Democracy Lab

Ukraine's Unfinished Revolution

Radical nationalists want to continue the revolution that toppled Yanukovych. But they're probably just making matters worse.

KIEV - For Ukraine's far-right groups, the revolution is unfinished. Their politicians and paramilitary movements are continuing the hunt for enemies and traitors. Nationalists from the Freedom Party, the Right Sector militia, and splinter groups such as the ultranationalist White Hammer, are demanding what they call "total lustration," or cleansing, of the political and business elites. As they see it, the revolution won't be complete until this demand is satisfied. The interim Ukrainian government, which draws primarily on the Fatherland Party and moderate members of Freedom, doesn't necessarily share this view. As they see it, the revolution culminated in February, when President Viktor Yanukovych abandoned the country and fled to Moscow. Now, they say, it's time for elections, not more protests and unrest.

New political scandals envelop the capital with each passing day. Last week a nationalist leader named Alexander Muzychko was shot dead by police attempting to arrest him. His death provoked another anti-government rally: hundreds of angry activists carrying the black and red flags of the World War II-era Ukrainian Insurgent Army gathered on Thursday night outside the parliament, chanting and setting tires on fire. The ultranationalists threatened to take revenge on the interior minister, Arsen Avakov, unless he ordered the arrest of all those participating in the operation against Muzychko. Activists in the crowd issued calls for a "second Maidan" (a reference to the central square in Kiev where the February revolution had its focus).

Avakov said that he wouldn't back down from fighting those he now called "bandits." At a Friday meeting with law enforcement commanders and parliamentary deputies, the interior minister suggested banning Right Sector as a radical organization. Last month, the interior ministry and the SBU, Ukraine's domestic intelligence agency, issued a joint demand to all of the Maidan activists to hand in illegal weapons, citing "a situation of emergency in the country." But Dmytro Yarosh, the leader of Right Sector, has resisted disarming his paramilitary army, though he's also said that he will obey the law. Yarosh has now declared himself to be a candidate for president in the general election scheduled for May 25. His candidacy won't be official, though: Though he insists that he filed the proper documents, his name wasn't included in the list of registered candidates. It's not entirely clear why.

In an interview earlier this month, before the weapon ban took effect, Yarosh told me that he needed his allegedly 10,000-strong force not to help Ukraine join the EU -- that was never his goal, he emphasized -- but in order to fight Russia and realize his plans for a "nationalist revolution" at home. The nationalist leader said that he'd been consistent in his ideology for the past 25 years: anybody in favor of the Russian empire was his enemy. Many other Ukrainians take issue with that approach. Aleksey Verna, a supporter of the ex-boxer-turned-opposition-leader Vitali Klitschko, put it this way: "Instead of helping us to build a new, European-style system of governance, the Right Sector gave a wonderful present to the propagandists in the Kremlin: a perfect reason to criticize the Maidan."

The bad news from Right Sector has grown as fast as the rising dough in a traditional Ukrainian pie. Many recruits signed up after Yanukovych fled, when most people thought the revolution was over. On Sunday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow suspects Right Sector of organizing the sniper shootings in Kiev that resulted in the deaths of Maidan activists in February. (Most of the revolutionaries and their western supporters believe, by contrast, that the Yanukovych government was behind the shootings.)

On the same day, the independent newspaper Ukrainska Pravda published a report citing Right Sector activists who described how they've been using armored vehicles taken from a presidential garage, an admission marring what had been the street fighters' good record of refraining from expropriations and looting. The movement's activists said they could not imagine purchasing vehicles "during the revolutionary period." To them, apparently, it seemed obvious that the revolution has to go on. On Monday night, Right Sector activists shot and wounded three men on the Maidan. The next morning police evicted Right Sector from their headquarters in the Dnipro Hotel, where for almost a month their rough-looking activists armed with Kalashnikovs had terrified the hotel's visitors. (The photo above shows members of the militia leaving the hotel.)

Only recently have supporters and participants of the Maidan rallies begun to ask each other about the background of Right Sector and its leaders: By what right do they claim the leading role in the revolution? Until last December nobody in Ukraine had heard of the organization. In February and March I spoke with several Right Sector activists in the buildings they had seized in downtown Kiev. Some of them were veterans of post-Soviet crises, including the First Chechen War and the conflict in Abkhazia, where they fought against the Russian military. Yet they don't seem to be entirely anti-Russian in their sentiment. During the war over Moldova's breakaway Transdnistria region, some of Right Sector's recruiters are said to have fought on the side of the Russians.

