Although conservative civil society groups existed in Ukraine long before the 2013–2014 Euromaidan demonstrations and the ongoing armed conflict in Donbas, they have grown in number and prominence since 2014. Two different strands of conservative civil society are on the rise in Ukraine. One is a series of civil society groups focused on conservative social and religious values. These have gained support in part as a backlash to Ukraine’s adoption of European Union (EU) legal norms. The other is an extreme, far-right nationalist strand of civil society that has gained prominence in reaction to Russia’s military intervention.
These two types of conservative civil society both espouse certain traditional values, but their political aims and tactics are at odds with each other. Radical far-right groups are violent and nondemocratic, whereas values-based groups preach nonviolent action and promote democracy. The traditionalists might object that far-right groups should not be defined as properly “conservative”; this chapter examines both strands of civil society not because they are equivalent or allied in any sense, but because they represent two different types of right-wing activism that currently are on the rise in Ukraine.
Mainstream conservative civil society groups united around religious and spiritual values include churches and other kinds of religious-based civic movements. These groups are nonviolent and support democratic values. They use democratic procedures to promote their interests. Their participation in public life is mainly through services they provide to their members, awareness raising, and advocacy.
Several “For Life” movements, which engage in awareness raising and advocacy against abortion, contraceptives, and euthanasia, and oppose the legalization of same-sex partnerships, have gained momentum in recent years and are particularly active in western Ukraine.1 Their activists go to schools to influence students, organize pro-life marches and demonstrations against abortion and so-called homosexual propaganda, and organize petition-signing campaigns. These movements frame abortion as a violation of the right to life and draw on the human rights agenda to promote their values.
A number of “pro-family” movements also have risen to prominence in Ukraine. The All Together Movement, established in 2010, organizes family festivals, street marches, and educational events to unite people around such goals as the promotion of a secure society, strong families, religious freedom, health care, and charity. In June 2017, the group organized the Family Festival in central Kyiv and called on the authorities to do more to protect traditional family units. In a resolution signed by nearly 500 festival participants, the movement spoke out against amendments to the Ukrainian constitution that aimed to change the definition of marriage to not be restricted to a union between a woman and a man. They have also mobilized against concepts such as sexual orientation and gender identity being included in Ukrainian legislation, against legislative plans to introduce civil partnerships, against accelerated administrative procedures for marriage and divorce, and against “propaganda and popularization of different types of deviant sexual behavior and anti-family ideas.”2 To this end, these movement started a media campaign in Ukrainian regions called “Do Not Cut the Family!,” which advocates against the implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan. The movement complains that this act aims to align Ukrainian legislation with “negative EU standards” in family and civil law.
In 2014, an international association called Emmanuil established the Ukraine for a Family! alliance of pro-family organizations. The idea behind establishing a new pro-family civic association is that the “situation with the family worsens every year in Ukraine” despite the existence of many pro-family organizations.3 The alliance organizes the Ukrainian Family Forum in Kyiv, which brings together state officials, politicians, and church and civil society representatives.
The membership of such conservative groups is not large, but their street actions are supported by a sizeable core of sympathizers. Two-thirds of Ukrainians consider themselves believers, but only about 20 percent are regular churchgoers.4 Among the Orthodox churches, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is the most conservative. In 2013, it campaigned against the adoption of an antidiscrimination law that included protection for sexual orientation and gender identity.5 During the Euromaidan protests, this church distanced itself from the prodemocracy protesters. Many of its clerics and activists spoke out against integration with the EU, describing it as “Eurosodom” and an “aggressively secular, anti-Christian civilization.”6 In June 2014, Metropolitan Onufry stated that the laws of the new European world are “unacceptable to us,” pointing to same-sex marriages, euthanasia, and abortion legislation.7 Other key Ukrainian Christian churches—including the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Autocefalous Orthodox Church, the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, and the Roman Catholic Church in Ukraine—support Ukraine’s EU integration, even though they oppose the adoption of certain European norms.
The Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations tries to reconcile support for EU integration with the aim to protect “traditional Ukrainian moral and family values.” In 2007, it passed a seminal resolution that pro-family activists continue to support: “We do not advocate for discrimination against those who consider themselves homosexuals, but we are categorically opposed to the fact that homosexual life and behavior are treated as natural, normal, and useful for society and individuals.”8 The council campaigns against Ukraine’s ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.9 In December 2017, Ukraine’s parliament declined to ratify this convention. To many, this demonstrated the council’s increasingly strong political influence.
Mainstream conservatives do not have a specific political party that represents their interests, but many parties and politicians support them. The 2015 parliamentary votes on antidiscrimination amendments to the Labor Code showed that Ukrainian politicians were reluctant to support a ban on discrimination on the grounds of gender identity and sexual orientation. Without the EU promise of a visa-free regime for Ukrainians, it is difficult to imagine that such a law would have even been put on the parliamentary agenda. The most ardent supporters of conservative values are united in the interdenominational For Spirituality, Morality and Health of Ukraine association. The leader of this group is Pavlo Unhurian, a member of the Motherland (Batkivshchyna) Party and also a leader of the Union of Young Christians of Ukraine, a civic association that openly opposed the antidiscrimination legislation.
In general, the churches’ influence and presence have grown since the Euromaidan. They provided support to Euromaidan activists and then to combatants and their families, as well as civilians in Donbas. Churches are one of the most trusted social institutions in Ukraine. This trust has given them solid grounds to become more outspoken on traditional moral and family values. There is a deepening clash between this conservative strand of civil society and Ukraine’s more liberal groups that promote gender equality and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights as a part of the human rights agenda. The political impact of mainstream conservative civic groups has increased at the regional level. In December 2015, the Ivano-Frankivsk City Council approved a resolution calling upon the Ukrainian parliament to discriminate against the LGBT community. In September 2017, the Poltava City Council approved a similar statement.10
A public opinion poll conducted by Rating Pro shows that, between 2012 and 2016, the conservative constituency in Ukraine grew on issues such as opposition to same-sex marriage (support for a ban increased from 60 percent to 69 percent), employment of immigrants (support for a ban increased from 27 percent to 39 percent), and access to soft drugs such as marijuana (support for a ban increased from 31 percent to 37 percent).11 A quarter of respondents supported a ban on abortion.
Far-right nationalist groups represent a very different part of Ukrainian conservative civil society. The Euromaidan protests, the Russian occupation of Crimea, and separatist actions in eastern Ukraine have all spurred a national awakening. Although this movement stems mostly from benign Ukrainian patriotism, it has also brought ultraright nationalist groups to prominence. Though a small minority at the Euromaidan protests, radical far-right groups were the main collective agent engaging in physical violence.12 They also played a role in mobilizing Ukrainians to join volunteer battalions in security operations in eastern Ukraine (although according to one estimate, fewer than 10 percent of Ukrainian soldiers served in units with far-right roots).13
The most visible radical far-right groups appeared in the wake of the Euromaidan protests and the armed conflict in Donbas. The Right Sector is an informal coalition of nationalist organizations, activists, and football ultras (fanatical fans of a particular team) formed at the Euromaidan demonstrations. It has spawned a voluntary battalion, a political party, and a youth civic organization. The Right Sector party positions itself first of all as a “street politics” party. The Azov Battalion was formed in May 2014 and initially was led by Andrii Biletski, who was elected to the Ukrainian parliament in October 2014. Out of this organization grew the National Squads, a civic association whose mission is “to provide order on the streets of Ukrainian cities,” and the National Corps political party. The National Corps advocates the idea of “economic nationalism,” which implies the nationalization of strategic sectors of Ukraine’s economy.14 Both the National Corps and the Right Sector are against Ukraine seeking membership of the EU.
