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Showdown in Kiev: What's the Ukrainian phrase for 'Brown Shirts?'

The continuing instability in Ukraine has taken a worrisome turn in recent days, not because of the actions of the government or the opposition but because of the changing nature of the protesters themselves. And it doesn’t bode well.

As my colleague Sergei L. Loiko reported from Kiev, what once was a loose group of opponents of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovich, has become a hard-to-control mix of people and organizations whose goals and interests seem more likely to further destabilize the country.

The propellant for the protests is the internal split between those who want the country more closely aligned with Russia and those seeking stronger economic and political ties with Europe. The government’s heavy-handed response to the opposition hasn’t helped, including the institutionalization last year of anti-corruption activist Raisa Radchenko, who was deemed mentally ill (the ghost of Stalin must have been in the courtroom). She was released two weeks later after an outcry from human rights groups.

The tensions spilled over, though, when Yanukovich abandoned a trade deal with Europe in favor of a Russian bailout, a decision that brought the opposition to the streets. The showdown turned violent after the government enacted draconian anti-protest laws. Most of those laws were scrapped Tuesday, as pro-Russian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov resigned.

But the protests have morphed with the rise of two groups in particular. One, Common Cause, seized the justice ministry building the other day and initially resisted efforts by the putative leadership of the protest movement to leave the building. The occupiers finally acquiesced. More ominous is the arrival of the far-right paramilitary nationalist group UNA-UNSO, which has an undercurrent of anti-Semitic and anti-gay attitudes. As Loiko reported:

“Igor Mazur, a member of UNA-UNSO’s Political Council, said in an interview that his organization had about 400 men involved in the protest movement, including some with combat experience in places such as Chechnya and the Abkhazia region of Georgia. He said the group wanted to see Ukraine strong enough to dominate Eastern Europe, but that Jews had nothing to fear from it. He estimated that 90% of Ukraine’s bankers were Jewish, ‘but have you seen a single bank looted and pillaged?’

“ ‘Our problems are the criminal authoritarian regime of Yanukovich and the expansion of Russia, which wants to see Ukraine split,’ he said. He also said in the interview that ‘there is no place for homosexuals in the country we want to build.’ ”

While the gutting of the anti-protest laws and the prime minister’s resignation might be a victory for the protest movement, it’s unclear whether the changes will ease tensions, especially since the protests seem now to be about more than protest laws and trade and economic pacts.

Protester Mikhail Borets, a 33-year-old computer engineer, told Loiko that UNA-UNSO showed up for the funeral of a protester killed by a sniper. “We were really scared when we saw all those paramilitary guys in masks and camouflage filing outside the cafe where we were, like in a Nazi parade with their red, white and black flags,” he said. “They were shouting, ‘Glory to the nation, death to enemies!’ and ‘Ukraine is above all!’ ” Borets said. “I don't want it to be above all. This is not something this protest should have been about.”

The presence of a nationalist group that talks of wanting to dominate Eastern Europe and making Ukraine for Ukrainians is an unwelcome turn. Fervent nationalism brought Europe to war too many times in the past century to take these developments lightly. For the moment, it is an internal problem for Ukraine to handle. Let’s hope it can.

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Follow Scott Martelle on Twitter @smartelle

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