Ukraine's Far Right Is Growing Increasingly Violent - Why Aren't Local Jews Concerned?

2018 was a horrible year for attacks on minority groups. With elections looming, 2019 may be even worse – and many say the government is aiding and legitimizing extremists

National Corps' local leader Serhii Filimonov speaking at a rally in Kiev, October 2018.
Michael Colborne

KIEV – They were huddled in the corner of an underpass: Two young women who had just been running down the street screaming for help.

They were soon surrounded by medical staff and a few police officers. Their faces red and teary, looking like they could barely see, the two women had just been pepper-sprayed by far-right extremists after an attempted march in the Ukrainian capital to commemorate victims of transphobic violence.

"Attempted," because the far right didn’t let the march of no more than 50 people take place last November.

With smoke bombs in hand, a mob of some 200 far-right extremists gathered around the marchers, shouting abuse like “Get lost, faggots.” The thin line of police officers protecting the marchers decided to cancel the event before it even started. They forced the participants into the metro and even made every single one of them pay for a ticket – the ubiquitous blue Kiev metro zheton.

It was a scene witnessed firsthand in the Ukrainian capital by Haaretz, with your correspondent attacked in two separate incidents after the march was canceled.

Medics tending to victims of an assault by far-right extremists in Kiev, November 18, 2018. Haaretz's correspondent was assaulted several minutes after taking this photo.
Michael Colborne

It is a scene that, unfortunately, has become a not-uncommon sight across Ukraine over the past year. A number of observers, from human rights activists to local journalists and researchers, tell Haaretz that the extremists' violence and vigilantism has been enabled and tolerated for far too long by Ukraine’s authorities.

They also warn that 2019, with both presidential and parliamentary elections set to take place in Ukraine, won’t be the end of far-right violence there.

Almost five years after the Maidan Revolution that ousted corrupt, pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych – and led to Russian-led and Russian-backed forces instigating a still-hot war in the country’s east – Ukraine’s far right made a name for itself in 2018 with a string of violent incidents.

There was International Women’s Day last March, when at least four left-wing feminist activists were attacked by far-right extremists in Kiev. One police officer at the rally reportedly told one of the activists, “I am not going to fucking protect you.”

On April 20, extremists from the neo-Nazi C14 (aka Sich) celebrated Hitler’s birthday by burning down a Roma camp in Kiev, and chasing and attacking Roma families with rocks and pepper spray. Police only opened a case against the notoriously violent Ukrainian group – which, despite being named after the neo-Nazi “14 words” slogan and referred to as a neo-Nazi organization by former members and extremism scholars, insists it isn’t a neo-Nazi group. It is even suing a Ukrainian media outlet for labeling its members neo-Nazis after a video was published of the attack.

Ukraine's National Militia marching in Kiev, December 2018.
Michael Colborne

In June, another nationalist group, Sober and Angry Youth, stabbed and killed 24-year-old David Pap during an attack on a Roma camp near Lviv, western Ukraine. The neo-Nazi group posted a video of the attack online, calling it “A Small Report on a Gypsy Safari.” Eight members of the group, all but one under the age of 18, were arrested and currently await trial.

These and other attacks on Roma drew international media attention and condemnation, with the assaults peaking last June, says Vyacheslav Likhachev, a Kiev-based expert on right-wing groups in Ukraine and Russia.

But there have still been attacks. In one case last October, a leading member of C14 posted a video on Facebook of what he called a “purge of Gypsies at the capital’s railway station” – a “purge” that reportedly had the cooperation of local police and received positive media coverage.

Increasingly mainstream

“Jews can defend themselves. The far right goes after people who can’t defend themselves,” says Dolinsky.

Josef Zissels, chairman of the Jewish Confederation in Ukraine, confirms there has been an increase in anti-Semitic acts of vandalism since 2014. But, Zissels adds, it has come without an increase in violence against Jews. He argues this is evidence that many of the actions are the result of Russian provocations – though he admits there is little “hard evidence” to support that claim.

Ukraine’s most violent far-right groups might have only recently started to attract international attention. But they are far from new since the country declared its independence in August 1991.

“For the first 20 years of Ukrainian independence, far-right groups had been undisputedly marginal elements in society,” Likhachev wrote in a report he authored for independent NGO Freedom House in May 2018. “But over the last few years the situation has changed.”

"Racists are welcome here" alongside the far-right acronym "Good Night Left Side" by the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, November 2018.
Michael Colborne

That change, Likhachev and other observers have argued, is the manner in which far-right organizations have gained a measure of legitimacy since the Maidan protests, which ended in bloodshed in February 2014.

