A spectre of armed conflict on Polish border?


July 29, 2015

A spectre of armed conflict on Polish border?

By Jacek Kaminski

Published by Mysl Polska [Polish Thought], a political weekly.

Translated from Polish by J.Hawk

The Right Sector invasion of Transcarpathia attracted international attention to this region, which may become the second source of Ukraine’s destabilization, after Donbass. Here too we are dealing with a complex ethnic make-up and oligarch conflicts. The only question is whether the Mukachevo skirmish and its consequences were sufficient to topple the unstable balance and unleash centrifugal forces.

This question is also important to consider from the narrowly defined Polish perspective, because we are no longer dealing with a war that’s taking place 1,500km from Polish borders, like in the Donbass. Transcarpathia borders with Poland’s Subcarpathian Voivodship, so any escalation there directly threatens Poland’s security.

UPA trail through Bieszczady?

This is a fait accompli. The armed to the teeth Right Sector group was, after a week of hiding from Ukrainian pursuit, was noted on the Jawornik mountain, 25km from the Polish border in the Bieszczady Mountains. There was fighting using combat helicopters and armored vehicles. In spite of the National Guard and 128th Brigade concentration, the militants still haven’t been caught. Theoretically, they could have already crossed the border and, like their UPA predecessors, found hiding places in the Polish Bieszczady, feeling safe on a territory of a country whose government remains friendly to all manifestations of Ukrainian nationalism.

Governments of adjacent Slovakia and Hungary informed that in the view of the growing danger they are strengthening their border guard forces facing Ukraine. We haven’t heard a similar statement from Warsaw. No wonder. It would have been an admission that the post-Maidan Ukraine has become a threat to Poland. And that would have completely discredited the Polish policy of supporting the Maidan and the political forces which have seized power its aftermath and which are disintegrating Ukraine. Therefore our media quickly silenced the discussion concerning the Euromaidan “heroes” armed with machine guns and RPGs and frolicking just on the other side of the border.

There was also no response to the words of one of Right Sector leaders Aleksandr Byk who said that his Transcarpathia compatriots who are chased by the Ukrainian military “have entered the path of guerrilla warfare against the KGB just as their UPA predecessors. It’s like 70 years ago, when UPA fought against the KGB tide using guerrilla tactics in the Carpathians,” in an interview with TV channel Inter. He referred to Ukrainian security agencies as an “repressive apparatus.” Those are threatening words. Too threatening to shock Polish public opinion.

There will be a confrontation

Naturally, Byk was exaggerating. So far only about a dozen militants are on the “UPA combat trail.” The rest are limiting themselves to visible but not overly threatening demonstrations which amount to establishing checkpoints on approaches to Kiev and Lvov and also border crossings with Poland and Ukraine. It was muscle-flexing right under Kiev’s nose, but so far the Right Sector has not decided to confront Poroshenko. Yarosh announced on a sparsely attended Maidan rally on July 21 that he will demand Poroshenko’s removal through a…referendum. That sounded a bit pathetic at a time when his subordinates were being tracked in Transcarpathia like prey.

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But we can bet that’s not the end of Right Sector vs. Poroshenko confrontation. This Maidan family quarrel was unavoidable and it has to lead to some kind of a resolution. The accidental clash of Right Sector and police in Mukachevo only accelerated its escalation. The conflict, however, has been ripening for a long time. It’s due to the fact that Poroshenko has sufficient control over the country and the security agencies that he no longer needs his troublesome, after all, allies. The Right Sector mobs were useful to him when time came to storm Yanukovych’s Berkut on the Maidan and when they “pacified” the South-East’s civilian population when the Maidan oligarch’s power was still weak.

Right now an alliance with open neo-Nazis is problematic for Poroshenko who pretends to be a “democratic, European leader.” On the other hand, Right Sector militants have had the taste of power and impunity and do not intend to leave the political scene. The situation still allows for temporary ceasefires and alliances, but in the longer term one side must eliminate the other.

At the moment Poroshenko is in the stronger position as it enjoys Pyatt’s support (which is a decisive factor in today’s Ukraine), but he is not strong enough to risk an armed, bloody confrontation with the Right Sector. But it cannot be tamed by means other than a “night of ling knives.” It has too big an arsenal by now. Yarosh, moreover, aware of his weakness, started making friendly gestures toward…Donbass insurgents whom he has been fighting until now. He withdrew his forces from the Donbass hours after the Mukachevo clash. He also started making noises about changing the geopolitical orientation–the Right Sector has not been and is not in favor of Ukraine joining the EU. It’s for neutrality. Like the Donbass miners, we are against NATO bases in Ukraine and therefore also against Ukraine’s NATO membership. We’re talking to both pro-EU and pro-Russian people–he said on TV channel Ukraine. He also added that the Right Sector will never again fight on the Donbass. Thus he clearly checked Poroshenko by suggesting the possibility of a tactical alliance with Donetsk in a joint march on Kiev, which is something that the leaders of the anti-oligarch uprising in the East have been trying to convince the “volunteer” battalions to do.

