News & Analysis

Upcoming Elections and Ukrainian “Ultra-nationalism”

Although the first round of the Ukrainian Presidential elections occur Sunday March 31, many people outside of Eastern Europe are unaware of the issues surrounding the elections or who is running. This elections appears to be a referendum on the 'ultra-nationalist' policies and ideology Kiev has condoned—most often at the expense of ethnic Russians. The ultimate question, however, may not be the results of the election but whether the international community will be able to understand what is transpiring within Ukraine.

With the upcoming Ukrainian presidential elections first round on March 31st, many Americans are not aware of who is running for the office, the policies being debated, or the ongoing controversies within a state the U.S. has been providing weapons and financial support to. The lack of coverage on the current leading candidates by the United States’ media is startling, given the implications that their differing policy goals will have on the future of the ongoing conflict in the region.

The current president, Poroshenko, has gained the support of many in America’s political elite given the policy declarations he has made throughout his campaign. President Poroshenko has claimed that “We [Ukraine] will apply for membership in the European Union in 2024, and there is no doubt that we will receive it, and we will begin to implement the Action Plan regarding NATO membership.” This ‘action plan’ outlines meeting NATO membership and spending requirements by 2020 in the hopes that they may quickly join both organizations as soon as possible; a proposal, much to Russia’s chagrin, that has seen traction amongst the establishment candidates throughout the election.

Earlier in the year, the polling placed President Poroshenko in third; behind actor/comedian Volodymyr Zelensky in second and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko who held a wide lead going into first. But regardless of whether President Poroshenko retains his position, Ukraine is currently preparing to undertake broad changes to both civilian life and the country’s diplomatic approach to the regional conflict.

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List of poll results from January 2019 placing Tymoshenko in the lead. Photo: Wikipedia

President Poroshenko runs on the idea of ‘Ukraine for Ukrainians,’ through the removal of the Russian language from schools and banning Russian artists. Tymoshenko, however, has continuously been a political thorn in the chocolate king’s side. She has both claimed Jewish ancestry and was one of the co-leaders of both the Orange Revolution and the Euromaidan movement, which led to the removal of former President Yanukovych, not to mention she did not speak Ukrainian language until first entering the cabinet of ministers. She has ran against him in previous elections and has not identified with the ultra-nationalist movements the Ukrainian government has been criticized of through the use of her appearance and lineage. That being said, her proposed direction for Ukraine is not dissimilar from the current president’s. She shares the sentiment about removing the Russian language from Ukraine, among other attempts at antagonizing Moscow—in the hopes of appealing to the same nationalist voting blocs as Poroshenko.

Cropped image of President Poroshenko meeting with former Secretary of State Kerry in February of 2016. Photo: U.S. Department of State // Cropped image of Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko speaking at the European People’s Party summit 2011. Photo: EPP Summit

The ‘Ukrainian nationalist movement’ that President Poroshenko and Tymoshenko have latched onto, however, has transformed and taken on “ultra-nationalist” undertones. Aside from targeting the Russian language, the Russian Orthodox Church has been the victim of federal harassment and deportations following the recent formation of an independent Ukrainian church. While the origins of this new church carries its own controversy, the violence that ensued following the recognition of an independent Ukrainian church is a perfect example of the russophobic violence that has become common within Ukraine. To make matters worse, President Poroshenko and many of his allies have been caught associating themselves with self-proclaimed neo-fascists—and outright nazis—going so far as to formally adopt a former, fascist slogan as the military’s new salute.

What may be most jarring, however, are the duel sins of the ‘nationalist day camps’ and mass attacks on free expression, both of which the West continuous to ignore.

Participants of the "Temper of will" summer camp, organized by the nationalist Svoboda party, hold their AK-47 riffles as they receive instructions during a tactical exercise on July 28, 2018, in a village near Ternopil, Ukraine. Campers as young as 8 years old practice using assault rifles. They are taught to shoot to kill Russians and their sympathizers. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
Participants of the “Temper of will” summer camp hold their AK-47 rifles as they receive instructions during a tactical exercise on July 28, 2018 where they are taught to shoot to kill Russians and their sympathizers. Photo: Felipe Dana/AP Photos

