The Mysterious Return of the “Banderites”

Kherson, Ukraine - War with Russia
Kherson, Ukraine – War with Russia

The term “Banderites” originally referred to the ideology of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), headed by Stepan Bandera.152 His supporters were called “Banderites” and fought for Ukraine’s independence against several foes. In the 1930s, its Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UIA) fought against monopolization of western Ukraine’s economy by Poland, then against the Soviet occupation of Ukraine (1939-1941), and then against the German occupation during World War II. Given that theirs was a struggle against an overlord, the term came to refer to Ukrainian underground nationalism. The Girl in Kherson Ukrainian nationalists used this word with a plus sign, while the opponents of a Ukrainian identity used it with a minus sign.

During the lifespan of the USSR, “Banderite” became the accusation that was attached to anyone who showed even the slightest Ukrainian feelings, regardless of their attitude toward Bandera himself. The last armed resistance to Soviet rule recorded by Soviet law enforcement agencies was on April 14, 1960. The group of three was led by someone called Maria Palchak. Two of the insurgents shot themselves while being arrested. She was convicted, served many years in Soviet camps, was released, and returned to Ukraine.

After Ukraine gained its independence, the heroization of Bandera was given a new lease of life. Many streets in cities in western Ukraine were named after him and Bandera monuments were erected. In 1995, the Lviv regional council made a decision on recognizing Bandera’s soldiers as an army and its veterans as fighters for freedom of Ukraine. Numerous political parties of supporters of Bandera’s ideology and views also appeared. The most popular was the “Ukrainian People’s Rukh (Movement)”. But after generations of stigma “Banderites” continued to split public opinion. Some saw them as enemies of the independent Ukraine that had just been achieved.

A national commission of experts appointed by the Ukrainian government in 1997 was to authenticate Banderite history. But the commission’s report was only made public after Viktor Yushchenko came to power in 2005. Banderites were described by the commission as fighters for freedom, and veterans of OUN and UIA were equated with veterans of World War II. Public reaction to the report’s conclusions remained mixed, and both World War II veterans and members of the movement were unhappy. This discontent prompted another exceptional step by Yushchenko. He posthumously conferred the title of “Hero of Ukraine” on the movement’s leader Stepan Bandera.153

“Substitution of ideas” being one of the main tools of Russia’s government’s propaganda war in and outside Ukraine, the label “Banderite” was thus the perfect candidate to mold Ukrainian public opinion and prop up Yanukovych’s regime – after Putin had finally been able to turn him into his puppet in Minsk. As the stand-off between Yanukovych and the Ukrainian population heated up, Russian propaganda once again latched on to this historical term to taint Ukrainians’ desire to dismantle the country’s oligarchic mesh of business and political power. In eastern Ukraine this propaganda was constantly repeated by pro-Russian activists, insinuating that every supporter of EuroMaidan was a dangerous extremist. A Banderite pamphlet presciently observed in 1948, “We, the sub-Soviet people, must understand that as long as the imperialists of Moscow – white or red, Tsarist or Bolshevik – dominate the territory of the [Ukr]SRR, they will always dream of dominating the world”.

Regardless of Bandera’s mainstream rehabilitation or the historical truth of his extremism, Bandera’s brand was hardly a general battle cry inside Ukraine. Only nationalist activists adopted “Banderites” as their honorific when they joined mainstream EuroMaidan under the Right Sector banner led by Yarosh. Before Right Sector, he was the leader of “Trident”, a successor party dedicated to Bandera154


Civil War

On New Year’s Eve 2014 and during the snowy Christmas holidays, the revolution did not leave Maidan. However, the number of activists decreased. Many students had to prepare for their winter exams, although in many ways they had already passed the main test in their lives. At the same time, the central authorities, in order to defuse the conflict and dial down the criticism for the state violence during the EuroMaidan, adopted a law on December 19, called “On the removal of negative consequences and prevention of prosecution and punishment of persons in connection with the events that took place during the peaceful assemblies”.

