Odessa: The cruelest of provocations

By Nahia Sanzo

‘On May 2, 2014, Ukrainian Nazis burned dozens of Odessites here. Mourning and remembrance.’
In the background, the House of Trade Unions.
Odessa, May 3: Throughout the week, the media and the Ukrainian authorities, both local and national, had highlighted the growing threat of “separatist provocations” or “pro-Russian provocations,” which could happen both on May 1 and during the memorial for those killed in the House of Trade Unions on May 2, 2014, a massacre that, despite criticisms that have come from abroad, Ukraine refuses to investigate.

In the militarized city, May 1 passed without a single act of protest for workers’ day. Without any risk of the “separatist rebellion” imagined a few days ago by Anton Gerashchenko, members of the SBU — with their faces covered and heavily armed — had time to visit some of the most emblematic locations in the city: the Odessa stairs, used in the famous film of the legendary Soviet director Sergey Eisenstein, Battleship Potemkin; the statue of Czarina Catherine the Great, founder of the city; Easter decorations on the main street and the Opera House, possibly the most photographed building in the city.

Despite the alarm, exaggerated to avoid a large number of attendees at the memorial of Kulikovo that would make clear that the nationalists are a minority in Odessa, the authorities are perfectly aware that the capacity of the city’s opposition to carry out important political action has been limited to a minimum. All real resistance seems to be concentrated on the movement seeking to remember the names of those killed in the Odessa House of Trade Unions, that with repression, lies and sabotage, Ukraine tries to erase from history.

With all the focus on Kulikovo, local authorities could not prevent, early in the morning of May 2, activists of youth groups in the city from unfurling a banner of several meters in length covering a stretch of the Odessa stairs. “Poroshenko covers up for the murderers,” read the banner under a huge photograph of the Ukrainian president.

Demonstration denouncing the role of Poroshenko and Parubiy in the
Odessa massacre and lack of investigation.
Later, already on Kulikovo, those same activists managed to make a demonstration behind a banner with the same slogan and covering their faces with photographs of Andriy Parubiy, in which you could read a single word: murderer. Parubiy, with long history in the far right and now president of the Ukrainian parliament, was chairman of National Defense and Security in May 2014. Days before the Odessa massacre, he personally delivered bulletproof vests to nationalists in the city. The photos with the face of Parubiy used in the protest, which were scattered on the ground, were quickly removed. At least one person was arrested for this action.

The local police, in charge of crowd control, did not prevent members of the youth wing of Azov Battalion, easily identified by their shirts, or members of Right Sector from infiltrating among the hundreds of people gathered in front of the House of Trade Unions. The limitations of the nationalist groups were highlighted once more when they were only able to start a fight that was dissolved in a few seconds. As reported in the local press, Sergey Sternenko, local leader of Right Sector, and his supporters were seeking out Russian journalists. Among the large number of people gathered there, exceeding expectations, all the nationalists were able to do was pick brief fights and sporadically shout “Glory to Ukraine,” immediately silenced by the crowd, which sees in that slogan the ideology of those who set fire to the House of Trade Unions, with shouts of “Odessa city hero city” or “Fascism shall not pass.”

Outnumbered and divided on two fronts, trying to sabotage the Kulikovo memorial and prevent the arrival of representatives of the Opposition bloc, the nationalists were overwhelmed by the crowd and did not succeed in disrupting or intimidating people who had gathered at Kulikovo. Local media estimated that about 5,000 people participated in the event.

But a small group of members of Right Sector and Automaidan did achieve their objective of stopping Yuriy Boyko, party leader, and the rest of the delegation of the Opposition bloc, who polls show would easily win elections in the Odessa region, from leaving the airport. Blocked there by nationalists, after the Ukrainian authorities requested the delegation not to travel to Odessa, deputies of Opposition bloc held a mass tribute at the airport building, rather than trying to cross the barrier created by the nationalists.

While it was clear that the nationalists did not have enough troops in the city, especially if they cannot count on the Azov Battalion, to sabotage a rally, May 2 also made clear that it is the authorities, not extreme right groups, doing more against Kulikovo activists. After recording their homes at the end of last week, several of the most prominent Kulikovo activists were summoned to testify by the SBU at noon. At 20:30, local daily Timer reported that the activists were still in the headquarters of the SBU, which had done everything possible to delay the interrogations so they could not attend the ceremony in memory of those killed on May 2.

In a week in which the word “provocation,” followed by the terms separatist or pro-Russian, had been in the mouths of all institutions and Ukrainian media, it was the authorities themselves who staged the cruelest provocation against a group of people who only asked to pay tribute to the victims in the place where they were killed.

