Prolific hooligans crashed Hong Kong pro-democracy protests just to flex on the gram
In another bid for attention, a group of four Ukrainian hooligans tattooed with neo-pagan and Nazi symbols set out for Hong Kong to take in the ongoing pro-democracy protests. Attention they got: international news outlets picked up on their presence in early December, offering multiple theories for why these men chose to visit the city amidst the ongoing protests. The most likely rationale, however, is that their visit was a brand-building exercise intended to build awareness for protest seminars back home in Ukraine.
The men, Vasyl Chuchupak, Serhii Filimonov, Ihor Maliar, and Sashko Lysyi, were at the protests to promote their group “Honor” (transliterated from Гонор), a relatively small far-right hooligan group with a large visual footprint — including graffiti and stickers — in the Kyiv city center. Up until recently, Filimonov was the head of the Kyiv regional chapter of the National Corps of the Azov movement, a far-right nationalist movement comprising a political wing (the National Corps), a street movement known as the “National Movement,” and the informally affiliated (and notorious) Azov National Guard battalion. The last was widely regarded as one of the more aggressive and successful units at the outset of the crisis in eastern Ukraine in 2014–2015. Like Filimonov, Maliar is also a combat veteran of Azov. Lysyi used to be listed on Facebook as Sashko Vovk but changed his name after a Bellingcat investigation into the Azov network.
Residents of Kyiv will recognize the name of the group in part due to the omnipresence of Honor’s branding throughout the city center. The sheer number of buildings Honor has tagged with graffiti and stickers bearing its logo has created an outsized perception of the group’s actual presence and influence in Kyiv.
In recent weeks, as noted by journalist Michael Colborne on Twitter, posters started popping up around Kyiv advertising the group’s “street protest academy.” The purpose and contents of the program remain a mystery. While it is unclear whether the curriculum includes theoretical or practical training, an online video from early November posted by Serhii Sternenko, former head of the Right Sector Odessa regional chapter, suggested that it contains ideological elements. Moreover, online pictures from another seminar show props like flares and smoke bombs that would suggest a theoretical component regarding deploying similar devices. Maliar and Filimonov are both listed as “lecturers” for these seminars, despite the aggressive promotional campaign for the academy underway in the Kyiv city center, the four men did not appear to actually take active part in the Hong Kong protests.
While in Hong Kong, Maliar posted a video on Instagram in which he is holding a press pass of sorts. In the video, Maliar holds up the pass, implying that inspector Honor is on the case. The DFRLab could not confirm whether the press pass was legitimate. It followed the common style for press cards in Ukraine, where a picture of the journalist is accompanied by name, information about the organization, and a stamp from the organization. Maliar’s pass thus bore Honor’s stamp and not one from an official authority.
The media reception of the visit was largely negative. Some Western publications, along with the South China Morning Post, pointed out the presence of the men as well as their far-right background could be used to delegitimize the Hong Kong protests. Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda outlet Global Times was quick to draw a direct connection between the Honor representatives and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, in an effort to slander the legitimate protesters that they came to observe. Russian-state TV channel Rossiya 1 also devoted generous coverage to the Ukrainians’ “protest tourism.” One of the few positive comments on their presence came from a Hong Kong solidarity Facebook page run out of Ukraine.
The nature of the men’s presence at the Hong Kong protests seemed to be entirely observational, though they likely had two related goals. The first goal appeared to be to boost their public awareness campaign and draw more attention to their street protest seminars. The second may have been to observe and learn from the organization and methods used by the Hong Kong protesters. In either case, the intention did not appear to be to gain acceptance with the local population in Hong Kong but rather to promote their brand at home.
Michael Sheldon is a Research Associate with the Digital Forensic Research Lab and is based in Ukraine.
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