Right Sector, whose members were the shock troops of Ukraine's revolution, is going into politics.
The alliance of ultra-nationalist groups gained prominence on the barricades and in battles with riot police around Kiev's Independence Square, where its volunteers showed their readiness to face and to use violence to oust the regime of president Viktor Yanukovich. Right Sector members were among about 100 protesters killed before Yanukovich fled on February 21st.
Yanukovich and Moscow say Right Sector is a fascist threat to Ukraine's tens of millions of Russian speakers. Moscow denounced the group for allegedly seeking help online from Chechen rebels, but Right Sector insists the appeal was placed on its social media page by hackers.
Leader Dmytro Yarosh swapped his usual black fatigues for a grey suit and tie on Saturday and, looking a little uncomfortable in a room full of foreign journalists, announced that Right Sector was becoming a political party and that he would run for Ukraine’s presidency in May 25th elections.
“We want to change the country. It will be difficult to compete with the political sharks but the revolution presents an opportunity to change the political elite and to bring young people into politics,” he said, flanked by several bodyguards.
Yarosh, who is deputy secretary of Ukraine's security council, said he had been warned that Russia had dispatched eight agents to assassinate him; Moscow accuses Yarosh of incitement to terrorism, and pro-Kremlin Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov has threatened to kill him.
Though some Right Sector members have been seen sporting neo-Nazi style badges and symbols, Yarosh strongly denied that the group was fascist or anti-Russian.
"I was born in a Russian- speaking town and graduated from a Russian-speaking university," he said. "About 40 per cent of Right Sector members speak Russian, and there are no problems between them and those who speak Ukrainian . . . We want speakers of Russian, Romanian, Hungarian and any other language to feel comfortable in our country."
Yarosh, a 42-year-old father of three, says Right Sector wants to create a fully sovereign Ukraine, free from corruption and the control of oligarchs and other countries; Russia is only the most recent of several foreign powers to dominate Ukraine. Its language and culture were suppressed for centuries.
Right Sector was formed last November – after riot police set upon student demonstrators in Independence Square – as an umbrella for right-wing groups which would not be satisfied with a mere rejigging of Ukraine’s political system but were committed to a full “national revolution”.
Over the following months Yanukovich’s refusal to resign, his move closer to Russia, his imposition of draconian anti- protest laws and the murder, assault and abduction of several opposition activists radicalised many Ukrainians, until they shared Right Sector’s desire for revolution and supported its willingness to counter state violence with violence of its own.
The group, which styled itself as a people’s self-defence force, is now believed to have several thousand members around Ukraine, and its social media page has more than 400,000 followers.