Kiev’s two-month-long “Euromaidan” protest turned violent on Sunday as people in masks, outraged over restrictive protest laws hurriedly passed last week, marched on parliament and ran into police cordons that they pelted with stones and Molotov cocktails. Police hurled gas canisters, stun grenades, and a water cannon and rubber bullets at them, setting off a wave of clashes previously unknown at the largely peaceful protest.
Spearheading the clashes with police was Right Sector, a group with ties to far-right parties including the Patriots of Ukraine and Trident, which BBC Ukraine reported is largely comprised of nationalist football fans. In a statement the next day, the group claimed credit for Sunday’s unrest and promised to continue fighting until President Viktor Yanukovich stepped down.
“Two months of unsuccessful tiptoeing about under the leadership of the opposition parties showed many demonstrators they need to follow not those who speak sweetly from the stage, but rather those who offer a real scenario for revolutionary changes in the country. For this reason, the protest masses followed the nationalists,” the statement read.
The surge in violence sparked by Right Sector has revealed how uncritical and undiscerning most of the media has been of the far-right parties and movements that have played a leading role in the “Euromaidan,” the huge protests for closer ties to Europe that flared up in November and have taken over Kiev’s Independence Square (“Maidan Nezalezhnosti”). Protest coverage focused on the call for European integration and the struggle against the Yanukovich regime has largely glossed over the rise in nationalist rhetoric, often chauvinist, that has led to violence not just against police, but also against left-wing activists.
According to Maksim Butkevich of the coordinator of the No Borders Project of the Center for Social Action NGO, which works against discrimination and xenophobia, far-right groups have grown in popularity over the course of Euromaidan.
“I wouldn’t say it’s big, that huge numbers of activists will join far-right groups after this, but they became more acceptable and in a way more mainstream than before for many active citizens,” Butkevich said.
Although the outcome of the protests is still up in the air, if they lead to snap elections, nationalists could win greater political power, Butkevich said, especially Svoboda, the far-right parliamentary party in the coalition of three opposition parties leading the protest. (Right Sector criticizes all three for “pacifism,” including Svoboda.)
It was Svoboda that was responsible for the most iconic image to come out of Euromaidan: On December 8, masked protestors waving blue Svoboda flags and yelling “Hang the Commie!” toppled a 67-year-old statue of Vladimir Lenin in the city center. Svoboda leader Ihor Miroshnychenko, who has faced charges for pulling down a Lenin statue in another city, told journalists his party was responsible.
Svoboda is the most visible party on the square, it has essentially taken over Kiev City Hall as its base of operations, and it has a large influence in the protestors’ security forces.
It also has revived three slogans originating in the Ukrainian nationalist movement of the 1930s that have become the most popular chants at Euromaidan. Almost all speakers on Independence Square—even boxer-turned-opposition-leader Vitaly Klitschko, who has lived mostly in Germany and has a US residence permit—start and end with the slogan, “Glory to Ukraine!,” to which the crowd responds “To heroes glory!” Two other nationalist call-and-response slogans often heard on the square are “Glory to the nation! Death to enemies!” and “Ukraine above all!”