Ukraine's New Leaders: From Neo-Nazis To A Muslim, A Jew And A Heavyweight Boxer

03/03/2014 15:43 | Updated 03 March 2014

Amongst the swarm of blue-and-yellow painted faces and billowing flags on Independence Square in the bloody days leading up to the toppling of Ukraine's now-ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, on 22 February, some black flags had crept in.

It was a sign that Ukraine's far right, dubbed neo-Nazi by some, was now part of the opposition Maidan movement, orchestrating some of the most co-ordinated tactics against the riot police. And groups such as the ultra-nationalist Svoboda party, with its ominous talk of a "Muscovite-Jewish mafia", are now playing a key role in the new interim government - Svoboda controls three government ministries and the prosecutor-general's office.

The infiltration of the far right into the movement has played directly into the propaganda of Yanukovych and Vladimir Putin. Russia's president, immediately before he asked Parliament for permission to invade Ukraine, he condemned the "fascist hooligans" who had staged a coup against a democratically elected president.

In that debate which led to unanimous approval of the use of force by Russia in the Crimea, the opposition were repeatedly named as fascists. "Look who came to power now in Ukraine—radicals, nationalists, fascists," one legislator remarked.

Jewish members of the opposition, such as Aleksandr Feldman, president of the Ukrainian Jewish Committee and a member of the parliament of Ukraine, have also called on the protesters to "shun anti-Semitic elements" such as Svoboda.

Nevertheless, the political and ideological make-up of Ukraine's opposition-turned-government is far more complex and nuanced, and includes a practicing Jewish businessman and a campaigning Muslim journalist.

In the Crimea, meanwhile, where Putin says his army is protecting not only ethnic Russians but also minorities like Jews who are at risk from a fascist takeover, the Jewish community disagrees.

In a statement released Friday, Rabbi Michael Kapustin of the Ner Tamid Reform synagogue in Simferopol, said: “The city is occupied by Russians. Apparently Russians intend to take over the Crimea and make it a part of Russia,” Kapustin said. ”If this were the case I would leave the country. In this case, I will leave this country since I want to live in democratic Ukraine.”

From neo-Nazis, to a Jewish oligarch, from a heavyweight boxer to an Afghan immigrant, here are some of the more surprising key figures who are now in charge of guiding Ukraine into an uncertain future.

  • Vitali Klitschko
    Widely tipped to win the Ukrainian presidency, and currently chair of the aptly named 'Punch' party, former WBC heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko is perhaps the most well-known face of the Ukraine's new leadership. Klitschko is not a naturally charismatic leader, struggling with public speaking and letting his emotions often get the better of him in public. He has been derided as totally inexperienced by analysts. But he is determined to be Ukraine's unifying figure, after declaring in October 2013 that the needs of his country were greater than his boxing ambitions. And because of his perceived distance from the Ukrainian old guard, he could be right. Ukraine's trust that he is no oligarch, his money was made "honestly", in the ring. In Ukrainian, his centre-right party is called Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, or UDAR. Udar is translated as Punch. Having held 40 seats in the Ukrainian parliament, and as the official opposition to Yanukovych's party, his party is liberal economically and pro-welfare and pro-European Union. The platform for the party was ruthless anti-corruption,
  • Oleh Tyahnybok
    Oleh Tyahnybok is the man who most worries the West. He is the leader of Svoboda, and now the People's Deputy of the new Ukrainian government. Svoboda are a extreme far-right party, with elements of fascism and anti-semitism. Its previous name, the Social-National Party of Ukraine, is a bit of a give-away. Svoboda Party has six major cabinet ministries in the government of Arseniy Yatsenyuk. Tyahinybok has given speeches in the past deriding "kikes" and in 2005 wrote a letter to the president calling for an investigation into "organised Jewry and criminality in Ukraine". Svoboda is part of an alliance of European neo-fascists, the Alliance of European National Movements, which includes France's National Front, the British National Party and Hungary's Jobbik.
  • Andriy Parubiy
    A co-founder of Svoboda, who split from that party prior to the revolution, Andriy Parubiy has appointed Secretary of the National Security and National Defence Committee. During the Maidan protests, Parubiy was a key figure in a group called Right Sector, a group many have said took violence in the Maidan movement to an unacceptable level.
  • Dmytro Yarosh
    Getty Images
    The shaven-headed 42-year-old is the head of the aforementioned Right Sector, a militant opposition group. He is now appointed Parubiy’s deputy Secretary of the National Security and National Defence Committee. Fiercely right-wing and anti-Russian, he has called for various political parties, including the Communist party, to be banned. Right Sector considers Svoboda to be too liberal and conformist.
  • Tetyana Chernovil
    Journalist and activist Tetyana Chernovil is a tricky one to pin down. She has been named chair of the government’s anti-corruption committee. Chernovil, who has passionately campaigned against corruption, was the former press secretary for UNA-UNSO - another far-right group widely considered to have employed neo-Fascist and neo-Nazi methods and ideologies. But Chernovil left the party, disillusioned with extremist politics. She became a key independent player in the Maidan movement, and in December she was brutally beaten outside Kiev, hours after publishing a story on the lavish suburban residence that she said belongs to the country's embattled interior minister, a staunch Yanukovych ally.
  • Mustafa Nayem
    Mustafa Nayem, probably the Ukraine's most prominent journalist is credited with having started the EuroMaidan movement that toppled Yanukovych. He is also one of the best retorts to those who claim the opposition are a fascist movement. He is a Muslim, of Afghan origin. In November, it was him who rallied young people to Independence Square, via social media. Since the overthrow of Yanukovych, he has been a key voice of the movement and is investigating documents left at the former President's residence.
  • Ihor Kolomoisky
    Oft-accused of being anti-semitic, Ukraine's new leadership just appointed Jewish businessman Ihor Kolomoisky governor of Dnipropetrovsk. Kolomoisky is a practicing Jew and a key supporter of the small Jewish community in the Ukraine. Rabbi Shmuel Kaminezki of the Jewish community in Dnipropetrovsk, told the FT this week that praised Kolomoisky's appointment was proof that Russia claims of persecution of minorities in Ukraine were false. “What the Russians, with their propaganda on television and in their statements, are doing is trying to show that Ukraine is anti-Semitic, which is not true," the rabbi said. "It is very safe here for the Jews. This new Ukrainian leadership is not a fascist leadership, they are patriots."

Also on HuffPost:

Suggest a correction