By: Christine Bang-Andersen, Columnist
The 2014 Revolution of Dignity, Russia’s consequent annexation of Crimea, and the revolt in Donbas marked a turning point for Ukraine. They undermined the country’s internal cohesion and put renewed focus on its role in the international community, but they also created an opportunity for the nation to break away from its “big brother” Russia and truly cement itself as a country in its own right. As Ruslan Minich muses, “Nationalism is on the rise in Ukraine, and that’s a good thing.” Indeed,4455 55.7% of the population is adopting a more civic understanding of the word today, viewing all citizens of Ukraine as “Ukrainians” regardless of ethnicity, language or religion. This is compared to only 38.8% in 2007.[i] However, the government seems to be using the nation’s historic momentum to move in the opposite direction, pushing harmful policy that takes on a fascist air and seeks to redefine historical controversies that have been buried for years. President Poroshenko’s controversial policy has not engendered much of a reaction from the U.S. or Europe, but it might ultimately prove yet another stumbling block for Ukraine’s ascension to the EU and NATO.
The most pronounced development is the official comeback of the call-and-response “Slava Ukraini, heroyam slava!” (in English “Glory to Ukraine, glory to the Heroes!”).[ii] The chant dates back almost 100 years and has been used by a variety of groups, each using the same call but creating their own responses. The combination that gained popularity during the 2013-14 Euromaidan protests, however, traces back to the 1930s, when it was employed by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukraine Insurgent Army (UPA). These organizations fought for Ukrainian independence before and during World War II, allying with Nazi Germany to achieve this goal and perpetrating atrocities against tens of thousands of Jews and Poles.[iii] Today the call-and-response is widely used by Ukrainians as the soldiers’ battle cry, an end note in Poroshenko’s national addresses, during press conferences with Western counterparts, and as a slogan for the pro-European reform of Ukraine.
Rather than leave it as the people’s unofficial rallying cry, the Ukrainian government pushed to have it become the official greeting of the Ukrainian Armed Forces per a suggestion by Prime Minister Hroysman in February,[iv] and this proposal was finally codified into law in October of this year.[v] In another realm, it has become the official slogan of the Ukrainian national soccer team. The national squad sported jerseys with the slogan printed on the back for the first time in September in a game against the Czech Republic. Unsurprisingly, Russia has criticized the move for glorifying a fascist slogan, but the jersey design is in accordance with UEFA rules and is officially accepted for one season’s use.[vi] The uniform change follows an already controversial summer of soccer hosted by Russia, which saw controversy when Croatian defender Domagoj Vida, an ex-Dynamo Kiev player, posted a video following Croatia’s quarter final win over Russia in which he dedicated the victory to Ukraine, exclaiming “Glory to Ukraine!”[vii] Vida subsequently received a fine from FIFA, which the Football Federation of Ukraine offered to pay on his behalf.[viii]
Some argue that officially adopting the slogan that served as the citizens’ rallying cry in a pivotal event is a natural and necessary step for a nation in the process of creating its identity. However, seen in conjunction with other developments, this policy is worrying given the fascist ideology from which the slogan is derived. In 2015, Ukraine passed a law recognizing controversial nationalist groups like the OUN and UPA as “independence fighters” and making it illegal to question the legitimacy of their actions. Supporters argued this was a way to build national identity, but the law also faced criticism by academics and human rights organizations for promoting harmful ideology and disregarding certain ethnic groups’ struggles.[ix] In addition, these laws risk exacerbating divisions in an already fragmented country, as many citizens, especially in the south and east, identify more closely with Russia and want policy to reflect that. Another concerning example of this trend is the legitimization of far-right extremist movements like Pravy Sektor, Azov, and Aidar: volunteer battalions that the Ukrainian Armed Forces integrated into their official force structure due to a shortage of government forces. According to the Ukrainian Minister of Defense, there are currently 40,000 volunteers defending the eastern border[x] compared to the 34,000 regular army forces currently deployed on the front.[xi] While not all volunteers belong to far-right organizations, this number is still illustrative of the far-right’s noticeable presence on the battlefield and in society.
