Analysis

The Far Right Just Got Humiliated in Ukraine’s Election — but Don’t Write It Off Just Yet

Despite running on a joint slate, the extremists fell short of the electoral threshold. However, their nationalistic rhetoric has muscled its way into the political discourse

A campaign poster ad featuring five of the united nationalist bloc’s candidates, central Kiev, July 2019.
Michael Colborne

KIEV, Ukraine — As results came in from the country’s parliamentary election on Sunday night, it wasn’t surprising to see little attention being paid to perhaps the night’s biggest loser: the far right.

The victor was never in doubt. Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People party, named after the president’s TV comedy show, not only took the largest share of votes but was even projected to win a majority — the first time a party has done so in Ukrainian history.

Zelenskiy, the politically inexperienced showman who won the country’s presidency in a resounding landslide victory against incumbent Petro Poroshenko in April, had called these elections three months early in an effort to break up a parliament dominated by his opponents.

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, right, gesturing while speaking at his party's headquarters after his party's parliamentary election victory in Ukraine, July 21, 2019.
Evgeniy Maloletka/AP

With a projected majority in parliament, it was no wonder Zelenskiy and company were in good spirits at the party’s campaign headquarters on Election Night.

Another celebrity candidate faring better than expected was Svyatoslav Vakarchuk from the popular Ukrainian band Okean Elzy. His newly created Voice (“Holos”) party had been widely projected to miss out, but having scored over 6 percent with half of the vote counted on Monday morning, the rock star and his liberal, pro-Europe party is set to be the fifth largest in the parliament.

By comparison, Ukraine’s far right had little to celebrate.

The Azov movement’s National Corps (which was called a “nationalist hate group” in a U.S. Department of State report published in March), Freedom (Svoboda), Right Sector and others had formed a “united nationalist bloc” the month before the election, running with a combined slate of candidates in an attempt to push past the 5 percent electoral threshold to get into parliament.

Yet even combined, with half of the vote counted Monday morning, the far-right bloc had won only 2.3 percent of the vote. And prominent members running in majoritarian single-member districts — Ukraine has a mixed electoral system — didn’t even come close.

It is clear that Ukraine’s far right can’t count on any significant level of public support. But there’s a lesson from these election results that apply well beyond Ukraine, especially as the far right globally continues to change and adapt its methods and messages: There’s far more to the far right than how it fares at the ballot box.

Ukrainian rock star-turned-politician Svyatoslav Vakarchuk, giving a thumbs up after voting at a polling station during the parliamentary election in Ukraine, July 21, 2019.
Efrem Lukatsky/AP

The 2 percent that Ukraine’s far-right bloc polled on Sunday pales in comparison to the results other far-right parties have scored across Europe recently. The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) won 12.6 percent of the vote in Germany’s September 2017 election; in France’s 2017 legislative election, Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (formerly the National Front) scored 12 percent; and Italy’s Matteo Salvini and his far-right Lega Nord (Northern League) was the third-largest party in Italy’s parliamentary elections last year with 17 percent. Results like these leave some Ukrainians arguing that too much is made of the country’s far right.

Hidden strength

But it’s not quite that simple. While Ukraine’s far right fares poorly electorally, it has power outside parliament — including street paramilitaries — that its allies in Western Europe and beyond have long since seen fall by the wayside, says Prof. Matthew Feldman, director of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right and a professor at Teesside University, northeastern England.

“It’s the reverse of Western Europe,” he adds.

It’s this extra-parliamentary power that worries Volodymyr Ishchenko, a sociologist and lecturer at Kiev Polytechnic Institute.

“They have the strongest party organizations, real parties of ideologically committed activists,” Ishchenko says. “They have the highest mobilization capacity on the streets. They have more and more resources for political violence.”

Worse, he continues, Ukraine’s far right makes up for its lack of public appeal with a disproportionate level of support and influence outside of parliament — and even support from some members of mainstream Ukrainian civil society. Ishchenko says these people back some of the far right’s actions against perceived enemies of Ukraine such as pro-Russian oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk. The latter is a close friend of President Vladimir Putin and owns a number of media outlets in Ukraine.

