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Meet Svoboda, an up-and-coming party in Ukraine. It's nationalist, pro-Nazi, and poised for the parliament.
The young ideologue promises a parliament composed of Ukrainians voted for by Ukrainians. Minorities will be given seats based on their proportion of the population. But they won't be able to vote. His supporters also like his promise to get Ukraine's nuclear weapons back. When the Soviet Union collapsed the nuclear weapons based in Ukraine were returned to Russia or were decommissioned. "It's a mentality," said Mridula Ghosh, a sociologist who works for the East European Development Institute in Kiev. "Svoboda is anti-immigrant, xenophobic, and anti-Semitic."
Ukraine’s nationalist past and present
It would be comforting to write Svoboda off as a morbid symptom of a country moving away from 70 years of the bloodiest conflicts in European history and Yuri Michalchyshyn as a young loudmouth. That is difficult to do. The party speaks directly to its constituents' fears about Russia and its anger about corruption in the national government. Svoboda has also tapped into fervent anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine, which persists even among those who don’t agree with Nazi ideology. During World War II, Ukraine was overrun by the Soviets as they pushed into Europe. Amid that turmoil, Bandera emerged as a controversial figure to lead a violent Ukrainian independence fight against the Soviets.
In 1943, the Nazis established a Ukrainian division of their feared SS, known as the Waffen SS-Galicia, as the western part of the country was known as the time. Bandera’s men first collaborated with the Nazis against the Soviets, and then later waged a sporadic guerilla war against the USSR. But his group also launched a campaign of ethnic cleansing in western Ukraine against Polish villagers, beginning in 1943. Priests were beheaded and crucified, men were disemboweled, women gang-raped. Families were locked into wooden barns and the buildings set on fire.
The terror worked. The area was ethnically cleansed as Poles fled the region. Cementing his hero status for Svoboda adherents, Bandera was later assassinated by the KGB. In 2010, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko named Bandera a hero of the Ukraine. A year later, his successor Viktor Yanukovych, who is perceived to have close ties to the Kremlin, revoked the honor, underscoring the concern many Ukranians have about Russian interference in their government.
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Even for nationalists who don’t agree with Nazi ideology, Bandera remains an inspiration.
Historians of World War II say the lines between the Waffen SS-Galicia and the various partisan groups associated with Bandera are blurred, and that all groups can be implicated in the massacres.
Not everyone in L'viv buys the Svoboda line. Last May, at Victory Day celebrations marking the defeat of the Nazis, a near riot broke out when Sekh, the Svoboda regional leader, and a group of supporters turned up. Police had to separate Sekh and her young acolytes from those who had turned up to simply mark the defeat of the Nazis. "We were afraid there would be Red flags. We were protecting our history and culture." There was much pushing, shoving and fist-fighting with the police in the middle. With a touch of the melodramatic, Sekh says she spent the next few months carrying her pajamas and toothrush with her everywhere because she expected to be arrested for instigating a riot. Charges were never filed against her.
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Nationalism still appeals to Ukranians such as Myroslav Marynovych, a 63-year-old vice-rector at the Greek Catholic University. After World War II, Marynovych spent years in a Soviet gulag for demanding the right to discuss Ukranian national history. There, he met several men who had fought with Bandera’s group and the Waffen-SS Galicia. He said that he doesn’t agree with nationalist extremism, but that in the circumstances of World War II he can't condemn it completely.
“I defend their patriotism, but not their methods," he said. Meanwhile, he tries to influence debate via his position at the university, taking part in acts of reconciliation with the tiny Jewish community that remains in L'viv and, as in his dissident days, writing letters to the editor of Svoboda-supporting newspapers. Most recently, he challenged an article they published written by a Holocaust denier.
Long time coming
At the L'viv headquarters of Viktor Yanukovych's ruling "Party of Regions," they acknowledge their policies are a hard sell to the voters.
The local deputy leader Laura Arzumanivna Arzumanyan, of Armenian heritage, is philosophical. It's all part of the scientific processes of history. "The fact that Svoboda appeared is something that had to happen," Arzumanyan said.
"Let me ask you, how old is America?" she answers her own question, "200 years old. You are a very old country. We are only 20 years old. You had Ku Klux Klan. You passed through that time. This is something we must go through.”
Check the chart: Extremism by the numbers