KIEV, Ukraine — Men respect them, women feed them, and all the young ladies want their photos taken with them.
They’re Kiev’s masked and armored “self-defense” forces, and they’re the most popular authority around town.
After police and security forces largely withdrew from the capital last week, these volunteer civilians — helmeted heroes to protesters, their erstwhile saviors from sniper fire and police brutality — were left in charge of keeping the peace.
Wielding baseball bats and clad in bulletproof vests, they still man the battle-scarred barricades around Independence Square.
But now they’re also guarding parliament and other parts of the capital, sometimes in tandem with regular police.
Protesters’ deep distrust of law-enforcement agencies means these volunteers have a popular mandate. But with a post-Yanukovych government rushing to restore political order, it remains unclear how long they’ll stay on the streets or what their future will be.
Some believe they’re crucial for the effort to bring stability to a city rocked by unprecedented violence and political upheaval, especially while the new interior minister looks to reassert control over a notoriously corrupt police force.
“The police force needs a compete overhaul,” says Serhiy Taran, of the International Democracy Institute in Kiev. “But you can’t do that overnight because there would be chaos.”
On the Maidan, as Independence Square is known, they’re far more popular than most of the opposition politicians who helped oust President Viktor Yanukovych.
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Every day, new recruits are signing up in droves to join one of the estimated 40 companies, some of which are regional detachments from other parts of Ukraine.
Meanwhile, new units are popping up across the country and forming joint patrols with police in their regions.
Andriy Ben, a deputy company commander in central Kiev, says he hopes the post-revolutionary government can move swiftly to restore the decimated confidence in the police.
Until then, he says, his company — or “sotnya,” loosely translated as “hundred” — will remain on duty.
“People won’t accept a new police force quickly, so we have to help it rebuild its authority and plan its new functions.”
Part of the mission, he added, is providing protection for police officers themselves.
“They’re afraid of facing vigilante justice and need protection,” says Ben, who holds two university degrees.
That’s still a very real factor, he says, because “people are still acting on emotions.”
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While the city has escaped the sort of looting and post-revolutionary violence common in many other uprisings, there’s seething anger at the old guard and its hired thugs who assisted in crackdowns.
Members of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions have been harassed, and the leader of Ukraine’s Communist Party, which often allied itself with the Party of Regions, claims his son’s lavish residence outside Kiev was looted and set ablaze.
Meanwhile, a video published Monday shows members of a self-defense unit furiously humiliating a traffic cop into handing over his documents after he allegedly left his post to buy ice cream.
“I’m armed — I’m warning you for the final time,” the fighter can be heard yelling.
As parliament voted to impeach Yanukovych on Saturday, members of one unit angrily forced a group of suspected marauders — baby-faced young men — onto their knees and made them shout repentance outside the legislature.
It’s far from clear when the police will reassert control.
On Tuesday, local media reported that the acting interior minister’s recent arrest warrant for Yanukovych never reached law enforcement organs or the state border guards.
And while parliament adopted a resolution to send Yanukovych to the International Criminal Court on charges of mass murder, the ousted president’s trail has gone cold.
Volodymyr Fesenko, a political analyst in Kiev, says there’s little alternative to including some elements of the self-defense forces into a revamped interior ministry, now led by an experienced bureaucrat from the opposition Fatherland Party, or shuffling them into other political positions.
“If you leave the self-defense forces as they are, it would amount to parallel power structure and pose a potential risk to the normal functioning of a new government,” he says.
Some of the movement’s trusted leaders already have ties to formal political parties, he adds.
On Monday, a senior commander was tapped to head the National Bank of Ukraine, and another may have a shot at the Kiev mayoralty or a cabinet post. Both are current parliamentarians from Fatherland.
Further hope of a reigning peace emerged on Tuesday, when the influential radical group Right Sector — which operates under the self-defense forces but has stirred fears about its militancy — condemned any talk of revenge against the family members of formerly pro-regime police officers.
“We, the revolution-empowered Ukrainian society, must demonstrate that we’ve taken a step up in moral terms,” it said in a statement.
Some are looking to the 2004 Orange Revolution for lessons about what not to do. That movement to overthrow a corrupt administration first led to a democratic breakthrough before ending in infighting among its leaders.
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Thirty-three-year-old Katya Ivanova, who was visiting a shrine to those killed in the clashes last week, said many back then had assumed politicians would take care of the rest once people left the streets.
“They don’t have those illusions anymore,” she said.
“People understand very well that they’ll have to do everything themselves, to take responsibility for themselves, for Ukraine, for their own city and streets.”
This story originally appeared on GlobalPost.
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