This article originally appeared at bne IntelliNews
Oleh Tyahnybok, head of Ukraine’s nationalist Svoboda party and one of the leaders of the 2014 revolution, has been called in for questioning on terrorism charges after the grenade attack on the parliament on August 31.
The charges mark the end of the alliance of nationalists and liberals that ousted former pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 and has been running Ukraine since. The controversy could also make or break Tyahnybok’s attempt at a political comeback.
Ukraine’s interior ministry allege the grenade attack that caused the deaths of two members of the national guard was carried out by a supporter of Svoboda, which had organised the rally outside the parliament building. The nationalists were protesting against a controversial law under debate inside the parliament building – on giving autonomy to the Donbas region of East Ukraine, currently held by Russian-backed rebels. When parliament passed the law at the first sitting, infuriated protestors attacked police in an attempt to storm parliament, and the violence culminated with the grenade explosion, killing two and injuring more than 100.
“Full responsibility for the act of terrorism (…) lies on the incumbent authorities,” Svoboda said defiantly in a statement on September 1. “It is obvious that use of an explosive device thrown by unknown persons at police was a pre-planned provocation, directed against Ukrainian patriots,” the statement continued. “The police first used violence against the protestors (…) and failed to take measures to neutralise provocators.”
“Together with the pro-Russian Opposition Bloc [the authorities] provoked Ukrainians to protest, voting in the first reading for changes to the Ukrainian constitution giving special status to the Donbas, and thus capitulating to the Kremlin,” the statement concluded.
For all the defiance, pressure is now mounting on Svoboda. “The joint investigative team […] obtained more evidence giving grounds to qualify the offenders’ actions yesterday as (…) an act of terrorism,” the prosecutor general’s office said on September 1, adding that Tyahnybok, spokesman Yury Syrotyuk and former agriculture minister Ihor Shvaika would also be questioned.
“If it is confirmed that Tyahnybok approved the throwing of the grenade, Svoboda should be banned as a terrorist organisation,” Serhiy Leshchenko, an MP in the pro-presidential Bloc Petro Poroshenko, wrote on Facebook.
“I am ready to answer for my part in the Orange Revolution [anti-government protests of 2004] and the [February 2014] ‘Revolution of Dignity’ – the term was my invention,” retorted Syrotyuk on September 1. “Of couse since [Russian-backed separatist commanders] Motorola and Givi have been amnestied, and [former top officials under Yanukoych Oleksandr] Eferemov and [Serhiy] Kivalov forgotten about, we are now the public enemy number 1,” Syrotyuk added sarcastically.
Just over a year ago, Svoboda’s founder Tyahnybok, a urologist, was one of the leading politicians in Ukraine – at the head of an anti-government protest movement in Ukraine that gripped the world’s imagination. Starting in 2010, his Svoboda party had started to spread from its stronghold of West Ukraine to central Ukraine, including Kyiv, taking 10.5% of the vote in the December 2012 elections.
When mass protests against Yanukovych kicked off in December 2014, Svoboda had what other political parties lacked – grassroots support including, thanks to its nationalist ideology, a core of mobilised supporters ready and willing to take to the streets. Only months before, Svoboda on its own had put 25,000 on the streets of Kyiv to mark a nationalist anniversary, many of whom made the journey from West Ukraine to take part in the march.
This made Svoboda and other affiliated nationalist groups the backbone of the protest movement that came to be known as ‘Euromaidan’, witnessed by the numerous Svoboda flags peppering photos of the crowds on the Maidan. While the 300,000-strong crowd on successive Sundays in early December comprised citizens from all walks of life, most of the organisational effort for the opposition camp occupying the heart of Kyiv for nearly three months – despite severe frosts and police violence – came from Svoboda and allies. Commander of the Maidan camp MP Andriy Parubiy had co-founded Svoboda – at the time the Social-National Party – with Tyahnybok in the mid 1990s. Many of the Svoboda ‘infantry’ camped down on the floors of Kyiv city hall arrived from West Ukraine at the call of Tyahnybok.
