Do Ukraine’s right-wing extremist groups have a chance of derailing presidential elections?

Election process in Ukraine more important than result: A guide to Ukraine's violent groups on the eve of the presidential election

Policemen looking at toy pigs hurled at them by "National Corps" protesters. Kyiv, 16 March 2019. Photograph: Eldar Sarakhman, pravda.com.ua 

Ukraine

Article by: Sofia Kochmar-Tymoshenko

Less than a week before the Ukrainian presidential elections, heated discussions on who will get to the second round are intensifying. Supporters of the various candidates have become more bellicose, dramatizing the negative consequences of a victory for their opponents. In fact, it is not the victory of any particular candidate that should be the greatest concern — the political rivalry that disrupts the democratic process, including right-wing extremist street groups, may be the real worst scenario.

For the 2019 presidential elections, the Central Election Commission registered 139 Ukrainian NGOs monitoring the election process, a record. Among them is the Natsionalni Druzhyny (“National Militia”), a far-right organization associated with the Minister of Internal Affairs, Arsen Avakov. The organization has already warned that in the event of violations during the process, they would physically intervene without hesitation.

On 10 March in Cherkasy, as a result of clashes between the police and militants at Petro Poroshenko’s election rally, 22 police officers were injured. Although Avakov emphasizes that during the election the police will have “a monopoly on force,” the radicals’ close involvement in the electoral process casts doubt over his assurance.

The following week in Kyiv, the National Militia repeated their protest against Poroshenko because of a corruption scandal in Ukroboronprom (abbreviated from “Ukrainian defense industry”). On the “Day of Anger,” as they called the protest, they came with a larger number of members, and instead of aggression used toys to protest, but they failed to get massive support. Even the Right Sector, another right nationalist group, did not come to their aid.

“The main goal of the National Militia’s actions in Cherkasy, as well as on Bankova in Kyiv or even their later participation as observers on the election day is not violence or aggression, but media coverage. They hope to convert it into parliamentary elections, but their current ratings are such that they are unlikely to succeed,” Hanna Hrytsenko, sociologist and researcher of rights groups in Ukraine, explained to Euromaidan Press.

The National Militia received permission from the Central Election Commission of Ukraine (CEC) to officially monitor the presidential elections, to be held on 31 March.

Later, one of the leaders of the National Militia said they would “punch anyone in the face in the name of justice…without hesitation.” The Central Election Commission of Ukraine wrote a letter to the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) to clarify the group’s intentions, but they do not have the legal power to strip the National Militia of observer status.

Hanna Hrytsenko doubts that the militants will be able to launch a coup or uprising on election day. “Something like this requires political will; if there are some conflicts in the field, then they are rather private.”

Who are the National Militia?

The National Corps and the National Militia were the products of the Azov Battalion, a volunteer group formed in the early days of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine which began in 2014. After international human rights groups accused the battalion of committing “war crimes,” it was brought under Avakov’s control.

The National Corps is a political party, their leader Andriy Biletskyi is a member of Parliament. He is considered to be an ideologist of the National Militia, an organization of veterans and young persons, which was created to “keep order” in the streets of Ukrainian cities and is commanded by Ihor Mykhailenko. Both leaders know each other from Kharkiv, where they were members together of a young patriotic organization. On the basis of the nationalist Patriot organization, Azov was created in Kharkiv, Arsen Avakov’s hometown.

Arsen Avakov confirmed that he and Biletskyi knew each other a long time ago, but both of them publicly deny Avakov has influence over the National Corps.

Hanna Hrytsenko explains that Biletskyi and Avakov come from the Kharkiv group and could have influence over each other, but no dependence.

“They have a connection, but there is no vertical – we can not say that Avakov calls Biletskyi with an order to carry out some actions. He is still an independent subject,” comments Ms. Hrytsenko.

Vyacheslav Likhachev, Head of the Monitoring Group for National Minorities Rights and expert on radical right-wing trends in Ukraine, suggested the National Corps, as the political party has between 5,000 and 7,000 members and is not one of the subjects of the elections.

“They participate in information technology campaigns that have nothing to do with their ideology, there is nothing to promote their agenda. They play the role of masses and play on secondary roles,” said Likhachev in an RFE/RL interview.

Avakov’s election game

Arsen Avakov, the Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine Arsen Avakov. Photo: rivnepost.rv.ua

Arsen Avakov offered assurance that none of the presidential candidates will receive any preferential treatment from the police. “We will be strict to everyone in equal measure,” said Avakov in February.

One month later he intrigued the audience on a political TV show.

Let me show you one thing. Here is a plan of the so-called network that was created to bribe voters in favor of one of the candidates,” – and showed for some minutes a piece of paper with an illustration of the crime. “Inspiring isn’t it?”

The sheet of paper carried a little picture of Serhiy Berezenko, deputy head of the Petro Poroshenko Bloc and member of his headquarters as a candidate. The following day the media got hold of information that the national police were opening an investigation against Berezenko. The deputy partially confirmed the information,

“I have an invitation from the investigator to comment on the events outlined in the criminal proceedings initiated by Yulia Tymoshenko [a competitor of Poroshenko in the elections].”