Far-right groups have been able to take advantage of the ongoing war with Russian-led forces in eastern Ukraine to present themselves as “patriots,” their rhetoric and messages increasingly becoming part of the mainstream.

“What’s changed in the last year is that they’ve become more violent,” says Volodymyr Ishchenko, a sociologist and lecturer at Kiev Polytechnic Institute, adding that violence is at the core of everything they do. “If they’re not fighting, they need to do something,” he says, noting that far-right figures have been used as what Ishchenko calls “muscle for hire,” with little to no connection to political ideologies – as in the case of murdered civil rights and anti-corruption activist Kateryna Handziuk in Kherson last year.

Handziuk was sprayed with a liter of sulfuric acid by far-right extremists outside her home last July. The 33-year-old died from her injuries last November, and police detained five men over the attack. However, before her death the activist questioned whether the police really wanted to catch the culprits.

Despite their reputation for violence, some of these groups are still being treated as part of Ukraine’s mainstream – something human rights advocates warn is a threat to the country’s democratic values. One local council district in Kiev signed a memorandum of cooperation with an organization led by a high-ranking member of C14 – the same individual who led the October raids on Roma outside of Kiev’s main train station.   

“Concluding agreements with groups that are implicit in violent activities, or at least associated with them,” is also a threat to the rule of law in Ukraine, Matthew Schaaf from Freedom House told Haaretz.

Smoke bombs set off by far-right extremists in Kiev, November 18, 2018.
Michael Colborne

Legitimate political players

Even when they’re not formally cooperating with local authorities, far-right figures have gained a measure of day-to-day acceptance as legitimate political players in Ukraine.

At a rally of political parties in Kiev last October to advocate for electoral reform, Serhii Filimonov, the local head of the far-right political party National Corps, gave a speech as members of the Azov movement’s National Militia milled around in their matching blue camouflage jackets – one with a large SS tattoo on his neck. Azov, originally created as a battalion in 2014 to fight Russian-led forces in eastern Ukraine, is now a three-pronged movement composed of the original battalion – now an official Ukrainian National Guard regiment; the National Corps political party; and the National Militia, a paramilitary group that says it “polices” the streets.

Filimonov is no stranger to violence; he is a soccer hooligan who spent his teen years as part of C14. He also led one of the Roma attacks in 2018 and was involved in a high-profile attack on black fans at a Champions League soccer match in Kiev in 2015.

Ironically, the far-right party Filimonov was representing at the rally for electoral reform doesn’t always appear to be in favor of democracy. In 2015, a senior member of National Corps’ leadership board described democracy as “irresponsible behavior.” Another senior National Corps leader recently shared a Facebook post, originally written during the Maidan protests in 2013, which suggested only those “ready to defend their country with arms” should have the right to vote.

The mainstream acceptance of figures like these has come from some of Ukraine’s most pro-Western figures. For example, Ukraine’s Detroit-born health minister, Ulana Suprun, caused some controversy in a Facebook post last December when she thanked C14 for their “services” in a dispute with a high-ranking heart surgeon long accused of corruption. She has also appeared alongside C14 leaders in photographs posted on social media.

Others defend the actions of C14 and other vigilantes for attacking symbols of pro-Russianness – like the orange-and-black St George’s Ribbon that is now banned in Ukraine. Meanwhile, swastikas and other illegal far-right imagery spray-painted throughout the Ukrainian capital remain untouched, even if they’re far fewer in number than other cities in Eastern Europe like Sofia.

Friends in high places

Some of the most dangerous far-right figures have long been suspected of having connections with Ukraine’s intelligence and law enforcement agencies. The Azov movement, for instance, has long been assumed to be under the protection of Ukraine’s powerful interior minister, Arsen Avakov.

Likewise, C14 has long been rumored to be linked to Ukraine’s security service, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). C14’s leader, Yevhen Karas, has been accused of having connections to Ukraine’s intelligence services since the times of the Maidan revolution. A former high-ranking member of C14, Dmytro Riznychenko, alleged that Karas received a tip from the security services – then aligned with Yanukovych – in February 2014 that there would be a police assault on protesters. In turn, Karas encouraged his group to leave Maidan Square and take refuge in the nearby (and temporarily abandoned) Canadian Embassy.

