Viktor Yanukovych’s term in office is coming to an end, with 65% of Ukrainians opposing his regime. His chances of maintaining control over the vast electorate with “bread” only, are close to zero, as the Party of Regions has failed to fulfill its key election promise – to ensure “improvement today”. On the contrary, the welfare of average Ukrainians continues to worsen. Thus, those in power must have decided that the time of “circuses” and force has come. Apparently, favourable retirement scenarios are not an option for those in power – too much is at stake after what has happened, and will apparently happen in Ukraine before Yanukovych’s presidency ends. Nobody is willing to be held responsible for abuse of legislation and state institutions, not to mention the brazen misappropriation of budget funds. In this situation, the government’s spin doctors have obviously decided to focus on dividing Ukrainian society into “neo-Nazi fascists and their supporters” and “anti-fascists” expecting this to play into their hands. They probably expect to fuel mass panic in the face of a “Banderite fascist threat”, thus diverting the attention of at least their core voters from everyday problems.
Overall, May 18 revealed several trends: the government showed that it will not allow a Maidan-2; anyone who is not with it will be considered a fascist; bandit rules are being imposed in Ukraine under the guise of an anti-fascist campaign; and the government is coalescing with criminals.
THE MAIDAN SYNDROME
The expectations of the Party of Regions’ spin doctors have failed. The “anti-fascism” concept proved secondary for Ukrainians who are primarily concerned with the problems caused by the regime, such as increasing hidden unemployment, the shutdown of SMEs, plummeting disposable income against a backdrop of official talks of deflation, soaring corruption and the insolence of officials, police and judges who are growing used to their impunity while carrying out the regime’s instructions. Public reaction to this, strongly present in social networks and surveys, proves that the government’s attempts to fuel anti-fascist sentiments with orchestrated Soviet-style rallies, such as its May 18 anti-fascist march, have discredited the initiative in the eyes of most Ukrainians and irritated public sector employees, who were forced to participate in the rally.
Another purpose of the government’s May 18 anti-fascist rally was to offset the effect of the opposition’s Rise Ukraine! protest. It was probably supposed to show how massive the “anti-fascist” movement is compared to the poor support of the opposition. The Party of Regions’ 1.4 million members – or so state its official documents –would have been helpful. Instead, the party in power used totalitarian tools: the estimated 20,000 to 30,000 participants of its rally were mostly public sector employees brought to the venue by their employers, students and drifters. On the day of the rally, a large number of them blocked streets, demanding the UAH 100 they were promised. Others left behind piles of garbage, broken benches and lampposts. Meanwhile, opposition supporters who were coming to the Rise Ukraine! rally from various regions, were removed from the trains; trains arrived late; and the police did not allow buses into Kyiv. Reports came in of young men attacking cars and vans carrying opposition supporters trying to get to Kyiv. The police stopped a car in which Yulia Tymoshenko’s aunt was travelling to Kyiv, while men from another car that stopped nearby punctured the wheels of her car. The police did not interfere. Still, an estimated 20,000-30,000 opposition supporters made it to Sofiyska Ploshcha, St. Sophia Square, in downtown Kyiv. This was the opposition’s largest rally in the past year, while the government’s efforts to prevent people from going signaled its fear of the opposition, even as inefficient as it is now.
INTIMIDATE AND DERAIL
The government’s numerous anti-fascist declarations do not match its actions. While the Party of Regions called on society to rise against “neo-fascism”, with its intolerance, violence and discrimination, it hired people who actually demonstrated all of these traits. The regime used fighters to assault its opponents and the journalists who provided uncensored reports of developments in Kyiv. On May 14, four days before the rally, several opposition activists were attacked by men with brass knuckles. One of the victims, Volodymyr Karas, has a broken jaw, cut face, and is missing several teeth. He thinks that the assailants beat him by mistake, taking him for his brother, an activist in street rallies. Yevhen Matsko has concussion and a suspected skull fracture. Svoboda activist Volodymyr Nazarenko was severely beaten ten days earlier. Another activist, Andriy Medvedko, managed to fend off an attack, caught one assailant and photographed another. It is now known that at least one of the assailants – the one who beat opposition activists with brass knuckles – is a former police officer. Activists from previous rallies were also attacked and beaten after they had been summoned to police stations. “Stay away from rallies,” the assailants warned.
