Kiev, Ukraine – On June 17, some 150 ultra-nationalists sporting closely-cropped hair and camouflage trousers blocked a street in central Kiev, Ukraine’s capital.
Many were from C14 – a group named after a 14-word slogan of US white supremacists – “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”
They wanted to block and attack an LGBT march – but faced hundreds of riot police officers. Their short intense standoff ended with five wounded policemen and 56 detentions, Kiev police said.
But within hours, every detained man was released without charge – and their groups pledged to continue their fight.
“I thank everyone who had the honour of standing today shoulder to shoulder for the right of the conservative majority of Ukrainians,” Yuri Leonidovich, of the Tradition and Order far-right outfit, wrote on Facebook.
“Conservative majority” was something of an overstatement.
Svoboda (Freedom), Ukraine’s oldest ultra-nationalist party, has six seats in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s lower house of parliament with 450 seats.
Despite a minuscule parliamentary presence, Ukraine’s far right, white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups have become a visible and dreaded political force in the ex-Soviet nation, which lost almost a fifth of its population during World War II.
German Nazis and their allies committed countless atrocities here – and collaborated with Ukrainian nationalists who wanted to rid of Communist Moscow’s power by any means necessary.
Some of Ukraine’s post-Soviet politicians lionised these nationalists, naming streets and city squares after them and downplaying their violence and fascist ideology.
To pro-Western figures, such as ex-president Viktor Yushchenko, nationalism was a powerful tool that helped Ukraine leave Moscow’s political orbit and move towards a long-coveted membership in the European Union and NATO.
But younger, more radical and irreverent groups took this nationalism further, forming groups that mimicked far-right, white supremacist and neo-Nazi outfits in Russia, Europe and the US.
These days, they stand in the way of Ukraine’s rapprochement with the West.
Pogroms and a killing
In recent months, they have attacked feminist rallies and art exhibitions, disrupted lectures on Holocaust history and gender equality and assaulted rights activists and politicians.
In early July, C14 activists stormed into a conference hall in Kiev to beat up the leader of a party they consider pro-Russian.
Since April, C-14 and the National Guards, another far-right group, announced they attacked and destroyed Roma encampments in Kiev, forcing their residents, including women and children, to flee for safety – and prompting at least three more anti-Roma pogroms.
In the past few months, there have been at least 6 attacks on Roma communities in Ukraine. pic.twitter.com/B4fAhue0FD
— AJ+ (@ajplus) July 22, 2018
In late June, a group of ultranationalists stabbed David Popp, a young Roma man, to death and wounded four more Romani, including a pregnant woman and a 10-year-old boy, in a forested suburb of the western city of Lviv.
“They could have killed more had the police arrived later,” Roma rights activist Mykola Yurchenko told Al Jazeera.
‘Russia may be behind attack’
Ukraine’s top security accused Russia of masterminding the killing of Popp, the Roma man.
“Russia may be behind” the attack, said Vasily Hrytsak, head of the SBU, Ukraine’s main KGG successor. “We understand that Russians are always trying to play with the so-called inter-ethnic issues.”
The killing was “inspired” in Russia, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said.
In the following weeks, however, they fell short of presenting any evidence.
Western governments and international rights groups urged Ukrainian authorities to persecute the culprits – and stop turning a blind eye to far-right violence. After two dozen attacks, police have “barely” opened investigations, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said.
“Ukraine’s leaders cannot grant impunity to killers and thugs while at the same time seeking economic and political support from Western countries,” Tanya Cooper, HRW’s researcher in Ukraine, told Al Jazeera. “It should not be hard for Ukraine’s international partners to point this out to Kiev.”
Only in mid-July, one of C-14’s leaders, Serghiy Mazur, was arrested and charged with “hooliganism” as part of an investigation into the April attack on a Roma camp.
A nationalist lawmaker immediately bailed Mazur out, and he was placed under house arrest for two months.
Ukraine’s leaders and top law enforcement officials have been criticised for showing leniency.
Experts say that President Petro Poroshenko’s government is deliberately trying not to antagonise the far right ahead of next year’s presidential election.
“The state institutions are weak, the police is ineffective, the government is unpopular,” Vyacheslav Likhachev, head of the National Minority Rights Monitoring Group, a hate crimes watchdog, told Al Jazeera.
One of the reasons behind the impunity is a far-right crusade against Russia, he said.
Fighting separatists and Moscow
In the winter of 2013/2014, the Right Sector, a coalition of ultra-nationalist groups, clashed with police and forces loyal to pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Some were instrumental in the success of weeks-long protests that claimed more than a hundred lives and ousted Yanukovych – but others, including C-14’s core members, fled the protests and tried to seek asylum in the West.
For Right Sector’s leader, Yanukovych’s removal was just the beginning.
“The national revolution is going on, and it will end with the total destruction of the [pro-Russian] regime of internal occupation and the formation of a Ukrainian national state,” Dmitro Yarosh said in a statement in February 2014.
However, his group’s visibility did not morph into political success – Yarosh got only 0.9 percent of the vote in the May 2014 presidential elections.
For Russia, the protests and a “coup against democratically-elected President” Yanukovych were an excuse to annex Crimea and support pro-Russian separatists in southeastern Ukraine.
Moscow and its loyalists called it “the Russian Spring”, and the far-right groups helped nip it in the bud.
views, but as defenders of Ukraine.”]
In 2014, hundreds of ultra-nationalists, violent football fans, hardline Orthodox Christians and Cossacks formed the Azov Battalion, a paramilitary force that has been fighting pro-Russia separatists in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk in a conflict that killed more than 10,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands.
They enlisted ideological peers from Sweden, Italy and Russia – and openly expressed white supremacist views.
“The historic mission of our nation in this critical moment is to lead the White Races of the world in a final crusade for their survival,” Azov’s leader Andrey Biletsky wrote on Facebook. “A crusade against the Semite-led Untermenschen,” or sub-humans.
The Azov battalion helped the discouraged Ukrainian military regain key areas. Hundreds of its fighters eventually merged with the National Guard and formed their own political party – despite criminal convictions of many key members.
These days, Biletsky is a decorated police lieutenant colonel and lawmaker.
“The far right have rather successfully utilised the war to legitimise themselves in the public eye, they are seen not as proponents of certain [far-right] views, but as defenders of Ukraine,” hate crimes expert Likhachev said.
This popularity, however, poorly translates into electoral success.
Far-right groups have to tone down their rhetoric to win more votes – and face a split within their own ranks because the most radical activists may not like the compromise, he said.
In a February poll conducted by the Kiev International Institute of Sociology (KIIS), only 5.8 percent of Ukrainians said they would cast their ballots for the Svoboda party at a parliamentary vote.