Thug Politics, Kiev

Oleh Lyashko gets into fist fights, kidnaps rebels, and supplies militias (or so he claims). Meet the radical populist who could play kingmaker in post-Maidan Ukraine.

Photo: Wikimedia
Photo: Wikimedia

KIEV, Ukraine — Oleh Lyashko, perhaps Ukraine’s most contentious parliamentary deputy, sits quietly in the corner of a salmon-and-gold-hued cafe in Kiev. With its marble tables and smartly dressed clientele, it feels like it could be in Vienna. At a table nearby, a woman negotiates the terms of a loan from the European Union as other patrons haggle over complex financial and political deals. Just down the hill from the presidential administration and around the corner from the national assembly, the cafe has the unmistakable air of power-broking and deal-making. It seems an unlikely place of business for Lyashko, the 41-year-old leader of the nationalist Radical Party: His crisply pressed shirt, blue tie, and tidily combed, wavy hair (resembling a toupee) suggest an unassuming banker rather than a self-styled fearless combatant in the struggle for his country’s sovereignty.

After I enter the cafe, Lyashko rises to join an ally from the Kiev City Council at another table. They begin to loudly discuss the delivery of infrared goggles, warm clothes, cigarettes, body armor, and painkillers to Ukrainian troops on the front line in the east. Only three days before, on Ukraine’s Independence Day, Aug. 24, he was in the largely separatist-held regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, evaluating the needs of the troops — or so he says. "We are resolving questions of army supplies every day," Lyashko tells me. "All my thoughts are with the people there, at the front." Then he shows me his new cell phone, which he says he uses to stay in constant contact with both government and volunteer brigades.

Like most parties in Ukraine, the Radical Party is built on its leader’s brand — in this case, Lyashko’s; indeed, its official name is the "Radical Party of Oleg Lyashko." Although he did not found the party, Lyashko is currently the Radicals’ sole deputy in Ukraine’s parliament. In its election manifesto, the party emphasizes the need to take on Ukraine’s "internal enemies" separatists and corrupt officials — and to rearm the country with nuclear weapons.

On Oct. 26, Ukrainians will again vote, this time in a parliamentary poll designed to further legitimate the country’s Maidan Revolution. This will be the second vote in six months. In May, chocolate mogul Petro Poroshenko won the Ukrainian presidential election, a contest that the democracy watchdogs at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said had respected "fundamental freedoms." That stood in stark contrast to the country’s 2012 parliamentary elections, which were marred by the fact that then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s main opponents had been jailed, according to the OSCE. Now with the parliamentary elections fast approaching, voters will have their first opportunity to issue a referendum on the lawmakers elected during 2012’s flawed elections.

Lyashko’s party remains a steady second in a number of recent polls, behind Poroshenko’s Solidarity. The Radical Party could emerge as a coalition partner for Poroshenko or as one of the strongest opposition factions in the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament. This means that Lyashko, once a bizarre side character of the Ukrainian political fringe, is now poised to become a serious if unlikely power broker in Kiev.

The Radical Party’s rise suggests that the country’s politics are skewing more and more populist. After the Maidan Revolution in February, Russia claimed that the country’s far-right parties, Svoboda and Pravy Sektor, enjoyed significant support. In reality, their presidential candidates each won less than 2 percent of the popular vote in May. But months of war and hardship have radicalized many Ukrainians. And populists like Lyashko are now benefiting from that voter anger.

"A part of the population see Poroshenko and his government as too moderate, especially in relation to its anti-terrorist operation," Andreas Umland, a professor of European studies at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, wrote in an email. "Lyashko plays on this dissatisfaction. He is a practiced populist with no ideology. But he is very talented at self-promotion."

Lyashko’s life story, as narrated by Lyashko himself, includes shades of the Dickensian and the grandiose alike. He claims to have grown up in an orphanage before earning three university degrees, but did not respond to requests for a copy of his qualifications. He has been active in Ukrainian politics since 2006, when he left a career in journalism for a successful run for parliament on the party list of former-Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. In 2011, he split with Tymoshenko and was elected leader of the new Radical Party. He was once best known for campaign ads that insulted his fellow parliamentarians for eating French, not Ukrainian, cheese.

Like his electoral competitors, Lyashko thinks Ukraine ought to enter the European Union and NATO. So to separate himself from the pack, he has branded himself Ukraine’s anti-oligarchic leader, promising credits for small and medium-sized enterprises and vowing to push rich businessmen out of Ukrainian politics.

As the conflict in Ukraine escalated, Lyashko’s political stature grew too. Although he was not a prominent leader of the Maidan Revolution, he did apparently participate. He also trumpeted a visit to Crimea in early March, saying at the time that he had been barred from leaving its Simferopol airport by pro-Russian "self-defense forces."

Before Ukraine’s southeast ignited, public opinion polls put him at under 5 percent support. But in the presidential election, he finished third, with 8 percent of the vote, behind Tymoshenko’s 13 percent.

Now, he says he is using his rising political clout to bolster Ukrainian militias. Lyashko claims to have set up two of the volunteer brigades that fought against pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine: Shakhtar and Azov, the latter of which was involved in heavy fighting near Mariupol during the most recent active phase of the conflict. In his version of their history, Lyashko recruited men for the brigades via Facebook. "But they are not my private armies," he adds.

