Tensions running high in Ukrainian city Odessa ahead of anniversary of mass killings

File photo: A protester throws a petrol bomb at the trade union building in Odessa May 2, 2014. © Volokin Yevgeny
The key Ukrainian port city of Odessa is bracing for riots during next week’s anniversary of the mass killings of pro-Russian protesters in 2014. The situation is aggravated by a vocal and violent stand-off between its new mayor and the governor of the Odessa region.

Next Monday activists in Odessa will commemorate the victims of one of the bloodiest episodes of the 2014 armed coup in Ukraine. Dozens of people, most of them pro-Russian protesters opposing the new authorities in Kiev, were killed amid violent clashes with nationalists. Many died after being trapped by their armed opponents in a building which caught fire.

On Tuesday, the governor of Odessa Region, Mikhail Saakashvili, requested the deployment of extra troops of the National Guard – the Ukrainian paramilitary force that incorporated many of the right-wing fighters who were instrumental in the power takeover in Kiev.

“All signs of a government collapse are there. I am calling again on the president ahead of the May 2 anniversary and demand help to keep order,” Saakashvili said in an open statement on his Facebook page.

Saakashvili later said that President Petro Poroshenko had granted his request and had sent 1,000 additional guards to Odessa. But this was denied on Wednesday by Deputy Interior Minister Zoryan Shkiryak, who said the governor “probably saw something in a dream.”

The governor called for troops amid a heated confrontation with another Ukrainian official, the newly re-elected Mayor of Odessa Gennady Trukhanov, who won a landslide one-round victory against a Saakashvili protégé last October. The governor’s camp has since accused the mayor of corruption and holding Russian citizenship, allegations that Trukhanov has denied.

In mid-April protesters set up a tent camp in front of the mayor’s office and refused to leave unless he resigned. They accused Trukhanov of being a “Russian separatist” and “a threat to Odessa’s security.”

This week the tension escalated when the camp was attacked overnight by a group of masked men, with unidentified perpetrators having fired a grenade from a launcher at a local bank just hours earlier.

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At that point Saakashvili demanded that Kiev send in troops. The mayor said both incidents were staged by his opponents in an attempt to escalate the situation.

“They would not hesitate to do anything, from blatantly lying to staging provocations in which people may get hurt,” he said.

Trukhanov called on Odessa residents to keep calm, but with the coming anniversary the city is unlikely to remain peaceful. On Wednesday a city court ruled against a request from local authorities to ban all commemoration events next week, rejecting the argument that they would attract radically-minded activists and may result in violent clashes.

A number of right-wing groups had earlier threatened to prevent commemorations on Monday, the same way they have done with other public events which they deemed anti-Ukrainian.

Washington, the primary sponsor of the new Ukrainian authorities, expressed its support for the planned ceremony of mourning.

“We would obviously support any commemoration of this event,” US State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Wednesday. “It needs to be done non-violently and we would certainly condemn any threats in the run-up to this… and call on all sides to show restraint.”

A similar call to prevent violence came from Toner’s Russian counterpart Maria Zakharova, who said Moscow was alarmed by the potential violence in the city.

“There is information about the arrival in the city of members of notorious units who are well-known for their crimes. I am speaking about the volunteer battalions Aydar, Azov and the radical right-wing organization Right Sector,” she warned.