Harriet Salem and Graham Stack in Kyiv -
Ukraine's ruling Party of Regions is controversially deploying hired muscle to back up police units against opposition protestors. Nicknamed "titushki", the activity of the hired hands is undermining the government's already precarious legitimacy. bne spoke to a member of the titushki.
There is nothing new about the paid employment of heavies from Ukraine's sprawling combat sport scene outside the ring. In the chaotic 1990s, the term "sportsman" was synonymous with gangsterism. In the next decade, as bandits ceded the stage to oligarchs, business drew on heavies when implementing hostile corporate takeovers - enforcing a crooked court decision to seize control of a contested plant, for instance. Currently, many sportsmen find work as uniformed guards in security companies. In contrast to ex-police, "sportsmen" do not need firearms to intimidate.
But only in 2013 did these sportsmen begin to play a notable role in politics - spawning the now notorious titushki. Last year, the pro-government Party of Regions found itself faced by increasingly militant opponents, especially from the nationalist party Svoboda, who frequently clashed with their ideological foes. In response, the Party of Regions activated networks of sportsmen as guards for their own demonstrations, which often consisted of paid supporters bussed in from East Ukraine.
The now-ubiquitous term titushki was coined in May of last year by journalists when one of their own fell victim to the phenomenon. During clashes between Party of Regions supporters with nationalists at a demonstration, one "sportsman" guarding the Party of Regions march, 18-year-old Vadim Titushko, a member of a combat sports club in a small town near Kyiv, beat up a female journalist filming him. Pictured alongside him during the attack was the head of the Party of Regions youth cell for that town.
Subsequently, the term titushki has even made its international debut. Attending the 2014 Munich Security conference at the end of January, Ukraine opposition leader Vitaly Klitschko wrote on Facebook that: "Today bandits are out on the streets, beating, kidnapping, arresting peaceful citizens... and burning their cars. I have seen who were dealing with - I have regularly participated in defending Kyiv streets against titushki often protected by the police."
Titsuhki became a part of the political vocabulary when opposition to President Viktor Yanukovych's domestic and foreign policies metamorphosed into full-blooded mass protest in late November, triggering a government crackdown that continues to today. Ukraine's opposition media was rife with reports of titushki roaming the winter darkness - with regular attacks on demonstrators by masked men justifying the fears.
When opposition activists upped the ante mid-January, throwing petrol bombs in Kyiv and seizing regional state offices, Party of Regions officials went into titushki overdrive as they organised the defence of regional administration buildings across the country: numerous video clips show police mingling with masked civilians armed with clubs and bats in a standoff against demonstrators.
Authorities even acknowledge such collaboration between titushki and police. Kharkiv's hard line authorities announced February 4 the founding of a "national guard" in collaboration with local sports clubs. Dmitro Kolesnikov, head of Dnipropetrovsk region where apparent titushki with baseball bats were filmed alongside police inside the regional administration headquarters, claimed to journalists that, "social organisations have organised themselves into people's patrols, they are registered and entirely legal." Kolesnikov went on to explain that, "law-enforcement organs had no alternative."
A quick check of the state register shows that such a "people's patrol" is indeed registered in Dnipropetrovsk - but only as of January 30, the eve of the clashes, and listed at the address of the regional administration itself.
Meet the titushki
bne met with a titushki called Misha from Kharkiv. The 28-year-old Misha is currently deployed in Kyiv guarding the Marinsky Park, where pro-Party of Regions demonstrations are held. Misha has two gold teeth as a result of a boxing career, and the number 13 tattooed on his neck in connection with an unhappy childhood, he explains. Misha tells bne he is a champion welterweight boxer who works as security guard. But he assures us that he is here as a volunteer out of conviction, not for money. Fifteen others from his boxing club obviously share his convictions since they have come too, he says.
Misha insists that he is only there to guard peaceful citizens, to maintain public order and to protect the monuments - the latter a reference to nationalists' controversial toppling of a statue of Vladimir Lenin in December in central Kyiv. Other titushki encountered in Marinsky Park echo the same sentiments, raising the suspicion they had been prepped by the party.
Misha acknowledges that the pro-government Party of Regions camp in Marinsky Park adjacent to Ukraine's parliament, the Rada, had attracted undesirable elements who drank and were aggressive, but says his group got rid of them. According to Misha, titushki are misunderstood and oppressed by the anti-government Euromaidan activists. "Twenty of them cornered two of us - what could they do against those odds?" he complains about a recent clash with the other side.
Misha denies he would attack peaceful demonstrators, only defend against "extremists". But his eyes light up at mention of Evhen Zhilin, the prominent owner of a Kharkiv fight club called Oplot, who has declared open season on anti-government protestors and claims to have organised forays to Kyiv to attack opposition "extremists". "Those guys are my friends," Misha says. "[Zhilin's] Oplot is a real fight club like in the movie - fighters bandage their hands but nothing more. Blood can flow."
In a controversial interview given by the fight club owner on February 3, Zhilin said that his fighters were entitled by law to attack anti-government protestors who seized state buildings, and to inflict light to medium injuries in the course of "arresting criminals". "I want criminals to know that I can break one leg completely and incur no criminal responsibility doing so," he warned in the interview.
Zhilin also claims that he can call on 350 fighters in Kharkiv and 2,000 across all Ukraine. "We sportsmen are a real community, in Ukraine and in Russia," Misha explains. "We hang together and can all rely on each other. Anywhere I go I can find other sportsmen and I know I can rely on them."
Misha hesitates when asked about Ukraine's most famous sportsmen, however, boxing world champion Vitaly Klitschko - one of the leaders of the opposition who is tipped to replaced Yanukovych as president. Klitschko was himself acquainted with this sportsmen scene in his early career in Kyiv in the 1990s. "I respect Klitschko as a fighter, and I respect his right to his own opinion. But I have a different opinion from him," Misha says.
Misha says he is angry about the opposition's answer to the titushki: mobilisation of the hooligan sections of Ukraine's football clubs. At recent anti-government Euromaidan Sunday rallies, opposition leaders reeled off lists of football clubs whose hooligans have declared war on the titushki. "These guys are crazy and the main thing is they cannot fight without weapons," Misha tells bne disparagingly.
"I am here because of my convictions," Misha repeats. But what those convictions are is hard to pinpoint. Misha seems oriented towards big people, state power and Russia, where his family come from. He relates with pride his career-high to date: how as a security guard at Europe's biggest summer dance festival, Kazantip in Ukraine's Crimea, he escorted one of Russia's richest men, oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, who had come to groove to the electronic beats.
The only sign of Misha having strong convictions is when we prepare to leave and bne dons a fake Nike hat acquired on an outdoor market. Misha dons an Adidas hat and jacket - to complement the trousers and shoes that all bear the recognisable three white stripes. "Adidas is better," he says, his gold teeth glinting in a rare smile.
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