TO Ukraine’s embattled government, they are terrorists and fanatics. To opposition leaders striving to keep president Viktor Yanukovich and his regime under pressure by peaceful means they are a useful weapon and a dangerous liability.
Whether either side likes it or not, it is the violent tactics of a far-right group called “Right Sector” that is setting the agenda on the streets of Kiev.
Insiders say the group has its origins among nationalist-minded football fans – the word “sector” in Russian denotes stadium terraces – and includes individuals from far-right groups.
They attack police, sometimes in pairs, usually wearing masks or helmets and armed with sticks, iron bars and “trophy” shields seized from riot police.
They have no allegiance to any established party and operate under no banner, flag or standard, not even that of recognised nationalist groups.
Their numbers are unknown – some say they have 300 people on the streets of Kiev – and they draw support from across Ukraine, with more than 100,000 supporters on Russian-language social network Vkontakte. In its mission statement there, Right Sector says it aims not only to force Mr Yanukovich to sign the European Union free-trade agreement he walked away from in November, setting off the protests, but by “revolutionary” means to get rid of his “regime of occupation”.
Its mainly male membership has ignored opposition respect for peaceful protest. Instead members have kept riot police on the back foot with a hail of petrol bombs and cobblestones for the past week.
By their violent tactics, they have hijacked the protest movement, known as Euromaidan – literally Eurosquare – and added a combustible element both the authorities and the opposition are struggling to contend with.
Opposition leaders disown the violence, recognising it gives the authorities the perfect excuse for a crackdown that might snuff out the protest movement.
But Right Sector has also re-energised the protest and raised the heat on Mr Yanukovich, serving a warning of what lies ahead if he fails to compromise.
When the opposition emerged empty-handed from talks with Mr Yanukovich late on Thursday, it was masked Right Sector members who oversaw the building of new barricades.
The focus of protest has shifted from Kiev’s Independence Square, crucible of Euromaidan, to a mile away, where Right Sector warriors and others clash daily with police, down the road from the main government building.
The area near Dynamo Kiev FC’s stadium has now become their theatre of operations, a battlezone where protesters confront black-helmeted riot police across a 40-metre no-man’s land.
“It’s a self-organising structure with links with all right-wing organisations which are ready to defend the interests of the Ukrainian nation, the Ukrainian idea,” said a man called himself Zaliznyak (Ironman), the “military chaplain” of the group.
“Many people regard it as pointless to stand around on the Square listening to leaders who say our weapons are our torches,” he said, referring to the protesters’ practice of lighting mobile phones to show resistance.
Zaliznyak, in his 50s, with greying hair and a penetrating gaze, says the heavy-handed force shown by the riot police justifies their actions.
“When they shoot at people, at children, when they march across the bellies of pregnant women, then it is clear any normal person must defend the weak,” he said on the fifth floor of a building on Independence Square, one of Right Sector’s hang-outs. Despite their mission statement, they have little of a political agenda. Unlike most mainstream protesters, they do not want EU membership, but oppose closer ties with Russia as a threat to independence.
“They are always on the front line against the Berkut [riot police], who are afraid of them because they are capable of anything,” said 21-year-old Serhiy, a student protester. “There are up to 300 people in the group. They are better than us. They train and send really experienced people. They only have one aim – ‘Ukraine before all’.”
• THE COUNTRY’S president Viktor Yanukovich, in an apparent offer of major concessions to the opposition amid mass protests against his rule, pledged last night to reshuffle his government and amend sweeping anti-protest laws.
In comments to church leaders, reported by the Interfax news agency, Mr Yanukovich said key decisions would be made at a special session of parliament next Tuesday.
“We will take a decision at this session. The president will sign a decree and we will reshuffle the government in order to find the best possible professional government team,” he said.
The dismissal of premier Mykola Azarov’s government has been one of the main demands of the opposition in two months of unrest.
Referring for the first time to the need to work closely with the opposition, he said opposition leaders would be brought into an anti-crisis team which he would lead.
“I will do all I can to stop this conflict, to stop violence,” he said. But he added that if this was not possible “all legal methods” would be used to end the crisis.