Dmytro Yarosh smiles as he takes a seat behind a tiny desk in a hotel room barely big enough to hold three people.
The desktop is largely clear except for a few papers, a large ashtray, two cell phones and a pack of cigarettes. Pictures of Jesus and Mary sit on a table in the corner.
Mr. Yarosh is wearing a black military-type sweater, black pants and black shoes. His black army hat is on a side table next to the television. Outside the room a man dressed in similar all-black garb stands guard with a machine gun while others decked out in green military fatigues mill around the hallway, guns at the ready.
This is the makeshift headquarters of Right Sector, a loose collection of Ukrainian nationalists led by Mr. Yarosh, who has become one of the most controversial figures in the protest movement that swept President Viktor Yanukovych from power. Mr. Yarosh recently announced that he is running for president in elections slated for May 25, raising even more concerns in Moscow and the West about Ukraine's future.
The Russians invoke Right Sector repeatedly as justification for annexing Crimea, claiming the group is a gang of neo-Nazi thugs who helped overthrow a duly-elected President and caused chaos across the country. They've issued an arrest warrant for Mr. Yarosh on charges of terrorism. Some in the West are uncomfortable with Mr. Yarosh as well, believing his rise in popularity is a disturbing aftershock of the popular revolution known as Maidan.
In an interview with the Globe and Mail, Mr. Yarosh laughed at all the fuss made about Right Sector. Russian President Vladimir Putin sees "the entire Maidan as a hotbed for fascism and anti-Semitism," he said. As for the West: "I would strongly suggest that more people from the West come to Ukraine to see things for themselves."
It's easy to dismiss Right Sector as a fringe group of right-wing extremists. But Mr. Yarosh's populist message of an independent Ukraine with a strong military, an end to corruption and no oligarchs, is resonating. At a time when many in the country feel powerless against Russian expansion and frustrated with the apparent inaction of the new government, Right Sector is seen as getting things done.
The group came together in the early days of the protest movement last November and served as a kind of unofficial army for the protesters. Four Right Sector members died in clashes with police and dozens were injured, adding to its mystique.
Mr. Yarosh, a stocky, 42-year old grandfather, emerged as the leader based largely on his years of service with the Stepan Bandera All-Ukrainian Organization "Tryzub," or Trident, a non-profit organization that pushed nationalist causes. The namesake, Mr. Bandera, is considered a hero in Ukraine for leading the struggle for independence against the Poles, Soviets and Germans in the 1930s and 1940s. He is a controversial figure to many because of his collaboration with the Nazis against the Soviets. Others say he fought the Nazis just as hard when they refused to grant Ukraine independence.
For Mr. Yarosh, Mr. Bandera's guiding principles of nationalism still stand. "To be a nationalist is to live and work for the benefit of your nation," he said. That means keeping out of NATO and not joining the European Union because it would involve giving up some sovereignty. It also means tight controls on immigration and no multiculturalism.
"We're following the lead of our European colleagues in England and France and Germany who have voiced their concerns with official policies of multiculturalism that may lead to destabilizing situations in countries," he said. He insisted the group is not anti-Semitic and has Jewish members.
His task now is to turn Right Sector into a political party and find candidates to run in parliamentary and local elections later this year. "We are close to about 10,000 members throughout Ukraine, but every day we are getting more new members," he said.
Turning a ragtag association of ex-street fighters into a political force won't be easy. He has put teams together to flesh out party policy, something still rare in Ukraine where political parties have been largely the creation of wealthy individuals with no ideology other than cashing in on government connections.
In many ways, Mr. Yarosh's ideas resemble Eurosceptic parties like Britain's United Kingdom Independence Party, or Ukip. He is wary of the European Union, wants to lower taxes on small businesses and advocates breaking up conglomerates owned by Ukraine's super rich. "What we have is a situation in Ukraine where 90 per cent of the population is very poor and 10 per cent of the population is incredibly wealthy. And this system has to be reformed," he said. But he is also keen on arming civilians and spending far more on the country's military.
Although he has a role in the government as a deputy security chief, Mr. Yarosh has voiced exasperation with the new leadership. He feels they haven't done enough to prepare for a possible Russian invasion in the East and have dragged their feet on Crimea, now annexed by Russia. He has threatened to sabotage gas supplies to the territory and talked about preparing groups inside Crimea for what he described as guerilla warfare. But Mr. Yarosh is realistic too, believing a diplomatic solution to the Crimean crisis is preferable. "I don't know how long it will take for Crimea to return to Ukraine but I have no doubt that that will happen," he said.
Few give Mr. Yarosh much of chance in the upcoming presidential campaign. Right Sector's lack of experience won't help and there's already an established nationalist party called Svoboda.
Mr. Yarosh isn't worried. He's been advocating Ukrainian nationalism since the late 1980s, when he worked in a steel mill in Eastern Ukraine and began agitating for independence from the Soviet Union. He was the first to raise the Blue and Yellow Ukrainian flag in his hometown of Dneprodzerzhinsk in 1989 and went on to co-found Trident in 1994 as a nationalist platform.
He still lives in the area with his wife and two children (one daughter has moved to Western Ukraine for university and recently had a baby). But these days he spends most of his time in Kiev, working out of the sixth floor of a hotel sealed off by armed Right Sector members who patrol the hall, the front door and the elevators. The security is necessary, he said, because the country is at war and he has received threats.
When asked about his chances of becoming president, Mr. Yarosh smiled and said: "I think our chances are good. The politician who doesn't expect a miracle is a bad politician."
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