The protests on August 31that le
Article by: Anton Shekhovtsov
The three national guards were killed by a single grenade. The Ukrainian authorities suspect that it was thrown by a member of the Sich Battalion associated with Svoboda. (While it is not clear whether the suspect was an actual member of Svoboda, he expressed his positive attitudes towards the party on social media.)
However, even if a Sich Battalion member threw the deadly grenade that killed three and heavily wounded many more, it may be too convenient to blame him alone for the incident. (Some very bad, manipulated analyses of the incident only obscure the problem.) Metaphorically, the grenade had three safety pins; in other words, there are three aspects that one needs to consider to understand the complex nature of this tragedy.
Svoboda was one of the three co-organizers of the protest, but its representatives were the most violent party at the protest. The latter started quite peacefully – at least in terms of Ukraine’s recent experience. The protesters became violent later, after they learned that the Rada passed the constitutional amendments in the first reading. They started burning debris and attacking the policemen verbally and physically – with clubs and other implements. According to the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, both sides of the conflict threw tear gas canisters and smoke bombs. Then came the grenade.
An important point here is that Svoboda representatives anticipated that the protests would grow violent, and for this particular reason the protesters from the Svoboda’s side brought clubs with them although they did not use them until the Rada’s vote. Why would Svoboda be interested in the violent protests?
The answer is the regional elections scheduled for October 25 this year. Svoboda obtained 10.44 per cent of the vote in the 2012 parliamentary elections (and became the first Ukrainian party ever to have formed a far right parliamentary group).
However, in the early 2014 parliamentary elections, its former supporters became disappointed with Svoboda’s performance both in the parliament and during the revolution, and the party failed to pass the 5 per cent electoral threshold required to enter parliament as a party.
In 2012, Svoboda’s trick was to persuade the voters disaffected by the regime of former President Viktor Yanukovych that they were the most radical opposition to him. The regional elections in 2015 are virtually the last chance for Svoboda to re-enter politics against the background of dwindling public support, so the leadership now attempted the same trick: to persuade those disaffected with President Petro Poroshenko’s rule that Svoboda is the most radical opposition to him.
While increased protest activity and harsh rhetoric may have been a characteristic of radicalism in 2012, today they no longer are. The revolution and the ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war “coarsened” many a Ukrainian and modified the meanings of “moderate” and “radical”. Today, to be radical is to be violent. Thus, although it is highly unlikely that Svoboda’s leadership sanctioned the use of the grenade, they did sanction the creation of a violent space that eventually set off the grenade.
The Radical Party of Oleh Lyashko and UKROP are two dodgy populist parties that many commentators link to the Ukrainian oligarchs Serhiy Levochkin and Ihor Kolomoisky, respectively. The oligarchs in general and Kolomoisky in particular have a reason to be dissatisfied with Poroshenko: he set a course for the “de-oligarchization” of Ukrainian politics, and while the success of this course is debatable, the oligarchs seem to be losing rather than maintaining the status quo.
Levochkin was the head of the Presidential Administration under deposed president Viktor Yanukovych, and although he left this post in the very beginning of the revolution to distance himself from the regime’s violence against the Euromaidan protests, he nevertheless belongs to the camp that lost in the revolution.
Since spring 2015, Kolomoisky has been in conflict with the state over the control of two state-owned energy companies, Ukrnafta and Ukrtransnafta. The conflict is still going on, but Kolomoisky had to resign as governor of the Dnipropetrovsk Oblast in March 2015.
The oligarchs are clearly on the offensive, and although the Ukrainian authorities would still cooperate with them, they no longer can enjoy the possibility to exert influence on Ukrainian politics to the same extent as in the previous years. Naturally, they are opposed to Poroshenko and the government, and, in the pre-revolutionary era, they would turn to pro-Russian rhetoric to mobilize society against a reform-oriented government.Today, however, given the total failure of the pro-Russian discourse underpinned by the Russian aggression against Ukraine, the oligarchs need to change their political tactics, so now they increasingly turn to populist, ultra-patriotic rhetoric to challenge Poroshenko. Indeed, the anti-system, falsely-understood patriotism has become the major instrument of the opposition to President Poroshenko and his team.
Through their media and social networks, the oligarchs are promoting the idea of zrada (treason), implying that the authorities have betrayed Ukrainian national interests, in particular by signing the Minsk 2 agreement. The parties controlled by the oligarchs are doing the same, and they are interested in destabilizing the government, hence the presence of the Radical Party of Oleh Lyashko and UKROP at the protests by the Verkhovna Rada. These are oligarchs who have significantly contributed to the radicalization of the opposition to Poroshenko and helped create the tense atmosphere of distrust towards the authorities that set off the grenade.
The oligarchs, however, only contributed to the pre-existing distrust towards Poroshenko and the government. The “patriotic” distrust towards the authorities is the result of a series of military defeats by the Ukrainian army, National Guard, and volunteer battalions in their fight with the Russian troops and Russia-backed extremists in eastern Ukraine. While Ukraine was forced to sign Minsk 1 and Minsk 2 agreements to stop the covert Russian invasions of the Donbas in August-September 2014 and January-February 2015, some people in the Ukrainian military believed that they could continue fighting and retake the occupied territories of Eastern Ukraine.
The fact that the deadly grenade was allegedly thrown by a member of the battalion associated with the far right Svoboda party, by no means implies that this is a problem only with the far right. The zrada sentiment is widespread among different volunteer battalions (not necessarily affiliated with far-right parties or organizations) and even among the rank and file of the army and National Guard.
This is an extremely dangerous development. Not that the disaffected military can stage a coup d’etat, but they can obviously try to do this, and, thus, destabilize the government to the benefit of the Russian aggressor. It is highly possible that they will engage in terrorist acts against representatives of the Ukrainian establishment.
For example, some of the members of the far right Pravy Sektor (Right Sector) are openly threatening the government with terrorism. The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) has recently arrested a commander of one of the non-political volunteer battalions and claimed that they uncovered a plot to murder “several high-level public officials, an MP, volunteers, and businessmen”, including Interior Minister Arsen Avakov and the commander of the Azov regiment Andriy Biletsky.
If the suspicions of the Ukrainian authorities are correct and a member of the Sich Battalion has indeed thrown the deadly grenade at national guards, then this incident is a natural result of the growing dissatisfaction with the Ukrainian authorities on the part of a particular element of the Ukrainian military. Yet the dramatic incident might not have happened, if some political forces and some oligarchs have not created the favorable conditions for setting off the grenade.