Good Cop, Bad Cop

The Ukrainian state and far-right groups have allied to build a new nationalist consensus.

A Right Sector demonstration in Kiev, Ukraine in 2014. Wikimedia Commons

At the end of April, the brutal attack on Stanislav Serhienko attracted attention in Ukraine and internationally. The left-wing activist and student was ambushed near his home in broad daylight. Two unknown assailants beat and stabbed him, leading to hospitalization and surgery.

Serhienko had publicly criticized both Russia-backed separatists and the Ukrainian army, which had allied with far-right battalions in the war in the country’s east. He also spoke out against the Ukrainian state’s nationalistic agenda, namely the Institute of National Memory and its head Volodymyr Viatrovych.

During the 2013–14 Maidan protests, Serhienko belonged to Borotba, a leftist, Euroskeptic organization. The group gained influence during the Antimaidan demonstrations in Kharkiv before its leaders backed the pro-Russian rebels and separatist movements. At that moment, Serhienko and other activists ended their involvement. Nevertheless, the right-wing media enthusiastically spread photographic evidence of his participation after he was spotted at an anti-austerity action in September 2016. His sudden notoriety sparked a wave of online bullying and physical harassment that culminated in the bloody attack.

While it remains unclear who actually attacked him, most agree that the assault was an instance of far-right violence: it took place on April 20 (Adolph Hitler’s birthday), the attackers filmed it, and they did not rob their victim. The day after the attack, the leader of C14, one of the most notorious far-right groups, published a blog entry called the “Separatist Safari,” hinting at the group’s responsibility for the assault. In the post, he made thinly veiled threats “on the germs of terrorists hiding in the peaceful Ukrainian streets.”

When the attackers released their video, they combined the shoddily made clip — which blacked out their bodies and shows Serhienko lying on the ground screaming — with ominous text slides: “We’re close. Closer than you think. Happy birthday!” Informator, a website with ties to the far right, published an article with the clip that misidentified Serhienko as a “leader of the separatist movement in Kiev.” Calling the victim a separatist must have seemed like an effective way to legitimize an attack on an unarmed student.

Bad Cop

Unfortunately, this gruesome case fits right into Ukrainian politics today. Far-right violence has been rising for the past seven years, intensifying after the Svoboda party first entered parliament in 2012. Despite having played an important role in the Euromaidan protests of 2013–14, the far right actually lost ground in the 2014 parliamentary elections — Svoboda won only six seats, compared to thirty-seven two years prior. After this electoral failure, these nationalist forces resorted to more violent means of political participation, both online and in the streets. They do not restrict their animus for the Left: journalists and activists from across the political spectrum have become victims of threats, harassment, and violence.

Two high-profile murder cases illustrate this point. In April 2015, journalist and writer Oles Buzina was shot near his house; in July 2016, a car bomb killed journalist Pavel Sheremeta. The victims held diametrically opposed views: Buzina was a controversial pro-Russian conservative, Sheremeta a typical right-liberal, pro-Western public figure.

Much evidence points to far-right involvement in both murders; however, police obstruction has stalled the investigations. Most recently, a documentary claimed that Ukraine’s Security Service might be involved in Sheremeta’s death.

These over-zealous patriots have also targeted entire media outlets, winning widespread support in the process. In February 2016, they kidnapped a Channel 17 journalist, who was accused of spreading pro-Russian propaganda, and looted the offices. Police eventually found the stolen equipment in the possession of a member of the Right Sector, a group that rose to prominence after spearheading some of Maidan’s violent clashes. The court released the suspect, and journalists claim that he’s become a Ukrainian Orthodox priest.

In September 2016, an unknown group of far-right militants picketed and then burned the main office of Inter, Ukraine’s third-largest TV channel. The attackers and prominent Ukrainian politicians, including Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov, accused the Dmitry Firtash–owned network of being an “agent of [the] Kremlin.”

Vesti, another media outlet, has faced constant pressure since 2014. Ihor Lutsenko, a member of the Kiev city council with a long history of supporting the far right, led a series of demonstrations against Vesti’s newspaper; anonymous attackers then smashed the office’s windows in July 2014. The company’s radio station was subjected to similar intimidation, resulting in the state’s refusal to renew their broadcasting license.

Apart from media sources with supposedly pro-Russian views, the Ukrainian far right also targets opposition social movements, especially those that express antiwar views or criticize the country’s nationalist agenda.

Right-wing militants have attacked both peaceful, antifascist demonstrations and conservative events. In 2016, a memorial march for Anastasia Baburova and Stanislav Markelov, the Crimean journalist and Russian human rights advocate (respectively) killed by neo-Nazis in 2009, was interrupted by counterprotesters believed to be connected to the original murders. That same year, the far right sabotaged the “Ukrainians Choose Peace” gathering, which the Union of Orthodox Women, a conservative organization, had planned.

