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Ukraine Nationalists: Country Headed for Coup

Two police cars ablaze at the site of unrest in Mukhachevo, Western Ukraine, July 11, 2015.
Two police cars ablaze at the site of unrest in Mukhachevo, Western Ukraine, July 11, 2015.

In recent days, the kind of armed violence previously limited to Ukraine's beleaguered east came within 30 miles of the country's European Union borders.

In the city of Mukacheve, one person was killed in a Saturday gun fight between members of far-right nationalists known as Right Sector and security guards connected to a Ukrainian legislator.

Right Sector, whose own volunteer battalion fights alongside government troops in eastern Ukraine, said its members were trying to confront a local crime boss and policemen it alleges were involved in large-scale smuggling in the region.

But some witnesses say the shootout involving automatic rifles and grenade launchers appears to have been part of a criminal turf war over smuggling itself — particularly the illicit transit of cigarettes into EU markets.

A number of civilians were injured and several police vehicles destroyed in the incident, while about a dozen Right Sector militants involved in the shootout managed to escape into the nearby mountains, evading troops sent to disarm them. Ukrainian officials reported Monday that two militants who security forces were closing in on had managed to escape by taking hostage a 6-year-old boy, who was later released.

Following the incident, President Petro Poroshenko called for the militants involved in the shootout to be disarmed and detained for an unbiased investigation into what happened.

Right Sector, however, mobilized its members across the country and launched protests demanding the removal of the Interior minister and officials in Ukraine's western regions. It also called on government forces to defy their superiors' orders, and some Right Sector units fighting in eastern Ukraine reportedly abandoned their positions to join protests in the capital, Kyiv.

On Monday, Poroshenko discussed the violence in Mukacheve during a meeting with senior military and security officials. The Ukrainian president's website quoted him as saying the violence was the result of a fight for control over smuggling operations and reported that he called for "prompt and meaningful actions from law enforcement agencies in combating smuggling."

The website also quoted him as saying that no political party in the country should have "armed cells," and that the law enforcement agencies must "perform their duty and disarm all illegal armed groups."

Right Sector is essentially Ukraine's largest private army, boasting 10,000 armed members nationwide. In weeks preceding the incident, the group ramped up its anti-government rhetoric in Mukacheve, labeling the country's elected government "an inner occupying force" and suggesting it should be overthrown.

In early July, Right Sector gathered several thousand supporters in Kyiv for a rally to protest what they called government "terror" against nationalists and the lack of reforms in the country, and to demand an offensive against pro-Russian militants in the east.

Right Sector: coup is coming

Last week, before the Mukacheve incident, VOA asked Right Sector spokesman Artem Skoropadsky to comment on the group's rhetoric and possible future course of action.

"If there's a new revolution, Ukraine's President Poroshenko and his teammates won't be able to make it out of the country the way the previous president [pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych] did," Skoropadsky told VOA. "They can't expect anything other than an execution in some dark vault, carried out by a group of young officers of Ukraine's army and National Guard."

Skoropadsky also said his organization is not calling for a coup, but that one is inevitable if the government remains deaf to the pleas of the volunteer battalions and the population.

Since last year's Euromaidan demonstrations against the Yanukovych government and the start of war in the east, Ukraine has seen a drop in its living standards, a currency devaluation, price increases and rising unemployment. This has not translated, however, into mass anti-government sentiment. According to a recent poll, 32 percent of the population would re-elect Petro Poroshenko as president.

In last year's parliamentary election, Right Sector was unable to win a sufficient number of votes to make it into the Rada — the Ukrainian parliament — as a political party.

According to Anton Shekhovtsov, a visiting senior fellow at Britain's Legatum Institute who researches European radical movements, there is only a handful of far-right MPs in the Rada.

Ultra-nationalists: defenders or curse?

Andreas Umland, a German political scientist working in Ukraine, agrees that Right Sector lacks popular support, telling VOA that it consists of "a couple of thousand mainly young men and has limited appeal in broader society."

Likewise, Ivan Yakovina, a reporter with Ukrainian weekly magazine Novoe Vremya, says neither the right-wing Ukrainian battalions and organizations, nor their political agenda, is very popular.

"I believe that most Ukrainians, especially in relevant urban areas, have little appetite for a new round of instability after the revolution, loss of Crimea and the war," he told VOA.

Adrian Karatnycky of the Washington, D.C.-based Atlantic Council said via Facebook that "vigilantism and far-right military formations" are Ukraine's "curse," and called for its government to launch an investigation into Right Sector activities.

According to Karatnycky, high-ranking Ukrainian officials believe Right Sector "is heavily infiltrated by agent provocateurs, including those linked to the FSB" — the Federal Security Service, Russia's main state security agency. Right Sector is officially banned in Russia, which has long called the organization a threat to Ukraine's stability.

Dmytro Riznychenko is a Ukrainian far-right blogger and veteran of the war in eastern Ukraine who is the spokesman for the Donbas-Ukraine battalion, a newly-formed armed unit backed by Kyiv. He told VOA last week that Ukraine's nationalists understand they lack popular support and thus could eventually try to seize power by force.

"The only issue is to find the right figure to be the country's dictator and savior," he said.

Riznychenko exemplifies how intertwined Ukraine's military is with nationalist organizations. Before joining a volunteer battalion in 2014, after which he fought and was wounded in the bloody battle of Ilovaisk, Riznychenko was a member of C14, which researcher Shekhovtsov believes to be a neo-Nazi paramilitary group.

Riznychenko, however, told VOA his battalion is apolitical.

Government forces

Some observers say that despite their aggressive rhetoric, the far-right groups do not pose a real threat to the government.

"While the Right Sector is flexing its muscles in the streets, the government is way stronger and feels no need to resort to posturing," Serhiy Leshchenko, a former investigative journalist who is now a member of the Rada, told VOA last week.

Others say it is not clear whether the government could rely on the military to quash an attempt by nationalist groups to seize power. Indeed, Riznychenko said that the volunteer battalions and the military are closely connected and share the same concerns, disagreeing only over how to address them.

Should it come to a face-off between Kyiv and the nationalists, he suggested, camaraderie and mutual respect forged in battle will trump government directives.

"In April, the government made an attempt to disarm the Right Sector," Riznychenko told VOA. "Its base was surrounded and artillery was pointed at it, [but] rank-and-file government troops defied orders after exchanging calls with counterparts in the Right Sector.”

Regardless of whether this account of what happened in April is accurate, the loyalty of government forces may again be put to the test if the current showdown over the Mukacheve shootout is not resolved peacefully.