The unfolding story of Mukachevo (Mukacheve) is in many ways both a tragic consequence for Ukraine’s recent trajectory and also grounds for potential optimism.
The tragedy is that while post-Maidan Ukraine was never the neo-fascist construct believed of Pervy Kanal TV (and a note to the trolls: don’t conflate the Maidan with the Poroshenko regime; the one toppled Yanukovych, the other was subsequently elected), there is no escaping the crucial role played by various ultra-nationalists that, yes, did include fascists. Subsequently, in the name of responding to the Russian-orchestrated rebellion in the Donbas, and also because it did not dare challenge this fraction given its lack of connection with its own security forces, the government granted them considerable autonomy and has continued to do so.
This is an understandable, classic but dangerous move: militias breed warlordism, and there’s quite enough of that already within the Ukrainian system, but usually more subtle, visible in the undue authority local oligarchs and political strongmen have over the police and other apparatus of the state. With structures like the Azov Battalion – now Regiment – and Right Sector (Pravy Sektor), this is overt. More to the point, not only are they armed but unlike the business and political magnates, they have no integral sources of wealth. In other words they depend on funding by the state, and their own “living off the land.”
This, of course, leads to warlordism’s usual consorts, banditry and extortion.
In many ways, two models have emerged. Azov is objectionable in many ways, not least their use of the neo-Nazi Wolfsangel (“Wolf’s Hook”) logo, but they have, as Alexander Clarkson has noted, taken the route of cooperating with the government and becoming incorporated into the official military/security structures. It does not mean that they have lost all autonomy – one Ukrainian I spoke to said that the secret is that the high command “only gives them orders they know they’ll obey,” a kind of “don’t ask, don’t refuse” style of command – but does reflect a desire to be “insiders.”
Conversely, Pravy Sektor has from the first been a more confrontational and ambitious force, reflecting its genesis as a political-muscle group rather than simply a combat unit. It has rejected efforts to bring it into the unified command structure. It also has emerged as more closely associated with criminal activities such as racketeering and smuggling: I honestly don’t know if this is because of a “policy” from the top (which could be as basic as allowing people to “do business on the side”) or simply reflecting a lack of control. Either way, this seems to have reached its depressingly logical conclusion in Mukachevo.
According to Pravy Sektor, they were just meeting with a local parliamentarian to discuss membership privileges at a local gym when they were set upon by corrupt police officers and forced to defend themselves. That could be true—corruption is sadly endemic within Ukrainian law enforcement. But…
(a) quite why, far away from the war zone, it took four jeeps of heavily-armed PS militiamen, one truck mounting a heavy machinegun, to go and talk gym privileges; and
(b) that presupposes that corrupt cops felt up to shaking down some twenty rifle-toting militiamen.
I am afraid that Ukrainian cops really haven’t struck me as that hard, and PS militiamen really haven’t struck me as that gregarious. Thus, it’s difficult not to be inclined towards the alternative thesis, that this was a struggle over the illegal cigarette business in the area, a very lucrative gig, I’d add considering the smuggling routes into nearby Poland and Slovakia.
Either way, even if one accepts Pravy Sektor’s take, the question is what they did next. Make their case, hand themselves over to the proper authorities and trust in the political and legal process? No, of course not: we have an armed standoff and threats against Kiev.
So, now what? A regime in Kiev that, for all Poroshenko’s apparent delight in photo ops in camo, has shown itself very (and perhaps understandably) timid in dealing with the ultra-right, is now faced with a stark dilemma. But also an opportunity. If they back down, then they can expect PS to push further, and other actors also to take advantage of this dangerous precedent. Morale within the police, hardly that high (despite the advent in Kiev of shiny new recruits in shiny new uniforms and driving shiny new Toyotas), is going to take a further hit.
On the other hand, if the government can face down this threat – even perhaps by using Azov as the “acceptable face of ultranationalism” – then it can show not only that it has resolve but more to the point that the constitutional order in the new Ukraine has meaning. There must be arrests, and then there must be a clearly free and fair trial. No fudges, no politically-decreed judgments: this has to work the way the law says.
Done right, this could held demonstrate that the new Kiev is both strong and lawful. Done badly, it’s just another slide into corruption and political impotence. The stakes are high.
This article was originally posted in In Moscow’s Shadows.