March of the Right-Wing: Five Main Questions About the Participation of Nationalists in Ukraine’s 2019 Elections

Translated by Ollie Richardson & Angelina Siard


“Strana” continues its pre-election project. In this article we will talk about the candidates from the right-wing and nationalist camp…

1. Who is included in the camp of the right-wing?

On the nationalist flank of Ukrainian politics there is a huge number of different parties and movements. But there are only a few large ones.

Firstly, there is Svoboda“, led by Oleg Tyagnibok. Secondly, there is the National Corpus party under the leadership of Andrey Biletsky, the former commander of the “Azov” battalion. Thirdly, there isRight Sector without Dmitry Yarosh – after leaving for the political project “Governmental Initiative of Yarosh” he was replaced by the little-known Andrey Tarasenko.

In addition, the ultra-right from C14Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists, and OUN and others operate on the same field.

2. What are the chances of nationalist candidates in the elections?

If to judge things on the abundance of news about different street protests, and also about the news feed of social networks, then there is the impression that the nationalists represent a formidable political force that is about to take power in the country.

However their presence in the information field and their street activity doesn’t correspond to their real popularity among the population at all.

Oleg Tyagnibok remains the most recognisable figure among nationalists. However, sociologists now don’t give him more than 2.5%. The others have an even worse situation.

According to the “Rating” polling company, as of September 25th 1.3% of respondents are ready to vote for Tyagnibok.

The opinion polls of three research centers (KMIS, Razumkov’s Center, and SOTsIS) promise 1.4% for Tyagnibok and 0.5% for Biletsky.

“Seetarget” and “Penta” gives such figures: Tyagnibok – 2.4%, the others – less than 1%.

At the same time, contrary to many forecasts, the popularity of radical nationalists has considerably fallen since Maidan.

This is especially well visible in the approval rating of “Svoboda”. This party took 10% of votes during the Rada elections in 2012. And already during the parliamentary campaign of 2014 Tyagnibok’s party didn’t even breakthrough the 5% barrier.

And in the presidential elections during the same year Tyagnibok and the then leader of “Right Sector” Dmitry Yarosh both took less than 2%. At the time there was the joke that Vadim Rabinovich, debuting during those elections in big-time politics, received more than both of them.

Such a failure was partly caused by the continuous corruption scandals surrounding the “Svoboda” members who came to power after Maidan.

But in general, the trend for nationalists was unfavourable. Their slogans were intercepted by politicians like Petro Poroshenko and leaders of People’s Front who are externally more respectable. And the radicalism of the right-wing their love for forceful actions and aesthetics a la “Germany of the 30’s”, and their continuous attacks on Russian-speakers (in the case with “Svoboda”) only frightened off the average voter in the opinion of who they looked not so much like patriots, but dangerous trouble-makers.

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However, in the 2015 local elections “Svoboda” performed more successfully, having taken 6% nationwide and brought its factions to many regional and city councils.

However, the current approval ratings of the party and its leader, as was written above, are not impressive.

And it is still unclear – can the right-wing correct this situation during presidential and parliamentary elections?

On the one hand, their slogans are actively exploited by Petro Poroshenko, who is about to become (in words only) a stronger nationalist than Tyagnibok. On the other hand, the disappointment and mistrust of the nationalist voter towards Poroshenko is nevertheless very large. And even Tomos will hardly erase the memories of the Ilovaisk cauldron, the Lipetsk factory (which the president was compelled to close only three years after the beginning of war), and the handshake with Putin.

However, whether nationalists will be able to bring this voter over to their side, or they will switch to the moderate candidates of Maidan, like Tymoshenko or Gritsenko, is an question open.

Recently certain radical parties made efforts to look more respectable. This especially concerns “National Corpus”, which tries to get rid of its ultra-right background and to be engaged in various “socially useful” affairs, like combatting the nonpayment of salaries, illegal constructions, and poachers.

However, they have had variable success. Their tendency to use their fists, stage pogroms, and initiate doubtful street protests let them down. National Druzhina, created by Biletsky’s party, became a scarecrow for inhabitants after its first march on the Khreshchatyk at the beginning of 2018. And the continuous fights that “National Druzhina” members participate in, and also the attacks of ideologically similar activists on the left-wing, national minorities, and other “wrong citizens”, intensify the ambiguous image of nationalists and interfere with their exit from the electoral ghetto of radicals, which consists of no more than several percentage points all over the country.

3. Will nationalists unite to participate in elections?

Realising the problem with their prospects in elections, nationalists have held negotiations on unification for a long time already.

In the spring of last year “Svoboda”, “National Corpus”, and “Right Sector” signed a memorandum under the name “Nationalist Manifesto”. It also stipulated joint participation in an electoral campaign. Back then experts called such intentions logical: having united, the right-wing could count on overcoming the 5% barrier.

However, nothing has been heard about this unification as of late. At the beginning of a year “Strana” wrote that cracks appeared between right-wingers because of contradictions between Biletsky and Tyagnibok, each of which saw themselves as the leader of a new force.

However, the nationalists themselves say that the project hasn’t been buried and promised motions after October 14th, the day of UPA, which the traditional march of the right-wing is planned for.

“The only thesis that we propagandised since the very beginning of our memorandum is a single candidate from nationalist forces. But this question won’t be raised before the middle of October,” said Rodion Kudryashov, the head of the central HQ of “National Corpus” to “Country”.

