Overestimating Svoboda

Meh, I’m not going to be satisfied until I write it, am I?

Shortly before creating this blog – the things I do sometimes, I amaze myself – I (famously) stated that, in defense of its then-hypothetical existence, that StopFake won’t tell you why you shouldn’t overestimate Svoboda. Time to put that bogeyman to rest for good, it seems.

Previously on The Ukraine Today (your best che tam u khokhlov source on the Interwebs!), I mentioned, among other things, that a) nationalism was actually NOT a thing in Ukraine until recently; and b) Ukrainian political parties aren’t actually that different on the ideology angle. That is to say, they use slightly different words in their speeches, but they always boil down to the same slush a not-insignificant percentage of voters happily gulps: that they are going to make everything better, raise pay, lower taxes, increase social spending, take the fight to the oligarch, redistribute the wealth, and so on. Our case study, Svoboda, is most famous for being one of the two parties that opposed privatization – the other, of course, being the Communist Party. What’s better, absent some buzzwords about ‘the nation’ or ‘the working class’, their political platforms were fundamentally the same. Their and the rest of the political parties: Party of Regions, Batkivschyna, UDAR, you name it. Remember how the supposedly pro-Russian, pro-Donbass Party of Regions was staunchly for EU integration to the point of holding paid demonstrations in favour of EU integration – in the very same Donbass EU integration would apparently (according to the Kremlin narrative) impoverish and destroy? Ideology (or, at least, an air of ideology) in Ukrainian politics is something you use to further your interests and win some additional percent of the electorate, not something you take seriously. As far as I know, it hasn’t changed, except that the three big parties adopted the ‘EU integration’ schtick and then proceeded to not vote on measures required for said integration. Again, this is best left for a different time.

I’ve got a big secret: I actually voted for Svoboda exactly once, during the 2012 parliamentary election, i.e. the only time a nationalist Ukrainian party got more than a few seats in the Rada. It was my first election and my vote was more of a protest vote: I doubt anyone ever actually liked the Party of Regions (except for people who confused Yanukovych’s wardrobe-like proportions with masculinity), so it was a choice between Batkivschyna, UDAR and Svoboda. I chose Svoboda, mostly because I had vague memories about how Batkivschyna was all buddy-buddy with the Regions in the Yuschenko days and I simply didn’t trust Klitschko the newcomer, so Svoboda seemed like the least of three evils. Immediately afterwards I voted for a Batkivschyna-affiliated candidate on a constituency ballot, because it was either him or a Party of Regions-affiliated candidate, and fuck that noise. So, in essence, partially you can blame me for the rising threat of Ukrainian nationalism that was (and, somehow, still is) Svoboda.

Svoboda actually mellowed down its rhetoric shortly before 2012 because, as I said, until very recently nationalism did not pay in Ukraine. It worked, and Svoboda won 38 seats in the Rada. It then proceeded to lose them very fast come Maidan, for several reasons. Svoboda’s vote was then quickly snatched not by Right Sector (which was probably more deserving of right-wing bogeyman status), but by ‘moderate’ pro-EU parties like Selfreliance (Samopomich, literally ‘selfhelp’, which I have taken to calling Samonemich, literally ‘selfhelplessness’). Problem, of course, is that it’s impossible to find a Ukrainian party (except Right Sector, but look how many people voted for them) which wouldn’t turn out to be moderate, socially conservative, anti-corruption, pro-reform and shit like that, shit they start contradicting at every possible opportunity as soon as they get into the Rada.

Why Svoboda lost its vote may be severalfold. One might be the appearance of Right Sector, but Right Sector itself doesn’t have much luck, winning a grand total of ONE seat, and even that’s reserved for Yarosh (actually, there were two seats, but it’s a different story). More important is probably the fact that nobody really liked the opposition at Maidan – the Yatsenyuk-Klitschko-Tyahnibok triumvirate affectionately dubbed ‘Horynych’ after the Slavic fairytale three-headed dragon. Partially because by the time Maidan came rolling nobody liked them, and their ‘leadership’ of Maidan was pretty inconclusive. Yatsenyuk arguably does a better job as PM than as a revolutionary leader, but then again, in Ukraine, that bar is set pretty low. However, even Tyahnibok and his men failed to uphold their supposedly radical and uncompromising status, preferring instead to sit in the occupied city administration building playing Gestapo. Right Sector did the same. At least part of the Ukrainian left’s dissatisfaction with Maidan is due to the fact Svoboda’s men used to go around beating vocal leftists and successfully prevented them from forming a left Self-Defence sotnya. My reaction at those news was basically ‘holy shit, Svoboda, what the fuck are you doing’. Boy was I ever right.

Neither Svoboda nor Right Sector actually contributed much to the street fighting, either on Hrushevskogo in January or on February 18-20. Instead, they high-tailed it together with most of Self-Defence, which led to rank-and-file Maidan members holding the line until relief came in the morning. That relief was also not associated with either Svoboda or Right Sector.  Basically, while people died, Svoboda did… fuck-all. They ran and hid and made speeches, but for all their radical, uncompromising, fighting image they high-tailed it as soon as an Internal Trooper helmet was in sight of Maidan. I’m not entirely fair, because around 18 Svoboda members actually lost their lives then, but it doesn’t change the fact their organization fell short of the people’s expectations. Which contributed to their loss.

We didn’t even start on Svoboda’s post-revolutionary antics. The infamous ‘friendship trains’ quote isn’t from Svoboda, but Svoboda got the bright idea to repeal the stupid language law three days after the fighting was over in Kyiv and little green men were popping up all over Crimea, Svoboda got the bright idea to beat up the director of a national broadcasting company AND DO IT ON LIVE CAMERA, and Svoboda cabinet members did fuck-all, again. Most I remember about Admiral Tenyukh is that he probably had the shortest Minister of Defence tenure in Ukraine’s existence, most I remember about Ecology Minister Mokhnyk is the amber business scandal (in one of Svoboda’s home regions, Rivne, no less), and most I remember about Prosecutor General Makhnitsky is that he literally did fuck-all. This, plus the frankly lackluster performance of Svoboda members in local government (like Lviv, where the Svoboda regional governor barely lasted three months before getting the boot), were all the more reasons people got fed up with Svoboda. Tyahnibok was never a viable presidential candidate, so there’s no surprise he tanked, but come October people just got fed up, and Svoboda lost. It lost so hard it went from 38 seats down to 7, no separate Rada faction, and no soapbox for people like Tyahnibok or Farion or Myroshnichenko to stand on and spout bullshit – bullshit that Russian media was delighted to feed upon. In just a year, Svoboda went from third-largest party to what it was before 2012: a bunch of clowns who don’t even get prime-time on TV. Svoboda flags hang low every time they decide to drag them out at all, and their bullshit about ‘this criminal government’ falls on deaf ears because, absent TV prime-time, no one fucking listens to them anymore.

And that, my readers simple, is the story of Svoboda, or how to lose everything and understand nothing. I suspect Svoboda is hardly done on a local level (and local elections are coming this fall, BRACE YOURSELVES), but I’m not sure it would make a comeback again.

In fact, I’m not sure nationalists will ever get another big Rada break that Svoboda did, but that is another story.

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Overestimating Svoboda

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