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Stanislav Byshok: Ideological sources of the civil war in Ukraine

The full text of the speech conducted by CIS-EMO political analyst Stanislav Byshok at the conference of the Independent Journalists Association for Peace (Vienna, Austria, May 21-22, 2015).

[Russian translation is available here.]

Dear colleagues!

I’d like to talk to you about the ideological sources of the civil war which is going on in Ukraine.

In the media coverage of the conflict, to say nothing about blatant propaganda and deliberate lies, there are 2 basic misleading points:

  1. the source of the conflict in Donbass, which is observed by many as a proxy war between Russia and the US, is primarily economic, not political;
  2. the degree of radical nationalism in the Ukrainian society is not higher than that in the Russian; and it is only Russian fear-mongers who spread the false ideas of Ukraine being hijacked by the radicals.

Let us consider both assumptions.

But first of all, I’d like to make you acquainted – very briefly – with my own experience in dealing with the radical Ukrainian nationalism.

In 2012, as a member of a long-term international election monitoring mission, I was in Ukraine observing the Parliamentary election. Eventually, radical nationalist, anti-Semitic and openly Russophobic Svoboda (Freedom) party, which had been widely considered to be total outsiders, gained more than 10% of the votes (and more than 17% in the city of Kiev). Freedom party’s victory became the main observers’ and analysts’ surprise of that election. As for me, I decided to investigate the history of the Freedom party so that to understand the source of their unlikely success.

So my journey began. I found out that prior to 2004 the party had been called the Social-National Party of Ukraine, had used the respective runic symbols, had carried torch-lit marches, had attacked Communists and antifascists, and had adhered to the respective social-nationalist ideology. The real history of the party began in 1991 in West Ukrainian city of L’viv.

In 2004 the party leadership decided to give support to pro-Westen liberal-democratic residential candidate Viktor Yuschenko, and so as to do so they launched the party rebranding. They changed their runic logo, they changed Social-National party name to the Freedom party, but they didn’t change their ideology. They went on being social-nationalists, praising the Nazi-collaborationist Ukrainian leaders of the 1930s-1940s and claiming Russia and the Russians to be the primordial foes of the Ukrainian nation.

But the main shock for me as a scholar came not from the Freedom party’s and the related movements’ ideological tenets. As a matter of fact, it came from the regular Ukrainian history textbooks which I began reading so as to improve my Ukrainian. In these textbooks which were approved by the Ministry of Education I found all the same – yes, I do mean it – basic concepts as in the writings of radical Ukrainian nationalists. For instance, I was informed that the violent national conflict between the Russians and Ukrainians began in the middle of the XII century; that genocide of the Ukrainian nation by Russian occupants was launched by Peter the Great; that the very names “Russia” and “Russians” were stolen – I repeat, stolen - by the Muscovites from the “real Russians” who lived in the territory of today’s Ukraine, hence the would-be Ukrainians (former “true Russians”) decided to change their nation’s name so as not to be confused with the Muscovite thieves. And so on, and so forth.

Now that you know some of the premises of the Ukrainian historical consciousness, let’s move on to the recent civil conflict in the country.

It is a conventional wisdom that economic crises are always strongly associated with or provoke extremist tensions in societies. A lack of money and job prospects, and absence of confidence in the future induce people to search for enemies, both external and internal, who are believed to be responsible for all the country’s misfortunes. The extremist tendencies already existing in a given society gain momentum in such times of crisis. 

Ukraine is a perfect example for this. By the time the economic and political crises erupted, the Ukrainians had already known who were to blame - Russia and its “fifth column” inside Ukraine.

The turmoil that began a year and a half ago and hasn’t finished yet, has shown two somewhat contradictory tendencies in the Ukrainian society:

the first is the aspiration for “the return to Europe”, which has been perceived as totally opposed to Russian despotism and backwardness;

the second is the radicalization of the society and blossoming of the agressive forms of nationalism.

Radical nationalism and chauvinism have been manifested in the society’s silent approval of the use of violent force and – later - of mass killings of the dissenters. Thus, on the May 2, 2014, in the Odessa Trade unions building over a 40 anti-Maidan protesters were burned alive with Molotov cocktails by the pro-Maidan activists. All Ukrainian mass-media as well as social networks’ users, both nationalist and liberal-democratic, showed total support for this massacre. “Barbeque made of bugs” - that’s what they called the tragedy. There was no remorse or sympathy shown at all.

Afrer the massive airstrikes by the Ukrainian airforces on Lugansk city on June 2, 2014,  – it was just the beginning of the so-called “anti-terrorist operation” - all the TV channels and social networks were filled by pictures of the wounded or dead civilians. Among the most exciting were the pictures and videos of the local female medic who lost her legs during the airstrike and died in agony asking for help not for herself but for the people left in the ruins. “An example of a dead female separatist bug” - that’s how the Ukrainian social networks described her. Do take into account that it all had happened before the full-scale war erupted in Donbass.

