Nationalists perform strongly in Ukraine vote
KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — A right-wing party has promised to fight for greater democracy and a pro-Western course for Ukraine and to defend the Ukrainian culture and language. But the Svoboda (Freedom) party has also been tainted by its anti-Semitic protests and its leaders' xenophobic statements.
The party made a strong showing in Ukraine's parliamentary election Sunday, leading some opposition supporters to hope it can help the country's two main pro-Western parties challenge the presidential party's strong grip on power. But others are worried about Svoboda's radical far-right rhetoric in a country already riven by strong cultural and political divisions.
Here's a look at Svoboda:
With votes from more than 90 percent of precincts counted, Svoboda was poised to get about 8 percent of seats in the 450-seat parliament. Such results are outstanding for a party that was scrambling to pass the 5 percent threshold just a few weeks ago.
Svoboda plans to initiate laws to ban communist ideology, annul a recent law that upgrades the status of the Russian language and oust the Russian navy from a base it leases in Ukraine's Crimea peninsula.
Svoboda has called the other two opposition groups — the Fatherland Party led by jailed ex-premier Yulia Tymoshenko and the Udar (Punch) party headed by world boxing champion Vitali Klitschko — to form an anti-government alliance in parliament.
But while Tymoshenko's group has agreed to partner with Svoboda, Klitschko has sought to distance himself from their radical statements.
FLAMBOYANT LEADER, ABUSIVE RHETORIC
Svoboda is headed by Oleh Tyagnybok, a charismatic 43-year-old former urologist usually clad in a traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt. Born in the western city of Lviv, the stronghold of Ukrainian nationalism, Tyagnybok is a skilled orator, known for his passionate speeches.
But some of his and his colleagues' statements have been openly insulting.
Tyagnybok has repeatedly used derogatory terms to refer to Jews and last year Svoboda activists protested a pilgrimage by thousands of Hassidic Jews marking the Jewish New Year in a Ukrainian city.
Yuri Sirotyuk, a senior member of Svoboda, caused an uproar last year when he said that a singer of African descent was a bad choice to represent the country in the Eurovision song contest because she is not part of Ukrainian culture.
Tyagnybok, however, denies that his party promotes ethnic hatred.
"Svoboda is not an anti-Semitic or xenophobic party," Tyagnybok told The Associated Press. "Svoboda is a pro-Ukrainian political force."
Some analysts say Svoboda's growing popularity has more to do with frustration with the rampant corruption and anti-democratic policies in Ukraine than with the rise of a dangerous radical sentiment.
"Svoboda's voters are protest voters," said political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko.
Observers warn that the rise of nationalism in Ukrainian politics may provoke a backlash in the country's eastern and southern regions where ethnic Russians make up the majority.
Maria Danilova contributed to this report