Ukrainian militia rejects fears of far-right vigilantism
National Militia emerges as crisis of trust in the state fuels rise in volunteer groups
A screengrab of the Ukrainian National Militia’s promotional video of its swearing-in ceremony last Sunday. Photograph: Youtube
A hundreds-strong paramilitary unit that pledges to keep order on the streets of Ukraine has dismissed fears that it could act as a far-right vigilante group or private army for politicians.
More than 600 Ukrainians took an oath of allegiance to the so-called National Militia last Sunday, when they rallied on Kiev’s Maidan square and then marched to an old military fortress lit by flares and flaming torches.
The event unnerved some people in Ukraine, where a relatively small but vocal far-right movement has gained prominence since 2014, when a revolution against corruption and Kremlin influence sparked an undeclared war with Russia.
Almost four years of fighting in eastern Ukraine have killed more than 10,300 people and displaced 1.6 million, traumatising a nation that is also angry with its post-revolutionary leaders for continuing to rule through cronyism and graft.
The National Militia has close links to the Azov battalion – which includes neo-Nazi members and has fought in the east – and it vows to help Ukraine’s poorly regarded police force maintain discipline in towns and cities across the country.
“Mainly we conduct patrols, but that doesn’t mean that we detain people or check documents,” said the militia’s commander Ihor Mikhailenko, adding that the unit had operated for a year but had only now publicly sworn in its members.
The group has already caught thieves and drug dealers and handed them over to the police, Mr Mikhailenko said, while denying links to interior minister Arsen Avakov, who has connections with senior members of Azov.
“In 2014 the Ukrainian people experienced an extraordinary emotional boost, but over three years the current authorities have wasted that boost, and wasted the economy and the security sector. How could our organisation and I regard such politicians? Negatively, of course,” he said.
Mr Mikhailenko insisted that all National Militia members were unpaid volunteers, describing them as “active citizens” who “do not intend to discriminate against non-Ukrainians”.
“In our National Militia there have been Georgians, Russians, Belarusians – all those who are for the defence of Ukrainian nationalism.”
Mr Avakov, who is seen as a possible rival to president Petro Poroshenko in parliamentary and presidential elections next year, told the militia “not to step outside the bounds of the law”.
“As minister, I will not allow there to be parallel structures that try to act on the streets like alternative militaristic units,” he declared.
Critics fear the implications of co-operation or conflict between the police and militia groups; footage emerged this week of a street fight between the National Militia and police officers in the city of Kremenchuk.
“The law-enforcement agencies – from the police to the special services – have for a long time, systematically and consistently ignored the appearance of such groups across the whole country,” reformist deputy Mustafa Nayyem wrote on Facebook.
“When the state cannot ensure justice in a legal way, then those who have been humiliated and insulted turn to those who can achieve it by any available means.”