The 2019 parliamentary elections brought changes to Ukraine's political landscape that will endure for years to come. While far right parties, which have long been an integral part of the political system, were actively involved in the elections, it is difficult to call their results impressive. So why have national radicals been so unsuccessful in an electoral sense, and what can be deduced from their defeat?
Snap parliamentary elections were held in Ukraine on July 21, 2019 instead of October 27, as originally scheduled. Volodymyr Zelenskyi’s impressive spring victory in April 2019 drove the election process, as well as its early timing.
The Electoral Environment
The public agenda and political struggles of the past created an extremely unfavorable environment for the far right. Tired of the stagnation of the political elite, voters found "new faces," not among the national radicals sitting on the sidelines (as they had hoped), but outside the usual "political class." At the same time, former President Petro Poroshenko and his political party, European Solidarity, moved in on the far right’s usual ground of patriotic rhetoric.
The nationalist radicals needed to articulate how they were better than the past political elite and why they deserved more trust and support than the newly formed "party in power." The early snap election forced all participants in the race to articulate their messages to the public quickly and in the most accessible way possible. This proved to be beyond the capabilities of the far right. However, before working out the tactics of their election campaign, they had to work out their internal differences and agree upon a format for joint participation in the elections. In the spring of 2019, this seemed difficult. To their credit, the leaders of major ultra-nationalist organizations managed to work together.
The 2013-2014 Euromaidan Revolution - known in Ukraine as the Revolution of Dignity - and the war in the Donbas have led to a major reconfiguration of the national-radical side of the Ukrainian political spectrum. Previously, at least since 2009, the All-Ukrainian Union Svoboda political party had essentially monopolized this ideological niche under the leadership of Oleh Tiahnybok.On this: Vyacheslav Likhachev, Right-Wing Extremism in Ukraine: the Phenomenon of Svoboda (Kyiv, 2013); Vyacheslav Likhachev, “Right-Wing Extremism on the Rise in Ukraine,” Russian Politics and Law 51, No. 5 (September-October 2013): 59-74. The party was able to take advantage of the political vacuum to develop a profile that its target electorate could relate to.Also, as stated on the basis of the so-called Party of Regions Black Book, using the financial support of the former ruling party See: S. Leshchenko and A. Marchuk “Manuscripts do not burn. Paul Manafort in the shadow accounting of the Yanukovych party,” Ukrayinska Pravda, September 19, 2016, https://www.pravda.com.ua/cdn/graphics/2016/08/manafort. Svoboda’s biggest achievement, and the most significant achievement of far right radicals in Ukraine’s post-independence history, was in the 2012 parliamentary election when the party won 10.44 percent of the vote and formed an independent faction of 37 deputies (including deputies for single-mandate districts).Vyacheslav Likhachev, “Social-Nationalists in the Ukrainian Parliament: How They Got There and What We Can Expect of Them,” Russian Politics and Law 51, No.15 (September-October 2013): 75-85. Before the Euromaidan Revolution, in addition to leading the national-radical segment of the political spectrum, Svoboda was also one of the three main opposition political forces.
However, Svoboda lost substantial support during the 2014 Maidan protests.A. Shekhovtsov, “From electoral success to revolutionary failure: The Ukrainian Svoboda party,” Transit 45 (2014), https://www.eurozine.com/from-electoral-success-to-revolutionary-failure. The party was unable to live up to its own radical rhetoric, losing ground to other groups at decisive moments.Vyacheslav Likhachev, “The ‘Right Sector’ and others: The behavior and role of radical nationalists in the Ukrainian political crisis of late 2013 – Early 2014,” Communist and Post-Communist Studies 48, Issues 2–3 (June–September 2015): 257–271. The most notable of these was Right Sector (Praviy Sektor) – an association of small far-right groups based on the Stepan Bandera All-Ukrainian Organization Tryzub and led by Dmytro Yarosh – which emerged during the Maidan protests.
Forming the Ukrainian Volunteer Corps and actively participating in defending against Russian aggression during the spring and autumn of 2014 helped transform Right Sector from an ad-hoc partnership of convenience, into a full-fledged political party. This transition increased its name recognition and turned it into a prominent independent political force.Vyacheslav Likhachev, “The Far Right in the Conflict between Russia and Ukraine,” Russie.Nei.Visions 95 (July 2016), https://www.ifri.org/en/publications/notes-de-lifri/russieneivisions/far-right-conflict-between-russia-and-ukraine. In March 2014, Right Sector officially became a political party by renaming an existing party, the Ukrainian National Assembly, making it possible to build on top of the party’s existing infrastructure. As a result, in the October 26, 2014 parliamentary elections, there were two national-radical parties on the ballot, Svoboda and Right Sector, which received 4.7 percent and 1.7 percent of the vote, respectively. Half as many people voted for the far right as they did for Svoboda two years earlier. However, if they had been combined, the total far right vote count would have been enough to pass the electoral threshold.
