KYIV -- As the Ukrainian presidential election nears, the world's leading industrialized nations have some strong words for Ukraine's top cop amid recent far-right violence in Kyiv and other cities.
G7 ambassadors are urging Arsen Avakov, the interior minister, to act against violent political extremist groups who might threaten to disrupt the upcoming vote and usurp the role of the Ukrainian National Police and to consider outlawing them down the road.
They are both tricky requests, considering Avakov's personal ties to those same groups and authorities' approval for one of them to monitor the election.
But the ambassadors are being more cautious when it comes to concerns over perceived dirty politicking among Ukraine's 39 presidential hopefuls, reportedly rebuffing a U.S. proposal to raise that issue in writing due to a lack of consensus on how to do so without providing campaign ammunition to specific candidates.
The abortive appeal emerged after RFE/RL obtained copies of two letters prepared by the G7 Ambassadors' Support Group for Ukraine -- one sent privately and the other drafted but watered down before being shared publicly. RFE/RL also spoke to three Western diplomats with knowledge of those texts and the related discussions.
The ambassadors' group comprises envoys from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
'They Intimidate Citizens, Damage Ukraine's Reputation'
In the letter that was addressed to Avakov on March 15, French Ambassador Isabelle Dumont wrote on behalf of her fellow ambassadors that "the G7 group is concerned by extreme political movements in Ukraine, whose violent actions are worrying in themselves."
"They intimidate Ukrainian citizens, attempt to usurp the role of the National Police in safeguarding elections, and damage the Ukrainian government's national and international reputation," Dumont continued, in a thinly veiled reference to the National Corps and National Militia, the far-right Azov group's political and vigilante wings, respectively.
The letter, in English and Ukrainian, was delivered to Avakov's ministry the same day, according to a Western diplomat. Interior Ministry spokesman Artem Shevchenko confirmed to RFE/RL that Avakov had received it.
That correspondence was followed by a visit from U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who on March 22 met with Avakov in person to discuss his ministry's "important role and responsibility to counter threats and prevent acts of violence by extremist groups," according to a tweet from the U.S. Embassy.
Shevchenko described that meeting as "great, as usual," and friendly.
'Nationalist Hate Groups'
The National Corps and National Militia were products of the Azov Battalion, a volunteer military regiment formed in the early days of the conflict against Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine that began in 2014. The battalion has been accused by international human rights groups of "war crimes" on the battlefield and has since been brought under the control of the National Guard, which is overseen by Avakov.
Members of the National Corps and National Militia have been blamed for multiple violent attacks on minorities in Ukraine, particularly Roma and LGBTI persons, in the past year.
The U.S. State Department described those far-right entities as "nationalist hate groups" in its Ukraine country report on Human Rights for 2018 released on March 13.
While polls suggest they enjoy very little political support, the National Corps and National Militia have grown in size and influence. According to some observers, they have seemingly carried out their attacks with impunity thanks to their close relationship with Avakov.
Avakov this week acknowledged a relationship with the groups' leadership but said he did not support their ideology or activities.
Avakov, who has been called Ukraine's second-most-influential authority figure behind longtime ally President Petro Poroshenko, has survived several changes of government. Since 2014, he and Poroshenko have coexisted thanks to an uneasy alliance that now appears to have unraveled.
On March 9, the National Corps and National Militia clashed with police outside the presidential administration in Kyiv and later in Cherkasy, where Poroshenko was campaigning. At least 15 police officers were wounded.
Some Ukrainian commentators have accused Avakov of using his control over the police and extremists to sow discord ahead of the vote, which could frame Poroshenko as being weak on security. His ministry has denied such accusations.
"The violent incidents of March 9 were a reminder that, just a few weeks ahead of the elections, one crucial challenge is to prevent an escalation of tensions," Dumont wrote in the letter to Avakov. "We have noted with concern that the very same groups involved in the violent incidents have registered as election observers and publicly threatened to use violence should they consider that election fraud is occurring."
