Crisis With Russia Propels Ukrainian Nationalism

During Ukraine's recent revolution, ultra nationalist groups were prominent among the protesters battling police in Kiev's Maidan Square. A nationalist party was included in the interim government.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER: Ultranationalist groups played a key role among the protesters in Kiev during the recent Ukrainian revolution. Now, a nationalist party is in the interim government and pushing for changes in Ukraine's language law that have outraged Russian-speaking Ukrainians.

WERTHEIMER: NPR's Emily Harris reports on the influence of the nationalist far right.

(SOUNDBITE OF A METAL GATE)

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: A tall metal gate guards the entrance to the former Communist Party headquarters in Kiev.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

HARRIS: The face of Lenin still looms over the courtyard. But this three-story building has been recently claimed as headquarters for C-14, a loose affiliation of groups watchdogs call Neo-Nazi and the C-14 leader Yevgen Karas calls a laboratory for youth movements. C-14's common value is Ukrainian nationalism, he says. The common enemy is anyone against Ukraine.

YEVGEN KARAS: Can be ethnic Ukrainians, Russians Jews, anybody, but they hate Ukraine. They think that there is no nation and they accept Ukrainian language, Ukrainian history as an enemy.

HARRIS: Back a few years ago, Karas says, he and friends would actually dress up in traditional embroidered Ukrainian shirts and go looking for people who would make fun of them.

KARAS: In this way, we provoke some people who hate Ukrainian as nation to attack us to fight with them because we want to show them that we are not afraid and we will stand for ourself(ph).

HARRIS: C-14 toughness showed up on Kiev's Independence Square over the past months of protests. Karas and his cronies formed some of the many self-defense groups patrolling the square. Along with many others, they fought police and stormed government buildings.

Sociologist Andrii Bychenko says most Ukrainians had never heard of C-14 or other far right organizations before they participated in ousting former president Viktor Yanukovich. That, Bychenko says, raised the profile of far-right groups.

ANDRII BYCHENKO: Because it seems it wasn't possible to change system of Yanukovich without some more or less aggressive methods.

HARRIS: The protests also made a right-wing slogan mainstream.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Slava Ukraina.

CROWD: Slava Ukraina.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Slava Ukraina.

HARRIS: Slava Ukraina means glory to Ukraine. For many, the phrase captures a deep pride, strength and unity fueling their desire to rebuild the government, right this time. Volodymyr Ishchenko researches social protests in Ukraine. He hears something else in the slogan.

VOLODYMYR ISHCHENKO: Now we have totally normalized far right.

HARRIS: He's not just talking about slogans. C-14 is closely associated with a party in Ukraine's parliament. Svoboda was behind the move to change language laws that triggered much of the unrest in the Russian-speaking part of Ukraine. The party wants to add ethnicity to official IDs and hire government workers based partly on patriotism. Volodymyr Ishchenko...

ISHCHENKO: That's a dangerous situation. Because, OK, these are not just like label, far right. These people have their ideology. They have their program. But this program is xenophobic.

HARRIS: In the new government, the Svoboda Party got four ministerial jobs, including deputy prime minister and minister of defense. This worries leftist activist Bohdan Biletsky, who spent two weeks in the hospital after being beaten by neo-Nazis last summer. He says Ukraine's uprising, called Maidan here, didn't depend on far-right fighters.

BOHDAN BILETSKY: They've done a lot. But they weren't like the most important for us. I think there will be a Maidan without them.

HARRIS: Sociologist Bychenko agrees.

BYCHENKO: People supported them just for their readiness even to die for the goal. But I think very few people or maybe even nobody thought about their ideology.

HARRIS: In Ukrainian politics, he says, people value what groups do more than what they say.

Emily Harris, NPR News, Kiev.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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