The bill was debated and passed on the same day by the Rada. It was supported by an overwhelming majority of representatives of all parliamentary factions, with the exception of Moroz’s Socialist party. It was decided to exempt from liability people who participated in protests and mass events from November 21, 2013, and up to the moment when the law came into force. The Rada also stated that all criminal and administrative cases opened in connection with the Maidan events were to be closed, new ones could not be opened, and those already arrested were to be released.

It made little difference as Yanukovych’s regime had lost its credibility. On January 12, 2014, another People’s Assembly was held, which brought together up to 100,000 people. AutoMaidan protesters were on duty near Yanukovych’s Mezhyhirya residence and held their own rally. Two days earlier, protesters had attempted to block the courthouse where protesters were being tried, which again led to clashes with the police and Berkut. Influenced by these events, on January 16, the government parties in the Verkhovna Rada adopted a series of amendments to public-order laws by a show of hands, without any debate of the texts by deputies. Yanukovych signed off on these emergency amendments the next day, Saturday January 17. However, as they had not been debated the opposition dubbed them “dictatorship laws” and called January 16 a “Black Friday”.

The January 16-17 laws contained a number of new restrictions and increased criminal liability for violations relating to participation in peaceful protests. In particular, the amendments covered: blocking opposition websites “on the decision of experts,” the responsibility for the installation of tents, stages and sound equipment at rallies organized without the permission of the authorities, the prohibition of being at demonstrations in masks and with weapons, the need to register political organizations financed from abroad. What was considered “from abroad” was left to the discretion of the government:

– Berkut and enforcement officers who commit crimes against Maidan activists are exempt from criminal liability;

– written charges need not to be provided to the suspect of violations, witnesses are sufficient for conviction;

– a person can be convicted in absentia;

– Verkhovna Rada deputies can be deprived of immunity, and consent to their arrest does not require investigation by a parliamentary sub-committee but may be given in a plenary session;

– the state can prohibit access to the internet;

– failure to comply with restricted access to the internet a fine of 6,800 hryvnia, and for failure to comply with the “official orders” of SBU employees a fine of not less than 2,000 hryvnia;

– driving in a convoy of more than five cars revoked the driver’s license for two years;

– blocking access to buildings up to 6 years;

– setting up tent cities, stages and sound equipment without police permission up to 15 days;

– contempt of court – up to 15 days;

– disorderly conduct in groups 2 years imprisonment; mass disorderly conduct 10 to 15 years;

– gathering information about Berkut, judges, etc, 3 years;155

– operating a media agency without registration – confiscation of equipment and products, plus a fine.156

The reaction to these new regulations was mixed, both in Ukraine and in Europe. Some European leaders, particularly the British and German foreign ministers, stressed that these laws “limited the personal freedom of citizens and alienated Ukraine from Europe.” The Council of Europe’s Venice Commission (EU countries and the former USSR states minus Russia and Belarus) deemed them “consistent with European practice.” Either way, in Ukraine, Yanukovych’s adoption of the new “draconian measures” triggered a new, even stronger wave of discontent across the country.

One of the parliamentary hawks in Yanukovych’s party who initiated these changes argued that they were in full compliance with American and European norms, and that the adopted laws were the implementation of European standards in Ukraine.157

On January 19, a crowd gathered for another People’s Assembly and demanded the creation of a “People’s Government” and early Presidential Elections. The protesters tried to break into the Verkhovna Rada to demand that the deputies cancel the “dictatorial laws” and, moving along Mykhailo Hrushevsky Street, began to storm Kyiv’s government quarter. The police and Berkut blocked the demonstrators’ way and clashes broke out again. The demonstrators threw stones, fireworks and Molotov cocktails at the security forces and set several trucks on fire as the police used water cannons.

On January 20, law enforcement officers beat up about 30 journalists who were covering the events, which caused a new wave of discontent. Vitaly Klitschko, one of the leaders of the opposition, again met with Yanukovych in the evening and urged him to remove Berkut and squads of “titushkas” (thugs) financed by the government. The President promised to set up a government commission to resolve the conflict. Meanwhile, soccer fans in several cities united to protect civilians from rampaging “titushkas”, who often beat innocent bystanders rather than protesters.

