The recent controversy surrounding the nationalist political party Right Sector is further evidence of the weakened political standing of the government in Kiev.

Police officers secure the area near the western Ukrainian city of Mukachevo. Photo: AP

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The firefight on July 11 in the Transcarpathian town of Mukachevo has emerged as the most serious crisis in Ukrainian political life since the beginning of the “antiterrorist operation” in Eastern Ukraine in April 2014.

According to press reports, the conflict began when local members of the Right Sector, a nationalist political party with a paramilitary structure that rose to national prominence during the 2014 Maidan, demanded a more lucrative cut from the cigarette contraband operations being run by local police and politicians. They went to the home of a local politician to press their demands armed with machine guns and a grenade launcher. When the latter called the local police, the result was four dead and ten injured. 

Since then, authorities have deployed special forces to the region and demanded the surrender of the Right Sector fighters. In response, two did eventually surrender to police, but at least ten others withdrew to the hills, vowing not to surrender unless ordered to by their national leader, and current member of the Ukrainian parliament, Dmytro Yarosh.

Yarosh, meanwhile, has called for a nationwide mobilization of all Right Sector fighters across Ukraine (some seventeen reserve divisions), and has ostensibly withdrawn his active forces from the front lines of the campaign in Eastern Ukraine. Protest rallies have been held in more than a dozen major Ukrainian cities, with calls to remove Interior Minister Arsen Avakov and ensure that the veterans of Right Sector and other volunteer battalions recently accused of torture and corruption (Tornado, Aidar, Azov) receive fair treatment.

The Ukrainian government is trying to portray this as nothing more than a gangland confrontation gone awry, but the involvement of the Right Sector, and their use of weapons that should have been relinquished at the end of their military service, have turned the incident into a national drama. At the heart of the conflict lies an unresolved controversy over ownership of the Maidan revolution of February 2014.

It is commonly acknowledged that the initial gatherings on Kiev’s Maidan Square in early December 2013 were the result of popular frustration with corruption and a desire for more rapid integration into the European Union. These two issues united many Ukrainians who describe themselves as supporters of Western and European values.

But by mid-January 2014, as a careful study by Kiev based sociologist Volodymyr Ishchenko shows, the initiative among the street protesters had shifted away from the urban middle class, to radical nationalists who were descending on Kiev from western Ukraine.

They were already in control of most Western regions of the country and, having seized large stockpiles of weapons from local police and military garrisons, were moving them to the capital in preparation for a showdown with the government of Ukraine's ousted President Viktor Yanukovych.

“The Maidan,” Ishchenko concludes, “was indeed an armed uprising, responding to sporadic government violence with a violence of its own, heavily skewed in regional support, and with a significant far right presence.”

When the critical phase of the Maidan erupted in February, the radicals of Svoboda and the Right Sector were ready to enforce Yanukovych’s ouster.

When Arseny Yatseniuk, Vitaly Klitschko, and Oleksandr Turchinov emerged as the politically acceptable faces of the coup, sidelining the leader of the nationalistic Svoboda Party, Oleh Tyanhybok, many nationalists saw this as a defeat and warned that the revolution was being hijacked. Among them, the leader (providnyk) of the Right Sector, Dmytro Yarosh, has been among the most uncompromising, continuing to set up independent military units to “safeguard the revolution.” When its members periodically get in trouble with local police the Right Sector routinely threaten to bring down the government

In one well known incident last August, Yarosh demanded that the Interior Ministry release his fighters from prison and cease all ongoing investigations within 48 hours, or the Right Sector would march on Kiev. The very next day he called off the march saying his demands had been met.

In the current crisis, Yarosh argues that the Right Sector’s mandate comes from the “will of the Ukrainian people” which transcends that of any government. Asked to explain why members of the Right Sector retain their weapons despite current law, Yarosh explains that his soldiers obtained their weapons before the law was passed, and that, in any case, since the laws of Ukraine are not being enforced, his personnel have every right to ignore them and to defend themselves.

Responding to President Petro Poroshenko’s pledge that “no political force will be allowed to have its own military,” the official press spokesman for the Right Sector, Artyom Skoropadsky, explained that the president was only referring to “illegal military formations.” Since the Right Sector is not illegal, his words obviously do not apply.

Having numerous times declared that it does not acknowledge the authority of the commander of the Ukrainian armed forces, and is ready to march on Kiev to fulfill the promise of the Maidan revolt, it is worth asking: Who would win in the event of a direct confrontation between the current Ukrainian government and the Right Sector?

