The struggle for progressive politics in Ukraine

Denis Gorbach of Nihilist

On 6 June, Kyiv hosted an LGBT Pride event – the March of Equality. Roughly 300 people attended this march, which was devoted to defending human rights and equality. While hundreds of police officers protected them, the exact number of their ‘opponents’ – members of far-right organisations – is hard to define, but a few hundred seems reasonable.

There were also a few VIPs in attendance to support the march, including two Rada deputies, European diplomats and American politicians. Their presence was designed to lend the event legitimacy in the eyes of the Ukrainian government, as well as convince the latter to take all possible measures to preserve law and order. The principal slogan of the march was ‘Human rights are always relevant’. After all, the organisers’ main task lay in persuading Ukraine’s coalition government that a successful LGBT Pride event in Kyiv would be a litmus test of just how ‘European’ Ukrainian society is, and would be closely observed by European eyes.

A litmus test
Ahead of 6 June, several public figures led a campaign in support of the march, and their media support eventually encouraged the Kyiv city authorities to let the march go ahead. The city had been planning to stop it with a court order, citing the risks to public safety (which, it seemed, could not be guaranteed by any other means).

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To be fair, the risks were unknown. In the lead-up to the march, members of the radical right made it clear that they were not about to give up on their views: they were against the march, and were prepared to stop it at any cost.

And so Right Sector, the right-wing political and paramilitary group which shot to prominence during Maidan last year, made public statements to that effect, as did a string of other organisations (including Svoboda’s youth wing C14), united in a coalition titled Zero Tolerance. The far right announced their intentions a few days prior to the event by picketing the Norwegian embassy, which was holding closed sessions on the issue. The police were even forced to put the diplomats under increased security.

This sense of risk was increased by the fact that Right Sector (which has its own volunteer battalion fighting in the conflict in the east of the country) and other far-right groups now have combat experience and access to weapons, which they could have potentially used against people involved in the march – or as they call them, ‘degenerates’. Right up until the beginning of the event, the police leadership stated that it was not able to guarantee the safety of participants in the march, pushing for it to be cancelled.

Even populist figures on the liberal wing of Ukrainian politics came out against the March of Equality. Though Vitaliy Klichko had previously positioned himself as a liberal, in the run-up to Kyiv Pride, the boxer-turned-mayor of Kyiv publicly called for the march to be called off.

Klichko may have something of a liberal past (before entering the world of politics, Klichko was photographed together with his brother Volodymyr for a German gay magazine), but just like the attempt to hold a Pride march in 2014, Klichko announced that holding the march during wartime was far from sensible (‘untimely’ as he put it), essentially reproducing the rhetoric that the march’s organisers were targeting.

The unambiguous position announced by various European representatives ultimately had the desired effect: on 5 June, President Petro Poroshenko declared that, as ‘a Christian’, he would not attend the march, but as the president of a European state he did not see any grounds for cancelling it. Participation in this kind of event is, after all, a constitutional right of every citizen.

Slow but steady
The next morning, activists began the event (complete with chants of ‘Human rights above all else’) in Obolon, a neighbourhood just north of the city centre. Marching along the riverside past a row of luxury cottages, the participants managed to travel no more than 500 metres before the organisers announced it was over.

Right-wing activists attack Kyiv LGBT Pride on 6 June. Photo (c) Dmitry Mrachnik.

By that time, the police had already suffered two casualties: one officer had injured his hand in a scuffle with a group of Neo-Nazis who had broken through the police cordon, and a smoke bomb filled with nails (intended for the march’s participants) had seriously injured another officer. After the march was officially over, and 25-30 far-right activists had been arrested, those remaining started their ‘safari’, hunting activists who were trying to make their way home; according to reports, up to 20 people suffered injuries of varying degrees on their way home.

This is only the second LGBT march in Kyiv’s history. The first took place in 2013 under even more depressing circumstances: up to 50 people took part, and they were accompanied by hundreds of police officers. The activists managed to march only a short distance before piling into buses and escaping – far-right and religious activists were on their way, having spent the morning patrolling the streets of central Kyiv.

Two years later, progress has definitely been made, but far from enough to start talking about the triumph of liberal values, which we might have expected after the victory of Maidan. After all, those events have come to be known officially as the Revolution of Dignity. Aside from the refusal to guarantee the security of 2014’s march, the past year has witnessed a careful ignorance when it comes to LGBT issues – whether in terms of legislation, or last November’s arson attack on the Zhovten cinema, which was showing a film from the Sunny Bunny LGBT film competition. Where does this conservatism come from?