Human rights demonstrations, such as LGBT or feminist marches, also face disruption and violence. Last year, organizers of the Lviv “Equality Festival” — a series of lectures and movie screenings concerning LGBT rights, which the conservative media claimed was a pride march — discovered that far-right forces had pressured the conference’s venue into canceling their reservations. The organizers were then summoned to court, where right-wing activists were waiting. The police refused to protect the conference attendees and arrested none of the attackers.

Assaults on pride events and Women’s Day rallies have become commonplace. The only exception came at the latest pride march in Kiev: the far right promised to turn it into a “bloody mess,” but the state, in an attempt to pink-wash itself in front of the European Union, protected the rally by erecting a human shield.

Even small displays of support for the LGBT community encounter fierce resistance. This year’s Eurovision Song Contest, held in Kiev, took “Celebrate Diversity” as its motto. As part of the city’s preparation for the event, it repainted a Soviet-era “Arch of the Friendship of the Peoples” with the colors of the rainbow. The Right Sector and Svoboda parties violently stopped the makeover, and the city council denounced any connection with the LGBT movement, eventually deciding to add an ethnic ornament to this urban renovation. This incident demonstrates that rampant far-right violence can easily tarnish Ukraine’s image as a tolerant country with “European values.”

At times, the state has supported the far right even when its actions go against the country’s economic interests. Paramilitary units initiated the Donbass blockade to disrupt trade connections between Ukraine and the Lugansk and Donetsk People’s Republics. These actions have negatively affected the country’s economy, which depends on coal from the east. The prime minister estimated that it could cost Ukraine up to 1 percent of GDP annual rise and bring the energy sector to the brink of collapse. Despite this, the National Security and Defense Council supported the action, and the state is now carrying it out.

The far right also engaged in clashes on May 9, Victory Day, in cities across the country. Hoping to avoid images of violence from spreading to international — and especially Russian — media, the state wanted to keep far-right discontent as peaceful as possible, but, when the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists started throwing smoke bombs at the march-goers from their office, the police raided the building. As officers tried to break through the nationalists’ barricade, a man on the second floor was seen doing a Nazi salute while another was threatening pedestrians with what appeared to be a rocket-propelled grenade. Amnesty International reported that the police took excessively violent action that day, and an investigation into brutality is ongoing.

Finally, people of color also face ultra-right violence. Just recently, young men from the Azov regiment, a neo-Nazi defense group with its own political party and a broad network of grassroots activists, demanded that a group of black students leave a football field before beating them up. The victims claim that police were reluctant to file a report against these so-called “patriots.”

The far right has menaced the media, activist groups, migrants, and even the state itself, and yet we find almost no countermeasures — and, in some cases, even tacit approval — from the government. How can we explain such odd behavior?

Good Cop

In some cases where the state’s interest is threatened, like the Kiev Pride March earlier this year, the government does try to prevent right-wing disruptions. However, the nation’s lack of an established hierarchy and the conflicts of interest between various business groups, many of which see the far right as a useful instrument, have resulted in an incoherent approach.

In 2015, fighters from the “Tornado” territorial defense battalion, an independent paramilitary group allied with the Ukrainian government, illegally prevented a coal train from entering the uncontrolled territories. This event triggered the battalion’s disbandment; the ensuing investigation found evidence that fighters had engaged in gruesome battery, torture, kidnapping, rape, and child molestation.

The far right presented the rogue paramilitaries as political prisoners and staged protests during the trial. Supporters, including at least one MP, hurled tires at the court. Nonetheless, all twelve combatants were found guilty. The group’s leader received the harshest sentence – eleven years in prison and three hundred dollars in court fees. Four militants received only probationary sentences.

Another open conflict between the government and the far right broke out in Mukachevo, a town on the Hungarian border. There, the Right Sector served as oligarch Viktor Baloha’s hired militia in a dispute over the control of contraband. After gunfire began, the ministry of internal affairs intervened to put an end to the confrontation. Court proceedings are ongoing, but the accused have been released on parole under the supervision of four nationalist MPs.

These cases are exceptions — it is fairly common for the state to ignore or even cover up the far right’s crimes. Indeed, many high-level officials have close ties with these groups, which established these connections as they rose to the highest echelons of power. The leaders of organizations like Svoboda, Right Sector and the Azov regiment have infiltrated the Ukrainian army and police. Avakov, who supports Azov’s political party, the National Corps, appointed Vadym Troyan, the regiment’s former deputy commander, as first deputy chief of the National Police of Ukraine.

