A group of suspected rent-a-thugs stand near Marinsky Park and the Health Ministry building on Nov. 29 when journalists from Hromadske TV and Channel 5 were attacked by athletically-built men believed to be hired henchmen.
© Pavlo Podufalov
Opposition leaders are warning that the government will send in rent-a-thugs to incite violence at the Dec. 15 rally, giving President Viktor Yanukovych a pretext to call for a state of emergency and use military and riot police to clear out EuroMaidan from Independence Square.
However, Yanukvych on Dec. 13 at a roundtable of national leaders publicly pledged no force would be used and other EuroMaidan leaders, such as former Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko, downplayed the threat of violence.
The opposition warnings are coming from Batkivshchyna leader Arseniy Yatseniuk and Ihor Miroshnychenko, a high-ranking lawmaker in Svoboda Party.
The gloomy warnings intensify an already highly charged atmosphere which will play out on the streets at noon on Dec. 15 with dueling rallies. Besides the EuroMaidan anti-government protests, Yanukovych supporters plan to hold a counter-rally some 200 meters away on European Square also on Kyiv's main Khreshchatyk Street.
Organized by the ruling Party of Regions, opposition politicians say the vast majority of pro-government protesters will be paid to stand on the street, while others will be state-paid employees like regional civil servants, teachers and doctors.
The Interior Ministry’s press service told the Kyiv Post that the pro-government rally has permission to have up to 200,000 in attendance.
Specifically, at least 10,000 pro-government supporters are expected to arrive from Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, more than 20,000 are expected from Donetsk, and many others are expected to arrive from Crimea, Odesa Oblast, and some other regions, Interfax-Ukraine reported.
A significant contingent among them, however, will be hired thugs, Yatseniuk said, citing anonymous yet high-level government sources, who will infiltrate and start to wreak havoc in the pro-European encampment cloaked in either European Union or national colors.
“Authorities are preparing a large scale provocation on Dec. 14 and 15,” said Yatseniuk. It is transporting masses of people from the regions to instigate a civil conflict and call a state of emergency and have the army come in to break up the Maidan together with Berkut (riot police).”
When asked how solid are their government sources, Miroshnychenko told the Kyiv Post that “we have many (government) informers who are ready to talk to us, and we won’t let (the authorities and hired henchmen) to disrupt our rally.”
The Party of Regions insisted its rally will be nothing but calm. “We invited many people, I don’t know how many will come, but it will be in the tens of thousands for sure,” said Oleksandr Yefremov, head of the Party of Regions parliamentary faction. “This will be an exclusively peaceful demonstration, our people are always easy to get along with…we will also rely on the police to create a safe buffer between the two rallies.”
The Interior Ministry’s press service told the Kyiv Post that “we will unequivocally protect the public (during the rival rallies).” Both rallies are scheduled to start at noon on Dec. 15.
Not all in the pro-European camp are raising the alarm bells to such an extreme. Former Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko said on his Facebook page that “hysterics should end about the ‘blue’ (color of the Party of Regions) horde of the anti-Maidan. These (pro-government protesters) will be plain, peace-loving, state-paid employees and students.”
However, he warned that that “provocations could be organized among the people…but our task is to maximize our numbers and maintain discipline within the confines of our rally.”
Another accusation is that the military is being used to provide logistical support to the 200,000 pro-government protesters, which includes the provision of housing, food and transportation, Anatoliy Hrytsenko, former defense minister and current opposition lawmaker, told the Kyiv Post.
Citing unnamed sources in the defense ministry, Hrytsenko said the “military has been tasked to provide housing and food (to protesters) for two days and to provide transportation – we know for 100 percent they are being used in the political conflict.”
The defense ministry called the assertion false in a Dec. 12 statement. The denial came a day after U.S. Defense Secretary Charles Hagel called his Ukrainian counterpart Pavlo Lebedyev to warn him “not to use the armed forces of Ukraine against the civilian population in any fashion.”
He underlined the potential damage of any involvement by the military in breaking up the demonstrations and called for restraint. Lebedyev stated that it is President Viktor Yanukovych's position not to use the armed forces against the protestors and said he would pass the secretary's message directly to Yanukovych.
“This phone call was unprecedented, it was a call that we never had before to warn one more time that the armed forces are for localizing external aggression and must not be involved with the political conflict,” said Hrytesenko.
Still, the potential for violence is real, said Taras Berezovets, head of Berta Communications, a political consultancy. He said that after the public outcry and outpouring of protesters following two attempted police breakups of rallies – first on Nov. 30, which succeeded, and the second on Dec. 11, which failed – that Yanukovych has been embarrassed.
“Yanukovych is seeing he is losing power…he is seeing the TV channels of oligarchs showing more of the EuroMaidan…and the only way he knows how to react to embarrassment is to use more force,” said Berezovets. “What might happen is the riot police and Titushki (hired thugs) might be used to fight, start looting perhaps, which will be enough to establish a curfew (on the streets).”
Hired thugs and henchmen
The use of hired thugs is not new in Ukrainian society. Government officials or their close allies are suspected of hiring them for deployment in illegal company takeovers, in vote rigging activities, and to attack protesters and journalists alike during rallies. Many suspected henchmen were seen coordinating their actions with riot police on Dec. 1 in front of the Cabinet of Ministers and Presidential Administration building. Some were seen on Dec. 11 trying to dismantle and remove barricades around Independence Square during an attempted police breakup of the area.
They often are recruited from boxing and martial arts clubs and other athletic associations.
Kyiv Post editor Mark Rachkevych can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.