But while the war in Ukraine’s steel and coal belt bordering Russia may have settled into a tense stalemate, Azov is building in momentum, forging ties with far-right extremists beyond Ukraine’s borders.
And Croatia, the newest member of the European Union and a country where conservative currents are strong, is emerging as a key staging ground, according to the findings of a BIRN investigation.
Azov’s political wing is forging ties with a right-wing Croatian political bloc that made a strong showing in European elections in May, and the Ukrainian movement will hold a conference in Zagreb in September at which it may unveil plans for a ‘Foreign Legion’ of far-right sympathisers, built with the help of a Croatian war veteran.
“The Azov movement is growing. And they’re growing up fast,” said Seler.
Back in 2014, Seler described the war in Ukraine as part of a “struggle for the white European race, its culture and history.”
Five years on, Azov’s ambitions have found fertile soil in Croatia, where Seler said the movement would further its dream of building “a Europe of the nations”.
In 2014, after popular protests brought down Ukraine’s then pro-Russian president, the country’s army found itself helpless against a Russian move to annex Crimea and foment war in the eastern Donbass region.
Volunteer battalions rushed to the country’s defence, among them Azov. The unit soon earned a reputation as one of the most battle-committed, but also for its open-door policy to unabashed neo-Nazis.
Far-right groups in Ukraine grew in prominence with their role in the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych, arming barricades in the cauldron of Kyiv’s Maidan Nezalezhnosti, Independence Square, during months of freezing cold and finally fatal confrontation with police.
Five years on, the battalion is now formally known as the Azov Regiment and is part of Ukraine’s National Guard, a gendarmerie-type force that reports to the interior ministry. It also has a political wing, the National Corps, a paramilitary unit called the National Militia, a Youth Corps, sports bar, gymnasiums and a ‘social centre’ known as Cossack House just off the Maidan. The political wing is polling below the threshold to enter parliament in parliamentary elections in July.
In Ukraine, the far-right takes much of its inspiration from Stepan Bandera, commander of the underground Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists, OUN, during World War Two. Many Ukrainians see the OUN as heroes who defended Ukrainian independence, downplaying what a number of leading historians of the Holocaust argue was the group’s fascist tendencies and the role of some OUN members in aiding the Nazi killing of Jews.
Likewise, Croatia is grappling with WWII revisionism that has moved from the political fringes to the mainstream, questioning the crimes committed under fascist leaders of a short-lived independent Croatian state that was a puppet of Nazi Germany.
Nationalists from both Croatia and Ukraine see much in common in their countries’ recent histories. For them, Croatia’s fight for independence in the early 1990s against Serb rebels backed by its larger neighbour Serbia has echoes in the ongoing fight against Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine.
“On a more sentimental, subconscious level for Croats, Ukraine is a friend,” said Tomislav Sunic, a Croatian-American writer described as the ‘intellectual guru’ of the Croatian far-right.
‘Between the seas’
Under Olena Semenyaka, ‘international secretary’ of the National Corps, Azov has staged a number of gatherings and conferences and developed relationships and connections with far-right groups across Europe, including the neo-Nazi National Democratic Party, NDP, in Germany and the neo-fascist CasaPound movement in Italy.
In March this year, the Soufan Group, a New York-based organisation that conducts security analysis, described Azov as “a critical node in the transnational right-wing violent extremist (RWE) network.”
Azov hosts an annual ‘Paneuropa’ conference for allies from western Europe as well as an annual ‘Intermarium’ conference aimed at central and eastern Europe, mainly those countries that were once behind the Iron Curtain or part of socialist Yugoslavia.
In September, Azov is taking the Intermarium conference on the road for the first time, to Seler’s Zagreb.
Intermarium, or ‘between the seas’, is a regional security concept first touted by Poland’s post-World War One leader Jozef Pilsudski in the early 1930s.