Transcarpathia as a powder keg

Independently of the course of Poroshenko-Yarosh confrontation, Mukachevo may trigger tectonic shifts on Transcarpathia. Which may not necessarily involve the Right Sector, at least not in the leading role. The region is the epicenter of several interest groups, starting with neighboring countries (mainly Hungary) through political movements, oligarch clans, and powerful organized crime groups. Of course the last two are pretty much one thing. This is a territory with a very fragile socio-political balance.

Mukachevo skirmish likely started with a Right Sector quarrel with Mikhail Lanio, a local oligarch, and his people, over the control of smuggling routes to and from the EU. Only after the police came to the gangsters’ aid, losing two killed in the process, did the mafia conflict become a military-political one. The armed clashes also had consequences which disturbed the balance among mafia-oligarch clans. First of all, Petro Poroshenko nominated Gennadiy Moskal, formerly the Lugansk Region (the part under Kiev’s control) governor known for his strong-armed approach toward the local population and conflicts with volunteer battalions over control of smuggling, to head the Transcarpathia Region. If Moskal applies his methods of governance to Transcarpathia, it may cause an explosion of discontent among a population which lives largely off smuggling. It’s enough to remember than a single truck of cigarettes to Italy brings profit of 500 thousand euro.

So far the smuggling proceeds have been flowing to two mafia-oligarch clans, Mikhail Lanio’s and the influential Baloga family’s whose main representative is Viktor Yushchenko’s former chief of staff, Viktor Baloga. If the new governor actually tries to cut on smuggling, which is what Poroshenko theoretically expects him to do, the situation will instantly heat up. One way or the other, Transcarpathia will see turmoil due to the struggle over spheres of influence, which is evident from Moskal’s dismissal of customs officials in the region. Hungary is preparing for this turn of events, as there is a large Hungarian minority in the region, most of whom have Hungarian citizenship.

The 160-thousand strong Hungarian minority is geographically compact. It is said that Hungarian special services are almost openly operating there, preparing self-defense units in the event of conflcit escalation. What is more, both of the main Transcarpathian clans, Lanio and Baloga (Balogh) are of Hungarian ancestry. So is the third influential family, the Geleteys (Valery Geletey of Ilovaysk infamy, was Ukraine’s Minister of Defense in 2014). But it’s too early to speculate whether any of them would support Budapest’s actions if Kiev goes too far in attempts to limit their authority over Transcarpathia.

A Second Front?

The social dissatisfaction may also lead to the strengthening of Transcarpathian Rusyn national movement. Ukrainian government does not recognize the existence of this nationality which is one of the causes of the region’s political tensions. While not every inhabitant of the region feels a separate regional identity, nevertheless there exists a very strong sense of separateness from the rest of Ukraine, especially from the hated Galicia. It was Yanukovych’s only electoral strongpoint in Western Ukraine. This factor influences the attitudes toward National Guard units brought to the region, which broke through to Mukachevo as if through enemy territory–dismantling truck tire barricades and pointing rifle barrels in all directions. Kiev’s first days of intervention on the Donbass looked like that too.

The Prime Minister of the Transcarpathian Rus Republic government in exile Petro Hecko has long predicted the opening of a second front against the Kiev junta to aid the Donbass insurgents. He was evidently bluffing as the Rusyns are too poorly organized and there was no basis for an armed uprising, but the deepening crisis may change that situation. Now Hecko is talking about an alliance with Hungary in the face of a Ukrainian nationalist threat. “Hungarians and Rusyns must not tolerate Right Sector actions. Mukachevo showed they understand only the language of force. Kiev wants to transform Transcarpathia into a second Galicia by imposing the OUN-UPA cult on Rusyns and Hungarians. But neither the Rusyns nor the Hungarians will agree to that. And if they take up arms, it will be Kiev’s fault,” warns Russian historian and publicist Oleg Nazarov.

That the Rusyn movement is facing more hostility is suggested by the 19 July shooting at the house of Vasiliy Dzhugan, the Transcarpathian Rusyn World Council leader. “If this continues, we’ll defend our families with armed force,” assures Petro Hecko.

It’s no wonder that the Viceroy of Ukraine Pyatt was forced to visit Transcarpathia on 21 July with a “housekeeping visit.” The presence of the most important individual in Ukrainian politics indicates that the US is seriously worried about the future of this unstable corner of its newest colony.

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