The rise of Azov
War in the east, political and economic crisis in Kyiv — these are ideal conditions for Ukraine’s far right to capitalise on their frontline successes.
Strange it may seem, but Ukraine’s far right and Russia’s propaganda machine share a common fantasy: a radical right-wing coup in Kyiv. Just as the Ukrainian right has been making moves in domestic politics over the past year, a coup scenario in the country’s capital would be precisely the escalation Russia needs to win the war in the east.
If we do see regime change in Ukraine, then the Azov volunteer battalion is a likely candidate to take charge of this new “junta”. Formed from far-right groups as separatist conflict broke out in 2014, Azov was initially created as a special police battalion, and quickly won a reputation for defending the city of Mariupol in south-eastern Ukraine. It is now a regiment within Ukraine’s National Guard.
But it seems Azov isn’t satisfied with military glory. A spate of aggressive actions over the past month has caught the attention of left-wing activists and public opinion more generally. Yet Azov’s recent activities reflect not only the mobilisation of the far right, but what’s going on behind the scenes in Ukrainian politics. The group, it should be said, owes its rise partially to Arsen Avakov, Ukraine’s interior minister.
Clashes over an anti-fascist demonstration in Kyiv last month are the most recent, and shocking, incident in this story. With help from Russian neo-Nazis fighting in the Donbas, members of the Azov battalion disrupted a public meeting to commemorate Stanislav Markelov and Anastasiya Baburova, two anti-fascists who were shot dead in central Moscow in 2009.
From Kharkiv with love (for the white race)
Paramilitary organisations with a legal status can be considered a special element of the war between Russia and Ukraine. These structures, generally called “volunteer battalions” (not to be confused with Ukraine’s other “volunteers”, self-organised political and charity groups), have no conscripts in their ranks.
These battalions were often formed on the basis of pre-existing organisations that already had media-presence and a following on social media. This initial capital of publicity has to some extent allowed the battalions to act as independent political subjects. Certain battalions, including Azov, have managed to capitalise on their participation in the war in the east, receiving exposure (and popularity) just like Ukraine’s regular forces.
The Azov Battalion, for instance, was created in May 2014 — a month after the “Anti-Terrorist Operation” was announced in eastern Ukraine. It was formed by members of two neo-Nazi groups, Patriot of Ukraine and the Social-National Assembly.
At the time, these groups worked as part of Right Sector, the far-right activist group that came together during Maidan, and which later also turned into a paramilitary organisation. These two groups are led by Andriy Biletsky, who is known as the “white chief” among far-right brethren.
The past 18 months have seen Azov gain a reputation as disciplined (and decisive) patriots in Ukrainian society, which is increasingly tired of war and dissatisfied with the country’s dire economic situation. Indeed, the economic crisis, international politics and particularly the war in the east have given the government prime justification to carry out reforms in service of demolishing the remains of the social state. In this situation, there is room for the Ukrainian right right to make political headway, particularly on “social issues” such as rising tariffs, pensions, welfare and unemployment.
Yet Azov has never come out openly against the Ukrainian government and its austerity reform policies. Though the battalion’s base is considered to be Mariupol, located on the Azov Sea (hence the group’s name), its core group hails from the city of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine. And Azov’s close connection to Arsen Avakov, Ukraine’s present interior minister and the former governor of Kharkiv region (2005-2010), guarantees their loyalty to the authorities.
Indeed, 2005-2010 was a fruitful time for Patriot of Ukraine, the Kharkiv neo-Nazi group whose members later came to form Azov. With Avakov as governor, this neo-Nazi group cooperated with the Kharkiv authorities and police. Their activities included monitoring “illegal immigrants” in the city’s student hostels and raiding shopping kiosks (whose owners were, by coincidence, not loyal to the local authorities’ material interests).
In February 2014, Avakov became interior minister, and began to patronise Patriot of Ukraine, Azov and Biletsky himself. Indeed, Biletsky, after having been recognised as a “political prisoner” and released from prison, was given a rank in Avakov’s home ministry. Meanwhile, an ally of Biletsky, Vadim Troyan, headed up the interior ministry’s Kyiv branch.
Perhaps it is unsurprising, therefore, that Azov is Ukraine’s only nationalist organisation that isn’t under pressure from the police and security services. Along with superior discipline and a low profile in looting and other war crimes scandals, this preferential treatment allowed the battalion to grow its membership and receive National Guard regiment status six months after it was founded. Hence Azov’s restrained attitude towards anti-government criticism.