The radicalization of the Ukrainian society is also being manifested in the outbreak of violence against communist activists and leaders. Thus, Petro Simonenko, leader of the Communist party of Ukraine, was forced to withdraw his candidacy from the 2014 early presidential elections. His car was attacked by the pro-Maidan activists using the Molotov cocktails. The Lenin monuments have been destroyed throughout country the since the Maidan revolution. The offices of the Communist party have been repeatedly attacked and set afire, the peaceful rallies of communists have been either banned or attacked. The communist fraction in the Ukrainian parliament was abandoned before the early parliamentary elections.

The Communist and Soviet symbols, which are obviously used by the Communist Party of Ukraine and by no means by them alone, have been banned recently. There is a question raised about the total abolition of the communist ideology as well. The top media and political leaders have been blaming the Communists as well as the members of the former ruling Party of Regions for being the “Fifth Column of Russian imperialism in Ukraine”.

The cultural segregation is growing as the economic crisis hits the country. Russian language, which is used by the half of the Ukrainian citizens, has been labelled as a “language of an occupying power” by the parliamentary tribune. As long as the Russian language is repressed and not protected by a law of the country, the Russian-speaking half of the Ukrainians don’t have the opportunity to learn it in public schools or use it in civil activities. The Ukrainian leadership’s unitarian policy – one country, one language – proves us with no hope that the language problem in Ukraine is likely to be solved soon.

Severe economic crisis and the radical chauvinist political agenda it exacerbated have led to the massive reinterpretation of Ukrainian history in a revisionist way. This concerns in particular the history of World War II. Thus, the official approach of Ukrainian historical science is that the only legitimate Ukrainian military forces during the war were the volunteer Ukrainian Waffen-SS division “Galychyna” and the Nazi-collaborationist Ukrainian Insurgent Army of Stephan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych. The latter were responsible for the mass murders of Polish and Jewish civilians in the Nazi-occupied West Ukraine. Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko in his recent messages to the nation has called the Ukrainian Insurgent Army “the true national heroes and the example of courage”. It provoked public outcry in Russia and, to a lesser extent, in Poland – but not in Ukraine itself, despite the fact that vast majority of Ukrainians (except those in the western regions) fought in the ranks of the Red Army against the Nazi occupants as well as against those “true national heroes”. This fact, among many others, shows how the systems of education and mass information (or disinformation if you will) work. They really do construct a new type of person based on some kind of negative identity, so to speak.

The volunteer battalions of the “anti-terrorist operation” launched by Kiev against Donetsk and Lugansk regions openly use the Neo-Nazi symbols and the respective ideology. Even the most popular greetings of today’s Ukraine “Glory to the Ukraine - Glory to the heroes” was established by the genocidal Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists in 1941 and was accompanied with the Nazi-like salute.

Taking into consideration the facts given, one might somewhat comprehend the ideological sources of the civil war in Ukraine.

Unlike in Crimea, the vast majority of Donbass residents hadn’t considered themselves Russians until the “anti-terrorist operation” was launched against them by Kiev. They spoke Russian, they believed Russia to be a fraternal state for Ukraine, but they called themselves Ukrainians. Moreover, separatist tendencies in the South-East of Ukraine (except Crimea) were insignificant in comparison with those in the West Ukraine. For example, the political group called “Donetsk Republic”, whose leaders are now in the leadership of the self-proclaimed republic, had been barely known even in the city of Donetsk before the 2014 coup. Hence, the coup d’etat, the Maidan revolution, has exacerbated the split in the Ukrainian society, on the one hand, and facilitated the nation-building processes both in Kiev-led Ukraine and in the self-proclaimed republics of Donbass, on the other.

And now I’m coming to a conclusion. I brought here thee books published by the Public Diplomacy Foundation, of which I am a co-author. The first is called “Neonazis & Euromaidan: From Democracy to Dictatorship” (yes, there is a reference to Gene Sharp in the subheading of the book). It is devoted to development of the Ukrainian radical nationalist groups, including the Right Sector and the Freedom party, from 1991 to the present days and their role in the Maidan revolution.

The second book is called “Ukraine after Euromaidan: Democracy under Fire”. It concerns with the chain of events that followed the coup, including the war in the East Ukraine and establishing of the People’s Republics in Donetsk and Lugansk regions, as well as the local elections conducted there.

The third book – unfortunately, it is available only in Russian yet – is a report called “Extremist factions in Russia and the Ukrainian crisis”. This report is an attempt to trace the links between the Ukrainian and Russian radicals, and to comprehend the impact of the Ukrainian crisis on internal Russian political battlefield. Unlike the rest of extremism watchdogs, we focus our attention not on radical right-wing groups only, but also on the radical leftists, Islamists, and liberal opposition, who turned out to be the political entity most radicalized by the Ukrainian turmoil. But that’s not the topic of my presentation today.

Thank you for your attention. 

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