Ukraine investigates nationalists over Maidan shootings

Ukraine investigates nationalists over Maidan shootings
By bne IntelliNews October 20, 2015

Ukrainian prosecutors have raided the homes of top leaders of the nationalist Svoboda party as part of an investigation into the massacre of anti-government protestors on the Maidan square in Kyiv on February 20, 2014.

The shooting of up to 50 protestors on that day by police triggered the flight from Kyiv of pro-Russian former president Viktor Yanukovych on February 22, and the ascent to power of a pro-Western administration.

The police move against Svoboda is on the surface surprising as the party was one of the pillars of the opposition protest camp in the heart of Kyiv in the winter of 2013-2014, and an estimated one third of those who died in the Maidan shootings were Svoboda members.

The raids are seen as part of a crackdown on nationalist parties by the administration of President Petro Poroshenko, following the deaths of four policemen protecting Ukraine's parliament against violent nationalist protestors on August 31.

"The government now wants to crush Svoboda, the searches of the apartments of  [Oleksandr] Sich and [Oleh] Pankevich are entirely politically motivated," Svoboda spokesperson Oleksandr Aronets told bne IntelliNews.

The court warrant for the raid on the apartment of Pankevich, a former MP and the ex-head of Lviv regional council, explicitly referred to a BBC documentary on the subject, according to a copy of the warrant posted online by Aronets.

In the documentary, journalist Gabriel Gatehouse spoke to an opposition nationalist rifleman who had acknowledged having fired on riot police in the morning of February 20. 

"They were searching for arms and explosives. Svoboda members are suspected in the murder of the Heroes of the Heavenly Hundred [protestors killed on Maidan]!" Aronets posted.

The court warrant as posted online by Aronets also referrs to video footage that showed a rifleman firing out of the Hotel Ukraina, situated on Maidan. The room from which he fired was occupied at the time by Pankevich, according to the court warrant. 

Police also raided the apartment of Sich, vice-prime minister in the immediate post-Maidan government in 2014, also in connection with shots fired from the same hotel, where he was also staying on February 20.

An assistant to Ukraine's prosecutor general, Vladislav Kutsenko, confirmed to the Ukrainian TV channel 112 that searches of the Svoboda leaders' apartments were linked to an investigation of the February 20 events. Kutsenko said that Sich and Pankevich were not suspects in the case.

One and a half years later, there have still been no successful prosecutions for the massacre, despite a large volume of video footage and eyewitness accounts.

Crackdown on nationalists

The moves against Svoboda further illustrate that the alliance between Ukrainian nationalists and liberals that drove the opposition protests on Maidan has broken down. The breakdown in relations comes after President Poroshenko conceded to Russian and EU demands that territories in East Ukraine's Donbas region held by Russian-backed rebels should be awarded a special autonomous status in the constitution.

During violent nationalist protests against the passing of a corresponding law for the rebel-held territories on August 31, four police officers died when a grenade was thrown outside parliament. Police detained a Svoboda member almost immediately for having thrown the grenade, classifying the deed as an act of terrorism.

Authorities then questioned Svoboda leaders about the attack, including founder and former MP Oleh Tiahnibok, former agriculture minister Ihor Schvaika, and another former MP Yury Sirotuk, as part of a pre-trial investigation into the attack, without naming them as suspects.

All three were at the forefront of nationalist clashes with police outside parliament on August 31. Tiahnibok was one of the three political leaders of the Maidan, alongside current prime minister Arseny Yatsenyuk and current mayor of Kyiv Vitaly Klichko. 

The move to now investigate Svoboda in connection with the Maidan massacre is yet another sign of a crackdown by the Poroshenko administration on nationalists, following August's grenade attack.

On September 17, a large special forces detachment came to the session chamber of parliament to arrest nationalist MP Ihor Mosiychuk, a larger-than-life member of the nationalist-populist Radical Party with alleged neo-Nazi links, according to Anton Shekhovtsov, a researcher of Ukraine's far right.

Mosiychuk had launched stinging verbal attacks against Poroshenko over the alleged 'surrender' of Donbas to the Russian-backed separatists. 

The arrest occurred immediately after MPs voted to lift Mosiychuk's parliamentary immunity at request of prosecutor general Viktor Shokin, who came to the house in person to screen a video taken by hidden camera of Mosiychuk allegedly accepting a bribe.

MP Ihor Lutsenko, one of the leaders of civil society on the Maidan, has also launched a series of blistering personal attacks on Poroshenko. He accuses the interior ministry of framing two of his friends, Svoboda members Denis Polischuk and Andrei Medvedko, for the murder of journalist Oles Buzin in Kyiv on April 16.

Buzin, who was shot by masked men outside his apartment, was chief editor of Segodny newspaper, owned by East Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, which took an anti-nationalist conciliatory line over the conflict with Kremlin-backed separatists in Donbas.

On October 8, Lutsenko released drone footage of Poroshenko's Versailles-style estate and palatial mansion near Kyiv, which revealed that the president's waterside grounds contain an entire Russian Orthodox chapel. According to Lutsenko, Poroshenko acquired the territory for one hundredth of its true value. "The film is dedicated to Denis [Polischuk] and Andrei [Medvedko]," Lutsenko wrote on Facebook.

Maidan massacre unsolved

On the first anniversary of the Maidan massacre of February 2014, both the BBC and Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) interviewed opposition nationalist riflemen, who acknowledged having fired on policemen on the morning of February 20, as the police used water cannons to clear protestors in scenes described by bne IntelliNews.

Four policemen reportedly died of their wounds, prompting police to rapidly pull out of the Maidan back up a nearby hill. When a crowd of protestors rushed after the retreating police, police marksmen opened fire, killing 48 people.

Nationalist Oleksandr Parasyuk, who commanded around 50 men, some armed with rifles, positioned in the Tchaikovksy conservatory looking directly on to the Maidan, told Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that his men had fired on police "just once" as the protestors stormed forward and police opened covering fire.

After that, the blood bath commenced. "The [government-side] perpetrators, who ever they were, after an initial exchange of fire which was possibly indeed self-defence, exceeded anything that could be regarded in this situation as proportional. Self-defence became cold random killing," the FAZ wrote.

Parasyuk stepped out of the background onto the Maidan stage the next day, on February 21, to denounce a peace deal reached between the political opposition earlier that day. He warned the embattled Ukrainian president Yanukovych that if he did not resign by the morning, his men would storm Yanukovych's house near Kyiv "by force of arms". This apparently prompted Yanukovych's hurried departure the same night from Kyiv, and ultimately his flight to Russia. Parasyuk was elected to parliament as MP in October 2014.

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