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The first line of defense for the government would be the Ministry of Interior, whose head, Arsen Avakov, has been a prime target of the Right Sector since the shooting death of radical political activist Alexander Muzychko (Sashko Bilyi). Avakov is probably best known for his massive firings of internal security forces and highway patrols. Given the summary treatment they received from him, there is little reason to expect that they would fight on his behalf. As for the National Guard, formed from the remnants of same radical groups that fought on the Maidan, pitting them against their former colleagues would be a risky test of their loyalty.    

The second line of defense would be the forces attached to the National Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). Last month, this agency was cast into turmoil by the firing of its head, Valentin Nalivaichenko. At the time Nalivaichenko said he was tackling corruption in the highest ranks of the State Prosecutor’s Office and, when thwarted, he threatened to reveal embarrassing details about then candidate Petro Poroshenko’s secret meeting in Vienna with businessman Dmytro Firtash to law agencies in other countries, in particular, the United States. In his parting interview, he threatened to tell all about the nefarious dealings of his superiors.

Meanwhile, his successor has been busily cleansing the agency of more than forty “agents of Moscow” newly discovered in their ranks. It is hard to imagine that there is much love lost for the current government in this agency.

The final line of defense against a right wing coup would be the Ukrainian military, whose commanders are routinely accused of treason by the Right Sector and other military volunteers. In June, Ukraine’s chief military prosecutor, Anatoly Matios, added insult to injury by accusing the volunteer battalion Tornado of torture and pedophilia in Eastern Ukraine.

Given the incessant friction between the Ukrainian military and the volunteer battalions, it is not clear how much the current government can rely on the military for support. In any case, the Ukrainian media reports that soldiers sent to contain the rebel Right Sectors fighters that had fled the scene in Mukachevo apparently issued a statement that they would refuse any order to shoot at them. As of July 14, what remains of the platoon has “disappeared.”

In other words, for anyone planning a coup, the timing could hardly be better.

President Poroshenko has stated the obvious. For Ukraine to survive, its government must establish a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Just as importantly, for democracy to survive, that force must have some semblance of being conducted in accordance with the rule of law.

Alas, many “pro-Western” Ukrainian political figures have spent years undermining the legitimacy of every legal and official institution in post-Soviet Ukraine. They have done so not just under Yanukovych, but also under all five presidents, and all five versions of the constitution. The lingering legacy of nihilism now makes it exceedingly difficult for people to put their trust in anything that the government says or does.

Here is but one recent example of many. On its evening newscast of July 17, one of the country’s most popular television channels, Inter, broadcast the results of its weekly online survey. In answer to the question: “What do [Rada] deputies deserve for their accomplishments this session?” it received the following responses:   “A bonus” (2 percent),  “A vacation” (2 percent), “New elections” (22 percent) and “Criminal charges” (75 percent).

It is this total absence of governmental moral authority that is eroding the foundations of Ukrainian statehood even more than its disjointed efforts at reform. Indeed, as well intentioned as its efforts may be, the government is caught in a Catch-22 situation. While draconian economic reforms erode what little confidence the poor retain in public institutions, the firings of tens of thousands of civil servants, who once earned a decent middle class salary for their service, seems designed to eliminate the very function of government.

The result is predictable —chaos, disillusionment, and paralysis. Ukraine’s reformers seem to have forgotten that when Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter spoke of the “perennial gale of creative destruction” in the economy, he saw governmental stability as an essential and necessary anchor in the storm.

In his press conference after Mukachevo, Yarosh restates his view that the present government has betrayed the hopes of the Maidan and that a new revolution “of the people” is now imperative. Although he says he hopes the revolution can be peaceful, his official press spokesman added this chilling warning: “In the event of a new revolution, Ukrainian president Poroshenko and his associates will not be able to flee the country as the former president did. They can expect nothing but execution in some dark cellar, conducted by young Ukrainian military man or members of the National Guard.”

This week Yarosh plans to hold a national assembly of the Right Sector in Kiev. He expects it to be an impressive and intimidating show of force, just a stone’s throw from all major government buildings. If efforts to capture the Right Sector forces hiding in the hills Transcarpathia turn bloody, anything might ensue in Kiev.

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But if circumstances nationwide continue on their present course, it is not hard to imagine that a nationalist movement that vows to prevent the country from careening into total chaos, and to sweep away corruption with an iron fist, at the expense of a few troublesome minorities, might one day even seem like a blessing to many Ukrainians.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.