Ukraine’s law enforcement clashes with far right Azov movement

Ukraine’s law enforcement clashes with far right Azov movement
The Ukrainian government appears to be cracking down on far right group Azov, but the whole of Eastern Europe has a conflicted relationship with the far right.
By Ben Aris in Berlin August 17, 2021

Ukrainian law enforcers violently clashed with members of the far right Azov movement on August 14 as the authorities attempted to crack down on the criminal schemes the movement uses to make money.

Police officers and a National Guard serviceman were injured after they tried to halt a group of Azov protesters moving towards Bankova, the presidential offices in Kyiv. They tried to search the members of Azov but were assaulted by the protesters. Several police offices were injured and taken to hospital for treatment.

"The police decided to inspect the items that the [Azov] protesters could bring to the President's Office. However, the activists categorically refused to be inspected and were given a command to attack the National Police and the Guard,” the head of the National Police Igor Klimenko said in a statement.

"We are against provocations and for the peaceful conduct of any action. The presence of police officers and the National Guard are the necessary measures to ensure order in the area where the actions are held," he added.

Azov has been a hugely controversial movement since it sprang to prominence during the 2014 Maidan revolution. Its militias have also prominently served on the front line in the undeclared war with Russia in the Donbas.

The group openly glorifies the Nazis and regularly holds rallies using symbolism that blatantly evokes Hitler’s rallies and the other trappings of the Nazi era. And yet the authorities have done little to curb or control the group. 

Their presence in the demonstrations and street fighting with former president Viktor Yanukovych’s police in 2014 led the Kremlin to claim that Maidan was a right wing-driven coup d'état, a claim that was virulently denied at the time by pro-Ukrainian commentators, but in retrospect clearly has an element of truth.

After the regime change the group was quietly subsumed into the Ukrainian military as a separate unit but it maintains its own clear identity and enjoys close ties with senior figures in the government. It has been allowed to continue to operate its criminal schemes with impunity.

At home the group ran various schemes and have been accused of racketeering and extortion. The group has been associated with the recently departed powerful interior minister Arsen Avakov and the police action this weekend is believed by commentators to be a result of a house cleaning now that his protection has been withdrawn.

Considered to be the second most powerful man in the country, who served under four prime ministers and was also the longest serving minister in office, Avakov submitted his resignation on July 13, without giving a reason for his decision.

His departure was seem by some analysts as part of a government shake up by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who is trying to consolidate his grip on power as part of a slow moving crackdown on corruption.

Zelenskiy nominated Denys Monastyrskyi to replace Avakov. Monastyrskyi is a lawyer and a member of Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People party. The former head of the parliament’s Law Enforcement Committee, Monastyrskyi’s appointment gives Zelenskiy more direct control over the police force and Ukrainian Security Service (SBU).

Avakov’s resignation may be connected to Zelenskiy’s crackdown on the influence of the oligarchs, analysts have speculated. Avakov allied himself with business magnate and Zelenskiy’s former business partner Ihor Kolomoisky in 2014 when they began creating volunteer battalions fighting Russia and its proxies in eastern Ukraine. This alliance appears to have remained in place, reports the Kyiv Post.

Under US pressure Zelenskiy launched a campaign with an oligarch speech in March and since then has passed a number of laws restricting their contacts with government as well as closing some of the loopholes that allowed them to run economic rent schemes that have made them fabulously wealthy. At the same time Zelenskiy appears to be trying to crack down on corruption in general as several middle tier officials have been arrested recently on corruption charges. Most notably several senior managers of PrivatBank, that used to belong to Kolomoisky who is accused of stealing $5.5bn from the bank, were arrested or had arrest warrants issued in their names in February.

Far right and Belarus opposition

Azov is deeply entrenched in Ukraine. The group also has multiple ties with leading Belarusian opposition figures, many of whom have maintained close ties with Azov members in a fact that the international media remains squeamish about reporting. The Kremlin’s claims that Maidan was a far right coup contradict the western narrative that Maidan was a popular uprising by regular Ukrainians yearning to join Europe and so the bulk of international reporting on Ukraine has become shy of the topic of Ukraine’s very obvious problem with far right affiliations.

Every year the far right stage a major torch lit march down Khreshchatyk, Kyiv’s main thoroughfare, attended by thousands of aficionados, some of whom are in full Nazi uniform, but the event is regularly ignored by the international press, or at best given a couple of column inches. This year it was not reported at all. Likewise, the ties between prominent Belarusian opposition figures and Azov have been sparsely reported.

As bne IntelliNews has reported there is a values fault line that runs down the middle of Europe to the right of which values are distinctly less liberal than to the left – including affiliation with far right ideas. For example, despite the Baltic states’ reputation for adoption of European values, the region remains homophobic and also has Nazi sympathisers that regularly parade in public.

The former editor-in-chief of the Belarusian Telegram channel Nexta Roman Protasevich became a cause célèbre after Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko forced a commercial Ryanair flight to land in Minsk and arrested Protasevich and his girlfriend on May 23.

