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.”
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.
“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.”
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 fighter.
“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.”