We Westerners love a good liberation. Whenever protests or rebellion spring up in an autocracy, we cheer on the underdog, the weaker party, the ones facing down the shock troops and riot police of the government—pardon, of the regime. It’s an attractive vision—after all, so much of Eastern Europe freed itself from Soviet-backed tyranny like this, turning their states into some of the West’s staunchest allies. Yet other underdogs we’ve loved have turned out to be less lovable. Egypt’s revolution saw liberals sidelined by the Muslim Brotherhood, which made cack-handed power plays until overthrown by a military dictatorship that’s turning out harsher than Mubarak—and less friendly to Washington, too. Protests in Syria turned over a rock, and found lots of bugs, Al Qaeda among them. Rwanda’s Paul Kagame turned out to be an autocrat and an exporter of violence. Ahmed Chalabi and the Free Iraqi Forces barely turned out at all, except when the chance to loot was involved. We usually ignored the awkward questions about all of them until it was too late, content in a belief that those against dictatorship are for freedom.
The same thing is now happening in Ukraine. President Viktor Yanukovych passed up the chance to sign an Association Agreement with the European Union, a step that would have tilted the country toward the West and away from Russia. Yanukovych’s motives were impure: drawing closer to the EU would have required more political openness, potentially creating an opening for his opponents and a platform for jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko. And so outraged Ukrainians have poured into the streets in the hundreds of thousands, calling for Yanukovych to step out and the EU to step in. Riot police responded with violence—and the demonstrations continued. The West knows whom it wants to win. The press is breathless. It’s easy to come away with the impression that we’re witnessing a struggle between freedom and tyranny, between European openness and Putinist autocracy, between peaceful protesters and jackbooted thugs.
But sometimes the jackboot is on the other foot. Western coverage of the protests has ignored or downplayed the role of the crypto-fascist All-Ukrainian Union party, “Svoboda.” Its presence, however, is obvious—banners with its three-fingered symbol appear in many photographs from Independence Square in Kyiv. A man in a Svoboda jacket can be seen (at 1:26) in footage of an attack on police protecting a statue. And Svoboda’s leaders have associated themselves with the protest’s most radical action—the occupation and barricading of the Kyiv City Hall. The press
Media outlets also have been cagey about identifying Svoboda’s ideological aims—when mentioned at all, the party’s often branded as merely “nationalist.” Yet they can only be described as national socialists—that is, as members of the statist, ethnocentric, totalitarian family of political movements that have included Italy’s fascists and Germany’s Nazis. Indeed, they were founded under the name Social Nationalist Party of Ukraine, and their official political program should sound familiar to those versed in old fascist manifestos like the Nazis’ Twenty-Five Points. The ideological similarities are deeper than mere ethnonationalism—other fascist hobbyhorses like the empowerment of the military, recapture of irredenta, the return of the diaspora, a central role for the state in the economy and the public settling of old historical grievances are there, too. Svoboda’s logo until about a decade ago
Tyahnybok has tried to clean up the party’s image since his rise to leadership,
Of course, the protesters in Kyiv aren’t all fascists, and they have legitimate grievances. Ukraine’s deep east-west split and its ethnic divisions are the real issue. A western Ukrainian has little reason to back Yanukovych; an eastern Ukrainian or an ethnic Russian has little reason to back Tymoshenko. The EU agreement is merely a proxy for this deeper fight. Yet the Western press seems only dimly aware of that. Ignorant of local politics or blinded by preconceived notions, we’ve reflexively cast Kyiv as a battle between East and West, democracy and dictatorship, good and evil. We hype violence by the police, even though they’ve sometimes shown restraint; we silently pass over violence by the demonstrators. We cheer for revolution without considering the value of the order, however troubling, that it aims to replace. And maintaining this simple moral universe sometimes requires us to pretend we don’t see the bad guys, banners streaming and Molotovs at the ready, right in the middle of the good guys’ parade.