By William Risch
Last week in Kyiv, I saw that the Maidan had changed. The heart of Ukraine’s protest movement that overthrew President Viktor Yanukovych, it looked like a war zone. The Trade Unions Building was a burned-out shell. Entire sections of pavement were gone, the stones used as weapons against riot police the previous month. Piles of tires lined barricades. Boxes of bottles kept for Molotov cocktails were stowed away near tents. Unlike January, the students were gone. Nearly everyone was gone. Only a few dozen people mingled around the Maidan, mostly the elderly, curious tourists, and “revolutionaries” spinning doubtful, though anguished, tales.
Men in green camouflage uniforms also roamed the Maidan and the Khreshchatyk, Kyiv’s main boulevard. Among them were members of Right Sector, a radical right organization that had helped fight street battles with the Yanukovych regime. Wearing insignia, armbands, or scarves with trademark colors of the far right (red and black), they guarded buildings Right Sector had seized, including the Hotel Dnipro on European Square and three stores on the Khreshchatyk. One afternoon I saw a guard briefly pop out of one store with a rifle and then quickly return inside.
It was a frightening scene. One colleague made it even more frightening when he reported seeing such paramilitary types on the Khreshchatyk beat up a man with metal bars until he bled.
Yet all week, as I traveled back and forth in the rest of the city, Kyiv was just like it always was. Police patrolled the streets. People went to work and did their shopping. Even trains were running to Simferopol and Sevastopol, which by the week’s end had wound up in Russia.
What I’d seen in Kyiv last week epitomized the dubious power of Ukraine’s “far right,” as defined by Western and Russian media. While making quite a show in downtown Kyiv, neither Right Sector nor the Freedom (Svoboda) Party have much potential electoral support or real political power. While appearing to threaten the new government, these forces look like they are on the verge of dying out.
After Oleksandr Muzychko (Sashko Bilyi), Right Sector’s coordinator for western Ukraine, was killed in a gun battle with Sokil special forces near Rivne on March 25, Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh called for the immediate resignation of Acting Minister of the Interior Arsen Avakov and the arrest of Sokil’s commander and Sokil agents responsible for Muzychko’s death. It looked like the new government was about to battle Right Sector as well as Russian forces across the eastern border.
However, the next day, March 26, a set of opinion polls suggested the far right was not much of a threat. A mere 2.5 percent of likely voters indicated that they would support Oleh Tiahnybok, leader of Svoboda, in May 25 presidential elections, and only 1.4 percent Dmytro Yarosh, leader of Right Sector. The same polling agencies – SOCIS, Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, Reitinh, and the Razumkov Center – polled Ukrainians on their opinions about early parliamentary elections, which have not yet been scheduled. A total of 5.2 percent of likely voters expressed a desire to support Svoboda, and only 2.7 percent Right Sector. On March 27, Right Sector rallied in front of the Supreme Rada, demanding that Avakov be fired and that former Acting Minister of Defense Ihor Teniukh face justice (presumably for his handling of the Crimean crisis). They brought tires to the entrance and broke some of its windows. Some activists forced their way inside. The drama soon ended here. After some debating, Right Sector decided not to storm the building, and by 10 p.m., Right Sector members had left the Supreme Rada’s premises.
The far right has strong symbolic presence on the Maidan and on the Khreshchatyk. They can voice popular grievances with police forces still perceived to be just like they were under the old regime. Svoboda members are in such government positions as General Prosecutor of Ukraine (Oleh Makhnits’kyi), Deputy Prime Minister (Oleksandr Sych), Environment Minister (Andriy Mokhnyk), and Agriculture Minister (Ihor Shvaika). While the General Prosecutor is a crucial position, Svoboda has only three posts in the Cabinet of Ministers, while the rest of the interim government is made up of members of the Fatherland (Bat’kivshchyna) Party, which is not on the far right, and independents. Given the overwhelming support for early parliamentary elections (65.8 percent, according to Ukrains’ka Pravda) and low polling numbers for Svoboda and Right Sector, it is doubtful the far right will have a serious presence in Ukraine’s state in the near future. Ineffective government, the threat of economic collapse, and Russia’s invasion of Crimea endanger Ukraine’s fragile revolution much more than Right Sector’s men standing guard in downtown Kyiv.
William Risch is an Associate Professor of History of Georgia College and author of The Ukrainian West: Culture and the Fate of Empire in Soviet Lviv (Harvard University Press, 2011)