Yanukovych’s own position was growing precarious. His opposition called on the police and Berkut to take the side of the people, which they did in western regions of Ukraine. President Yanukovych, meanwhile, called on Arseniy Yatsenyuk, opposition leader of Tymoshenko’s parliamentary party (the largest after Yanukovych’s), and asked him to become Prime Minister, but Yatsenyuk declined.

Government brutality intensified and the first Maidan victims, killed by gunfire, fell – although it remained unclear who was to blame. About 50 people were seized and taken to an unknown destination. A video was made of the police forcing one of the protesters to strip naked in the freezing cold, while taking selfies with him. This footage of police torture caused outrage not only in Ukraine, but around the world. Waves of protest in Ukraine swept through all regions and solidified the hatred of the Yanukovych regime. In western Ukraine – in Lviv, Lutsk, Rivne, Ternopil, Chernivtsi, and Ivano-Frankivsk – regional state administrations were seized. Protesters forced governors to resign in some regions. Attempts to seize authorities were made in Cherkasy, Zhytomyr, and Poltava. In Kyiv, barricades began to be once again erected on Mykhailo Hrushevsky Street; a number of ministerial buildings were seized.

On January 24, representatives of the European Union and the opposition again met with the President to resolve the crisis. Yanukovych promised not to prosecute the protesters and to give them amnesty. Vitaliy Klitschko managed to persuade people on Kyiv’s Maidan and Mykhailo Hrushevsky Street to maintain a truce for the time being while negotiations were taking place. Given his popularity among the people, the well-known boxer was widely used by the opposition to gain wide support for the EuroMaidan during the most critical days in January and February.158

On January 28, there was a breakthrough. Having been undermined by Yanukovych who had offered the role of Prime Minister to the leader of Tymoshenko’s opposition party, the first political casualty was the Azarov government.159 As Yanukovych was trying to save the government and Azarov promised to reshuffle his ministers, a cornered Azarov himself resigned and soon fled the country.160 It was after Azarov’s resignation that parliament promptly cancelled most of the laws adopted on January 16 against the EuroMaidan, under pressure from the mass protests in Ukraine and public outcry abroad. While doing so, the Rada, trying to preserve face, criminalized the denial or justification of Nazi crimes and the desecration or destruction of monuments built in memory of fighters against Nazism. However, seizures of government buildings and rallies in support of EuroMaidan continued throughout the country, including central, northern, eastern, and even southeastern Ukraine.

In parallel with the rallies in support of EuroMaidan, pro-Russian activist groups began to be organised in cities in southeastern Ukraine, calling for the protection of their territories from nationalists and extremists. For example, the pro-Russian youth movement in Odessa began forming a “People’s Squad,” a “Bulwark Square” squad in Kharkiv, and a “Night Wolves” biker squad in Sevastopol. Sevastopol and Crimea politicians called for “restoring order in the country and the declaration of a state of emergency,” urging local governments to form their own self-defense units to protect the peninsula’s population, leave Ukraine, and create a federal state of Russia Minor. Crimean officials went further. If the government in Kyiv did not take effective measures, they were ready to assume sovereign power over the peninsula.

Indecision plagued the government side. In parliament, Yanukovych’s party insisted on introducing a state of emergency, but neither Yanukovych nor parliament agreed, fearing an escalation of tensions that were already “heated” to the extreme. Secret negotiations (fueled by financial contributions from Ukrainian oligarchs) began in the corridors of the Rada and led to the defection of some of the deputies from the crumbling government alliance to the opposition. Meanwhile, the Maidan elected the “People’s Rada” at its own Assembly on Kyiv’s Independence Square. Similar “Radas” began to be elected in the western regions of the country. Further cracks in the Interior Ministry’s law enforcement apparatus began to appear. Some police units including officers of SBU’s anti-terrorist “Alpha Units” announced their switch to the Maidan side.

