May 2 will mark the second anniversary of one of the most horrific, politically inspired tragedies in modern European history – the fire in the Odessa trade union building that killed 48 people and wounded another 200.
Numerous pleas by the United Nations and the European Union for an objective investigation into the causes of this tragedy have gone unanswered. Multiple government commissions, both local and national, have been unable to move the case forward, partly because some of the evidence has been marked secret.
Last November, the International Consulting Group, set up by the Council of Europe, issued a scathing report about this lack of progress, and the government’s apparent disinterest in bringing those responsible to trial.
Now, as we approach the second anniversary of these tragic deaths, and the commemoration of Soviet victory in the Second World War on May 9, some of the same groups involved in the first tragedy are openly preparing for a second round.
To this end, the leading nationalist spokesman, Dmitro Yarosh, the former leader of the Right Sector, was recently invited to Odessa. There he explained his credo to his followers: “I am just not a democrat. My worldview is that of a Ukrainian nationalist. I believe that popular national government is very good, but only when democracy does not threaten the very existence of the state. We sometimes play at democracy with the likes of Kivalov [a member of parliament from Odessa – NP], with [Odessa’s mayor] Trukhanov . . . but in war time this is never good” he said, adding “the enemy needs to be dealt with as he is always deal with in wartime–neutralized.”
Later, local Euromaidan activist Arsen Grigoryan gave authorities just one week to prevent any commemorative gatherings from taking place on May 2, especially ones that might include government officials, or “fake parliamentarians from Europe.” If the authorities refuse to heed these warnings, he said, the consequences will be on the head of Odessa’s mayor, Gennady Trukhanov.
The event that has inspired this sudden concern among radical nationalists seems to have been the groundswell of participation during this year’s commemoration of the liberation of Odessa from Nazi occupation on April 10. Traditionally, this is a rather low-key event, that concludes with a ceremonial wreath-laying at the monument to the Unknown Sailor in Shevchenko Park.
This year, however, several thousand people joined the wreath-laying ceremony, some of whom even added Russian colors to the wreaths. This outrage caught the attention of vigilant nationalists, who then moved to disrupt the ceremony. In an unexpected twist, however, local police intervened to defend the participants against the now customary assault by radicals.
The nationalists blamed state prosecutor, Georgy Stoyanov, for this debacle and proceeded to block entry to the state procuracy building until he was removed. After succeeding in this effort, they promptly moved their protest to Odessa’s City Hall, where they are now seeking the resignation of the popularly elected mayor, Gennady Trukhanov.
Uncharacteristically, the region’s appointed governor, Mikheil Saakashvili, (the former president of Georgia) has yet to voice his opinion on this confrontation. On the one hand, he stands to gain considerable political clout if he can shift the blame for these disturbances to Mayor Trukhanov, whom he bitterly resents for ostensibly thwarting his reform efforts.
On the other hand, however, he surely knows that the radical nationalists view him as just another byproduct of the corrupt and treacherous Poroshenko regime; moreover, one whose only loyalty is to his own political ambitions. Perhaps most unforgivably, for radical nationalists, he is also a foreigner.
All sides are now mobilizing in what is shaping up to be a decisive test of wills between government authority and the radical nationalists. The city is being flooded by radical activists, while the Ministry of Internal Affairs is telling Odessans to prepare for “hot May holidays.” The stage is nearly set for the next bloody confrontation between the “patriots” and the “fascists.”
This time, however, the West need not stand by helplessly and watch. There is still a chance of averting another tragedy, if the Western media draws timely attention to the current preparations for it. A significant Western media presence on the ground during the critical week from May 2 to May 9, could conceivably lead the radical nationalists to reconsider their violent strategy.
Turning a blind eye to the gathering storm, however, will only embolden the most radical elements in society and further erode respect for law and order in Ukraine.
Nicolai Petro is an academic specializing in Russian and Ukrainian affairs, currently professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. He spent 2013-2014 as a U.S. Fulbright Scholar in Ukraine.