While Kulikovo met as promised, the few St. George ribbons deposited by the flowers were immediately removed by the organizers to prevent the appearance of a provocation, the Ukrainian authorities did everything in their power to prevent the large number of people from participating. In addition to threatening police deployment, it was leaked that groups like Dnieper-1 and Alpha would be authorized to shoot protesters if necessary, and on May 1 rumors circulated around town about a change in the time of the event in a last attempt to create confusion among the population.

Ukrainian troops with the House of Trade Unions in the background.
At this time, there was supposedly a bomb scare in the same location.
And on May 2, when citizens of Odessa began to congregate in the plaza next to the entrance to Kulikovo field, already surrounded by troops of the Interior Ministry and with metal detectors in place, a bomb scare was reported, which, from the outset, was understood as a maneuver by the authorities to sabotage the event. At that time, OSCE observers walked through the grounds and groups of soldiers rested calmly, sitting in the shade of the trees of the Kulikovo field, something unlikely had there been a credible threat.
While initially it was thought that this false bomb threat would only mean a delay in the process of opening the barriers, the waiting gave way to tense scenes where attendees tried to convince the police to open access to Kulikovo. With arguments, cries and even on bended knees, attendees tried to explain that their only goal was to bring flowers to the fence of the House of Trade Unions, which had been deposited at the feet of the soldiers that surrounded the place.

When asked when they would open access, if it was going to open, one of the OSCE observers claimed to have no information. “It’s up to them,” he said pointing to the police. “You have to be patient.” At that time it had already been four hours since Odessa citizens had begun approaching Kulikovo carrying flowers, which were deposited in a field directly in front of the House of Trade Unions, a few meters from the police cordon. The OSCE observers also had no response to the complaint of a group of women demanding that the organization report the presence of soldiers or snipers — from that position it was impossible to ascertain whether they were armed, although the fact that SBU troops were not seen all day suggests that they could be the ones who occupied those positions — on the rooftops of the House of Trade Unions and a nearby hotel.

For hours, attendees did not lose hope of going to the location where the memorial was planned.

With the tactic of waiting and not reporting until hours later that Kulikovo was to remain closed, the Ukrainian authorities got that people to wait for hours, bringing the number of people gathered to even greater than expected. Instead of laying flowers and leaving, many waited in place in the hope that the passage to the House of Trade Unions would open. Ukraine had failed to prevent an image of crowds remembering those killed on May 2, 2014, but was successful in spitting on the tribute, surrounded by police and away from the place it should have been held.

A few centimeters from the soldiers, a banner displayed the 48 names — and a box that reminds us that the list is not complete – of the anti-Maidan activists who died two years ago in the House of Trade Unions and during the clashes which unfolded that day in the city center. Instead of hanging on the fence surrounding the building, the banner had to be held by volunteers, who took turns so the faces of those killed could preside over the ceremony, a series of speeches by activists and mothers which the stressed the call for peace, to remember and to avoid provocations.
Without references to the current authorities, several of the speeches emphasized the condemnation of fascism, the ideology that advocated throwing Molotov cocktails that set fire to the House of Trade Unions. In an emotional speech, the organizer of the event recalled the fight against fascism and the victory of the Soviet Union against Nazism, which upset some of the Ukrainian journalists, who with evident scorn lowered their cameras and rested until the next speech began.

The ceremony concluded with speeches by some of the mothers of the dead, many of whom identified their children as citizens of Odessa, not pro-Russian separatists as the press insists on calling them. Without much hope that justice will be done by a government that protects and defends the aggressors, the main message was that of remembering.

Banner with the names of those killed on May 2, 2014.

Some of the attendees remained at Kulikovo for several hours, waiting for the Ukrainian authorities to finally open the passage. Past ten in the evening, the Ukrainian troops had not left the grounds, but admitted they would remain throughout the night, and the passage to the House of Trade Unions remained closed. Finally, the police expelled the last three journalists from the area, who only took photographs of the flowers deposited by the population.

The aftermath of the Ukrainian troops’ occupation of Kulikovo was evident in the morning, much of the security contingent that had surrounded the place all day and well into the night was already removed: food scraps, plastic bags and water bottles littered the areas where troops were yesterday. At six in the morning, two buses of Interior Ministry troops remained in the enclosure, one of them in the same place where the May 2 memorial should have been held for those killed there.

The House of Trade Unions, the morning of May 3, 2016.

Translated by Greg Butterfield

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