East Ukraine crisis and the ‘fascist’ matrix

Is the Russian leadership fomenting ideological links with some far-right European parties?

Separatists have occupied administrative buildings in a number of regions in eastern Ukraine [EPA]

Ukraine’s main far-right party, VO Svoboda, has been dumped by its erstwhile European ultra-nationalist allies. It was dumped for Russia with whom the most virulently anti-Semitic, anti-migrant and far-right parties in France, Hungary and other EU countries are developing close ties. The Kremlin’s blossoming contacts with those parties, and the far-right roots of prominent pro-Russian activists in Ukraine do not deter Russia from claiming to be protecting Russian nationals from the anti-Semitic and fascist hordes who have allegedly seized control in Ukraine.

The claims have been refuted countless times and attempts to use anti-Semitism condemned by the Chief Rabbi of Ukraine, prominent Jewish civic figures, academics and others. The UN’s High Commissioner on Human Rights has rightly indicated that “misinformation, propaganda and incitement to hatred need to be urgently countered” but missed the point entirely about the source of it all.

Who is fascist?

Russia’s propaganda machine, and especially Russian-language TV channels are feeding not only the Russian audience, but also a significant number of Ukrainians with lies and manipulated reports. Images of a Crimean rabbi forced to leave for Kiev after condemning Russian intervention are presented as showing a rabbi forced to leave Ukraine because of mounting anti-Semitism.

Ukraine struggles to bring east under control

In one astounding attempt to explain the denial by Ukrainian Jews of Russia’s claims, viewers on the Kremlin-funded Russia Today were asked whether such Jewish organisations “are with their own hands bringing on a second Holocaust?” 

You have only to listen to those on the streets supporting the armed “federalists” in the Donetsk region to see that the propaganda works. The armed separatists and their supporters would tell journalists that they do not want to live in the same country with “fascists”. It is no accident that the puppet government “elected” after armed Russian soldiers seized government buildings in the Crimea immediately closed down almost all Ukrainian media and gave the broadcasting frequencies to Russian channels.

A number of the main actors in the pro-Russian protests in the Donetsk region have strong links with far-right parties. Pavel Gubarev, for example, is a Donetsk business owner and the head of the “People’s Militia”. On March 1, he was supposedly elected “people’s governor” and led a crowd in storming the Donetsk regional administration building, demanding that a referendum be held on the oblast’s secession and calling for Russian military intervention. His detention was presented by Russian TV channels as politically motivated persecution. They preferred not to delve into Gubarev’s ideological roots as a member of the neo-Nazi Russian National Unity Party.

Gubarev, and a number of other leading figures in the Donetsk federalist protests, are members of Natalya Vitrenko’s Progressive Socialist Party. That party was singled out by Josef Zissels, head of the Euro-Asian Jewish Congress when he rejected Russian claims that the EuroMaidan protesters were anti-Semitic. He said that the Congress which monitors anti-Semitism and xenophobia had instead found a lot of anti-Semitic material on pro-Russian sites like that of the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) aimed at inciting antagonism to EuroMaidan. The latter was presented as having been instigated by Jews.

A rather small rally in Mykolaiv on April 6 declared another PSP supporter, Dmitry Nikonov, “people’s governor”, while two members – Alexander Kharytonov and Alexander Kravtsov – are leading figures in the Luhansk Guard, a major separatist organisation in the south-east. Kravtsov is also involved in organisations with neo-Nazi leanings.

More can and has been said about the relatively small number of such pro-Russian activists. It should, however, be stressed that none was well-known or had any influence before the events which led to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. This changed on April 6 when administrative buildings in Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv were seized, then most dramatically on April 13, with the deployment of armed militants noted by the US ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, as being “equipped with Russian weapons and the same uniforms as those worn by Russian forces that invaded Crimea”.

A public opinion survey carried out in the second half of March reported a majority in Ukraine favouring joining the EU and a majority in all regions believing that Crimea should remain a part of Ukraine in some manner. Another survey was undertaken by Civic Watch with the participation of the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, from March 16 to 30, with respondents from throughout Ukraine, including the Crimea. An absolutely majority – 89 percent – consider Ukraine to be their motherland. Only 8 percent support separatism. Even in Donbas (Donetsk and Luhansk regions) only 18 percent were in favour of it.

Inside Story – Is Russia planning to destabilise Ukraine?

The so-called referendum on March 16 on Crimea’s future has not been recognised by the international community for many reasons, including the presence of armed Russian soldiers. The self-styled prime minister, Sergei Aksenov whose pro-Russian party gained a mere 4 percent of the votes at the last parliamentary elections, had previously gained notoriety for criminal connections rather than far-right views.

Russian ties with Europe’s far right

The same cannot be said of those invited by Russia to “observe the referendum”. The choice was clearly limited since Ukrainian and international election watchdogs had refused to recognise a “referendum”. Those who turned up were Russia’s far-right (or neo-Stalinist) allies.

Russian TV channels reported the essentially full stamp of approval provided by this “team of international observers”. These included at least two members of the radical right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria: Aymeric Chauprade, adviser on international issues for the French National Front; Belgian Luc Michel, former neo-Nazi FANE member and now member of an extreme right party, as well as two compatriots from the far-right Vlaams Belang; two members of the Bulgarian far-right Ataka Party; Hungarian Bela Kovacs from the far-right Jobbik party, and others.

Some of the above-mentioned and others are members of the Alliance of European National Movements which issued a statement on Ukraine that effectively drops its former ally, Ukraine’s VO Svoboda Party and sides with Russia. The statement’s anti-Semitic argumentation is well-worth reading given the constant Kremlin narrative about supposed Ukrainian anti-Semitism.

Shekhovtsov reports that on April 9, Tamas Gaudi Nagy, MP from the far-right Jobbik party gave a three-minute speech against European democracy at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. He was wearing a t-shirt reading: “Crimea belongs to Russia; Transcarpathia [in Ukraine – HC] belongs to Hungary.” It is worth recalling that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union once signed a collaboration pact which involved a similar carving up of Poland.

Besides Jobbik, Russia is also cultivating relations with Marine Le Pen’s French National Front and other far-right movements. Strong showing by these parties in the upcoming May European Parliament elections will presumably add other voices, like Nagy’s, in support for Moscow’s annexation of a part of Ukraine.

In a recent study, the Political Capital Institute suggests that there are ideological links between some far-right European parties and the current Russian leadership. Russia, it says, has under Vladimir Putin, set its sights on the restoration of the country’s status as a world power. Far-right and other parties seeking to undermine European unity and taking an anti-Western line are presumably to play a role in its fulfilment of Russia’s imperialist aspirations. So, too, are the references to “fascists” used as an attempt to justify Ukraine’s dismemberment. The world has been here before, and the price for collaborating with fascists and for failure to react to clear danger proved tragically high.

Halya Coynash a journalist and member of the Kharkiv Human Rights Group.