Militaristic and anti-democratic, Ukraine's far-right bides its time

Why We Wrote This

There are few countries in Europe that don’t have a problem with the far-right. But for Ukraine, where political stability is tenuous, the defiance and impunity of ultra-nationalist groups pose an acute concern.

Gleb Garanich/Reuters
Members and supporters of the National Corps political movement hold a rally outside the parliament building in Kiev, Ukraine, on Oct. 2, 2018.

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In Ukraine, far-right groups are an extremely controversial topic. And despite considerable stabilization in Ukrainian society in recent years, the danger they pose appears to be growing. Though few in number overall, ultra-nationalists operate with a high degree of impunity, allowing them to openly harass and attack minorities and human rights advocates without repercussions.

In the past year, far-right organizations have carried out over two dozen violent assaults on women’s groups, LGBT activists, and Roma encampments that have left many injured and at least one person dead. It is rare that police intervene, much less bring the attackers to justice. Some worry that such groups, given their anti-democratic ideals, paramilitary discipline, and freedom to operate, could have an outsize influence should Ukraine return to political instability.

“The problem is that these right-wing activists are armed; they have combat experience,” says Ulyana Movchan, director of a nongovernmental organization that provides support to LGBT groups. “They are trying to control the streets and maybe, in future, political life as well. ... They don’t just pose a personal danger to certain activists, they are a threat to the whole society.”

As people were forming up to stage this year’s March 8 rally for women’s rights in Kiev, a group of about three dozen young men, clad in dark clothes, started harassing the marchers by tearing off their lapel pins and ripping away their placards.

Some of the men tried to pull away a banner from Mariya Dmytriyeva, a well-known spokeswoman for feminist causes. She resisted. “Woman, why are you so nervous?” they jeered at her. Fortunately, she says, police intervened and separated them.

It’s a familiar scene in Ukraine these days, where radical ultra-rightists are an increasingly threatening presence on the streets. “I think that overall these groups are very insignificant in size. But they are very radical and very loud,” Ms. Dmytriyeva says. “If they can get away with attacking us like that, it shows there is something dangerous there.”

Though few in number overall, far-right groups operate with a high degree of impunity in Ukrainian society, allowing them to harass and attack minorities and human rights advocates without repercussions. Some worry that such groups, given their anti-democratic ideals, paramilitary discipline, and freedom to operate, could have an outsize influence should Ukraine return to political instability. Though the ultra-rightists were given much latitude due to their help protecting the Maidan Revolution and the fledgling government that followed, now they highlight a key weakness of the current system.

“During the Maidan there was a context that was comfortable for [the radical right]. During the war [with rebels in the east], it was very comfortable,” says Vyacheslav Likhachev, a historian and expert on Ukraine’s right-wing movements. “Today we do not have a context in which a small minority, with street fighting skills, have the means to create instability. But in case there is instability, they are a very dangerous factor.”

Operating with impunity

Ukraine’s far-right groups, some of which include armed veterans of the war in Donbas, are an extremely controversial topic. And despite considerable stabilization in Ukrainian society over the past five years, the danger they pose appears to be growing.

Just a couple of days after the March 8 rally, scores of far-right activists belonging to the new National Corps party attacked the motorcade of President Petro Poroshenko in the Ukrainian city of Cherkasy, injuring 19 police officers. In the past year, far-right organizations have carried out over two dozen violent assaults on women’s groups, LGBT activists, and Roma encampments that have left many injured and at least one person dead. It is very rare, activists say, that police intervene as they did in Ms. Dmytriyeva’s case, much less bring the attackers to justice.

Analysts say the strength of these groups derives mainly from the weakness of Ukraine’s post-Maidan state, or rather its reluctance to enforce law and order when it comes to the depredations of radical rightists. That may be in part due to the role ultra-right fighters played during the Maidan revolt against former President Viktor Yanukovych, as organized defenders of the protest encampment and sometimes initiators of violence against police.

Even more important is their status as war heroes who formed private battalions and rushed to the front in 2014 to battle separatist rebels at a time when the Ukrainian Army was in serious disarray. As a result they enjoy connections with authorities, and a level of social respectability, that would probably not be the case otherwise.

It’s important to point out that despite their high public visibility and the apparent impunity with which they act on the streets, the far-right groups do not appear to represent any social upsurge of radical nationalism. Indeed, a joint candidate put forward by five of Ukraine’s leading ultra-rightist groups in the March 31 first round of Ukrainian presidential elections, Ruslan Koshulynskyi, won less than 2% of the votes.

