Why the Far-Right Lost Ukraine, But Swept the Rest of Europe


Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony — particularly where European politics are concerned. 

After all, what could be more ironic than having the Ukrainian far-right humiliated on the very same day that the European Union's far-right movements made astonishing headway?

The very protest movement that ended up spurring snap elections in Ukraine began as a reaction the previous government's failed attempt to sign an EU association agreement. If you couple that with the fact that this same protest movement led to fears of a massive fascist uprising in Ukraine, you may be forgiven for chuckling a little at the latest turn of events.

Millions of Ukrainians are willing to risk political stability and, in some cases, their very lives, in order to forge closer ties with the EU while the EU appears to be entering a considerably darker period.

Image Credit: Getty Images. Protesters hold up a European Union flag during Euromaidan protests in Kiev last year. 

The gains made by the far-right and hard-left in Europe have largely been attributed to frustration with unemployment, austerity and immigration.

In France, Britain, Austria and Denmark, right-wing parties have, in particular, gained ground. The fact that France's far-right National Front Party has won a nationwide election for the first time — snapping up nearly 25% of the vote — has been described as nothing short of a political "earthquake."

Image Credit: Getty Images. Supporters of France's far-right National Front listen to the party's head, Marine Le Pen, speak in front of a banner that says "No to Brussels, yes to France." 

By contrast, in Ukraine's presidential election, two of the more prominent far-right politicians, Dmytro Yarosh and Oleh Tyahnybok, received less than 2% of the vote.

Still, even though Ukraine didn't vote for the far-right, it faces even bigger problems. 

The fact that it was a billionaire sweets tycoon nicknamed "Willy Wonka" who just won the Ukrainian election shows that the oligarch class remains on top in spite of a revolution.

Not to mention the fact that an unprecedented amount of fighting broke out in East Ukraine the day after the election as government forces launched an operation against separatist rebels.

Image Credit: AP. A pro-Russian gunman in Donetsk walks on a sheet stained with the blood of those killed during clashes with security forces.

So, in spite of Petro Poroshenko's win, Ukraine is still a mess. It's just not a mess that's very favorable to right-wing politics.

A Far-Right Spin on Ukraine's Protests

When it came to the protest movement that toppled the previous government, right-wing activists were a force to be reckoned with. Although relatively small in numbers, they were fierce when it came to achieving their aims. This has allowed the Russian state media in particular to focus almost exclusively on the right-wing threat in Ukraine.

The Russian state media closely identified the Ukrainian protest with the followers of Stepan Bandera, a controversial Ukrainian nationalist who collaborated with the Nazis, and whose posthumous title of Hero of Ukraine (since revoked) had previously enraged everyone from the European Parliament to the Russian government.

Image Credit: Getty Images. A pro-Russian protester burns an effigy of Stephan Bandera in Donetsk. 

In Russia, it was alleged, over and over again, that the so-called "Banderovtsy" were entirely responsible for the movement — and that they were there to finish the bloody work that Bandera himself had started.

Naturally, it didn't help that the ultra-right remained a very visible part of the movement — especially when Tyahnybok hung out with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

A Divided Country Makes a Pragmatic Choice

But Ukrainians ultimately chose to lay aside the divisive nationalist agenda.

Right-leaning European pundits who'd blame immigrants for bad weather if they could get away with it will likely claim that lack of immigration to Ukraine has a lot to do with this (Ukraine wasn't a shining example of economic growth and stability even before this latest crisis, hence it hasn't been seen as desirable for immigrants.)

On a basic, human level, the fact that millions of Ukrainians have worked abroad may also have a lot do with their rejection of a nationalist agenda today. Simply put, these people know what it's like to be on the outside looking in.

Image Credit: Getty Images. A woman votes in Kiev. 

We must also consider the fact that for the first time in Ukraine's history, a single candidate has won a majority in every single region of the country, including places like the Lviv region, traditionally associated with a comparatively higher nationalist sentiment.

Not even low voter turnout in the violence-plagued Ukrainian East can obscure the fact that the Ukrainians have tried to make the most pragmatic choice amidst a terrible crisis.

The Difficult Road Ahead

The tragic thing is, none of this may necessarily save Ukraine. Although the current crisis has a major geopolitical dimension — in the sense that there is now a staring contest going on between the West and Russia over Ukraine, and Russia isn't likely to blink first (why should it? It knows Western powers won't go to war over this crisis) — its roots lie in years of lawlessness, corruption and despair.

It is precisely that lawlessness that has laid the foundations for the current amount of bloody violence — after all, it's not as if the lives of ordinary Ukrainians were valued much before in most parts of the country.

Image Credit: AP. Citizens in Eastern Ukraine's Slovyansk react to seeing the lifeless body of a man killed after shelling by the government. 

It is also that lawlessness that has made fringe extremist movements powerful relative to their size — in a land where there is nearly zero official accountability, little genuine community and the police is largely useless, even a tiny group of radicals can do considerable damage. It is not likely that Yarosh and Tyahnybok will go gently into that good night — things being as unstable as they are, they will easily carve out a niche for themselves.

Image Credit: AP. Oleh Tyahnybok speaks during a rally in Kiev earlier this year.

Keeping all of that in mind, it is obvious that in spite of all of the EU's recent troubles, it is still a safe haven compared to embattled, exhausted Ukraine.

From the outside looking in, it's almost as if the European far-right voters are taking that peace for granted.