Is Ukraine’s government bankrolling a secret army of Adidas-clad thugs?
KIEV — In a snowy, half-filled car park in Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine's fourth-largest city, a group of masked men armed with clubs surge toward a crowd of anti-government protesters, weapons raised. As the protesters scatter, the men grab one straggler and hurl him to the ground, kicking his ribs and bloodying his face. Then, they pick him up and haul him off.
The scene, captured in a video available on YouTube, isn't an isolated incident. In Ukraine's ongoing and increasingly bloody political standoff, a group of predominantly young men known as "titushki" are roaming the streets. Wearing balaclavas and Adidas striped pants, they wield baseball bats and other bludgeons, using them to intimidate and attacking demonstrators. And reportedly, they are on the Ukrainian government's payroll, committing violence either alongside or under the watchful gaze of the notorious special police unit, the Berkut ("Golden Eagle"). Sometimes, rumors say, the titushki are even acting as provocateurs for the state, posing as violent, anti-government demonstrators to justify harsh police crackdowns. "These guys chucked the first Molotovs, and they were paid to do this," says Sergei Andrivenko, a barricade guard at the Euromaidan, as the protest movement is known. "It was obvious from what they were dressed in that they did not belong to the Maidan. It is too cold to wear such clothes living here for two months."
The titushki's precise number is unknown, but estimates in the Ukrainian press suggest there are up to 20,000. EuroMaidan SOS, an organization monitoring attacks on demonstrators, has reported titushki ambushes in the area surrounding protest barricades. According to Anna Neistat of Human Rights Watch, who has been conducting research on the ground, the titushki have been linked to attacks on at least six journalists in Kiev. In Ukraine's eastern cities -- such as Odessa, Kharkiv, and Dnipropetrovsk -- brazen attacks by titushki are now almost a daily occurrence. Their presence has become so dangerous that the U.S. State Department recently issued a travel warning about the group.
Titushki is a recent coinage, a linguistic hat-tip to Vadym Titushko, a "sportsman" who was convicted in May 2013 of assaulting two journalists. At his trial, it emerged that Titushko was being covertly paid to "protect" a pro-government rally at the time of the attack. Titushko received a three-year jail sentence; the state, however, got off scot-free.
But the practice of the government paying civilian muscle -- particularly sportsmen like Titushko -- to do its dirty work has a long history in the post-Soviet space. Ukraine's cult of sport originated during the cold war from fetishism of Olympic medals and was organized through local clubs. When the Soviet system collapsed, funding disappeared and hundreds of thousands of muscle-bound athletes, including boxers and wrestlers, were stranded with little to do. But they quickly found employment working as heavies in Ukraine's burgeoning shadow economy, controlled by the country's organized crime.
Despite attempts at reform following the peaceful Orange Revolution in 2004, the entrenched, symbiotic relationship between organized crime and the state has proved hard to dislodge. And since President Viktor Yanukovych took the reins of the country in 2010, there has been a rapid backward slide on corruption. Ukraine now ranks 144 on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index -- tied with the Central African Republic, Iran, and Nigeria. "There is historically a very blurred line between the state, business, and criminal elements in Ukraine," says John Dalhuisen, Europe and Central Asia program director at Amnesty International. "That there are reports of connections between titushki and the state is extremely concerning."
The titushki first emerged as a private guard and paid support group for Yanukovych's Party of the Regions. Young men were recruited, often through their sports clubs in Ukraine's poorer eastern regions -- where the Party of the Regions has its base -- and bused into Kiev to boost the number of regime supporters on the streets and provide security at pro-government rallies. Many of them were reportedly paid between 150-200 UAH ($17-23) per day to stand in crowds. Extra cash was on offer to those willing to wave a flag. (The average monthly wage in Ukraine is around $400, according to government statistics.)
But as the tension has escalated in Ukraine, the use of titushki has taken a more sinister turn. Backed up by unemployed youth, the titushki have been transformed into a state-sponsored, street-fighting militia -- an unofficial "fourth column" of the government's defense apparatus. In addition to attacks on protesters and provocations of violence, the titushki are accused of being behind a campaign of intimidation, including the torching opposition activists' cars. Dmytro Yovdiy, the lawyer of Dmytro Bulatov -- a leading Euromaidan activist who was kidnapped and brutally tortured by unknown assailants before being released -- says the titushki had been intimidating his client in the lead-up to his disappearance. "They were hanging around outside the family home shouting slogans," says Yovdiy. "His car was also broken into."