Conspiracy theories run amok
The first thing you notice in contemporary Ukraine (and, indeed, Eastern Europe as a whole) is how LGBT people are consistently portrayed as the main antagonisers for people of conservative beliefs.

Today, this social group occupies the same position as Jewish communities in Western Europe a century ago – an invisible but ever-present minority, which provokes sharp hostility from ‘ordinary’ people. People of weak political beliefs state that they find it simply unpleasant to speak and even think about these people, demanding that issues of sexuality remain within the confines of one’s own bedroom. For the far right, LGBT people are, similar to Jews, a group that is not only particularly repulsive, but also one which is secretly manipulating society and pushing it towards its hidden goal of ‘homo-dictatorship’.

A far right activist being arrested during Kyiv's LGBT Pride. Photo (c) Dmitry Mrachnik.

This state of affairs is somewhat different from Western European countries. Here, homophobia is widespread among the far right, but it is not considered a necessary attribute for membership: several figures, such as Pim Fortuyn in the early 2000s and Gert Wilders today, even contrive to use LGBT rights for their own devices.

Perhaps the difference lies in the diverging histories of liberal rights and freedoms in Eastern and Western Europe. Prior to 1991, the Bolsheviks (and the Soviets after them) actively affirmed ideas of multiculturalism and women’s rights (in the framework laid out by first-wave feminism), even to the point of foisting them on society as part of their project of modernisation.

On certain issues, then, Soviet society far surpassed Europe. (For instance, one thinks of the fact that women did not have the right to vote in certain Swiss cantons right up until the 1970s.) But while the post-war wave of emancipation movements radically changed the face of Western societies, it bypassed countries of the ‘Eastern bloc’. Neither second-wave feminism, nor LGBT rights were politicised in Soviet society right up to the moment of its collapse.

Indeed, during the 1970s, the Soviet Union’s free-thinking intelligentsia, which could have initiated similar movements, underwent an ideological turn: it was under Leonid Brezhnev, after all, that the dissidents swung to the right, criticising Soviet society on right-wing liberal, and later conservative and traditionalist grounds, rather than leftist utopian ones which had been popular before that. In the national republics, these ideas fused with romantic nationalism, in which reverence for (constructed) national traditions dominated, leaving no place for otherwise modern trends.

Both the official and opposition narratives of this period were cut through with patriarchal and macho ideas typical of pre-1968 Europe. The field of history was dominated by idealised heroes (heterosexual men); their images made normative for the whole society.

After Ukraine became independent in 1991, key posts in the economy and government were occupied by the former nomenklatura, and the nationalist intelligentsia was left to watch over cultural politics of the newly-created state. For this group, socially progressive ideas such as gender equality, sex education and secular values were not deemed necessary. There was no demand on the part of Ukrainian society either. The Ukrainian state’s only significant move in this area was to rescind the criminal prosecution of homsexuality in 1991.

Meanwhile, after the mass corruption and divisive language politics of Leonid Kuchma, the traditionalist agenda gained ground again during Viktor Yushchenko’s presidency (2005-2010). Yushchenko attempted to push out the (post-) Soviet modernist element from Ukrainian national identity by strengthening its religious and nationalist components. Yet, given that certain sections of Ukrainian society failed (or refused) to accept ethnic nationalism, Yushchenko’s politics were far from successful.

Here, Ukraine’s (now infamous) heterogeneity helped to put the brakes on clericalisation: given that Ukraine has not one, but four branches of Christianity competing for influence and resources, no single group managed to become the ‘state’ church and impose its own particular conservative agenda (as seen in neighbouring Georgia, Moldova, and Russia).

Church politics
The clericalisation and imposition of outdated norms in Ukraine proceeded more smoothly under Viktor Yanukovych (2010-2014), who, though he rejected attempts to introduce a form of agrarian ethno-cultural identity, began to force through clericalisation together with a post-Soviet national identity based on culture and language.

In this sense, by betting on the Moscow Patriarchate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (subject to the Russian Patriarch Kirill), Yanukovych followed the Kremlin’s agenda. Ukraine thus ended up imitating Russian practices: in 2010, for instance, Vadim Kolesnichenko, a member of the Party of Regions, introduced a draft law entitled ‘Declaration of human dignity, freedom and rights’, which was designed to promote the fundaments of Orthodox doctrine developed by the Russian Orthodox Church and rescind the norms developed in the 1948 Declaration of Human Rights.

