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31 May, 2013  ▪  Oleksandr Mykhelson,  Ruslana Velychko

Thugs for Hire

In Ukraine, an army of street fighters is being established under the supervision of law enforcers

The assault against Channel 5 journalist Olha Snisartchuk by a security guard at an “anti-fascist” rally on May 18 caused a great political scandal that came as a bitter surprise for the Party of Regions. Its members, including Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko issued clumsy excuses that further confirmed that the attack – if in fact planned by the Party of Regions – was a political provocation gone wrong.

Meanwhile, Svoboda party activists blocked an armoured vehicle transporting anti-Yatseniuk provocateurs in front of the Interior Ministry headquarters in Kyiv, and were then attacked by “anti-fascist” fighters. The clashes highlighted the role and place of youth subcultures and criminals in Ukrainian politics.

READ ALSO: Danger, Police!

Two alarming facts emerged from these events. First, these “anti-fascist” skinhead thugs are conducting raids against the political opposition and others who oppose the government’s initiatives on an increasingly regular basis. In the latest parliamentary election in October 2012, the young men, pretending to be journalists, disrupted elections and vote counts in constituencies where the opposition was winning the vote. Demand for their services remained high after the election. On May 8, similar groups attacked a march in Dnipropetrovsk initiated by a group of locals to commemorate WWII victims as an alternative to the Victory Day celebration. Similar to the events of May 18, police were present during the incident but stood idly and did nothing to end the violence.

Second, these thugs receive police protection in exchange for their services (see the interview with one of the fighters involved in the May 18 assault on p. 8) and are often members of neo-fascist and neo-Nazi organizations. Thus, it turns out that the government is actually supports racist groups, masking this as an “anti-fascist” campaign aimed at its political opponents.

DIRECTOR AT WORK?  In this photo published on the Internet, a person resembling Internal Affairs chief Vitaliy Zakharchenko watches from the roof of a hotel for an attack by “anti-fascist athletes” against opposition rally participants and journalists

A SECRET NOMENCLATURE

According to experienced street clash participants, police records in Kyiv alone list nearly 5,000 young men involved in various “fight clubs”. Some are also members of football hooligan groups, and others belong to ideological movements. Many are members of entities officially known as “security agencies” or sports clubs funded by big business that essentially serve as combat units when called upon.

The youngest participants in such fights are called “bonas”. The group as a whole is referred to as “meat”, while the elite are known as “warriors”. The groups are run by “cores” comprised of leaders and ideologues.

READ ALSO: Red-faced Police

Street fighting is not simply business; for some, it is a life philosophy. “Before simple clashes are carried out between different groups for training, the ‘cores’ arrive at the venue in advance to check for police patrols, video cameras and to determine the distance to police stations in the area,” one group member stated off-record. “Sometimes, these clashes take place in the middle of the day or at a lunch break. The purpose is to demonstrate strength. The guys are all trained fighters; the clashes are a test of their endurance and strength. Nobody takes pity on others, even inside their own group. The clash continues until blood is shed or a bone is broken.”

SERVING BUSINESS AND POLITICS

 Ideally, the core runs everything. The groups live off of their own membership fees (generally around UAH 50 paid weekly to a sort of trade union treasury) and orders from clients. Even when orders are available, membership fees are still paid, although the orders are the main source of income.

Orders vary depending on the clients that place them. Many groups take part in showcase fights for Ukrainian VIPs. These shows normally pay well. Still, nobody fights to the death simply to entertain oligarchs, sources claim.

Business projects are a different matter. Sometimes, business owners order assaults against their competitors. This is not contract killing, our sources insist. However, the fighters may intimidate, injure or kidnap the victim. Very often, their task is to exert psychological pressure. Each scenario involves thorough preparation: the fighters track the “target”, learning his contacts and routes, etc. This is a well-paid business. The core gets the money and distributes it to those involved in the deal. Sometimes, the reward is the raided company itself.

Rumour has it that there is even a female group of fighters in Kyiv – it is easier for women to get the victim to the chosen spot. Meanwhile, members of the average male groups often racketeer small businesses or market kiosks, while also taking part in raider attacks against larger enterprises.

READ ALSO: Who Is Paying the Price For Police Impunity In Ukraine?

In politics, the thug-for-hire business also varies from client to client. Some groups have specific ideologies that determine their political preferences or lead them to work for a specific party. Some are average athletes training in sports clubs with no specific ideology. They often serve opposite political parties. For instance, the Party of Regions and UDAR are known to have used the same people as security guards at their events.

The core is the only one who knows every detail of the political orders. The down payment is normally 60%, and the rest is wired after the work is done. The groups work with familiar clients and discuss scenarios in detail in advance. “Of course, some act on their own – say, kill someone when he’s drunk in a bar”, a fighter shares. “But the core is not responsible for this, and nobody will negotiate softer verdicts for the fighters unless they’re working for law enforcement authorities. It’s the SBU, not the police, that deals with individual cases.”

On election day, the fighters that disrupted work at polling places were paid UAH 500 each. Even the “bonas” and “meat” were involved for crowd effect. Security services at the Party of Regions’ assembly paid UAH 1,000 per fighter.  They admit that this is fairly little compared to “commercial orders” – slang for raider attacks – but the job is easy.

SOCIAL DEJA VU?

During Stalin’s reign, punitive authorities distinguished between “normal” and political criminals. Law enforcers could remain in contact and cooperate with the former, using them against the latter as the regime’s political opponents.

The fighters interviewed by The Ukrainian Week claim that law enforcers control all informal fight clubs in one way or another. They turn a blind eye to some crimes of their “subjects” (including assaults against representatives of ethnic minorities), while the fighters execute some orders in exchange.

It is difficult to say how close the police and the criminals are ideologically. For example, the investigator who questioned journalist Olha Snisartchuk following her assault asked her whether she shares “Banderite” ideas (i.e. those of Stepan Bandera, one of the leaders of the Ukrainian national movement – Ed.). This may be an effort to show that Snisartchuk attended the rally as a participant rather than a journalist so that the prosecution can qualify the assault as hooliganism.

READ ALSO: Armed and Unpunished

“Most mobs (mobs include several cores and are often run by more than one person) in Ukraine are essentially fascist”, The Ukrainian Week’s source claims. The fighters, he states, no longer wear specific clothing to show their status. Earlier, white shoelaces identified a fighter who had killed a person, while white suspenders stood for a dozen murders. Now, only ignorant fighters and show-offs dress that way. Small waist bags are still a popular accessory though – the fighter can quickly pull out a knife if necessary.

Nobody knows how many of these fighters are average mobsters, and how many are actual fascists. “We are destroying the system in which whites work for ethnic minorities,” one young man claims. Clearly, some of them do have a goal. 


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