Azov’s numbers have swelled not only at home, but also from abroad. A story has been popular in Ukrainian social networks about Mikael Skillt, a Swedish neo-Nazi who came to fight for Ukraine. Azov also has a relatively large number of Russian members — and 19 January revealed the extent of their influence.
In January 2009, a neo-Nazi terror group with links to the Kremlin killed Anastasiya Baburova, a Ukrainian journalist from Sevastopol, and Stanislav Markelov, a Russian lawyer, in central Moscow. The commemoration of these victims of neo-Nazi violence, which takes place every year on 19 January, has since become the main anti-fascist event in Russia and Ukraine.
While in Russia 19 January has usually been the target of attacks and attempts to incite violence, in Ukraine, it used to pass peacefully. Since 2013, a committee made up of human rights campaigners, left-wing and liberal activists has organised demonstrations to honour the memory of Markelov and Baburova in Kyiv.
In terms of location, activists preferred a busy metro station over the city centre in order to appeal to working class residents, rather than journalists and tourists. This was the site where Gbenda-Charles Victor Tator, a 39-year-old refugee from Sierra Leone, was murdered by neo-Nazis in 2008. In 2014 and 2015, the event took place at Mykhailivsky Square, near Maidan.
This year, though, the organising committee split into two parts: Kyiv’s anarchists decided to hold a separate event. This “party” rally was supposed to take place outside Kyiv’s Zhovten cinema, which has taken on an anti-fascist symbolism after neo-Nazis burnt it down during an LGBT film festival in 2014.
However, the demonstrators at Zhovten were confronted by an ultra-right group led by Roman Zheleznov. Zheleznov, a Russian neo-Nazi who served a prison sentence in 2013 for stealing two kilogrammes of marbled beef from a supermarket, emigrated to Ukraine in 2014 to fight with the Azov battalion. He is also the former ideologist of Russia’s “Wotan Jugend” group, which regarded Adolf Hitler as their sole leader.
In Kyiv, though, Zheleznov accused the demonstrators of “loving wogs” and being anti-Russian. One of Zheleznov’s Ukrainian sidekicks told the crowd that Markelov and Baburova’s murderers were right to kill them — “enemies should be eliminated if they oppose their nation’s interests”.
Violence was averted thanks to the presence of TV cameras (the demonstrators wouldn’t have stood a chance otherwise). But that was the end of the planned rally. The neo-Nazis managed to beat up one left-wing activist, away from the journalists’ attention. Meanwhile, the anarchist committee found their designated rallying place also overrun by right-wing activists, and decided to cancel their event as well to avoid risking the health (and lives) of their comrades.
After these events went viral on social networks, Biletsky was forced to make a statement on a mainstream TV channel. Obviously nervous, Biletsky claimed that Azov wasn’t interested in “internal Russian conflicts” (in which case, what were they doing there on 19 January?), and accused the rally organisers of working for pro-Russian separatists. Finally, Biletsky warned that he would be unable to restrain the righteous anger of his comrades.
If we consider what happened here purely in terms of confrontations between left- and right-wing groups on the streets of Kyiv, Azov’s motivation is only too clear. For the left, the marking of Markelov and Baburova’s deaths has an enormous symbolic significance, comparable only to May Day. The neo-Nazis, evidently taking the anarchist slogan “to remember is to fight” literally, were trying to remove their ideological opponents’ right to commemorate Baburova and Markelov, thus suppressing their desire for struggle.
But how important is a purely symbolic victory over the left for Azov, especially at the cost of increased media and public attention? After all, the difference in size, resources and influence between the two sides is enormous. (Not least of all given the current wave of decommunisation and the rise of militarist tendencies.) Perhaps we need to look elsewhere for the true motives of the ultra right.
The nationalist international
Surprisingly, Russian media have ignored not only the memorial events in Kyiv, but also Azov’s other initiatives over the past month. The battalion is, in fact, a favourite bogeyman for media organisations involved in the propaganda campaign to justify Russian intervention in Ukraine.
For example, take the recent amendment passed in the US Congress that bans use of US funds for financial aid to Azov. In January, Russia Today propagated a false story that this ban had in fact been lifted, but the confrontation in Kyiv on 19 January was not deemed worthy of coverage.
The reaction of the commander of the Rusich neo-Nazi combat unit, which is fighting on the side of the separatists in the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic”, is even more interesting. Aleksei Milchakov, a Russian citizen previously known for his sadistic killing of dogs, was full of praise for Zheleznov’s actions, and called for the anti-fascists to be dealt with. Azov has much in common with these pro-Russian combat groups, including the presence of Russian neo-Nazis who may be fighting for opposite sides in the conflict yet are allied in their general view of the world.