Apparently, according to Kolesnichenko, the latter was ‘formed largely on the basis of the Western liberal-protestant tradition, with its characteristic Anthropocentrism and extreme individualism’. In 2012, Kolesnichenko introduced a draft bill designed to ban ‘homosexual propaganda aimed at children’ – an exact copy of the infamous Russian law. Aside from this draft law, the Ukrainian parliament also hosted two other bills, which were exactly the same in spirit (one even passed the first reading).

Other initiatives of the Yanukovych era included a whole range of draft laws on the criminalisation of abortion, a proposal to unite church and state, the introduction of religious propaganda in schools, and the massive state celebration of the 1025 anniversary of the Christian conversion of Rus.

As always, though, LGBT rights remained one of the main targets for the conservatives in power. For instance, the law on preventing discrimination, which was a condition of introducing a visa-free regime with the European Union, was not passed, despite its clear necessity.

Back then, the Party of Regions and Yanukovych were the principal lobbyists for European integration in Ukraine. But the legislation designed to prevent anti-LGBT discrimination in hiring procedures was their downfall: many Regionnaires came out fiercely against this legislation, organising a rebellion inside the pro-government camp.

At the same time, Ukrainian nationalist and liberal organisations, who were opposed to the Yanukovych administration, opted for a selection of ideas which were basically no different when it came to society’s progress. Take the most successful of the draft laws against ‘homosexual propaganda’ for instance: bill no. 8711 was introduced to parliament by deputies from all the largest parties – whether pro-government or opposition.

As the parliamentary opposition of the time saw it, the Yanukovych regime was bad because it didn’t advance the right kind of ‘spirituality’ and nationalism. The opposition didn’t have any objections to these concepts as such. Moreover, the nationalist Svoboda party, turned by Yanukovych into a convenient opponent, consistently criticised ‘liberal extremism’ – imposed on Ukraine by dark forces in European countries. To better understand the nationalists’ logic, one only has to familiarise oneself with ‘cultural marxism‘, a concept developed by the new American right (and later taken up by Anders Breivik).

Ukraine’s feminist, leftist, LGBT and secular movements were faced by a broad front of conservative pro-government politicians, religious organisations and various far-right groups, often acting under the umbrella of Svoboda.

Political actors in Ukraine were thus actively involved in whipping up conservative fears, using them to score political points when possible. As a consequence, Ukrainian society’s situation, towards the beginning of Maidan, was caught in a conflict between two forms of conservative nationalism.

Battle for hearts and minds
It was ‘ordinary people’ who formed the core of the mass protests of 2013-2014 – people who, prior to Maidan, did not possess any kind of clear political convictions.

Clearly, assertions to the effect that Maidan was simply a collection of Nazis and oligarchs are false. However, it is true that, during Maidan, the right did manage to establish a certain ideological hegemony in Ukraine. They managed to do this despite the fact that the initial demand of Maidan – signing the Association Agreement with the European Union – essentially contradicted the nationalists’ political programmes.

While the far right did not conceal their hostility to the European Union (although neither did they popularise it), thanks in no small part to their overt radicalism they managed to gain the confidence of ‘ordinary people’. These people only discovered the world of politics during Maidan, having previously been educated according to the everyday conservative values of ‘common sense’.

At the same time, the LGBT groups at Maidan neither had the opportunity to make their presence felt publicly, and nor were they interested in doing so.

Having lost the confidence of the electorate with their lack of decisive strategy during Maidan, Svoboda lost their hegemony over the far-right movement to the upstart Right Sector. This new group emerged from Tryzub, a national conservative organisation with an ideology close to Italian fascism. With time, though, Right Sector split, giving birth to the Azov volunteer battalion based on another far-right group, the Neo-Nazi Social-Nationalist Assembly (campaigning for the world domination of whites).

Both of these organisations tried to secure and expand their influence in post-Maidan Ukrainian politics. At the same time, the patriotic liberal movement also began to crystallise on Maidan – a movement, which rejected radical nationalism and accepted so-called ‘European values’. The conflict between these two camps can be witnessed in this footage, in which a member of the Azov battalion beats up a black member of the Aidar battalion for saying ‘Ukraine is part of Europe’ (Ukraina – tse Evropa) – one slogan of Maidan which the nationalists really didn’t take to.

In their hostility to what is understood by ‘European values’ in Ukraine (progressive politics, feminism, LGBT rights, atheism and multiculturalism), the Ukrainian far right are, of course, rather similar to their main enemy – the Putin regime and its ‘People’s Republics’ in Eastern Ukraine. The ideology of Anti-Maidan, the movement, which gave rise to the outburst of Donbas separatism, was initially cut through with ultra-right and anti-Semitic conspiracy theory, as well as admiration for the ‘spiritual braces’ of Orthodoxy – a favourite topic of the Russian president. These groups often use the term ‘EuroSodom’ to define what Anti-Maidan stands against – the same-sex marriages, legalisation of prostitution, drugs and euthanasia, mass atheism and sex education in schools.

