Feature – Shabiha in Syria and Titushki in Ukraine as Elements of Authoritarian Control

by Daria Platonova

15 July 2019

“Titushki” on their way to Mariinskiy Park (Image credit: Unian)

Introduction

Incumbent authoritarian regimes[1] can use a variety of tools to protect the status quo and their hold on power. Among those tools is the deployment of groups of armed civilians to disperse political protest that threatens to dislodge the regime and disrupt that status quo. A comparison can be drawn between the Syrian Shabiha and Titushki in Ukraine as elements of the regimes’ responses to political protest. Shabiha in Syria was a complex phenomenon described in most general terms as numbers of pro-Asad[2]  individuals who attacked anti-government protestors from March 2011, at the start of the Syrian uprising, and then became “pro-state … militias, which acted in an auxiliary capacity to government forces”.

Titushki in Ukraine were groups of individuals reportedly hired by state actors, including local elites, to attack Euromaidan protestors[3] in Kyiv and Ukrainian regions from November 2013 to January 2014. In this article, I demonstrate the similarities and differences between the provenance of and the deployment purposes of Shabiha and Titushki. Through this comparison, I argue that the systematic use of these groups is in function of the regime’s strength and the ruler’s expectations about the regime’s viability.

The similarities between the regimes of Yanukovych and al-Asad

The attempts made by Viktor Yanukovych to introduce an authoritarian regime in Ukraine resembles Bashar al-Asad’s consolidation of an already existing authoritarian regime which he inherited from his father, Hafez al-Asad. Both presidents cultivated a patronage system based around a specific minority group. Yanukovych relied on the Donetsk clan, originating from his home region of Donetsk, and the political-economic conglomerate of the Party of Regions, also originating from Donetsk.

Similar processes of over-concentration of patronage took place under Asad, who came to rely on “Alawi familial, tribal and communitarian base” and, specifically, on the Asad-Makhlouf family clan. Like Asad, who increasingly surrounded himself by an increasingly narrow clique of supporters, Yanukovych later in his presidency drew upon the support of his real and metaphorical family.

File photo of Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, with his brother Maher, left (Photo credit: AP)

Both presidents recognised the importance of the security service in maintaining their regimes, with Asad inheriting a vast security apparatus and a strong army from his father. Yanukovych attempted to build a strong security force, appointing his supporters to the key position of the Head of the Security Service of Ukraine and investing heavily in a special police force Berkut.

Bashar al-Asad followed arising challenges to his regime through by imprisoning challengers and severely restricting and repressing civil society. In Ukraine, Yanukovych imprisoned his key rival, Yuliya Tymoshenko, from a competing network of Batkivshchina Party, while exercising increasing control over the Ukrainian media and opposition groups. Viktor Yanukovych’s rule was the ultimate culmination of the domination of eastern Ukrainian forces in Ukrainian politics, which, on the surface, created an expectation that the regime was going to stay. Asad’s strong reliance on the Alawite minority inherited from the three-decade long rule of his father created similar expectations.

We would therefore expect that if in Ukraine the regime was truly authoritarian, as described by many analysts, it would have responded to the challenge of the Euromaidan similarly to how Asad responded to the Syrian uprising, that is: with severe and more or less systematic repression. However, how Shabiha and Titushki were deployed demonstrates that the regime in Ukraine was not truly authoritarian. The major flaw in the regime was that it did not believe in its own durability.

Shabiha in Syria

The Shabiha who came to prominence in March 2011 started as Popular Committees – volunteer vigilante groups originating in Latakia and Homs, who wanted to keep their neighbourhoods free from anti-government protestors. Not unlike Titushki in Ukraine, they consisted of volunteers “who were often unemployed young men” and were initially armed with basic equipment such as sticks. Similarly to Titushki, the motivations to join these Popular Committees and then Shabiha varied widely. Nakkash documented motivations ranging from pragmatic-economic concerns to strong feelings of hostility towards the Sunni community.

However, as Asad’s regime was much more cohesive and held strong expectations about its own durability compared to Yanukovych’s regime, shabiha became one of the key elements of Asad’s strategy to salvage the regime. As Michael Kerr argues, the regime’s “civil war strategy was simply to survive, militarily, at any cost”.

Thus, throughout the province of Homs at least, Shabiha quickly came to be used strategically and systematically by Mukhabarat (security service) to prevent anti-regime mobilisation throughout spring to summer 2011. They were involved in killing protestors from the start, such as on 26 and 27 of March 2011 in Latakia and Baniyas. It was reported that Shabiha were numerous numbering 10,000. Shabiha later morphed into “armed paramilitary group or militia with links to the army, the secret service or the Ba’ath Party”.

Families gathered around bodies of victims killed by violence that, according to anti-regime activists, was carried out by government forces in Tremseh, Syria (Photo credit: AP)

In contrast to Titushki, Shabiha came to be strongly identified with the state in Syria. Lund, for example, writes on shabiha formations as being directly sanctioned and legitimised by the state when the protests began in March 2011: “the state encouraged the formation of local gangs, often composed of Alawis or other minority groups that felt threatened by the Sunni-dominated uprising”. Not only that, Shabiha came to be identified with the wealthy business owners in the local communities. Nakkash writes on a proud owner of a real estate business, in charge of about 200 Shabiha, who stated that “they “should be thankful for what I am doing”.

