Why you should care
Because in a country on edge, he’s supposed to be keeping order.
On Feb. 20, 2014, Igor Mikhailenko sat in the tribunal room of a small local court on the outskirts of Kharkiv, a Ukrainian city just 25 miles away from the Russian border. With two other members of a local neo-fascist group called Patriot of Ukraine, Mikhailenko stood accused of an attempted murder from 2011.
At that exact moment, 250 miles to the west, history was unfolding in the capital of Kiev: In the early morning, government riot troops opened fire on protesters who had started to walk up Institutskaya Street, a long avenue leading to the government district. By the end of the day, 48 people had been shot dead in what became the bloodiest day of the protest against President Viktor Yanukovych. As any sense of state authority unraveled in the capital, Yanukovych boarded a helicopter and ultimately fled the country. Within days, a decree of the interim government called Mikhailenko and 22 other people “political prisoners” and demanded their immediate liberation.
Five years later, Mikhailenko sits down in a Georgian restaurant in the center of Kiev not only as a free man, but also as a decorated war veteran and head of the National Militia, a controversial paramilitary group created just a year ago. In January, the National Militia hit local headlines when the Central Election Commission officially granted the group’s request to be observers for the March 31 presidential election. The race has already been one of the most unpredictable in the country’s history, with three contenders currently battling for a place in the second round: incumbent President Petro Poroshenko, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian who had never been previously involved in politics but has topped the polls for weeks now.
In every country, in every society, an election is like a small civil war.
The announcement that a group known for attacks against Roma and LGBT minorities and a habit of storming local city councils to pressure authorities would monitor the elections was met with dismay by human rights defenders and Western diplomats. In February, the U.S. State Department described the Azov battalion, the umbrella organization the National Militia emerged from, as a “nationalist hate group.” As news broke that the National Militia would be allowed to deploy its members in the country’s polling stations, the organization started to set its sights on Poroshenko, disrupting several of his rallies and clashing with the police in confrontations that left dozens injured.
Mikhailenko, 30, thinly built and with a hesitant look, claims this new role is a logical extension of the National Militia’s stated mission to “bring order to Ukrainian streets,” which sees the group’s often young members patrolling Ukrainian cities in black and gray uniforms. “In every country, in every society, an election is like a small civil war,” he says over tea, attributing the saying to an unnamed American politician. “Now our country has lived through the annexation of Crimea, through aggression from the Russian Federation, and this can be used to destabilize Ukraine. We want to prevent this from happening.”
Azov’s National Militia has become the embodiment of the fear that an already unpredictable election could turn violent. The militia’s recent confrontations at Poroshenko rallies prompted a group of Western ambassadors to send a letter to Interior Minister Arsen Avakov in which they urged him to “envisage … outlawing extremist groups in due course,” according to a report by Radio Free Europe.
But while Mikhailenko’s organization has been at the heart of the controversy, few people believe he is his own man. “I just don’t think he’s the one in charge,” says Volodymyr Ishchenko, a specialist of the Ukrainian far right. Who is? Experts say one figure, in particular, was instrumental in Mikhailenko’s rise: Andriy Biletsky, the founder of the Azov organization.
In 2014, as Russia-backed separatists started taking control of territory in the country’s east, it became obvious a neglected and underfunded Ukrainian military could not face the threat. Several volunteers, privately funded battalions formed to patch the holes, with Azov quickly becoming the most important. The battalion’s openly extremist ideology (its logo features the Wolfsangel, a Nazi symbol, though Azov itself denies the connection) and accusations of war crimes raised concerns from the start. But Azov’s involvement in most of the conflict’s major battles also made it popular across the country and kick-started the group’s foray into politics.
In November 2014, Biletsky became a deputy in Ukraine’s Parliament and handed Mikhailenko command of the 800-man battalion — at first glance, a daunting task for a 26-year-old with no previous military experience or higher education.
“He was just a kid,” recalls Mikael Skillt, a Swedish security consultant based in Kiev who joined the Azov battalion in 2014. Skillt believes that, “considering the circumstances,” Mikhailenko “did a good job” commanding Azov. But according to Marko Melnik, another former member of the battalion, commanding isn’t really what the “quiet” Mikhailenko did. “There were no initiatives from him. He was absolutely loyal to Biletsky, and was just relaying his orders,” Melnik says. Biletsky effectively kept control of the battalion, which was later incorporated into the country’s National Guard.
The roots of Mikhailenko’s loyalty toward Biletsky leads back to Kharkiv, where Mikhailenko spent most of his youth. The two men had known each other since 2005, but several people familiar with Azov’s origins say they grew closer in 2011, when they both became involved in the attempted murder case.
That August, Sergei Kolesnik, a local blogger, entered the office of Patriot of Ukraine, a neo-fascist organization Mikhailenko and Biletsky were both part of and which would later form the core of the Azov group. Mikhailenko claims Kolesnik took out a gun — a nonlethal Fort-12R pistol — and started shooting, forcing him and another member of the group to defend themselves. However, the court later noted that while Mikhailenko had received only light injuries, Kolesnik was stabbed four times in the chest and hit in the head with a hammer, barely surviving his injuries. Biletsky was present too; all three men were accused of attempted murder and arrested in December 2011. They remained in jail until their liberation in February 2014.
These days, Mikhailenko insists that he and his National Militia are independent, though he admits that he worked out the idea of a street formation patrolling Ukrainian cities with Biletsky. As the first round of the presidential election this Sunday approaches, the main question is whether the National Militia will be involved in violence on Election Day. Speaking in Kiev, Mikhailenko says the group would fully cooperate with law enforcement. But a few days later, he wrote on social media that if members of the National Militia saw someone trying to falsify the results and the police did not react, they would “punch him in the face.”
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