Meanwhile, where circumstances allow, the far right tries to promote its agenda further in society. And for the most part, when it comes to their success, the far right has the liberal intelligentsia to thank – the opinion-makers of Maidan and post-Maidan Ukraine who still enjoy a significant amount of social capital and media resources.

Under Yanukovych, the liberal intelligenstia not only fell for Svoboda’s radicalism (refusing to see the party’s neo-fascist tendencies), but brought the party to parliament with the help of their public support and access to the press. In 2014, however, disappointed by Svoboda’s showing during Maidan, these liberal groups made Right Sector and Azov their new idols. Understandably, Russian aggression only helped this process: nationalist surges are bound to happen in a time of war.

However, the conservative front’s ranks have thinned of late: one of its constituent parts – conservative pro-Russian politicians – have completely vanished from the national political arena. The front’s second partner – religious organisations – are now far less active in the public sphere than two years ago. Now only the pro-Ukrainian far right remains.

Indeed, several ‘stars’ of pro-Russian conservative politics have simply inverted their external political orientation. For example, take Roman Kukharchuk, the founder of Love Against Homosexuality (a coalition of protestant organisations), who used to make references to Orthodox dogmas in distinctly pro-Russian forms. Prior to Saturday’s march, however, Kukharchuk expressed enthusiastic support for Azov and Right Sector, declaring that holding the march would be tantamount to betraying those members of the far right fighting at the front.

Romantic future
To a certain extent, the future of Ukraine rests on how the relationship between the country’s liberals and the far right develops. The sooner most Ukrainian liberals realise that the nationalists’ political goals are far closer to the ‘Russian world’ (the Russian state’s ideology of an orthodox ‘transnational community committed to Russian culture and language’) than European integration and liberal-democratic values, the less chances we have of seeing a violent seizure of power by the far right.

Anton Shekhovtsov, who researches European nationalism, suggests that, over time, this conflict will become increasingly institutionalised, much like Russia’s 19th century split between Slavophiles and Westernisers. In our case, the ‘Ukrainophiles’ from the nationalist and conservative wings will come to oppose the liberals and leftists who profess progressive values.

But the process of disillusion with Ukrainian nationalists is a slow one, especially when they can counter every scandal with reports of military courage on the Eastern front. This spring, there have been several instances whereby Right Sector has shown its darker side to the public – including gangster attacks on coffee vendors and the dispersal of a May Day demonstration by anarchists. Yet every time, the public outcry quickly dropped off, and people forgot about these incidents.

The attack on the March of Equality may well haunt Ukraine’s liberal patriots for some time, though: the demonstration prompted serious discussion, and many supporters of the nationalists were outraged by the latter’s actions. On social media, the organisers behind the attack were clearly dismayed by this reaction, and wrote about their actions in tones of justification.

Perhaps, then, this is the main effect of Kyiv Pride: it has driven a wedge – at least temporarily – between society and the nationalists trying to build a ‘Russian world’ in Ukraine. As the polarisation between liberals and conservatives continues to develop, we can expect to see the former take up the promotion of progressive initiatives, in particular, lobbying for LGBT rights, while LGBT activists themselves will see an opportunity to take to the streets.

The position of Western countries is important here, given that Ukraine’s progressives tend to keep one eye on their reactions: European diplomats’ support in the lead-up to Kyiv Pride should not be under-estimated.

But there are not only opportunities for LGBT and progressive movements here; there are dangers too. The supporters of progressive initiatives, human rights and the ‘Europeanisation’ of society in mainstream domestic politics come out for neo-liberal economic reforms, asserting that, in the words of their spiritual godmother, ‘there is no alternative.’

This situation means that, over time, the ideas of freedom and equality might become fused in popular consciousness with the economic dislocation resulting from ‘shock therapy’, and subsequently rejected together with neo-liberal dogmas. Here are the all too familiar roots of right-wing populism as seen in Hungary, Poland, Russia and elsewhere – places where liberals advanced personal and social freedoms, but connected these freedoms to austerity policies and falling living standards. Liberals were quickly replaced by right-wing conservatives who offered bread in exchange for freedom.

In his recent state of the nation address on 4 June, President Poroshenko declared: ‘Social democracy doesn’t suit us right now, today it’s the nuts and bolts of Thatcherism and Reagonomics we need.’ But in the current unstable and uncertain situation, Ukraine’s Reagan may well be replaced by an Orban or Putin.

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