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Donezk demonstration (photo: DW/K. Oganessjan)
Image: DW/K. Oganessjan

Radicalizing Ukraine

Lena Perepadya, Markian Ostaptschuk / ai
June 13, 2013

"Antifascists" vs "Neofascists" - politics in Ukraine are getting more and more radicalized, polarizing voters. Yet some critics suspect it's a plot working in the current government's favor.


It's still two years until the next presidential elections in Ukraine, but the country's political scene is getting ever more polarized. According to the governing Party of the Regions, it's the opposition "neofascist" Svoboda (Freedom) party that's to blame.

Svoboda first made it into parliament in the elections last fall. Over the last weeks the President Victor Yanukovych's Party of the Regions organized "antifascist" demonstrations across the country, marching under the slogan "Towards Europe -without Fascists."

Aside from Svoboda, the main opposition forces are the Fatherland party headed by imprisoned former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko as well as the Ukrainian Alliance for Democratic Reforms under former boxing champ Vitali Klitschko. Issues like the status of the Russian language in the country as well as how to deal with the Soviet past are dividing Ukrainians.

Supporters of Ukrainian opposition parties hold a rally in Kiev (photo: REUTERS/Gleb Garanich)
Tymoshenko's Fatherland party is one of Yanukovych's fiercest rivalsImage: Reuters

On the initiative of the Party of the Regions, Russian got the status of an official second language in some parts of the country. The opposition, however, rejects the measure, insisting that Ukrainian would have to remain the sole language in the country. Especially Svoboda, headed by Oleh Tyahnybok, is calling for all Soviet monuments to be dismantled and for the country to finally come to terms with its communist past.

Rising tensions

German political scientist and Ukraine expert Andreas Umland describes the situation as one marked by a trend towards more and more radicalization. "There have been the first physical attacks from both sides, from young men hired by the Party of the regions or by Svoboda," Umland told DW.

In the case of Svoboda there is an actual radicalization, he says and, to a lesser extent, with the Party of the Regions. "The party is a lot less ideological than Svoboda or the Fatherland party." As antifascism was widespread across the country, a party like Svoboda would find it easy to polarize society. And Umland suspects that the government even supports this trend, albeit covertly.

"With the confrontation with nationalist Svoboda, the government wants to draw attention away from its own failures and the country's socio-economic problems," Umland explained, warning that this way the Party of the Regions was trivializing the terms of nationalism and fascism. He believes, the terms are used first and foremost to further stir up tensions in the country.

Mobilizing the electorate

"Those in power don't really care about the actual meaning of these terms because they only use them for their own political ends," Ukrainian political scientist Oleksij Haran agrees.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich (photo: Andriy Mosienko)
Recent polls suggest Yanukovych will need a boost to stay in power in 2015Image: REUTERS/Andriy Mosienko/Presidential Press Service

In the past, it was mostly the language issue that had divided the electorate, but today, the governing party was trying to build up "antifascism" as an election issue. "For Yanukovych it's a way to mobilize his voters for the 2015 election," Haran told DW.

According to recent polls, incumbent Yanukovych would currently lose against a coalition of his rivals Klitschko and Timoshenko. But in a face-off with Svoboda leader Tyahnybok, Yanukovych would probably win the vote, Haran said.

Lessons from the past?

"For some time now there have been speculations that there's an attempt to build up Tyahnybok as an alternative candidate to Yanokuvych," Umland explained. He sees parallels to elections in 1999 in Ukraine or 2002 in France, where in each of those cases the incumbent managed to win over a radical opponent in a run-off. In 1999, Ukraine's Leonid Kutschma won over Communist Petro Symonenko, while in France, Jacques Chirac defeated right-wing nationalist Jean-Marie Le Pen. "It seems that's the scenario that the government in Kyiv are looking for," according to Umland.

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