Ultranationalist’s killing underscores Ukraine’s ugly divisions


“We cannot silently watch as the Interior Ministry carries out active antirevolutionary activities” Dmytro Yarosh, leader of ultranationalist group Right Sector, said at a press conference on Tuesday in Kiev. Yarosh lashed out at the killing of activist Oleksandr Muzychko, and said authorities responsible should be made to pay the price. He demanded the immediate resignation of Interior Minister Arsen Avakov. (Efrem Lukatsky/AP)

In this tale of finger pointing and divergent narratives, there appear to be just two agreed upon facts.

First, sometime in Tuesday’s early morning gloom, a pugnacious bear of a man named Oleksandr Muzychko took at least one bullet to the chest and bled out on a sodden piece of earth in western Ukraine.

Second, in death Muzychko is as controversial as he was in life.

It’s still unclear who killed the rightist Muzychko — who spearheaded recent protests that consumed Ukraine and ousted President Viktor Yanukovych — and why. Was it assassination? Was it a police bust gone wrong? Was Muzychko, who went by the name Sashko Biliy, just a petty thug who tortured and murdered dozens? Or was he patriot who helped unshackle Ukraine from a despot?

epa04139860 A picture made available on 25 March 2014 shows Aleksandr Muzychko, the ultra-right militant leader in Ukraine, at the West-Ukrainian city of Rivne, Ukraine, 21 February 2014. Aleksandr Muzychko, aka Sashko Bilyi, was on early 25 March reportedly shot dead in western Ukraine. According to Ukraine’s Interior Ministry officials, Muzychko was shot during a police raid. EPA/ALEKSANDR KURSIK / UNIAN
Aleksandr Muzychko, the ultra-right militant leader in Ukraine at the West-Ukrainian city of Rivne, Ukraine on February 12, 2014.(ALEKSANDR KURSIK/EPA)

The Ukrainian government portrays Muzychko, who was recently recorded grabbing a man by the necktie and shouting obscenities, as a dangerous vigilante. A deputy interior minister on Tuesday said Muzychko had been wanted in Ukraine for more than a month for “criminal activities.” And when police found him and his “criminal gang” at a cafe nearing midnight on Monday, they tried to arrest him.

There were “shouts of ‘Stop! Stop! Police!’ [Muzychko] fled, jumping through a window, and opened fire,” the official said. Cops responded, the government claims, and killed him. “He was still alive as they were arresting him,” a deputy minister said. “But then the paramedics who arrived at the scene found that he had died.”

Wrong, says Muzychko’s ultra-nationalist group Right Sector. It alleges Muzychko had no idea he was wanted for anything. “The shooting of Muzychko is an assassination ordered by the [Ukraine Interior] Minister,” asserted a spokesperson for Right Sector, a group that boasts between 5,000 and 10,000 members and distrusts both the West and Russia. “Muzychko never received any notices concerning criminal offences and was never summoned anywhere.”

Another Right Sector official said: “We will avenge ourselves … for the death of our brother. The shooting of Sashko Biliy is a contract killing ordered by the minister.”

Right Sector leader Dmytro Yarosh, who’s plotting a run for president, affirmed the threat. “We cannot silently accept the Ukrainian Interior Ministry’s active counterrevolutionary activities,” he said Tuesday, demanding the dismissal of the interior minister and arrest of those involved in his pal’s killing.

“Any threats addressed to the Head of the Interior Ministry, any threats to use force, are lawless and jeopardize stability in all regions of Ukraine,” a government official said in a statement provided to the ITAR-TASS news agency.

The conflicting accounts — and the vows of vengeance — underscore the instability confronting Ukraine’s fledgling government. Right Sector helped oust Yanukovych, but so far the opposition-led coalition hasn’t persuaded it or any other militia groups to disarm, the Guardian reports. What’s more, Right Sector’s involvement in the protests has backfired in some ways. Rumors of its fascist extremism gave Russian President Vladimir Putin fodder to denounce Ukraine’s nascent government as an assembly of thugs. Before his annexation of Crimea, he cited such ideology as one reason he needed to protect ethnic Russians there, who were ostensibly in danger.

And now, on the heels of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and amid daily warnings Putin wants more territory, Muzychko’s killing and subsequent vows of reprisal have pushed the country into deeper unrest — likely the last thing any new government wants.

Terrence McCoy is a foreign affairs writer at the Washington Post. He served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Cambodia and studied international politics at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter here.
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