Muzychko was one of those recruiters. He fought with Chechen guerillas against Russian army under the nickname Sashko Bilyi; upon his return to Ukraine he spent several years in jail for extortion. Russia accused Muzychko of atrocities in Chechnya, while at home he was charged with leading a criminal gang. In the midst of the Maidan revolution Muzychko emerged as one of Right Sector's leaders. On February 27, when Kiev was still mourning 102 victims of the violent conflict with police, Muzychko violently confronted a provincial prosecutor in an appalling scene that was captured on video.

Facebook exploded with allegations about Right Sector destabilizing the already vulnerable situation in Ukraine, leading some to accuse the group of working in favor of the Russian secret services. A prominent local journalist, Mustafa Nayyem, who was one of the organizers of the pro-European protests on the Maidan, criticized the radicals on his blog: "We came out to the Maidan to oppose the bullies in power. To me, the symbols of those bullies' rule are those who continue to humiliate, insult, and oppress us, pretending that they are our masters, exploiting their mandates, and threatening us with weapons and talk of revenge from mythical quarters."

Right Sector activists are not the only ones, however, to disappoint those who still believe in the values of the "Revolution of Dignity" (as some refer to the Maidan uprising). Another presidential candidate, ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, told a friend in a phone call that the 8 million Russians in Ukraine "should be destroyed with nuclear weapons." Their phone conversation took place on March 18, when Tymoshenko was having medical treatment in Germany. The audio of the call, apparently intercepted by Ukrainian or Russian secret services, was leaked last week.

The most popular politician in Ukraine is still Petro Poroshenko, whose reputation remains unspoiled. Poroshenko, currently the front-runner in the race for president, was the only Ukrainian billionaire seen on the front lines of the revolution. In a recent interview in his office, he told me that "it's never been my way to hide." Among the challenges Ukraine's new leader will face upon assuming office: how to prevent the country from falling apart, how to prevent criminal elements from exacerbating instability, and how to bring the revolution to a full and successful conclusion.


Democracy Lab

Worlds Apart

Russians are celebrating Crimea's return. The West is bent on punishing Moscow. And Ukrainians are feeling more besieged than ever.

The past week has once again dramatized just how differently Russia, Ukraine, and the West perceive the crisis in Crimea. While Washington and Brussels are sternly defending Ukraine and weighing punishments for Russia's annexation of Crimea, Russians are rallying around their national flag, celebrating the "historical fairness" of Crimea's return to their country, and smirking sarcastically at the West's every move. Ukraine, meanwhile, remains caught up in the endless cycle of drama and crisis that the supporters of the recent popular uprising in Kiev call the "Revolution of Dignity."

This is an unusual situation for the Kremlin. On March 20, the U.S. Treasury Department issued a statement that characterizes the "senior officials of the Russian government, including Putin's inner circle" in terms strikingly similar to those once used by Western analysts to discuss ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his entourage. The statement identifies 16 Russian officials who will be targeted by the sanctions announced by President Barack Obama on March 16. The Treasury Department statement also alleged that Russian President Vladimir Putin has financial interests in Gunvor Group, Ltd., a commodities trading firm.

Putin ignored those claims. There was no need, in his view, to let these allegations disturb Russian society, which has consolidated around the president more than ever in the last three years. Over 70 percent of Russians approve of Putin's politics. The U.S. sanctions, which state media have cast as an act of aggression against Russia, only seem to have increased Putin's popularity.

The Russian government offered no immediate comment on the U.S. sanctions, which have targeted Putin's closest associates in business, including the oil billionaire Gennady Timchenko; the brothers Arkady and Boris Rotenberg, who allegedly made money from contracts for the Sochi Winter Olympics; and Putin's close adviser Yuri Kovalchuk. Putin's only public move was to open an account in and have his personal salary transferred to Rossiya Bank, the only financial institution cited in the U.S. sanctions list.

