Streetfighting Men

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."


Democracy Lab

Throwing Their Weight Around

President Yanukovych is losing his support among Ukraine's oligarchs -- and that could be the key to his fate.

When Rinat Akhmetov celebrated his birthday a few years back, he counted among his gifts a painting and best wishes from none other than Viktor Yanukovych, the president of Ukraine. Few of their compatriots paid much attention. After all, Yanukovych and Akhmetov, who both hail from the same hardscrabble industrial town, have been close allies for decades. Many Ukrainians, indeed, regard the president as a virtual protégé of Akhmetov, who happens to be the richest man in the country.

But a lot has happened since then. In November, Ukrainians took to the street to protest their president's last-minute decision to back out of an agreement on closer cooperation with the European Union. For a while it seemed as if Akhmetov was unwilling to distance himself from his old friend, at least in public. But after Ukrainian security forces opened fire on protestors last month, killing several, Akhmetov (estimated personal wealth: $15.4 billion) published a statement on his company website that condemned the deaths and called for "peaceful action" and "constructive negotiations and results." Just hours later, Yanukovych offered jobs in his cabinet to two leaders of the opposition -- who quickly denounced the offer as too little, too late. Either way, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that Yanukovych isn't feeling pressure only from the streets.

The protests in the center of the Ukrainian capital of Kiev have now spread across the country. But it is not the protestors alone who will decide the president's fate. The political class will also have its say -- and no one within that class is more powerful than Ukraine's oligarchs, the billionaire business tycoons who together own a vastly disproportionate share of the country's wealth. (Akhmetov, for example, commands the loyalties of around 50 of the 450-member parliament -- among them his former driver, his head of security, and his family lawyer. This group has generally supported Yanukovych throughout the crisis.)

Some oligarchs have opposed the president from the start, of course. Perhaps the best example is Viktor Pinchuk, who amassed many of his assets during the reign of previous President Leonid Kuchma -- who happened to be Pinchuk's father-in-law. In more recent years Pinchuk has rebranded himself as a fan of shareholder-friendly business practices and close ties with the West. The owner of a mansion in one of London's priciest neighborhoods, Pinchuk opened an event during last month's World Economic Forum in Davos with a moment of silence for the protesters who were killed in the center of Kiev. Pinchuk came out in favor of the protests early in December, and his newspaper, Facts, suddenly began reprinting articles from online media that were sharply critical of the president.

Yet Pinchuk may be motivated less by his admiration for Western values than by cold self-interest. Like many of the other oligarchs, he evidently sees closer alignment with the European Union as a prelude to tariff-free access for his exports -- and he also knows that an authoritarian crackdown by Yanukovych would be likely to prompt European and United States sanctions that could complicate doing business with the outside world. And moving closer to the Moscow-engineered Customs Union, which already includes ex-Soviet republics such as Kazakhstan and Belarus in addition to Russia itself, could potentially make Ukrainian businessmen vulnerable to takeover bids by their Russian rivals.

Can Pinchuk's camp bring others to its side? One candidate for defection is Dmitry Firtash, whose personal fortune is estimated at $3.8 billion. Firtash, who also controls a significant bloc of parliamentary votes, is a former firefighter who once allegedly admitted to U.S. diplomats in Kiev his ties to mobster Semyon Mogilevich, one of the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted Criminals." (Firtash has since denied "any partnership or other commercial association" with Mogilevich.) A founding member of the scandal-plagued gas trade company RosUkrEnergo, which has earned hundreds of millions of dollars from its monopoly on gas, Firtash has long remained close to Yanukovych. Among other signs of support, he transformed his TV channel, Inter (the biggest network in Ukraine), into a government propaganda machine.

But now Firtash, too, is trying to hedge his bets. Over the past few years, Firtash has tried to polish his reputation in the West by launching PR campaigns and cozying up to the British elite -- part of an effort to fend off possible sanctions by the United Kingdom or the EU. (He's already persona non grata in the United States.) Recently, a close Firtash ally named Sergii Liovochkin resigned from his job as Yanukovych's chief of staff -- then turned up in Davos, where he took care to present himself as a thoroughly pro-European politician.

