Original text: Michal Pszyk, School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, UK
One remarkable feature of post-Soviet regimes is the pervasiveness of ‘political technologies,’ – practices allowing state actors to tip the scales in their favour while simultaneously preserving the facade of democratic procedure (Ledeneva 2006; Wilson 2005, 2011). In Ukraine, titushky represents such a practice. Titushky describes ‘young men of athletic stature wearing sports clothing, serving the role of provocateurs or “protecting” civil actions’ (Kukhar 2013).
The term titushky was coined in May 2013, and derives from the name of Vadym Titushko, a martial-arts amateur from Bila Tserkva who physically assaulted a female journalist during an opposition protest in Kyiv. The police did not react to the incident despite her cries for help (Ukraiinska Pravda 2013), which raised suspicion of state involvement in the incident. Titushko was subsequently identified as the perpetrator and stated in a video confession that he had been ‘offered work on an hourly pay basis,’ which consisted of ‘standing near the oppositionists and maintaining civil order’ (Titushko 2013). In that particular case, the task was to create an illusion of emotions expressed by ordinary citizens with no apparent agenda or link to the authorities. The motive for employing titushky was to allow authorities to deny any cooperation with hired thugs, who ostensibly acted on their own accord, without being co-opted, and to ensure that reports of titushky engaged in overtly violent acts against protesters and journalists did not compromise state actors.
The ‘tasks’ assigned to titushky are not limited to disrupting oppositional protests. Although the name of the phenomenon was coined in 2013, the practice of employing intimidation squads is much older and was used for problem-solving associated with business, in particular during corporate raids. One anonymous source stated that ’a group of men of athletic stature – people older and more experienced than today’s titushky was used for support. They would disperse protesting crowds, take down fences, and provide all sorts of physical support’ (Mazanyk 2013). Tasks for titushky have included maintaining ‘discipline’ at rallies (preventing the crowd from dispersing in unwanted directions and upholding ‘good morals’ through enforcing bans on drinking, smoking etc.), ‘monitoring’ elections (standing in crowds near polling stations, often sporting ‘observer IDs’ and, if necessary, resorting to physical coercion), and intimidating opponents planning to disrupt a friendly rally (Chepurko, Ryabokon 2013).
The most notorious instance of titushky activity was their involvement in the Euromaidan protests of 2013-14, which ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych. These groups of men in civilian clothing acted as an auxiliary force to Berkut, a (now defunct) 6,000-strong antiriot police unit within the Interior Ministry (Wilson 2014: 78), accused of killing more than 100 people during the revolution’s most violent phase in February 2014. The titushky assisted Berkut and were held responsible for nearly a dozen documented deaths (Wilson 2014: 79). Among the victims were the protesters assaulted in front of the Supreme Court in Kyiv on 18 February, where the titushky reportedly used illegally obtained firearms (Ukrayinska Pravda 2014).
Titushky were initially paid 200 hryvnias per day ($17), but as the protests intensified, their pay rose to 500 hryvnias ($42), and at times exceeded 1,000 hryvnias ($85) for ‘active participation.’ Active participation involved ‘provocation of conflict and disorder’ (Mazanyk 2013). One report described a group of titushky ‘provoking people into brawls and aggression’ disguised as members of Svoboda, a nationalist anti-Yanukovych party (Segodnya Online 2013).
Employing titushky as a political technology requires both covert funding for coopting youth and coordination of their activities. During Euromaidan, titushky were funded by Serhiy Kurchenko, a Kharkiv-born billionaire with close ties to ‘The Family,’ the inner circle of the former president Yanukovych’s allies and his son Oleksandr (Ukrainian Security Service Press Centre 2014). The outcome of the 2014 criminal investigation implicated around 20 individuals, including ministers, charged with an ‘establishment of a criminal organization,’ whose illicit profits were ‘largely used to finance the suppression of peaceful protests in Kyiv, and particularly to pay for “services” of the so-called “titushky”’ (Zerkalo Nedeli Online 2014).
The coordination of these informal activities was handled by the then Interior Minister Vitaliy Zakharchenko, the architect of the anti-Euromaidan media campaign. To ensure deniability, he acted via a proxy, the director of the Kontakt media holding, Viktor Zubrytsky, who was responsible for day-to- day operations. A special investigation charged Zubrytsky with ‘coordination of all activities concerning wage payments, distribution of tasks and key instructions regarding who should be given attention and who deserved repression, including activists.’ Zubrytsky was also responsible for organizing the pro-government rallies in cities where miniature pro-Maidan protests took place (Ukraiinskii Tyzhden Online 2014).
Titushky groups consisted of unemployed or working-class young men, often with a criminal record, but also coming ‘from a number of backgrounds, like off-duty police officers and state security workers, members of more or less legal combat sports clubs, workers at industrial plants owned by pro-government forces, members of criminal gangs, and common convicts, and most likely also groups of football fans’ (Historia Vivens). They often arrived to Kyiv by bus from ‘the east and south of the country,’ where support for Yanukovych’s Party of Regions was the highest (Goncharenko 2014).
Although its idiosyncratic features allow for classifying titushky as a Ukrainian phenomenon, such rent-a- mob tactics are hardly unique. Parallels can be drawn with ‘OBON,’ a similar practice observable in Central Asia, particularly in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. ‘OBON’ (otdel bab osobogo naznacheniia), a special-purpose female unit – likely a play on OMON, the Russian government’s antiriot police regiment – is an informal network of groups consisting mostly of rural, middle-aged women who are deployed during protests to fill out crowd numbers, disrupt and delegitimize opposition rallies, and intimidate and assault opponents (Kim et al. 2012).
According to one analyst citing local human rights activists, the first OBON groups were the creation of Uzbekistan’s National Security Service (Szymanek 2012). In order to escape charges of involvement, security officials forcefully recruited socially vulnerable women, such as bazaar traders and former sex workers, to interrupt anti-regime demonstrations, or to target specific individuals, by threatening them with legal problems. In a notorious incident, around 50 women stormed the court trial of human rights activist Abdumannop Khalilov, dragged the defendant out of the building, and beat him unconscious. The 30 police officers present at the scene did not react to the incident (Mavloniy 2010). Several days later, an opposition rally in Osh calling for the President Bakiyev’s dismissal was disrupted by a group ’30 loud women’ who ‘virtually broke up the demonstration with their yelling’ (Evlashkov 2010).
In Kyrgyzstan, the parallels between OBON and titushky are even more striking. Rather than state coercion, the Kyrgyz authorities have relied on monetary incentives, mostly recruiting women from the ranks of the unemployed. However, oppositionists and private entrepreneurs have also used this practice. OBON groups featured prominently in the Kyrgyz Revolution of 2010, when ethnic clashes in the south of the country claimed 2,000 civilian lives and led to the deposition of President Kurmanbek Bakiyev. During one pro-government rally in which Bakiyev himself participated, the speaker’s podium was surrounded by ‘ranks of strong women’ who ‘quickly exhibited ready-made posters reading ‘The opposition seized power with blood!’ and ‘The legitimate president is not guilty!’ (Gabuev 2010).
The use of OBON has proven particularly effective due to the image and role ascribed to women in the Kyrgyz society. Not only protesters, even law enforcement officials are hesitant to strike women, seen in Kyrgyzstan as a ‘unique embodiment of national character, maternity, and hardship’ (Ivashchenko 2015). In the words of one Kyrgyz parliamentarian, ‘fighting [them] would be shameful, but so would be running away.’ Caught by women, the oppositional leaders had therefore little choice.
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