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Far-right leader eyes Ukraine's political middle ground

Source: Reuters - Thu, 13 Mar 2014 13:25 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* Right Sector movement involved in violent protests

* Ukrainians eye far-right leader with suspicion

* Yarosh to form political party, fears Kremlin infiltration

* Russia brands him "neo-fascist", he espouses moderation

By Mike Collett-White

KIEV, March 13 (Reuters) - When President Vladimir Putin justifies the armed occupation of Crimea by saying Russian-speakers in Ukraine need defending from "neo-fascists", far-right leader Dmytro Yarosh is one of the main people he has in mind.

In the final days of Viktor Yanukovich's rule, Yarosh's ultra-nationalist followers fought fierce battles with police on the streets of Kiev, earning them a reputation as shadowy extremists kept at arms length by other opponents of the Moscow-backed leader.

Now that he has achieved his main aim - helping topple Yanukovich - the 42-year-old hopes to pull off a remarkable transformation: drag his Right Sector paramilitary movement closer to the political mainstream.

"Ukraine needs a change in the political elite," he said in rare interview at his heavily guarded headquarters in a drab, Soviet-era hotel in central Kiev. From there he plans to launch a political party as early as Saturday.

Yarosh, who has criticised Ukraine's new pro-Western leaders, plans to run for president in a May 25 election, but analysts give him little chance against more established opposition figures, seeing that poll as more of a dry run for parliamentary elections provisionally to be held by 2017.

Right Sector, which did not exist before clashes in Kiev erupted last year, has its origins among nationalist-minded soccer fans - the word "sector" in Russian denotes the spectator terraces of a stadium. Fights between rival fans date back to Soviet times.

It has drawn people from far-right organisations across Ukraine, meaning that they have no single ideology, although many want Russian military bases removed from Ukraine, notably in Crimea, and vow to protect a vague notion of Ukrainian identity by force if necessary.

What sets them apart from more moderate nationalists is their willingness to resort to violence, often aimed at police.

Although far outnumbered by the huge crowds of demonstrators during the recent uprising, Right Sector supporters in black combat gear and ski masks set the agenda with violent tactics opposed by many protesters.

Despite a reputation for being fiercely anti-Russian, Yarosh, speaking softly, said he had no problem with his neighbours, just the Kremlin, which he feared might be trying to infiltrate his movement to give it a bad name.

"We very clearly differentiate the Kremlin, with its imperialist policies, and the Russian people," Yarosh said. "These are two different things for us. We call on the Russian people to fight against the fascist regime of Putin."

He said his organisation included Russians, Russian speakers and Jews, proving he was far from being the anti-Semite Russia's state media portrays him as.

A leading Ukrainian rabbi, Moshe Reuven Azman, said this week he saw no sign of hostility toward Jews from nationalists involved in last month's uprising, but he was cautious on whether there could be a rise in anti-Semitic threats.

KREMLIN INFILTRATION?

Earlier this week, a Russian court issued an arrest warrant for Yarosh in absentia on charges of inciting terrorism. He denies the charges, aimed at highlighting Moscow's argument that "extremists" stole power from Yanukovich in Ukraine.

Yarosh said he had information that Moscow had sent "agents" to infiltrate protest groups in and around Independence Square, where at least 95 people were killed in clashes with police or by snipers.

"That is why we have now strengthened our security regime," said Yarosh, his hair cropped short and with an armoured vest leaning against the wall beside him.

Outside a small entrance to the sprawling hotel where the paramilitary Right Sector group has set up makeshift offices on one floor, a man wearing the movement's trademark black fatigues vets those who enter.

Inside, several guards carry pistols in their pockets, and at the door to Yarosh's office a man holds a Kalashnikov assault rifle across his chest. Along the corridor, a colleague monitors footage from CCTV cameras dotted around the area.

Yarosh's unofficial entourage resembles a personal militia more at home in Kabul than the centre of Kiev.

The casual display of armed force underpins a lingering sense of lawlessness in the capital. A bustling tent city is still in place on Independence Square, burned-out police vehicles litter the streets and paving bricks are stacked high, ready to be used as missiles should clashes resume.

HARSH WORDS FOR PUTIN

Yarosh has few kind words for the pro-Western interim leadership he helped bring to power, which includes another radical nationalist organisation, Svoboda.

The new government lacked professionalism and should do more to tackle corruption in law enforcement agencies and the judiciary, he said.

But he reserved his harshest criticism for Russia, whose armed intervention in Crimea has alarmed Western leaders and spooked financial markets.

The Black Sea peninsula holds a referendum on Sunday when a Russian majority looks set to vote to leave Ukraine and join Russia, a move the government in Kiev and Western leaders appear powerless to stop, despite threats of sanctions.

Yarosh's role as a figurehead during the protests, and his distance from an ousted government tainted by allegations of corruption, have boosted his profile, and Right Sector has over 400,000 followers on Russian social networking site VKontakte.

While the number of actual supporters was far smaller, the group was growing, Yarosh said, bringing challenges of its own.

"A lot of groups that have nothing to do with Right Sector are acting under our banner," he said.

"We have set up a hotline and asked all citizens of Ukraine to tell us if they see any provocation or criminal acts. We will react. We have already got rid of a few such groups in the last two weeks. This work will continue." (Editing by Richard Balmforth and Philippa Fletcher)

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