As the protests evolved into an insurgency, Asad’s regime mobilised a vast array of minorities, such as Christians and Shi’a, into Shabiha militias. The sheer diversity of pro-regime militia movement and the advent of the “National Defence Forces” drawing on shabiha demonstrated that, through a systematic and open recruitment and deployment of Shabiha, the regime created strong and durable expectations about itself.

Titushki in Ukraine

The use of Titushki in Ukraine demonstrated a highly unsystematic and reactive nature of Yanukovych’s regime. As mentioned above, Titushki were groups of young men, reportedly hired by the government to disperse Euromaidan protests. They were named after Vadym Titushko, a professional athlete, who was hired to and eventually prosecuted for attacking journalists in Bela Tserkva, near Kyiv, in May 2013.

Titushki were often members of local boxing and fight clubs, and it was reported that coaches and entire clubs participated in the attacks on the Euromaidan, especially in Kyiv. Titushki not only dispersed protestors but also damaged their equipment and vehicles. Like their Syrian counterparts, there were those who held strong Anti-Maidan convictions and considered Euromaidan protestors to be “traitors and hooligans”.

Vadym Titushko in Kyiv, 18 May 2013 (Photo credit: Umoloda)

Here however the similarities between Shabiha and Titushki end and reveal the fatal flaws in Yanukovych’s regime. The major flaw of the regime was the lack of belief in its own durability. Unlike in Syria, where Shabiha came to consist of a broad variety of minorities, Titushki in Ukraine were groups of young unemployed people who were easily coopted due to their lack of employment. Reports claimed that titushki were being paid for attacking Euromaidan protestors because many of them were unemployed. According to these reports, some were paid 100 US dollars per day, with an additional fare for beatings.

In Ukrainian regions, such as Kharkiv region, Titushki were deployed to intimidate protestors rather than kill them, which signified that the regime seriously questioned its repressive capacity. Cataloguing of Euromaidan protests using opposition and pro-government press in Kharkiv and Donetsk cities indicates that the deployment of Titushki was highly unsystematic compared to what was taking place in Syria. In Kharkiv, half of the Euromaidan protests were followed by Titushki attacks; in Donetsk, this number was even less.

If in Syria, the attacks were deadly from the start, in Ukrainian cities, followed a gradually more violent trajectory, which however never became systematically deadly: in Kharkiv, for example, first, Titushki attacked property of the Euromaidan protestors, then the groups of “unknowns” – a label which often described Titushki – attacked individual organisers, and then they began attacking entire groups of protestors using more sophisticated equipment. In Donetsk, most Euromaidan protests were followed by verbal attacks and highly unsystematic violence by Titushki. All this was taking place before the Titushki attacks in Ukrainian regions suddenly tapered off in late February 2014, just before Yanukovych’s flight. Additionally, Titushki were not as well-equipped as their Syrian counterparts.

Finally, as if to demonstrate that the regime was afraid of itself and unsure of its own survival, it is impossible to trace with certainty who hired Titushki at the regional level. In Kharkiv city, there was only indirect evidence implicating the incumbent supporters of Yanukovych, the mayor Hennadiy Kernes and the governor Mykhailo Dobkin. For example, they issued a number of ambiguous statements, endorsing Titushki, but there is no systematic evidence that they hired them. Only after the “Russian Spring” protests were in full swing, the Ministry of the Interior of Ukraine released some evidence that titushki were hired by a local oligarch Serhiy Kurchenko. This was after Kurchenko fled Ukraine.

Conclusion

In this article, I have argued that if an authoritarian regime is truly authoritarian, one of the elements of political protest control, such as the use of armed civilians, should be systematic, violent and clearly linked to the state. Through the comparison between the use of Shabiha in Syria and Titushki in Ukraine, I have demonstrated the true nature of Yanukovych’s rule and questioned whether it was truly authoritarian. More specifically, I have shown that the highly unsystematic deployment of Titushki and their unclear links with the state actors demonstrate that Yanukovych’s regime either did not believe in its own viability or failed to implement the lessons of the Orange Revolution. In this way, one can characterise Ukraine as a highly fluid polity where no regime can truly stabilise itself.


Daria is a PhD student at King’s College London. Her research focuses on violence and the unfolding of conflict across several regions in eastern Ukraine, 2013 – 2014. She also leads one of the Causes of War seminars in the War Studies Department. Prior to joining King’s, she worked as a teacher. She graduated with a degree in History from the University of Cambridge in 2011. Her broader interests include European history, war studies, and interdisciplinary methods.


[1] While the authoritarian nature of Bashar al-Asad is not in doubt, we can consider Viktor Yanukovych’s regime as a regime with authoritarian tendencies. Hafez sought to build an authoritarian state – Kerr, intro 10, History of autocratic rule there 174, adaptable autocrats

[2] I used the standardised spelling of Asad, instead of Assad, as found in Kerr, M. and Larkin, C. (eds) The Alawis of Syria: War, Faith and Politics in the Levant (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 2015).

[3] Euromaidan was at first a political protest against Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign the EU Association Agreement. It later evolved into a general protest against Yanukovych’s government demanding its resignation.

 

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