(photo credit: REUTERS)
PARIS – French activists and officials are concerned about a event an allegedly neo-Nazi Ukrainian group plans to hold in the city of Nantes next week.
The Wiesenthal Center called upon the mayor of Nantes, Johanna Roland, to prevent the gathering by the Ukraine Azoz Regiment (formerly known as the Azov Battalion) scheduled for January 16.
According to Dr. Shimon Samuels, the center’s international relations’ director, the Azov group plans to hold a recruitment meeting at an unknown location in the western French city. A high ranking member of Azov – probably an officer, is expected to take part in this meeting organized by unidentified French far-right activists.
Samuels said the Azov group is “of neo-Nazi character.”
In a letter to the mayor, Samuels warned of “a troubling meeting to be convened in Nantes on January 16 by supporters of the Ukrainian Azov Battalion.”
He added, “We are disturbed by reports of neo-Nazi influence among the Azov recruits.
Indeed Canada and the United States have blocked any training for this unit, which they apparently thereby designate as ‘neo-Nazi.’” The authorities in Nantes confirm that such a meeting is being planned. According to a source close to the mayor (speaking on condition of anonymity), the city learned about this meeting last month. Shortly after receiving this information, Nantes authorities together with the police checked to see if any request has been submitted by the Azoz group to use a public or municipal venues.
This was not the case. For now, the municipality does not know where this meeting is supposed to be held.
“We condemn categorically any meeting or any conference of neo-Nazi or anti-Semitic groups, and we will do our utmost to prevent that,” the source close to the mayor said, adding that the municipality will continue to investigate the issue.
Samuels, speaking to The Jerusalem Post, emphasized that the Wiesenthal Center in no way wishes to take sides in the conflict in Ukraine. Its sole concern in this case is to distance French youth from the influence of such far-right groups. “Activists of the Azov Battalion are seen in YouTube video clips waving the Nazi flag. Some are tattooed with Nazi symbols,” he said The fact that the meeting has been kept secret raises questions, Samuels said. “We think that the Azov group is in contact with some French far-right activists. These are probably not central members of the French far-right National Front party of Marine Le Pen. More likely, these are extremists who feel that they are no longer part of the party as it is today. It has become ‘too moderate’ for them, with no place for their ideology. So they are cultivating ties with all sorts of groups in Europe; Azov is one of them.”
Israeli researcher Vyacheslav Likhachev, head of the National Minority Rights Monitoring Group (monitoring hate crimes and xenophobia in Russia, Ukraine and Moldova), told the Post that categorizing the Azov Battalion simply as a neo-Nazi group would be inaccurate.
“The battalion itself, which has transformed into a full regiment, was founded by Kiev nationalist volunteers at the beginning of the Russian aggression against Ukraine. At the time, several of its members were indeed radical-right activists, some with neo-Nazi background; others with simply criminal background. Leaders and commanders of Azov made statements and speeches embedded with anti-Semite and xenophobic expressions.
But in the past two years, many of them denied making these statements. This is the case of one of the battalion’s founders, Andriy Biletsky, who is now member of the Ukrainian parliament.
The Azov Battalion has become an official special unit of the police, under the authority of the Interior Ministry. As such, it does not advocate any ideology, apart from Ukrainian independence,” Likhachev said.
“That being said, the group still uses Nazi symbols as emblems for the unit and in its gatherings. Also, civilian support groups which assist the Azov unit have been involved in racist incidents.”
Likhachev also noted an incident at the Kiev stadium in October during a soccer game between London’s Chelsea FC and Dynamo Kyiv, when Azov activists allegedly beat up black fans.