Speaking to the news outlet Slon, the Kremlin's former adviser, Gleb Pavlovsky, called the U.S. sanctions "stupid" and described their influence on Russian politics as "water off the duck's back." Pavlovsky explained that Russia has had a system in place to the mitigate the effect of such sanctions ever since President Obama signed the Magnitsky Act in law in 2012. "If one of the listed persons loses any sum of money, they will immediately be compensated from Russia's budget," passing the damage on to Russian taxpayers.

Whom is the West punishing, then? To one of the officials on the list, Victor Ivanov, director of Russia's Drug Control Service, the sanctions mean the end of a five-year joint American-Russian operation to identify and destroy poppy laboratories in Afghanistan and another joint project to stem cocaine smuggling in Latin America. In an interview, the former KGB officer denied having any property or financial interests in the United States.

"The real reasons for implementing sanctions against me are as follows: The ruling circles in United States do not want the American electorate to know the critical truth about the overwhelming scale of heroine production in Afghanistan," Ivanov told me. "Besides, the American Democratic Party is against me for criticizing the ongoing process of marijuana legalization process in United States."

Meanwhile, Russian state television had only this to say about the sanctioned businessmen: "We couldn't care less." Putin's former political ideologist, Vladislov Surkov, the first of the Kremlin's officials to be punished by the sanctions, hurried to joke with his Twitter followers that he has no assets in America besides "a pair of socks I forgot in Chicago and a Tupac CD."

While Russian officials scoffed, members of the country's intelligentsia encouraged Russian society to refuse to engage in "a full-scale war" in Europe and to rally against the country's self-isolation. On Wednesday, leading cultural figures gathered to protest "against the restoration of totalitarian regime." A novelist, Dmitry Bykov, went on the independent radio station Echo of Moscow to speak about the major public misunderstanding of the Crimea crises. Bykov argued that the annexation of Crimea was illegal, and that Russia will now face the consequences: "Of course, Crimea's return to Russia is historical fairness," Bykov said, "but together with that gemstone necklace, Russia commits a theft, spoils its karma, and gets a prison term."

Back in Ukraine, which is still struggling with a national emotional breakdown after the loss of Crimea, consensus was also elusive. The state navy and military are stuck in Crimea, a land now recognized by Moscow as Russian territory. Officers demanded that Kiev make up its mind whether it wants to surrender and withdraw or to fight the Russians.

The largest eastern cities pulsed with unrest as thousands of pro-Russian protesters demanded that Ukraine establish a federalist system, enabling their regions to gain more independence from Kiev. As of Friday evening, nobody had protested against the E.U. Association Agreement recently signed by Kiev's new government -- but experts say it's just a matter of time. According to a February poll conducted by the NGO Democracy Initiatives, 35 percent of Ukrainians prefer the Customs Union trade alliance with Russia to joining the European Union.

Every morning, Ukraine wakes up to news about the never-ending political battles in Kiev's post-revolutionary parliament and its lack of action to liberate Crimea. There have been reports of stores of illegal weapons on the Maidan, Kiev's central square, and, earlier this week, a video was released that showed members of the nationalist Svoboda party storming into the office of the director of one of Ukraine's state TV channels. The assailants beat him up and forced him to sign a letter of resignation. Activists cried "Veche! Veche!" ("A rally! A rally!"), calling for a new protest on the Maidan. (The photo above shows a young woman walking past an anti-war mural in the center of Kiev.

The people I spoke with on the square told me that the loss of Crimea, the death of 102 activists, and injury of thousands more was too high of a price to pay for today's dysfunctional government and the ongoing chaos. In a recent interview, Sergei Markov, a Kremlin political strategist working with Ukraine's pro-Russian population, said that Moscow would negotiate with Kiev only if the "fascist militia" puts down its weapons and the "junta in power left the parliament."

Earlier this week, I spoke with the most popular leader in Ukraine today, the billionaire Petro Poroshenko (famous for his Willy Wonka-esque chocolate factories), about the latest developments. On March 16, the neo-nationalist militia leader Dmitry Yarosh threatened to blow up a gas pipeline if Russian soldiers move into eastern Ukraine. Should the West be worried? "I'm absolutely sure that today Ukraine is led by friendly and effective political leadership," Poroshenko said. "Under the current conditions of Russian aggression, the emotions of certain politicians are pouring over the edge." In such a situation, he said, "There will be negative emotions, but nationalism is a mythical threat. The Maidan proved that this was a revolution of dignity."