KIEV, Ukraine -- A surprise showing by an extreme-right nationalist party in the Ukraine's local elections has put the party and its leader - and its anti-Semitic rhetoric - into the national spotlight
Svoboda (Freedom), which until recently had been relegated to Ukraine's political fringe, handily won in three of the country's western-most provinces in Sunday's vote, preliminary tallies show.
Local elections held in the former Soviet republic propelled Svoboda to surprise victories in Ukraine's Lviv, Ternopil and Ivano- Frankivsk regions.
Svoboda, whose campaign program emphasized Ukrainian patriotism and resistance to the Kremlin, captured between 30 and 34 per cent of the popular vote in the three districts, according to a survey by the Research and Branding Group.
By contrast, its closest rivals obtained between 10 and 13 per cent in each local contest.
Svoboda also tripled its popularity in Ukraine's central and northern regions, as compared with the results of the 2010 presidential elections, according to mostly complete official ballot counts.
Oleh Tyahnybok, 41 and a former surgeon, is Svoboda's charismatic leader. His oratory, with its unique mix of erudition, pithy peasant wit and passion, stands out in Ukraine's political arena.
Tyahnybok calls himself a patriot fighting for his country. His opponents call him a racist and neo-Nazi.
'That's baseless lies, Svoboda is for equal rights for all Ukrainians,' an angry Tyahnybok said during a pre-election television talk show. 'Anyone who is for an independent Ukraine is our ally.'
Svoboda's grassroots are in old Galicia, a rugged region formerly belonging to Austria-Hungary and Poland. Unlike the rest of Ukraine, it came under Russian control only after World War II.
Tyahnybok quit medicine in 1996 and entered parliament in 2002 as a member of the Our Ukraine political party, headed by former president Viktor Yushchenko.
Our Ukraine, like Svoboda, supports market reforms and closer relations between Ukraine and Western Europe. But Tyahnybok's rhetoric has stirred up controversy.
Yushchenko expelled Tyahnybok from Our Ukraine in 2005 over a televised Tyahnybok diatribe in which he praised Ukrainian partisans who fought 'Ruskies, the Krauts, Jewishness and other unclean elements.'
He called on the Yushchenko government to strike fear into the 'Russky-Kike mafia' purportedly running Ukraine.
Yushchenko's political star has waned badly since then, and Our Ukraine managed to capture only 2.3 per cent of the national vote in the Sunday vote.
Outside Ukraine's western region, where Svoboda achieved outright victories, the party drew 5.1 per cent of ballots cast nationwide, making it Ukraine's fifth-most popular political party, according to a GfK exit poll.
'A couple of years ago, Tyahnybok's men were regarded as a marginal group...Today, they are a really influential force,' wrote Ukrainian political commentator Konstantin Dymov in an article titled 'The Nazification of Galicia.'
The Svoboda party platform, which criticizes oligarchs and tycoons, makes some commonplace proposals directed at the middle class, along with nationalist criticism of Russia.
The party calls for farm assistance, cracking down on corruption and a foreign policy that puts 'Russia and Ukraine on equal terms...rather than like the Tsar to his slave.'
Tyahnybok's sure feel for his electorate, and its dissatisfaction with Ukraine's Russia-leaning government, was in full evidence on May 27 in Lviv, when thousands of angry demonstrators turned out to hurl catcalls and insults at President Viktor Yanukovych's vehicle convoy.
Tyahanybok fired up the crowd with an angry speech attacking the president and his administration. Later in the day students put on a humorous street play featuring Yanukovych as a bewildered prison convict - a nasty reference to assault and robbery sentences Ukraine's president served in his youth.
One actor, playing the part of a stereotypical Orthodox Jew complete with wire glasses and Yiddish accent, obsequiously promised to rewrite Ukraine's history books: 'That's right your worship, there never were any Ukrainians. And their language - it's not a language, it's just Russian with a Polish accent!'