War veterans steal limelight in Ukraine's new parliament

KIEV (Reuters) - War veterans and nationalist radicals brought a revolutionary air to the opening on Thursday of Ukraine’s new parliament convened to name a government to hold the country together and set out a program of far-reaching reform.

Hundreds of riot police guarded the building as the parliament quickly formed a five-party coalition of support for the pro-Western President Petro Poroshenko and later elected Arseny Yatseniuk for a new term as prime minister.

But it was the men, and women, of force who stole the limelight from the besuited politicians when proceedings opened in the ornate parliament building a short walk from Kiev’s Independence Square or Maidan, the center of last winter’s Euromaidan revolution.

Several deputies in battle fatigues -- the sign of volunteer fighters from the war front against pro-Russian separatists -- stood out among the ranks of politicians who swore an oath of allegiance in the 450-seat assembly.

Outgoing speaker Oleksander Turchynov brought an air of triumph by announcing that one of the deputies, Nadia Savchenko, a Ukrainian military pilot, had managed to take the oath, with the help of her lawyer, despite being held in a Moscow psychiatric clinic.

Savchenko, 33, was captured by separatists and spirited into Russia where she is accused of involvement in the deaths of two Russian journalists in Ukraine. To cheers from the assembly, her signed oath was flashed up on a giant screen.

In a break with the old Soviet-style proceedings, many male deputies wore traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirts under their jackets.

Outside the chamber, fighters from various volunteer battalions, as well as serving soldiers -- many of them who have become household names in the past year of revolution and war -- mingled with the media.

Yuli Mamchur, 43, a diminutive Ukrainian air force colonel, who became an overnight hero when he defied pro-Russian forces by refusing to leave his post in Crimea last March, seemed nonplussed in the hustle and bustle around him.

Asked if life was easier for him as a member of the Kiev parliament than when he was serving in Crimea, he replied: “No. It’s harder here. I don’t know a lot of people here. One has to define the atmosphere and work out the disposition of forces. But one must get down to battle. There’s no other way.”


Other new deputies struck a truculent mood. Dmytro Yarosh, 43, who leads the far-right nationalist Right Sector, said he would work to reform the military to turn it into a better fighting force. “If we don’t stop the enemy, then to try to build a state makes no sense,” he said.

Right Sector was blamed last January for first using violent tactics against riot police, changing the face of what had been until then a peaceful demonstration against the Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovich.

Volodymyr Parasiuk, a boyish 26-year-old from the western city of Lviv who is credited with giving an impromptu speech that turned the Maidan against an EU-brokered deal that would have allowed the now-ousted Yanukovich to stay in office, seemed disoriented away from the war front where he has been serving.

He had to check with journalists to find the right door for deputies to enter the parliament.

There were fighting words from Andriy Biletsky, an ultranationalist who leads the Azov battalion of volunteer fighters and who was elected deputy in the Oct. 26 election.

The emblem of the Azov battalion -- a black capital Z slicing across a black vertical -- is strikingly similar to the Nazi swastika and Biletski’s presence in parliament will feed Russian accusations of “fascist” influence on Ukrainian policy.

Asked why he was not wearing combat fatigues, Biletski said: “Camouflage is a comedy in the town and in parliament.”

But he said he would be going back to the front on Friday to Mariupol, a southern coastal town under threat from pro-Russian forces. “There are as many camouflage uniforms there as you want, but not here!”

Mikhailo Gavrilyuk, 35, won sympathy in Ukraine when he was forced to strip on a cold day in January by riot police who humiliated him in front of video cameras.

Sporting a Ukrainian cossack haircut of a single lock of hair on an otherwise shaven head, he said his main challenge was working out “what makes each person here tick.”

Pro-Western parties won a mandate to end the separatist conflict and steer the country further out of Russia’s orbit toward Europe, though a grouping called the Opposition bloc which includes allies of the now-discredited Yanukovich also won representation.

One Opposition Bloc deputy, billionaire Vadim Novinsky, said: “It does not embarrass me that we are so few. It is only the beginning. Without a good opposition, there is no good government.”

Writing by Richard Balmforth; editing by Giles Elgood