Amidst all of the Sturm und Drang over the crisis in Ukraine and standoff between Russia and the West, little attention is being paid to the presence of Neo-Nazis in the middle of this dispute.
In fact, it’s a testament to the far-right’s growing influence in Europe their cadre are at the heart of this international faceoff.
It’s a reality that has complicated matters for supporters of Ukraine’s independence and Western governments. Some critics, in fact, claim the West is turning a blind eye to openly Neo-Nazi elements within the current Ukrainian government and among its supporters. Meanwhile, the pro-Putin media has been making lots of hay of the connections.
Today, the Ukrainian government, led by Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, has six ministers from the Svoboda party, including deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Sych. Yet the Svoboda party is a nationalist far-right organization similar to Hungary’s Jobbik party, with strong anti-Semitic and fascistic leanings. Its leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, has been quoted on numerous occasions making anti-Semitic remarks: for instance, in 2004 he claimed that a “Jewish-Russian mafia” was running Ukraine.
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More alarmingly, Svoboda was once called the Social-National Party of Ukraine and used an openly Neo-Nazi logo before it changed its name a decade ago. Today, the secretary of the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council is Andriy Parubiy, who oversees national security for the country. Parubiy was the founder of the Social-National Party of Ukraine.
Last year, the World Jewish Congress called for Svoboda to be banned by European governments.
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Members of Svoboda played an important role in the uprising against the government of deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.
But this is not the only far-right element within the Ukrainian opposition. The Right Sector – an alliance of extreme right-wing nationalists, including the paramilitary Ukrainian National Assembly-Ukrainian National Self Defense (UNA-UNSO) – is also a force.
The UNA-UNSO dress in uniforms that some have said resemble those of Hitler’s Waffen SS. Right Sector leader Aleksandr Muzychko —who fought in Chechnya and has talked about fighting “communists, Jews and Russians for as long as blood flows in my veins”— is accused of forcing members of a regional parliament to hold a session at gunpoint after he brandished a Kalashnikov assault rifle.
Furthermore, far-right extremists from other parts of Europe have travelled to Ukraine. Members of the Swedish Neo-Nazi groups Nordisk Ungdom (Nordic Youth) and Swedish Ukraine Volunteers have shown up in Kiev to lend their support.
Understandably, all of this has caused alarm within the Jewish community. Ukrainian Rabbi Moshe Reuven Azman has called on Kyiv’s Jews to leave the city and even the country, fearing Ukrainian Jews will be victimized. “I told my congregation to leave the city center or the city all together and if possible the country too,” he recently told the Israeli paper, Maariv. “I don’t want to tempt fate but there are constant warnings concerning intentions to attack Jewish institutions.”
Azman closed the Jewish community’s schools in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the Israeli embassy in Kyiv told members of the Jewish community to avoid leaving their homes.
Such concern is not over-blown, if history is a guide. Few in the West might recall that during the Nazi occupation of Ukraine, up to 900,000 Ukrainian Jews were slaughtered.