It's Akhmetov, though, who -- thanks to his long years of association with the embattled president -- may face the biggest challenge when it comes to straddling the growing gulf between president and opposition. Akhmetov, ranked by Forbes as the 47th richest man in the world, rose from obscure beginnings in the industrial city of Donetsk to amass vast assets in mining, metals, real estate, and telecommunications. (He first attracted national notice when he became the head of the Donetsk soccer club after his predecessor in the job, a well-known local criminal, was blown up by a bomb.) And even as Akhmetov luxuriates in his $200 million London flat and his $30 million French chalet, he has done his best to cultivate his contacts on both sides of the political divide back home in Ukraine.

Publicly, Akhmetov still supports Yanukovych -- but he also negotiates regularly with opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk (one of the opposition figures who was offered a job by the president). It has also been widely noted in Kiev that Akhmetov has yet to cut off the power supply to protester-controlled areas of the capital, even though he controls the relevant energy distribution company. Akhmetov's normally pro-government Ukrainian television channel has also given airtime to opposition leaders.

The oligarchs are a sensitive topic for Ukrainians. One of the issues that fueled the current wave of protests is a general awareness of the oversized role played by tycoons in the country's political and economic life. (The photo above shows a recent protest outside Akhmetov's Kiev office.) Yanukovych has inspired public anger by enabling the rise of the so-called "Family," a group of high-ranking officials who gained office through their connections with Yanukovych's son Oleksandr. Oleksandr has a history of opaque business dealings that have won him a vast fortune estimated at half a billion dollars; he also controls Ukraine's much-criticized security forces. Last fall the Family also stirred controversy through its purchase of one of Ukraine's few remaining independent magazines, prompting the departure of dozens of journalists who accused the new owners of censoring coverage unfavorable to the government.

Indeed, Yanukovych's efforts to maximize his own political and economic power have aggravated the oligarchs as well. Pinchuk and another tycoon by the name of Igor Kolomoysky hail from the city of Dnipropetrovsk, where Yanukovych appointed one of his own loyalists to the key job of provincial governor in 2010. That slap in the face gave the city's tycoons an additional reason to back the opposition. Geneva-based Kolomoysky has since allowed his television channel, 1+1, to support the protesters despite intense pressure from government officials to do otherwise.

Yet most of the oligarchs have shied away from criticizing Yanukovych all too directly -- perhaps because they suspect that the president isn't willing to surrender power. The main exception is Petro Poroshenko, the so-called "chocolate king of Ukraine," whose core business has been hit particularly hard by recent Russian moves to pressure Ukraine economically into toeing the Kremlin line (including restrictions on Ukrainian chocolate imports). Poroshenko regularly speaks on one of the main opposition TV networks. He also frequently visits Western Europe to discuss means for resolving the crisis with senior EU officials, and makes no secret of his aspiration to be prime minister. According to the latest polls, he has the third-highest level of support in the country -- right after Yanukovych and opposition leader Vitaly Klitchko.

Yanukovych and the oligarchs are also highly sensitive to pressure from the outside. U.S. sources say that Western banks, worried by the recent turmoil, have recently refused to extend credit lines for some of the oligarchs. It's rumored that similar hesitations by some of Ahkmetov's Swiss banks may have persuaded him to order his parliamentarians to vote for the resignation of Yanukovych's cabinet and against a recent package of legislation aimed at suppressing the protests. In other cases, though, the oligarchs' forces have continued to vote with the government.

The U.S. use of targeted financial and visa sanctions has apparently unnerved the tycoons oligarchs who have indirectly controlled Ukrainian politics for decades, and who have funded Yanukovych's ruling party. Their families live in London and Vienna, enjoy the benefits of European values such as democracy and the rule of law, and enrich themselves using capital from European markets. In a perfect world, removing the oligarchs from politics altogether would seem to be the solution of many of Ukraine's problems -- but such a goal is simply unrealistic. The oligarchs are simply too deeply integrated into politics and society. The best hope, perhaps, is to use the oligarchs' experience of Western life to convince them of the advantages of furthering Ukrainian democracy. The future of a truly democratic Ukraine depends on it.