The upper echelons of the state have denied a connection to the titushki. But, according to media reports, these men are not only paid by authorities, they're also highly organized. "Many of the low-level titushki are just criminals and scumbags picked up off the street," says Mykola, a former Interior Ministry police officer, who would only be identified by his first name. "But some are more scary people, sportsmen and former members of special law enforcement units. There is a hierarchy."
Mykola added, "It is not the low-ranking police controlling this, but those high up in government, police, and criminal structures -- these are effectively the same people in Ukraine."
An investigative documentary aired in January on Ukrainian television channel 1+1 shows undercover footage purportedly of titushki being paid for their work. It also outlines how payment is determined: "Foot-soldiers" receive lower wages than their "commanders," and bonuses are available to those who recruit friends. In other amateur film footage posted online, the titushki can be seen crossing and appearing behind police lines as government forces clash with protesters.
It is difficult to track down the titushki, much less get them to talk -- but not impossible. There have been claims that many of them are camping out under state protection in Mariinsky Park, near the presidential administration building in Kiev. There, behind a heavy-duty cordon of barricades and riot police, two men identify themselves as titushki, but insist they were doing honest work: "We are normal people, we are here to defend this park and these statues from the [Euromaidan] terrorists and extremists, and to protect peaceful citizens.". The duo also say not to enter the park, lest cameras and other possession be seized by those inside.
Misha, a 27-year-old welterweight boxer who only provided his first name, eventually agrees to give a guided tour of the park. Dressed head to toe in Adidas, Misha sported two gold teeth -- he lost the originals fighting, he says -- and the number 13 tattooed on his neck. The park is filled with signs of government collusion with the titushki: rows of brown, state-provided tents and a kitchen area decked out with Soviet-era military equipment. Most blatantly, police from Ukraine's Interior Ministry, armed with riot gear, are working side-by-side with the self-confessed titushki to unload firewood from a truck.
Like his colleagues, Misha claims that he is just there to protect the area. "I would never use violence against peaceful protesters, only extremists. I support Yanukovych and Party of the Regions, this is why I am here," he says. Fifteen other members of his boxing club in Kharkiv, a province in east Ukraine, have also come to Kiev. "We sportsmen are a real community in Ukraine and Russia," he says. "We hang together and can all rely on each other."
This ideological orientation shouldn't be overlooked: The Euromaidan protests have brought into sharp focus a historical divide between Ukraine's pro-Europe west and pro-Russia east. With their longstanding ties to Ukraine's criminal enterprises and the eastern part of the country, many sports clubs have a vested interest in maintaining the political status quo: a pro-Russian government.
Oplot, a Kharkiv-based mixed martial arts club with a core membership of military veterans, is an example. Its members have openly advertised traveling to Kiev to "assist" the police with their duties. Their website even boasts of attacking Euromaidan activists, including one post here they claim an anti-government activist "cut his own ear off" in a clash.
Some in the Euromaidan are trying to find ways to deal with the titushki, such as posting name-and-shame photographs in the streets or capturing them to quiz them about their bosses. They've even had titushki perform menial duties like chopping wood for the anti-government camp before being let go. However, other elements in the protest movement are less patient. In Ukraine's eastern cities, there are reports of street clashes as pro-government youthhunt down Yanukovych's violent supporters.
These kinds of tactics only bring about more "chaos and disorder," says Yelena Biberman, a Brown University expert in Eastern Europe and informal state actors. They're also self-defeating. "The new image of the radical protestor enables the government to use more brutal tactics to quell the protest," Biberman explains.
Anton, a member of the AutoMaidan patrol that drive in convoys around the perimeter of Kiev's protests to protect the encampment from titushki attacks, says the thugs represent a government up against the wall and lashing out. Earlier this month, Anton suffered two broken ribs following a confrontation with a group of about 30 titushki. "I know from experience how dangerous these people can be."
"This is our government's solution to the threat of sanctions from the U.S. and Europe if there is further violence by the state," he says. "They must find some other way to scare people, to hurt people."
ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images