The outcome of the 2014 election was an important lesson for the far right. The need to unify prior to the next election was clear, but an increase in the number of competing parties complicated the unification process. At the end of 2015, Dmytro Yarosh left Right Sector. In March 2016, the party was led by the little-known Andrii Tarasenko. A series of scandals, weak organizational structure, and a lax communication policy led to the rapid downfall of the Right Sector. However, a new force appeared on the national-radical flank. In 2016, Azov Battalion founder and Member of Parliament, Andrii Biletskyi, founded the National Corps Party, on the basis of several previous political projects. The new political force evolved dynamically, forcing Svoboda into aggressive and visible public displays, also known as street politics. In addition, small but already visible groups such as C14 (also known as Sich)Until early 2014, C14 effectively existed as an informal youth organization under Svoboda because its leaders were in the party, but in the spring 2014, this informal “symbiotic” partnership was severed. were stepping up their activity and increasing the competitive pressure.
Efforts to Unite
In March 2017, the leaders of Svoboda, National Corps, and Right Sector, as well as the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists (KUN), the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), and C14 signed the “Nationalist Manifesto.” According to the authors, it contained "a clear plan for the first steps" to achieve the "goal" of the "acquisition and development of the Great Ukrainian State.”"Національний Маніфест" [Nationalist Manifesto], National Corps, April 3, 2017, https://nationalcorps.org/page/nacionalnyj-manifest.
It is, of course, difficult to call a set of abstract goals like "eliminate the oligarchic system" a "clear plan." However, the more important aspect observed was that the main national-radical parties had announced they were joining forces. Obviously, the two major players in this process were Svoboda and National Corps, which present themselves as the more serious organizations. Both observers and signatories understood the document as a proposal to coordinate efforts in the 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections.
Difficult negotiations about the format of the coordination were ongoing throughout 2018. The participants provided different accounts of the progress, but it is evident that the process was not easy. The first task was to agree on the nomination of a single candidate for the presidential election, however, the two major parties could not agree on this matter. The National Corps did not support the Svoboda candidate Ruslan Koshulynskyi, but that did not stop him from positioning himself as the "only nationalist candidate" (see Presidential Election Report). At times, public discussions between representatives of various "factions" in the national-radical camp were quite acrimonious.Телеканал ZIK, "Гра Z вогнем: Сутички у Черкасах" [Playing with fire], Youtube video, 0:15, March 11, 2019, https://youtu.be/m5aqexy6T_Q.
National radicals, traditionally viewed as an "ideological" force in Ukrainian politics, formed almost no ideological messages in the 2019 elections
Presidential elections are fundamentally different from parliamentary elections. There can only be one winner in a presidential race. Candidates who have no chance of advancing to the second round choose to run in pursuit of other goals, not for the sake of winning. In the end Ruslan Koshulynskyi’s positioning announced the presence of the "united nationalists" in the political process and secured the leading positions for Svoboda within the alliance.
Rather than seriously compete for power, the National Corps chose to play-organize actions across the country, apparently to discredit one of the candidates and, allegedly, for money.Yevhen Spirin, "«Не знімайте мене, мама побачить — п*здов випише». У Києві (майже) непомітно пройшла чергова акція «Азовського руху»" ["Do not film me, my mother will see - she will give me ****” Another meeting of the "Azov Movement" (almost) went unnoticed Kyiv], TheBabel, April 9, 2019, https://thebabel.com.ua/texts/28495-ne-znimayte-mene-mama-pobachit-p-zdov-vipishe-u-kiyevi-mayzhe-nepomitno-proyshla-chergova-akciya-azovskogo-ruhu. Among its actions were ferrying people around the regions to participate in protests it organized, and purchasing several thousand stuffed pigs to use as props during the protests.
In the 2019 parliamentary elections, the barrier for parties to “win” and have people on their list enter the parliament was 5 percent. Prior to elections in the spring of 2019, there were discussions about decreasing the threshold to the more easily attained 3 percent. Five years ago, Svoboda nearly met the 5 percent threshold. According to National Corps’ "internal sociological research" a united nationalist list could exceed the 5 percent threshold. Accurate or not, it was obvious that two national-radical parties on the ballot meant failure for both.
