Ukraine Radicals Steer Violence as Nationalist Zeal Grows

Mikhail Zhyzneuski’s pallbearers wore black balaclavas and camouflage jackets as they carried his coffin through crowds of mourners in Ukraine’s capital Jan. 26.

The 25-year-old from Belarus died last month from gunshot wounds as anti-government protests in Kiev turned deadly. He was part of the nationalist Pravyi Sektor movement, whose supporters joined demonstrators demanding an end to Viktor Yanukovych’s presidency. The group claims it played a central role in the violent lurch in Ukraine’s crisis.

The radicals, who joined the 11-week-old protests sparked by Yanukovych spurning European integration for a Russian bailout, don’t answer to Kiev camp leaders and are threatening to renew the unrest that’s sparked warnings of civil war. Their arrival may also bolster nationalist forays into mainstream politics, like in other European countries such as Greece.

“The opposition now has limited control over the protest camp,” said Iryna Bekeshkina, director of the Democratic Initiative Foundation, a Kiev-based research group that focuses on Ukraine’s integration to the West. “If the radicals want more clashes, they’ll happen.”

Weeks of peaceful protests turned violent Jan. 19 as new anti-rally laws sparked clashes. Activists hurled Molotov cocktails and stones at riot police, who responded with rubber bullets and tear gas. Three protesters died of gunshot wounds and more than 1,000 are in hospitals. Three policemen died.

White Hammer

At the heart of the violence is Pravyi Sektor, an umbrella group uniting nationalist organizations. They include Tryzub, which aims to foster an independent Ukraine free of foreign influence. Bilyi Molot, or White Hammer, opposes mass immigration and bases its ideology on Stepan Bandera, who fought Soviet rule in the 1930s, at times alongside Nazi Germany.

Pravyi Sektor stepped in once violence erupted, though it didn’t instigate it, said Dmytro Yarosh, its leader. Clashes near parliament helped bring about talks between the authorities and the opposition, he said. Prime Minister Mykola Azarov resigned in the aftermath.

“We managed to breathe new life into the revolution,” said Yarosh Jan. 30, who estimates about 500 of the group’s members are involved. “Our guys were at the front lines.”

At the protest camp, Pravyi Sektor helps train and marshal a self-defense force numbering hundreds. Volunteers face off against riot police on Hrushevskogo Street atop barricades made of ice-filled sacks, scrap wood and metal from burned-out buses.

‘Our Heroes’

More than 63 percent of protesters at the camp oppose talks between the opposition and the authorities, compared with 46.6 percent before the deadly clashes, according to a Feb. 3 poll conducted by the Democratic Initiative Foundation. It didn’t give a margin of error.

Brigades of men and teenage boys in plastic builders’ hats and armed with wooden sticks march to relieve those manning the defenses, where tires burn to hamper police movements. Crowds part to let them through, chanting “You’re our heroes!”

The unrest has spread beyond Kiev, with activists seizing regional government buildings across the nation of 45 million.

In Yanukovych’s hometown of Donetsk, fans of the Shakhtar soccer team, whose so-called ultras were linked with racism and antisemitism before the 2012 European Championships, said they’d protected demonstrators from government thugs known as titushki.

That roused supporters elsewhere, including Kiev’s Dynamo and Sevastopol, where Russia has a navy base, highlighting diverging motivations within the protest movement.

No Control

“This isn’t a fight for the EU or against Russia,” fans of Sevastopol said in a statement. The conflict is “a war of Ukraine’s people” against “Yanukovych’s regime and the bandits who throw people crumbs while taking away their futures.”

The radicals are acting outside the control of Ukraine’s opposition leaders, who’ve sought to head off government threats to declare a state of emergency. Ex-heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko, head of the UDAR opposition party, couldn’t dissuade activists from attacking lines of police when he threw himself in front of them.

Buoyed by its protest role, Pravyi Sektor may also enter politics, according to Yarosh. That would fit into trends across Europe as recessions have stoked support for anti-immigrant and far-right parties. A backlash over austerity propelled Greece’s Golden Dawn from obscurity to third place in polls.

In some ways, Ukraine’s situation is comparable, said Joerg Forbrig, senior program officer for Central and Eastern Europe at the Berlin bureau of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S.

‘Militant Course’

“With all traditional political tools seemingly unsuccessful, some call for a more militant course they think will make all the difference,” he said by e-mail.

Ukraine’s parliament includes the nationalist Svoboda party of Oleh Tyahnybok, another opposition leader. Svoboda policies include specifying ethnicity on passports and immigration curbs. Tyahnybok said in 2004 that Ukrainians must fight against the “Moscow Jewish mafia” that rules the nation.

Tyahnybok denies accusations of xenophobia, saying in 2009 that Svoboda has nothing against minorities such as Russians or Jews. Pravyi Sektor welcomes people of different ethnicities and religions speaking different languages, provided they back an independent Ukraine, said Yarosh, who also denies racism claims.

While the nationalists and soccer hooligans claim to be behind much of the violence, they’re not alone in joining in.

‘Radical’ Mood

“I ran straight to Hrushevskogo when all this started -- my mood is radical,” said Oleksandr, a 50-year-old construction worker from the western city of Stryi, who declined to give his last name for fear of reprisal. “Among those of us who’re active, 70 percent are students. Normal students.”

Near the front of the barricades, old ladies pass plates of homemade pancakes around those staring down police. Other protesters fill sacks with snow to reinforce the defenses.

Protest leaders coordinate actions with Pravyi Sektor “all the time” and help with security, according to Andriy Parubiy, who’s responsible for protecting the camp.

The group doesn’t rule out unilateral force and yesterday reiterated warnings it may break a current truce because detained members of its group haven’t been freed.

“We’re against bloodshed but we recognize it’s impossible to speak to criminal authorities without force,” Yarosh said.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.