The Right Sector’s ideology draws on that of Tryzub, a militant fraternity-like organization founded in 1993, which in turn is based on the Ukrainian nationalism of the 1940s, particularly the works of political activist Stepan Bandera.15 It attributes Ukraine’s problems to “former Moscow occupants and colonists, the Moscow fifth column presented by different ‘red’ and left centrist’ parties.”16 The сore supporters of the Azov Battalion are the Kyiv-based Social National Assembly (established in 2008 by Kharkiv-based paramilitary group the Patriot of Ukraine) and other small ultraright groups that have their roots in the early 1990s. The Azov Battalion’s emblem is the overlapping letters I and N to symbolize the “Idea of Nation,” which is also a mirror image of the Wolfsangel symbol used by some Nazi SS divisions during World War II and post-1945 neofascist organizations.17
Another ultraright movement with a more civic—as opposed to political—identity is C14. Founded in 2009, C14 became more widely known during and after Euromaidan. It employs and justifies violence against left-wing groups, feminists, LGBT activists, the Russian Orthodox Church, and ethnic minorities such as Roma. Some researchers and human rights defenders call them a neo-Nazi group because of their symbols and alleged tolerance for racism and antisemitism; the leadership denies these accusations.18 C14 leader Yevhen Karas was on the electoral list of the far-right Freedom (Svoboda) Party in the 2014 Kyiv City Council elections.
The Freedom Party, the Azov Battalion, the Right Sector, and C14 form an informal alliance of nationalist groups to combat Ukraine’s “destabilization.”19 They lobby for “the right to armed defense.” The formation of voluntary battalions and paramilitary groups on both the Ukrainian and separatist-controlled sides of the contact line in Donbas was a response to the state’s failure to provide citizens with security.20
These radical groups regularly interrupt or attack public lectures, film screenings, and public assemblies that they accuse of propagating homosexuality or other liberal views.21 They engage in acts of vandalism toward “enemy” mass media and other institutions. In March 2018, National Corps representatives in Poltava stormed a venue where psychologists were trained on how to work with representatives of the LGBT community.22
The groups also act as a kind of civic police holding “preventive talks” with “separatism supporters,” which in practice means threatening or applying violence.23 In June 2017, C14 boasted that they had beaten up a person who had attacked the director of the National Memory Institute.24 C14 openly propagates violence against political opponents and minority groups by posting pictures of violent attacks on social media. In January 2018, C14 conducted a series of attacks against the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and affiliated journalist organizations.25 C14 also engages in nonviolent action, like protests against corruption and local construction projects, and works to defend Ukrainian “language security” (that is, using the Ukrainian language in public). Far-right groups’ membership mostly consists of physically fit men, many of whom have had combat experience.
Other civil society groups, including values-based conservatives, keep well clear of the far-right radicals. Although far-right groups are extremely visible—not least because of frequent media reports on their radical actions—they do not seem to enjoy a huge amount of popular support. According to polls, none of the far-right parties can come close to overcoming the 5 percent threshold to enter the Ukrainian parliament.26 However, far right groups seem to be protected by the state from being prosecuted for violence.27 Many allege that they cooperate with and receive support from security and law enforcement agencies, although it remains unclear to what extent the authorities control far-right movements.
The two strands of conservative society are entwined with two sets of debates: one about Ukraine’s ideational convergence with the EU, the other about Ukraine’s national resilience. Mainstream conservative groups reflect a polarization around competing visions of moral values. More worryingly, radical right-wing groups menace Ukraine’s democracy and statehood. They propagate and justify political violence against “others” who are seen to endanger the nation. Even though their extreme views may not have widespread support,28 their radical actions attract supporters who are frustrated that peaceful civic activism is not bringing quick political change. State authorities seem to tolerate these groups and offer them a protective cloak of impunity. Yet the same groups radicalize youth and attract the attention of foreign agencies interested in overthrowing Ukrainian democratic institutions and stirring up chaos. In this sense, the ongoing radicalization of civil society under the conditions of a weak state is one of the main domestic threats not only to democracy but to national security—the inverse of rightists’ nationalist goals.
1 See, for example, the Ivano-Frankivsk Movement’s “For Life” Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Рух-За-життя-Івано-Франківськ-882959335096683/.
2 “Pivtysiachi liudei pidpysaly Rezolutsiu uchasnykiv Festyvaliu ‘Usi Razom – za Simiu!’” [Hundreds of people signed the resolution of the ‘All Together for a Family!’ Festival participants], All Together Civic Movement, June 8, 2017, http://vsirazom.ua/vchinki/pivtisyachi-lyudej-pidpisali-rezolyuciyu-uchasnikiv-festivalyu-vsi-razom-za-simyu.