His policies skew decidedly populist. For much of the time since Ukraine gained independence in 1991, it has been dominated by the winners of the wave of privatizations in the 1990s that followed the Soviet Union’s collapse. One of the central demands of both of the country’s pro-Western revolutions — the 2004 Orange Revolution and this year’s Maidan Revolution — was an end to rule-by-money politics. And right now, promising to combat the oligarchs is a popular demand among nearly all Ukrainian voters, from the liberal left to the nationalist right. That makes the billionaire Poroshenko’s victory perfect fodder for self-described reformers like Lyashko.

Unlike the oligarchs, who fund their electoral campaigns through their private earnings, Lyashko claims to have received most of his electoral funding from small donations on online platforms like Facebook, and he asserts that Poroshenko spent 10 times as much as he did on his campaign. "We receive small donations from little people who want to protect their own interests," he says. "People who want to spend for the future."

He is variously disliked and mocked by other Ukrainian lawmakers. He says this is because he opposes the power of the oligarchs. "My major demand is accountable politics," Lyashko says. "How many deputies would meet you here in this cafe? Most of them just hide in their offices!"

Lyashko sees these people as his base: small-businesses owners and hard workers, who, he says, are against big business and the oligarchs. And challenging oligarchs is apparently becoming dangerous for Lyashko.

In August, in the halls of the Rada, Lyashko found himself embroiled in a tense exchange with independent deputy Oleksandr Shevchenko, who had reportedly accused Lyashko of lying about his visits to the front in eastern Ukraine. After several heated minutes, the much bigger, burlier Shevchenko attempted to walk away. As he tried to leave, Lyashko pushed him slightly, prompting Shevchenko to turn and punch Lyashko in the head — an underwhelming showing for a man who has gotten into at least one other fight in the Rada.

Lyashko says the Shevchenko dust-up was all about retribution: Lyashko favors nationalizing Ukrnafta, an oil and gas business owned by banking, media, and minerals mogul Igor Kolomoisky, an influential, staunchly pro-government oligarch in eastern Ukraine. Kolomoisky is also allegedly an ally of Shevchenko, who, Lyashko alleges, confronted him that day at the Rada on Kolomoisky’s orders.

And the danger grows graver. "Ukrainian oligarchs have ordered my killing," Lyashko says, accusing Kolomoisky and an associate of plotting his demise. "And separatists have put a bounty of a million dollars on my head."

Kolomoisky’s spokesman refused a request for an interview. But his deputy, Borys Filatov, regularly rages against Lyashko on Facebook and calls him "the fighting faggot" (due to rumors about Lyashko’s private life dating back to his journalist days). "It’s clear that the loathsome nobody Lyashko ALWAYS AND SYSTEMATICALLY lies about everything," Filatov wrote on his Facebook page on Aug. 7.

But the oligarchs are not the only ones who think that Lyashko’s statements should be carefully fact-checked. Lyashko’s brigades dispute his claims that he set them up. One commander with the Azov Battalion says he is "grateful" for Lyashko’s help in arming his troops, but, he points out, the nationalist organizations that provided recruits to the brigade already existed under Yanukovych. "He is just one of many who helped us," Oleg Odnorozhenko, the first deputy commander of the Azov Battalion, said in an interview from the front line in southeastern Ukraine. "And he has also taken part in our operations arresting separatists. But we view those as police … operations."

Those arrests of pro-Russians — or kidnappings, as human rights activists describe them — have become a prominent weapon in Lyashko’s political arsenal. He even posts videos of them online. In one video that has garnered particular notoriety, he interrogates a flabby man tied up and wearing only his underwear. A cut is visible on his right arm and leg as he identifies himself as former Donetsk People’s Republic Defense Minister Igor Kakidzyanov. Lyashko accuses Kakidzyanov and an associate of betraying their country, helping occupiers, and engaging in terrorism. "How much did you get for killing people?" Lyashko yells. After Kakidzyanov mumbles an inaudible response, Lyashko continues with his interrogation: "Did you do it for free then? Was that the idea? What is your idea anyway?"

Kakidzyanov responds that he was only trying to help people express their will. "So did you shoot at people for that idea?" Lyashko asks him. Opposite the separatist leader, Kakidzyanov’s associate sits, his hands bound, as he cries softly.

Human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have decried such promotional videos. Amnesty wants Lyashko investigated by Ukrainian prosecutors, but says there is little hope of this happening. Lyashko dismisses the charges by Amnesty International as a plot by opponents.

While Lyashko’s antics haven’t endeared him to his political opponents, they have won him increasing public support. In a beleaguered country at war, playing tough with separatists and asserting that oligarchs are plotting your death apparently make a successful campaign strategy

Umland, the professor from Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, thinks Lyashko’s rise is a sign of disenchantment with the old political parties, especially the pro-European nationalists. "This support for a populist who has been mocked until recently is an expression of helplessness and despair," he wrote in an email. "The established parties don’t seem to have the answer to dealing with Russia and the separatists. So many want to see new faces and tough approaches."

But just weeks before elections that seem set to deliver him more power than ever, Lyashko isn’t counting on a glorious political future. "God knows where I’ll be in a year. Maybe in a cemetery," he declares grandiloquently after showing me a collection of troll texts from Russia. "But I hope I’ll be in the same place I am now — defending Ukraine."

Charles McPhedran is a reporter based in Berlin.