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The Dark Side of the Ukraine Revolt

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Posted on Mar 21, 2014

By Conn Hallinan

This piece first appeared at journalist Conn Hallinan’s website.

The April 6 rally in Cherskasy, a city 100 miles southeast of Kiev, turned violent after six men took off their jackets to reveal T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Beat the Kikes” and “Svoboda,” the name of the Ukrainian ultranationalist movement and the Ukrainian word for “freedom.”
–Jewish Telegraphic Agency, April 12, 2013

While most of the Western media describes the current crisis in the Ukraine as a confrontation between authoritarianism and democracy, many of the shock troops who have manned barricades in Kiev and the western city of Lviv these past months represent a dark page in the country’s history and have little interest in either democracy or the liberalism of Western Europe and the United States.

“You’d never know from most of the reporting that far-right nationalists and fascists have been at the heart of the protests and attacks on government buildings,” reports Seumas Milne of the British Guardian. The most prominent of the groups has been the ultra-rightwing Svoboda or “Freedom” Party.

And that even the demand for integration with Western Europe appears to be more a tactic than a strategy: “The participation of Ukrainian nationalism and Svoboda in the process of EU [European Union] integration, “ admits Svoboda political council member Yury Noyevy, “is a means to break our ties with Russia.”

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And lest one think that Svoboda, and parties even further to the right, will strike their tents and disappear, Ukrainian News reported Feb. 26 that Svoboda Party members have temporarily been appointed to the posts of Vice Prime Minister, Minister of Education, Minister of Agrarian Policy and Food Supplies, and Minister of Ecology and Natural Resources.

Svoboda is hardly a fringe organization. In the 2012 election won by the now deposed president, Viktor Yanukovitch, the Party took 10.45 percent of the vote and over 40 percent in parts of the western Ukraine. While the west voted overwhelmingly for the Fatherland Party’s Yulia Tymoshenko, the more populous east went overwhelmingly for the Party of the Regions’ Yanukovitch. The latter won the election handily, 48.8 percent to 45.7 percent.

Svoboda –which currently has 36 deputies in the 450-member Ukrainian parliament—began life in the mid-1990s as the Social National Party of the Ukraine, but its roots lie in World War II, when Ukrainian nationalists and Nazis found common ground in the ideology of anti-communism and anti-Semitism. In April, 1943, Dr. Otto von Wachter, the Nazi commander of Galicia—the name for the western Ukraine—turned the First Division of the Ukrainian National Army into the 14 Grenadier Division of the Waffen SS, the so-called “Galicia Division.”

The Waffen SS was the armed wing of the Nazi Party, and while serving along side the regular army, or Wehrmacht, the Party controlled the SS’s 38-plus divisions. While all Nazi forces took part in massacres and atrocities, the Waffen SS did so with particular efficiency. The post-war Nuremberg trials designated it a “criminal organization.”

Svoboda has always had a soft spot for the Galicia Division and one of its parliament members, Oleg Pankevich, took part in a ceremony last April honoring the unit. Pankevich joined with a priest of Ukrainian Orthodox Church near Lviv to celebrate the unit’s 70th anniversary and re-bury some of the Division’s dead.

“I was horrified to see photographs…of young Ukrainians wearing the dreaded SS uniform with swastikas clearly visible on their helmets as they carried caskets of members of this Nazi unit, lowered them into the ground, and fired gun salutes in their honor,” World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder wrote in a letter to the Patriarch of the Ukrainian church. He asked Patriarch Filret to “prevent any further rehabilitation of Nazism or the SS.”

Some 800,000 Jews were murdered in the Ukraine during the German occupation, many of them by Ukrainian auxiliaries and units like the Galicia Division.

Three months after the April ceremony, Ukrainians re-enacted the battle of Brody between the Galicia Division and Soviet troops, where the German XIII Army Corps was trying to hold off the Russians commanded by Marshall Ivan Konev. In general, going up against Konev meant a quick trip to Valhalla. In six days of fighting the Galicians lost two-thirds of their division and XIII Corps was sent reeling back to Poland. The Galicia Division survivors were shipped off to fight anti-Nazi partisans in Yugoslavia. In 1945 remnants of the unit surrendered to the Americans in Italy, and in 1947 many of them were allowed to emigrate to Britain and Canada.

The U.S. press has downplayed the role of Svoboda, and even more far right groups like Right Sector and Common Cause, but Britain’s Channel 4 News reports that such quasi-fascist groups “played a leading role” in organizing the demonstrations and keeping them going.

In the intercepted phone call between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to the Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, the two were, as Russian expert Stephen Cohen put it to Democracy Now, “plotting a coup d’état against the elected president of the Ukraine.”

At one point Nuland endorses “Yat” as the head of a new government, referring to Arseniy Yatsenyuk of the Fatherland Party, who indeed is now acting Prime Minister. But she goes on to say that Svoboda leader Oleh Tyahnybok should be kept “on the outside.”


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