Karas himself even admitted in 2017 that he and other far-right figures receive tip-offs from Ukraine’s security services. The C14 leader was also seen at the private ceremony in Kiev in January commemorating Ukraine’s newly independent Orthodox Church, alongside high-ranking Ukrainian government and state officials.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, right, holding a cross during a symbolic ceremony sanctifying the Ukrainian church's independence from the Russian Orthodox Church, Istanbul, January 6, 2019.
Lefteris Pitarakis,AP

Other far-right figures continue to occupy positions of considerable influence. Vadym Troyan, a onetime member of the neo-Nazi Patriot of Ukraine group once headed by Andriy Biletsky – the National Corps’ current leader – is deputy minister of internal affairs. And the head of one of Ukraine’s police departments, Sergey Korotkikh, is a Belarusian citizen and extremist who cut his teeth in a notorious neo-Nazi gang in Moscow, and was given Ukrainian citizenship by President Petro Poroshenko in 2014 for his participation in the Azov Battalion.

Still, there’s no chance Ukraine’s far right is about to match the most dire predictions of Kremlin propaganda – whether that be violently seizing power in Ukraine or eking out a victory at the ballot box. With both presidential and parliamentary elections taking place this year, the far right’s numbers are easy to scoff at: One recent poll showed both the National Corps and its leader and presidential candidate, Biletsky, polling at less than 1 percent (Biletsky finally announced at the party's recent conference he wasn't going to take part in the presidential election after all). And even the most critical observers of the far right doubt it has the capacity to seriously mount anything like a coup d'état in Ukraine.

But that doesn’t mean the far right is about to go away. Likhachev tells Haaretz he doesn’t think the relatively “low-level intensity” of attacks in the latter part of 2018 will continue into 2019.

Ironically, that is because of the level of strife that currently exists between some far-right groups. Despite efforts by the National Corps to rally far-right extremists around Biletsky, the nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) party insisted on naming its own presidential candidate, Ruslan Koshulynsky. The two parties are now at odds, with each even hosting separate marches on January 1 to honor Stepan Bandera – the wartime Ukrainian nationalist and Nazi collaborator whose forces committed war crimes against Poles and Jews.

“Given the political situation,” says Likhachev, “I expect physical attacks to increase.”

Far-right graffiti near the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, November 2018.
Michael Colborne

Violence and intimidation

The far right might also be able to have an impact on some parliamentary races later this year, says Kiev Polytechnic Institute’s Ishchenko. While he doesn’t think the far right can pose a significant challenge to results on the national level, he argues that far-right forces could be mobilized by local elements to try to influence results through violence and intimidation in single-member district races.

Other observers echo these concerns. In a preliminary election violence risk assessment last December, the United States Institute of Peace – an independent institute funded by the U.S. Congress – has warned that there is a significant risk of far-right groups physically threatening “voters and candidates, ethnic or religious minorities, and left-wing, LGBTQ or human rights activists.”

If they do, they might be able to take advantage of newfound positions as apparently neutral, state-sanctioned election observers. In a meeting on January 11, Ukraine’s electoral commission gave Azov’s National Militia permission to act as official observers in March’s presidential elections.

While USIP’s assessment stresses that the biggest potential threat to Ukraine’s elections is Russian interference – and that the risk of “mass violence” remains low – the authors nonetheless warn that there is “a significant risk that post-election protests [could] turn violent as supporters of the losing candidate express their anger at real or perceived election fraud, premature victory declarations, or the refusal to concede defeat.”

Members of the far-right National Militia in Kiev, October 2018.
Michael Colborne

As the country’s political scene heats up in advance of the first round of presidential elections at the end of March, Ukraine will be the focus of increased international attention. But more incidents of far-right violence will also likely draw attention to the way Ukraine’s violent far right has been tolerated and enabled since 2014.

“The [Ukrainian] government has the responsibility to provide security and hold people accountable under the law,” says Freedom House’s Schaaf. “What we’ve seen is very weak enforcement of the law, and weak enforcement of democratic values.”

And even if Ukraine’s Jews haven’t borne the brunt of the far right’s violence since 2014, the Ukrainian Jewish Committee’s Dolinsky isn’t sanguine about what the future might bring. Ukraine’s government, he says, has made common cause with the nationalist far right – adopting its rhetoric, enabling its leaders and letting them operate with relative impunity.

And even if the most extreme figures on the far right have shied away from overt anti-Semitic rhetoric and acts of anti-Semitic violence, Dolinsky notes, it is only because the far right has chosen to focus on perceived “pro-Russian” enemies, like leftists and more vulnerable minorities. Ukraine’s Jews are still on the far right’s list of enemies, says Dolinsky.

“Jews don’t play that important a role; we are not a resource for elections,” says Dolinsky. “But nationalists are. The government knows what they’re doing.”