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Right Place, Right Time? Watching Ukraine's Election With Its Far-Right Monitors

Yuriy Petrenko, a member of the National Militia, monitors voting at School No.14 in Podil, in Kyiv, on March 31.
Yuriy Petrenko, a member of the National Militia, monitors voting at School No.14 in Podil, in Kyiv, on March 31.

KYIV -- At School No. 14 in the Podil district of Ukraine's capital, Yuriy Petrenko cranes his neck to peer over the shoulder of polling station chief Iryna Podlesna as she unlocks a safe, pulls out a stack of the 83-centimeter-long ballots, and hands it to a colleague.

Petrenko looks like any other monitor who's here to observe today's presidential voting. A first-time observer, he has a pen and a pad of paper to note any suspicious activities. He has access to the list of the 2,252 voters registered to vote here. And he has an identification badge stamped by the Central Election Commission that officially grants him the right to watch over four ballot boxes and the vote tally once polls close at 8 p.m. local time.

But take a closer look at the lanyard around his neck that holds that badge and it becomes clear he is no run-of-the-mill election monitor.

As the canary-yellow text on his black lanyard shows, Petrenko is a member of Ukraine's far-right National Militia. It's a paramilitary force with a fondness for urban camouflage and black facemasks, as well as a penchant for violence to advance an ultranationalist agenda. The group's resume includes brutal attacks against LGBT people, Romany encampments, and women's rights advocates.

Such attacks led the U.S. State Department to describe the organization and its political wing, the National Corps, as "nationalist hate groups" in its latest Ukraine country report on human rights.

More recently, the National Militia joined the Corps in anticorruption protests targeting President Petro Poroshenko after some of his allies were accused of embezzling millions of dollars in money meant for the military. Some of those protests have resulted in clashes that have left more than 20 police officers injured.

Petrenko, who goes by the nom de guerre Rocket, is a National Militia commander. But today his task -- and that of 362 other militia members granted permission to monitor the voting across Ukraine -- is not to enforce what he calls "Ukrainian order" on the streets. It is to "ensure there's no falsification" of votes, he says.

"We will all behave peacefully," he says, adding with a slight grin, "As usual."

'We Will Seize The Urn'

That said, Petrenko is prepared to take action if he senses foul play.

"We will seize the urn and shut down the polling station" if fraud is detected, he says. After that, he adds, they would call for law enforcement and wait for them to arrive before taking any further action. He declines to say what that might be.

But the National Militia's chief commander, Ihor Mykhaylenko, wrote on Telegram earlier this month that if infractions were discovered the group would be prepared "to punch someone in the face in the name of justice...without hesitation."

In response to past violence and that threat of violence, a letter by G7 ambassadors leaked to RFE/RL last week was sent to Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov. It urged him to curb the power of what it called "extreme political movements."

"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," French Ambassador Isabelle Dumont, who authored the appeal on behalf of her fellow G7 ambassadors, wrote.

Critics have complained that Ukrainian authorities largely turned a blind eye to the Azov movement -- at least until recently, when the groups began going after Poroshenko.

Ahead of the March 31 vote, Avakov assured foreign observers that forces under his command were ready and able to quash any violence by the far-right group that might arise on election day.

"We don't have any risks from radical groups either during or after the elections," Avakov told a meeting with election observers from the World Congress of Ukrainians and the National Democratic Institute on March 28. "And even if something happens at an individual polling station, this would be curbed very quickly."

Cindy McCain, the widow of the late Senator John McCain who is leading the International Republican Institute's election delegation to Ukraine, told RFE/RL on March 30 that her organization was worried about the possibility of violence based on the threats from the National Militia.

"We want these elections to be free and fair," McCain said.

By 3:00 p.m., there were no reports of violence or intimidation from the National Militia at polling stations, although there have otherwise been reports of dozens of seemingly minor infractions.

Podlesna, the chief observer at the Podil location where Petrenko is monitoring, says she isn't concerned about his presence, citing the number of other monitors and police officers positioned nearby.

Meanwhile, Petrenko continues communicating with his fellow National Militia members via a WhatsApp group where they are sharing messages and photos.

"They'll tell me here what they see, and we'll decide what to do together" if a violation is observed, he says.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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