Dread fills Odessa, Ukraine, on eve of Victory Day


A woman sells flowers on a street in Odessa on Thursday. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)
May 8

On the eve of the Victory Day holiday marking Nazi Germany’s surrender to the Soviet Union, this usually bustling resort city braced for more street clashes.

Universities locked their doors. Families sent their children out of town. Businesses closed, and officials warned the public to stay away from crowded places. Popular restaurants and cafes, usually packed with tourists at this time of year, were empty.

Dozens of people were killed last week in this Black Sea city when pro-unity crowds battled in the streets with those who support a sovereign Odessa and tend to be pro-Russian.

“Panic and fear scared our visitors away. We, too, feel worried and plan to keep the doors closed on May 9 to avoid the danger,” said Irina Kochergina, the manager of the City Garden cafe. Last Friday, mobs threw stones and shot at each other just a few steps from the restaurant’s doors.

Kochergina, who supports Ukrainian unity, said she feared that the unrest was not over and dreaded what would come next.

Hundreds of pro-sovereignty activists attacked a police station to free some of the 60 people arrested after the fighting last week. The new head of the regional police, Ivan Katerenchuk, said Wednesday that such violence would not be tolerated again.

The next time, he warned, officers would shoot “first in the air, then target whoever wants to storm our building and take our weapons.”

But as separatist militias seize parts of several southeastern towns, many people in Odessa said they no longer trust the authorities. There are reports that households are arming themselves to protect their businesses and families.

The conflict in Odessa, a multiethnic port city, is different from what has unfolded in the eastern part of Ukraine. The friction here is not so much along ethnic lines as along ideological ones. And the events of May 2 intensified the political differences.

“Dozens of my friends block me on Facebook for a harmless post saying police should put people behind the bars for burning dozens of trapped people,” said Artem Kosoi, an artist here, referring to a trade union building that was set ablaze last Friday.

Meanwhile, the atmosphere of insecurity deepened as rumors swirled that officials were moving their families out of the city.

At three automobile showrooms on Marshal Zhukov Prospect, luxury cars were being transferred to safer locations.

“Just a day ago, we had over 40 BMWs, Lexuses, Mercedes and other expensive cars for sale. We have moved all of them because civil unrest in Odessa might continue on May 8, 9 and 10,” Dmitry, a manager at one dealership and a supporter of a united Ukraine, said as he pointed toward the empty parking lot. He spoke on the condition that his last name not be used, citing safety concerns.

On Wednesday afternoon, protesters representing groups on both sides surrounded the Interior Ministry office and demanded an investigation into the clashes. They also called for the questioning of all candidates in a May 25 mayoral election to determine whether any were involved.

Vyacheslav Azarov, the leader of the Ukrainian Union of Anarchists, said it was crucial to find out whether any of the candidates had brought ultra-nationalist soccer fans to Odessa last week, despite knowing that “the environment in the city had been explosive for a long time.”

Meanwhile, dozens of people injured in last week’s street battles remained in city hospitals with burns or bullet wounds.

“I beg all activists of Odessa to stop the bloodshed. Some bloodthirsty politicians tried to manipulate the crowds. We should stay human for our children,” Andrei Kuznetsov, who supports sovereignty for the city and was shot in the lung, said at the city’s Hospital No. 1.

More than 10 families were still looking for their loved ones, the governor’s office reported. Police, local media and civil society groups also received calls from relatives of missing people. Russian President Vladi­mir Putin’s calls for separatists to negotiate with Kiev authorities were useless, activists on both sides of the conflict said.

“There is nobody to negotiate, with [all of the leaders] either wounded, under arrest or in deep underground,” said Yuri Tkachev, the chief editor of the pro-Russian Timer magazine.

Until recently, Tkachev and more than 20 other civil society leaders from both sides were part of an anti-corruption movement in the city. “We used to be able to sit down and negotiate issues that worried all of us,” he said. “But after May 2, we lost even that tiny bridge.”

At the funeral for 26-year-old Andrei Brazhevsky, who also supported sovereignty, friends and relatives unrolled a banner with his portrait that said he was “killed by neo-Nazis.”

His mother, Yelena Radzikhovskaya, said her son was “beaten to death by a furious crowd” after he jumped from the third floor of the burning trade union building last Friday.

Brazhevsky’s father-in-law, Yuriy Kozakov, appealed to the several dozen mourners at the funeral “to kill every fascist guilty” in last week’s deaths.

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