Ukraine’s Unfinished Revolution

Radical nationalists want to continue the revolution that toppled Yanukovych. But they're probably just making matters worse.


KIEV – For Ukraine’s far-right groups, the revolution is unfinished. Their politicians and paramilitary movements are continuing the hunt for enemies and traitors. Nationalists from the Freedom Party, the Right Sector militia, and splinter groups such as the ultranationalist White Hammer, are demanding what they call "total lustration," or cleansing, of the political and business elites. As they see it, the revolution won’t be complete until this demand is satisfied. The interim Ukrainian government, which draws primarily on the Fatherland Party and moderate members of Freedom, doesn’t necessarily share this view. As they see it, the revolution culminated in February, when President Viktor Yanukovych abandoned the country and fled to Moscow. Now, they say, it’s time for elections, not more protests and unrest.

New political scandals envelop the capital with each passing day. Last week a nationalist leader named Alexander Muzychko was shot dead by police attempting to arrest him. His death provoked another anti-government rally: hundreds of angry activists carrying the black and red flags of the World War II-era Ukrainian Insurgent Army gathered on Thursday night outside the parliament, chanting and setting tires on fire. The ultranationalists threatened to take revenge on the interior minister, Arsen Avakov, unless he ordered the arrest of all those participating in the operation against Muzychko. Activists in the crowd issued calls for a "second Maidan" (a reference to the central square in Kiev where the February revolution had its focus).

Avakov said that he wouldn’t back down from fighting those he now called "bandits." At a Friday meeting with law enforcement commanders and parliamentary deputies, the interior minister suggested banning Right Sector as a radical organization. Last month, the interior ministry and the SBU, Ukraine’s domestic intelligence agency, issued a joint demand to all of the Maidan activists to hand in illegal weapons, citing "a situation of emergency in the country." But Dmytro Yarosh, the leader of Right Sector, has resisted disarming his paramilitary army, though he’s also said that he will obey the law. Yarosh has now declared himself to be a candidate for president in the general election scheduled for May 25. His candidacy won’t be official, though: Though he insists that he filed the proper documents, his name wasn’t included in the list of registered candidates. It’s not entirely clear why.

In an interview earlier this month, before the weapon ban took effect, Yarosh told me that he needed his allegedly 10,000-strong force not to help Ukraine join the EU — that was never his goal, he emphasized — but in order to fight Russia and realize his plans for a "nationalist revolution" at home. The nationalist leader said that he’d been consistent in his ideology for the past 25 years: anybody in favor of the Russian empire was his enemy. Many other Ukrainians take issue with that approach. Aleksey Verna, a supporter of the ex-boxer-turned-opposition-leader Vitali Klitschko, put it this way: "Instead of helping us to build a new, European-style system of governance, the Right Sector gave a wonderful present to the propagandists in the Kremlin: a perfect reason to criticize the Maidan."

The bad news from Right Sector has grown as fast as the rising dough in a traditional Ukrainian pie. Many recruits signed up after Yanukovych fled, when most people thought the revolution was over. On Sunday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow suspects Right Sector of organizing the sniper shootings in Kiev that resulted in the deaths of Maidan activists in February. (Most of the revolutionaries and their western supporters believe, by contrast, that the Yanukovych government was behind the shootings.)

On the same day, the independent newspaper Ukrainska Pravda published a report citing Right Sector activists who described how they’ve been using armored vehicles taken from a presidential garage, an admission marring what had been the street fighters’ good record of refraining from expropriations and looting. The movement’s activists said they could not imagine purchasing vehicles "during the revolutionary period." To them, apparently, it seemed obvious that the revolution has to go on. On Monday night, Right Sector activists shot and wounded three men on the Maidan. The next morning police evicted Right Sector from their headquarters in the Dnipro Hotel, where for almost a month their rough-looking activists armed with Kalashnikovs had terrified the hotel’s visitors. (The photo above shows members of the militia leaving the hotel.)

Only recently have supporters and participants of the Maidan rallies begun to ask each other about the background of Right Sector and its leaders: By what right do they claim the leading role in the revolution? Until last December nobody in Ukraine had heard of the organization. In February and March I spoke with several Right Sector activists in the buildings they had seized in downtown Kiev. Some of them were veterans of post-Soviet crises, including the First Chechen War and the conflict in Abkhazia, where they fought against the Russian military. Yet they don’t seem to be entirely anti-Russian in their sentiment. During the war over Moldova’s breakaway Transdnistria region, some of Right Sector’s recruiters are said to have fought on the side of the Russians.

Muzychko was one of those recruiters. He fought with Chechen guerillas against Russian army under the nickname Sashko Bilyi; upon his return to Ukraine he spent several years in jail for extortion. Russia accused Muzychko of atrocities in Chechnya, while at home he was charged with leading a criminal gang. In the midst of the Maidan revolution Muzychko emerged as one of Right Sector’s leaders. On February 27, when Kiev was still mourning 102 victims of the violent conflict with police, Muzychko violently confronted a provincial prosecutor in an appalling scene that was captured on video.

Facebook exploded with allegations about Right Sector destabilizing the already vulnerable situation in Ukraine, leading some to accuse the group of working in favor of the Russian secret services. A prominent local journalist, Mustafa Nayyem, who was one of the organizers of the pro-European protests on the Maidan, criticized the radicals on his blog: "We came out to the Maidan to oppose the bullies in power. To me, the symbols of those bullies’ rule are those who continue to humiliate, insult, and oppress us, pretending that they are our masters, exploiting their mandates, and threatening us with weapons and talk of revenge from mythical quarters."

Right Sector activists are not the only ones, however, to disappoint those who still believe in the values of the "Revolution of Dignity" (as some refer to the Maidan uprising). Another presidential candidate, ex-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, told a friend in a phone call that the 8 million Russians in Ukraine "should be destroyed with nuclear weapons." Their phone conversation took place on March 18, when Tymoshenko was having medical treatment in Germany. The audio of the call, apparently intercepted by Ukrainian or Russian secret services, was leaked last week.

The most popular politician in Ukraine is still Petro Poroshenko, whose reputation remains unspoiled. Poroshenko, currently the front-runner in the race for president, was the only Ukrainian billionaire seen on the front lines of the revolution. In a recent interview in his office, he told me that "it’s never been my way to hide." Among the challenges Ukraine’s new leader will face upon assuming office: how to prevent the country from falling apart, how to prevent criminal elements from exacerbating instability, and how to bring the revolution to a full and successful conclusion.

Anna Nemtsova is a Moscow-based correspondent for Newsweek and the Daily Beast, covering Russia and the former Soviet states. She is also the winner of the 2012 Persephone Miel Fellowship and the 2015 IWMF Courage in Journalism award. Twitter: @annanemtsova