The government has also enacted incendiary, nationalist policy regarding language. In 2016, the Rada introduced a minimum 75% quota for Ukrainian-language shows on television despite only 68% of the population considering Ukrainian their mother tongue, 50% of the population using it at home, and only 39% speaking it at work.[xii] In a similar vein, Ukraine has attempted to pass a law banning teaching in minority languages after primary school. For reference, Ukraine had 621 schools teaching in Russian, 78 in Romanian, 68 in Hungarian, and five in Polish in 2015.[xiii] This has sparked outrage among international rights organizations and ethnic minorities across Ukraine, and it has contributed to Orban’s secret distribution of Hungarian passports to residents in the ethnically Hungarian Zakarpattya region, which he has justified as “protecting Hungarian nationals abroad.”[xiv]
While Ukrainian NATO and EU membership is very far off, Poroshenko and Ukraine’s citizenry must take a long, hard look inward and determine how far the pro-Ukrainian agenda can go before it becomes destructive to an ascension agreement. It is unimaginable that the EU or NATO would support fascist leanings and discriminatory language policies. Moreover, these policies are polarizing the nation, over-representing the pro-European regions, and further fragmenting a country that is already loose at the seams. In an effort to build a national identity, the government is tearing the country apart.
[i] Ruslan Minich, “Nationalism is on the Rise in Ukraine, and That’s a Good Thing,” Atlantic Council, April 8, 2018. http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/nationalism-is-on-the-rise-in-ukraine-and-that-s-a-good-thing.
[ii] Kate Dobromishev, “Slava Ukraini, heroyam slava! History of the slogan,” Medium, August 19, 2017. https://medium.com/@KateDobromishev/slava-ukraini-heroyam-slava-history-of-the-slogan-2b62a0ea66b9.
[iii] Christopher Miller, “’Glory To Ukraine!’ It’s The Law. Or Could Be, If PM Gets His Way,” RFE/RL, February 7, 2018. https://www.rferl.org/a/ukraine-glory-heroes-law-hroysman-nationalists/29025666.html.
[iv] “Glory to Ukraine to become official greeting of armed forces,” The Ukrainian Weekly, August 17, 2018. http://www.ukrweekly.com/uwwp/glory-to-ukraine-to-become-official-greeting-of-armed-forces/.
[vi] Carl Shreck, “’Glory To Ukraine!’ Is The New National Team’s Soccer Slogan A Rallying Cry Or A Fascist Call?” RFE/RL, September 7, 2018. https://www.rferl.org/a/glory-to-ukraine-is-the-new-national-team-s-soccer-slogan-a-rallying-cry-or-a-fascist-call-/29477488.html.
[vii] “Slava Ukraini! Glory to Ukraine!’: Ukrainians crash FIFA rating on Facebook over Vida incident reaction,” Unian, July 10, 2018. https://www.unian.info/society/10181540-slava-ukraini-glory-to-ukraine-ukrainians-crash-fifa-rating-on-facebook-over-vida-incident-reaction.html.
[viii] Matthew Kupfer, “Ukrainian soccer to pay Ognjen Vukojević’s fine for ‘Glory to Ukraine’ video,” Kyiv Post, July 10, 2018. https://www.kyivpost.com/russia/ukrainian-soccer-to-pay-ognjen-vukojevics-fine-for-glory-to-ukraine-video.html.
[ix] Alec Luhn, “Ukraine bans Soviet symbols and criminalises sympathy for communism,” The Guardian, May 21, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/may/21/ukraine-bans-soviet-symbols-criminalises-sympathy-for-communism.
[xi] “40 thousand volunteers are protecting Ukraine today,” Poltorak, January 27, 2017. https://112.international/conflict-in-eastern-ukraine/40-thousand-volunteers-are-protecting-ukraine-today-poltorak-13495.html.
[xii] Tetyana Ogarkova, “The Truth Behind Ukraine’s Language Policy,” The Atlantic Council, March 12, 2018. http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/ukrainealert/the-truth-behind-ukraine-s-language-policy.
[xiii] Alessandra Prentice, “Criticism of Ukraine’s language law justified: rights body,” Reuters, December 8, 2017. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-ukraine-language/criticism-of-ukraines-language-law-justified-rights-body-idUSKBN1E227K.
[xiv] “Ukraine and Hungary in a row over passports,” European Forum, October 12, 2018. https://www.europeanforum.net/headlines/ukraine-and-hungary-in-a-row-over-passports.