Ukraine’s civil war has spread to the western side of the tragic country. Not that you’d know it if you rely on the western mainstream media for your news.
Experienced ‘Russia watchers’ know that most Russia/Ukraine‘beat’ hacks are to journalism what Keanu Reeves is to acting. They look the part but they can’t play it. Like eunuchs at a harem, they see others doing it every day but can't do it themselves. Even so, you’d think they'd at least acknowledge a shootout between far right lunatics and Ukrainian authorities less than an hour from the EU border?
Our old friend Christopher Miller is supposed to be Mashable’s resident Ukraine guru, so you'd expect him to have the latest. Sadly, Christopher has totally ignored this juicy story and instead has been busy posting his unique brand of non-stop anti-Russian propaganda. Like a Sam’s Choice Joe Goebbels, he relentlessly beats a pro-Kiev drum while pasting a country he has hardly ever been to and knows little about.
Buzzfeed devotes huge resources to covering Ukraine. Hence, I was hopeful they’d have the inside track. Their only recent reference to Mukachevo appears to be a description of how its monasteries look like palaces. Meanwhile, Buzzfeed’s Kiev correspondent has this month published six stories concerning Russia and nothing about Ukraine at all. This would be the equivalent of covering the United Kingdom from Dublin.
Across established media, mention of the Mukachevo incident has been muted. The New York Times buried it on page A9, for instance. However, they did at least cover it. So too the Daily Telegraph of London, where Roland Oliphant broke ranks with fellow hack-packers to pen a very good summary. Even the Kyiv Post, hardly known for opposing right-wing extremists in Ukraine, didn’t run away from the story.
The real story
For the benefit of those who rely on American media for their news, this is what happened in Mukachevo. On Saturday last, the fascist Right Sector (‘Pravy Sektor’) group, which played a significant role in the Euromaidan coup last year, engaged in a shoot-out with Ukrainian police. According to Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Kiev’s Interior Ministry, there were around 20 militia men, armed to the teeth, involved in the exchange.
The neo-Nazi organization claims that a local politician, Mykhaylo Lanyo, ordered police to open fire on their members. Right Sector further alleges that the ‘volunteers’ were merely attending a meeting when they were set upon by blood-thirsty cops. It is accepted that the fascists fired rocket-propelled grenade launchers and Kalashnikov automatic rifles. Now, whatever one may think of Ukraine’s police, they are not noted for taking a principled stand against hoodlums which have serious firepower to hand. Additionally, if Right Sector were really interested in curtailing smuggling, why would they hold secret meetings with local mafia leaders?
Mustafa Nayyem, a Ukrainian MP and former journalist wrote on his Facebook page that the real reason for the violence was a dispute over the redistribution of the cigarette smuggling business. Nayyem was in Mukacheve last week. The Afghan-born Rada member’s account seems the most plausible.
Let’s be clear here. Lanyo is a gangster, like most regional governors in Ukraine. The Right Sector is also a bunch of gangsters, masquerading as patriots. Meanwhile, the government in Kiev is also, predominantly, a skulk of thieves. All Maidan achieved was to replace one cabal of crooks with another. This is the reality and no amount of Western media whitewashing can alter this fact.
When the Right Sector was doing NATO’s bidding in helping to overthrow the elected, albeit horrible, Yanukovich government in Kiev, their extremism was ignored by the EU and US press. Now the same outlets are probably too embarrassed to expose the group's modus operandi.
For example, on Monday night, the organization’s former Rada candidate, Oleh Kutserib, attended a rally in Kiev, in support of his fellow Nazis. On the way home, he beat up two gay men and then bragged about it on Facebook. I am indebted to the courageous Ukrainian journalist Maxim Eristavi for highlighting this and linking to the offending post. Eristavi, a co-founder of the US embassy-funded Hromadske TV, has been one of the few Maidan cheerleaders honest enough to admit the true colors of some of its protagonists.
No smoke without fire
Reaction in Kiev government circles to the Mukachevo shoot-out has been mixed. Of course, these extremists that overthrew Yanukovich and current President Petro Poroshenko know only too well that they could repeat the trick and topple his regime. Naturally a government which relies on private militias to perform army duties is completely impotent when faced with the gang threat. This brings to mind the old dictum, “lie down with the dogs and wake up with the fleas.”
Anyway, there is little doubt the weekend’s events were somehow related to contraband. The south-west Ukrainian region of Zakarpattia is renowned for being a hot bed of smuggling activity, which is the lifeblood of western Ukraine. Anybody who has ever crossed the Ukrainian/EU frontier at Chop (Hungary) or Medyka (Poland) can attest to this.
At the Polish border town of Medyka the practice looks, outwardly, more sad than sinister. All day, lines upon lines of Ukrainians wait to enter Poland, ferrying cigarettes and vodka. It’s reportedly a lucrative business: a legal pack of cigarettes in Ukraine costs €0.94, compared to around €7 in France, where many of the smuggled ‘cancer-sticks’ end up. On the return trip, Medyka’s smugglers bring meat which is, somewhat bizarrely, cheaper in Poland than Ukraine. Border guards on both sides either turn a blind eye or are, more likely, paid to do so. Occasionally the Polish make a few ‘raids,’ one presumes to satisfy some kind of EU quota.
At Chop, in the same region as the weekend’s ISIS-style gun fight, it’s a lot more aggressive. One noted local scam is related to car license plates. While your car is ‘checked,’ local customs remove the plates and insist you go to the local police station to get them back. Once there, it costs €50 to release them. In 2010, the room contained hundreds of them, mostly Slovakian and Hungarian.
I personally encountered the reality of Ukrainian corruption in Chop, back in 2011. Upon arriving from Lviv, I had a one-hour wait for a train to make the five minute passage to the next Hungarian station. A‘friendly’ Ukrainian border control operative accosted me and insisted I take a €25 taxi ride to the frontier with a ‘taxi driver.’ Eventually, he claimed that the train was cancelled, even though the notice board clearly said it was due. When I repeatedly refused, the officer grabbed my passport for‘stamping’ and when he returned it; the plastic on the information page had been lifted off, rendering it invalid. The train arrived a few minutes later and the Hungarian authorities met my problem with a resigned shrug - they said it happened every day.
Fast forward to today and far-right thugs are seeking control of the lucrative cigarette smuggling business on the frontier. Right Sector is essentially Ukraine's largest private army, boasting 10,000 armed members. In recent weeks the group has intensified its anti-Kiev rhetoric in Mukachevo, labeling the government "an inner occupying force" and suggesting it should be overthrown.
Not long ago, the US propaganda outlet VOA interviewed the faux patriot’s spokesman Artem Skoropadsky and he said: "If there's a new revolution, Ukraine's President Poroshenko and his teammates won't be able to make it out of the country the way the previous president did. They can't expect anything other than an execution in some dark vault, carried out by a group of young officers of Ukraine's army and National Guard.” Skoropadsky also said that another coup is inevitable if the government refuses to acquiesce to Right Sector demands.
The Ukrainian civil war has moved west. Whereas the eastern rebels and gangsters are ‘only’ seeking to secede from Kiev, their western brethren wish to take over the entire country and control all its criminal levers. Ukraine one year after the Maidan coup - the actors have changed, but the script sounds the same to me.
Bryan MacDonald is an Irish writer and commentator focusing on Russia and its hinterlands and international geo-politics. Follow him on Facebook