KYIV, Ukraine – Wearing masks, helmets and protective gear on the arms and legs, radical activists are the wild card of the Ukraine protests now starting their third month, declaring they’re ready to resume violence if the stalemate persists.
When the protests started in late November, attracting crowds sometimes above 100,000 and visits from Western officials, the gatherings’ general determined peacefulness was an integral part of their claim to legitimacy. But in mid-January, the image of placid but principled people changed sharply, to frightening scenes of protesters heaving stones and firebombs at police.
The violence was sparked by the radicals within the larger protest movement, angered by President Viktor Yanukovych’s implementation of harsh anti-protest laws and increasingly impatient with the protesters’ failure to achieve any of their demands. In a vivid demonstration of frustration, they sprayed opposition leader Vitali Klitschko, the towering former heavyweight boxing champion, with a fire extinguisher when he pleaded for clashes to stop.
An uneasy truce settled in days later after three protesters died, but with no government concessions apparently in the works, the radicals say they’re preparing to fight again.
“We are ready for a national mobilization and complete blockade of the government quarter. The time for chatter has passed,” the leader of the radical group Pravy Sektor (Right Sector), Dmitry Jarosh, told The Associated Press. The group nominally co-operates with protest leaders, but often sharply differs with their views.
Another radical group, Spilna Sprava (Common Cause), refuses co-operation with the main opposition camp.
Klitschko and opposition comrade Arseniy Yatsenyuk were in Munich on Saturday seeking Western officials’ support for the protesters. In the early weeks of the demonstrations, Western officials made a flurry of visits to Ukraine and to speak from the protest’s main stage. But since the violence, appearances have been few.
Russia, meanwhile, appears eager to use the radicals to tar the entire protest movement.
On Saturday, speaking at the international security conference in Munich, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov lashed out at the West for allegedly inciting “increasingly violent” protests.
“Why don’t we hear condemnations of those who seize and hold government buildings, burn, torch the police, use racist and anti-Semitic and Nazi slogans?” Lavrov said.
The radicals include demonstrators allied with extreme nationalist elements that have an anti-Semitic cast and laud the Ukrainian partisans who fought alongside Nazi soldiers against the Red Army in World War II.
Some factions don’t even support closer ties with the European Union, the issue that set off the protests, complaining that the EU is too liberal about gay rights and immigration.
The total number of radicals in the protests is difficult to estimate, but Pravy Sektor alone claims to have some 300 “active fighters” in Kyiv and the organization’s page on the Facebook analogue Vkontakte shows 150,000 supporters. Spilna Sprava claims thousands of supporters.
Their emergence is clearly a worry to more moderate protest leaders.
“The situation in Ukraine is so tense that radical groups appear like mushrooms after the rain,” said Andrew Paruby, co-ordinator of the volunteer security corps for the mainstream protesters.
After the clashes with police erupted on Jan. 19, Yanukovych made his first efforts toward concessions to the protests. The moves – including an amnesty for arrested protesters if demonstrators leave some buildings they occupy and a repeal of the anti-protest laws – were greeted with disdain by the broad opposition. But the radicals drew the conclusion that these tentative steps indicate they should step up street fighting.
“Peaceful demonstrations didn’t give any results and many were disappointed, but we on the barricades forced Yanukovych to become frightened,” said a 22-year-old masked radical who gave his name only as Igor.
“Yanukovych only understands the language of force. Only radical actions will force him to go,” said Denis Nakhmanovich, a Spilna Sprava member.
Associated Press writers David Rising in Munich, Germany, and Jim Heintz in Kyiv, Ukraine, contributed to this report.