While facing off with Russia, Ukraine’s new government is also struggling to disarm militias in Kiev. If it can’t, will new violence erupt?
- By Katie EngelhartKatie Engelhart is the London-based correspondent for the Canadian newsmagazine Maclean's.
KIEV — In eastern Ukraine, the last week has given rise to an armed seizure of government offices by pro-Russia protesters; a faltering state-led anti-terrorism operation; and reported defections from the Ukrainian army. Meanwhile, a tepid calm has set in on the Maidan, the central square in Kiev where this all began.
On April 10, the very day that pro-Moscow separatists in the east rejected a government amnesty offer, the Maidan was quiet. At one end of the square, a bulldozer worked to push down a barricade that had, for months, separated Euromaidan protesters from special police forces. Elsewhere, passersby stooped to photograph the many small memorials that are scattered around the area, and a group of young girls posed for photographs around an army tank.
But while the physical legacy of the Euromaidan movement is being dismantled, other remnants hold firm. The months-long protests in Kiev gave rise to a network of so-called self-defense militias. Some of these groups remain intact — and are less-than-supportive of Ukraine’s new government. And while many Euromaidan protesters have returned home, several hundred remain in tent encampments in the center of the capital. Reportedly, some say they are there to maintain law and order in the capital; others say they will stay in the square until national elections, scheduled for May 25, take place, as that will provide a bookend to the political revolution that began in the Maidan.
Though the government in Kiev is largely preoccupied with preventing outright war with Russia, the Maidan’s still-mobilized groups have not gone unnoticed. Earlier this month, at the behest of European officials, Ukrainian authorities stepped up their push to disarm Maidan militias and assert their authority over the capital, as well as the rest of the country. According to some observers, the government has likely learned from the example of Georgia, which, after it was invaded by Russia in 2008, struggled to demobilize its revved-up citizenry.
There is, it seems, no time like the present. At the Kiev Security Forum, on April 9-10, Ukrainian professor of political science Oleksii Haran warned that some Maidan activists now believe that "the Maidan has sold out," and so they should "do something more radical." The threat, in other words, is that embattled protesters, including some militias, might turn against the government.
Most protesters on the Maidan were not armed — at least, not with guns. Yet self-defense groups did form, comprised of thousands of people and organized into tight units. These groups guarded the perimeter of the Maidan and helped to maintain law and order inside. They also fought state police.
It became clear in March, after President Viktor Yanukovych’s flight to Russia, that some of these militias would maintain their guard of the Maidan. Some were hesitant to disarm in light of Russian maneuvering in the east, while others wanted to keep a watchful eye on the new government. Journalists combing the square encountered weary, camo-clad, baton-wielding men declaring some variation of, "We will stand until the end."
"It’s all a symptom of this total lack of trust in the institutions of government that gave rise to the Euromaidan," says Heather McGill, a Ukraine researcher at Amnesty International. "It’s a big problem…. Obviously, it’s alarming to have people in a semi-military uniform patrolling the streets."
So the government in Kiev began efforts to disarm its citizens. On March 20, the Interior Ministry announced that Ukrainians had until the next day to voluntarily hand in arms to authorities, without risk of punishment. Voluntary surrender, noted Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, would be "a key factor of stabilization." The announcement was supported by, among others, the French ambassador to Ukraine, who reiterated that the disarmament of Maidan militias was an EU priority — and a precondition for financial aid.
By early April, some 8,000 weapons had reportedly been given up. But Avakov estimates that several thousand are "still in uncontrolled circulation."
Indeed, guns remain cheap and plentiful, easily accessible for militias that still want them. According to Balázs Jarábik, a Ukraine expert at the Carnegie Endowment’s Russia and Eurasia Program, "You can buy anything in Ukraine for a few thousand dollars … The price of getting a gun and getting it registered in Ukraine is really not that high." This, Jarábik says, "could turn into a problem, but there is very little we can do about that."
Taking efforts a step further, on April 1, Ukraine’s parliament ordered the Interior Ministry and Security Service "to immediately disarm illegal armed groups" around the country. Only those people incorporated into state-run forces may carry arms. President Oleksandr Turchynov declared, "If they do not belong to the army, the National Guard, or the police, they are saboteurs who are working against Ukraine."
The move followed a violent incident in which a member of Right Sector, a far-right militia, shot three people outside a restaurant in Kiev. The Interior Ministry said the reasons for the shootings were unknown. But not long before, on March 25, a Right Sector coordinator had been killed by Ukrainian law enforcement during a security operation. After the restaurant incident, the police moved in to shut down the controversial group’s Kiev base.
Right Sector became infamous for lending Euromaidan a touch of strong-armed flavor — seizing buildings and battling state police — and now it symbolizes the government’s struggle to demobilize Ukrainian citizens. In early March, the group swore that it would remain on the square; it is deeply skeptical of the new administration and wholly dismissive of disarmament efforts. While likely vastly exaggerated by both Russian officials and foreign reporters, the group’s influence remains strong.
The government, says Jana Kobzova, an expert on Russia and Central Asia at the European Council on Foreign Relations, is in a tough bind. On the one hand, it needs to pre-empt Russian state news propaganda, which is eager to portray Ukraine as a nation awash in lawlessness. But at the same time, authorities must not "be seen as acting too aggressively" against former Maidan activists, or they will lose public support.
The existence of unauthorized self-defense units has pre-Maidan roots. Factions formed in the years after World War II: guerrilla bands that fought Soviet forces into the 1950s. What’s more, at independence, Ukraine inherited large numbers of Soviet arms, and gathering them has long been a problem.
David Kramer, executive director of Freedom House and a former assistant secretary of state under George W. Bush, says Ukraine and the surrounding region provided "a model back in the 1990s, when it came to weapons at a strategic level… nuclear weapons." Ukraine, after all, agreed to give up its nuclear arms in 1994. "But when it comes to disarming individuals," Kramer says, " I’m not aware of very successful campaigns."
Some are now criticizing the Kiev’s latest efforts. Amnesty International’s McGill believes that the reticence among militias to hand over weapons is rooted partly in the government’s failure to prosecute the many police officers who took up arms against Maidan protesters. "They haven’t established rule of law," McGill insists. "I have heard demonstrators say… ‘I am prepared to answer for the fact that I threw Molotov cocktails at the police. But I want to know that the police… are going to answer for their acts.’"
Yet some strategies are also garnering praise. In mid-March, the government pledged to recruit tens of thousands of volunteer soldiers into the National Guard, and Kobzova says this has already brought many Maidan protesters under the watchful eye of the state. "I think it’s really, really good," she stresses. "And I’m aware that a number of NATO members are assisting on this." Carnegie’s Jarábik also thinks the National Guard has been useful in "getting these people into a regulated structure" — though he adds that the guard is not ready for combat. "That would be suicide. They are not prepared for this type of warfare."
Amnesty International’s McGill says there has also been "quite a lot of talk in Kiev" about absorbing self-defense units "into some form of community policing." During the Maidan protests, makeshift groups were credited with maintaining a strict (and sober) lawfulness on the square and for showing restraint in the face of police aggression.
Whether that could now work under the guise of the state, however, remains to be seen. But some observers say, for the time being, absorbing the Maidan units, rather than seeking to disarm them outright, might be the apt strategy — especially given all the troubling news in the east.
"It’s difficult because so many people now fear that their security is threatened," rues Kobzova. "Would you hand in your weapons if you lived in a state where you might face a war?"