors of traditional Western nationalism. Certainly many can be found who hold and espouse racist opinions, but this is a regrettable feature in many non-Western societies. The simple fact remains that in political terms, race is a non-issue for Ukrainian nationalists. This matters because nationalism has become a dirty word in Western society, partly due to its overt associations with racism. Applying this thinking to the contemporary Ukrainian context inevitably leads to distortions which hamper understanding of the political forces at work in the country.
How much influence have these nationalist groups actually had on events in Ukraine? Nationalist shock troops have formed the core of Euromaidan resistance ever since the first Berkut riot police attack of 30 November. They have been in the front lines during every clash, and as the conflict escalated, have become increasingly run along paramilitary lines. However, organized nationalist groups were never the only ones doing the fighting. In fact, a great many of those who volunteered for people’s defense units or joined the fray in other ways were not aligned to any nationalist group. It is impossible to know the individual motivation of each protester, but the goal which I personally heard voiced most often was the simple wish ‘to live in a normal country, with human rights, laws and justice’.
Whatever their individual motivations, the hardcore of fighters was always a tiny minority compared to the numbers who took part in regular rallies in Kyiv and beyond. At its peak, the number of battle-ready youths on Maidan probably never topped 5,000. In contrast, the largest protest rally crowd has been estimated at well over half a million. Hundreds of thousands flooded onto Independence Square on numerous occasions, despite temperatures well below freezing. Every day, hundreds of volunteers manned protest camp kitchens, medical points and occupied state buildings. Few had any political affiliations, nationalist or otherwise. Then there were the AutoMaidan activists who took the protest movement to the roads of Ukraine’s cities, and the Euromaidan protesters in cities across the country. Those who protested in the regime heartlands of East and South Ukraine took enormous risks were subjected to attacks and intimidation, but they still refused to be cowed. Are we to believe that these millions of ordinary Ukrainians were all pawns in a fascist coup?
One of the cornerstones of the fascist coup narrative is the allegation of a surge in anti-Semitism as a result of the protests. However, these claims fail to stand up to close scrutiny. Reports in the international press of rising anti-Semitism have largely been dismissed by local Jewish groups as deliberate misinformation, while a small number of suspected anti-Semitic incidents have since been labeled as likely Russian provocations. As if to underline the point, anti-Semitic graffiti was conveniently discovered on a Simferopol Synagogue as Russian troops invaded Crimea. In reality, numerous Ukrainian Jewish groups have appeared – and been warmly welcomed – on the Euromaidan stage to demonstrate their solidarity and support for the protests. Thousands ofUkrainian Jews have also participated individually in the protests, attending rallies, volunteering to help out at protest camps and posting online to debunk the Kremlin’s anti-Semitic slurs. A former Israeli army officer even led a battalion of fighters on Maidan – some of them fellow Jews – and has since proudly recounted his experience to the Israeli media. Members of Ukraine’s Jewish community were also among those killed in the government crackdown. Needless to say, none of these Jewish Euromaidan participants believes that a fascist coup is underway in Ukraine.
While the evidence of widespread Jewish support for Ukraine’s revolution should be enough in itself to discredit the Kremlin’s ‘fascist coup’ narrative, the last word in the debate should probably go to the residents of Kyiv. After all, they have been the eye-witnesses to the unfolding drama and should know better than anyone what has really been going on in the Ukrainian capital.
Kyiv residents backed Euromaidan from the very outset, and this support was only galvanized by repeated police crackdowns and escalations. It is no exaggeration to say that without this resounding support, the protests would simply not have been possible. Kyivites provided the food, fuel, clothing and medicines to sustain a vast army of protesters spread out across numerous buildings and encampments. They volunteered in their thousands, and also offered up their homes to allow the constant stream of protesters arriving in the capital a place to take a hot shower and some warmth. Support in the Ukrainian capital reached a crescendo on 20 February when thousands of ordinary Kyivites responded to news of the massacre on Maidan by flocking to the square with whatever food and medical supplies they could muster. It was a staggering display of bravery and defiance which was very much in keeping with the manner in which local residents had supported the protest movement. Is Kyiv a fascist stronghold? Of course not. Today’s Kyiv is a Russian-speaking city with a population of close to four million drawn from every corner of the country. It is Ukraine’s most diverse city. The fact that it is also a resoundingly pro-European, pro-democracy city speaks volumes for the poverty of the nationalist/fascist narrative.
Events in Ukraine raise a wide range of legitimate concerns – not least over the use of violence against state security forces and the questionable constitutional legitimacy of the new government. However, the charge of fascism simply does not tally with the first-hand experiences of those who took part in the protests. It is a deliberate distortion of events which serves Russian interests by playing on understandable Western sensitivity to the horrors of WWII-era fascism, while grossly exaggerating the importance of extremist elements within a multi-million strong mass protest movement. Russia urgently needs to be told that the international community does not accept its fascist coup narrative and regards its invasion of Ukraine as a clear act of military aggression. With the existence of a sovereign European country now under direct threat, the time has come to stop drinking the Kremlin Kool-Aid.