On February 1, EuroMaidan leaders Klitschko and Yatsenyuk attended a conference in Munich where they held a series of meetings with US Secretary of State John Kerry and European leaders, who declared their support for the opposition and willingness to provide financial assistance to Ukraine to overcome economic difficulties. A round table was held in Kyiv to which all former Presidents of Ukraine – Leonid Kravchuk, Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yushchenko were invited. President Yanukovych, while agreeing to a dialogue (on condition that the rebels lift the barricade of government buildings) and under pressure to compromise, branded the protests extremist and equated the demonstrators, who were fighting for European integration, with the Ukrainian nationalists.

Meanwhile, seeing that Yanukovych was losing ground fast, Moscow applied more pressure and said it would delay giving Ukraine another tranche of the $15 billion loan pledged in Minsk, stressing that the next one would depend on the formation of a new government. At the same time, the Kremlin brazenly called on the Ukrainian opposition to abandon its “campaign of ultimatums and threats” that “contradicted the opposition’s commitment to democracy and European values”.

On 7 February 2014, the Winter Olympics opened in the Russian coastal city Sochi. The eyes of the world were on Russia, and Putin did not want anything to detract from the games’ global success after having spent a record-breaking $50 billion on them. It was another revealing moment about Yanukovych’s relationship with Putin. Yanukovych decided that his presence at the Olympics was a more important event than the dismal situation in Kyiv and sorting out relations with the protesters. Of course, in Sochi he not only waved his country’s flag from the rostrum of official guests, but also held “political consultations” with Putin regarding the situation in back home and the next tranche of the $15 billion loan that Moscow, contrary to personal assurances to Yanukovych, had stopped paying. Putin had already made different plans and was fanning the chaos in Kyiv that turned Yanukovych into a spent force.

Vitaliy Klitschko now called on parliament to return to the Constitution of 2004, which proclaimed the transition from a Presidential-parliamentary to a parliamentary-Presidential form of government. This proposal was supported by Yatsenyuk, the leader of Tymoshenko’s party, who said that he would accept the post of Prime Minister after all if the country returned to the 2004 Constitution. Yatsenyuk said that the government would be made up of representatives of opposition parties and Maidan activists.

It is worth noting that Tymoshenko herself, who was still in prison in Kharkiv, appealed to her party to reject a return to the Constitution of 2004 and prepare instead for the Presidential Elections, in which she saw herself as the main candidate after leaving prison. Tymoshenko expected that she would be the voters’ favorite and become Ukraine’s next President and preferred to enjoy the same power as Yanukovych.

The EuroMaidan, however, wanted the 2004 Constitution. The European Parliament adopted a resolution on the situation in Ukraine that called on the European Union to begin preparing targeted sanctions on the foreign travel, assets, and real estate of Ukrainian officials, parliamentarians, and oligarchs responsible for the use of force against protesters and the deaths of opposition activists.

In Kyiv, meanwhile, a scandal erupted in connection with the leaking of a telephone conversation between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland (“Nuland-gate”) and the US Ambassador to Ukraine. It became clear from the conversation that the US was betting on Yatsenyuk as the new Prime Minister. There was nothing unexpected about this in itself. Nevertheless, it led to complications in the relations between opposition leaders Yatsenyuk and Klitschko. The former boxer refused to take part in forming a government (unless he became deputy Prime Minister) as he focused his efforts on his own Presidential Elections campaign. However, Tymoshenko’s release from prison and her announcement of her participation in the Presidential race folded Klitschko’s cards.161

On February 18, the day of the Verkhovna Rada session in which opposition deputies tabled their demand for a return to the 2004 Constitution, nationalist Right Sector and the Maidan Self-Defense militia, wearing masks and carrying bats, held a warning rally outside to put pressure on its deputies. On Kyiv’s central Maidan, some local residents said they wanted to clean up the accumulated garbage in the city center, proposing “For a Clean Kyiv”. But the protesters suspected that this was an attempt by the authorities to remove the barricades, and representatives of Maidan Self-Defense dispersed them, while their leaders urged all Ukrainians to enroll in self-defense units and organize Maidan in the eastern regions of Ukraine. This dispersal of locals and call for arms, in turn, was latched on to by pro-Russian organizations, which began campaigning against Right Sector and the Maidan in Kyiv.