Voters’ behavior in previous electoral cycles showed that they were ready to support joint lists that bring together politically-similar parties with existing voter support. Such joint lists have often received more votes than would be expected by simply combining the levels of support for their constituent members. Yet, a joint list would require uniting under the banner of a single political party. Because of this, they ran formally with the All-Ukrainian Union Svoboda party.
In the interest of political expediency, far right leaders moved beyond their personal ambition and past grievances.
Creating a List of Far-Right Candidates
At the Svoboda conference on June 9, the nationalists announced that they were forming a single list of candidates to run in the parliamentary elections. Oleh Tiahnybok was at the top of the list, followed by Andrii Biletskyi, Dmytro Yarosh, Andrii Tarasenko and Ruslan Koshulynskyi."Націоналісти разом ідуть у Верховну Раду за списком «Свободи»" [Nationalists are going to the Verkhovna Rada together on “Svoboda’s” list], All-Ukrainian Union "Svoboda" (official site), June 9, 2019, https://svoboda.org.ua/news/natsionalisty-razom-idut-u-verhovnu-radu-za-spyskom-svobody/260607. The list also included OUN leader Bohdan Chervak. Of the “Nationalist Manifesto” signatories, only C14 would not join the election alliance;C14 leader Yevhen Karas said he was "faced with the impossibility of constructive dialogue with individual members of the association." See: "Націоналісти з “С14” пояснили, чому не йдуть на вибори" [C14 nationalists have explained why they are not going to the polls], Novynarnia, June 9, 2019, https://novynarnia.com/2019/06/09/natsionalisti-z-s14-poyasnili-chomu-ne-ydut-na-vibori. a possible sign of lingering tensions from the presidential election.
Many of the candidates on the Svoboda list or running as Svoboda candidates for single-mandate constituencies have previously engaged in anti-Semitic,See: Vyacehslav Likhachev, “Anti-Semites and Racists Under the Wing of Svoboda,” Евреи Евразии, July 2, 2019, http://jewseurasia.org/page18/news64177.html. racistSee: “Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia in Ukraine,” Евреи Евразии, June 2019 http://jewseurasia.org/data//file/0619EN.pdf. or homophobicSee: “Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia in Ukraine,” Евреи Евразии, July 2019, http://jewseurasia.org/data//file/0719Ukr.pdf. It should be noted that when it comes to homophobia, there are political forces that are formally on the opposite side of the political spectrum but that stand in solidarity with Svoboda. In particular, Opposition Platform - For Life leader Viktor Medvedchuk put a lot of effort into homophobic propaganda without neglecting to organize provocations during the Revolution of Dignity (https://www.facebook.com/insight.ngo/posts/2260739227563710). rhetoric. Another candidate, Diana Vynohradova (neé: Kamliuk), who had served time for complicity in a racist murder in 2006, ran on the Right Sector list as number 39. Like Vynohradova’s conviction, most of the anti-Semitic and racist statements made by candidates on Svoboda’s list were made a relatively long time ago, though anti-LGBT+ rhetoric has continued to be shared by the far right in recent years. Indeed, it appears that homophobia has become the preferred form of hateful rhetoric for right-wing radicals, replacing anti-Semitism and other forms of ethnic, racial and religious xenophobia.
The far right failed to develop tactics for the election campaign, due in part to a shortage of financial and communication resources. If in the fall of 2014 it was enough to highlight their involvement in warding off Russian aggression to get leaders such as Dmytro Yarosh or Andrii Biletskyi elected to single-mandate constituencies, in 2019 they needed to offer voters more.
The war was no longer the most pressing issue on the socio-political agenda, having given way to socio-economic challenges, the need to combat corruption, and other issues. In addition, Petro Poroshenko's political force adopted some of that rhetoric and successfully mobilized support with slogans about preventing "surrender," making it difficult for national radicals to compete with the former supreme commander’s militaristic rhetoric.