3 “Alians ‘Ukraina za Simiu’ na zakhysti tradytsiinykh simeinykh tsinnostei” [“Ukraine for a Family” Alliance protests traditional family values], Radio Svitle Emmanuil, February 25, 2016, https://svitle.org/informatsiya/955-alyans-ukrajina-za-sim-yu-na-zakhisti-traditsijnikh-simejnikh-tsinnostej.
4 “Tserkva, suspiltsvo, derzhava u protystoiannia vyklykam I zahrozam siogodennia” [Church, society, state resisting today’s challenges and threats], Razumkov Centre, 2017, http://razumkov.org.ua/uploads/article/2017_Religiya.pdf.
5 “UPTs MP vystupyla proty ukhvalennia zakonu pro dyskryminatsiu” [Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) spoke against the adoption of the anti-discrimination law], Dzerkalo Tyzhnia, March 18, 2013, https://dt.ua/UKRAINE/upc-mp-vistupila-proti-uhvalennya-zakonu-pro-diskriminaciyu-11877.
6 Andrii Krawchuk, “Redefining Orthodox Identity in Ukraine After the Euromaidan,” in, Churches in the Ukrainian Crisis, ed. Andrii Krawchuk and Thomas Bremer (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 179.
7 “Miestobliustitel Kievskoi metropolichei kafedry protiv Yevrointegratsii Ukrainy” [Kyiv Metropolitan is against European integration of Ukraine], Interfax, June 18, 2014, http://interfax-religion.ru/?act=news&div=55634.
8 “Deklaratsia Vseukrainskoi Rady Tserkov I religiinykh organizatsii ‘Pro nehatuyvne stavlennia do yavyshcha homoseksualizmu ta sprob lehalizatsii odnostatevych shliubiv (reiestratsii odnostatevykh partnerstv)’” [Declaration of the Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations “About negative attitudes toward homosexuality and attempts to legalize same-same marriages (register same-sex partnerships)”], May 15, 2007, http://vrciro.org.ua/ua/component/content/article?id=49:deklaraciya-vrciro-pro-negatyvne-stavlennya-do-yavyshcha-gomoseksualizmu-ta-tak-zvanyh-odnostatevyh-shlyubiv.
9 “Rada Tserkov zaklykae deputativ ne ratyfikovuvaty Stambulsku Konventsiu” [The Council of Churches calls members of parliament not to ratify the Istanbul Convention], May 17, 2017, http://vrciro.org.ua/ua/statements/499-uccro-against-ratification-of-istambul-convention.
10 “Report on the Human Rights Situation in Ukraine 16 August to 15 November 2017,” Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, December 12, 2017, http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/UA/UAReport20th_EN.pdf.
11 Rating Pro, “Expansion of Conservative Views in Ukraine,” September 8, 2016, http://ratingpro.org/en/research/poshirennya_konservativnih_poglyadiv_v_ukraini.html?toindex=1.
12 Volodymyr Ishchenko, “Far Right Participation in the Ukrainian Maidan Protests: An Attempt of Systematic Estimation,” European Politics and Society 17, no. 4 (2016): 453–72, https://doi.org/10.1080/23745118.2016.1154646.
13 Andreas Umland, “Dobrovolcheskie vooruzhennye formirovania i radikalnyi natsionalizm v postmaidannoi Ukraine: nekotorye osobennosti vozniknovenia polka ‘Azov’” [Voluntary Militias and Radical Nationalism in Post-Maidan Ukraine: Some Aspects of Emergence of the ‘Azov’ Battalion], Forum noveishei vostochnoevropeiskoi istorii i kultury no. 1 (2016), http://www1.ku-eichstaett.de/ZIMOS/forum/docs/forumruss25/09UmlandAzoverweitert.pdf.
14 See the National Corps political program at http://nationalcorps.org/section/program.
15 Yevhen Vasylchuk, Nezakonni voenizovani ta zbroiini formuvannia v Ukraiini [Illegal paramilitary and armed groups in Ukraine] (Cherkasy: Tretiakov O.M. 2017), 74.
