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Are Militants Hijacking Ukraine's Liberal Protest?

<p>Right-wing militia-type toughs are now one of the strongest factions leading Ukraine's protests.</p><p></p><p></p>
Image: Members of various anti-government paramilitary groups march along street during show of force in Kiev
Members of various anti-government paramilitary groups march along a street during a show of force in Kiev, Jan. 29, 2014. Reuters

News Analysis

KIEV, Ukraine – Daybreak in Kiev's Maidan Square on Wednesday felt more like the end of a bad night in a karaoke bar than the start of another day of a would-be revolution.

A performer on a stage was ruining a folk song, while a few hardy protesters looked on, bored and indifferent – but mostly cold in the 5-degree weather. A biting wind made it feel much colder.

Despite the subdued mood, Wednesday was a big day for Ukrainian nationalists, who celebrated the anniversary of the 1918 Kruty Battle, when a small Ukrainian unit made up mostly of students fought against a force of Bolsheviks 10 times bigger marching on Kiev.

The students were defeated, but the true story was kept under wraps for years by the Soviet Union. And many nationalists liken the students' stand to that of the Spartans – dying for the sake of the motherland.

So, Wednesday was not a day to be missed by the country's nationalist groups, which have been playing an increasingly dominant role since the protests turned violent. They emerged in the morning as if from hibernation from a sea of tents and shelters in surrounding buildings to prepare for a two-mile march to a local Kruty Battle memorial.

‘Glory to the nation! Death to the enemies!’In the vanguard of a 2,000-strong march were groups of militia-type tough guys, many in combat fatigues and carrying sticks, baseball bats and shields. Some wore ice-hockey body armor. Most wore helmets. They were marshaled, military-style, by burly men in camouflage uniforms and balaclavas.

Image: Anti government protests in Ukraine
Protesters sing a Ukrainian Hymn during the commemoration ceremony on the burial grounds of Ukrainian students, during their continuing protest in Kiev, Ukraine, on Jan. 29, 2014.MAXIM SHIPENKOV / EPA

"Glory to Ukraine, glory to heroes," they shouted as they marched. Then: "Glory to the nation! Death to the enemies!" -- slogans from the nationalist movement of the 1930s, more recently espoused by the Ukrainian far right.

They describe themselves as the "Maidan Guards," but many are affiliated with a group called the Right Sector, closely tied to xenophobic far-right parties, which have been most active in the violence at the barricades.

Some carried flags of the nationalist Svoboda (Freedom) Party, the smallest of three opposition parties whose leaders are negotiating with President Viktor Yanukovych. Svoboda has more recently sought respectability as a mainstream nationalist party and won parliamentary seats.

Its flag shows a hand holding up three fingers, but its symbol used to be a Nazi-style Wolfsangel. The party was -- and some critics say still is -- affiliated with a paramilitary organization that still uses that symbol.

The Svoboda Party values are a world away from those of the liberal-democratic Europe, which the original protesters aspired to join.

European liberal idealsThe visibility of these far-right groups is all the greater because of a fall in the overall number of protesters since the violence began late last year, but the radicals haven't completely drowned out the more rational voices of protest.

"I came here when I saw kids being beaten and killed," said Igor Mits, a 43-year-old small businessman from the town of Ternopil, in western Ukraine. "I have kids of my own," he added. "I had to come, and the protest should continue until somebody is punished."

Like many here, Mits comes and goes, staying in tents or one of the surrounding buildings occupied by the protesters.

Also close to the barricades was 16-year-old Nastia, a Kiev student who didn't give her last name, brimming with youthful idealism. "This is our future," she said. "We have to come here and give our support."

Nastia said she saw the protests as a clear battle between a modern European future and one in Russia's dark and overbearing shadow.

Ukraine's two opposition leaders, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the parliamentary leader of Fatherland, the country's second biggest party, and former boxer Vitayi Klitschko, who leads the Udar (Punch) movement, have both turned down an offer of senior government positions handed down by the president.

Of the two, Klitschko has more credibility among protesters, and has intervened to diffuse violent standoffs involving hard-line fringe groups, which have been largely responsible for taking control of official buildings around the square at the heart of the protests.

Over two days of meetings, parliament and the president have made considerable concessions to the opposition – including the resignation of the prime minster and cabinet.

Late Wednesday evening, parliament even passed a measure offering protesters amnesty if they free the buildings they had overtaken.

It appears Yanukovych is prepared to give up almost anyone or anything -- but his own head. But in the following days, he will be pressing for signs of compromise from an increasingly radicalized Maidan Square, and it is far from clear whether the opposition leaders will be listened to if they try to sell a deal that falls short of an early presidential election.

Challenge: To get back to the beginningOne hopeful sign Wednesday was that the Kruty Battle march proceeded peacefully, even though it passed by both the parliament and a large pro-government gathering nearby. The tooled-up, would-be Spartans returned to their tented base, a little more hoarse, but without incident.

The frontline barricades Wednesday evening were the quietest they've been for days. Non-combatants even braved the icy no-man's-land between the two sides.

Even at the best of times, Ukraine's fractured opposition rarely sees eye to eye. The challenge for the different groups is not only to wrest a deal from a wily president, but also to appease a radicalized protest movement, which is fast losing touch with the values that originally inspired it.