Yesterday’s post on the presidential election campaign ended on an optimistic note regarding the “activism” of Maidan Self-Defence and Right Sector in the city. Unfortunately, this optimism proved premature as the farce of the selection of the new head of police in region entered a new act today. Since 25 April, an armoured personnel carrier has been stationed outside the police HQ in the city, so the building whose Security Service wing was burned out in mid-February. The campaign to prevent Volhynia native and experienced police functionary Serhiy Piddubnyj becoming head of Ivano-Frankivsk region police has been going on much longer.
Today was supposed to have been Piddubnyj’s first day at work, although he never turned up, at least not through the front door. Perhaps because since this morning a crowd of a hundred or so “activists” had been awaiting his arrival, hoping that he would take the APC “Taxi to Dubno” back to his native region.Most probably the armoured personnel carrier belongs to one of these guys, interviewed here, with the article asking if they are “extremists or defenders”. Good question.
It’s not clear from any media reports what grievance Maidan Self-Defence and Right Sector have with Piddubnyj, other than that they are categorically opposed to his role.* While the media continue to claim that this small group of activists represent “the community”, in reality public opinion in the city has very little interest in who is head of police and instead is more concerned by the ability of these groups to continue to blockade streets and administrative buildings.
*UPDATE: Since writing initially, I have found this interview from 5 Kanal, Petro Poroshenko’s news channel and one of Ukraine’s most watched. Here a representative of Self-Defence claims that they don’t want Piddubnyj because “he’s not from this region”, “he’s an outsider” and the “community doesn’t want him”, with Kyiv failing to listen to the demands. First-hand evidence, then, of these organisations declaring themselves the voice of the community, which is quite far from the truth. Presumably, too, these organisations and “activists” are angered by the fact that the new head of Odesa police is from… Ivano-Frankivsk region. Viktor Nemish is the local councillor who in local power structures is the voice of these organisations, and he claims that only two candidates are acceptable to these groups after conducting a folk version of “lustration”.
If the simple reason for opposing Piddubnyj is that “he’s not from our region”, then this is quite a worrying insight into the mentalities of these groups that claim to speak for the city community and seek to determine its future. If someone from Volhynia in north western Ukraine is unacceptable, then what chance does anyone more exotic stand in the city?
The groups involved today were: Maidan Self-Defence, which took on a coordinating role in the protests in Kyiv and locally, but now seems to be some kind of semi-paramilitary gang of camouflaged men; Right Sector, who locally at least are basically UNA-UNSO, a paramilitary group, plus the youth organisation Tryzub (Trident); and Automaidan, with the Kalush branch most evident today. Very few police, beyond traffic cops blocking the street, were visible when I passed about 13:30 this afternoon, although the media show that many uniformed officers did come out to declare that “the police are with the people”. (The photo reportage linked to here also manages to be typically sexist towards female police officers) It’s not clear what intention the police had with this statement, although since most have declared loyalty to the new head it was presumably a rejection of the “activists'” attempts to appropriate the voice of the people of Ivano-Frankivsk region.
Some obvious questions that are raised by this farce are: how is it possible for someone to park an APC on a main street in the city centre and outside the police HQ and get away with it? It suggests the police here are weak and in fear of these paramilitaries, or they are somehow coordinating with them on a more significant level than joint patrols around the city in the aftermath of Euromaidan. Should these “activists” get more active and violent, what are the chances of the police or other forces in the city halting them?
Another question is in whose interest is it to disrupt the installation of the new police head? The declaration that it is in the interests of the “community” does not wash, so it is necessary to inquire what connections these organisations and their paramilitaries have to various political, business or criminal interests in the city and the wider region. I’m not suggesting that these connections necessarily exist but it is worthwhile investigating.
The only sensible suggestion surrounding this whole farce – beyond internet comments which suggest that these blokes who claim to be the region’s biggest “patriots” and “heroes” are actually harming their country – is to hold elections for the head of police. Obviously, however, given the popular indifference to this question then it could be easy to swing any election in favour of these groups’ and their backers’ interests.
My own suggestion is that if these blokes are such heroes and so concerned for their country, then the Ukrainian army is waiting with conscription for 18-25 year olds having been reinstated. That could also solve the problem of having so many men with little to do in the middle of the day marching around the city, potentially armed, and causing more trouble than good. Indeed, for anyone coming to Ivano-Frankivsk from outside the area, these camouflaged groups and their APC are really the only visible sign in the city that the country is actually in crisis.
It is, as I mentioned yesterday, a source of a sense of incongruity being in this part of Ukraine while the foundations of civil conflict, or worse, grow deeper in other parts of the country. Aside from the presidential campaign coming to town, new restaurants continue to open including this place on the main street, the “Stumetrivka” or Nezhalezhnosti Street. It’s a sushi bar, suggesting there’s some nouveau riche cash still sloshing about the city. The owners of the restaurant, meanwhile, have taken liberties with this neat nineteenth-century building and destroyed the original façade with new doors and windows, including extending their size which is probably against planning regulations. But no one cares much for those in the city – as my post on the infamous Royal Burger brewery building showed.
The tragedy in Odesa has, however, been recognised officially in the city, with more raucous events within Ivano-Frankivsk’s City Day anniversary celebrations, scheduled for 9-10 May, cancelled. So this means that there will be no rock concerts and such, since these fall within the traditional nine-day mourning period. The annual blacksmiths’ festival will go ahead as planned. Aside from this official gesture, though, there’s little evidence of mourning in the city for those killed in Odesa. Although the Fabbrica restaurant that I have written about did abandon owing to events in Odesa its traditional closing dances over the weekend.
Meanwhile, as the country plunges further into crisis, those in Self-Defence and Right Sector who claim to be the greatest heroes and patriots continue to fight their absurd, farcical struggle over the head of police on the streets of the city.