Nationalists Keep Ukraine on Edge as Stability Is ElusiveAliaksandr Kudrytski and Jake Rudnitsky
Beneath the scorched, black facade of the Trade Union building in Kiev’s central square, armed nationalists who stoked the deadly overthrow of Ukraine’s previous rulers are undermining their successors.
A month after the uprising, militants in camouflage gear and flak jackets line up empty glass bottles ready to be turned into Molotov cocktails, defying demands to abandon their arms. Some of the protesters who fought riot police for regime change are now turning on the new administration. One of their commanders was killed in a firefight with police this week.
“The people who’re still here helped install the new authorities but now they want to slip out of our control,” said Vyacheslav, 40, a Pravyi Sektor activist in sand-colored U.S. military fatigues. He declined to give his last name because of the tensions. “We’ll stay to keep them in check.”
As Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk races to stave off bankruptcy and grapples with Russia’s takeover of Crimea, his interim cabinet is battling unrest among former allies within the country’s borders. Nationalist groups risk damaging security, discrediting the government and handing Russia a pretext to push its forces further into Ukraine, which President Vladimir Putin says is in the grip of fascists.
Nationalists, including supporters of the anti-immigration Svoboda party, fought shoulder-to-shoulder with pro-European demonstrators for three months to topple President Viktor Yanukovych in street battles that cost more than 100 lives in the capital, Kiev.
As the dust settles, some are now challenging the government’s ability to maintain order or fight the corruption rampant under Yanukovych. Protesters have yet to leave the tent camp at Independence Square, or Maidan, the core of opposition since last year. Pravyi Sektor, an umbrella group uniting movements that rely on nationalist rhetoric and some that display neo-Nazi symbols, maintains a dominant presence.
“The government understands that the existence of ultra-right wing players gives the Kremlin leverage over domestic politics,” Alexei Makarkin, a deputy director at the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies, said March 26 by phone. “That’s why they’ve given this ultimatum to disarm.”
The threat of smoldering violence led the authorities to set a deadline of March 24 to turn in unregistered weapons.
In the eastern city of Kharkiv, two pro-Russian protesters were killed by shotgun fire after organizing an assault on the neo-Nazi Patriot Ukrainy group’s office. In the Zaporizhya region, assailants decked out in the masks and army garb that characterized the nationalist protesters took over a factory.
Incidents like these have prompted a crackdown on the self-defense units that shielded anti-government activists in Kiev’s Independence Square and elsewhere.
“The time for freely laying down arms is over,” First Deputy Interior Minister Volodymyr Evdokimov told reporters in Kiev March 25. “From now on, police will detain all citizens with illegal weapons.”
Pravyi Sektor, an umbrella group that unites the majority of the nationalist protesters, has no plans to comply, saying it doesn’t trust a police force that includes many who fought against demonstrators this year.
Oleksandr Muzychko, a Pravyi Sektor leader in western Ukraine, was killed after shooting and wounding a police officer, the Interior Ministry said March 25. Pravyi Sektor head Dmytro Yarosh labeled Muzychko’s death a murder and urged Interior Minister Arsen Avakov to resign, according to a statement on the group’s website.
“Muzychko’s death was a signal to other ultra-right wing groups,” Makarkin said. “Europe and the U.S. have told the authorities in no uncertain terms that the government needs to deal with this issue.”
Russia, which says it had to annex Crimea to protect its kin from a backlash, has pounced on the unrest. A move to downgrade the Russian language’s status last month, later quashed, sparked outrage in Moscow. Incidents in eastern Ukraine, where Russian is widely spoken, have sparked concern Putin will give the green light for thousands of troops on his neighbor’s border to advance.
To help bolster Ukraine, the International Monetary Fund reached a staff-level agreement with the government that unlocks $27 billion in international support over the next two years, the lender said in an e-mailed statement today. If approved by the IMF’s board in Washington, it would be the country’s third bailout since 2008.
Ukraine’s new rulers have added fuel to Russia’s narrative, naming four members of the nationalist Svoboda party to the government. Svoboda, labeled racist and anti-Semitic by the European Union parliament in 2012, an accusation it denies, got posts including deputy premier and prosecutor general.
The party’s lawmakers have also caused a storm outside the corridors of power. Ihor Miroshnychenko, who had to apologize in 2012 for an anti-Semitic slur toward Ukrainian-born actress Mila Kunis, was filmed physically intimidating the head of state-run UT1 television. He accused the executive of pro-Russian coverage and made him sign a resignation letter.
While Svoboda leader Oleh Tyahnybok said afterward that the authorities must use legal means to fight Ukraine’s “enemies,” Russian state TV channels such as English-language RT pounced on the video to back up the Kremlin’s claims of extremism.
A Kiev court on March 25 ordered providers to stop carrying three Russian state channels as of today, according to a statement from Volia, a Ukrainian cable operator. Volia added TV Rain, an independent Russian channel that has been dropped by major cable companies at home amid a crackdown on the opposition.
“Moscow is continuing to gather multiple cases of gross violations of the rights of the Russian-speaking population and other ethnic groups in Ukraine by homegrown ultra-nationalists and neo-Nazis,” Russia’s Foreign Ministry said March 26.
The government, which has seen the hryvnia drop 20 percent since Yanukovych was deposed, has begun to fight back. Prosecutors opened a criminal case into the UT1 attack, while Interior Minister Avakov pledged to arrest “goons” who dress in protest-movement outfits after a “huge number” of disturbances.
“Let’s distinguish between the real self-defense force that did and still does exist and those thugs who disguise themselves in the same clothes,” Avakov said. “Everyone who’s covering themselves and acting under the guise of self-defense, carrying weapons or shields, is a criminal.”
More than 3,000 guns and 30,000 bullets were surrendered to authorities during the amnesty, the Interior Ministry said March 24 on the government website.
The government is also proposing militants join a newly created National Guard in which 4,000 enlisted on the first day. Many of those who’ve remained stationed in the tent camp at Independence Square, or Maidan, have refused because the new force reports to the police rather than the army, which remained neutral as Yanukovych fled to Russia.
Aside a rickety wooden table that doubles as a recruiting post, Pravyi Sektor nationalists lure passers-by to join their militia instead of the National Guard, which is seeking volunteers nearby. The bulk of the uniformed paramilitaries -- who show off weapons including a hunting rifle, a handgun and a Kalashnikov -- scoffed at the idea of uniting protesters with the police with whom they so recently locked horns.
“What we see here is Maidan syndrome,” said Oleksandr Suprunyuk, a 51-year-old construction-company owner who’s also a member of the 38th division of the protesters’ defense force. “Many of these people lost their friends here and they’re still full of hatred. Time must pass to heal this.”