The turmoil that has encompassed Ukraine in the recent months has not left the city of Odessa unscathed. This usually calm and relaxed city is now tense as it has not been in decades. The Odessites who would usually prefer talking weather, art, sports are now all suffocating in endless political debates. City dwellers are divided; there is plenty of blame that goes around. The city, that has praised itself for tolerance (despite some ugly events in the past, like anti-Jewish riots in early XX century, for example), can not live up to that status as of right now.
Odessa has found itself in the middle of the dramatic developments in this country since November 30th, when the bunch of students were beaten by police special squad at the main square of Kyiv – Maydan (Square) of Independence. This city has been mostly warm to ex-president Victor Yanukovich and his “Party of regions”. They have got a lot of votes here at a series of presidential and parliamentary elections in a row. Without getting into details as to why this was a fact, one might point to at least one major factor – the linguistic one. The artificially designed scare of “forceful ukrainization”, fear of purges against Russian speakers has been deeply embedded in many Odessites. “Party of regions” has promised to defend their right as the speakers of Russian, so many people tended to coalesce around this political force.
Several years of Yanukovich administration have disappointed a lot of Ukrainians, and Odessites were not an exception. The rampant corruption, dire economic situation, failure to deliver the announced social programs and reforms – all of this and much more has made people fed up. So, with the start of Maydan 2 (first one being in late 2004) some Odessites have reviewed their positions on Yanukovich regime. Looking at the scenes of those peaceful youngsters being severely beaten by “Berkut” (special police unit) has led to a change of heart even for many ex-Yamukovich supporters. Odessa was thrust into this struggle as any other Ukrainian city was. Odessa EuroMaydan and AntiMaydan have formed (with the latter one – folks were mostly either forced to take part by their bosses or simply paid to partake). The city which was often cited for its political passivity was now energized. Indeed, Odessa has constantly shown the lowest voter turnout figures for years. Absenteeism was common feature here with people convinced that their votes and overall political participation do not matter. Many Odessites have opted in favor of adapting to whatever political figure or party coming to power. But this passivity was now about to vanish for many city residents.
As the city was split between pro- and anti-Yanukovich folks, the major battles which have decided the faith of his regime were fought in Kyv. With former president fleeing the capital and soon thereafter going into exile abroad, it seemed for a moment that the most acute crisis is over. However, as it has turned out soon, the even more existential challenge was on a horizon – the Russian aggression. This has forced citizens of Odessa into taking positions on this now critical question of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, including the issue of the future status of the city. With Russian intervention and later annexation of Crimea, many Odessites have felt that, regardless of their view on Yanukovich, they need to come out in support of a single and unified Ukraine. It should be mentioned that all of the major sociological polls have consistently shown a strong domination in numbers of those in support for a united Ukraine and Odessa staying within this country.
The pro-Ukrainian camp has quickly formed with marches and demonstrations, variety of actions by public activists. Well-respected authors, journalists, actors, musicians and others have endorsed the unity for Ukraine cause. The video of them calling on Vladimir Vladimirovich (Putin) to go home (and leave Ukraine alone) went viral on Internet. The philharmonic orchestra of Odessa performing the “Ode to joy” by Beethoven at the city’s famous food market “Privoz” was another major hit (it was performed to commemorate the partial signing by new Ukrainian government of the Association agreement with the European Union, for which the above-mentioned musical work is an informal anthem).
The residents of the city have gone out of their way to assist those Ukrainian troops that were withdrawn from Crimea, which was now occupied by Russia. A lot of them went to Odessa, with the city becoming a headquarters of Ukrainian navy (not to mention border guards, paratroopers and others who were also relocated to Odessa region). Odessa was now full of Ukrainian national flags – the houses, the vehicles and the people who tied the strips in the national colors to their clothes or bags.
As it became clear that Putin is not planning to “go home” and, moreover, contemplating more intervention in Ukraine and, perhaps, more land grabs there, the debates in the city have intensified. The divisions have now appeared to be more rigid as the pro-Russian forces have got more active. They have camped at one of the major city squares – Kulikovo pole. Pro-Russian activists, seemingly coming out of nowhere (most absolutely unknown to the local community), have started to bombard the city with their statements and appeals. They have also begun their occasional marches and other public activities. The danger of a direct physical confrontation between these two camps has now become real.
What fed the activization of the pro-Russian camp? The Russian money (not that there are no other ways to provide funds to activists, but one should keep in mind that the Consulate General of Russia is located in Odessa) did. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) did with its long-standing practice of pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian propaganda. The shower of Ukrainophobia by Russian media channels with their non-stop cynical and shameless distorting of truth has shaped the attitudes of many. Another wave of fear-mongering as to the possible repressions against the Russian speakers has contributed a lot. All of these have been a common thread everywhere in the east and south of Ukraine. One specific feature for Odessa is its geographic proximity to both Transnistria (a self-proclaimed unrecognized republic, pro-Russian enclave in the south of Moldova) which has been a source of infiltration of Russian and pro-Russian agents into Odessa region. Crimea, the transportation between which and Ukraine’s mainland has not been interrupted, is not far as well.
