National militia of Ukraine poses a problem for the country

Feb. 1, 2018 - Kiev, Ukraine - National Militia fighters attend a protest.KIEV, Ukraine – A dozen men between 17 and 21 years old jumped out of a minibus and went inside the main entrance of the ATEK heavy machinery plant in Kiev recently.

They are members of the National Militia, a new patriotic organization that has been recruiting only male Ukrainians for the purpose of “patrolling the streets” to “establish Ukrainian order.”

The new recruits were about to have their physical exam in the factory, which is also a training base for other rightwing militias. It was their last hurdle before becoming a full-fledged member.  

Oleksandr Synyook, 21-year-old deputy commander of Kiev’s National Militia squad, was the examiner. He had been in the militia for a year. He now leads a squad of 127 recruits. Most are war veterans and young recruits.

“Ukrainian order for us is when our streets are clean from crime and lust,” Synyook said. “We see injustice, we call the police and force them to do their job.”

The new vigilante organization announced itself with 600 athletic men in grey military uniforms marching down Khreshchatyk, or Kiev’s main street, in late January.

Since then, National Militia units have spread all over Ukraine. There are several thousand recruits in the organization today, said the group’s spokesperson, Igor Vdovin.

Their roots are in older paramilitary organizations like the Azov Movement, a rightwing paramilitary and political organization that has neo-Nazi sympathies.

In the fifth year of Russia’s war against Ukraine, which has stoked nationalist sentiments in the face of Moscow’s onslaught, the Azov Movement is thought to have attracted thousands of members in the country.

In 2016, Azov nationalists created the political party National Corpus, headed by Andriy Biletsky, a former parliamentarian and commander in the Azov Battalion, a special forces unit that volunteers founded in 2014 but which has since joined the Ukrainian military.

“We all work on other jobs or study in the universities,” Synyook said. “So we patrol the streets only when we can.”

However, National Militia have been quite visible. In February, they disrupted a court hearing for Odessa Mayor Hennadiy Trukhanov, clashing with police when they attacked Trukhanov supporters. The mayor faces corruption charges but has been released on bail.

Police tried to interrupt the fight, as the result about a dozen militia members and Trukhanov supporters were arrested and one police officer wounded.

In another incident, the mayor of Cherkassy called the National Militia into a city council to force lawmakers to vote for a city budget back in January.

In April, militia members and other protesters swarmed Kiev city hall and persuaded the city council to vote in favor of creating a museum on an ancient Kyivan Rus street found under Poshtova Square in central Kiev during the reconstruction in 2016.

The militia’s emergence highlights Ukrainians’ disappointment in the 2014 EuroMaidan revolution against their former pro-Russian leaders and the subsequent war with pro-Russian separatists in the eastern region of Donbas. Today, ordinary Ukrainians have witnessed a decline in security and public safety as the legal system fails to deal with criminals.

In March, more than 38,000 crimes were committed in Ukraine but police are investigating only around 13,000 of them, according to the country’s Prosecutor General.

National Militia members claimed they patrol the streets to make people feel safer by fighting crimes like drug dealing and illegal gambling.

But the Ukrainian government doesn’t welcome them.

“No paramilitary units should do justice in Ukraine,” said Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said in a statement earlier this year. “Only the government obtains the monopoly to use force.”

And many Ukrainians saw a parallel between the military squads marching and patrolling the streets of 2018 Ukraine with Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Some militiamen denied those associations.

“People call us Nazis just because they don’t know about us and can’t believe in our time people can voluntarily risk their lives for a good cause,” Synook said.

Steel magnate Serhiy Taruta, an independent member of parliament from eastern Ukraine, financed Biletsky and his Azov Battalion in 2014 during the liberation of Mariupol from Russian-backed mercenaries.

But Taruta said he had no ties to the Azov movement and criticized the National Militia because it was trying to become a force that would run parallel with government.

“The militia is yet another evidence of a deep crisis of the government institutions,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong in citizens’ desire to assure public order. It is even necessary in some cases, like when today’s militia members played a key role in Mariupol liberation.”

In three months of patrolling, National Militia members knocked heads with police but also cleared drug dealers from neighborhood corners, shoveled snow from streets and more.

“It is just that we want to be like in Europe, where the law and order is working,” Denys Tretyakov,20, another militia member and a student of Kiev International Architecture University said. “Here every other sphere is corrupt. Officials and their friends, children can easily escape justice. As well as those who spread narcotics, gambling, prostitution on our streets.”

Synook and others added they joined the vigilante patrols because the newly reformed police were slow and never came to the crime scene on time. The militias apprehend alleged criminals citing a law that allows civilian arrests but not the use of force.

During the exam, the newcomers demonstrated their skills in street fighting and Thai boxing.

Recruits underwent introductory interviews with National Militia and National Corpus commanders and had to have passed a test on Ukrainian civics. Owning a registered weapon was considered a bonus.

“It’s not that we are walking on the streets armed,” Vdovin said. “But if the Russian war will spread to other cities, we should be prepared for everything.”

An alternative version of this story can be found in The Washington Times.
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