I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told Ukraine doesn’t really have a problem with its far-right. It’s all Kremlin propaganda; you’re personally helping Putin by talking about it; other countries have far-right problems too, so why single out Ukraine? I’ve heard it all.
But I expect hear even more lines like this in the New Year, all because I’m going to point out the obvious: Ukraine really does have a far-right problem, and it’s not a fiction of Kremlin propaganda. And it’s well past time to talk about it.
Ukraine’s far-right is like a hydra, with ugly heads that pop up far too frequently. Just within the last few weeks, an American-born cabinet minister thanked a group of violent neo-Nazi “activists” for their services, a soldier was photographed wearing a Nazi death’s head patch right behind President Petro Poroshenko and almost 1,500 neo-Nazis and friends threw a two-day Hitler-salute-fest.
An attempt to clear Ukraine’s elite Airborne troops of a recent Nazi patch debacle is backfiring, hijacked by ultra-nationalists?
After a recent photo of Ukraine’s president, Poroshenko with the troops showed a solider next to him with a Nazi “Totenkopf” patch on… pic.twitter.com/5FiRfgPATh— Oleksiy Kuzmenko (@kooleksiy) December 15, 2018
Violent far-right groups have been around in Ukraine for years, albeit in marginal numbers. But over the last year they’ve grown not just in significance but in aggressiveness.
I know because I’ve been on the receiving end myself.
At a march in November to commemorate people who’ve fallen victim to transphobic violence, I watched as a march of barely 50 participants was shut down by some 200 far-right extremists. I felt their wrath myself as two of them assaulted me in separate incidents afterwards.
I’m far from the first person who’s fallen victim to Ukrainian far-right groups, nor anywhere near the most serious. Their members have attacked Roma camps multiple times, even killing a Roma man earlier this year. They’ve stormed local city council meetings to intimidate elected officials. They’ve marched by the thousands through the streets to commemorate WWII-era nationalist formations who took part in ethnic cleansing. They’ve acted as vigilantes with little to no negative reaction from state authorities.
…checking out Instagram photos from last night, and Goatmoon’s guitarist has an….interesting tattoo. pic.twitter.com/6fFIG4OgJQ— Michael Colborne (@ColborneMichael) December 16, 2018
Members of Ukraine’s far-right also offer themselves up as thugs for hire – sometimes with deadly consequences. This summer, anti-corruption activist Kateryna Handziuk was the victim of a horrifying acid attack. In July, several extremists – who apparently were paid by corrupt local police to carry out the attack – doused her with sulfuric acid, burning her over 40 percent of her body. She died from her injuries in November.
Ukraine’s notorious Azov movement keeps growing. Since it was created in 2014 to fight Russian-led forces in the east, it made news by accepting openly neo-Nazi members into its rank. Now the Azov Battalion has become an official Ukrainian National Guard regiment. In 2016 the group formed a political party, which, they claim, now has tens of thousands of members. Earlier this year they unveiled a paramilitary force that doubles as a street gang.
Even as their party polls barely a percent, Azov is trying – as one of their higher-ups has told me personally – to build a far-right “state within the state,” running everything from nationalist study groups and mixed martial arts training to free gyms for youth and programs for the elderly. They’re also trying to turn Kiev into a capital of the global far-right, inviting neo-Nazis and white supremacists from around the world to visit.
Whatever group they’re part of, Ukraine’s far-right is increasingly nonchalant about the use of violence. When I was covering the march in Kiev on November 18, one of them walked up to me and sprayed me with a quart-sized bottle of pepper spray. Another then sucker-punched me in the face just yards away from onlooking police – hard enough to smash my glasses and cut me up.
Yes, I’m still mad about what happened to me. But I’m even more mad about a peaceful assembly of barely fifty people being cancelled because some violent hooligans decided it should be.
And what makes me angriest of all is that many prominent people in Ukraine and beyond that keep wanting to tell you that the far-right isn’t that big a problem.
But it’s time to talk about why extremists in this country are able to attack people in broad daylight as police stand by. It’s time to talk about why some of them are receiving state funds and taking part in official police patrols in some cities. It’s time to talk about why a group that denies it has neo-Nazi leanings can help host a two-day neo-Nazi music festival with barely a peep from anyone. It’s time to talk about why Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, up for re-election in March, is happy to flirt with hardline nationalist rhetoric and hasn’t bothered to condemn incidents like last month’s attack on a peaceful protest.
And more. Fans are freely posting this stuff publicly in the days after the festival. pic.twitter.com/EbcxD0d9md— Michael Colborne (@ColborneMichael) December 18, 2018
It’s time to talk about why so many mainstream figures in Ukraine and abroad don’t seem too bothered by any of this. Yes, every country has its extremists, but not every country has public figures that (repeatedly) defend the actions of violent vigilante groups like the notorious C14 – or, like Ukraine’s American-born health minister Ulana Suprun, sully a (deserved) positive reputation by hobnobbing for photos with the group’s leaders on social media).
And no, I haven’t forgotten that Ukraine is still mired in a Russian-orchestrated war on part of its territory, and that Moscow likes to use Ukrainian nationalists in its propaganda – part of its longstanding practice of painting all Ukrainians, nationalists or not, as “Nazis” (not true), or as supporters of Nazi-era collaborationist movements that were active in some parts of Ukraine (also not true). I also don’t doubt that the Kremlin itself funds or supports some of the far-right agitation here so that it can use them for its own purposes.
That’s why I know what I’m going to hear next. I’ll probably be told that I’m part of Putin’s hybrid war (really?), that I work for the Kremlin (um, no), or that I’m doing the Kremlin’s work (also no). But I didn’t invent Ukraine’s far-right, and I certainly haven’t helped them gain the prominence they’ve got heading in 2019.
The problem is real. It’s time for Ukraine to talk about it and take it on.
Michael Colborne is a Canadian journalist who covers central and eastern Europe and is writing a series of articles about Ukraine’s far-right. He tweets at @ColborneMichael.