Those in the West who were paying attention reacted with shock and indignation when, last month, the newly formed Ukrainian provisional government welcomed a tranche of neo-fascists into its fold. The Svoboda party’s Oleksandr Sych is now Deputy Prime Minister, while two other Svoboda members lead the agriculture and environment ministries, and another is acting as prosecutor general. Even Praviy Sektor—EDL-style street thugs to Svoboda’s BNP—came closer to mainstream acceptability as a result of their involvement in the Maidan uprising.
Given the parlous state of politics across the continent, western Europe’s indignation was a little hypocritical. Still, Ukraine’s Svoboda party stands well to the right of the Wilders or le Pens of the West. The Ukrainian far right departs from that of the West, too, in its rosy view of European Union membership. “The participation of Ukrainian nationalism and Svoboda in the process of EU integration is a means to break our ties with Russia,” boasted Svoboda’s Yury Noyevy. The party’s heartlands are in the anti-Communist and anti-Russian west of the country, along with the proportion of the population that aspires to EU-backed “modernization.” It is this convergence of pro-Western and Ukrainian nationalist interests that has won many leftists over to the notion that the Ukrainian regime had been the victim of a Western-backed fascist coup, and has even allowed some to mistake Putin’s brazen opportunism for self-defense. These misrepresentations aside, the sudden ascension of Svoboda and Praviy Sektor to prominent public positions inches the EU closer to tolerating fascists.
Ukraine’s governmental neo-fascists—famous for leader Oleh Tyahnybok’s assertion that Ukraine is run by a “Muscovite-Jewish mafia”—are only the most startling iteration of a growing trend in “east-central Europe” (the geographic euphemism referring to the non-Balkan ex-communist countries) towards a fully politically incorporated radical right. This trend—at various stages of development throughout the region—sees the mainstream center right and the far right dominating public discourse while the traditional left flounders under conditions of austerity and social instability. The far right has proved uncannily able to take advantage of this vacuum, lending an extraordinary degree of popular acceptance to its open misogyny, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. Not all of the region’s right-wing radicals are as professional as the Ukrainians. In Poland, Independence Day has become a sort of far-right carnival of street violence, as nationalist gangs descend on Warsaw to smash up shops and burn rainbow flags. In the Czech Republic, far-right street protests against the “Roma menace” are on the rise, as documented exhaustively on the excellent site Romea. More insidious and slow-burning is Hungary’s far-right Jobbik Party , which has been inciting hatred of Roma and Jewish minorities from an increasingly strong parliamentary position for years. Though traditionally the Front Nationals and Freedom Parties of the postwar era have had to moderate their positions to gain wider acceptance, it appears in east-central Europe (as in Greece, with the rise of the notorious Golden Dawn) that the most racist of far-right views are finding greater mainstream credibility. As prominent and increasingly widely accepted political actors in the once-heartlands of anti-Nazi resistance, these far-right parties set a dangerous precedent for Europe as a whole.
Precisely because of the danger represented by far-right organizations like Svoboda and Praviy Sektor, it is important to place them in their wider context. Seamus Milne, writing in the Guardian, has suggested that the success of the far right in Ukraine reflects mismanagement of the collapse of the Soviet Union by the Western powers and subsequent Western expansionism. While it’s true that the undoing of the Soviet regime was economically disastrous, its disappearance in no way guaranteed the inter-ethnic violence that has followed in former Yugoslavia, Georgia, and now Ukraine; indeed, each case is highly historically distinctive. Instead the attempted—and often botched—restructuring of entire social systems by competing national elites has turned chaos and cronyism into a default setting of Europe’s peripheral economies. The West cannot be entirely to blame for what are local struggles over the nature of regional integration into a properly global capitalism. Certainly the EU dislikes the idea of cooperating with street thugs. The problem is that such compromises may soon become a necessity.
