KIEV, Ukraine — Members of a controversial Ukrainian far-right nationalist group that has battled pro-Russian rebels in the country’s east announced on Friday they were creating a political party.
The Azov battalion rose to prominence as a volunteer regiment fighting alongside Ukraine’s army in the east before being integrated into Kiev’s official forces.
The role of the group — which has reportedly attracted neo-Nazi fighters from Europe — stirred fears over the increasing influence of far-right nationalists in Ukraine during its standoff with Russia.
“Today we become a party. And we must become the party of real action,” Andriy Biletsky, a Ukrainian MP who heads the movement, told a meeting as they voted to create the new National Corps political bloc.
“We want Ukraine to return to the ideas of Ukrainian patriotism, Ukrainian nationalism.”
The announcement came as Kiev was marking the Defender of Ukraine Day, a public holiday declared two years ago by President Petro Poroshenko that is meant to celebrate Ukrainian troops fighting the pro-Russian insurgency in the east.
The day also coincides with the anniversary of the foundation of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), a group of Ukrainian nationalists who fought against Soviet troops in World War II alongside Nazi forces, and are accused of slaughtering Poles and Jews.
Several thousand people marched through the streets of Kiev on Friday night, brandishing torches, Ukrainian flags, as well as the flags of Azov and other far-right groups, an AFP reporter reported.
Ukraine has seen a rise in nationalism since the ouster of Kremlin-backed leader Viktor Yanukovych by protesters in 2014 sparked Russia’s takeover of Crimea.
While the conflict in the east — which the West and Kiev blame squarely on Russia — drags on, the pro-Western political leadership in Kiev has failed to make good on pledges to reform the country’s rotten political system.
But despite pledges to eliminate rampant corruption going unheeded and the economy deep in trouble, far-right candidates have remained firmly on the fringes at elections.