“Fascists from the Right Sector rule the streets around Maidan Square; they have been the hard edge training and battling police in the Square. In the parliament EU and US favoured nationalists, oligarchs, rightists and opportunist defectors from the governing Party of Regions struggle for power and place, today issuing an anti-constitutional motion removing the president from office.”(Andrew Taylor)
Playing with fire
Kyril Drezov and Bulent Gokay*
(Protesters carrying the portrait of Stepan Bandera, the infamous Nazi collaborator who led the Ukrainian paramilitary troops which actively fought on the side of the Nazi Germany and engaged in some of the worst atrocities committed by any side in World War II)
We all see on our televisions the scenes of shocking violence in Ukraine, the worst in a European capital since 1989. The crisis in Ukraine has crossed a dangerous line and is threatening to turn the country into ungovernable mess.
We are told by both journalists and politicians that the current Ukrainian government is to blame. This government is certainly not an attractive collection of individuals and group interests. In many ways it resembles the ones in Russia in the late 1990s, with everyone from the president down openly abusing their public position for private benefit.
Yet for all their faults president Yanukovich and his party had come to power in internationally monitored free elections, replacing in 2010 a profoundly corrupt and dysfunctional pro-Western coalition (the latter brought to power in a 2004 mutiny that was loftily labelled as ‘the Orange Revolution’). There is little to choose between the leading parties in Ukraine, as the biggest pro-government and opposition parties have their roots in the same brazen oligarchy that divided the wealth of the country after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In December last year the West was ready to embrace president Yanukovih and his unsavoury oligarchs, if only they would sign an association agreement with the European Union. Two months later the story has changed completely, and we are seemingly witnessing yet another battle in the global struggle between Tyranny and Democracy, with blood-thirsty authoritarians on one side and peaceful protesters on the other.
Yes, peaceful protesters – heavily-armed with rifles and small arms, masked, with bullet-proof vests, attacking the police with batons, Molotov cocktails and live rounds. Peaceful protesters, who burn, murder, pillage and ransack everything that stands in their way. Yet Western governments make no demands on these ‘peaceful protesters’: all the blame, demands and sanctions are heaped on the government. The extreme acts of violence of protesters and hooligans are met with deafening silence from Western politicians and media.
The violence on the streets of Kiev is far more than just an expression of popular anger against an allegedly authoritarian government. Explicitly Neo-Nazi groups not only form a significant and highly visible part of the ‘pro-democracy movement’ in Kiev, but in many ways these groups are leading the protest there and elsewhere in Ukraine. Channel 4 News recently reported that such groups have assumed a ‘leading role’ in the street protests in Kiev, with affiliated paramilitary groups prominently involved in the disturbances. Their shockingly violent acts mark the rise of the most insidious form of fascism that Europe has seen since the fall of the Nazi Germany.
An umbrella organization, known as ‘Pravyi Sektor’ (Right Sector) is at the forefront of the fight against the police and security forces. This is a popular youth formation that brings together a number of extreme ultra-nationalist groups such as ‘Patriots of Ukraine’, ‘Trident’, ‘White Hammer’, ‘Ukrainian National Assembly – Ukrainian National Self-Defence’ (UNA-UNSO). Whilst ‘Pravyi Sektor’ ignores the parliamentary leaders and parties represented in the Euro-Maidan, the ‘Svoboda’ (Freedom) party is officially accepted as an integral part of the ‘pro-democracy’ camp and its leader Oleh Tyahnibok is in the opposition ‘triumvirate’ together with Arseniy Yatsenyuk of Batkivshchina and Vitaliy Klitschko of UDAR. Svoboda describes itself as European right-wing party similar to Jobbik in Hungary and BNP in Britain; it currently occupies 36 seats in the 450-member Ukrainian parliament and had recently won 1/3 of the vote in regional elections in the hardline core of Western Ukraine. Although ‘Pravyi Sektor’ sees ‘Svoboda’ as too liberal, its leader Tyahnibok is on record urging Ukrainians to fight against the ‘Muscovite-Jewish mafia’ in Ukraine and his party is known for checking the birth certificates of its members, with the intention of weeding out all those who are not seen as ‘ethnically Ukrainian’.
