KIEV Feb 24 Some wear black balaclavas and
grubby army fatigues, others wield spiked iron clubs, all united
in a common goal to protect Kiev in the power vacuum following
the ouster of president Viktor Yanukovich.
This self-styled defence force also has designs beyond the
In the months of anti-government protests that culminated in
fatal gun battles and the fall of the president, a hard core of
demonstrators has coalesced into units of about 100 men, forming
the vanguard of the fight to bring down Yanukovich and
recalibrate Ukraine towards Europe.
It was these groups, known as 'sotnyi', that took control of
Yanukovich's offices after he fled the capital late on Friday.
Their men continue to patrol the streets, standing guard
outside state buildings or marching two-by-two through the
crowds on Kiev's Independence Square, widely known as Maidan and
the crucible of an East-West tug-of-war over this country of 46
On Institutska street, the site of some of the bloodiest
fighting of last week's clashes, two flak-jacketed 'defenders of
Maidan' controlled the entrance to Ukraine's Central Bank, a
central pillar of its teetering economy.
"Kiev is still under threat," said one of them, who gave his
name as Ruslan, a portly 43-year-old taxi driver from western
Ukraine, the engine-room of Ukraine's pro-European movement.
"We have to stand here because the money for rebuilding all
of this will be coming out of our pockets, via this bank," he
said, clutching a wooden baseball bat.
Down the street, helmeted men in second-hand camouflage gear
linked arms in a human barricade to stop curious passers-by from
entering the presidential administration building.
The groups operate with the blessing of a parliament now
controlled by Yanukovich's foes and a police force that melted
away on Saturday when he was toppled.
On Sunday, the Interior Ministry said Kiev's traffic police
would work alongside the activists to maintain order on the
The exclusively male guards, many of whom are teenagers, are
based in tent camps on Independence Square, where they gather
around braziers or perch on barricades of tyres and torn up
The camaraderie is infectious, but the improvised security
apparatus reflects deep uncertainty over the future of Ukraine,
where a fugitive president threatens to fan the flames of
separatism and the economy risks collapse.
The sotnyi say they are needed to protect Ukraine's people
and institutions of power during a time of political flux, at
least until a new president is elected on May 25.
But it now appears their ambitions extend far beyond Kiev,
into Yanukovich's eastern heartland, a collection of mainly
Russian-speaking regions that are uneasy with events in the
Regional leaders in the east gathered on Saturday and issued
a challenge to the legitimacy of the national parliament.
The tensions are fuelling fears of Ukraine coming apart
along an historic linguistic and cultural faultine between east
With this in mind, Ruslan said sotnyi members were heading
"They're going to Donetsk, Kharkiv, Lugansk - regions where
there's lots still to be done," he said.
Another, guarding the entrance to the farming ministry now
occupied by men of the radical anti-Yanukovich group Spilna
Sprava, also said Kiev's self-styled protectors were maintaining
order in the east.
"WE'RE NOT DEVILS"
If true, the results could be explosive.
"We're seeing hundreds of volunteers every day. We're now
sending some out east, to Kharkiv and elsewhere," said Lyubomir,
a 58-year-old veteran of the Soviet army who said he served in
Young recruits in assorted military garb traipsed past him,
flashing their improvised security passes.
Some on the Maidan, however, fear the expansion east may be
seen as an act of aggression, resented by easterners who look to
old connections with Russia rather than Europe as a guarantee of
"The police have said they support the people - it's their
job to protect society now," said 27-year-old financial adviser
"Sending these guys east could be seen as provocation.
People there won't like it."
The unofficial uniform of the guards is distinctly military
in style, comprised of jackboots, balaclavas, assorted
camouflage, body-armour, and large metal shields.
Many of the volunteers are unemployed and find a sense of
purpose among their comrades-in-arms.
They receive no pay, but if history is any guide, many may
seek a place in the new political order once it is firmly in
place. Ruslan, at least, said he sought no reward.
"We don't have horns, we're not devils - we're peaceful
people who want their children as well as ours to live under a
normal government," he said.
"When all this is over, we'll just go home and work in our
gardens, but we'll always be ready at the first call."