Indeed, Ukraine's Central Election Commission has approved the National Militia to monitor the polling. Soon after that announcement, the group's spokesman warned that "if law enforcers turn a blind eye to outright violations and don't want to document them," then they plan to follow the lead of a group leader who said they would "punch someone in the face in the name of justice...without hesitation."
The Central Election Commission asked the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) to probe the group's intentions after the comments but said it did not have the power to strip the National Militia of its monitoring status.
I think dirty politicking and fraud could put at risk Western support for Ukraine."-- Alyona Getmanchuk, New Europe Center
Dumont also wrote to Avakov that "any act of violence or intimidation should not remain unpunished and should be duly prosecuted to the full extent of the law."
"In due course, outlawing extremist groups could be usefully envisaged," she added, "but in the meantime, we would ask you to be clear with those groups that they must act within the law and desist from intimidation of candidates and law enforcement bodies."
Responding to RFE/RL's request for comment, Denys Lenets, deputy director of the Department of International Cooperation and European Integration at the Interior Ministry, spoke for Avakov in saying that "the minister's position on extreme political movements in Ukraine remains tough and uncontested."
He said that the leadership of the extremist groups had been warned that any "aggressive attempts geared to interfere [with] the fair election process...will bear the respective consequences."
"Red lines were defined -- no intimidation, no aggression, no violence, or other endeavors of forced influence on elections," he said.
The tone of the letter to Avakov, however, is much sterner than that of an informal one sent to the 39 presidential candidates this week and published on the Twitter account of the G7 ambassadors' group.
"G7 Ambassadors support Ukraine's chosen democratic path," that letter began, continuing, "We are encouraged that the 2019 Presidential Elections will be genuinely competitive and that Ukrainian citizens have the opportunity of choice."
In a cautious response to recent reports of election violations, it continued: "We share the desire of ordinary Ukrainians, that the upcoming elections should be free, fair, transparent, peaceful, and reflect the will of the Ukrainian electorate."
But a first draft of that letter obtained by RFE/RL and dated March 20 that Western diplomats said was authored by the U.S. Embassy suggested that any actions counter to the principles of democracy and free elections would constitute a violation of the public's trust, and more.
"We are troubled by reports of vote buying, potential intimidation of civil society and nonparty-affiliated electoral observers, interference in the work of independent journalists, threats of use of violence, and other methods to unjustly sway the electorate in a variety of directions," read the bluntly worded, one-page draft letter.
Campaigning has been particularly vicious in the run-up to the March 31 election, according to Volodymyr Fesenko, who heads the Kyiv-based Penta Center for Political Studies.
Incumbent Poroshenko and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko -- who are running virtually neck-and-neck in polls behind comedian and political outsider Volodymyr Zelenskyy -- have accused each other of vote-buying schemes and more.
"The current election campaign has an increased level of scandal and conflict" compared to elections in 2010 and 2014, Fesenko said.
The proposed U.S. text went on to say that "these elections are an opportunity to demonstrate that, even under difficult conditions, Ukraine will uphold the highest international standards of democracy, through a process whose legitimacy and result are unassailable."
According to one Western diplomat, G7 ambassadors in a meeting on March 20 decided to significantly trim and soften the tone of the draft letter, which some found "patronizing" and a "Democracy 101 lesson," over concerns that some candidates would cherry-pick from it to accuse others of campaign violations.
'Election Fraud Could Put Western Support For Ukraine At Risk'
Such letters are often heavily revised and rarely agreed on in their original form, Western diplomats told RFE/RL.
The U.S. Embassy declined to comment on the letter.
Still, some Ukrainian observers said the harsh language in the draft letter directed at the candidates should be heeded ahead of the looming vote, which comes with Kyiv eager to maintain Western diplomatic and financial support as the eastern Ukrainian conflict enters its sixth year.
"I think dirty politicking and fraud could put at risk Western support for Ukraine," Alyona Getmanchuk, director of the New Europe Center in Kyiv, told RFE/RL. "The West must make it perfectly clear to its Ukrainian partners: Any attempts to interfere in the free choice of voters will seriously undermine the legitimacy of the [election] result and weaken the president, not only at home but also in dialogue with the international community."