Ukraine: 3 Dead After Shootout, Cigarette Smuggling Motive

A fatal shootout in the far western Ukraine town of Mukacheve has sparked a debate over whether the conflict erupted over cigarette smuggling and corruption or is a political battle between the Ukrainian government and the far-right Right Sector group.

At least three people died and seven were injured Saturday in a confrontation about 60 kilometers from Ukraine’s border with Slovakia, and the violence promoted Slovak authorities to increase border security measures.

Explanations of what lay behind the shootout followed sharply demarcated political lines. Both sides agree that gunfire erupted between local police and Right Sector activists as members tried to meet a local politician at a local sports club in Mukacheve. The small town is located in the multi-ethnic Transcarpathia region of Western Ukraine, bordering both Hungary and Slovakia.

But top-level Ukrainian politicians said that the shootout was caused by organized crime gangs fighting over cigarette smuggling into the neighbouring European Union countries. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said that “the conflict in Mukacheve is the result of the redistribution of smuggling flow” and warned “smugglers of the Transcarpathian Region (have) launched a challenge against Ukraine.”

However, the Right Sector denied any involvement in smuggling or crime, and claimed on its website that “two local separatists involved in terrorist groups” linked to the pro-Russian Novorossiya rebels in Eastern Ukraine were among those shooting at it on Saturday.

The weekend events have continued to reverberate. On Monday, the State Fiscal Service (SFS) said, “The entire leadership of the Transcarpathian Customs” had been removed from office and a corruption probe launched.

Meanwhile, the Right Sector set up checkpoints in various locations across Ukraine. On Tuesday, a grenade attack on police stations in the West Ukrainian town of Lviv left two police officers seriously injured, with one reportedly having lost her leg. Ukraine’s Interior Ministry claimed that the attacks were linked to the events in Mukacheve.

Russian Foreign Ministry’s Human Rights ombudsman Konstantin Dolgov attacked the Ukrainian government, being quoted as saying the shootout was a “direct outcome of Kiev’s reliance on neo-Nazis.”

Anton Shekhovtsov, an academic expert on right-wing paramilitary groups in Ukraine, warned on his blog “the overwhelming majority of Ukrainian far right organizations are criminal gangs that exploit a radical right-wing ideology for mobilization purposes. The incident in Mukacheve seems to be an example of a criminal (far right) group trying to hijack an illegal business operated by another (non-political) criminal gang.”