As elections approach in Ukraine, controversial historical and linguistic issues are high on the agenda within a country divided along regional and cultural lines. The nationalists including President Viktor Yushchenko, often perceive Moscow’s hand behind this, while their opponents complain that the Ukrainian language and right-wing values are being imposed by the authorities. This confrontation rarely results in violence but this year might prove an exception as the impact of the global financial crisis has hit Ukraine especially hard -radicalizing society. Incidents have thus far included a radical youth fatally stabbed and two bookshops vandalized. This situation may further deteriorate as the government fails to respond to the problem while the Russian media, popular within eastern Ukraine persistently hypes the issue.
On April 17 in Odessa a youth from a radical leftist group calling themselves Antifa (from anti-fascists) stabbed to death Maksym Chayka, a 20-year-old Ukrainian nationalist. While the incident is now the subject of a police investigation, Antifa claims this was done in self-defense. But nationalists and their opponents have already delivered their own verdicts, judging by the far from neutral newspaper headlines reporting on "a patriot stabbed" or "a neo-Nazi stabbed" depending on the ideological sympathies of individual journalists.
The Russian media hurried to portray Ukrainian nationalists as "blood-thirsty neo-Nazis," similar to their handling of the story of Hitler dolls found on sale in a small Kyiv shop last year, which made the headlines across the world after it had whipped up interest. Reports about the alleged links between Antifa and the pro-Russian Motherland group -denied by Antifa- prompted Yushchenko to take sides (www.samozahist.org.ua, April 20). He instructed the law-enforcement agencies to find links between the Antifa "extremists" and pro-Russian groups (www.president.gov.ua, April 22). Human rights activist Volodymyr Chemerys, expressed his doubts over the investigation’s impartiality because of presidential interference. He openly accused Yushchenko of sympathizing with neo-Nazis (www.samozahist.org.ua, April 24).
People’s deputy Oleksandr Feldman, who chairs the Association of Ukrainian Ethno-Cultural Associations and the Kharkiv Jewish community, warned Yushchenko in an open letter on April 27 about the "fascistization" of Ukrainian society. He mentioned the tragic incident in Odessa and reports about anti-Semitic leaflets distributed in the central Ukrainian city of Cherkasy, and recalled that the "neo-Nazis" from the Freedom party won a recent election in Ternopil (EDM, March 24). Feldman drew analogies with Germany in the 1920’s and 1930’s, where a crisis that he compared in scale to the current Ukrainian situation, had brought Hitler to power (Delo, April 27).
Feldman’s exaggeration was probably due to the fact that he is a leading member of Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s party, which was unexpectedly defeated in the Ternopil election by both Freedom and Yushchenko’s United Center. Tymoshenko views both Yushchenko and Freedom leader Oleg Tyahnybok as her rivals in the upcoming presidential election. All three regard as their stronghold, the nationally minded western Ukraine including Lviv where advertising on matchboxes praise the SS Galichina World War II division -noted by the Russian media and pro-Russian news outlets in Ukraine in early April.
It turned out that the controversial advertisement campaign had been ordered by Freedom. Galichina fighters are respected by many in western Ukraine, where they have been viewed as freedom fighters against Communist Russia. But they are loathed within eastern Ukraine and Russia as Hitler’s collaborators, as well as in neighboring Poland where they reportedly committed atrocities against the resistance. Polish officials reportedly expressed their concern (One Plus One TV, April 17).
The discovery of the controversial matchboxes was exaggerated by Russian TV channels which did not miss the opportunity to vilify western Ukraine in the eyes of Russians and eastern Ukrainians who traditionally prefer Russian to Ukrainian TV for language reasons. The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) said that it did not find any violations in Lviv as the controversial adverts did not carry any SS emblems or slogans (UNIAN, April 27).
Freedom did not stop at glorifying the SS. The party urged ethnic Ukrainians to organize themselves for self-defense. Its press service has issued a veiled threat against opponents saying that the party’s ruling body decided to take measures to prevent "systematic manifestations of Ukrainophobia" across the country like the killing of Chayka which, according to Freedom, had been inspired from abroad. Freedom said that it will monitor society for those manifestations. In the same statement Freedom pledged to prevent Ukraine’s transformation into a parliamentary republic, which is something that Yushchenko suspects Tymoshenko of planning (www.svoboda.org.ua, April 25).
Meanwhile, two bookshops have been the target of recent arson attacks. Their owners said that they had received letters demanding that they stop selling Russian books allegedly detrimental to Ukrainian culture. No-one has so far claimed responsibility for these attacks. The owners of the shops claimed that other bookshops had been vandalized in Ternopil ahead of the recent election, reportedly also for selling Russian books (UNIAN, April 25).