Caught between nationalists and Yanukovych alums, Ukraine’s future more uncertain than ever

Ukraine’s past is coming back to haunt the troubled country in more ways than one. While ultra-nationalist militias widen the divide between left and right, East and West, exiled officials from the Yanukovych era are preparing to make a bold re-entry into the gulf created by Ukraine’s political polarization.

{mosads}In early August, Mykola Azarov, once prime minister under former President Viktor Yanukovych and now exiled in Russia, created a “Salvation Committee” committed to “total regime change” in Ukraine. Azarov wants to schedule early elections to replace President Petro Poroshenko’s government and restore order in our home.” Azarov appointed Volodymyr Oliynyk, a former legislator with Yanukovych’s now-defunct Party of Regions, as chairman of the Salvation Committee and its candidate for president. Bold plans from wanted men: In April, Ukraine’s counterintelligence and anti-terrorism agency, the SBU, accused Azarov, Olinyk and other former officials of “destabilizing the situation in Ukraine.”

Some suspect Azarov may be setting up a de facto government-in-exile in advance of a coup d’etat. Many Ukrainians are dismayed by the violence and political polarization that has taken over the country, and Azarov cites protests in Kiev as a sign that the days of Poroshenko’s government are numbered. Although Azarov’s Salvation Committee is based outside of Ukraine, he told reporters that many of its members were still in the country and thus could not be named for fear of further reprisals and purges.

While figures like Azarov will likely prove too divisive to make any meaningful impact in Ukraine’s post-Maidan political climate, a second group of younger ex-government officials exiled in Russia are also plotting their homecoming. Chief among this group of “young reformers” is Oleksandr Klymenko, one of the so-called “Children of Yanukovych.” Previously known only as the technocratic minister of taxes and revenues who crusaded against tax evasion, Klymenko has recently released a series of online videos in which he castigates Poroshenko for exiling the country’s best and brightest, protests against the sanctions Brussels has aimed at him, and hints at returning to unify the country and reform the government.

Increasing partisanship and political polarization in Ukraine has led Klimenko and other to feel that they can play the role of unifier, reconciling eastern and western Ukraine once again. Kiev has consistently indulged ultra-nationalist militias like Right Sector, which has undermined its legitimacy in the eyes of many Ukrainians and played right into the hands of the Russian propaganda that paints Poroshenko’s government as fascists. Especially after Maidan, where groups such as Right Sector played a pivotal role, Kiev has consistently been unable to decrease the sway of ultra-nationalist militias. A deadly shootout between Right Sector activists and police officers in Mukacheve on July 11 laid bare the simmering conflict between nationalists and Kiev.

In late May, under pressure from nationalist groups, the Verkhovna Rada passed two laws which have further divided the country and will could even pave the way for the Children of Yanukovych to return. The new laws make criticizing or questioning the actions of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) criminal offenses. Many Ukrainian nationalists see the OUN and UPA as their ideological forebears and want to suppress any criticism of their heritage. The OUN and UPA both collaborated with the Nazis during World War II, a fact that their descendants have alternately denied or tried to cover up.

Meanwhile, the laws also try to erase Ukraine’s Soviet past, as well: praising perestroika, selling Soviet-era memorabilia or even singing old communist hymns can now land Ukrainians in prison for up to five years. This is an extremely divisive move in a country where half the population speaks Russian and identifies heavily with Russia and the Soviet era. Harsh laws rewriting history lend weight to the charge of “fascism” leveled by Russian President Vladimir Putin against Poroshenko’s government, and help set the stage for former Yanukovych officials to return from exile to “restore order.”

Azarov’s Salvation Committee will likely try to use the bellicose actions of Right Sector and the recent laws passed by the Verkhovna Rada as a pretext to reenter Ukrainian politics, with former Yanukovych officials cast as “saviors” coming to “restore order” by ousting a government ruled by “fascists” and right-wing, ultra-nationalist and out-of-control militants. With menacing nationalists on the one hand and Azarov or other former Yanukovych officials waiting in the wings to step in and save the day, the only question is which side will make the first move.

Popova is a Russian-British freelance journalist with a focus on Eastern European politics and society.

Tags Maidan Mykola Azarov nationalists Petro Poroshenko Right Sector Ukraine ultra-nationalists Viktor Yanukovych Volodymyr Olinyk

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