Clashes with protesters resumed. Law enforcement officers blocked the demonstrators’ on their way to the parliament. They, in turn, started throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at the police and Berkut, and trucks blocking the path of the demonstrators were set on fire.

In parliament itself Yanukovych’s party tried to respond to delay a return to the 2004 Constitution by proposing that a commission look into it. The opposition disagreed and blocked the rostrum; whereupon its deputies left the assembly. Deputies of the Yanukovych-supporting Socialist party were also prevented from getting to the Rada’s rostrum. As a result, the opposition’s draft resolution was duly lodged, and the mood in the Rada calmed down. However, clashes continued in the area surrounding parliament. The Military Museum, which had been turned into a government “emergency center”, was seized and the office of Yanukovych’s Regions party was set on fire, in which one of its employees was killed.

The events that followed marked a sudden, steep escalation of the crisis. Law enforcement forces began aggressively to push the protesters back to the central Maidan in order to free government offices and an “Anti-Terrorist Campaign” began to clean up the quarter, which lasted almost a day. During the day, fire was opened and 25 people were killed, more than 350 were wounded, 200 of which were hospitalized.

Leaders of the nationalist Freedom Party called on residents of the western regions of Ukraine to go to Kyiv and support the demonstrators. In response, the authorities blocked the possible movement of traffic along the country’s main highways toward the capital. Trains were cancelled and could only pass through Kyiv in transit to other destinations, with passengers looking on in amazement at the empty platforms of the Kyiv railway station. The broadcasts of one of the central television channels were suspended.

Protesters seized government buildings in Dnipro, Mykolaiv, Kherson, Poltava, Chernihiv, Khmelnytskyi, Zhytomyr, and in the regions around these cities. Monuments to Lenin were destroyed in a resumption of “Leninfall”, though some of them had been dismantled in advance by supporters of the Socialist party and hidden. In a concession, the authorities did not issue criminal charges for the destruction of the monuments because “there was no crime because these monuments were not cultural heritage”. Seventy monuments and busts of the leader of the revolution were demolished and dismantled. In eastern Ukraine attempts to destroy Lenin monuments were also made in Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, and Zaporizhzhia, but local authorities prevented their demolition.

Klitschko and Yatsenyuk called again for early Presidential and Rada elections to prevent further escalation and appealed to Yanukovych to meet, declare a truce, withdraw the Berkut from Kyiv, and recall the police presence on the streets. Having agreed to negotiate with the opposition, Yanukovych demanded an end to the armed resistance of the demonstrators, who by the evening of February 18 were hemmed in on the central EuroMaidan by riot troops and Berkut. Two streets were left open to herd the withdrawal of people from the square. After that, the security forces proceeded to clean up the square itself. Yatsenyuk and Klitschko had their meeting with Yanukovych on the night of February 18-19; however, it did not lead to any results. They made mutual accusations and did not reach a compromise.

In the morning, the protests resumed. Demonstrators in Kyiv occupied the Main Post Office, the Conservatory, and the State Committee for Television and Radio. They began to seize arms depots and build barricades on Mykhailo Hrushevsky Street, leading to the Verkhovna Rada. The Museum of the History of Kyiv, which contained weapons and was under the protection of security forces, was looted during the night. In the meantime, the authorities began to erect concrete barriers near parliament, and the 25th Airborne Brigade was summoned to the capital from Dnipropetrovsk to reinforce the security of the arms depots.

At the same time, the SBU announced an “Anti-Terrorist Operation” (ATO) across Ukraine. A fire broke out in the Trade Union Building, where the central headquarters of the uprising was located, killing more than forty people. In almost all western regions of Ukraine, protesters resumed seizures of offices used by the regional administrations, the SBU, the Interior Ministry, and the Attorney General. An enormous number of documents and office equipment were destroyed. Ukraine was on fire.

On February 20, despite Yanukovych’s concession to hold early Presidential Elections, the protesters, armed with whatever they could, including guns, began pushing government troops away from the city’s EuroMaidan toward the Verkhovna Rada, Government House, and the Presidential Palace. Panic broke out and more casualties fell on both sides. Demonstrators began throwing Molotov cocktails and cobblestones at Berkut and police officers. Law enforcement forces began to retreat towards the government quarter, firing rubber bullets. A meeting between Right Sector leader Yarosh and President Yanukovych also yielded no positive results. The President suggested that Yarosh agree to the non-use of force by his Right Sector, but the latter refused, saying that Ukrainians would stand their ground to the end.

