Far-right group flexes during Ukraine "revolution"

KIEV, Ukraine — Among the orange ribbons, rabbit ears and dyed hair of the Ukrainian students who have become the happy face of the Orange Revolution, a darker color has become more prominent: the green camouflage uniforms of a far-right nationalist group.

"We are soldiers on an assignment," said one of them, Roman Dubynevych. "We are here to guard the revolution and to prevent Russia's interference."

Dubynevych commands a unit of the Ukrainian National Assembly-Self Defense Organization, which says it has provided much of the muscle behind the weeks of protests in support of opposition candidate Viktor Yushchenko, the apparent winner in Dec. 26's rerun of the presidential runoff.

Although the protests have not been violent and Yushchenko promises to bring Western-style reforms to Ukraine, the presence of the group, known by its Ukrainian acronym, UNA-UNSO, underlines concerns of Yushchenko's foes that his leadership will enflame nationalism and intense anti-Russian sentiment.

As the number of orange-wearing protesters declined in recent weeks, UNA-UNSO's dark green uniforms and Iron Cross-like insignia got increasing notice.

But group member Andriy Bondarenko said it was a key element right from the start, when the huge rallies — dominated by young people dancing and celebrating in the streets — were launched to protest a fraudulent Nov. 21 run-off vote in which Yushchenko's Russian-backed opponent, Viktor Yanukovych, was declared the winner.

Members of the UNA-UNSO turned an abandoned sugar factory in Kiev into quarters from which they coordinated the weekslong blockade of outgoing President Leonid Kuchma's office. It also provided men to serve in Yushchenko's personal-security detail, Bondarenko said.

Yanukovych has submitted his resignation as prime minister but hasn't conceded defeat in the Dec. 26 court-ordered revoting. So UNA-UNSO members say they will stay in the sprawling tent camp the opposition set up on Kiev's main street for as long as necessary, despite the cold weather and decline in food donations.

"First they were bringing us soup and hot meals, then canned food; now we are reduced to bread and bacon, but what more does a soldier need?" Dubynevych said.

As he spoke, other group members peeled onions and chopped sour cucumbers.

The fiercely anti-Russian Ukrainian National Assembly was created in 1990 and its paramilitary wing UNA-UNSO in 1991 after an abortive putsch in Moscow.

UNA-UNSO is reputed to have more than 1,000 members. They brag about their exploits in the first Chechen war, where they say they fought alongside Chechen rebels; in the 1991-1995 Balkan wars; and in Georgia's breakaway province of Abkhazia, which has received strong support from Russia.

Dozens reportedly were killed fighting alongside Georgian troops, and then-Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze decorated the group's leader, Ihor Mazur, for bravery.

The group maintains training camps in western Ukraine's Carpathian mountains where its members practice guerrilla-warfare skills such as hand-to-hand combat and survival.

Its Web site includes such items as a statement of solidarity with Chile's ex-dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet and a report about a treaty of "friendship and cooperation" with representatives of German neo-Nazis.

However, Mazur rejects widespread claims that the organization is anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi. "We want a democratic Ukraine in a unified Europe," Mazur said.

Leonid Finberg, the head of the Kiev-based Jewish Yudaica Institute, agreed. "Five or six years ago there were people with such sentiments, but that was not part of that organization's policy," he said.