Big Guns

There's a post-Soviet phrase hailing the inventor of the ak-47: "God merely created man; equality was made possible thanks to General Kalashnikov." I recalled this as I was sitting in the office of deputy chairman of the Ukrainian Nationalist Assembly (UNA). As he spoke, he absentmindedly drew machine guns on a piece of paper. He also sketched some bows and arrows and gave me copies of his organization's publications, which contained manual-like descriptions of various guns and tips on how to clean them. Electoral posters in his office were not unlike Hitlerjugend propaganda. One read: "power, order and prosperity." Below the slogan was a photograph of an idealized Ukrainian family--a hard-eyed father in black uniform, a mother in after- work-commissar hairdo. And below the photo was more text, reminding voters that "our people are used to living in a great state. We will make Ukraine great again, so people won't have to change their habits."

I first became acquainted with UNA and its sister organization, the Ukrainian Nationalist Self-Defense Organization (UNSO), a few days before the Ukrainian parliamentary elections in March. I was having a leisurely vodka with some friends in Kiev when a strange campaign ad came on TV It was for UNA-UNSO, and it showed a lot of war scenes, shooting, tanks, burning houses, people brandishing crucifixes, Nazi- style salutes. The ad was so simplistic and brutal that I thought it must be propaganda against something. But against what? War? Fascism? Before I could make up my mind, a vaguely military song welled up: "Let the beastly fights rage, because it is better to die as a wolf than to live as a dog. I won't be let into paradise, but I know that in hell there is UNA-UNSO." Suddenly, I understood the spot. It wasn't against anything. It was for this stuff. This is what the group's supporters liked.

Three UNA-UNSO candidates were elected to the Ukrainian parliament in March. The group, which claims to have 10, 000 members, rallied votes by marching through Lviv and other towns in western Ukraine wearing military fatigues and black berets.

The UNA-UNSO headquarters occupy four small rooms in the cellar of a house just off the main square in Kiev. When I went to meet their leader, I was led to a small office by a young man with crew cut, military jacket, jeans and sneakers. Crammed into the room was a huge portrait of Stepan Bandera, the legendary founder of the Ukrainian Nationalist Organization, which fought Stalin's and Hitler's armies in the woods of western Ukraine. There was also a computer, a map of Georgia and a portrait of Fidel Castro; on the shelves were a few pairs of black military boots and several topographical maps. In the bathroom--which I inspected before I left--the one piece of graffiti read: "Where Muscovites Belong." It was accompanied with an arrow pointing to the hole-in-the-floor toilet.

Leader of organisation, thirty-and-something years old, handsome, was in civilian clothes. Another man who accompanied him, but refused to identify himself, wore a camouflage uniform and a red-and-black armband with a stylized cross and the letters UNSO. Leader railed against a lot of things, but he complained most vociferously about the article in the Criminal Code of Ukraine (inherited from the USSR) that forbids participation in paramilitary groups. Members of UNA-UNSO cannot bear arms, at least within the borders of Ukraine.

And yet here he was, sitting in his Kiev office and telling me about his clearly paramilitary organization, about the volunteers UNA-UNSO trains in defiance of a government ban and about the group's various missions: to Abkhazia to fight on the Georgian side against the Russian-inspired separatists; to Moldova to fight against the pro-Romanian majority; to Yugoslavia to fight for the Serbs against the Bosnians.

Recently, the group sent volunteers to Crimea. "Not to fight--no, not yet," a visibly influential UNA-UNSO member, explained to me. "Just to gather information. You know, intelligence work." Dubbed "active recreation" groups, the volunteers "propagate the ideas of Ukrainian statehood and nationalism in the peninsula." These "active holiday-makers" are motivated out of the simple desire "to protect the interests of the Ukrainians residing in the Crimea."

The goals of UNA-UNSO, according to its leaders, are to overthrow the current Ukrainian government, because it is anti-national; to fight the mafia, because it is criminal; to fight homosexuals, because they are an aberration of nature; to fight the Jews, because they own all the banks and media. They want revolutionary masses to take power in Ukraine. Only the "force factor" can save the nation. He is sure that there will be war in Kiev soon, patriots on one side, "the sell-out power structure" on the other. If Russia attacks any part of Ukraine, UNA- UNSO's leaders assured me, there will be terrorist acts in Moscow. The IRA, the Kurdish resistance movement, the Afghan Mujahedin, the Cuban revolutionaries are all role models.

How dangerous is all that? Not very dangerous yet, but it could be. In June, a UNA-UNSO member of Parliament, Oleh Vitovych, called on Ukraine to halt the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from the country. The motion was backed by 141 of the body's 450 deputies. Interestingly, the recently elected president, Leonid Kuchma, has similar views; perhaps it is because his last job outside politics was as director of Yuzhmash, the biggest missile factory in the former Soviet Union.

Kuchma was elected with 54 percent of the nation's overall vote, but his opponent, Leonid Kravchuk, who claimed he was the true guardian of Ukraine's independence, got 94 percent of the ballots in Lviv; eleven other western regions strongly supported him, too. Voters in those areas who find themselves with a president whom they do not back may consider UNA-UNSO as a repository of their resentment. Meanwhile, in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, where Kuchma got between 80 percent and 90 percent of the votes, there are strong pro-Russian sentiments. In the coal-mining Donbass region, voters pronounced themselves in favor of closer links with Russia by a margin of ten to one.

Divisions like those are the stuff nationalist dreams are made of.

Magazine: New Republic

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