16 Ibid., 59.
17 Andreas Umland, “Ukrainskyi dobrovolchi bataliony i polk ‘Azov’” [Ukrainian Voluntary Battalions and the “Azov” Regiment], Krytyka 19, no. 11–12 (2016): 9.
18 Iryna Shtorhin, “‘C14’ Natsionalisty-radykaly chy neonatsysty?” [C14: Radical nationalists or neo-Nazi?], Radio Svoboda, March 19, 2018, https://www.radiosvoboda.org/a/29109819.html.
19 “C14. Kto oni i pochemu im pozvoleno bit liudei” [C14. Who they are and why they are allowed to beat people], Liga News, November 15, 2017, http://news.liga.net/politics/interview/s14_kto_oni_i_pochemu_im_pozvoleno_bit_lyudey.
20 Emmanuel Karagiannis, “Ukrainian Volunteer Fighters in the Eastern Front: Ideas, Political-Social Norms and Emotions as Mobilization Mechanisms,” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 16, no. 1 (2016), 139–53, https://doi.org/10.1080/14683857.2016.1148413; and Anna Matveeva, “No Moscow Stooges: Identity Polarization and Guerrilla Movements in Donbass,” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 16, no. 1 (2016), 25–50, https://doi.org/10.1080/14683857.2016.1148415.
21 “Pravi atakuvaly Docudays UA ta pozryvaly plakaty pro rivnist” [Right-wing groups attached Docudays UA and tore away the equality posters], Zaborona, March 26, 2018, https://zaborona.com/docudays-attacked/.
22 “Natskorpus zirvav trening pro LGBT-spilnotu u Poltavi” [National Corps disrupted a training on LGBT community in Poltava], Hromadske Radio, March 31, 2018, https://hromadskeradio.org/news/2018/03/31/nackorpus-zirvav-trening-pro-lgbt-spilnotu-u-poltavi-foto-video.
23 “C14. Kto oni i pochemu im pozvoleno bit liudei.”
24 Roman Hankevych, “Pravoradykaly z C14 pobyly organizatora napadu na Volodymyra Viatrovycha” [Right-wing radicals from C14 beat up the organizer of the attack on Volodymyr Viatrovych], Zahid.Net, June 12, 2017, https://zaxid.net/pravoradikali_z_s14_pobili_organizatora_napadu_na_volodimira_vyatrovicha_n1428404.
25 “Report on the Human Rights Situation in Ukraine 16 November 2017 to 15 February 2018,” OHCHR, March 19, 2018, http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/UA/ReportUkraineNov2017-Feb2018_EN.pdf.
26 “Hromadska dumka hruden-2017: vyborchi reityngy i reityngy doviry” [Public opinion December 2017: electoral rankings and trust rankings], Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Foundation, January 23, 2018, http://dif.org.ua/article/reytingijfojseojoej8567547.
27 See “Report on the Human Rights Situation in Ukraine 16 May to 15 August 2017,” OHCHR, September 12, 2017, http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/UA/UAReport19th_EN.pdf; Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Freedom House, and Frontline Defenders, “Joint Letter: Urgent Need for Ukrainian Authorities to End Impunity for Radical Violence,” June 13, 2018, https://freedomhouse.org/article/joint-letter-urgent-need-ukrainian-authorities-end-impunity-radical-violence.
28 A vast majority of Ukrainians do not support violent protest, but a high percentage are in favor of limiting the rights of certain groups such as drug addicts, Roma, individuals with different political views, and the LGBT community. See “85% ukraiintsiv negatyvno stavliatsia do nasylstva, ale pomitna kilkist podialiaut’ stereotypy poviazani z pevnymy formamy nasylstva – doslidzennia” [85% of Ukrainians have a negative attitude toward violence, but a significant number share stereotypes related to some forms of violence], Ukraine Crisis Media Centre, January 20, 2017, http://uacrisis.org/ua/51751-nasilstvo; and Iryna Bekeshkina, Tetiana Pechonchyk, and Volodymyr Yavorskiy, What Ukrainians Know and Think of Human Rights: Nation-wide Research (Kyiv: UNDP, 2017): 72, http://www.ua.undp.org/content/dam/ukraine/docs/DG/Ombudsman%27s%20project/HumanRightsEnBig.pdf.