In a quirk of the calendar, the somewhat ideologically divergent holidays of May Day and Orthodox Easter fell on the same Sunday this year. In Odessa, the Easter Sunday festivities took place on an afternoon so lovely that the citizens of the city could be forgiven for forgetting the generalized sense of dread that had taken hold of the town for more than a week. Still, anyone who did manage to forget would be quickly reminded by the sight of armed men, many decked out in full camouflage attire and sporting baklavas, holding down almost every block of the city.
You can taste the tension in the air. Several weeks ago, the April 10th commemorations of the emancipation of Odessa from the Romanian occupation had concluded with massive brawls between those who celebrate the holiday as moment of triumph, and those who identify it as toxic Soviet nostalgia. Protesters from both sides fought the armed police, who used tear gas to disperse the mob, and arrested one member from each side. The day after Easter this year, May 2nd, is the second anniversary of the tragic events at Kulikova Field, where almost fifty Odessans—mostly pro-Russian activists—lost their lives in fighting and a subsequent conflagration at the trade union house. May 9th, just around the corner, is also the day that the Soviet Union traditionally celebrated its victory over the Nazis, and thus represents another potential flashpoint for possible violence between pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian activists.
The tensions, of course, have been present since the Maidan protests deposed President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014 in one form or another. On top of that, top officials in the city’s government, both pro-Ukrainian and both pro-Russian in sympathies, have dragged their feet on completing an inquiry into the events of two years ago, leaving a suppurating wound in the public psyche. And finally, Odessa’s famously complex and bitter local politics have been playing their part, especially in the last six months.
Mayor Gennadiy Trukhanov, long alleged to have strong ties to Moscow (as well as a history of working with underworld figures in the 1990s), vanquished Odessa Governor Mikheil Saakashhvili’s aide, Sasha Borovik, in the closely contested, and ultimately compromised mayoral elections in October of last year (I was among the international election observers and we witnessed ample systematic “irregularities”). The enmity between the Saakashvili camp and the mayor has been accruing ever since, and recently threatened to spill out into open war.
The proximate cause of the latest crescendo was the sacking of Saakashvilli loyalist and noted reformer Davit Sakvarelidze, who had been fired as Deputy Prosecutor General by Poroshenko’s notoriously obstructionist Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin just hours before he himself was dismissed by parliament. Nikolai Stoyanov (who had held the job from 2012 to 2014, at the height of the Yanukovych government) was returned to his old job, which gave him jurisdiction over Odessa oblast. With Saakashvilli’s emphatic blessing, an “Odessa Prosecutor’s Maidan” sprung up in front of the regional prosecutor’s office. Blockades were set up, and the newly reappointed prosecutor was denied access to his office. After a seventeen day standoff, the Justice ministry in Kyiv ruled that Stoyanov had fallen afoul of national lustration laws, and thus could not stay in the post.
The Prosecutor General’s office had blinked, and emboldened by their easy victory, the motley bunch of nationalist and civil society activists moved their tents and barricades a hundred meters up Pushkinskaya street, onto Primorski Boulevard and the “Dumskaya” square facing city hall. The “Prosecutor’s Maidan” quickly morphed into the “Anti-Trukhanov Maidan”, though in its new incarnation, it was much less peaceful.
On the night of April 25th, fifteen activists spending the night in front of city hall were attacked and severely beaten with bats and chains by more than forty masked assailants. Four of the assailants were later identified, arrested and released with 50 Hrivna fines (less than $2) for charges of aggravated hooliganism. The next night, an RPG was fired at the headquarters of the Pivdennyi Bank. The Trukhanov’s office immediately accused Saakashvili’s team of being behind the explosion, claiming it was a false flag operation meant to terrify the population and drum up support for the swashbuckling Governor ahead of the May 15th anniversary of his appointment.
Last Tuesday, Saakashvili publicly asked for assistance and reinforcements from Kyiv, which the capital grudgingly sent (though not before the Interior Ministry pooh-poohed the request to the media). Even the possibility of another round of bloodletting, or worse, a repeat of the operations that led to captured goverment buildlings in eastern Ukraine, could prove to be politically too costly for the new government. Poroshenko ordered a thousand policemen from other regions around the country to join the more than 1300 local police officers already on high alert. Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who had recently thrown a glass of water at Saakashvilli in the middle of a cabinet meeting, was now throwing the weight of his support behind the governor. He ordered some 500 National Guard troops to the city, made up mostly of members of the notorious and controversial Azov Battalion. Even Azov’s commander and MP Andriy Belitsky made the trip to Odessa. “The First 300 Azov men have arrived, we are waiting for the rest!’’ a jubilantly giddy Saakashvili posted on his Facebook page on Wednesday as the troops rolled in.
Speaking on Sunday, the Governor seemed to be girding for war. “Based on the experience that I have with Putin’s Russia, I have no doubt that they are preparing a provocation, they will try to use the anniversary of the tragedy [May 2] to undermine the situation in Odessa and Ukraine. There is specific information, we received it from the Security service and other services. It’s quite alarming.”
The Mayor’s speech on Sunday was less shrill. Dressed in jeans and a shirt, as fit at fifty as most men are at twenty, Trukhanov, a former artillery officer, stood ramrod straight in the middle of the city park gazebo. A choir of shy school girls from the local music school, wearing blue Sunday dresses and white frocks, sang Eastern hymnals. A black-robed Orthodox priest appeared (I had never seen one in public in the seven years I have called this city my home) to chant some half-felt homilies about the need for spiritual values and a belief in authority. The Mayor took the microphone and echoed the priest’s downbeat remarks, intoning gravely about spirituality, the omnipotence of God and the importance of not lying.
“I can not help myself but speak about this today,” he finally said. “We must be against spiritual filth and degradation, and also against the scrounge of separatism and the manipulation of events,” he went on, seemingly criticizing the pro-Russian activists. He paused before adding somberly: “I take responsibility for everything that happens in this city today and tomorrow.”
What happens next is anyone’s guess.