On election posters and billboards, the far right swapped camouflage for collared shirts, but this was clearly not enough for a successful electoral strategy. As it turned out, many candidates had trouble formulating and articulating clear messages that resonated with Ukrainian society. A typical example was the election campaign of Maksym Zhoryn, a former commander of the Azov regiment. Zhoryn was the candidate from National Corps in the 217th single-mandate constituency in Kyiv, where five years earlier National Corps’ leader Andrii Biletskyi was elected with a strong showing. Zhoryn essentially ran without an election platform, submitting only three words - “Strength. Welfare. Order.” - to the Central Election Commission.“The election program of MP candidate Maxim Zhoryn in the single-mandate constituency number 217 at Ukraine’s snap elections on July 21, 2019,” Central Election Commission, June 2019, https://www.cvk.gov.ua/pls/vnd2019/showdocpf7201=15842pd410f01=27.doc. While campaigning, Zhoryn emphasized his intention to fight corruption and pro-Russian revanchism in the Rada, and organized sporting events for children and teenagers. While his campaign was active, it was largely empty of substance. Meanwhile, Biletskyi actively campaigned, with his constituent office serving his election headquarters. Zhoryn received just over 7 percent of the vote
Overall, it is quite telling that national radicals, who are traditionally viewed as an "ideological" force in Ukrainian politics (as opposed to populist parties, which are flexible and serve the current political interests of large financial-industrial groups) formed almost no ideological messages in the elections. As a result, it was unclear to the public what exactly the united nationalists were offering them.
A Disappointing Result
In the end, Svoboda’s party list received just 2.25 percent of the vote – half of what it received in 2014 and a quarter of what it won in 2012. It did not pass the election threshold. In 2014, six Svoboda candidates were elected to parliament in single-mandate constituencies. In addition, Yarosh, Biletskyi, and his colleague Oleh Petrenko were also elected to parliament in the single-mandate constituencies. Several national radicals were also elected to parliament on Oleh Liashko’s Radical Party list, and one candidate from Svoboda, Oksana Savchuk, was elected to a single-member district in the Ivano-Frankivsk region. Previously, Savchuk was the secretary of the Ivano-Frankivsk City Council. She has not been witnessed making xenophobic statements.
Other national-radical parties failed to win seats in the Verkhovna Rada. Therefore, the election results clearly demonstrate the decline of Ukraine's right-wing political forces. Indeed, the far right’s political prospects, which are gradually becoming clearer following the parliamentary elections, are hardly impressive. In a post-election analysis, Right Sector leader Andrii Tarasenko lamented the situation and said that only some citizens should vote.Andrii Tarasenko, “Elections for the majority - a story unworthy of attention. For the minority - a joke,” Official site of Right Sector, July 22, 2019, https://pravyysektor.info/novyny-poglyad/vybory-dlya-bilshosti-istoriya-shcho-ne-varta-uvagy-dlya-menshosti-prykol.
In June, the far right claimed that "immediately after the end of the election process, the process of uniting nationalist structures into a single national bloc will begin.”"Білецький анонсував велике об'єднання націоналістів" [Biletskyi announces full-fledged unification of nationalists], Ukrinform, June 16, 2019, https://www.ukrinform.ua/rubric-elections/2722245-bileckij-anonsuvav-velike-obednanna-nacionalistiv.html. In reality, few serious efforts to unite have taken place since the election. It appears that, addled by the poor election results, the far right is unsure what to do next.
Nonetheless, Right Sector announced in July 2019 a roundtable on “Joint Nationalist Platform: Concept and Strategy.” In its announcement, Right Sector stated that "the results of the presidential and parliamentary elections show that there is a need to revise the framework of nationalist structures.”"Націоналісти зберуться за круглим столом" [Nationalists to gather for roundtable], Official site of National Liberation Movement “Right Sector”, July 23, 2019, https://pravyysektor.info/novyny-ogoloshennya/nacionalisty-zberutsya-za-kruglym-stolom.
Right Sector invited all of the leaders of the main far right parties and movements to participate – from Oleh Tiahnybok to Yevhen Karas. However, it is unclear if the event actually took place and appears that everyone simply ignored the Right Sector initiative. Despite several joint actions, such as the “No to Capitulation” march on October 14 in which virtually all national radicals participated, none have publicly raised the need to create a united platform.
C14, the only signatory of the “Nationalist Manifesto” left out of the far right election list in 2019, announced the creation of a separate political party, Society of the Future.O. Rudomanov, “C14 will be registering a political party,” Lb.ua, October 3, 2019, https://en.lb.ua/news/2019/10/03/438905_c14_oformlyaietsya_politichnu.html (cached https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:Crc3SIfZpKkJ:ukr.lb.ua/news/2019/10/03/438905_c14_oformlyaietsya_politichnu.html). C14 leaders appear to have come to the conclusion that successful participation in the political process requires the formation of its own party.
It is evident that the electoral failure of nationalist radical forces in 2019 and their deep systemic crisis require their leaders to develop an effective strategy in Ukraine’s evolving socio-political situation. The political future of existing far-right organizations depends on whether they can cope with this challenge.