Characteristic of the struggle for regional predominance has been the marginalization of left- and potentially left-wing social forces. Trade union membership is universally low (hovering between 12 and 17 percent of the workforce throughout east-central Europe) and the unions themselves are widely incapacitated. Traditional Communist Parties—where they have kept the name—have been utterly outpaced. Despite their “vanguardist” pedigree, most Communist Parties—with their conservative bureaucracies and propensity for myopic realpolitik—have been constitutionally constrained beasts. Rightly damaged by lingering association with the old regimes, and often still depicted as the stooges of Russian expansionism, Communists throughout the region have been consistently outmaneuvered by more flexible, youthful organizations—de facto those of the right—when it comes to attracting discontented voters. Meanwhile, much of the former dissident and anti-communist center right—the great electoral beneficiaries of the liberal turn of the 1990s—has either shifted further right itself or been brought down by its own corruption scandals, creating an opening for more radical groups. In the Czech Republic, the Civic Democratic Party (ODS) has recently seen its support base crumble following the collapse of the Necas government, under pressure of constant scandal. Meanwhile in Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s ruling Fidesz Party has constructed an apparently unassailable constitutional advantage, sidelining the already scandal-rocked Social Democratic opposition. Once an anti-communist opposition stalwart, Fidesz has grown increasingly authoritarian in power.
The ideological knot, then, is a complicated one. Traditional left-right party divisions are falling by the wayside as the mainstream parties oscillate between neoliberal technocracy and more aggressive right-wing nationalism. In Hungary, which has been subject to something of a Putinesque turbo-presidency of its own under Orbán, Fidesz electorally overwhelms the more violent Jobbik only by triangulating to the right. In many ways, the neo-fascists in Jobbik do the old fashioned authoritarian nationalists of Fidesz a service by making them look strangely moderate. Meanwhile, Orbán has taken full advantage of the weak opposition by imposing harsh restrictions on the scope for popular protest and civil activism. This leaves the right further empowered while compounding the marginalization and fragmentation of the left. As a result, no one is too alarmed these days when a founding member of Fidesz declares all “gypsies” “not fit to live amongst people.” After all, Jobbik organizes street crusades against “gypsy crime.” Thus the mainstream right gets away with its rabid racism by passing the buck onto an even more aggressive far right.
The Czech Republic makes for a revealing point of comparison. Here civil society institutions, like the aforementioned Romea, have done well at raising awareness of far-right marches, encouraging public condemnation, and halting the transformation of simmering social tensions into mobilized hatred. Many components that made up the communist-era safety net, though embattled, remain intact. University education (in almost all cases to Masters level) is for all intents and purposes still free. The private education sector remains an unconvincing choice even for the wealthy. Social benefits are still what Western observers describe as “generous.” Inequality, though it exists and is increasing, is a source of popular discomfort. And it must be said that the continued existence and popularity of the Czech Communist Party, which regularly scores around 15 percent of the popular vote in national elections, pushes social policy to the left. Various tuition fee proposals have had to be shelved. Governments attempting to push back the welfare state have been systematically undermined by corruption scandals while garnering little sustained public support. In such a situation of structural impediment to social “readjustment,” the political class has proved itself incapable of entirely marginalizing social power. The far right has little room to organize more professionally, at least for the time being. Yet there have been few, if any, universal social gains in the market era since 1989, and discontent over a stagnating economy and political corruption is growing. Increased market integration and the growing formalization and centralization of power in a parliamentary elite suggest that the stalemate will not hold. The Workers’ Party of Social Justice (DSSS), though winning only 2 percent of votes at elections, has already made some progress in getting people on the streets in the name of “anti-gypsyism.” Whether the far right, riding a wave of resentment against the poor Roma population, can capitalize on future turmoil remains to be seen.
The British historian Timothy Garton Ash once wrote that the “elective affinities” that bind the likes of Hungary, Poland. and the Czech and Slovak Republics to the West through the “mythopoeic” manifestations of “the idea of Central Europe” bind them just as readily to an alternative tradition —not that of tolerance, liberalism, skepticism, and the rule of law but that of racism, anti-Semitism, and romantic uber-statism, which reaches its apogee in Nazi Germany. Thus the countries of east-central Europe form, in the liberal Western imagination, a sort of last stop on the road to a barbarous and mythical East. Yet Nazism was by no means the inevitable flowering of some innate regional Geist. Historically, ultra-nationalism has only emerged where existing systems of social security and the organization of work have been radically undermined (as in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia) and where social forces for change (in the form of political parties or unions or wider civil society movements) have splintered. In these circumstances, the highly disciplined and increasingly articulate far right tends to outpace the centrist dinosaurs and eclipse the left. These are the conditions we’re in now. And they’re bringing ultra-nationalism and racism back to the heart of the EU.
Adam Blanden is a Prague-based writer on politics, history, and culture. He blogs at http://accidental-witness.blogspot.cz.