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Ukraine: Provoking the Euromaidan

By Blog Admin, on 3 December 2013

Far-right activists have been infiltrating the protests in Ukraine and provoking  police and demonstrators to violence reports  Anton Shekhovtsov.

The U-turn on the Association Agreement with the EU by the Ukrainian government has sparked the most massive social protests since the ‘Orange Revolution’ in 2004. Unlike the ‘Orange revolution,’ however, the new protests, named ‘the Euromaidan,’ have been marked by the government’s disproportionate use of violence against the non-violent protests. The authorities have been making use of paid instigators who infiltrate the protests and then start attacking the police to provoke a ‘retaliatory’ suppression of ‘violent protestors.’

1 December was a day of blood and violence. The Ukrainian opposition had planned a peaceful protest against the brutal beating of several hundreds of protestors, the day before, by 1,000-2,000 members of the ‘Berkut’ special police unit. However, the gathering of hundreds of thousands of people was overshadowed by the clashes on Bankova Street leading to the building of the Presidential Administration, where the Berkut held the line against an extremely violent 200- strong crowd.

Media reports at first referred to this hardcore group – many of them masked – as ‘unknown activists;’ unknown because nobody knew if their actions were, in fact, sanctioned by the opposition. Since the opposition had specifically renounced any use of violence, the media soon started to refer to these men as ‘provocateurs.’ They threw flares, smoke bombs, Molotov cocktails and stones at the police, beat them with chains, fired tear gas, and brought up an excavator to break through the police cordon.

The police did not respond, stood their ground and used megaphones, urging the troublemakers to stop. Some other protesters, later joined by businessman and politician Petro Poroshenko, understanding the deliberately provocative nature of what was happening, tried to calm things down, which only resulted in fights between protesters. Eventually, the violent crowd again started attacking the police. This time, the police were replaced by the Berkut troops, which dispersed the crowd severely beating dozens of people including 40 Ukrainian and foreign journalists. Guilty or not guilty, everybody in the wrong place in the wrong time was beaten up. The opposition’s leaders, Vitali Klitschko (UDAR) and Oleh Tyahnybok (far right Svoboda) themselves went to Bankova Street to urge the troublemakers to join the peaceful protests on Maidan (Independence Square).

Who were these troublemakers?

‘Titushki’

The pro-democratic media and the opposition were quick to denounce them as provocateurs, ‘titushki’ – a term that has entered the Ukrainian political lexicon, after the May 2013 disturbances in Kyiv, when a group of young sportsmen – among them Vadym Titushko – were hired by the authorities to attack the opposition and journalists.

The story on 1 December was more complicated. Video footage uploaded on YouTube later that day revealed two white minivans owned by the State Security Administration which had brought a few dozen unknown people in civilian clothes to the yard close by the police cordon on Bankova Street. These might have been titushki, but it is not clear whether they actually took part in the attacks on the police.

What is clear is that the hard core of the violent crowd was not the titushki, but right-wing extremists and far right football hooligans. Almost all of them wore masks and yellow armbands with the wolf’s hook symbol; and were clearly equipped for battle.

The black wolf’s hook

The black wolf’s hook on yellow armbands revealed their political affiliation: the Social-National Assembly (SNA), a largely Kyiv-based neo-Nazi organisation, which hoped to register as a political party in 2011 but failed to do so. Its leaders and ideologues are currently jailed on dubious charges.

There were also activists from other right-wing extremist organisations. The call to arms came via the social networking website VKontakte where they formed a group ‘The Maidan Action Right-Wing Sector’ and it was this particular group that attacked police on Bankova Street. In addition to the SNA, the ‘Right-Wing Sector’ also includes Tryzub (Trident) and Bily Molot (White Hammer). Tryzub was originally formed in 1993 as a paramilitary unit of the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists, but then became an independent organisation. In September 2009, Tryzub activists took part in attacks on gay people; and cut off the head of the Stalin monument in Zaporizhzhya in December 2010. Bily Molot is a relatively new group, which attracted some publicity by smashing a number of illegal casinos in Kyiv and the regions.

The confrontation on Bankova Street was not the first action of the Right-Wing Sector. At the beginning of the Euromaidan protests, they attacked peaceful left-wing activists; and then were filmed training how to handle attacks. Before they attacked the police close to the Presidential Administration building no one had called them ‘provocateurs,’ although their violent nature was evident from the outset and it was clear that they did not support Ukraine’s European integration.

There is no hard evidence to show that the Svoboda parliamentary party was involved in the attacks –  Oleh Tyahnybok was one of the leaders of the opposition urging the violent crowd to stop – but the possibility cannot be ruled out that some individual members of Svoboda, especially from its neo-Nazi wing C14, took part in the confrontation with the police.

It appears that the troublemakers were not provocateurs, but rather an independent group of right-wing extremists who did not want to conform to the orders of the opposition and decided to act on their own, driven by anti-establishment sentiments. But among the Right-Wing Sector troublemakers, there was one person whose presence puts the whole event in a different, albeit still obscure, perspective.

Bratstvo (Brotherhood)

This person is Dmytro Korchyns’ky, the leader of the far-right Bratstvo (Brotherhood) party and a former leader of the paramilitary party UNA-UNSO. In Ukraine, Korchyns’ky is widely considered an agent provocateur even among the extreme right and his Bratstvo group have already taken part in several actions that were meant to provoke police repression of peaceful protests.

Hromadske TV reported that Korchyns’ky was ‘giving instructions’ to the members of the ‘Right-Wing Sector’ on Bankova Street on the December 1st. Although the true nature of Korchyns’ky’s relationship with the SNA, Tryzub and Bily Molot is still unclear, and his influence on the Ukrainian extreme right is still very limited, he does have friends in high places.

Korchyns’ky is closely linked to Russia. He taught a course at the explicitly pro-Putin ‘Seliger’ summer camp in Russia, in 2005. This camp was organised with the help of the Russian Presidential Administration, and was meant to train pro-Putin youngsters to counter a potential ‘Orange Revolution’ in Russia. Earlier that year, Korchyns’ky took part in the conference ‘Europe: Results of the Year of Changes’ where he said, in particular, that Russian ‘social organisations, foundations and institutions should oppose various orange efforts in its own country, as well as on the whole post-Soviet space.’ It was at this conference that Korchyns’ky first met Vladislav Surkov, the chief ideologue of Putinism, who returned in September 2013 to the Russian Presidential Administration as an ‘Overseer of Russian-Ukrainian relations.’

The godfather

Korchyns’ky has also been on friendly terms with Viktor Medvedchuk, a Ukrainian businessman and stridently pro-Russian politician, who rabidly opposes the signing of the Association Agreement between the EU and Ukraine, and instead supports the Russia-led Customs Union. Medvedchuk’s has close personal relations with Vladimir Putin, who is godfather to Medvedchuk’s daughter.

However provoked, the Euromaidan is right to fear the godfather.

Anton Shekhovtsov is a PhD student at UCL-SSEES and a European Fellow of the Radicalism and New Media Research Group. He is also editor of the Explorations of the Far Right book series at ibidem-Verla. 

This post was first published in oD Russia and is reproduced under the terms of a Creative Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 licence.

Note: This article gives the views of the author(s), and not the position of the SSEES Research blog, nor of the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, nor of UCL