It was on this day that the government irretrievably lost control when live ammunition was used in cold blood. From the rooftops of the government quarter, snipers started shooting at the demonstrators. The sudden escalation turned the EuroMaidan from a protest movement into a full-blown civil war. On that ill-fated day, some hundred people were killed by gunfire, protesters as well as policemen. The day would later be commemorated as the Day of the Hundred, and the dead were awarded the posthumous title of Hero of Ukraine to mark their place in national history.

The news of these terrible events went around the world. Later everyone began to discuss what had happened and hypothesize who had fired what and from where. Some people said that the shots came from the roof of the Kyiv Conservatory, others said from the roof of the House of Trade Unions, and still others said from the roof of the Ukraina Hotel. The SBU and the Interior Ministry on the one hand, the Right Sector and the Maidan Self-Defense on the other blamed each other for the bloodshed. Russian special services and even the United States were suspects. Some suggested the involvement of the oligarchy which had their own “special forces” and were interested in bringing down business rival Yanukovych.

An important fact to take into account here is that the shooting of demonstrators and security forces took place on the day before the government and the opposition had expected to come together. There was a settlement agreement that everyone had been waiting for and which was thought to be the basis for a peaceful solution of the situation and a gradual, consistent resolution of the conflict. The signing of the declaration was aborted as the “Kyiv snipers’ case” was filed with other unsolved murders. In 2015, at the first anniversary of the momentous day, however, more would become clear about who ignited the powder keg.

On February 21, talks between Yanukovych and opposition leaders to resolve the political crisis in Ukraine and end the mass bloodshed were held.162 The talks were mediated by Germany, Poland, France and Russia.163 It resulted in a resolution by the opposition and the government, witnessed by the foreign observers: to restore the 2004 Ukraine Constitution, instigate constitutional reform to adjust the balance of powers between President, government and Rada, hold Presidential Elections, and investigate the recent violence.164

Putin’s envoy Vladimir Lukin, however, refused to countersign the resolution on behalf of Russia, explaining it as follows: “Moscow decided not to witness these agreements for a very good reason – as a matter of fact, the situation that is the subject of this agreement is not very clear”; it “does not detail the forces and persons who should implement all this”. Russia proved to be consistent in its inconsistency. Later, when Yanukovych, having fled Ukraine, was in Russia, the ex-President remembered the agreement and insisted that it be implemented. At that point, speaking from Russia, Lukin’s signature on the document would have helped him immensely. But it wasn’t there.

However, after the agreement was announced on Kyiv’s Maidan, Right Sector, Maidan Self-Defense, and AutoMaidan expressed their dissatisfaction with the results and the slow pace of political reforms. They insisted on the immediate resignation of the Yanukovych (a demand that had not been part of the February 21 resolution), the dissolution of the Verkhovna Rada, and punishment for the heads of Ukrainian law enforcement agencies who had ordered the shooting of demonstrators. Right Sector leader Dmitriy Yarosh called the February 21 resolution “another whitewash” and refused to abide by it.

On the night of February 22, Maidan Self-Defense and Right Sector units completed their occupation of the government quarter. Maidan activists now controlled the Verkhovna Rada, the Presidential Palace, Government House, and the Interior Ministry. More than a hundred policemen, who defected to the side of the protesters, and former soldiers who had fought in the Soviet Army in Afghanistan came with service-issue weapons to Kyiv to protect the EuroMaidan. In a number of western regions, police and Berkut units also sided with the protesters. Many police units in Kyiv now patrolled the capital alongside self-defense units. One by one, the police chiefs began to resign: the head of the Kyiv police left, and significantly the military leadership of the General Staff of the Ukrainian army resigned in protest against the involvement of the armed forces in the internal conflict. The self-defense units, together with the militia, had taken complete control over the capital.

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Author: Andrew Russell