One should note that the situation with governing and protecting Odessa was an increasingly dire one now. The city has found itself facing a dangerous combination of various forces in play – those of corruption, incompetence, irresponsibility and disloyalty. The vertical of power that has existed in times of Yanukovich has crumbled as he fled the country. The city’s strongmen – all members of Party of Regions – have performed their chameleon acts with many leaving the ranks of the party and the party’s fractions in the parliament, regional and city councils. Where their loyalties are now is an open question. The city has emerged without a consolidated political elite that would be capable and willing of stabilizing the situation. Many have surely felt antagonistic to the current interim government in Kyiv. Others have tried to mend their bridges to the new government renewing the fear of corruption surviving the death of an old regime.
Odessa has appeared to be ungovernable. The major who was elected at the last election (Mr. Kostusev) has resigned and the city has been left in the hands of a caretaker – Mr. Bryndak, who clearly lacks support and political weight in the city. The governor who has been appointed by a an interim government in Kyiv – Mr. Nemirovsky – has struggled to connect to the citizens, has appeared as ill-prepared for effectively managing the region, lacked support among most influential figures.
One should add to this picture, which is already not a rosy one and looks like a recipe for troubles, that local law enforcement and security service personnel was hardly a factor in stabilizing the situation in the city. Many of them have been loyal servants of Yanukovich regime and now appeared confused, at best. Some have clearly opted to undermine the actions of the new Kyiv government with sabotage and disloyalty. The sympathies towards separatists have been wide-spread in the police force (as many of them have come from the same social layers of Ukrainian society). Numerous claims for police and security service in Odessa to take measures against separatists, who clearly violated Ukrainian law, were left unanswered for the most part.
As separatism movement with direct Russian support and participation has energized in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, it was apparently planned for Odessa to be next. This was coupled by statements of Mr. Putin to the amount of all of these regions in the south and east of Ukraine being part of so-called “New Russia” (“Novorossiya”), presumably part of the Russian heritage and sphere of control and not that of Ukraine. No wonder that tensions have exacerbated in the city. Some minor clashes took place, pro-Ukrainian block-post was attacked with a hand grenade (with seven people being injured), Molotov cocktails were thrown at several supermarkets and banks, and one – at the door leading to a history department of the Odessa Mechnikov University. Certainly, the course on destabilization has been taken and this proved to be just a rehearsal of what followed.
Then the May 2nd came. This day is undoubtedly to become one of the most tragic in the history of the city. The massacre has taken place. The pro-Russian thugs with an apparent tacit approval and even direct support of the police have attacked the peaceful pro-Ukrainian march in the city. The core participants of the march were soccer fans of local team “Chernomorets” joined by the fans of the visiting team of “Metalist” (Kharkiv) (it must be noted that soccer fans, so-called “ultras” have emerged as one of the most loud pro-Ukrainian forces in the country). Many Odessites have joined, some with their families and kids. That is when the armed separatists have attacked. The first killed were due to the gunshots. Numerous photo and video evidence points to a frequent use of automatic weapons by armed separatists. A lot of street fighting ensued. As all of this was carried live on TV, it was a little wonder that many Odessites were outraged at this assault on their city and went to the streets. Others have joined them leaving the soccer game which was now underway. Soon the instigators of violence were heavily outnumbered. Some of them were blocked downtown. Others have taken over the trade union on the Kulikovo pole where separatist tent camp has stood for weeks. They were surrounded by an angry crowd which was enraged by seeing their friends being shot at in downtown act of the tragedy. The siege of the building has taken place with both sides swirling Molotov cocktails, stones, metal objects. Allegedly, the gunfire has taken place too. A fire has broken out in the building in the middle of the fight. There were efforts to get people out of the inflamed building and several hundreds of them were able to get out to safety. But later on it was discovered that 30 dead were found in the building and 8 more jumped to their death. The total number of casualties is more than 40 people… This was definitely the worst bloodshed in Ukraine since violence in Kyiv on February 18-20. The relative calm and innocence of the city was now savagely vandalized.
It has been quite tense in Odessa since. The city experienced deep shock and psychological trauma. The divisions have appeared to be intensified. Calls to revenge and more blood abound. Certain steps have been taken to calm things down. Mr. Nemirovsky was sacked days after the tragedy and now is replaced with a new face – Mr. Palytsia – an ally of one of the Ukrainian oligarchs Mr. Kolomoyski, who is now a governor himself – in Dniepropetrovsk region, and who has made quite a name for himself recently by energetically acting against the forces of separatism in Ukraine. A new police chief has been appointed. The block-posts around the city have been reinforced. A National guard unit was deployed to Odessa.
Most importantly there is an understanding for a need to properly and objectively investigate the events of May 2nd. The commission (that should have representatives of various political forces) has been formed. There is a call to involve international investigators as there is a high probability of the local report to be met with suspicion by either part of the city. Numerous calls for reconciliation and bridge-building have been launched. This city is still reeling from its fresh wound…
This comment was originally posted on April 29, 2014 by the Kennan Institute/Wilson Center Kyiv Office here.