Svoboda’s ideology thus shaped the protests, – forcing liberal opposition politicians to adopt nationalist rhetoric, if not ideology: the now ubiquitous refrain of ‘glory to the nation, glory to the heroes’ had never crossed the lips of liberals such as current Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk before the protests started, because of its associations with militant nationalists. Svoboda’s role as stage manager of the protest camp turned what were the trappings of extremism into the mainstream on the streets of Kyiv.
Tyahnybok became a national political figure, on an equal footing with Yatsenyuk and [current mayor of Kyiv Vitaly] Klichko, representing the parliamentary opposition on the Maidan, and meeting top Western diplomats.
Svoboda’s key role in the protests was to come at a high cost to the party: Around one third of the scores of protestors killed on the Maidan by police shooters on February 21 were Svoboda members, according to journalist Sonya Koshkina’s excellent account of the protests, “Maidan”.
Tyahnibok’s rise was sealed when a quarter of the first post-Yanukovych government comprised Svoboda-nominated politicians, including the top post of defence minister.
End of the liberal-nationalist alliance
But Svoboda’s entering power proved disastrous for the party – having nominated the defence minister, the party famous for fighting rhetoric had to sit and watch as Russia grabbed the Crimea without a blow struck, and then engineered an insurgency in East Ukraine’s disaffected Donbas region.
Furthermore, the party’s man as prosecutor general failed to bring former officials to justice for the Maidan massacre – despite the number of party supporters killed, and reams of incriminating video footage. Nor did he bring any major cases against well-documented Yanokvych-era corruption suspects, amid rumours that many had managed to bribe their way to freedom.
Tyahnybok also fell victim to his own success in a second way: with nationalist rhetoric becoming mainstream, as the conflict with Russia advanced to become Ukraine’s cause no 1, unlikely figures such as Jewish oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky and populist clown Oleh Lyashko started to upstage him – the former owner of a major TV channel, the latter backed by another TV-channel owning oligarch.
“The Russian invasion forced all the democratic Ukrainian parties to turn to patriotic rhetoric,” says Anton Shekhovtsov, a researcher of the far right. “Not least, the questionable conduct and dubious activities of Svoboda’s top members, including those who were ministers in the provisional cabinet of Arseniy Yatsenyuk, in spring-summer 2014 drove off many of their former supporters.”
As a result, in presidential elections on May 25, only two months after the triumph of the protest movement he co-led, Tyahnybok won a disastrous 1% of the vote. In parliamentary elections in October 2014 Svoboda failed to pass the 5% threshold needed to enter parliament – less than a year after the Euromaidan protest movement had swept the party into government. The results proved true the old Ukrainian saying that ‘boots on the street are not votes in the booths’.
Return to the street fighting years?
Svoboda’s failure in the parliamentary elections was partly a result of the meteoric rise of another party mimicking Svoboda’s nationalist rhetoric – the People’s Front party headed by Yatsenyuk, with a slew of commanders of the irregular battallions topping the electoral list fresh from the battle field in East Ukraine. People’s Front, founded only weeks before the elections, took the largest share of the vote at 23%.
But opinion polls published on August 28 showed that support for Yatsenyuk’s party has already evaporated to only 2.8%, as discontent in the population mounts over the more than 20% fall of GDP since February 2014, and the misery of the military stalemate in East Ukraine.
Populists Lyashko and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko are now filling the void left by Yatsenyuk’s collapse inside parliament – after voting against the decentralisation law on August 31, Lyashko’s Radical Party announced it was leaving the coalition to join the opposition.
Tyahnybok hoped there was a political space for his street fighting tactics again, but he may have overstepped himself with the violence on August 31.
Tyahnybok wanted to boost his profile in the run-up to local elections with his traditional aggressive tactics,” Vladimir Fesenko, head of Kyiv’s Penta think tank told bne IntelliNews. “But the grenade attack has now lent a new momentum to events.”