Andriy Biletsky, National Corps’ leader, became an independent MP in a Kiev district after the pro-Western parties withdrew their candidates in his favor. In 2008, he founded the Social-National Assembly, an organization whose stated objective is “the defense of the white race by creating an anti-democratic and anti-capitalist ‘natiocracy’.” This group mutated into the Azov battalion, which then incorporated itself into the Ukrainian army as a regiment and, as of 2016, formed an officially registered party that gives its founder’s white supremacist ideas a policy form.

The militant right also has ties to capital. Oligarchs sponsored various volunteer battalions to fight in the east; now, they can summon these soldiers as private armies to take over factories or expropriate land for urban development. At the same time, paramilitary groups represent employment opportunities for war veterans, whom the state does not support adequately.

Aside from these clear links, Ukraine’s overall political climate, which combines militarization with a rightward shift, has encouraged this growing violence.

During the Maidan protests, the far right demolished Lenin monuments and attacked Communist Party of Ukraine (KPU) offices all over the country. This became the official policy of decommunization, a set of measures aimed at erasing the country’s Soviet past. The government has prohibited Soviet Union–related symbols, street names, and literature; the KPU has been outlawed. This ban extends to organizations with generally left-wing ideology, as the Socialist Kharkiv newspaper discovered when the state denied its registration. From the beginning, decommunization represented more than repressive policies that repress the rights of those on the left; it quickly became an instrument for dividing society between those who support a nationalistic civil society run by elite interests and those who oppose it.

The nationalist-militaristic consensus penetrates practically every sphere of society. Its logic holds that as long as Ukraine and Russia are at war, all contradictions within Ukrainian society are secondary. Anyone drawing attention to issues that trouble Ukrainian citizens — like austerity-induced budget cuts, rising utility prices, or homophobia — can expect to be accused of aiding the Kremlin. Only Putin’s agents would try to distract the people from the number one goal: defeating Russia and taking back the Donbass. Opposition to the government thus turns into opposition to the state, and enemies of Ukraine are dealt with accordingly.

The culmination of the state’s absurd logic became apparent when President Petro Poroshenko expanded sanctions to over one thousand Russian citizens and enterprises. The order aimed to ban VKontakte — Ukraine’s most popular social network, boasting sixteen million users — and a host of other products and services.

The political elites presented the sanctions as the next logical step in their “hybrid war” with Russia. In 2014, they had banned pro-government Russian channels, prohibited a Russian money transfer system, which Ukrainian emigrants used to send money home, and shut down air traffic between the two countries. The president claims that these companies were gathering intelligence on the Ukrainian people in order to fine-tune and spread propaganda.

Meanwhile, the government is advocating a “bleed-them-dry” strategy, which encourages divestment from Russia. Many high-profile Ukrainian officials hold stakes in key Russian industries, and vice-versa. In most contexts, the public outcry over the state ruthlessly meddling in citizens’ private lives would be tremendous, but the consensus that equates the government’s activity with matters of national security and survival has kept dissent at bay, at least for now.

Unbreakable Consensus?

Though the elites’ and the far right’s long-term interests differ, they are currently working in tandem as a good cop and a bad cop.

Nationalist forces see the war and the growth of patriotism as an opportunity to accumulate political capital and seize power. Fortunately, they still lack widespread support and often find themselves at odds with mainstream right forces in Russia and Europe as a result of their anti-Russian and often anti-Polish positions.

Oligarchs, in contrast, use nationalism and militarism to cover up their war profiteering — companies connected to the president and the oligarch Ihor Kolomoyskyi have won many lucrative army contracts and now combat opposition movements in a country going through a new stage of economic crisis.

The inefficient and corrupt Ukrainian state can only partially drive this nationalist and militarist consensus. Its poorly coordinated actions and seemingly random victims of repression demonstrate the government’s weakness.

For instance, on May 10, an activist was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison with one year of probation for spreading communist propaganda on Facebook. Ironically, the prosecution could not make public the materials the defendant shared because doing so would also constitute spreading propaganda, now to a larger audience. A special linguistic assessment classified the posts — which a press release described as images and slogans from the Soviet epoch, like “Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live!” — as propaganda.

The defendant negotiated this mild sentence after confessing and cooperating with the prosecution. Otherwise, he would have faced up to five years in prison.

Cases of the state directly persecuting its citizens are far less common than grassroots-initiated repressions, like those described above. A strong civil society, which presents itself as opposing the government, actually serves as the state’s ally in fighting the alleged enemies within. This situation differs significantly from neighboring post-Soviet countries like Belarus or Russia, where the state has marginalized opposition groups and conducts repression itself.

No doubt, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for separatist rebels, combined with the European Union’s and United States’ backing of the post-Maidan government, laid the foundation for the far right’s political agenda to flourish. Real resistance to imperialist influence — from both Russia and the West — can only begin with a democratic dialogue with unrecognized republics based on the Minsk peace agreements, not repression against Ukrainian citizens.