Ukraine’s revolution grows radical

Protesters are "two steps ahead" of their their leaders.
Credit: Dan Peleschuk

KYIV, Ukraine — A visit to Kyiv’s central Trade Union House — currently occupied by members of the country’s anti-government protest movement — illustrates just how complicated this uprising has become.

On the fifth floor, members of Right Sector — a conglomeration of quasi-militant far-right groups that has spearheaded much of the recent violence between police and protesters — command full authority.

Festooned with ultra-nationalist propaganda, their entranceway is tightly guarded by masked young men in armor.

Outside, the group’s co-founder Andriy Tarasenko lists his demands: for Ukraine’s political opposition to seize power and declare the authorities illegitimate.

“But they’re afraid to do this,” he says.

His outward resentment of the country’s three main opposition leaders — those shown on television negotiating with President Viktor Yanukovych — reflects the divisions within the increasingly angry anti-government movement between its formal parliamentary leaders and its various grassroots commandos.

While the political opposition remains mired in stalled talks with the embattled president, protesters here are growing more disenfranchised by the day amid a steady flow of reports detailing police abuse against their comrades and the mysterious disappearances of fellow activists.

Many here believe that reaching an acceptable political solution has long been a pipe dream.

That helps explain why it’s become normal to see men in bulletproof vests toting crowbars and baseball bats roaming Khreshchatyk, the city’s main drag.

They meander through the massive tent encampment in shifts, manning barricades around Independence Square, the nerve center of the protests, and Hrushevsky Street, the site of last week’s violent clashes.

Critics are raising fears about the ultra-nationalist bent of some fighters, including those from Right Sector, who openly advocate violence and venerate wartime Ukrainian nationalist leaders still perceived by many Ukrainians as traitors and extremists.

Curiously, however, many ordinary protesters are so far showing apparently unconditional support for even the most aggressive radicals.

The morning after a violent siege of the Ukrainian House exhibition center near Independence Square this week, women flocked in and set up a makeshift kitchen to serve hot tea and noodle soup to exhausted protesters, many bearing nationalist insignias.

Nadezhda Shunkareva, a 50-year-old ethnic Russian from central Ukraine, was one of the volunteers.

“They’re not radical or extremists, they’re heroes,” she said. “What’s going on in this country is a national war of liberation against criminals.”

Such intense anti-regime feelings reflect the mounting political and social chaos gripping the country.

On Friday, protesters across Ukraine awoke to news that activist Dmytro Bulatov, who organized drivers to protest under a movement called “AutoMaidan,” was found alive after being held by unknown captors for eight days.

Brutally beaten and reportedly crucified, Bulatov was apparently left to die in the frost outside Kyiv. Others — including Yuriy Verbytsky, an activist from western Ukraine who was found dead last week after being tortured — have suffered worse.

“Ukraine in the era of Viktor Yanukovych is when you’re glad they merely tortured him,” tweeted Mustafa Nayyem, Ukraine’s leading opposition journalist, shortly after Bulatov’s reappearance.

At least 20 others are believed to remain missing.

Harnessing the popular anger over such developments has proven difficult for Ukraine’s opposition leaders, who include boxing champion Vitali Klitshcko and an erudite banker named Arseniy Yatsenyuk.

Last week’s passage of a controversial amnesty law, which requires protesters to leave occupied buildings before detained activists will be released, had the effect of only turning up the heat on opposition leaders increasingly seen as cornered by Yanukovych’s piecemeal concessions.

They appear to tolerate groups such as Right Sector despite having openly condemned violence because they have few other options, analysts suggest.

“They understood that they didn’t have a single chance to persuade people to leave,” said political consultant Taras Berezovets about the amnesty law’s condition to abandon occupied buildings.

Yanukovych’s approval of the amnesty law on Friday offered even fewer hopes of a resolution.

Days earlier, controversy erupted over another radical group, Common Cause, which was behind the seizures of several ministries last week.

The move drew fire from the opposition, whose tacit approval of the occupation of other buildings — including Kyiv city hall and the Trade Union House — appeared to have reached a limit.

Scuffles broke out between activists from Common Cause and Svoboda, a nationalist opposition party in parliament, after the latter attempted to evict them.

Ostap Semerak, a top advisor to Yatsenyuk in the Fatherland Party, admits that since the protests first broke out last November, Common Cause — by now an influential protest group on the ground — has acted “unilaterally” and never coordinated its acts with the political opposition.

Still, he says that although he doesn’t support their “provocative” acts, he doesn’t condemn them, either.

“Because when people are trying to be heard for two months and the government doesn’t hear them, they resort to their own methods to draw the government’s attention,” Semerak said in an interview.

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For now, it remains unclear how long the fragile partnership between the mainstream opposition and the more radical groups can last.

On Friday, Right Sector head Dmytro Yarosh demanded that his group be included at the negotiation table with the authorities, according to the Interfax news agency. He threatened to take “independent action” if his demands aren’t met by next week.

Tarasenko, the Right Sector co-coordinator, dismisses suggestions the parliamentary opposition should keep protesters under control.

“I don’t like this idea of ‘control’ over the people at all,” he said. “If they’re leaders, they’re supposed to carry the people.”

“But here, it’s the opposite: the people are two steps ahead of the leaders, and they’re forcing them to take steps.” 

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