KYIV — The gathering was large and formidable, with hundreds of mostly young men in fatigues keeping tight ranks on Kyiv’s central Independence Square before marching in formation to a torch-lit fortress on a hillside in the Ukrainian capital.
There, in the January 28 spectacle, 600 of them swore an oath to clean the streets of illegal alcohol, drug traffickers, and illegal gambling establishments.
Their mission would seem righteous enough. And it was featured in a slickly produced video with aerial drone footage, sweeping edits, and menacing music that caught the attention of many on social media.
But Ukraine observers and rights groups are sounding the alarm, because this was not a typical commencement, and the men are not police officers. They are far-right ultranationalists from the Azov movement, a controversial group with a military wing that has openly accepted self-avowed neo-Nazis, and a civil and political faction that has demonstrated intolerance toward minority groups.
“We will not hesitate to use force to establish order that will bring prosperity to every Ukrainian family!” reads a message alongside the video, published on the Facebook page of the newly formed group, called the National Militia. In the clip, they vow also to protect the nation “when government organs can’t or won’t help Ukrainian society.”
That approach could concern Western backers in Kyiv’s campaign against armed Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country, where a conflict that has lasted nearly four years has killed at least 10,300 people.
“Ukraine would be violating its international obligations under human rights law if authorities either tolerate abusive militia who undermine [the] population’s liberty, security, freedoms or provide an abusive militia with the color of law but [do] not impose on them exacting standards on use of force,” Tanya Cooper, Human Rights Watch (HRW)’s Ukraine researcher in Kyiv, told RFE/RL in e-mailed comments as media buzzed over the appearance of the National Militia.
Matthew Schaff, Ukraine director of the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House, told RFE/RL by phone that simply their creation “does damage to democracy in Ukraine.”
Founded in 2014 as a volunteer battalion to help an overmatched Ukrainian military fight off the threat in its east, the Azov movement uses fascist symbols and has been accused by international humanitarian organizations of human rights abuses in the conflict zone.
The National Militia is an independent group that is merely the latest component of Azov’s civilian and political wing, known as the National Corpus. It is led by lawmaker and former Azov Battalion commander Andriy Biletsky, once the head of Ukraine’s neo-Nazi Social-National Party, who attended the ceremony.
Azov officially founded the National Corpus in October 2016, incorporating two other nationalist groups, including Patriot Of Ukraine, which according to Halya Coynash of the Kharkiv Human Rights Group “espoused xenophobic and neo-Nazi ideas and was engaged in violent attacks against migrants, foreign students in Kharkiv, and those opposing its views.”
That inaugural ceremony arguably had pomp more reminiscent of 1930s Germany than of postwar democracy. It included nationalist chants, raised fists, and a torchlight march through central Kyiv.
National Corpus’s political aims at the time of its creation included the restoration of Ukraine’s nuclear-power status, which was abandoned in a major boost to nonproliferation soon after the breakup of the Soviet Union; the nationalization of companies that were owned by the government when Ukraine gained independence in 1991; and the legalization of firearms for personal protection.
Its foreign policy sought to cut cultural, diplomatic, and trade ties with Russia, and urged a public discussion about restoring the death penalty in Ukraine for crimes such as treason and embezzlement of government funds.
While the National Corpus appears to draw limited support from Ukraine’s electorate — polls show it under the 5 percent threshold to enter parliament — its public presence has grown, worrying international observers and making it a favorite target for Russian propaganda. Russian state news agencies and politicians suggest the government in Kyiv’s perceived tolerance for the far-right movement makes it fascist. The Ukrainian government’s failure to aggressively challenge the group has done little to calm its critics.
Police, Or Not Police
So it came as something of a surprise on January 30 when Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who has enjoyed a close relationship with the Azov movement in the past, appeared to distance himself from the group, saying in a statement posted to the ministry’s website that “in Ukraine, there is only one monopoly on the use of force — the state: the National Guard, the National Police, and the Armed Forces.”
He added, “All other paramilitary entities that try to position themselves on the streets of cities are not legal.”
Ivan Varchenko, an Avakov adviser, told Hromadske Radio that Ukrainian law provides for registration of civic organizations that assist law enforcement agencies.
Roman Chernyshov of the National Corps also tried to calm concerns, telling Hromadske Radio that its members do not bear arms.
Armed or not, as news of the National Militia spread across Ukrainian media, critics raised serious concerns about the type of order the unit may enforce on the streets of Kyiv.
“It’s the police responsibility to enforce the law on the street and hold people accountable for crimes they’ve committed,” Freedom House’s Schaaf said. “When there are groups that are roaming the streets in units like this, with slogans like this, it definitely raises concerns about what are their intentions, how they will they be implementing their visions, what rules they are trying to enforce.”
HRW’s Cooper said one of her primary concerns was who would be targeted by the group. “Members of this political party espouse intolerance towards ethnic minorities and LGBT people, so it seems completely absurd that these people would be able [and willing] to protect everyone,” she said of the Azovs.
She added, “The bottom line is that if these units are going to be carrying out any kind of policing duty, they have to be held to the exact same human rights standards as regular police: on use of force, powers of detention, nondiscrimination, etc., and they have to be trained and held accountable just like regular police are.”
Perhaps in an attempt to alleviate public concerns, Avakov insisted, “I, as a minister, will not allow for parallel structures that try to behave as alternative military formations on the streets.”