Both ‘Pravyi Sector’ and ‘Svoboda’ share a common ideological framework that is vehemently anti-Russian, anti-Jewish, anti-EU, anti-immigrant and anti-gay among other things. They are all inspired by the 1930s-1940s ‘Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists’ led by Stepan Bandera (portrait prominently displayed in the ‘Euro-Maidan’), who started as enthusiastic Nazi collaborators in the Second World War and ended by committing some of the worst atrocities of that time, too shocking even for their Nazi protectors.
We are not witnessing some Hollywood scene of good versus bad guys, but the destruction of yet another deeply divided country that is unfortunately entangled in a global power struggle between the West and ‘the Rest’ (Putin’s Russia, China, Iran and the like). In such a struggle all means are good and all fellow travellers have their 5 minutes of world fame as ‘good guys’ – Neo-Fascists in Yanukovich’s Ukraine, radical Sunnis in Asad’s Syria and Qaddafi’s Libya, extremist Shias in Saddam’s Iraq. This list could go on and on, all the way back to the Cold War.
In fact, the end of the Cold War unleashed an avalanche of ‘hot wars’ of choice for the West. In the beginning all of these wars are depicted as some ‘freedom fight’ and invariably all of these wars have turned into something quite different. The freedom fighters of 2011 Libya became the terrorists of 2012 Mali; the oppressed Shia of 2003 Iraq became the deadly militias of a year later; ‘the terrorists’ of 1998 Kosovo became the freedom fighters of 1999. In a similar vein, Ukraine faces not a triumph of democracy, but the terrifying prospect of bloody civil war that may turn into another Yugoslavia.
Former US national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski noted in his 1997 book, The Grand Chessboard, that neither the West nor Russia can afford to lose Ukraine to its strategic and economic adversary. The US is pushing Ukraine towards closer links with the EU in the hope that this would isolate and weaken Russia, just as it was behind the 2004 failed ‘Orange Revolution’ aimed to separate Ukraine from Russia.
So far from being a struggle between the forces of democracy and authoritarianism, the battle being fought in Ukraine boils down to control of an important gas transit system next to the strategic Caspian Sea oil and gas deposits. This whole crisis is very much like a Cold War-style proxy confrontation between the Western and Russian interests. Ukraine is already a member of GUAM – a loose NATO-supported alliance essentially dominated by Anglo-American oil interests, and ultimately aiming to exclude Russia from the Caspian Sea. Putin’s Russia wants to pull Ukraine into its sphere of influence through various political, economic and military agreements – most notably through the giant gas monopoly Gazprom and UES (the Unified Energy System of Russia). At the same time, the USA and Western Europe are aggressively pushing Ukraine into NATO and EU, ignoring the wishes of at least half of Ukraine’s population, not to speak of Russia.
EU leaders are poised to impose sanctions on the Ukrainian government, blamed exclusively for fomenting violence there (the USA and Canada have already done so). Yet who will impose sanctions on those who have fomented violence all over the world, not least by backing to the hilt some very dubious friends of democracy in Ukraine, Syria, Libya, Iraq and Kosovo, to mention just some of the hot wars of choice conducted by Western politicians in the last two decades.
Whether one backs President Yanukovich or the opposition ‘Friends of the West,’ the real winners in Ukraine’s mess are likely to be the same small number of powerful interest groups that exercise a stranglehold over its political landscape and economy. Ukrainian oligarchs have hedged their bets from the start of the protest, financing both Yanukovich’s camp and his opponents, and fully prepared to side with the winner.
In Libya and Syria, the political leaders of Washington, Paris, London and Brussels were prepared to use the most reactionary political forces to accomplish regime change in order to achieve their geopolitical goals. Now in Ukraine these same leaders, joined by Germany and Poland, are supporting extreme right-wing fascist groups to topple the democratically elected government of the country. In so doing, they provoke a drive to civil war in Ukraine and risk a conflagration across the entire region.
[an earlier version of this piece was published at TODAY’S ZAMAN, 24 February 2014]
* Kyril Drezov is Lecturer in Politics, and Bulent Gokay is Professor of International Relations, both at KeeleUniversity