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National Corps: why Ukraine's far-right party is enjoying growing support

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Andriy Biletsky, leader of the National Corps (centre), with the activists
Andriy Biletsky, leader of the National Corps (centre), with the activists -
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Kate Baklitskaya
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"The streets will be ours, we will do everything for that!" said Rodion Kudryashov, one of the leaders of Ukrainian far-right party National Corps.

His comments came as 2,000 supporters of the ultra-nationalist movement hit the streets of Kiev for a second-anniversary march on Saturday evening (March 2).

There were three times as many people as last year and some believe Ukraine’s faltering economic situation is helping such far-right groups.

The National Corps is a political party that emerged from a paramilitary group — the Azov regiment — fighting in eastern Ukraine. Founded in 2016, it advocates expanding the right to bear arms and restoring capital punishment.

"Today we see how successful our movement is," said Andriy Biletsky, the leader of the National Corps, during his celebration speech.

"One of the main tasks of our movement was to create an example of the proactive Ukrainian youth. You are the real example. Not your words but your deeds speak for you.

"Ukraine is tired of the chaos, it needs new people who will protect the country. And in 2019, you, the young nationalists have a great task, you need to make a step forward. Glory to the nation!"

Economic crisis fuels far-right rise

Five years after its revolution, Ukraine is still suffering from a difficult economic situation, low living standards, lingering corruption and the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine, which killed 13,000 people and left 1.5 million internally-displaced.

Ahead of Ukraine’s March 31 presidential election and a parliamentary poll in the autumn, some people do not feel like politicians will be able to change their lives for the better.

All this gave ground for once marginal far-right groups to gain popularity in society over the past five years.

In a report published by Freedom House last year, the far-right political forces were considered a real threat to the democratic development of Ukrainian society.

"Many of the groups active in Ukraine have real combat experience, paramilitary formation and even access to weapons," outlined Freedom House analyst Vyacheslav Likhachev. "These groups are trying to aggressively impose their will on Ukrainian society, including using force against those who have opposite political and cultural views.

"They pose a real physical threat to left-wing, feminist and liberal movements, LGBT activists, human rights activists, and ethnic and religious minorities.”

Voters' support still low

Although far-right groups have become much more active over the past year, the results of recent polls show that they do not have significant support from voters in the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections.

According to the latest data released in February by Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, the most popular far-right party is Svoboda, which was supported by 0.9% of the total number of respondents (and 1.7% of respondents who would go and vote). This is a huge drop in support compared to September 2017 when 7.1% of respondents were ready to vote for Svoboda.

Other ultra-right parties are even less popular among voters and even a potential bloc of nationalist parties would not be able to claim representation in the parliament as the ideological differences between groups are too big.

But the demonstration of the power of the far-right groups threatens the legitimacy of the state, undermine its democratic institutions and discredit the law enforcement bodies of the country, according to Likhachev.

This is especially crucial ahead of presidential elections later in March with trust in politicians already low.

Tackling violence

There are also questions about whether the state is doing enough to tackle nationalists accused of violent acts. A deadly attack at a Roma camp in Lviv last year — linked to far-right groups — has not seen anyone put behind bars.

Yuriy Zozulya, head of the Kyiv Patrol Police Department, commented on the increase of violence.

"Only the law enforcement bodies should have the monopoly to use the force," he said. "I'm all in support of people expressing their thoughts using words but not attack."

But the National Corps do not see themselves as a threat to Ukraine's democracy and say they use legal means to protect public order.

While the far-right were demonstrating their power by marching through Kiev on Saturday evening, human rights activists called for Ukrainian society, law enforcement bodies and the international community to take effective measures to fight extremism in Ukraine.