An Austrian academic institute has revoked a fellowship to a Ukrainian postgraduate after the embarrassing discovery that she was a key figurehead in the global far-right.
The Vienna-based Institute for Human Sciences (Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen, or IWM) said Monday that the fellowship awarded to Olena Semenyaka, the head of international outreach for Ukraine’s far-right Azov movement, had been “revoked with immediate effect” after her political affiliations and accusations she has promoted her country as a hub for right-wing extremists became known.
“(IWM) clearly condemns and distances itself from the right-wing extremist statements and actions of Olena Semenyaka,” the institute’s rector Shalini Randeria said in a statement, adding that the IWM had always stood “for liberal democratic values and against all forms of totalitarian thinking.”
“The institute deeply regrets this and has withdrawn Semenyaka's fellowship with immediate effect after the facts became known.”
A link on the IWM website detailing Semenyaka’s fellowship was deleted on Monday.
Semenyaka, whose academic background is in philosophy, had been made a junior visiting fellow, receiving an 1,800 euro (about £1,600) monthly stipend for her research project. But it’s her other role as the international face of Ukraine’s ultranationalist Azov movement, spearheading the group’s networking efforts with like-minded extremist groups internationally, that has prompted alarm.
News that she had been awarded a half-year junior visiting fellowship from January to June at the IWM – a respected, government-funded institute for advanced study in the humanities and social sciences – sparked disbelief after an academic at Canada’s University of Ottawa tweeted about the posting.
“Semenyaka can be described as the international figurehead of the Azov movement,” Mollie Saltskog, senior intelligence analyst at the Soufan Group, told VICE World News.
She said Semenyaka had travelled extensively through Europe to promote Azov and its geopolitical goals, promoted the idea of foreign nationals joining the ultranationalist group, and spoken at European conferences alongside “the most famous ideologues in the transnational white supremacy extremist movement.”
“For an academic institution to award her a fellowship has serious consequences,” she said.
“It not only lends legitimacy to her self-styled image as an academic within the movement, but also broadens her platform from which she can network and promote her and the organisation’s ideology.”
In an emailed statement to VICE World News, Semenyaka denied she was a right-wing extremist, and that her outreach work in Europe was aimed at building solidarity against Russian aggression.
“I am not a ‘far right activist’,” she said.
She added she understood the IWM’s stance, acknowledging she was a controversial figure, but saw it as a case of “cancellation.”
“I understand that the IWM should care about its reputation and academic responsibility first, and since my information outreach is weaker than of those who consciously or unknowingly accuse me of far-right activism, my stay at the Institute could damage its good name.”
But experts who monitor the far-right disagree with her denials, and say that Semenyaka’s extensively documented networking within international right-wing extremist circles are evidence of this.
They say that the Azov movement, with Semenyaka spearheading its charm offensive, has turned Ukraine into a key hub in transnational extreme-right networks, attracting white supremacists from across Europe and the United States.
“She has also hosted American white supremacy ideologues and organisations in Ukraine – some of whom have been indicted on violent charges here in the US,” said Saltskog.
READ: Far-right extremists have been using Ukraine’s war as a training ground
Since first forming during the Ukraine crisis in 2014 as a volunteer militia commanded by the former leader of a neo-Nazi party, with members drawn from the hooligan scene, Azov has developed into a complex and powerful operation, with a political party, National Corps – described as a “nationalist hate group” by the US State Department – and its own vigilante force, the National Militia.
As National Corps’ international secretary, Semenyaka – who has been banned from Facebook – has been at the forefront of efforts to build bridges with other European far-right groups. In recent years, she’s actively networked throughout Europe, giving speeches at far-right conferences organised by groups such as the Young Nationalists, the youth wing of the German neo-Nazi NPD party, and attending events with the German far-right party Der Dritte Weg (The Third Way) and the Italian neofascists CasaPound. At one event in Stockholm last year, she was scheduled to speak alongside British neo-Nazi and former British National Party official Mark Collett.
In 2018, she reportedly told RFE/RL that she had carried out some of her outreach trips alongside far-right kingpin Denis Nikitin, a high-profile Russian football hooligan and MMA fighter, who runs the white power fight promotion and lifestyle brand White Rex.
READ: A Russian neo-Nazi hooligan is trying to build an MMA empire across Europe
Semenyaka told VICE World News that her European outreach was focused on pushing the Intermarium initiative – the concept of a union of a deeper integration of Ukraine into Eastern and Central Europe, then further West, as a regional bulwark against Russia to the East.
“Only in the imagination of unprofessional reporters [does it take the] shape of an alliance of some fantastic far right governments,” she said.
She also addressed a photo that was circulated of her online, showing her as one of a group of four women holding a flag emblazoned with a swastika while giving a Nazi salute. She claimed the image was an ironic Halloween photo, mocking the Kremlin narrative that Ukrainian nationalists were neo-Nazis.
“The Halloween photograph of me making a ‘Roman salute’ with a swastika banner is probably ten years old and is explicitly ironic,” she said.
“Using it as ... ‘proof’ of my political views totally contradicts its real message and contrasts with its intendedly exaggerated dramatic effect.”
She added: “I respect [the] sensitivity of the Austrian society towards National Socialist symbols and politically incorrect jokes, for Ukraine, where I come from, shares a lot of common, and tragic, pages with Austria's history in times of the Second World War.”
READ: A black metal festival in Ukraine is the neo-Nazi networking event of the year
Given that Semenyaka hasn’t exactly been underground in her political work, questions will now be asked about how the jury responsible will have granted a fellowship to a figure with well-established far-right affiliations.
An IWM spokesperson did not respond to questions about the makeup of the jury. But part of the answer may lie in differing norms on the boundaries of political acceptability, and what beliefs should disqualify a researcher from academic work. Two prominent Ukrainian researchers, who specialise on the far-right and are familiar with Semenyaka’s work, said they saw no reason why Semenyaka should be disqualified from the academic fellowship due to her political affiliations.
“For me, personally, with all the circumstances, Dr. Semenyaka's candidacy for the fellowship looks acceptable. But, well, it is the Institute's decision,” researcher Vyacheslav Likhachev, an expert on right-wing extremism in Ukraine, told VICE World News in an email.
For the Austrian institute, though, the episode has left only red faces.
“The IWM is doing everything possible to investigate why their political activity in relevant right-wing extremist circles has escaped the attention of the jury responsible for the selection,” said Randeria, the institute’s rector, adding that the award process was now under review.