Thursday, May 1, 2014
Amidst masked men and paramilitary violence, Ukraine is a country on the jagged edge of anarchy
The men, most with their faces hidden by balaclavas, many carrying baseball bats, some wearing sidearms, swarmed around the black Jeep Patriot. They dragged out the four occupants - in black combat uniforms - snatching their guns, magazines of ammunition, and radio transmitters from their olive rucksacks. Body armour was stripped from the captives, who were forced to kneel on the pavement. The number plates of the car were torn off and it was driven away with screeching tyres.
No one was quite sure just what had taken place at Artema Street in the centre of Donetsk on Tuesday morning. The SUV had been parked outside a branch of the UkrBusinessBank. The staff thought the occupants may have been a "maskashow", armed masked gunmen sent by commercial rivals to disrupt trading, not an infrequent occurrence in the commerce of this wild east. It emerged that the bank is owned by the dentist son of Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s overthrown president. Serhiy Oksenuik, the deputy chairman, insisted he had no idea what the armed men were after, or if it had anything to do with the financial affairs of Oleksandr Yanukovych, who is reputed to have personal assets of $500 million.
Members of the "self-defence force" arrived; they were unaware, they professed, of the identity of those who had made off with the weapons and the vehicle. “It’s a mystery,” said Aleksandr. He was aberkut, the riot police disbanded by the Kiev administration after a hundred protesters were shot dead in the Maidan, now one of the mainstays of the militia of the People’s Republic of Donetsk. Six members of the city’s police force watched what had been happening from across the road. They eventually came over and took away the men in black, one of whom told me that they were a special forces unit from the Ministry of Interior.
“We have not been arrested, we have not been detained, as far as I can tell.” They were from Zaporoshiya, 250 miles away, on an operation, he ventured. Was it to do with Yanukovych? “I can’t say anything.”
The police said later they were unaware of an authorized raid involving the former president’s family. Meanwhile, four Kalashnikovs, four pistols and two combat shotguns had disappeared to be added to the already bulging illicit arsenal in the streets. “It’s a problem,” acknowledged Aleksandr.
Eastern Ukraine is on the jagged edge of anarchy. Not all the violence has been planned and executed by the separatists, there have been killings, often by men in black appearing out of black four-wheel drives, according to witnesses. The separatist leadership has repeatedly accused the Right Sector, an extreme nationalist group, of carrying out the attacks on behalf of the Kiev administration. The Ministry of Interior's special units also wear similar combat kits, and the Interior Minister Arsen Avakov has been a fervent advocate of the "anti-terrorist mission" – although many of his accounts of what had been taking place, on his Facebook page, had been widely off the mark.
However, personal and commercial scores are also being settled – and there are plenty of people who would want to do so with the Yanukovychs. There has also been a sharp rise criminal acts, particularly with the use of firearms. Half an hour later, we saw two youths on a nearby side road examining a pistol, it looked very much like one of those taken away from the Ministry of Interior unit. After a belated show of force, attacks on checkpoints around Slovyansk – where a lot of pro-Moscow strength is concentrated – and setting up of checkpoints around the city the government forces seem hesitant about what to do, despite daily claims from Kiev that the anti-terrorist mission is going full throttle. An attack on Kramatorsk airport, where most of the troops are based, had led to many of the senior staff being evacuated, either to Odessa, or all the way back to Kiev...