They look more like out-of-control boxers than politicians. Microphones are directed at Oleh Lyashko and Oleksandr Shevchenko while observers stand in a circle around them. Then, Shevchenko suddenly starts punching Lyashko in the head. Lyashko staggers, but bystanders grab him and prevent him from falling.
The brawl was filmed Thursday in the lobby of Kiev's parliament and soon went viral on social media. The two main protagonists are Ukraine's populist Radical Party leader Lyashko (the man being hit) and independent deputy Oleksandr Shevchenko (the man doing the hitting).
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Lyashko had been criticized by Shevchenko for traveling to the eastern combat regions, allegedly to improve his image. In return, Lyashko accused his opponent of ignoring the difficult circumstances under which the Ukrainian soldiers are fighting in eastern Ukraine, according to Reuters. "Look at this pot-bellied fatty [...] Instead of going to the Donbass [a region in eastern Ukraine] and helping our guys, people like him go to parliament and raise their hands," Lyashko said of Shevchenko before being hit in his face.
According to Reuters, Lyashko has a certain routine in dealing with such violent assaults, having been attacked with glasses of water, as well as having been pushed to the ground before.
Similar scenes – featuring chair-waving politicians and bloody shirts – can be observed frequently in the chamber of Ukraine's parliament. Twitter users have observed similarities between such brawls and perfectly orchestrated renaissance art.
Some scholars believe that the frequent brawls express a serious underlying problem in Ukraine's political culture – a problem which could have big implications for the country's current crisis. "In the past, physical violence has often been used in the parliament to block procedures and to cause a gridlock," says Tarik C. Amar, an assistant professor specializing in Eastern European history at Columbia University. Physical violence as a way to prevent votes from being taken goes back to the years following the Orange Revolution in summer 2006 when Viktor Yanukovych came back to power. "The inability of many Ukrainian politicians to respect the parliament's basic rules could easily augment the polarization of the country," Amar predicts.
Vitaly Chernetsky, president of the American Association for Ukrainian Studies, says that many Ukrainians consider the parliamentary fights a national embarrassment. "But it proves that it's a living institution," he says, referring to neighboring Russia's political restrictions. “Open and contested politics can be wild in Ukraine, but they are open and contested”, adds Dominique Arel, the Chairholder of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Ottawa.
Are fistfights in Ukraine's parliament proof of a lively political culture? Given the scale of some brawls, it seems a high price to pay.
However, the Ukrainian debate culture has been exported elsewhere: There's even a blog dedicated to parliament fights. This Georgian parliamentary fight was caused by a discussion on – of course – Ukraine.