Minister Avakov is a member of Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s party “Narodnyi Front,” which is officially in coalition with Petro Poroshenko’s Bloc. However, in light of recent events, it is evident some kind of rivalry exists between the president and the leader of one of the most powerful structures in Ukraine.

Observers are starting to say that Avakov has commenced his own election game against Petro Poroshenko. Avakov referred to this as “complete nonsense” and reassured people about his “working relationship” with the president.

But the term “working relationship” is starting to sound hollow after a corruption scandal with the participation of Avakov’s son Oleksandr, in the so-called case of backpacks. In 2015, the Ministry of Internal Affairs bought them at inflated prices with the mediation of the minister’s son.  The investigation was led by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) and even detained Avakov Junior in 2017. In the summer of 2018, the Specialized Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office completely closed the criminal proceedings against him.

Yevhen Mahda, director of the Institute for World Politics, explains,

“Avakov is running his own game in the presidential election, and his vector is quite clearly directed against Poroshenko. But this does not mean that the minister intends to help Tymoshenko or any other candidate.”

In the opinion of the expert, Avakov is struggling for his own political future. This makes sense in the context of the last ratings of Narodnyi Front, of which Avakov is a member. The former second-place party in Ukraine has less of a chance to succeed in parliament at the next election.

Avakov believes that Poroshenko will not win a second term.

“For him, the main thing is that Poroshenko does not remain president. Tymoshenko will be president or Zelensky – he is not so important,” political analyst Volodymyr Fesenko told Novoe Vremya.

С14

The U.S. State Department also mentioned C14, another far-right group, as one of the “nationalist hate groups” in its Ukraine country report on Human Rights for 2018, released on 13 March.

C14 is not an official political organization, but it does have some 200 adherents in Ukraine, 70 of them in Kyiv. Nonetheless, they are a small young group that appeared to be very involved last year, only because big media covered their hooligan actions.

Members of C14. Kyiv, 8 November 2018. Photograph: Instagram/c14_news

Activists of C14 typically come to exhibitions and brawl with bus drivers who do not provide services to veterans. They are against the feminist community. Minister Avakov mentions some degree of connection between the Security Service of Ukraine and C14, but as C14 leader Yevhen Karas said, “They share information with them, but not money.”

Along with the other nationalist parties, including Svoboda, C14 nominated Ruslan Koshulynskyi as their candidate for the presidential race, but his ratings are less than 1%.

Private army

But the National Militia and C14 are just the tip of the iceberg, according to most media reports.

Since 2014, when Russian aggression started in Eastern Ukraine, dozens of volunteer battalions have been created and funded by business leaders and oligarchs. To an extent, the government has settled the practice, but in light of the upcoming elections, the topic is again in the news.

The position of the President of Ukraine is absolutely clear – there are no and will not be any private armies in Ukraine,” Poroshenko said.

Meanwhile, the armies of the so-called municipal protection are controlled by mayors of cities. Before the election, this resource was of particular importance.

The worst scenario

Ensuring a democratic voting process for the election is key – perhaps even more so than the result. This presidential election must be conducted with the same integrity as it was in 2014 when  immediately following the Euromaidan Revolution, Ukraine announced the early Presidential Elections.

The 2014 campaign took place concurrent to the beginning of the Russian aggression against Ukraine. Russia has just occupied Crimea then, and soon thereafter started the aggressions in eastern Ukraine. At the time, the greatest risk for Ukraine was the country falling into chaos. In such a scenario, Russia would have been able to seize control over Ukraine. Free and fair elections to ensure the probity of Ukraine’s democracy is vital, in preventing the slightest chance of a worst-case scenario.

Five years after Russia’s intervention, their main goals toward Ukraine have not changed – destabilization and disarray. Preventing any aspect of democratic elections would be the best case scenario for the adversary.

In such circumstances, any semblance of violence, both in urban and rural communities, will play directly into the hands of the aggressor, regardless of how much local candidates or officials do not want it.

U.S. Congresswoman Susan Davis in her report to NATO (November 2018) on Russian meddling in the U.S. Elections stated:

“Russia, under President Vladimir Putin, was deeply dissatisfied with the liberal international order–so much so that the Russian state is actively trying to undermine it.”

An atmosphere of infighting and uncertainty is an obvious goal of Russia.

G7 and hate groups

The international community expressed concern after the events on 9 March in Cherkasy. Then, as a result of clashes between police and militants, 22 officers were injured. In the aftermath of the disturbance involving the National Corps and National Militia, G7 ambassadors had some strong words for Avakov.

“The violent incidents of March 9 were a reminder that just a few weeks ahead of the elections, one crucial challenge is to prevent an escalation of tensions,” French Ambassador Isabelle Dumont wrote in her 15 March letter to Avakov, “We have noted with concern that the very same groups involved in the violent incidents have registered as election observers and publicly threatened to use violence should they consider that election fraud is occurring.”

A few days before the election, the competition of pollsters for the picture of reality continues; it will morph into a battle of exit polls on 31 March. Hopefully, this battle will not spill out into the streets as a provocation of groups using force, not words.

Sofia Kochmar-Tymoshenko is a journalist based in Kyiv. In 2014, Sofia started working as a TV-journalist and fixer for international media. Her professional interest is religious freedom and human rights.

 


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Edited by: Vidan Clube

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