War, weapons mix for deadly politics
Only 19 months after the end of the EuroMaidan Revolution, protests have become bloody again with the deaths of three National Guardsmen on Aug 31.
They and other police officers standing guard outside parliament faced the wrath of protesters over constitutional amendments approved by lawmakers that could grant broader autonomy to Russian-occupied areas of the eastern Donbas.
Measures to devolve more power and functions to regional and local governments are essential elements of the tattered Minsk II peace agreements designed to end Russia’s war.
In addition to the three deaths, the protests led to at least 141 people, mostly law enforcement officers, being injured.
The violence triggered political anxiety over whether President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk will be able to keep a majority coalition in parliament.
It also sparked fears about the possibility of more incidents in what has become a heavily armed nation at war.
The suspect accused of killing the three National Guardsmen by throwing a grenade is Ihor Humeniuk, a member of the Interior Ministry’s volunteer Sich Battalion, which is connected to the right-wing Svoboda Party that lost its seats in parliament last fall.
Humeniuk fought in some of the toughest areas of Russia’s war against Ukraine, including Pisky and the losing battle to hold the territory of the ruined Donetsk Airport.
If Humeniuk is found guilty, some say, so is the Ukrainian government for failing to care properly for the post-traumatic stress disorders that soldiers bring back to civilian life from the war that has claimed 7,000 lives since its start in February 2014.
The attacks also exposed rising anger with the government over its failure to deliver justice since the EuroMaidan Revolution that toppled President Viktor Yanukovych last year.
And it could also have stemmed from the government’s failure to communicate its agenda to the public and coalition partners, particularly on the status of the Russian-held eastern territories.
While there are hopes that this will be an isolated incident, the clashes reflected the militarization of Ukrainian politics and the links between volunteer units, such as Sich, and the nationalist parties, such as Svoboda, that use them for their political ends.
It also exposed how a growing arsenal of illegal weapons being smuggled back from the war front could pose fatal dangers to society and lead to unexpected crime waves.
“They have a civilian wing and military wing,” Taras Berezovets, head of political consulting firm Berta Communications, said by phone, comparing Ukrainian parties to Ireland’s Sinn Fein and its military arm, the Irish Republican Army.
According to the police, Oleh Tyahnybok, leader of the nationalist Svoboda Party, went to the war zone before the clashes to meet with fighters of Sich in what some see as an effort to rile them up and rally them to his cause. There are videos showing Tyahnybok and other senior party members attacking police at the Aug. 31 rally.
In such a volatile environment, political analyst Vitaly Bala told the Kyiv Post that politicians should be more careful with their words and actions. “Politicians don’t understand that we’re living in wartime, when people die and when everything is perceived more sharply,” Bala said.
Other Ukrainian political parties are also linked to volunteer units.
The Right Sector group has its own Ukrainian Volunteer Corps. In July, Right Sector members took part in a shootout with what they say were the private security detail of a lawmaker and local police in the city of Mukacheve in Zakarpattya Oblast in which four people were killed.
The Azov Regiment is linked to the Patriot of Ukraine, an ultranationalist group, and the St. Mary Company is the Bratstvo far-right group’s military wing.
Berezovets said Svoboda, the Right Sector and Oleh Liashko’s Radical Party, which left the ruling coalition in the aftermath of the constitutional vote and violence, lost credibility with the public.
Svoboda blamed the clashes on a government-orchestrated provocation. Others saw a Kremlin plot but had no evidence to support the claims.
Yet others say a deeply disturbed soldier, described by friends as a skilled fighter and patriot, may simply be to blame – along with a government that hasn’t taken proper care of its military force.
“What happened is the result of inaction in terms of helping soldiers adapt to society after the war,” Leonid Ostaltev, head of Kyiv’s Desnyanska Association of War Veterans, told the Kyiv Post.
However, Artem Shevchenko, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, and Vladyslav Seleznyov, a spokesman for the General Staff, told the Kyiv Post that the authorities have rehabilitation programs and centers.
It would not be the first time that veterans became so used to war and killing that they started applying military principles to civilian life, treating their political opponents as enemies.
“A spiral of violence is being started,” Berezovets said. “The function of using force is one that belongs to the government. It’s not fulfilling that function. As a result, vigilantes emerge who begin to fulfill it.”
He compared the Aug. 31 clashes to the Mukacheve shootout, which has been attributed to a dispute over smuggling between the Right Sector and lawmaker Mikhailo Lanyo. Analysts argue that the government’s inability to prosecute smuggling and foster the rule of law precipitated the event.
Viktoria Voytsytska, a lawmaker from the Samopomich party, told the Kyiv Post by phone that the Poroshenko Bloc and Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front had been unwilling to engage in dialogue on constitutional changes with their coalition partners – Samopomich, Batkyvshchyna and the Radical Party. Poroshenko’s approach has been heavy-handed, she argued.
The constitutional commission was established by presidential decree despite the fact that it is a parliamentary prerogative, she said. Poroshenko’s spokesman, Sviatoslav Tsegolko, was not immediately available for comment.
“We should look for a consensus,” Voytsytska said. “We should respect each other without accusations or clichés like ‘Kremlin agent.’ This is the moment of truth. The events exposed the need for a full-fledged dialogue between the coalition partners.”
People try to pull shields away from officers as activists of radical Ukrainian parties, including the Ukrainian nationalist party Svoboda (Freedom), clash with police officers in front of the parliament in Kyiv on Aug. 31. (AFP)