Kiev, Ukraine – The area around Kiev’s Maidan Square feels like a movie set that was never really cleaned up.
A collection of burlap tents still dots the main square and the Trade Unions’ building is a burnt-out remnant of its pre-Maidan days. Flowers left in honour of the dead, now in various stages of wilting, are neatly piled along mounds of tyres, wooden debris and stacks of bricks, which used to be part of the pavement.
Among the flags and banners that still decorate Kiev’s main square are the controversial red and black of the recently formed Right Sector, graffiti from the Ukrainian National Assembly-Ukrainian National Self Defence and placards for the Patriots of Ukraine.
All are far-right nationalist organisations that moved into Kiev’s Independence Square during the Ukrainian protests that brought down former President Viktor Yanukovich.
On Tuesday evening, Yury Vitaliavich, a member of the Right Sector who would only give his last name and patronymic, stood at an entry point to a building his group is occupying.
While the Right Sector’s leader, Dmitry Yarosh, relocated the group’s headquarters to Dnepropetrovsk at the end of April, members of the group are still camped out in several buildings on Khreshatik Street, which bisects Maidan Square.
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The camouflage-clad Vitaliavich said he joined Right Sector in December, when the organisation was founded as a conglomeration of Ukraine’s ultra-nationalist fringe elements. These groups had relatively low visibility until the Maidan protests began in November.
The newly-formed Right Sector, along with the ultra-right wing party, Svoboda (Freedom), called early on for Yanukovich’s removal from power. This rhetoric appealed to Vitaliavich, who said he was fed up with the old government. He hadn’t dabbled much in politics before the protests erupted.
“I liked the idea of nationalism … the Right Sector was actually doing something to change the situation,” the former schoolteacher told Al Jazeera. “For me, nationalism means doing something and giving back to a country that gave me an education, a job and a life.”
Vitaliavich pulled out his mobile phone from underneath his camouflage flak jacket and opened text messages from his friends in eastern Ukraine, which has been wracked by violent protests in recent days, asking him and the Right Sector for help.
Many others in Ukraine’s east refuse to associate with Right Sector, he acknowledged, but said the group’s critics are paying too much attention to biased Russian media.
The Right Sector’s website and social media pages feature pictures of heavily armed, masked men. Such images have provided the Russian media with fodder for newscasts about extremism in Ukraine. Furthermore, the new Ukrainian government’s inability to successfully clear out ultra-right groups from the Maidan contributes to an overall impression that the new government is unable to control protesters who helped bring down the last government.
‘Leading the revolution?’
When full-on fighting broke out between EuroMaidan protesters and the now-disbanded riot police squad, the Right Sector was often on the front lines fighting off the police with chains and Molotov cocktails.
The Right Sector was not the leading force of Maidan and was not the leading force of the revolution.
However, the Right Sector’s role in the Maidan protests was vastly over-exaggerated, said Anton Shekhovtsov, an expert on far-right groups in Ukraine and a doctoral candidate at the University College of London.
“The Right Sector was not the leading force of Maidan and was not the leading force of the revolution,” said Shekhovtsov. At their core, protests were not about nationalism, but fighting rampant corruption in Viktor Yanukovich’s government. Any respect that the Right Sector earned on Maidan had nothing to do with their far-right political sentiments, he added.
Rather, this was in part thanks to a good public relations campaign and the group’s call for removing Yanukovich from power.
However, the Right Sector’s well-publicised presence on the Maidan along with the use of the Ukrainian nationalist images, such as photographs of Stepan Bandera, resurrected old questions about Ukraine’s struggle for freedom and national identity.
The Right Sector acts as an umbrella organisation for several far-right parties: Stepan Bandera’s Trident (Trizub), the Ukrainian National Assembly – Ukrainian National Self Defence (UNA-UNSO), the Patriots of Ukraine and the Social National Assembly.
While there are no official statistics on the number of people in Right Sector or other far-right organisations, Right Sector’s Facebook group boasts about 450,000 people.
