The reactions abroad to the violent demonstration in Kyiv on August 31st remind us of a twisted complication in the mutual relations between Ukraine and Europe. Europe is the future of Ukraine, Ukraine is the future of Europe. This should be obvious. But one dirty word mixes up the obvious: “nationalism”.
Europe backs the struggle of the Ukrainian nation for freedom from imperial domination, but Europe too often understands itself as beyond nations if not against them, and is therefore prevented from giving full support to Ukraine. This situation introduces reluctance and misunderstanding in the midst of Europe’s commitment for Ukraine. Europe is happy to support a revolution based on its values, aiming at establishing a modern State, efficient and respectful of human rights and free speech. But it is not fully in line with the national aspiration of Ukrainians because Europe should be a “post national” entity, according to current European ideas. This is even the ultimate European value: free circulation, “constitutional patriotism” — that is a community based exclusively on political principles and not on shared history and culture, and on the overcoming of national identities, suspected of parochialism if not xenophobia.
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Since the beginning of the Maidan revolution, there has been a recurring tendency in the West to overrate the importance of “nationalists”, “radicals”, “fascists”, even “neo-Nazis” in the uprising against Yanukovych. This rhetoric is used and abused by pro-Kremlin people of course, but it also finds an echo among people more sympathetic to the Maidan.
Three contentions are pretty commonly held, although they are not so much false as absurd: 1) Radical nationalists in Ukraine are far right activists, even fascists, even neo-Nazis for some of them; 2) they constitute a danger for Ukrainian democracy, threatening the elected government, and creating a climate of civil war; 3) it is a big mistake from the government and Maidan activists to work together with these groups, to allow them to contribute to the war in Donbas or any other policy.
The first one is based on a very confused perception of the extreme right in Europe. The second is at best (or at worst!) a self-fulfilling prophecy, far from truth: even if discontent and impatience towards the government are growing and can be manipulated, they have nothing to do with civil division (West versus East, Russian-speaking versus Ukrainian-speaking people, Catholics versus Orthodoxs, Nationalists versus Democrats, or the like). These are typically bottom-up tensions, whereby simple folk and activists wondering whether the political elite is worth their trust. As a friend from abroad, I understand them sometimes, but I often feel that they should not be so impatient nor underestimate the steps already completed. The third contention is ridiculous considering the poor results of Svoboda and Pravy Sektor in elections or in polls. Besides, however narrow-minded and alien to liberal values, these parties are decent members of the democratic game, far better integrated in it than, for instance, the Sinn Fein in Ireland or the religious Right in Israel.
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So if these opinions on “Ukrainian nationalists” are absurd, how do they come to be so persistent, and need to my regret to be refuted again and again? The problem is that these myths are not only generously fuelled by Kremlin’s propaganda; they also meet deeply entrenched beliefs in the old democracies.
Since 1945, Soviet propaganda has succeeded in equating any enemy of the USSR with “fascism”, changing the notion of fascism into a fuzzy scarecrow, a moral label used for all kinds of enemies, creating a subconscious identification of the US, “bourgeois democracy”, nationalism, liberalism, etc. with the worst evil, Hitler. This fantasy is a gross lie: if fascists were once the enemy of the USSR, it does not mean that every enemy of the USSR is a fascist, or that Russian regime is clean from fascism. Indeed, there used to be a red fascism under Brezhnev, and Andrei Piontkovsky rightly labels Putin’s regime as “hybrid fascism”. Under the spell of the soviet vision of history, some people fall into the trap: Ukrainian nationalists are collaborators of Nazism, anti-Semitic, no crime is worse than being a “banderite”, yesterday and today. Lack of historical consciousness helps in confusing very different things, past and present, far-right, neo-Nazis and nationalists, under the fuzzy headings of “populism” or “nationalism”. It should be obvious that fascists are not nationalists, that the far-right in Europe, from the neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn in Greece, Jobbik in Hungary, NPD in Germany to less radical parties, like the National Front in France, Alleanza Nazionale and Lega Nord in Italy, are today in love with Putin. The European extreme right is divided between national xenophobes (FN, UKIP) and ethnic Regionalist enemies of the nation State; but it is united in the hatred of Ukraine, fuelled by the Kremlin’s support, notably through the World National Conservative Movement launched in Saint Petersburg. The German neo-Nazis marched with Donetsk People’s Republic flags in August (Gerhard Schröder and the pro-Putin establishment must have felt very uncomfortable!). It is then completely odd to confuse these parties with the Ukrainian nationalists of Pravy Sektor and Svoboda.
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This fatal tendency is the lever where Kremlin’s denial of Ukrainian legitimacy can rely on a convergence with European most democratic feelings. Whenever Russian propaganda equates (Ukrainian) nationalism with “fascism”, it uses a threadbare soviet argument, but it also rings a friendly bell to the democratic ears in the West. Openness to otherness has turned to self-hatred in the Western mind. People feel uneasy with identity and cultural issues, they fantasize a neutral society where every culture, religion, way of life should have an equal share, something like an international airport rather than a genuine country where different people live together, bump up against one another, instead of passing one another by. Paradoxically, the ultimate brand of liberal-democratic values meets here the imperial ideology, and offers it a fertile ground against Ukraine. The Ukrainian revolution brings Europe to clarify this mess. The true Europe is not a “post national” entity, something like an empire without weapons; it is rather a scheme against empires, devoted to freedom, prosperity and sovereignty of small homelands in a globalized world. This is not the least good, the least revelation that may result from the Ukrainian revolution.