According to creditable reports Protasevich served with an Azov battalion in Donbas and photos have emerged of him in uniform carrying a machine gun. Protasevich does not deny either serving with Azov nor being on the frontline in Donbas, but claims he was there exclusively as a photographer and did not fight. However, no photos or stories have been produced to support this version of events.

A man who bears a very strong resemblance to Protasevich appeared on the cover of the Azov recruitment magazine “The Black Sun” in uniform and carrying a weapon, in a photo that has been widely shared on Russian social media claiming it is Protasevich.  

Vitaly Shishov, the head of Belarusian House, an opposition group that offers aid to Belarusians that flee to Ukraine, was found hanged in a tree in a Kyiv park on August 3. Shishov also had close ties to Azov via his fellow Belarus House partner Rodion Batulin and Sergey Korotkikh, a Belarusian with ties to Russia’s FSB and one of the founders of Russia’s largest neo-nazi platform before moving to Ukraine and joining Azov.

A day after Shishov was found hanged in a park, with bruises on his body, his partner Batulin, an MMA fighter and also an Azov veteran from Latvia, was banned from entering Ukraine by the SBU as a “threat to national security” but no further details were given.

Batulin is also an associate of Korotkikh, who claims to know Shishov and rose to prominence in Ukraine where president Poroshenko granted him citizenship after two years and personally handed him a new passport.

Korotkikh is believed to be running the Azov movement’s business operations, according to Leonid Ragozin, a prominent Russian journalist based in Latvia who previously worked for the BBC, who wrote a long thread on Shishov’s story.

“A week ago, SBU clamped down on Azov’s racketeering business in Kharkiv, the movement’s alma mater. Seven men, including some, but not all, of the top figures got arrested,” Ragozin reported. The arrests came shortly before Batulin attempted to re-enter Ukraine and some analysts have linked the two events, although the authorities have said little about either incident.

Shishov’s Azov connection confuses the investigation into his death and police say they have not ruled out “murder dressed up as suicide”. Shishov friends that have seen the corpse report that his face was bloodied and his nose broken, strongly suggesting foul play.

Commentators have suggested that Shishov was killed by Belarusian KGB agents working in Ukraine and Shishov also reportedly said he believed he was being followed in the weeks before his death. Protasevich also reported that he was being followed by “Russian speaking” men, that he assumed were KGB agents, while in Athens shortly before boarding his fateful flight home. The KGB hit squad remains the most likely option, but his association with Azov, which engages in criminal activities and is well known for its violence, adds a new confusing element to the story.

An investigation into Shishov published after his death suggests that he was not deeply involved in Azov, nor its business, and the main interest Azov had in Belarus House was as a recruiting platform for its own movement as well as a money-making scheme: Belarus House would charge immigrants fees of up to several thousand dollars to help expedite getting Ukrainian residency documents amongst other services.

Following the operation in Kharkiv where several Azov members were arrested an anonymous video was sent to several Ukrainian bloggers, which contained footage purporting that Korotkikh agreed to be an FSB agent during a crackdown on his Nazi network in Russia 15 years ago, reported Ragozin.

“The footage must have been somehow leaked from the FSB (or released by it),” Ragozin speculated.

During his years in Russia Korotkikh spent two years training at the FSB academy and is assumed to have maintained ties to the Russian security forces.

Then on August 9, the Azov movement leadership claimed that the SBU was planning a raid on its main base at Atek plant in Kiev, which houses a recruitment centre, barracks and Azov’s own sergeant school of dubious legality, Ragozin reported. The promised raid failed to materialise.

Last week the leaders of the Azov movement began to publically accuse President Zelenskiy of “mopping up patriots and veterans” in preparation toforsigning a humiliating peace deal with Russia, although no deal is anticipated and Bankova and the Kremlin have little direct reported contact. Nevertheless Avoz announced a protest action outside Zelenskiy’s office where the bloody clash with police took place.

“Does it all mean that Korotkikh, an extremely dark and controversial figure as he is, could be linked to the death of his protégé, Vitaly Shishov? Not necessarily,” said Ragozin. “The suspected assassination and subsequent events come in the wake of the resignation of interior minister Arsen Avakov, the political patron of Azov movement. They should be understood in the context of long-running standoff between SBU and interior ministry.”

A bitter rivalry between far right groups, associated with SBU, on the one side and the Azov movement on the other is one of several manifestations of that confrontation.

The role Avoz and the far right groups play in Ukrainian politics remains very murky. Senior members of government have been frequently seen in the company of Azov leaders as well as the elite of other extreme groups such as Evgen Karass, the leader of C14, another notorious far right group, who was invited to a ceremony also attended by Poroshenko, while he was still president.

SBU-linked groups feature in several investigations into political assassinations in post-Maidan Ukraine, said Ragozin, who is writing a book about the death of journalist Pavel Sheremet, another Belarusian who also had ties with Azov and was killed with a car bomb in 2016.

“Bottom line, it’s hard to pin down anyone in those games of security bodies and freelancing far right thugs with their shifting loyalties. From previous experience, sadly, it is unlikely that official investigation will end up with a definitive answer as to who killed Shishov,” said Ragozin.  

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