11 Feb 2015

One year on: where are the far-right forces of Ukraine?

Russia called the Ukrainian revolution a “fascist junta”. As the first anniversary of the ousting of Viktor Yanukovych approaches, we look at the changing fortunes of the extreme right.

Activists fly the flag of the Azov Battalion (Reuters)

The presence of far-right Ukrainian nationalist groups in the Maidan protests that toppled the pro-Russian former president in February 2014 remains controversial.

While Russia has past form smearing opponents as fascists, experts on right-wing extremism did immediately raise concerns about the influence of radical ultra-nationalist groups like Svoboda and Right Sector last year.

Other commentators said the number of rightwing radicals involved in the popular uprising against Yanukovych were small, and dismissed concerns about a neo-Nazi fringe as Kremlin-inspired paranoia.

Ukraine has countered that neo-Nazis are backing pro-Russian separatists.

Certainly, Moscow repeatedly refers to those fighting separatists in eastern Ukraine on behalf of the Kiev government as “fascists” and has warned of a rise of antisemitism in the country.

Is this just propaganda, or does Russia have a point?

Rejection at the polls

As Channel 4 News reported last year, a number of key government posts in the provisional government formed immediately after the revolution went to leading members of Svoboda and Right Sector.

But neither party was able to build a power base in the elections of 2014. In the parliamentary elections in October, Svoboda took just under 5 per cent of the vote, the threshold needed to enter parliament. The party had managed to win more than 10 per cent of the vote in the elections of 2012.

Right Sector won less than 2 per cent of votes in the parliamentary elections.

January 2014: Ukraine's far-right extremists at core of 'democracy' protest

The leaders of Svoboda and Right Sector – Oleh Tyahnybok and Dmytro Yarosh – were also snubbed in the country’s presidential election, with both men getting around 1 per cent of the vote.

Anton Shekhovtsov, an academic who specialises in the Ukraine far right, suggests that Svoboda had begun to lose support even before the revolution, and the the “questionable conduct and dubious activities” of some leading members of Svoboda after they were brought into the government alienated their former supporters.

Despite its electoral failures, Mr Shekhovtsov and others say this is not the end of the story for Ukraine’s far-right, which is now using the fight against pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine to extend its influence.

March of the far-right paramilitaries

Reports of fighting near the southern port of Mariupol in recent days have stressed the involvement of the Azov Battalion, a volunteer militia linked to neo-Nazi groups.

The group proudly displays the Wolfsangel symbols – a motif used by several SS groups in Nazi Germany.

Azov Battalion volunteers fly the Wolfsangel flag (Reuters)

But its fighters ultimately report to the Ukrainian government, and leading members have been promoted to positions in the police force by cabinet ministers.

Mr Shekhovtsov warns: “Infiltration of some other far-right organisations in the law enforcement is possibly a more advanced long-term strategy in their fight against not particularly well established liberal democracy in Ukraine.”

March 2014: How the far-right took top posts in Ukraine's power vacuum 

The 300-strong Azov Battalion is just one among dozens of volunteer paramilitary groups affiliated to the Ukrainian government.

Last September Amnesty International accused one militia, the “Aidar territorial defence battalion”, of human rights abuses and war crimes in the Donbass region.

Foreign fighters

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has reportedly attracted recruits with far-right and neo-Nazi views from a number of foreign countries, with extremists choosing to fight for both sides for ideological reasons.

Several media organisations have interviewed a former Swedish soldier called Mikael Skillt, an apparent neo-Nazi who is fighting with the Azov Battalion.

According to other reports, Belarussians, Poles, Italians, Serbs and Spanish volunteers have been spotted fighting for both sides.

Strangest of all, some Russian neo-Nazis have reportedly taken up arms on behalf of the Ukrainian government against pro-Russian separatists, preferring the revolutionary politics of the Maidan to the more moderate vision of Russian nationalism offered by president Vladimir Putin.

Other young Russian rightwingers are fighting for the separatists under the banner of “Novorussia” – the name for part of Ukraine annexed by Tsarist Russia in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Separatists fly the flag of Novorossiya at a checkpoint in eastern Ukraine (Reuters)

Ukrainian ministers have specifically denied that its forces recruit foreign fighters, or that the Azov Battalion has links to neo-Nazism.

Legal blessing

Swedish academic Pers Anders Rudling, an expert on the rise of the far-right in Ukraine, told us the government had given its “semi-legal blessing” to various volunteer groups out of desperation, when it became obvious that the country’s army was in “a miserable state” and was unable to fight the separatists effectively.

While Kiev is prepared to tolerate the presence of radicals among the ranks of the fighters, there is a sense that if the far right could not attract enough popular support to challenge the mainstream parties during the fighting of the last year, it probably never will.

“Given the situation that Ukraine is in, it’s surprising that the far right did not do better in the elections. They could very easily have drifted into the kind of quite hard right-wing alliances that we saw during in both Serbia and Croatia. It’s actually quite remarkable.”