This kind of “internationalism” is, of course, typical of more than just Russian passport holders. “Native” Ukrainians also buy into the thesis that the current conflict is a “fratricidal” war unleashed by Jews with the aim of setting Slavs against one another and enslaving them. One such proponent is Vita Zaverukha, a neo-Nazi who served in the Aidar volunteer battalion. Zaverukha is now in pre-trial detention accused of robbing a petrol station and killing two police officers. She is one of the “patriots, persecuted by Poroshenko’s Jewish regime” that are mourned by the ultra-right.
For the average Ukrainian citizen, the news that Russian ultranationalists were forcibly breaking up protest rallies in Kyiv sounded unbelievable. Many people initially took it for a propaganda hoax. But soon, new (and no less strange) facts came to light for Ukraine’s patriotic public, who are used to supporting Azov and rejecting any criticism aimed at it.
A return to the roots
On 25 January, a report of “a raid to uncover illegal migrants” in a town in the Kyiv region appeared on Azov’s website. Neo-Nazi “activists”, together with local police (whose regional chief is a former Azov commander), broke into flats in the town of Bila Tserkva. The aim? To check the documents of African men. The whole episode was recorded on video, and uploaded to the internet.
A few days later, Azov published an article decrying “Islamist expansion” in L’viv. Its author objected to Crimean Tatars, who had fled their homeland after Russian annexation, moving to Lviv and engaging in “propaganda for their religious beliefs”. The article saw their request for a mosque as an intolerable “trial of their fellow-citizens’ patience”.
This incident aroused such a scandal (unlike the racist note of “illegal migrants”) that the article was removed from the Azov site. After Crimea, Ukraine’s liberal-patriotic public, which already felt sympathetic towards the Crimean Tatars, has begun to show public approval and respect for this people’s history and culture.
Indeed, the “Islamist expansion” article, while typical of far-right thinking, seemed so improbable to liberal journalists that they had to phone Azov’s press office to check whether it was a mistake. (The press officer confirmed: “we stand for Crimea being Ukrainian, not Tatar”.)
It must be said that, until recently, Azov has been extremely careful to project a “respectable” image. The group’s leaders actively used symbolism and rhetoric that, while unambiguous within its own ultra-right subculture, meant little to Ukraine’s public at large. They would, for example, brandish the “black sun” or the “Wolfsangel”, but never the swastika. For instance, old articles written by “white chief” Biletsky where he called for “a crusade against the Semite-led subhumans” have been removed from the internet. Azov also remained diplomatically silent during the de facto attempted coup organised by Right Sector in the summer of 2015. All the other far right parties were mobilised in protest.
The battalion’s leadership has also distanced itself from a solidarity campaign with Ukraine’s numerous “patriotic political prisoners”. And Azov didn’t even join the attacks on Kyiv’s May Day marches and LGBT Pride. So why have they now chosen to reveal their true political colours?
A struggle for power
Part of the reason for this change of tack could be the more stable situation on the eastern Ukrainian front, which has allowed Azov to switch their attention to a war on “internal enemies”. But the main reason has to be the long term political strategy of Azov’s leadership. All the incidents mentioned above are formally linked not to the Azov National Guard Regiment but to a different structure, the Azov Civil Corps, a proto-party that will obviously form the political wing of the movement.
This is not the first attempt by an ultra right group to enter politics: Right Sector tried before, but won so few votes that they tried to organise an armed coup instead (also without success). In the autumn of 2014, Azov was only able to win a parliamentary seat for its leader Biletsky thanks to an armed break-in at a polling station during the count and the coercion of electoral committee members to produce an “honest result”.
But now, according to a number of recent statements, Azov’s leaders are determined to extend their representation in Ukraine’s parliament. To succeed via either the bullet or the ballot box, Azov needs to gain the loyalty of the majority of far right constituency, which are now roughly split into two camps. While Azov and the groups who share its views are linked to Avakov (hence their guarded attitude to any pronouncements against, or simply unfavourable to, the government), the other bloc consists of Right Sector and the smaller groups aligned with it.
Both camps, battling for power over the Ukrainian ultra right, present themselves as genuine nationalists, true to their ideals, and accuse their rivals of colluding with the “Jew-ridden government”. And the recent behaviour of Azov has to be seen in the context of this intensified rivalry for the loyalty of a narrow right-wing subculture.
