Analytical Guidance: Can Ukraine's Right Sector Influence Kiev's Stability?

4 MINS READJul 24, 2015 | 08:00 GMT
Analytical Guidance: Ukraine's Right Sector Threatens Kiev's Stability
Activists and supporters of far-right Ukrainian party Right Sector participate in a rally on Independence Square in Kiev on July 21 after the party's extraordinary congress.

Ukrainian nationalist group Right Sector is pursuing an increasingly antagonistic political agenda. That a relatively compact organization could undermine the stability of a government already beset by political and economic problems is troubling. Kiev is already trapped between larger powers to its east and west, is heavily in debt, and also has to contend with a simmering conflict in its eastern regions. Plans by Right Sector to organize a nationwide referendum for a no-confidence vote against the government, as well as the possibility of further clashes between the group and Ukraine's security forces, warrant close attention.

During a Right Sector-organized demonstration in Kiev's Independence Square on July 21, an estimated 3,000-5,000 supporters rallied against the Ukrainian government. Right Sector periodically organizes demonstrations against perceived corruption in the Ukrainian government. Aside from its political agenda, however, the group also favors intensifying Ukraine's security campaign against pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Donbas region. Though marginal in size and influence, what makes the latest protest notable is the brazen call for a referendum.

Right Sector's leader, Dmitry Yarosh, said that the group would begin the creation of "revolutionary committees" responsible for staging a no-confidence referendum vote against the entire Ukrainian government — throughout all of Ukraine. He added that other issues would be included in the referendum, including the legal recognition and arming of volunteer militia units and the imposition of a blockade and martial law in the eastern conflict zone. Yarosh did not give a specific date for the referendum, but said Right Sector would begin organizational efforts from July 22.

Right Sector played an important role in overthrowing former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich in the Euromaidan revolution of February 2014. The militant group has since maintained a complicated, contentious relationship with the new pro-Western government in Kiev. Although the group has cooperated with regular Ukrainian security forces in eastern Ukraine, even fighting alongside them, elements of Right Sector have clashed with conventional Ukrainian personnel in other areas. For example, a shootout took place between Right Sector members and local Ukrainian police in the western region of Zakarpattia on July 12, resulting in several deaths on both sides. These violent incidents generally stem from Right Sector's refusal to be fully subordinated under Ukraine's security apparatus. The group also has a reputation for taking the law into its own hands on issues such as corruption and smuggling. Unsurprisingly, Right Sector is the last major battalion to have not been formally (or informally) placed under the control of the Ukrainian military or Interior Ministry.

The group's public attempt to organize a nationwide referendum against the Ukrainian government is concerning for Kiev, which is already struggling with financial and economic issues and increasing casualties from cease-fire violations along the line of contact in eastern Ukraine. However, several factors will soften the impact of Right Sector's drive for a referendum. First, the Ukrainian Constitution requires 3 million signatures for a nationwide referendum to even be considered, and the government would then be in charge of conducting the vote. Therefore, Right Sector's launching of a referendum without the government's approval would technically be illegal. Even if Right Sector got official approval, it is doubtful that it would garner the required public support to hold a referendum. The political wing of the organization, which launched an official party in 2014, won a paltry 1.8 percent of votes in the most recent parliamentary elections. The party is still polling well below 5 percent.

Right Sector does, however, pose a security threat, as demonstrated by the most recent clashes in western Ukraine. There is also the matter of several Right Sector battalions traveling from the front lines in eastern Ukraine to Kiev to take part in the latest protests. Yet while Right Sector claims to have more than 10,000 followers, its seasoned fighting force is actually closer to 500 people. Moreover, Dmitry Yarosh lacks a strong hold over all Right Sector members and units throughout the country. Additionally, the group is under fire from Kiev's Western backers: U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt recently condemned Right Sector's actions in western Ukraine, saying that Kiev's official security apparatus should have monopoly over the use of force and weapons.

Despite Right Sector's limitations, its direct challenge to the government is more symbolically important than it is physically. The Ukrainian government is caught between pro-Russian separatists on the one hand and militant nationalist groups on the other. Just as Russia is pressuring Kiev to give the separatist regions more concessions, Right Sector is calling for the abandonment of the Minsk process and the imposition of martial law in Donbas, which places further pressure on Kiev. Therefore, the following elements should be watched when tracking Right Sector's future actions:

  • The amount of people Right Sector can organize to take part in its proposed referendum and what measures (if any) the Ukrainian government will take against it.
  • The status of Right Sector volunteer battalions that are currently on the front lines of the separatist conflict in Eastern Ukraine, and any change to their locations or dispositions.
  • Any further security incidents between Right Sector members and Ukrainian security or military forces throughout the country.
  • Russia's political position in regard to Right Sector and any potential links — likely to be covert or indirect.
  • Kiev's stance toward the group, especially any clamping down on members.

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