(Reuters) – When protest leaders in Ukraine helped oust a president widely seen as corrupt, they became heroes of the barricades. But as they take places in the country’s new government, some are facing uncomfortable questions about their own values and associations, not least alleged links to neo-fascist extremists.
Russia’s president Vladimir Putin claims Ukraine has fallen into the hands of far-right fascist groups, and some Western experts have also raised concerns about the influence of extremists. Yet many Ukrainians see the same groups as nationalist stalwarts and defenders of the country’s independence.
Two of the groups under most scrutiny are Svoboda, whose members hold five senior roles in Ukraine’s new government including the post of deputy prime minister, and Pravyi Sector (Right Sector), whose leader Dmytro Yarosh is now the country’s Deputy Secretary of National Security.
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Right Sector activists wearing black ski masks, bullet-proof vests and military fatigues still hold several buildings close to Kiev’s Independence Square. Activists on the street declined to speak to Reuters about their organization. An individual described as their “commander” directed a reporter to two spokespeople who also declined requests for interviews.
On Tuesday the group called for supporters to patrol Wikipedia. In a posting on Vkontakte, the Russian equivalent of Facebook, Right Sector wrote: “We appeal to people who can make changes to Wikipedia. In the English version (with Russian worse) Right Sector is depicted as an organization that has a fascist and neo-Nazi views, with appropriate consequences. If you have an opportunity – correct this misunderstanding.”
According to Wikipedia’s logs, on Monday the Right Sector entry described the party as having “borderline fascist or neo-fascist views.” On Tuesday the page was modified 174 times, including changes to describe Right Sector as an “organization to protect demonstrators” and a “youth patriot organization.”
After the intervention of Wikipedia administrators, the page was locked and reverted to saying that Right Sector was “described by major Western newspapers as having far right or neo-fascist views.”
Expert opinions on Svoboda in particular are divided. Per Anders Rudling, an associate professor at Lund University in Sweden and researcher on Ukrainian extremists, has described Svoboda as “neo-fascist”. He told Britain’s Channel 4 News: “Two weeks ago I could never have predicted this. A neo-fascist party like Svoboda getting the deputy prime minister position is news in its own right.”
But Ivan Katchanovski, a political scientist at the University of Ottawa who has studied the far-right in Ukraine, disagreed that Svoboda was so extreme. “Svoboda is currently best described as a radical nationalist party, and not as fascist or neo-Nazi,” he said. “It is now not overtly anti-Semitic.”
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“Is now not overtly anti-Semitic.” That is not exactly a ringing endorsement.
But the MSM have misused the “neo-Nazi” and “far right” expressions so badly that can we trust them now?