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On 15 April, Oleh Kalashnikov, a former MP and member of the Party of Regions headed by former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, was shot dead as he entered his premises in Kiev. On 16 April, Oles Buzina, a Ukrainian journalist known for his vitriolic pro-Russian stances, was shot dead close to his home in Kiev.
The day after Buzina’s murder, Ukrainian political scientist Volodymyr Fesenko received an e-mail message from a group calling itself "Ukrainian Insurgent Army" and claiming responsibility for the murders of several people, including Kalashnikov and Buzina. In particular, the e-mail message said:"We are commencing a ruthless insurgent struggle against the anti-Ukrainian regime of traitors and Moscow’s cads, and from now on, we shall talk to them only in the language of arms until their complete destruction".
The name of the group, "Ukrainian Insurgent Army" (also known by its Ukrainian acronym UPA), refers to the name of a historical Ukrainian nationalist movement founded by the radical factions of the Organisation Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and engaged in the struggle against the Soviet rule from 1943 until 1954. The Soviet politicians and historians demonised both the OUN and UPA, and the Russian media still applies the title "banderivtsy" derived from the name of Stepan Bandera, the leader of one of the radical factions of the OUN, to all Ukrainian modern nationalists and even to moderates who support the independence of Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko stated that the two murders had been "a deliberate provocation" aimed at "destabilising the internal political situation in Ukraine and discrediting the political choice of the Ukrainian people". Poroshenko also said that he would personally oversee the investigations into the two murders, while Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk stated that the best specialists of the General Procurator’s Office and police would be dealing with these crimes.
Corruption, Russian provocation
The murders of Kalashnikov and Buzina gave rise to a number of theories that would presumably explain the murders and agendas behind them. With regard to Kalashnikov, representatives of the police said that the "economic factors" could not be ruled out. Indeed, given the massive corruption of Yanukovych’s regime, former members of the Party of Regions may be still engaged in carving up the fraudulent gains, hence Kalashnikov could have be murdered by his former partners.
However, given the
statement of the alleged UPA, the most popular theory about the two murders has
been that the Russian security services might have been involved. Ukrainian MP
and adviser to the Minister of Internal Affairs Anton Gerashchenko said that he
would not rule out that Buzina’s murder "had been organised by the Russian
security services in order to create the atmosphere of terror in Kiev, to carry
on the hysteria in the Russian media". Ukrainian political commentator Viktor
Ukolov claimed that "an attempt to discredit Ukraine in the eyes of the
Russians and the West could be the motif behind the two murders"; that would
"create a ground for the Russian propaganda accusing Ukraine of fascism".
The Russian authorities naturally instrumentalised Buzina’s murder for their own needs. Several minutes after Buzina’s death was reported, Russian president Vladimir Putin, during the televised call-in show, commented that "it was not the first political assassination in Ukraine. Ukraine is dealing with a whole series of such murders". He then referred to the allegedly successful investigation of the murder of a Russian opposition leader Boris Nemtsov, and added: "In Ukraine, which aspires to be a democratic country and seeks membership in a democratic Europe [no thorough investigations of these crimes] happen".
Several factors make the UPA-theory a viable assumption
While the theory about the involvement of the Russian security services cannot be excluded, very few in Ukraine discuss the simplest theory about the murders of Kalashnikov and Buzina. This theory implies that they could have indeed been murdered by an extreme right group that calls itself UPA, and there are several factors why this is a viable assumption.
The head of the Main Investigations Directorate of the Security Service of Ukraine Vasyl Vovk stated that his department had no information about the existence of the UPA, and that it was a "fake organisation". The Department of Protection of National Statehood that claims to deal with Ukrainian radical movements and organisations may not have any information about the UPA, but this does not prove that such an extreme right group does not exist.
It so happens that I did a short interview with two representatives of a small group calling itself UPA in January 2014 on Maidan in Kiev. They were then based in the building of the Kiev City State Administration occupied by the protesters and had a couple of tents outside the building. They claimed that they were members of the Ukrainian far right Svoboda party and that they had formed their group after the police attacked and dispersed the protesters on Maidan at the end of November 2013. I asked what their ideology was and why they had created yet another group within the existing structure. They said they followed the ideology of Stepan Bandera, but could not explain the reasons for creating the UPA group.
Murder of a policeman in 2014
The day after I interviewed those ultranationalists, a 27-yearl old policeman Oleksandr Yendrzhievsky was shot on his way to a police residence hall in Kiev. The witnesses claimed they had seen two men fleeing the crime scene. On 26 January, a Facebook page of the "Ukrainian Insurgent Army", which had been created a day before, posted an "UPA Ultimatum" that claimed the group’s responsibility for the murder of the policeman. The murder of Oleksandr Yendrzhievsky has never been solved.
The discussion of all these murders calls for two important caveats. First, there is no evidence suggesting that the group, the representatives of which I interviewed, was behind the murder of Yendrzhievsky, or that first UPA was somehow associated with the UPA that claimed responsibility for killing the policeman. Second, there is no evidence that would connect the group(s) in 2014 with the group that is now taking responsibility for the murders of Kalashnikov and Buzina in 2015. They may all be one and the same organisation, but we simply do not know.
What we do know is that particular Ukrainian extreme right groups guided by the ideological strategies opposed to the development of a free and democratic Ukraine, may act independently of state control and kill people whom they consider as traitors or enemies of the Ukrainian nation. The reactions to the murders of Kalashnikov and Buzina corroborate this assumption. For example, the self-styled "OUN battalion", which is presumably a part of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, has recently posted a message on Facebook that welcomed "the revival of the tradition of attentates [politically motivated killings] in Ukraine". The OUN battalion continued: "We shall always provide protection and support for the unknown patriots who took upon themselves a hard work of cleansing the Ukrainian land of internal occupants like Buzina and Kalashnikov".
It seems inconceivable that the Ukrainian authorities could have sanctioned the murders of Kalashnikov and Buzina, but these dramatic developments do cast a shadow on the Ukrainian government and, especially, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Security Service of Ukraine. It is in the interests of the Ukrainian government and Ukrainian society to urgently investigate these murders. Given Russia’s ongoing aggression against Ukraine, the theory about the involvement of the Russian security services may sound plausible, but the Ukrainian authorities must accept the reality of existence of Ukrainian ultranationalist groups whose ideologies and strategies are diametrically opposed to liberal democracy and the rule of law.
Anton Shekhovtsov is Ukrainian political scientist and researcher of extreme right-wing movements in Europe. He is currently Visiting Senior Fellow at the Legatum Institute in London.