The Ukrainian government, in attempting to artificially increase the public’s nationalism, has begun investing in “youth and patriotic education”—taking the form of these ‘day camps.’ The Associated Press in November of 2018 visited a camp, operated by the party Svoboda (freedom)—the current iteration of the former ‘Social-National party.’ While there, the AP discovered children as young as eight learning about the dangers of progressivism and being taught to kill the enemies of Ukraine—who the instructors stress are “not living people” and should be treated accordingly. As the children called for the deaths of Russians as they sat around campfires, the instructors warned of other ‘potential enemies’ saying:

You need to be aware of all that; all those gender things, all those perversions of modern Bolsheviks who have come to power in Europe and now try to make all those LGBT things like gay pride parades part of the education system [are] challenges that could completely destroy ‘European civilization’

Yuri "Chornota" Cherkashin, head of Sokil (Falcon), the youth wing of the nationalist Svoboda party, sits with his AK-47 rifle at the "Temper of will" summer camp on July 29, 2018, in a village near Ternopil, Ukraine. “We never aim guns at people,” he tells his campers. “But we don’t count separatists, little green men, occupiers from Moscow as people, so we can and should aim at them.” (AP Photo/Felipe Dana)
Yuri “Chornota” Cherkashin, head of the youth wing of the nationalist Svoboda party, sits with his AK-47 rifle at the “Temper of will” summer camp on July 29, 2018; explaining “We never aim guns at people, but we don’t count separatists, little green men, or occupiers from Moscow as people, so we can and should aim at them.” Photo: Felipe Dana/AP Photos

The government, however, claims that this is ‘fake news.’ They deny involvement with the camp and claim that the camps are not being portrayed accurately—despite long standing complaints regarding these camps. But despite the controversy surrounding these camps, little reporting has occurred on them. The lack of coverage is, in part, due to the suppression of speech occuring in Ukraine. Most notably, Christian Wehrschuetz, veteran reporter and Kiev bureau chief of Austrian television company ORF, has been banned from Ukraine as a “threat to national security.” Wehrschuetz was known for his long career in central and eastern Europe and prior to being banned from Ukraine he was known as a vocal critic of Kiev. But this is not out of the ordinary, numerous artists and their crafts have been banned from entering the state or from being shown on television, radio, books, or cinema. Even historic Russian fairy tales are being banned for being ‘propaganda’—as defined by the government. While the U.S. has turned a blind eye to these transgressions, the ethnic minorities of Ukraine and the moderate Ukrainians are seeking an alternative to the policies Poroshenko and Tymoshenko represent.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy
Volodymyr Zelensky in 2016. Photo: Kvartal95

Volodymyr Zelensky is a former comedian and popular actor in Ukraine—who has been compared to Donald Trump for his populist rhetoric, criticism of the establishment, and experience on television. While he has never worked in politics, unlike the other leading candidates, he did play the president on the hit Ukrainian political television series Servant of the People. The series, which  Zelensky named his party after, portrayed Zelensky’s character as a champion who fights the corruption of Ukraine’s political class.

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Opinion polls during presidential elections in Ukraine 2019, including KIIS,Rating Group, Social Monitoring, Socis, Razumkov Center, Info Sapience/GfK Ukraine. Photo: Wikicommons

As unlikely as it sounds, this actor now leads the polls mere days before the election. Zelensky does not hide his love for Ukraine or his jewish heritage: but unlike the other candidates his platform, albeit populistic in some ways, is one that provides hope towards resolving the ongoing conflict. Zelensky has come out against the language ban and has actively opposed the banning of artists and journalists. Above all, however, the presidential hopeful has declared his willingness to negotiate with Russia, institute a referendum in Donbass, and initiate referendums about seeking NATO and EU membership. While the rest of the candidates via for who can hate Russia the most and join the west the quickest, Zelensky has provided a campaign of moderation on these issues and represents the opportunity for a peaceful solution to an ongoing conflict—and the people of Ukraine appear to support him.

Although the Ukrainian elections and direction of the state are yet to be decided, the field of candidates should provide a learning opportunity to the United States. In supporting Poroshenko, and the ethno-supremacists surrounding him, we have tainted ourselves. If we truly wish to be exceptional we must act so—and backing a chocolatier promoting literal ‘systemic racism’ is sadly mundane. Should Zelensky fail in the elections, we as the standard bearers of western morality must cease the benign neglect that has allowed the situation to deter. But if Zelensky does succeed, wins the second round in April, and initiates diplomatic discourse, we cannot seek to undermine the results of their elections by labeling him a ‘Russian puppet’ or demanding the return of Poroshenko. If we would do so, we would be sacrificing our moral position by condoning attacks on freedom and ethnicity.

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