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By trying to bolster Ukraine, are nationalists hurting it?

Though they helped topple President Yanukovych, groups like Right Sector are now providing fodder for Russia's position that Kiev has been taken over by 'fascists,' some say.

Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters
Members of the Ukrainian far-right nationalist group Right Sector stand outside the parliament in Kiev, Ukraine, last Friday.

When a thousand angry demonstrators claiming to be from the ultra-nationalist Right Sector group threatened to break down the door of Ukraine’s parliament last week, a well-known face from Kiev’s antigovernment protest movement wedged her small frame in front of the mob and demanded that they show restraint.

“You idiots are going to give Putin just want he wants,” screamed Tetyana Chernovil, an investigative journalist who now heads the government’s new anti-corruption committee. "Now he’ll find the excuse he needs!"

Frustration with Ukraine’s radical nationalist groups has risen in recent weeks among the activists that demonstrated alongside them in anti-corruption protests for the last four months. Many fear that the groups' growing extremism is doing more harm than good at a time when Ukraine’s activists are trying to hold the deeply divided country together under the threat of Russian military action in the east and south.

“While we are fighting against corruption, they are just fighting against the powers that be. Any power,” says Oleh Matsekh, a Ukrainian civil society activists working with the Platforma Reform group, referring to Right Sector. Mr. Matsekh’s group is lobbying parliament for a package of anticorruption legislation reforms. "We’re fighting for something, and they are just fighting.”

The crowd that night was demanding the resignation of Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, whom they accused of turning a blind eye to the murky killing the day before of one of the leaders of Right Sector, a paramilitary group of vigilantes formed during the early days of the antigovernment protests that began in Kiev late last November.

Although they pushed aside Ms. Chernovil – a prominent symbol of the Maidan protests after supporters of deposed President Viktor Yanukovych allegedly beat her in December – and attacked the doors, the crowd ultimately dispersed after smashing a few door panels.

But the event marked a new highwater mark for mainstream activists' growing distrust of the radical elements now dominating the movement, which has managed to oust a Moscow-favored president and usher in a pro-European interim government.

The next day, acting President Oleksandr Turchynov accused the Right Sector of trying to destabilize the country and of playing into the hands of Russia’s political operatives. The Kremlin, backed by state-controlled Russian media, has portrayed Kiev as dysfunctional and controlled by radical nationalists – implying the possibility that Russia might have to "intervene" to protect Russian-speakers in greater Ukraine as it did in Crimea.

Fears of Nazis

Russian accusations of Ukrainian nationalism threatening to destroy Slavic lands are nothing new, says Anton Shekhovtsov, a Ukrainian researcher at University College London, who has studied the country’s nationalist movement. Throughout history, when independence-minded ethnic Ukrainians spoke out against being enveloped by the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union, the Kremlin denounced them as anti-Russian fascists, Mr. Shekhovtsov says.

Sometimes the Russians were correct. One of the chief boogeymen for Ukraine's Russian speakers is Stepan Bandera, whose Ukrainian liberation army briefly sided with Nazi Germany in 1941 and declared Ukraine an independent state from Soviet Moscow.

The Nazis arrested Bandera several months later, and he spent the rest of the World War II in a concentration camp. But the fact that Bandera and his liberation army fought against Soviet soldiers became a lesson that Soviet schoolchildren were taught for decades, until independence in 1991.

Ukraine’s modern nationalist groups have, intentionally or not, played into that fear. They have adopted the Bandera movement’s flag of red and black, which can be seen waving over the tents in Kiev’s central square, or Maidan. They tried to storm parliament last week. And, a week before, one member of the nationalist political party Svoboda, or "Freedom," stormed into the offices of the Ukrainian First Channel and attacked the channel’s director, accusing him of airing pro-Russia images.

Most recently, a member of Right Sector was involved in a deadly gun battle in Kiev’s central street on March 31 – an event which spurred the interim government to order law enforcement agencies to disarm paramilitary groups. Right Sector leaders have insisted that their weapons are all legally registered under the law.


All this has activists worried that nationalists are leading the movement down the wrong path.

“Unfortunately, these Right Sector boys are young and emotional, and they are often motivated by their souls and their love of their country. But they aren’t necessarily strategic,” says Maksim Potapchuk, a Euromaidan activist from Donetsk. “It’s unfortunate that these guys are focused more on posturing themselves as fighters.”

Right Sector leaders say their mission is to defend an independent Ukraine, and the group is now set on becoming a viable political party. The head of the group, Dymitro Yarosh, last month declared his independent candidacy for Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election. But senior Right Sector members concede that their political ambitions can easily be overshadowed by the provocative ways of some of their members.

Though an estimated 40 percent of their ranks can be considered “very radical,” says Taras Utsenko, a Right Sector senior representative, the group can't afford to lose them. “We are aware that we need to control these boys, we also don’t want to lose them in case we need them for some action” – particularly should Russia invade, he says. “We need their energy.”

And Right Sector is not ready to let the new government off the hook, he adds. Kiev “wants to create us into some kind of radical side-story so they can get rid of us,” he says. “So it’s difficult to dialogue with them as long as they want to just marginalize us. The Maidan has not yet succeeded in realizing its goal, which is to change the system, and that’s what we continue to fight for.”

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