Ukraine’s President Wowed Congress, But His Party Has a Dark Side

Activists and opponents warn that Poroshenko’s embrace of ultra-rightists plays into the hands of Vladimir Putin.

MOSCOW — You couldn't say Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko understated the Russian threat when he addressed the U.S. Congress on Thursday.

“If they are not stopped now, they will cross European borders and spread throughout the globe,” he warned. And the American politicians answered his speech with standing ovations. This war, said Poroshenko, is a “choice between civilization and barbarism.” (More enthusiastic applause.)

Unfortunately, back on the ground in Ukraine the issue is not as clear as all that. Poroshenko is building a new political coalition, and quite a few barbarians have been joining in.

Experts who monitor ultra-right-wing groups and hate crimes have sent an open letter asking Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, a key Poroshenko supporter, to exclude several Ukrainian nationalist leaders from his newly founded People’s Front party. These activists reminded Yatsenyuk and Poroshenko that some of the public figures appointed as the party candidates for the upcoming October parliamentary elections are openly anti-Semitic and are not known to have renounced their views. They promote radical Ukrainian nationalism, racism and neo-Nazi ideology—the heady brew of loathsome doctrines that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his backers have warned about since the February change of power in Kiev.

In photographs of the recent party congress, Yatsenyuk and former acting President Alexander Turchnov stood shoulder to shoulder with Andrei Biletsky, a leader in the far-right Patriots of Ukraine and the Social-Nationalist Assembly.

These groups are known for brawling, attacking public figures, and various hate crimes. Before the Russian-backed rebellion in eastern Ukraine most were regarded as little more than hooligans. But in the face of Russia’s threats, Biletsky and other far-right figures have been transformed from fringe personalities into national heroes.

The volunteer battalion Biletsky serves with, Azov, counts a few hundred armed militants. “We don’t deny that a majority of our guys are Ukrainian patriots,” Biletsky said in a recent interview, published on Azov’s Facebook page. Western volunteers also supported Biletsky, he said: “Brits, Italians, Swedes, Russians, Belarusians, some Greeks, Croats and Poles. Foreigners are our elite forces.” The battalion’s symbol is a modified swastika, although for the record the group denies it is Nazi-inspired.

The more moderate opposition has criticized Poroshenko for seeming to welcome the “Nazi” partners while using them as cannon fodder in the war against Moscow and pro-Russian separatists.

In a recent interview with The Daily Beast in Kiev, Grigory Nemira, head of the European integration committee in the Ukraine parliament and a close ally of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, said that Poroshenko preferred to delegate the responsibility for what happened on the front lines to volunteer commanders and not the defense ministry.

“The president still has not appointed a chief of staff for the armed forces,” said Nemira. “He has not admitted we are in a state of war, preferring to throw the battalions like Azov into the most dangerous combat zones, where authorities would not have the courage to send regular troops.”

The price these supposedly heroic battalion commanders demanded for their combat roles is representation in parliament. Russian forces have killed dozens of volunteer soldiers in recent battles, Biletsky said earlier this month, and “those who made a major sacrifice deserve to be represented in power.” His battalion fighters, some wearing undisguised swastika tattoos, often express anti-Semitic views. But that did not stop hundreds of Ukrainians from pushing “like” under Facebook photographs of Biletsky and his men.

The “Military Council” of the People’s Front welcomed a commander of the Dnper-1 Battalion, Yuri Birch. Andriy Parubiy, a co-founder of Patriots of Ukraine back in the 1990s, also has found a role in the pro-Poroshenko camp. He and a few other activists were tried for beating demonstrators in Lviv on November 7, 1997. During the February uprising on Maidan square, he worked closely with far-right groups as a commander of the Maidan self-defense troops. Last year, Patriots of Ukraine supporters and Biletsky were accused of attempting to kill journalist Sergei Kolesnik. He was detained but never convicted. Other supporters of the organization were jailed in 2011 for preparing a terrorist act.

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Yet the embrace of such figures has not immunized Poroshenko from attack by other ultra-nationalists.

On Thursday, Dmitry Yarosh, the leader of the Right Sector, threatened Poroshenko with a military coup. On one of his social network pages Yarosh demanded Poroshenko make major changes in the ministry of interior.

“If our demands are not met in 48 hours, we’ll have to withdraw our units from the front lines, declare a mass mobilization of battalions and begin to march on Kiev,” Yarosh said.

In the open letter that the experts on hate crime sent to Prime Minister Yatsenyuk they called on him and, by extension, Poroshenko to prevent Biletsky’s political career from gaining traction and thus discrediting Ukraine: “Considering the fact that Biletsky still has not publically denied his misanthropic, anti-liberal, anti-European and openly racist ideology, we strongly recommend you not to present him as a candidate for your party.” The researchers—Aleksander Bindert, Pavel Klimenko, Galina Koinash, and Viacheskav Likhachev—cited calls by Biletsky's group for “an iron tyrant who could destroy foreign power” while defending the “Ukrainian Nation and White Power.” And the letter, along with other critiques, may have had an impact. Yatsenyuk has announced that his party will now go into the elections, reluctantly, on a list separate from Poroshenko's.

“By making men like Biletsky his partners, Poroshenko gives Putin’s propagandists a true reason—actual facts—to say that Kiev is fascist,” said Nemira. But in today’s Ukraine, where people are exhausted by the war and looking for a strong hand in power to keep the country from falling apart, Biletsky’s combat-hardened figure in camouflage strikes many as more appealing than, say, the longtime wearer of famous blonde braids, Yulia Tymoshenko. The election will show whose popularity prevails.