“Ukrainian radical nationalists are poorly represented in the parliament,” says Ishchenko, “yet they are often more influential than many lawmakers.”

A Ukrainian serviceman leaving a booth in Kiev as a woman holds her ballot at a polling station during the parliamentary election in Ukraine, July 21, 2019.
Zoya Shu,AP

A further reason for the far right’s poor electoral showing is that more mainstream parties and politicians, like Poroshenko, have adopted some of the nationalistic rhetoric that was once solely the domain of the far right.

Analysts recognized this well before April’s presidential election. In February, Ukrainian political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko wrote that Poroshenko’s campaign was “built on militant patriotic rhetoric,” which Fesenko felt would diminish the chances of far-right candidates in both elections — but especially on Sunday.

The far right has certainly noticed that mainstream politicians, Poroshenko in particular, have planted their feet on its turf.

“You could often read on his billboards ‘Army! Language! Faith!’” the National Corps’ “international secretary,” Olena Semenyaka, told Haaretz last year. “In fact, it’s just populism. I would say it’s only the Azov movement that develops such projects and principles in reality.”

Ishchenko says that “Poroshenko consolidated the nationalist electorate around him during the presidential election,” arguing that many nationalists, especially those for the Freedom party, would have opted instead for Poroshenko’s party, which, in his words, “effectively presents itself as the defender of the Ukrainian nationalist project.”

A local resident casting her vote into a mobile ballot box in the village of Velyka Bugayivka in Kiev Region, Ukraine, July 21, 2019 (illustrative).
KONSTANTIN CHERNICHKIN/REUTERS

But the far right never sounded like it expected to be better represented anytime soon. Even before this year’s elections, National Corps’ Semenyaka was happy to downplay any electoral expectations. “We still have to work, and we cannot expect a big level of result now,” she told Haaretz at the Azov movement’s Cossack House in central Kiev last year. “We’re not afraid that we don’t have 30 percent yet,” she added.

Part of this attitude can be attributed to the National Corps’ barely-there poll numbers over the course of 2018 and 2019: It didn’t show up in some polls and the party’s leader, Andriy Biletsky, didn’t even bother running for president earlier this year.

But part of the reason is also down to Azov’s focus on extra-parliamentary activities — from youth camps and “national-patriotic education” seminars to marches and neo-Nazi concerts — rather than elections.

It’s no surprise, then, that Azov — by far the biggest and strongest far-right movement in Ukraine — draws inspiration from movements like Italy’s neofascist CasaPound party rather than more well-known far-right parties like Lega Nord and AfD.

Speaking at a far-right conference organized by Azov in April 2017, a CasaPound representative was quoted as saying that regular “politics, which is reduced to the mediocrity-driven struggle for seats in the parliament and overburdened by bureaucracy, is a dead end.” He added that for groups like Azov and CasaPound, “redefining politics — language, symbolism and aesthetics — is what should be done instead.”

A campaign poster ad featuring five of the united nationalist bloc’s candidates, central Kiev, July 2019. A sticker has been affixed to the face of National Corps leader Andriy Biletsky.
Michael Colborne

Still, it’s clear that whatever disproportionate influence Ukraine’s far right may have, it still has a long way to go to win over the hearts and minds of Ukrainians.

Five of the united nationalist bloc’s candidates featured on a campaign poster ad in central Kiev. The only face with a sticker plastered over it was that of National Corps leader Biletsky. The sticker said “National titushka,” a reference to the mercenary, violent street hooligans employed by pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych during the Maidan revolution in 2013-2014. The graphic on the sticker — a man in a blue camouflaged uniform — is clearly meant not only to evoke the blue uniforms of Azov’s national militia, but also the uniforms of the Berkut (the pre-revolutionary special forces unit that was loyal to Yanukovych and had a reputation for brutal violence).

It’s a subtle statement — a charge that, wittingly or unwittingly, the Azov movement is acting in the interests of the Kremlin — and testament to the fact that not everyone in Ukraine is convinced that the country’s busiest and loudest nationalists have the citizens’ best interests at heart.