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Ukraine's President Faces Pressure from Radical Pro-War Parties Ahead of Election

Although Petro Poroshenko's moderate party is well ahead in the polls, radical neo-Nazi groups are gaining ground ahead of Ukraine's parliamentary election Sunday.

by Harriet Salem
Oct 25 2014, 6:25pm

Photo via Flickr

As Ukrainians ready for their second election this year, President Petro Poroshenko's moderate party is well ahead in the polls. But a victory for the self-named block of the so-called 'Chocolate King' may not be the harbinger for peace that it initially seems.

"There can be no negotiation. Russia understands only power and guns," Yuri Bereza who commands Dnipro-1, a volunteer battalion of fighters, told VICE News, slamming his finger down on the table for emphasis.

Bereza was badly wounded in the battle for Ilovaisk against pro-Russian forces in August. Unsupported by the regular army and besieged by pro-Russian forces for nearly a month, the volunteers were attacked as they attempted to flee the town in late August. At least 300 battalion fighters were killed, and more than 50 military vehicles destroyed.

Will Ukraine be stable enough to hold elections next month? Read more here.

Today, Bereza's anger at Russia is paralleled only by his indignation at the inaction of his government in that fight and the perceived betrayal of his country by Europe.

"Ukrainian citizens were dying under heavy artillery fire, and our government did nothing," said Bereza. "The government does not understand that we are in a war. These people are not mentally healthy."

Bereza also expressed incredulity at the audacity of Ukraine's military parade in Kiev on Independence Day. "World War III has started, no one should hold these kind of celebrations," he said.

'The government does not understand that we are in a war. These people are not mentally healthy.'

The Ilovaisk defeat, one of Ukraine's most significant, was a decisive point in the conflict that highlighted both the perceived incompetence of the Kiev administration's handling of the war and the reticence of the West to provide anything beyond non-lethal aid to the army.

Enraged by the massacre of his men, Bereza, who described his escape from "hell" by the "luck of God," turned to politics in a bid to change the system from the inside out.

'No more talks about ceasefire': Donetsk explosion officially shatters Ukraine's fragile détente. Read more here.

Along with several of his comrades in arms, including Evgeny Deydey, commander of the Kyiv-1 Battalion, and Dmitry Tymchuk, a prolific Ukrainian military blogger, Bereza formed the Military Council, an advisory panel to the newly formed People's Front. The party is led by incumbent Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk and Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who are both outspoken critics the way Poroshenko has handled military operations in the country's east.

Bereza's views are far from mainstream. The People's Front is only polling at around seven percent, and opinion polls show a growing war-fatigue; one recent survey found that around half of the population is in favor of some form of compromise in Ukraine's east to bring the conflict to a close.

Yet there are also worrying signs that a radical pro-war political stance is gaining traction.

According to the last survey before Sunday's vote, the far-right Radical Party are set to surpass the required five percent vote to enter parliament, and will poll at around nine percent. This is a substantial increase in support since the last election when the party took a paltry 1.8 percent share of the vote.

Bolstered support for the Radical Party is partly a result of their leader, Oleh Lyashko, and his hands-on approach in tackling the uprising in Ukraine's east. In the early days of the conflict, Lyashko, an alleged neo-Nazi, posted a video clip of himself on Facebook aggressively interviewing a "separatist" leader who has been handcuffed and stripped to his underpants.

Since then, the Radical Party leader has spearheaded a door-to-door campaign rooting out rebel sympathizers in Ukraine's retaken territories. He has also helped fund the Azov Battalion — a 600-strong militia unit who fight under a flag emblazoned with the Wolfsangel insignia of the Third Reich.

"We shouldn't negotiate with terrorists, we should shoot them," Lyashko told a gathering of international journalists and political analysts in September.

With campaigning now over, the moderate block of Ukraine's recently elected president is well ahead in the polls and is expected to take around 30 percent of the vote. Yet, polls still showing a substantial 32 percent of voters remain undecided, indicating both the People's Front and Radical Party could perform better than anticipated.

The combined weight of expected votes received by the two pro-war parties is likely to be enough to put considerable pressure on the government's handling of military affairs.

"The war has radicalized people. What we are seeing in Ukraine is the rise of a new wave of political thinking. It's nationalist, patriotic, pro-Ukrainian, anti-Russian and not necessarily democratic," Oleh Shamshur, a political analyst told VICE News.

'The war has radicalized people. What we are seeing in Ukraine is the rise of a new wave of political thinking.'

There is perhaps no better example of this ideology than the rise of the so-called "Right Sector," born out of the Maidan protests. The group, which is ideologically tied to neo-Nazism, led much of the violent action during the Kiev-centered revolution last winter, and now has an active political component and paramilitary wing on the frontlines of fighting in Ukraine's east.

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"For us the revolution has only just begun," Dmitry Yarosh, the Right Sector's leader, told VICE News from the group's frontline base, a dilapidated Soviet-era resort in the Dnipropetrovsk region.

"When we are finished in the east we will start the process of cleaning up Kiev," he said.

The fact that the nationalist group's political branch is unlikely to cross the five percent threshold of votes needed to enter parliament Sunday has not stopped Right Sector members from forming vigilante groups to enforce its own brand of "order" in the capital.

In recent weeks, Right Sector spokesperson Borislav Bereza posted several videos of "cleansing operations" conducted in the capital, some involving balaclava-clad members accompanying police on missions to shut down gambling dens. The industry that "drives men to drink" and sell "belongings in pawnshops" will be "crushed," Bereza warned on his social media page.

The rise of radical groups within Ukraine has some people worried that their members will be upset by the results of the elections, possibly provoking violence or another deadly revolt come Sunday.

"A big problem is with the people fighting in the warzone," warns Shamshur. "They are armed and many are extremely angry and resentful it's not inconceivable that they will turn up here [Kiev]. If so, it will not be another Maidan, they will go directly to the sources of power."

VICE News' Liz Fields contributed reporting to this story.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem

Photo via Flickr

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