If you want a good picture of how complicated the situation in Ukraine is, look no further than Senator John McCain’s recent trip to Kyiv.
You see, while the former presidential hopeful’s weekend trip was full of pro-Europe sound bites — “Ukraine will make Europe better and Europe will make Ukraine better,” he told a crowd in Kyiv’s central Maiden square on Saturday — and warnings of stern reactions from the U.S. should Ukraine use violence against the protesters, there’s another detail to it that might cause McCain fans at home some concern.
As the U.K.’s Channel 4 news points out, McCain was repeatedly photographed with Oleh Tyahnybok, the leader of the right wing nationalist party Svoboda, Oleh Tyahnybok.
Nowadays Svoboda (which means freedom in Ukrainian) is one of those reconstructed modern European far right parties — it is aligned with the British National Party and the French National Front, for example — and it has gained some kind of electoral legitimacy, winning 10 per cent of the seats in Ukraine’s parliament in 2010.
However, the party’s past is seriously murky. When it was founded in 1995, the party called itself the Social-National Party of Ukraine (SNPU), and it had a swastika-like logo. While it eventually split from its more right wing members, the party remained focused on celebrating Ukrainian ethnic identity in opposition to Russia and Communism.
Tyahnybok himself was expelled from the Our Ukraine parliamentary faction in 2004 after giving a speech demanding that Ukrainians fight against a “Muscovite-Jewish mafia” (he later clarified this by saying that he actually had Jewish friends and was only against to “a group of Jewish oligarchs who control Ukraine and against Jews-Bolsheviks [in the past]”). In 2005 he wrote open letters demanding Ukraine do more to halt “criminal activities” of “organised Jewry,” and, even now, Svoboda openly calls for Ukrainian citizens to have their ethnicity printed onto their passports.
Tyahnybok is a prominent leader in the Ukrainian protests, so perhaps it was only right that McCain met with him as he did with the others (we reached out to McCain’s office to find out how much he interacted with Tyahnybok, but have not heard back at the time of writing). You can defintely understand, however, why Jewish leaders in Ukraine and abroad are concerned about him.
As Max Fisher of the Washington Post has noted, the situation in Ukraine is amplified by numerous ethnic and linguistic issues that tie into a not-always-pretty history of nationalism and subjugation. In the past, McCain has sometimes revealed a simplistic, Cold War viewpoint of Russia. You have to wonder if, by going to Ukraine and standing on stage with a man accused of being an anti-Semitic neo-Nazi, he may have shown that trait again.
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