Rather, the fear among many here is that if Ukraine’s weak state institutions should again suffer any sort of breakdown, these highly organized, disciplined, armed, violence-prone, and ideologically determined groups might punch far above their weight in determining a political outcome.

‘We are not democrats’

Instability is a prospect that may not be far from the surface in post-Maidan Ukraine. The Right Sector, a militant ultra-nationalist group that played a very prominent role during the Maidan uprising, has since consolidated itself as a political party with an armed wing and a youth movement. It may not be the largest right-wing movement in Ukraine, but it has maintained its revolutionary sense of purpose and complete rejection of the existing order.

“We are not democrats. We participate in elections only because they are a step to revolution,” says Artyom Skoropadskiy, press spokesman of the Right Sector party. “We want to change the whole system. New people, new order, new rules in the state system of Ukraine. We oppose Russia, and we are against Ukraine joining the European Union and NATO. We want Ukraine to be a self-sufficient, independent state.”

The Right Sector backed Mr. Koshulynskyi’s presidential bid simply because it offered an opportunity for political agitation, he says, and the vote tally is of secondary interest.

“Our organization is designed to take power. If circumstances warrant, that could happen by nondemocratic methods. Believe me, we are very capable of acting in extreme situations,” he adds. “At the Maidan we had only 300 activists, and look what we did. In fact, if you consider that there was never more than 1 million people participating in the Maidan altogether, out of a population of 42 million, it shows how things really work. The active minority always leads the passive majority. Scenarios change, and we are ready. Our purpose is to save Ukraine.”

The Right Sector, and other militant street groups such as C-14 and the newly created National Corps, already pose a real and present danger to vulnerable groups of the population, such as gay and transgender people, women’s activists, Roma, as well as any dissidents who might, rightly or wrongly, be viewed as “pro-Russian.”

Ulyana Movchan, director of Insight, a nongovernmental group that provides legal services and other support to LGBT groups, says that people who do not belong to these vulnerable groups of the population should wake up and be more concerned about what is happening.

“The problem is that these right-wing activists are armed; they have combat experience. They are organized into illegal military groups,” she says. “They are trying to control the streets and maybe, in future, political life as well. We do not know what they might do. They don’t just pose a personal danger to certain activists, they are a threat to the whole society.”

Giving too much leeway to nationalists?

Many Ukrainian analysts argue that these new rightist groups are not “nationalist,” but rather racist, intolerant, and extreme social conservatives. But it may be a problem that more mainstream Ukrainian nationalists, such as the Svoboda party – which does not participate in street violence – tend to make heroes of 20th-century “fighters for Ukrainian independence.” Those include Stepan Bandera, whose fascist ideology, collaboration with the Nazis, and participation in wartime ethnic cleansing against Poles and Jews makes him and those like him poor role models for modern Europe-bound Ukraine.

The Ukrainian parliament has passed legislation making it illegal to deny the hero status of Mr. Bandera. In Kiev, a major boulevard was recently renamed “Bandera Prospekt.” It should be no surprise that groups like the Right Sector model themselves on such World War II-era Ukrainian nationalist fighters.

“We are a Ukrainian nationalist group, in the image of Stepan Bandera,” says Mr. Skoropadskiy.

Tensions over these historical issues are real enough, especially in the more Russified eastern Ukraine – where everyone’s grandfather served in the Red Army – and they may be part of the explanation for the very high first round vote for Volodymyr Zelenskiy, a Russian-speaker from eastern Ukraine who plays down nationalist themes.

“During the past five years the government made more steps [to legitimize figures like Mr. Bandera] than much of society is willing to accept,” says Mr. Likhachev. “Most of society feels we don’t need Lenin or Bandera. But you can’t really mobilize people politically with these issues. There has been no big public movement against it.”

More significant is the strong attraction these new radical right groups seem to exercise over Ukrainian youth. They articulate a cause. They have slick promotional materials and maintain a big infrastructure of sports clubs, training camps, and regular activities.

“I see how many young people want to be part of a movement,” says Ms. Movchan. “It’s kind of fashionable these days to join something, and here they are with all kinds of tools of recruitment, such as fight clubs, training grounds, and parades. They bring out the worst emotions, like homophobia and racism, to channel their aggression. I wish we could broaden our own audience to show young people there are other ways to be active, like fighting for human rights.”

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