The flag of the Donbas battalion, one of the most notorious Ukrainian volunteer units to have fought against Russia-backed separatists, flies over the main building of Mikola Trybinienko’s farm.
Members of the former military unit came at the end of June to Berezhinka, a village in central Ukraine, to protect Trybinienko against “raiders”, the term used in the region to describe criminal groups who specialise in the illegal and often violent appropriation of land.
Trybinienko says raiders seized his 500 ha farm in May, after he discovered the state corporate registry had been modified using a forged signature, making the company officially no longer his. When he tried to get it back with the help of locals, a violent clash occurred, injuring at least three people. Local media reported that pistols and hunting rifles were seized by the police at the site.
Raiding has been a constant issue since the country’s independence in 1992: weak rule of law as well as corrupt police and judges have made it easy for criminals to illegally change ownership of a firm before forcibly seizing it. Middle-sized farms such as Trybinienko’s, both big enough to have assets worth stealing and small enough to lack protection, are an ideal target.
Anti-raiding Task Force
But if raiding isn’t new, the involvement of veterans from the conflict in the East definitely is.
At the farm, about 30 men in military trousers and black T-shirts sporting the words “Donbas” and “Aidar” (another former volunteer battalion) move around the building, some listening to Trybinienko’s description of the latest raiding attempt, others bringing mattresses inside the office. They plan to stay here tonight, they say, to make sure the raiders don’t come back.
The atmosphere is tense but excited, with dozens of locals mixing with the Donbas and Aidar members. Further away, a small group of police officers is quietly watching, apparently careful not to get too close. To newcomers, Donbas and Aidar members are keen to show they are unarmed.
Raiding cases are often murky, with accusations thrown out by both sides and guilty parties hard to establish with certainty: at the end of May, a local businessman set up a press conference to claim he was the “legitimate owner” of the farm, and that Trybinienko was trying to walk back on a done deal.
In this context, the presence of controversial nationalist groups openly hostile to the current authorities adds another layer of complexity to the story. The legal grounds on which these groups can provide protection to farmers remain, for example, unclear.
In Berezhinka, they came at Yuri Krutko’s request. Almost a year ago, this farmer from the Kirovograd region set up an organisation, first called the “Cowboys of Kirovograd” but since renamed “Agrarian Self Defence of Ukraine”, to create “task forces” of veterans who could repel raiding attempts. So far, Donbas members and other veterans helped repel three attacks against farmers, Krutko says, while the organisation provided legal help to several others.
Krutko called the Donbas and Aidar members to Berezhinka after yet another raiding attempt on Trybinienko’s business that lead to 30 titushki – alleged raiders – being arrested. He also managed to attract two deputies from parliament to the scene, including Semen Semchenko, the founder of the Donbas battalion and current deputy from the Samopomich party. “Raiding is a systemic problem,” Semchenko tells bne IntelliNews.
Raiding on the Rise
Krutko believes that veterans are the farmers’ “only hope” of solving it.
He claims attacks against farmers have been rising sharply since the 2014 overthrow of ex-president Viktor Yanukovych. Reliable data about raiding is difficult to find, but other people have expressed similar concerns. Latifundist, a media group focused on the agrarian sector in Ukraine, wrote on its website that raiders have been more active in the last years.
To try and bring the issue into the spotlight, they set up a website called “Hunting the raiders”, which lists on a map cases of raiding that readers have warned them about. The project claims that more than 7,000 raids happened last year in the country, and described it in an article as an “unprecedented wave of attacks”.
A sense of helplessness among farmers has contributed to make groups of former soldiers look like the only viable solution. “The level of trust in law enforcement and the authorities in general is very, very low,” says Andrey, a local farmer who prefers not to give his full name.
Another issue, according to Ukraine’s Business Ombdusman Algirdas Semeta, is that even when farmers manage to win their property back, the local police often refuse to investigate who was behind the raiding attempt. “They will say ‘look, what do you want, you restored your property, you should be happy, you should not care about who did it’ and that’s a problem of course,” Semeta tells bne IntelliNews.
A new law against raiding was voted in October, setting stronger punishments (including jail terms) for raiders, but its effects still remain to be felt. Meanwhile, reform of the judiciary, especially the introduction of anti-corruption courts, is facing resistance. As bribing judges is one of the key ways raiders can seize properties, the slow progress in this area is especially problematic.
In Berezhinka, the mix of babushki, locals leasing parts of the land and teenagers hanging around Trybinienko’s farm are all overwhelmingly siding with the “ATOshniki”, the name given to the veterans of the conflict in the East. Police and local authorities are unwilling to act at best, and complicit with the raiders at worst, they say.
No Bad Buzz
But members of the “Donbas” group say that their presence is not just about protecting farmers.
“Ukraine is occupied by bandits and oligarchs who are stealing the country,” says Anatoli Vinogradsky, a former commander of the Donbas battalion and the current coordinator of a blockade aimed at preventing the exchange of goods between Ukraine and separatist-controlled Donbas. His presence here, he says, is right in line with the blockade in the Donbas region: in both cases, the goal is to end the “economic occupation of Ukraine”.
Talking to bne IntelliNews, Vinogradsky exhibits a bloody nose, swollen forehead, and large scratches on his arms. He received them just the day before, when the National Guard came to disperse his men. The brawl that followed, which led to the arrest of about 20 members from the Donbas and Aidar battalions, was an overall PR win for the nationalist groups, as locals scrambled to protect them and videos of their clash spread massively through the Ukrainian internet.
In the last two years, these groups have evolved from military units to political movements dedicated to ridding the country of ‘Russian influence’: members from the “National Corpus,” an offshoot of the ultranationalist “Azov battalion” walled off the headquarters of Russian bank “Sberbank” earlier this year, while the “Donbas” group managed to pressure the authorities into accepting a blockade on the separatist regions.
In Berezhinka too, the Donbas and Aidar groups have had success in setting the agenda: a few weeks after their clash with the police, 14 deputies from various factions sent a letter to President Petro Poroshenko and Prime Minister Volodymir Groysman urging them to act against raiding. The situation is bad, they wrote. But, the letter reads, the “deliberate beating of farmers and ATO veterans in Berezhinka” was “the last straw”.