Before becoming the head of the Right Sector, Yarosh led Trident, a conservative paramilitary organisation that ran training camps in case the time came to defend Ukraine from invaders, according to Shekhovtsov. The Trident organisation was also known for attempting to topple monuments of former Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin, though they experienced little success in their attempts, Shekhovtsov added.
The Right Sector’s ideology, as well as that of the far-right political party Svoboda, is based on the ultranationalist values of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), a group founded during the interwar years in Western Ukraine.
Between 1939-1941, Nazi Germany directly supported the OUN, though after June 1941, the organisations’ relationship became more complicated. As it became increasingly obvious that Germany was losing the war, groups within the Ukraine People’s Army – UPA – attempted to collaborate with the Soviets.
During the Soviet era, the idea of Ukrainian national sovereignty was purposely joined to the ultra-nationalist movement led by the OUN and the UPA as a way to discredit the idea of an independent Ukrainian state.
Ultimately, many of OUN’s members were either killed off , deported, or driven underground after Ukraine was brought back under the control of the Soviet Union.
“It’s important to keep in mind that this was a small extremist party with an extremist agenda,” Per Anders Rudling, an associate professor of history at Lund University, told Al Jazeera. At the peak of their activities, the UPA had 40,000 members. In comparison, there were about 5 million Ukrainians in the Soviet army.
The word “banderovetz”, from the last name of one of the most prominent leaders of one of the wings of the insurgency movement, Bandera, was made into a synonym for traitor and Nazi sympathiser and came into usage around 1940.
But the focus on OUN and particularly on one of its more radical members, Bandera, was unfortunate, said Rudling. “Bandera is no more representative of Ukraine that Stalin was of Georgia,” said Rudling.
Politics and public opinion
Today, 26 percent of those who live in Western Ukraine have a positive view of Bandera, whereas only 3 percent of people in the Donbas region had a positive view of the partisan leader, according to a survey conducted by the Rating Social Group in April 2014.
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During the EuroMaidan protests, symbols of the OUN were brought to protests. The Right Sector adopted the red-and-black flag of the UPA and Bandera’s image hung on posters all around the square.
At the end of March, Right Sector registered as a political party and the organisation’s leader, Dmitry Yarosh, announced his intention to run in Ukraine’s May 25 presidential election, according to Ukrainian media reports.
While registering as a political party will give Yarosh greater control over who can be a member of the Right Sector, there is little chance that the new party will have any success at the polls, said Yuriy Yakymenko, the Director of Political and Legal Programmes at Razumkov Centre, a Kiev-based, non-governmental think-tank.
In a presidential poll from the Kiev International Institute of Sociology taken from April 29 – May 11, Yarosh is coming in with less than one percent of support.
The ultra-nationalist party, Svoboda, hasn’t experienced much of a boost in its popularity since the EuroMaidan protests ended either, though they did gain several positions in the new Kiev government.
One of two deputy prime ministers, Oleksandr Sych is a member of Svoboda as are the ecology, agricultural and education ministers.
The party’s leader, Oleh Tyahnybok, who was one of the three leaders who appeared on the Maidan stage during the protests, is currently a member of parliament.
Tyahnybok’s first tenure in the Rada ended in 2004 when he was kicked out for using anti-Jewish and anti-Russian slurs. But he was voted back into parliament in 2012 when Svoboda gained 38 of 450 seats, an exceptionally large number for an ultra-right-wing party.
Tyahnybok is currently a presidential candidate in the upcoming May 25 election and is polling at one percent, a three percent drop in his numbers from March.
The true marker of where Svoboda stands will come during the next parliamentary election, which is currently scheduled for 2017, though a snap election might occur after this weekend’s presidential election.
But it is unlikely that Svoboda will ever regain the momentum it had in 2012, said Anatoliy Oktysiuk, a senior analyst for the International Center for Policy Studies and an expert on Ukrainian far-right movements.
The party’s main appeal for Ukrainian voters in the past was that it was openly critical of Yanukovich. “Now that the old president is gone, Svoboda will either have to go mainstream, or risk fading away,” said Oktysiuk.
As for ultra-nationalists like the Right Sector, they are likely to just disappear as a political group, said Shekhovtsov. “The Ukrainian people have no taste for political extremism.”