The beating of journalists and the rearguard of the rally on May 18 ultimately discredited the “anti-fascist show” orchestrated by those in power. The athletes involved became the symbolic face of Yanukovych’s “anti-fascism” and a warning of the mayhem that could become the norm in Ukraine if the regime continues to reinforce itself. The official reason for the conflict was the blocking of an armoured vehicle that “suddenly” appeared in the street next to Sofiyska Ploshcha where the opposition rally was taking place. According to The Ukrainian Week‘s sources, this was a provocation against Arseniy Yatseniuk orchestrated by spin doctor Volodymyr Petrov, who is known for political mudslinging. When Svoboda activists blocked the vehicle, a group of “athletes” was sent to help the crew. They started beating activists and the journalists who were trying to record the assault. Indeed, there was reason for the “athletes” to be concerned – all the video recordings and photos would force the police to take note of the illegal actions of the most aggressive “anti-fascist” representatives. First, the fighters attacked peaceful protesters, spat in the faces ofjournalistsand insulted them. Then, Vadym Titushko, an athlete from Bila Tserkva, a town near Kyiv, beat up Olha Snisartchuk, a Channel 5 journalist, and Vlad Sodel, a press photographer from the Kommerstant newspaper. Later, reports surfaced of another injured press photographer.
It’s no wonder that government representatives immediately tried to distance themselves from the clashes, even blaming them on the opposition. According to Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko and MP Hanna Herman, it was the opposition that “hired the fighters.” Vadym Titushko read out this version in his public video interview following the incident. It appears that the Party of Regions’ anti-fascists drew their inspiration from a quote by Joseph Goebbels: If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. But their excuses sounded absurd, especially with the videos, photos and evidence of eye-witnesses proving that the journalists were beaten by people hired by the organizers of the anti-fascist rally and covered up by the police.
THE GANGS AND THE PARTY ARE ONE
Photos and videos of the clashes revealed that most “anti-fascists” in sweatsuits were athletes from sports clubs in Bila Tserkva, Kyiv and Kharkiv. Nina Moskalenko, a Kyiv-born school teacher whose family owns a house in one of Kyiv’s most expensive downtown areas and has long suffered raider attacks for the land where her home stands, recognized some of the fighters. The numerous photos of eye-witnesses, showed that other athletes involved in the assault had been standing by the stage of the anti-fascist march several hours before the incident. One of them, Arsen Kapanskyi, wore an administrator’s badge. He is actually a member of the Young Regions wing of the Party of Regions. He is also mentioned as the one in charge of the raider attacks against Nina Moskalenko and her family. Another man noticed in the assaults looked very much like Vasyl Boyko, head of the Bila Tserkva Young Regions wing. While denying this in a subsequent interview, he tried to avoid facing the camera at the same angle as the one shown on the videos and photos.
On the video from Mykhailivska Ploshcha, St. Michael Square, where the fighters gathered after the assault, and VR Vice Speaker, Svoboda’s Ruslan Koshulynskyi tries to calm them down, the athletes clearly state that their actions were in response to the blocking of the armoured vehicle by Svoboda activists. Ultimately, the fact that the athletes were beating people with Svoboda, UDAR and Batkivshchyna flags and called them “banderites” on camera, makes subsequent claims that they were hired by the opposition appear completely absurd. One of the athletes involved in the assault finally admitted in an interview for The Ukrainian Week that the Party of Regions had hired them and that they had been promised UAH 400 for half a day’s work.
The coalescence of the government and street fighters, including former criminals, was one of the elements of Nazism, fascism and the extremist russocentric and xenophobic movement known as the Black Hundreds. In the 1990s, Serbian authoritarian national-socialist dictator Slobodan Milosevic turned to criminals, essentially making bandits the backbone of his rule, while they gained control of shadow business and trade.
