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Kyiv Violence Steps Up Pressure To Reject Ultranationalists

Suspected Grenade Thrower In Kyiv Caught On Camera
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WATCH: A man throwing what appeared to be a grenade during a protest in Kyiv was caught on video by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty cameras. The violence erupted after parliament approved a draft constitutional amendment granting more autonomy to the eastern Ukrainian regions. (RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service)

The bloodshed during violent clashes between security forces and radical Ukrainian nationalists on August 31 has cast a stark light on a long-standing problem confronting the government in Kyiv.

No longer can the post-Maidan government of President Petro Poroshenko deny it has a problem with a small but dangerous ultranationalist contingent that has served as a useful ally in the past, but that also has repeatedly shown a willingness to use violence to push its own agenda.

Three National Guardsmen were killed and more than 90 injured by a grenade that was thrown during a violent protest by ultranationalists led by the Svoboda party outside the country's parliament. Svoboda was protesting legislation that would grant more autonomy for separatist-held territory in the east in accord with the Minsk agreements on regulating the conflict with the Russia-backed rebels.

Even as the wounded were being taken away, an unrepentant spokesman for the radical Right Sector party was quick to blame Poroshenko for the tragedy.

"I say that today we saw that Poroshenko has shed this blood," Right Sector spokesman Artem Skoropadskiy told 112 Ukraine TV on August 31. "This is exactly the same thing that happened during the regime of [former President Viktor] Yanukovych -- the use of force, the violent dispersal of peaceful protests, beating the opposition, and so on."

The Svoboda party also issued a statement saying, "the responsibility for the attack near the parliament…lies with the current government." Svoboda said the explosion at the protest was "a preplanned provocation against Ukrainian patriots."

'Stab In The Back'

For the government, the violence at the gates of the parliament is a symbolic challenge by political forces that came to the fore as a result of their muscular defense of the EuroMaidan protests that drove Yanukovych from power in February 2014 and their aggressive fighting against the separatists in eastern Ukraine. In addition, the government has welcomed the unifying backing of nationalists in the face of the threat from neighboring Russia and Kremlin rhetoric aimed at undermining Ukrainian statehood.

Nonetheless, voters soundly rejected the ultranationalists during the May 2014 presidential election and the November 2014 parliamentary elections.

Poroshenko said the violence was "a stab in the back" for the entire country. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk was even more explicit.

"The cynicism of this crime lies in the fact that while the Russian Federation and its bandits are trying and failing to destroy the Ukrainian state on the eastern front, the so-called pro-Ukrainian political forces are trying to open another front in the heart of the country," Yatsenyuk said.

Both pledged to prosecute the perpetrators to the full extent of the law, and 18 people, including the alleged grenade thrower, have been arrested. But that, critics say, will not be enough to respond to the ultranationalist threat.

Fork In The Road

It's a systemic challenge, says parliament deputy Serhiy Leshchenko of the Petro Poroshenko Bloc, the president's party. "The radicalization of society is inevitable in a climate of corrupt government and a lack of decisive reforms," he said on September 1. "Our radicalization is intensified by our total militarization."

Leshchenko recalled a litany of incidents tied to ultranationalists that have gone unpunished, from a grenade attack on a gay-pride event in June to a grenade-launcher attack in July in the western Transcarpathia Province to the beating last year of the head of the UT-1 state television channel by Svoboda party lawmakers.

In the wake of the August 31 violence, Leshchenko urged Right Sector to distance itself from Svoboda and commit itself to the country's peaceful political transformation.

"With Svoboda driving itself to self-annihilation, [Right Sector] could get a chance to turn themselves toward the path of civilized development followed by their political wing," Leshchenko said.

Popular blogger Oleksiy Bratushchak emphasized that the far right's Maidan record did not give them a free pass to use such violence.

"This was a terrorist act," he wrote on the Ukrayinska Pravda website. "Those who threw this grenade and injured people are terrorists. No matter what they did yesterday, today they are terrorists. And together with his comrades-in-arms, he belongs to a terrorist organization."

Bratushchak noted that the leaders of the Svoboda, Right Sector, and Radical parties called on the public to come to the parliament and then "inflamed the situation." He compared the leaders to the "snow at the very top of the mountain" that produced a devastating avalanche.

Video from the August 31 demonstration clearly shows Svoboda party leader Oleh Tyahnybok pushing against police officers while shouting profanity at them.

Written by Robert Coalson on the basis of reporting by RFE/RL's Ukraine Service

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