“National Corpus” evasively answers the question about whether they will insist on pushing forward Biletsky for the presidency.

“If there are positive dynamics in approval ratings, then it will become an argument in favor of Biletsky’s balloting. Otherwise we will try to reach an agreement with partners,” said Kudryashov.

According to him, the potential single candidate will go to elections with approximately such a message: “The one who unites nationalists has the right to become the president”.

“Svoboda” also declares the promotion of a single candidate.

“It is important if Ukrainian nationalists will be able to propose a single candidate who will profess a uniform nationalist ideology. In fact, it will be a candidate from among Ukrainians,” stated Tyagnibok.

“We are preparing to stand together with nationalists for a victory in 2019,” echoed Biletsky.

However, Biletsky and Tyagnibok earlier declared their desire to run for president.

“I feel strong, and it seems to me that someone shouldn’t waste their time being involved in an affair that they don’t want to reach the top of. Being at war, we tried to be the best, this is a normal competitive story. That’s why if someone is going to involve themselves in politics, they must also dream about bigger things,” admitted Biletsky in an interview.

“Regardless of whether there will be local, parliamentary, or presidential elections, ‘Svoboda’ will obligatory propose its candidates and fight for the opportunity to be represented in power,” said Tyagnibok.

The vice-chairman of “Svoboda” Andrey Mokhnik stated to “Strana” that the party will push forward Tyagnibok for the presidency. “But a candidate had to be coordinated with other political forces,” specified Mokhnik.

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Our sources in “Svoboda” say that only Tyagnibok is seen as the single candidate, since it is considered that he has a greater approval rating than their “brothers-in-arms” in the national camp.

4. What prevents the nomination of a single candidate?

Obviously, both Biletsky and Tyagnibok, despite all the talk about unification, consider each other as the main competitors in the fight on the nationalist field, and that’s why it is extremely doubtful that one of them will withdraw from the race in favor of the other.

By the way, if for a non-nationalist voter “Svoboda” and “National Corpus” seem to be twins in terms of ideology, then in the most right-wing environment the differences between them are clearly visible.

“Svoboda” is guided by traditional Ukrainian ethnic nationalism with an electoral base in Western Ukraine. But “National Corpus” is led by natives from the East of Ukraine or from the Russian-speaking environment.

And this is the subject of their mutual trolling. The ideologists of “National Corpus” like to hint that “Svoboda” is a dinosaurs from the past, whose time has passed. And in reply Tyagnibok’s party, in general, doubt that Biletsky’s comrades are nationalists.

“A nationalist force that talks among themselves in the occupier’s language [Russian – ed] is not a competitor for us,” said Irina Farion, the closest ally of Tyagnibok.

Lastly, there is one more factor that prevents an agreement being reached among right-wing forces concerning a single candidate – the position of Bankova Street. Poroshenko heads towards the elections using aggressive slogans, trying to look like a bigger “patriot” than Tymoshenko or Gritsenko in the opinion of the Maidan electorate. If the nationalists propose a single candidate, then they will be able to break this game in many ways, which, of course, the current president doesn’t need. That’s why the Presidential Administration will probably try to prevent such a unification and shatter the right-wing camp as much as possible (which, by the way, are the same tactics that Poroshenko also uses vis-a-vis other competitors).

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5. So, in what composition will the nationalists head towards the elections?

The sources of “Strana” in the nationalist environment say that it is highly probable that “Svoboda” and “National Corpus” won’t be able to reach an agreement about the nomination of a single candidate, and thus both Biletsky and Tyagnibok will participate in the elections. And also, perhaps, Dmitry Yarosh and some other nationalist leaders.

“Both Biletsky and Tyagnibok see themselves as leaders, and that’s why they won’t stand aside for each other. Especially since in the presidential elections, unlike parliamentary elections, where it is necessary to overcome 5%, this won’t have an effect – even a single candidate won’t stand a chance of entering the second round of voting. And why would they unite? It is more logical to participate separately, having organised some kind of primaries, and then the winner will receive additional arguments so that nationalists unite around precisely him for parliamentary elections. That’s why I predict a fierce competition between Tyagnibok and Biletsky. The leader of ‘Svoboda’ has a better chance initially. Biletsky can try to pull other nationalists – from ‘Right Sector’ and ‘C14’ – over to his side and call himself a ‘single candidate’. But ‘Svoboda’ can also gather around itself any nationalist organisations. A lot of things also depend on the situation with Tomos. If it is granted, then the time of nationalists will come. After all, it is us who will become the main force that will take churches under control and transfer them to the local church. And here we will already look who will best of all prove to be,” said a source in the circle of nationalists.

The political scientist Ruslan Bortnik also believes that “Svoboda” and “National Corpus” won’t push forward a joint sole candidate.

“Svoboda, unlike Biletsky’s party, has some sort of approval rating and recognition. So why wouldn’t they participate in elections? But Biletsky has very big ambitions too, and he won’t just stand aside. Different sources of financing also plays a role. Svoboda gravitates towards the semi-criminal economic elite of Western Ukraine. An influential person in the party, Igor Krivetsky, himself solve issues on Bankova Street and in other offices. And ‘National Corpus’ still maintains ties with the Interior Minister Avakov, one of the leaders of ‘People’s Front’,” said Ruslan Bortnik.

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