Right-Wing Groups Are Active In Ukraine As Country Heads Into Presidential Election

Apr 17, 2019
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Ukraine heads into the final round of its presidential election on Sunday. Far-right groups have been particularly active this year. Despite their minimal electoral support, the groups and their ultranationalist ideology have a disproportionate influence on Ukraine's national stage. And now they're making ties with other far-right groups across Europe and in the United States. NPR's Lucian Kim reports.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: In January last year, hundreds of young men wearing gray-and-black camouflage jackets occupied Kyiv's Independence Square.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KIM: In a slick YouTube video of the military-style rally, a young man swears to serve the Ukrainian nation for marching with his comrades down Kyiv's main street.

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KIM: This is the National Militia - a far-right organization that claims to enforce law and order but which the U.S. State Department calls a nationalist hate group that targets its political enemies and LGBT activists and the Roma or Gypsy minority.

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KIM: Last month, before the first round of Ukraine's presidential election, members of the National Militia clashed with police in Kyiv. The militia is an offshoot of the far-right National Corps political party, which grew out of a paramilitary group called Azov. The volunteer Azov Battalion formed in 2014 as a response to the armed Russian-backed insurgency in Eastern Ukraine. And Azov's fighters have often been accused of having neo-Nazi sympathies.

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KIM: A few steps from the hustle and bustle of Independence Square, I find a three-story brick building that serves as a base for the National Militia. Olena Semenyaka, a spokeswoman for the National Corps party, says stereotypes about skinheads and soccer hooligans are outdated.

OLENA SEMENYAKA: We describe ourselves simply as Ukrainian nationalists. But we also underline that we are nationalists of the new generation.

KIM: She says her group is part of a global trend as shown by President Trump's victory in the U.S. and his support for right-wing governments in neighboring Hungary and Poland.

SEMENYAKA: After Trump showed his support for right populist governments of Central and Eastern Europe, it has become much easier in terms of political climate for nationalist organizations of this region.

KIM: Semenyaka says she's making contacts with right-wing groups abroad, including white nationalists in the U.S. But at home, her party's goal is to get into Parliament, even though the Ukrainian far right polls in the single digits - less than in many Western European countries.

KURT VOLKER: Fortunately, they are not a strong or dominant force in Ukraine.

KIM: Kurt Volker is a State Department special representative for the country.

VOLKER: That is not what defines Ukraine politically or in security terms for the population.

KIM: Although the National Militia has only a few thousand members, its ability to mobilize rowdy crowds gives an outsized influence on the national political stage.

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KIM: Lviv in Western Ukraine is a picturesque city with lots of street musicians but also a reputation for being a hotbed of Ukrainian nationalism. In an old apartment building, I meet a polite 25-year-old named Andriy Bondar, the commander of the local National Militia.

ANDRIY BONDAR: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KIM: Bondar says he'll never forget the adrenaline rush he felt during the first big rally in Kyiv last year. He says members of the National Militia are patriots bringing security to the streets of Ukraine.

BONDAR: (Speaking Ukrainian).

KIM: He denies the group is neo-Nazi. He says that's just a label to scare children with. But when I leave his office, I notice a small sticker on the door. It shows a blond woman holding a blond baby over the Ukrainian words, preserve your race. It's beautiful. Lucian

Kim, NPR News, Lviv, Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.