These are the people who last December staged a torchlight procession in Mariupol around an ugly monument to the medieval Kievan Prince Svyatoslav, erected illegally where a statue of Lenin used to stand. For most people, Svyatoslav is a barely remembered figure out of school history textbooks. But Ukrainian neo-Nazis mythologise Svyatoslav as the Nordic pagan who overthrew the Judaic Khazar Empire in the 10th century.
This rivalry is also why Azov needed to assert its uncompromising position towards anti-fascists on 19 January. And it explains Azov’s return to xenophobic rhetoric and activity, designed to consolidate the far right around it, even at the price of some support among the “civilian” public.
For the same reason, Azov is now flirting with a youth subculture that is predominantly apolitical (musicians, environmental and animal rights activists, bohemian types), but which is quite swiftly moving to the right. Hence, for example, the news that Azov is planning to physically punish so-called “doghunters”, sadists who get their kicks from poisoning or otherwise cruelly killing stray dogs.
This is a typical ultra right pastime: Russian and Ukrainian neo-Nazis used to organise similar “paedophile hunts”, where they would use social media to set up a meeting between a man and a supposed underage girl and then humiliate their victim on video. The new anti-doghunter campaign, used at the right place and the right time, can get results: many apolitical and left-liberal activists involved in the animal rights movement have welcomed Azov’s initiative.
The battle for the attention of Green activists heated up at a Climate Change march in November, when Azov members unfurled their banners emblazoned with the stylised Wolfsangel symbol, but demanded that the anarchists roll up their green and black flags; the anarchists left the main march and held their own separate rally as a result.
Azov has also become a promoter of mass cultural events (concerts, sporting competitions etc.), while at the same time trying to ruin similar initiatives conducted by their rivals. On 16 January, for example, just a few days before the planned memorial rally in Kyiv, Azov members invaded a “free market” organised by the Direct Action student union (whom Biletsky falsely accused on television of fighting on the separatists’ side). In the process, they injured three left-wing activists and a passer-by whom they also took for a left winger.
Avakov’s personal regiment
The final factor in the rise of Azov is the political infighting over the government led by Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk. In the unending struggle for power between Yatsenyuk’s team and that of President Petro Poroshenko, Interior Minister Arsen Avakov is on the PM’s side.
Avakov recently got into a public spat with Mikheil Saakashvili, the former president of Georgia who is now governor of Ukraine’s Odessa region and a close ally of Poroshenko. With uncertainty around the government’s future and accompanying reshuffles, Avakov holds a trump card: a regiment of ultra right fighters.
It is quite possible that the recent rise in Azov’s profile is linked to Avakov’s desire to persuade the president that he alone is capable of keeping Biletsky and his adherents under control, and that the fall of the Yatsenyuk government could have unforeseen consequences. But is that really the case? The opposite is probably true: the presence of patron in the cabinet is the main factor that has given Azov its privileged position within the far right.
Without its government protector, it would be much more difficult for the National Guard regiment to increase its political capital. But the chances are that it won’t come to that: the most recent news is that at talks between Yatsenyuk and Poroshenko, it was decided to leave Avakov in his post as interior minister. The blackmail worked, apparently.
What does all this mean in practice?
One thing is certain: the further rise of neo-Nazi street violence. Here, left and liberal activists will be essentially incidental victims of the struggle for power within the far right.
Will this struggle for “internal” power lead to a worse “external” image for the Ukrainian ultra right? Experience tells us that rational argument and even clear factual evidence have little effect on the consciousness of the Ukrainian liberal-patriotic intelligentsia, blinkered by their emotional response to Azov, the “defenders of Mariupol” who can therefore do no evil.
Given this state of affairs, the evident surprise and annoyance on the liberal intelligentsia’s part at the neo-Nazis’ recent actions may be considered a major step forward. Unfortunately, however, the main factor in the liberals’ criticism of Azov is the lack of a thought-out political agenda behind its actions and statements, rather than the actions in themselves.
A journalist on a popular TV channel who was obviously confused by Azov’s motives and supported the anti-fascists’ position, asked Biletsky whether he could hold off any street attacks at least until after the Dutch referendum on an EU Association Agreement with Ukraine (due to take place on 6 April) to avoid further damage to the country’s image.
As well as the liberals’ shame before civilised Europe, another important factor is the opinions expressed by the public in various polls: despite Poroshenko’s falling popularity ratings, most Ukrainians are tired of war and not convinced that their country needs the “real fascist junta” that the far right dreams about.
However, the further Ukraine’s government pushes austerity policies and neoliberal reforms, the more likely a growth in support for a hypothetical “strong arm” that would end corruption and defend the privileges of ethnic Ukrainians.