The latest events signal that Yanukovych’s “anti-fascist” regime is testing this model. Proof lies in the way the police behaved during the incidents. Numerous photos and videos show that it did not react to the anti-fascists’ assault against opposition activists and journalists. Later, a blogger posted a photo of the anti-fascist athletes in the middle of a friendly chat with the officers of Berkut, a special-forces police unit, at Mariyinskyi Park in downtown Kyiv. Other eye-witnesses saw Berkut escort them to the funicular and let them go. Shortly thereafter, a photo surfaced on the web where a man, looking very much like the Interior Minister, was observing the clashes from the rooftop of the Intercontinental hotel, located on the street where they took place. Last but not least, most of those involved in the assault against opposition activists and journalists have not been arrested yet, while Vadym Titushko was released on a UAH 23,000 bail.
THE OPPOSITE EFFECT
After police watched the beating of journalists or even contributed to provocations, the Interior Minister and Chief of Kyiv Interior Minister Headquarters should have resigned, while the police officers who allowed the armoured vehicle to drive through the downtown pedestrian area should have been fired. The President, whose constitutional role is to guarantee the protection of the rights and freedoms of his citizens should have interfered. The Party of Regions should have issued a public apology for the actions of the people it hired for the “anti-fascist” rally.
Instead, law enforcers are pretending to investigate police inactivity on May 18, backpedalling on proceedings against Vadym Titushko and not bringing charges against other “anti-fascist” fighters involved in the clashes. Meanwhile, a campaign to stifle protests is escalating, with the violation of people’s rights by law enforcers and the intimidation and assault of opposition activists.
On May 25, the police once again covered up the actions of “athletes” beating activists and journalists at a protest against construction in a park in Brovary, a town near Kyiv. The developer is linked to Serhiy Fedorenko, a pro-government candidate running in the latest parliamentary election, known locally as “Azarov’s masseur”. The police once again ignored requests to arrest the criminals, while arresting two activists who tried to catch the fighters.
On the very same day, Yevhen Parfionov, an activist in the campaign to protect Hostynnyi Dvir in Podil, who called the police when a fire started there in February 2013, was severely beaten in the street by six “athletes” who approached him when he was speaking on the phone in Ukrainian, and said “Now what, cool nationalist?” Yevhen has two skull fractures, concussion, a broken jaw, cut arm and cannot see through his left eye. Another Hostynnyi Dvir activist, Tamara Shevchuk, received a warning after visiting Yevhen in hospital. A piece of paper saying “You’ll get what’s coming to you” was scotch-taped to her door. Activist Onysia Harai found a piece of paper listing her personal data and party allegiance by her apartment door.
The fact that assailants have activists’ personal data and use modern equipment to track them down signals that the Interior Ministry, or even the SBU, could be helping them. Other facts raise suspicions as well. When protesters threw snowballs at several Party of Regions’ MPs in April this year, the police found cell-phone numbers of all the people present at the venue within one day, then summoned them for interrogations. Meanwhile, they did not rush to arrest the thugs involved in the May 18 clashes, although eye-witnesses provided plenty of photo and video evidence. Assaults against opposition and civil rights activists result in a similar lack of reaction from the police. Since the beginning of May, a dozen incidents have been reported of athletes waiting for activists near their homes, beating and intimidating them, while the police and prosecution turn a blind eye to what looks like a planned operation.
The legislative amendments passed last year, have essentially blocked any institutional means to resist the arbitrary conduct of the Yanukovych regime. Constitutional and judiciary “reform” has resulted in neither parliament nor the courts being able to restrain it. Street protests are now the only way to resist, vent frustration and send signals to the government about public sentiment. Now, it seems that the Party of Regions will try to block this way of expressing public dissent as well, as they rightly see it as a growing threat in the face of the upcoming presidential election. Until recently, they were pushing through a law on peaceful assemblies, drafted to suit them, through legislature. It appears that the time has come for more decisive action through intimidation and assaults.
A popular saying in Soviet times was “Anything but war.” Perhaps those in power are now trying to make people appreciate “anything but instability” as frustration with their economic and social failures mounts before the election. However, intimidation, violence and the police assisting pro-government fighters in rallies will push people to choose more radical street resistance over reasonable parliamentary means of struggle.