Ukraine’s parliament voted to approve the resignation of Interior Minister Arsen Avakov on Thursday, marking the end of a seven-and-a-half year tenure marked by allegations of police brutality, corruption and patronage of violent far-right gangs.
Thursday’s vote came two days after Avakov, who is widely seen as the second-most powerful man in Ukraine and whose ministry oversees both the police and National Guard, submitted a letter of resignation to President Volodymyr Zelensky. While he did not give a reason for his decision, Avakov had been at odds with the president over the investigation into the death of an investigative journalist in a car bombing in central Kyiv in 2016.
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Iryna Vereshchuk, the deputy head of the parliamentary committee on security issues and a member of Zelensky's party, suggested that the president had urged Avakov to step down.
Avakov was appointed shortly after the Euromaidan revolution in 2013 and has “long been considered to be the patron of the Azov movement,” a far-right ultranationalist group with its own political party and paramilitary force with ties to western Neo-Nazi groups, said Michael Colborne, the author of the forthcoming book "From the Fires of War: Ukraine's Azov Movement and the Global Far Right."
Azov was banned by Facebook in 2019 and its paramilitary arm, the National Corps, has been described by the U.S. State Department as a “nationalist hate group.” Earlier this year, Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin, the Chairwoman of the Subcommittee on Intelligence and Counterterrorism, called on Secretary of State Antony Blinken to designate Azov a “foreign terrorist organization.”
“Back when he was governor of the Kharkiv region in the mid/late 2000s, Avakov patronized Azov's forerunner, Patriot of Ukraine, as a sort of far-right street force that would work on his and his allies' behalf,” Colborne told Haaretz, adding that the group had been “allowed to grow and solidify and consolidate its presence with him in his position.”
However, while far-right groups have been allowed to operate with relative impunity in Ukraine in recent years, attacking members of the LGBTQ and Roma communities, “Not all of that can be traced back” to Avakov, he said. “There's still a climate of impunity for the far-right in Ukraine, where, within certain limits, they can operate as they please without getting in too much, if any, trouble.”
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And while there has been vigilante violence by far-right groups, violence against Jews is relatively rare. Several community leaders contacted by Haaretz declined to comment on Avakov’s resignation.
According to Volodymyr Ishchenko, a research fellow at Technische Universität Dresden’s Institute of Slavic Studies in Germany, it is too soon to speculate on just what impact Avakov’s resignation will have on the country’s far-right, pointing out that “those who expect disappearance of Azov from Ukrainian politics are wrong.”
“They were in mutually beneficial relations with Avakov, not his puppets. Azov/National Corps are capable for independent politics, switching allies and patrons, and would resist any attempt to disband them,” he said.
Ishchenko pointed out that the far-right was split, with several having “played an important role in the recent anti-Avakov mobilizations.”
Colborne agreed, telling Haaretz that he didn’t think that Avakov’s “resignation should make anyone think the Azov movement is in trouble or anything like that; they're pretty agile and adaptable to changing circumstances.”
Nevertheless, his leaving is perceived by many to be a net positive for the country, according to former Kyiv Post news editor Matthew Kupfer, who cited allegations of corruption, stalled police reforms and the failure to investigate high profile cases like the murder of journalist Pavel Sheremet.
Avakov is “very unpopular in Ukraine, and has a distinctly negative reputation. Yet until the day he resigned, he was perceived as someone who could not be replaced,” Kupfer said, calling his resignation “a healthy change.”
In a statement to Haaretz, Ukrainian Chief Rabbi Yaakov Bleich said that he did not believe that Avakov had supported the far-right and asserted that the long-serving interior minister "was there for the Jewish Community always."
"He reacted to our concerns. He was the first Minister of Interior who implemented monthly reports on anti-Semitic acts and supported the law on racism and anti-Semitism. The Jewish Confederation of Ukraine and its member organizations, including the Union of Jewish Religious Organizations of Ukraine, considered him a good friend of the Jewish Community," Bleich said.
For her part, Jewish Confederation of Ukraine CEO Inna Ioffe told Haaretz that she considered Avakov a "friend" of the Jewish community and that she did not think he had any ties with radicals.
"I hope his successor will be as professional as he is," she said.
National Corps in Israel?
According to Russian and Ukrainian language media reports, Artem Moshensky, a senior leader of Azov’s National Corps, was airlifted to Israel last week after being shot and wounded in an attack in eastern Ukraine.
A video clip shared on Telegram by Maksym Zhorin, a National Corps leader, appeared to show members of the movement holding red flares saluting an ambulance carrying the extremist, who, according to photos on his Instagram account, has a swastika tattoo on his left knee.
Sources with knowledge of the matter told Haaretz that the Israeli embassy in Kyiv was not aware of, or involved in, efforts to bring Moshensky to Israel.
Reuters contributed to this report.