Kyiv-based researcher Alexandra Wishart said Azov had given the idea new life, promoting it as a “springboard” to build an east European confederation of right-wing nationalist “ethno-states” free from what Azov perceives as the ‘cultural Marxism’ of the EU and the ‘neo-Bolshevism’ of Russia.
Wishart, a graduate student at the University of Glasgow and National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, said Croatia was central to Azov’s plans.
“Croatia is a key player within the Balkans and central enough to help neutralize Russian or EU influence there,” said Wishart, who attended the October 2018 Intermarium conference in Kyiv as an observer.
Seler confirmed Zagreb would host the conference, bringing together delegates from Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic states, Norway, Denmark and Sweden, he said.
It will be a chance to cement developing ties between Azov and the Croatian Sovereigntists, an alliance of far-right parties which came a surprise third in Croatia in European Parliament elections in May with 8.5 per cent of the vote. The alliance has one MP in the Croatian parliament but is polling at almost six per cent with parliamentary elections due next year.
The alliance’s sole MEP is Ruza Tomasic, a former police officer who left socialist Yugoslavia for Canada aged 15 and recently made headlines in Croatia when photographs were published showing her in fascist uniform while living in Canada and apparently glorifying Croatian WWII fascist leader Ante Pavelic. Tomasic told a Croatian journalist that she was “not ashamed” of this, but that she “[did] not stand by some of those things today.”
In a January social media post, an account run by Semenyaka said that “the coalition of Croatian nationalist parties is taking shape side by side with the progress in the preparation for the next Intermarium conference by Croatian and Ukrainian enthusiasts.”
Seler said the guest of honour would be Andriy Biletsky, leader of Azov’s political wing, National Corps, and an MP in the Ukrainian parliament, which he entered in 2014 as an independent. Semenyaka did not confirm the visit.
Azov allies in Croatian ‘Sovereigntists’
Biletsky previously headed the openly neo-Nazi Patriot of Ukraine organisation and spent 28 months in prison on attempted murder charges. Never tried, he was released and the charges were dropped under a parliament decree on ‘political prisoners’ in 2014 following the revolution on the Maidan.
Biletsky has made the Intermarium concept part of the ‘official geopolitical doctrine’ of the National Corps.
Seler said the purpose of Biletsky’s visit was to meet representatives of Croatia’s right-wing, particularly members of the Sovereigntists.
Tomasic initially said she was unaware of any planned visit from Biletsky but then appeared to contradict herself and told BIRN that a Croatian man, whose name she did not recall, had approached her regarding a planned visit to Zagreb by Biletsky that would include a meeting with Tomasic and other Sovereigntist politicians.
“I said fine, I’m willing to talk to anybody,” Tomasic said, but denied having anything to do with organising the trip or the Intermarium conference.
Some Sovereigntists, however, are less coy about their relationship with Azov.
Sunic, a far-right author and translator who ran unsuccessfully for the European Parliament on behalf of the Sovereigntists, told BIRN he plans to attend the Intermarium conference and that he is in regular communication with Semenyaka.
Denis Bevanda, secretary general of the Croatian Conservative Party, one of the main parties within the Sovereigntists, shared a photo on Instagram earlier this year of himself alongside Seler.
The post referred to the Azov Battalion in English and Ukrainian and declared ‘Slava Ukrayini!’ or ‘Long live Ukraine!’ – the battle cry of the OUN during WWII and of protesters during the 2014 revolution, and now an official greeting of the Ukrainian army.
Croatian-French nationalist author Jure Vujic, seventh on the Sovereigntists’ party list for the European Parliament, participated in a conference in Zagreb in December 2017 co-hosted by Semenyaka and Leo Maric of Croatian identitarian group Generacija Obnove (“Generation Renewal”)
Maric, who has attended a number of Azov conferences in Kyiv, declined comment for this story, accusing BIRN of “unprofessional journalism and political bias” in its coverage of Croatia and nationalist politics in general.
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