KIEV (Reuters) - Andriy Verbetskiy is not a typical election observer. Just days before Sunday’s presidential vote in Ukraine, he was leading several hundred members of an ultra-nationalist group called the National Militia in a protest that ended in clashes with police.
He is one of 363 members of the National Militia movement, a camouflage-clad group known for its appeals to patriotism and promise “to use force to establish order”, who have officially registered to monitor the vote.
Their planned presence in polling stations across the country has caused concern about the prospect of violence during a close election that will decide who leads a country at the hard edge of a standoff between Russia and the West.
The movement, which has repeatedly collided with police, says its members may take control of ballot boxes and close polling stations pending the arrival of police if they detect cheating, setting up possible confrontations.
But it also stresses it aims to work hand-in-hand with police and election officials and the Central Election Commission, asked why it had registered them, said it had no reason to refuse them.
The group is focused on criticizing corruption and the government, although it does not formally support any candidate in the contest, in which President Petro Poroshenko is trailing comic actor Volodymyr Zelenskiy, with former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko a close third, setting the scene for a runoff vote next month.
Photographs from Wednesday’s protest, outside a Poroshenko campaign rally, showed hundreds of young men carrying anti-corruption banners, many wearing balaclavas, clashing with a cordon of riot police. Some protesters threw flaming flares. Verbetskiy was photographed handcuffed on the ground.
“This happens regularly. Police squeeze us out,” he told Reuters the following day. “They hit me with batons and put restraints on my arms, twisted me up, kicked me in the head,” he said, denying what he said were police accusations of hooliganism and possession of pepper spray and pyrotechnics.
Police in the western Ukrainian town, Vinnytsia, said they had plenty of video evidence proving the protesters were violent, and that the detainees did not lodge any formal complaints about receiving injuries during detention, and refused routine offers of legal and medical aid.
Verbetskiy, asked whether the incident would interfere with his role as an election observer in Vinnytsia, his home town, said no. “The court case is just for a small administrative violation,” he said.
He and three other National Militia members on the election observer register said their main aim was to tackle corruption.
“The challenge is very simple... Our job is to record and to bring any violation to the attention of the police,” said Verbetskiy, who added he has been detained by police several times.
Oleksandr Alfyorov, spokesman for the group’s political party National Corps, which has two members of parliament but is not fielding a presidential candidate, said the National Militia observers had been trained by independent experts.
Their first response to any violation will be to film and report it, he said. However, if they deem it necessary, they will also have the option of imposing a lockdown, closing the polling station and taking the ballot box into their custody until police arrive, Alfyorov added.
Allegations of electoral fraud are already flying around, with Poroshenko and Tymoshenko trading accusations and Zelenskiy implying wrongdoing by his rivals via his jokes.
A recent letter by ambassadors from the G7 group of nations, leaked to RFE/RL, called on Ukraine’s interior minister, Arsen Avakov, to take action to curb the power of what it called “extreme political movements”.
“They intimidate Ukrainian citizens, attempt to usurp the role of the National Police in safeguarding elections, and damage the Ukrainian government’s national and international reputation,” French Ambassador Isabelle Dumont was cited as saying in the letter.
Avakov said the police were in control and critics were perpetuating what he said were two myths.
“The first myth is that radical groups will sabotage the elections… This myth does not reflect reality, since we have enough power to prevent this situation wherever it may occur,” he was cited by Interfax as saying at a meeting of international election monitors on Thursday.
“The second myth is that ‘radical groups are governed by the interior ministry and are Avakov’s personal army’. This myth is more to do with emotions and politics.”
Verbetskiy, 25, has been a member of nationalist movements since he was 15 years old, and met his wife in the movement. He joined the relatively new National Militia a few months ago.
The group is a successor to the ultra-nationalist Azov Battalion which fought pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine in a still-simmering conflict which broke out after Moscow annexed Crimea and the West imposed sanctions on Russia.
Another Western diplomat expressed concern over the impact hundreds of ultranationalist observers may have on the perceived legitimacy of the election’s outcome, in particular that it may feed into Russian attempts to discredit the result.
“Russia paints you as a fascist state. Think about how this looks,” the diplomat said, while stressing that Ukraine did not have a more serious problem with such groups than many other European countries.
In a speech on Thursday, Poroshenko made clear his government was aware of the perception and legitimacy issue.
“I am absolutely confident that we have enough power not to allow any pro-(Russian President Vladimir) Putin, or nationalistic, or small Nazi groups to try to block or to cancel or to attack our election,” he said.
“We are responsible, we understand how important this election is for democracy in Ukraine.”
Writing by Polina Ivanova; editing by Philippa Fletcher