Rising Ukrainian Nationalist Party Denies It Is anti-Semitic

The leader of Svoboda, which won 9 percent of the votes for parliament, rejects claims that his party hates foreigners: ‘There could be nationalistic parties in Israel as well.’

The Jewish community in Ukraine reacted fiercely to the unprecedented achievement of the nationalist anti-Semitic Svoboda (Freedom) party in Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Ukraine, in which the party won more than 9 percent of the votes.

“This is a party of the devil,” one of the community’s key leaders said. “We never believed they would be openly represented in the parliament. We will fight them with all legal means. They constitute a danger not only to Jews, but to all Ukrainians.”

Nonetheless, Svoboda’s leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, insisted that his party is not anti-Semitic, nor does it hate foreigners. “There might be nationalistic parties in Israel as well,” he said, noting that he expects no interference in Ukraine’s domestic affairs.

Tyahnybok, a charismatic 43-year-old who studied medicine and law, holds outspoken anti-Semitic views and, like most of his party’s members, does not limit his antipathy to Jews. He was elected to parliament in 2002 as part of former president Viktor Yushchenko’s bloc, but was expelled from the party in 2004 due to anti-Semitic and xenophobic statements.

In one of his speeches, Tyahnybok said: “Our freedom fighters took submachine guns and left for the forests. They fought the Muskals [Russians], the Yids and all the other filth that wanted to take away our homeland.” He added that he will fight the “Russian-Jewish mafia in power in Ukraine.”

One of Svoboda’s senior members, Iryna Farion, once offered to “send to jail, if only for six months, these five million people claiming to be Ukrainians but who don’t speak our language” – meaning the Russian-speaking residents of Eastern Ukraine. Svoboda enthusiastically supported former president Yushchenko’s decision to posthumously award the title “Hero of Ukraine” to Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, a title that was later rescinded by the Ukrainian courts. Bandera and Shukhevych were leaders of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army during World War II and were considered responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews, Russians and Poles, and of cooperation with Nazi Germany against the Russian Red Army on the eastern front.

Members of Knesset Alex Miller (Yisrael Beiteinu) and Yuval Zellner (Kadima) served as international observers of the Ukrainian elections. Miller, chairman of the Israel-Ukraine parliamentary friendship association, said that “the strengthening of the extreme right in Ukraine is very worrying, and might lead to a rise in anti-Semitism.” Miller expressed hope that Svoboda would not be part of any future coalition: “The government of Ukraine should be an example to all countries around the world and prevent any legitimization of extremist voices.”

Pundits on Ukrainian TV believe that Svoboda’s success is part of the protest against President Viktor Yanukovych. The ultranationalist party received between 30-38 percent of the votes in the western parts of Ukraine – often more than the larger parties – but hardly won any votes in the Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine.