How cronyism exploits Ukrainian neo-Nazis

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Ukraine’s early presidential and parliamentary elections earlier this year proved to be disastrous for the Ukrainian party-political far right.

Oleh Tyahnybok, the leader of the All-Ukrainian Union “Freedom” (Svoboda), obtained 1.16% of the vote in the presidential election, while his party secured only 4.71% of the vote in the parliamentary election and, eventually, failed to pass the 5% electoral threshold and enter the parliament. In comparison, Svoboda obtained 10.44% of the votes in 2012 and formed the first ever far right parliamentary group in Ukraine’s history. Dmytro Yarosh, the leader of the Right Sector, obtained 0.70% in the presidential election, and 1.80% of the voters supported his party in the parliamentary election.

However, the electoral failure of Svoboda and the Right Sector did not mark “the end of history” of the Ukrainian far right, and some other developments proved to be much more problematic. One of these developments is the rise of the previously obscure neo-Nazi organisation “Patriot of Ukraine” (PU) led by Andriy Bilets’ky.

Neo-Nazi leader Andriy Biletskyi. Kharkiv, several years ago
Neo-Nazi leader Andriy Biletskyi. Kharkiv, several years ago

A member of Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front party, Avakov promoted the Azov battalion and granted the rank of police Lieutenant Colonel to its commander Biletskyi in August. The People’s Front also brought Biletskyi into the military council of the party and apparently planned to officially support his candidacy in the parliamentary election, but, due to the opposition to such a move from the Ukrainian expert community and representatives of national minorities, the People’s Front was forced to re-think its decision. However, the People’s Front, in particular Avakov and his advisor Anton Herashchenko, still supported Biletskyi unofficially, and he was elected into the parliament in a single-member district in Kyiv. After the elections, Avakov appointed Vadym Troyan, deputy commander of the Azov battalion and a top member of the PU, as head of the Kyiv region police.Like some other leaders of the PU, Biletskyi did not take part in the 2014 revolution, as he had been in jail since the end of 2011. Biletskyi and his associates were released – as “political prisoners” – only after the revolution. In May, the PU formed a core of the Azov battalion, a volunteer detachment governed by the Ministry of Interior headed by Arsen Avakov.

At a gathering of the Azov battalion. Kyiv, 2014
At a gathering of the Azov battalion. Kyiv, 2014

Avakov, Biletskyi and Troyan are coming from the Kharkiv region and have known each other at least since 2009-2010, when Avakov was still a governor of the Kharkiv region. In Kharkiv, the PU was involved in questionable activities, ranging from attacks on Vietnamese merchants to seizures of businesses. In 2010, the PU activists headed by Troyan seized four dozens of news stalls in Kharkiv in favour of, according to the media reports, a company of Andriy Liphans’ky. The latter was a business partner of Avakov and headed the board of media and information of the Kharkiv region during Avakov’s governance. Media reports also suggested that Liphans’ky rented a gym for training of the PU activists. In their turn, the PU activists provided security for the Kharkiv protests of the Bloc of Yuliya Tymoshenko (BYuT) – at that time Avakov headed that the regional office of the BYuT. Furthermore, a leader of the Kharkiv football hooligans who was close to the PU took part in Avakov’s mayoral campaign in 2010.Why does the Ukrainian Ministry of Interior promote the leaders of the neo-Nazi organisation? Its ideology can hardly explain these developments, as neither Avakov nor Herashchenko is a neo-Nazi. The explanation seems to lie in the past and has to do with a sinister legacy of cronyism.

Today’s involvement of the PU leaders in Ukrainian police seems to be driven by Avakov’s trust in the organisation that he worked with in the past. Avakov also seems to believe in the personal loyalty of the PU-led Azov battalion and may use them as his “private army” for business or political reasons.

Andriy Biletskyi and Minister of Interior Arsen Avakov, 2014
Andriy Biletskyi and Minister of Interior Arsen Avakov, 2014

The problematic relationship between the Ministry of Inferior and the neo-Nazis is undermining the credibility of the newly formed Ukrainian government internationally and domestically.

It was most likely Avakov who suggested to Poroshenko to grant Ukrainian citizenship to Belarusian fighter of the Azov battalion Sergey Korotkikh who had been involved in the neo-Nazi movements in Belarus and Russia since the late 1990s. It is highly unlikely that Avakov mentioned to Poroshenko the background of a new Ukrainian citizen.

Moreover, under Avakov, the police in Kyiv have already proved unable or unwilling to investigate a number of hate crimes. In July, far right thugs – not necessarily associated with the PU – attacked four black people in the underground, a gay club and a Jewish student by a synagogue. The police initiated two criminal cases, but nobody has been prosecuted so far. In September, the head of the Visual Culture Research Centre Vasyl Cherepanyn was beaten apparently by far right activists, but the police failed to investigate the attack too.

It seems viable to suggest that, under Troyan as head of the Kyiv region police, investigations into hate crimes will hardly be efficient, while the persistent traditions of cronyism will unlikely contribute to the building of a strong democracy

Author: Anton Shekhovtsov

Anton Shekhovtsov is an expert on the European political far-right 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-Verlag.